Cindy McIntyre: “To heal from grief, we often need meaningful tributes”

To heal from grief, we often need meaningful tributes. Grief is an everlasting goodbye. Reminders of a person remain forever. Something as simple as going to the grocery store can trigger a person. Tomatoes on sale my dad loved activated a meltdown for me after his death. And, at Christmastime, seeing the pecan log candy […]

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To heal from grief, we often need meaningful tributes. Grief is an everlasting goodbye. Reminders of a person remain forever. Something as simple as going to the grocery store can trigger a person. Tomatoes on sale my dad loved activated a meltdown for me after his death. And, at Christmastime, seeing the pecan log candy my mom enjoyed can make me ache to share one with her and long for one of her hugs. Somehow, we learn to embrace these moments as love, but they still hurt. My tributes turned into books.

The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.

Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.

How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?

In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cindy McIntyre.

Cindy McIntyre is the IPPY award-winning author of the young adult novel Love at the Center of Grief and author of Eulogies Unspoken: Stories of Worth and Caring for Dad: With Love and Tomatoes. She has served as an at-risk teacher in Missouri for over twenty years. After the loss of her parents, McIntyre set out to help others as a volunteer facilitator at the Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield, Missouri.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

According to a legion, Ole Poe the Crow flew around my small hometown, Earlville, Illinois, to taunt school kids. He loved to perch on the window sill at the school, where he cursed at the librarian. Well, at least that’s the story John McIntyre, my father, always told me with a laugh. So, daydreaming, I stared out the window at my view of the cornfields, wondering about Ole Poe the Crow, who never showed while I sat in Mrs. Larkin’s 4th-grade class.

Still, I enjoyed Mrs. Larkin’s lesson plan called Reading Olympics because I thought I could win a gold medal doing work silently. And when she challenged me with the assigned story topic: write about an inanimate object. Looking for inspiration with a pencil in my hand, I thought about how my small Midwestern hometown had one of the few movie drive-ins just down the road. And my parents worked at Marathon Electric, almost visible from the schoolhouse. But I did not want to write about those places.

Then, I focused, recalling how my sweaty palm squeezed my pencil so tightly. My story, “If I Were a Pencil,” emerged. Mrs. Larkin entered my fiction piece into a local contest. It told the angsty tale of a pencil who dealt with sweaty palms getting ground up and enduring a shaved head. Finally, it finds a home with a lovely old lady inside a pencil box. This timid small-town girl won a ribbon. My mother kept that original handwritten story inside the family Bible as a treasure.

Most of the time, I spent a lot of time behind the scenes reading books. With less than 2,000 people in downtown Earlville, my mother made sure I knew how to use a library card for entertainment. Sometimes I enjoyed moments at the park next to the library inside the gazebo. The town put on this event called “Fun Days,” hosting local talents, fairs, and carnival rides in the summers. I kept journals and diaries of what I found interesting about school or books I enjoyed at home. If I got angry at my sister, I wrote poetry to deal with the pain. Even today, we chuckle over the time she uncovered the “Princess Sandi” entry where I complained about being the youngest child. Growing up, I went through a phase where I felt she got to “wear the crown” while I sat as a peasant.

My parents had me later in life. A lot of age differences in my family occurred. My brother, John, is seventeen years older than me. My sister Theresa, sixteen. Then, Sandi’s five years older. During our younger years, I only remember living in the same house with Sandi.

At our tiny country church, Friendly Welcome, my mother sang specials on the outskirts of town. Sadly, Marathon Electric, the local factory my parents dedicated much of their lives to, closed its doors after many years. Our family learned about a new place in the Ozarks, opening another Marathon Electric factory. In 1980 we relocated to Missouri. Moving to another state sounded so far away to an awkward girl from a beloved little town.

I packed my bags preparing to move from Missouri but did not leave behind my love of books and writing. Inside my new novel, Love at the Center of Grief, the town of Summerfort is reminiscent of Earlville, Illinois — filled with quirky charms, including the downtown park, complete with a gazebo. Because a girl never forgets her roots.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson comes more in the form of a song lyric than a quote. As I mentioned growing up, my mother sang at church. One of the songs, “Another Hill and Sometimes a Mountain,” stands out the most. After my mother died in 1999, I missed hearing her voice. I found I would soothe myself by humming these lyrics, hoping to feel less angry. Or I was hoping to heal eventually. When I imagine my mom standing up at the front of the church belting out this tune, my worries subside. These words still comfort me on those days I want to call her or ask her for advice. It is bittersweet to know I cannot just pick up the phone, but somehow repeating these words helps me. I hum until good memories come to me.

The chorus:

Another hill and sometimes a mountain.

Another road with rocks to hurt my feet.

But when He walks along beside me.

I can take it there will be no retreat.

I have questioned the loss of a loved one.

I wondered why it happened to me.

But through prayer, I found the answer.

It was all quite plain to see.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  • Kindness is a quality that never goes out of style. But that lesson and blessing in life began with two loving parents, John and Nellie McIntyre. However, I will never forget these life lessons that were taught to me by hard-working factory parents. My mother taught me unmeasurable skills with only an eighth-grade education. Mom bought me a set of markers missing the color brown from the collection. Instead of overreacting or ignoring the problem, she seized the moment. We sat down and wrote my first business letter explaining how much I loved the markers, but I sure needed a brown to complete my set. Then, we even addressed the envelope, stamped and mailed it together. A few weeks later, a box of markers with different browns in various sizes arrived. So, my mother, I realized, might not be so crazy after all. I admired my mother’s intelligence and kindness, two qualities I always hope to emulate.
  • Quiet determination helps drive me as I observe the world. All the little details matter to me about the people in my life. I am a caregiver by nature, so I pay attention to behavior. The noise of the world does not distract me from what is truly important. Sitting in silence with others calms me. After my mom died, I became my father’s primary caregiver. He depended on me for many of his day-to-day activities, such as grocery shopping, even his daily socialization. Many feel uncomfortable unless they fill the air with words. I like to wait and listen to other’s stories with an ability to remain non-judgemental. I am a ready spirit who listens with the method of empathy without sympathy. I can feel deeply touched by others without giving them pity. In a crisis, I am level-headed, containing my emotions publicly. Knowing I have this quality, I reached out to Lost and Found Grief Center and asked about volunteering opportunities. Since I lost both parents, I worried I might have too many trigger days or that my grief may get in the way of helping others. If that were the case, how was I supposed to help anyone? Then, I figured I would have won most of the battle if I just showed up with my caregiver’s heart and listened. Most of all, I think people need to share stories about their loss to know they are not alone.
  • Creativity guides many areas of my life. Again, I want to give my mom another shout-out for encouraging me. During my grade school years, she always subscribed to Highlights magazine. I looked forward to reading them cover to cover and completing every activity in those magazines. Because of her, I love books, magazines, reading, and libraries. After my mom died, the emptiness left such a hole. “Dear Mom” letters or poetry poured out of me because all that loving pain and sometimes anger left inside me had to go somewhere. Later in my grief journey, I found scrapbooking old family photos along with journaling the moments healing. Then, I located hymnals at a thrift store where mom and I used to shop together. Upcycled lyrics turned into new backgrounds for Christmas cards. Slowly, I began to see a pattern emerge. Since Mom’s death, I found a new holiday tradition of creating homemade Christmas cards in her honor because she loved to sing. The holidays stung less with this healthy outlet, paying tribute to my mother’s life.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss.’ Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?

Since I have had years to grieve, I am much more comfortable sharing my backstory. I lost my mom due to complications of a stroke in 1999, just days after Thanksgiving. Then, in 2017, my dad died in his sleep at home close to Valentine’s Day. So, after eighteen years of serving as my father’s primary caregiver, I stood on my mother’s gravesite to say goodbye. At the age of forty-seven, I became an adult orphan.

What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

For the longest time, I considered myself an “imposter!” Asking myself, Who are you? And other questions like, Can anyone get a read on the real me? The internal chat continued. Would anyone ever honestly know me again? Or would they ever get a complete sense of my whole personality? Because I am the composition of a million little stories comprised of my parents.

My mother served as the main character in twenty-nine chapters of my life before her unexpected stroke led to her death in 1999, just days after Thanksgiving. Who was I supposed to become without her? God had taken my best friend, my biggest fan, my daily phone call, security, my mom. Gazing at my mother lifeless in her casket, I assume most consider this the biggest hurdle of grief. For me, it was not.

Attempting a new routine, a life absent of my mother haunted me long after the funeral. Then, when my father died, the process returned of losing my routine happened all over again. Both of my safe nets in life were gone.

How did you react in the short term?

In the early aftermath of Mom’s death, I had visions of poinsettias sitting in a zigzag pattern, on the floor, near her casket. And losing her right before Christmas with gifts she already purchased caused an ache for future holidays. The sight of poinsettias, Christmas carols, even specific colors triggered me. I had trouble sleeping at night because I saw my mother lying motionless in her purple church dress. “I’ll Fly Away” played over and over in my head. I believed I could not tell anyone how crazy I felt. Silent tears fell, imagining a mound of dirt, floral bouquets, and the ten million questions that would be unanswered because my mother left this earth.

After Dad died, I saw life in terms of before and after the event — grief organizing a timeline — indexing, measuring and marking the contents of time with dog-eared pages. I didn’t know how to be me without them. For a while, I jotted down raw anger inside journals. “Dear Mom or Dear Dad” letters took over my daily routine. I longed to find an outlet to release the hurts with others. Grief rendered me silent. Only on paper would I open up. Too bitter or too shy to talk with people out loud? So, I wrote and wrote.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

I continued to write Dear Mom and Dear Dad letters. Writing humorous family memories surfaced instead of only the angry and sad versions of myself, satisfying some of my emotional pain. Ideas about writing a tribute book someday crossed my mind. Some days, I even strung words together into poetry. An itch to share my work with others occurred. I wanted to find like-minded people with whom I could share my thoughts.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?

At year ten of my mother’s death anniversary, I agreed to let go of the chocolate Santa hidden in the back of my freezer. I clung to this simple one-dollar gift, treating it as solid gold because it was the last one Mom ever bought me.

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

Visualization techniques at night helped me rid the negative thoughts I held in my head. Going from A-Z, I made a mental list of things I could consider being thankful for in my present life. My list gave me peace, and I slept better. I wanted to focus more on living in the present and thinking about the future in a positive light. Also, I began to make peace with Christmas poinsettias, including them in some of my Christmas cards and through poetry.

After Dad died, I inherited a dresser, a family dresser I considered donating. One day, I found a little miracle tucked inside. An object — this little angel pin my mother once wore to church was stuck so tightly in the corner of the dresser drawer. She stayed hidden away for eighteen years until the day she made her reappearance. Astonished is the best way to describe my reaction as I stared into her golden face. I felt like she said, “Remember me?” Locating this golden gem granted me the courage to start my writing career. I knew the time had come to share my experiences with others.

Another artifact I found was my mother’s diary. My mother overcame a life of childhood abuse. I know this from the stories she told and from the diary she left behind. Her words made me realize even more what an amazing mother I had. She rose above her adversities, breaking the cycle of abuse, choosing to love and live by faith even when the world decided to be unkind. Her life had meaning, her story a purpose. At her funeral, no one could have written or spoken a eulogy worthy of her. But grief can hold a heart hostage. At the time of her death, I chose not to speak. Maybe due to anger or fear. For the longest time, fear kept me from moving on or making any significant changes or life decisions, except to care for my dad. What did life look like without a mother to fall back on for support?

It took a while, but I realized words from my heart trumped perfection, so I composed my first tribute book, Eulogies Unspoken: Stories of Worth. Soon after, I penned the story of the years following my mother’s death: Caring for Dad: With Love and Tomatoes.

I reached out to the Lost and Found Grief Center, offering to volunteer. As a group facilitator, this led to the development of a new project. I felt led to write again. Hayden and Gretchen, two children from a short story, wanted to grow up and have their stories told. They both continued nagging me. So, my first novel, Love at the Center of Grief, unfolded, primarily with the motherless teens in mind.

Regardless of age, when we lose our mother, the toll makes us mourn like children with no set timeline or right way to grieve. I remind myself how lucky I am; I had a mother worthy of being missed. When overwhelming thoughts come, I ask myself, how can I honor her life? Who can I help today? Journaling, helping others, and volunteering continue to have a profound healing effect on my life. Over the years, I have started calling grief my memory keeper — and we have an ever-evolving friendship.

Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

Looking back, I realize I have so many people who helped me cope at various times during my grief journey. The first person who comes to mind is my Aunt Joan. After my mom died, she said, “You gave your mom her flowers while she was alive.” She spoke these words in response to me crying and telling her I felt guilty for not having the courage to visit the cemetery to take mom flowers often. My aunt’s words gave me perspective. Mom and I had a relationship beyond flowers.

I still struggle to go to the cemetery in person. The gravesite does not bring me peace. I learned about a virtual site I can view: This brings me to the next person who helps me cope, my sister, Sandi. She delivers seasonal flowers to our parent’s graves and takes a photo for me. For this, I am grateful.

My fiancé, Jim, helped me care for my dad. He bought him his favorite tomatoes, Velcro shoes when laces were too challenging, along with snap-front shirts instead of buttons. When my dad died, Jim wanted to provide him with a burial suit. Some people step up and help us beyond measure with love.

My sister, Theresa, has become the keeper of the stories, much like my mom used to. I can count on her to get excited about my creative pursuits.

Stephanie with Parentless Podcast reached out to me about speaking on her show. I shouted at myself, No, I’m no good at talking out loud. I can’t speak on the radio. Something inside me pushed me forward anyway. I said, “Yes.” Stephanie put me at ease, and we chatted for over an hour. A grief community of like-minded people is growing because of Stephanie. Professionally, she calmed one of my deepest fears. I was able to talk to others about the books I wrote for my parents and share the information about the new release Love at the Center of Grief.

Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?

Grief takes time and courage. After I learned to have a bit of courage, I reached out to the Lost and Found Grief Center. Once I found my mother’s angel pin, it pushed me forward. Then, re-reading her diary, I realized I needed to live a life full of meaning. Thankfully, Lost and Found took a chance on letting me volunteer as a group facilitator.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?

When I opened up to tell my story, I realized others also had their rendition of a ‘chocolate Santa’ that they struggled to let go of. And I wasn’t the only one who didn’t like going to the cemetery to make a flower delivery. Overall, I learned the more I opened up to others, the less I felt alone and the more “normal” my reactions to grief had been. With my volunteering, it’s so profound how helping others can heal us. It’s one of the greatest lessons I have learned on my grief journey.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.

1. To heal from grief, we often need a sense of place.

After my dad died, the school bell would ring to signal the end of my workday. Immediately, I went into my sad, panic mode, remembering every day with my internal dialogue: My dad is dead. And my mom’s gone too. And, I remember thinking, no one expects you tonight. Where are you going to go?

For eighteen years, my daily routine included checking on my dad. Grief displaced my heart and left me homesick. Some nights I ended up at local parks doubled over my steering wheel sobbing. Too often, I suffered in silence, displaced and alone. After losing my dad, I became an adult orphan. Somehow these feelings of wanting to be mothered resurfaced. People often call the changes we must endure through grief the “new normal.” I like to think of it as finding a sense of place.

For some, a sense of place might become a routine visit to the cemetery. Faith may direct others, giving them a sense of place and belonging. Sharing stories in a grief group may provide a sense of place for many. For me, I find the most peaceful place writing on the page. Each person learns where their soul begins healing and finds peace — or what I like to call a sense of place. Within this sense of place, slivers of joy can be found once again.

2. To heal from grief, we often need meaningful tributes.

Grief is an everlasting goodbye. Reminders of a person remain forever. Something as simple as going to the grocery store can trigger a person. Tomatoes on sale my dad loved activated a meltdown for me after his death. And, at Christmastime, seeing the pecan log candy my mom enjoyed can make me ache to share one with her and long for one of her hugs. Somehow, we learn to embrace these moments as love, but they still hurt. My tributes turned into books.

But the calendar reminds us of the death dates, birthdays, anniversaries, and every upcoming holiday. What plans or tributes work? There is no one size fits all. My father loved cats, so I decided to seek an animal shelter to donate to in his honor. Clifford, my fiancé’s father, enjoyed dining at a lakeside Mexican restaurant. For Father’s Day, we gathered as a family to eat dinner in his honor. I spoke to a man who lost his wife to breast cancer. He hosted a fundraiser in conjunction with a pub crawl to raise money for breast cancer awareness in his wife’s memory on her birthday.

Consider asking each household member how they want to incorporate their missing loved ones into the holidays. For some, displaying a framed photo helps. One family I know loves to set the table for Thanksgiving with a photo album on the plate. After dinner, they reminisce, enjoying stories and laughter. Some scatter ashes in a particular place or set them off to dance in the wind. Others will plant trees. Balloons might drift skyward while others just want to pray silently.

When we find a mindful tribute, we give meaning to their lives. And we feel our hearts begin healing again too.

3. To heal from grief, we often need to adopt and use courageous phrases.

Our parents are generally the first to teach us those all-important words such as please, yes, no, and help. The deaths of my parents ripped the security blanket out from under me. Somehow grief rendered me mute for a while. In a world without parents, somedays everything appeared too scary and overwhelming to tackle. Instead of saying yes to an outing with friends, I found it much easier to shake my head in fear because of my brokenness. But more than anything, I wanted the courage to say yes. I needed help, but I didn’t know what was or wasn’t appropriate. Or I didn’t know how to ask, “Will you please sit with me and let me talk about my mom and dad? Could we look at some photos? Do you think you can help me take my trash out? I don’t want to eat alone; will you stay?” Asking for help in any capacity sounds complicated, but sometimes recognizing those who want to help us lessens our burdens, and we find we are not so alone.

Remember, it is so important not to overload our lives with too many functions. Learning to say no heals your body and mind, giving it some downtime during sorrow. So, allow yourself the courage to say no when you need rest. Say yes to the tears and realize there is no shame when they fall.

We are not taught to grieve, so we never learn any major societal rules. Grief has produced a lot of awkward speak. Inside the sympathy cards, people will write: call if you need anything. Grievers need people to show up, saying, “Please, let me know how I can help. What’s on your to-do list today? Or, do you want to just sit quietly for a while?” Society needs the right words and courage to tackle grief. Death and grief are universal. So learning to speak about them would benefit everyone. Be as courageous as you can to communicate what you need.

4. To heal from grief, we often need to become the living legacy.

As you go through grief, you will ask yourself questions. I continue to ask myself, “Would my parents be proud of me?”

No matter my age, my question will not change because it will go unanswered. As an adult orphan, grief can make a heart react like a child. That is one of the side effects of grief. Longing for a parent’s love and opinion does not disappear just because they died. Because of this, we need to learn to do more than merely survive. Our loved ones deserve us to act as their living legacy. Sometimes we need a reminder that we are not the ones who died. So, when asking yourself, “Are they proud of me?”

If you do your best to honor their lives, you will learn to trust your gut instincts for acknowledgment.

5. To heal from grief, we often need individual calendars.

Google ‘How long should I grieve?’ and you may find yourself scrolling through various opinions and answers. But the problem remains: Grief journeys and support systems differ. Like any worthwhile relationship, grief takes time. Every year the calendar reminds us of upcoming moments without a loved one. We learn to adjust to who we will become without them — how to climb out of the holes — fill the dates they left behind.

For twenty-two years, I have been motherless. This reality flattens my heart. Every day, I miss my parents. So many moments of my life have come and gone without them to celebrate with me. I would give anything to hear my mother sing. I ached to have Mom wrap inside her arms, to see her paisley nightgown, to feel one of her hugs.

When my father died, my sister’s and I found him asleep in his bed. At the age of ninety, he had been watching a marathon of The Walking Dead with a half-eaten tomato sandwich nearby. He lived independently with my daily check-ins as his caregiver. But, God, I miss his sense of humor, love of animals, and hearty laughter.

Four years after losing my dad, somedays my face cannot seem to smile even when I arrive at the location he and I used to frequent for ice cream.

How long should I grieve? Through loving memories, my calendar states I will choose to love my parents forever. But I will fill the dates they left behind with meaning.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I could inspire change, I would encourage a health care bill to address grief. Currently, most employers in the United States only allow a person three to five days to plan, attend, and grieve a loved one. Many American leaders feel uncomfortable dealing with death. It appears they have chosen not to address the topic at all. In some cases, some companies do not even offer this time as paid leave. That needs to change. We need to value mental health.

After three to five days and the death of a loved one, few people return to work ready to be productive. When people have their world shifted this much, they need the most support. After day five, the shock has not worn off, and the death certificates likely have not arrived yet. Family members feel pressured to sort through their household, cleaning out everything, making quick decisions under a time crunch. Legal matters with wills, probates, funeral homes, and the handling of tracking down information feels endless. Long after five days, mail still arrives in their name. Phone calls come too. Grief requires time. Of course, everyone differs on how much time they need or how busy they need to stay during a bereavement period.

Businesses are also entitled to their workers. I understand people cannot stay locked inside of grief indefinitely. But something should change. Perhaps employers could grant employees a few more days of leave. Or pay workers for their bereavement time from work. Provide workplace insurance with grief therapy riders, or offer flexible work scheduling allowing part-time or virtual options. Grief-stricken people often need more than five days to process what needs to get done after a loss occurs.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

It’s so hard to choose only one influential person. I admire so many people who rise above adversity to create a positive difference in the lives of others. Names like Jaycee Dugard and Elizabeth Smart come to mind. Antwone Fisher survived a life of childhood abuse like my mother. His story, “Finding Fish,” and the movie “Antwone Fisher” really touched me. But, Bindi Irwin’s bubbly personality brings to mind the perfect example of a living legion. With her connection to the animals of Australia, Bindi pays a beautiful tribute to her father, Steve Irwin. Perhaps one day, I will make a trip to Australia in my father’s honor. At the same time, I will wear my mom’s angel pin close to my heart.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Instagram @missouriauthorcindymcintyre

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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