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With a Little Help from My Friends

This week my blog is being taken over by Jessica Charles.  This from Jessica: I am Corporal Joshua Alexander Harton’s Big Sister. I am his sister and I protected him his whole life. That is until September 18th, 2010 when a bullet from Taliban’s rifle went through his neck, cutting his carotid artery, moving through his torso and destroying organs and finally leaving his body at the left hip and shattering his Kevlar armor. I am Josh’s sister and I need you to know that my little brother is dead and my epic life will never be the same again.


I watch my daughter throw her body down on the floor. She lifts her head to scream and then pounds her hands and feet on the ground. It is a classic tantrum performance. And though she does this act with such precision that I can’t help but want to laugh, I do not. I do not laugh because my daughter is in pain and need and she has no other way of telling me.

I ask her if she is hungry-shakes head no, is she thirsty-shakes head no, does she need to be cuddled-YES.

It seems silly. A cliche event in the life of motherhood but there you have it; a child communicating that she needs help. She doesn’t do it with grace or dignity. She is unabashed at her discomfort with the world and will make sure we all know it. She knows no shame in being upset or sad or uncomfortable. She only knows that IF she shows you she feels bad you WILL help her to feel better.
What a remarkable idea. Telling one another that we feel pain, discomfort and even anguish with the expectation that telling someone will get us HELP.

My brother’s name is Joshua. There are many Hebrew translations of his name but my favorite is “A crying out to G-d”. It is also translated as “Salvation”. The reason for two seemingly dissimilar meanings is clear if you have studied Hebrew (which I have). In Hebrew, often a word means one thing AND its response, or its understood that if in context something is asked it is ALSO replied to. For example, the word SHEMA means “Listen, Hear and Obey” as in “If you were listening to me, you would have heard and then obeyed”. In this way, “A crying out to G-d means that G-d will answer and you will be given Salvation”. Remarkable huh?

My brother did not cry out. Not in his life or at the time of his death. He made his own salvation. He did not like to ask for help but was happy to offer it. When he did ask it was of a very few. Josh would not ask for help unless he thought it was something you could give. I admire that but at the same time, I wonder how much more we could have helped one another if we only knew where to begin.

Before he deployed, I told my brother some things about our childhood. Details he was not previously aware of and they seemed to bring him peace. I wish I had known sooner and been able to tell him. I wish I could have told him how much I relied on him to get through a day, just knowing with him in this world I was never really alone.

Now Josh is gone and I have learned a hard lesson in an uneasy way. I need help, I need it almost daily. I go to therapy and I take medications and I read the books assigned by my doctor but in the end and I mean up until MY very end: I will not get over my brother’s death. I can’t. And that will leave me with a difficult life filled with painful moments, moments which can only be eased if I tell you that I hurt and you give me your aid. I am in mourning which has no end date.

If when I am in pain, if it seems the world is caving in on all sides and I want to throw myself on the ground to scream and hit and kick, don’t laugh, don’t run, but instead, give a little help. Because I get by with a little help from my friends.


You can visit Jessica’s blog at “Always His Sister.”  And you can follow her on Twitter.


This week my blog is being taken over by Jessica Charles.  This from Jessica: I am Corporal Joshua Alexander Harton’s Big Sister. I am his sister and I protected him his whole life. That is until September 18th, 2010 when a bullet from Taliban’s rifle went through his neck, cutting his carotid artery, moving through his torso and destroying organs and finally leaving his body at the left hip and shattering his Kevlar armor. I am Josh’s sister and I need you to know that my little brother is dead and my epic life will never be the same again.


I lost something the other day. It was something small but very important to me. I lost the locket I had made with my Gold Star lapel pin. The bevel broke and I am fairly sure it is somewhere in my house. With the added trouble of a two year old who may have helped misplace it I am at a loss over my lost item. Where is it? Will I find it again? How could I have been so careless?

But, then I think, well it is just a thing. It probably will turn up in the next month. If it does not surface, I had it insured and I can have another one made with only a deductible and a scolding from my husband.

I did not lose my brother. He is not somewhere in the back of my closet in the spare room we never use. He isn’t misplaced. He isn’t replaceable. He is dead.

When someone asks me “How I lost my brother?”, I feel very uncomfortable. I know they mean well, I know they are trying to soften the blow of the real question (How did your brother DIE?). But the truth is, I did not lose my brother. It wasn’t my turn to watch him and I turned my back for just one second….then he was gone. No, my brother volunteered to do a dangerous job, and in doing that job, he was killed. I can’t emphasize how much that does not equate to the word ‘lost’.
When I am asked about my ‘lost’ brother, I get defensive, which really means I get snarky (love that word!). The response is, “Oh, he isn’t lost, I know right where he is, the hole in the ground where I put him”. Or, maybe something like, “I lost him while we were playing hide and seek, he is a sore loser and went all the way to Afghanistan so I wouldn’t find him”.

I mostly don’t say those things, not aloud anyway. Like I said, I KNOW that people are trying to be kind, we just aren’t very good at it. We want to soften the blow of harsh unchanging words like died, death, killed. Only, the words we use do not mean what has happened. I didn’t lose my brother, he did not pass me like two ships in the night, his life ended and mine continues.

When you say lost, I know that you are uncomfortable with what we are talking about. So am I, friend. It is uncomfortable to wake up every day knowing I am again a little older than the previous 15 months difference that separated my birth and my brother’s. It hurts, but your words do not add to my pain.

There is no nice way to say that someone you loved has died. I recommend that you don’t spend too much time trying. Instead, try asking me about my brother’s life, about his smile, or my favorite shared memory. Ask me about how he lived. Because I will never be snarky when answering those questions.

He is my brother and I can never lose him, but I will be happy to share him with you!


You can visit Jessica’s blog at “Always His Sister.”  And you can follow her on Twitter.

You Can’t Pick on My Little Brother

This week my blog is being taken over by Jessica Charles.  This from Jessica: I am Corporal Joshua Alexander Harton’s Big Sister. I am his sister and I protected him his whole life. That is until September 18th, 2010 when a bullet from Taliban’s rifle went through his neck, cutting his carotid artery, moving through his torso and destroying organs and finally leaving his body at the left hip and shattering his Kevlar armor. I am Josh’s sister and I need you to know that my little brother is dead and my epic life will never be the same again.


Since I was 15 months old, I have been a Big Sister. It was my first identity. Of course you can say I was a daughter first, but that is a fairly passive role. Big Sister on the other hand, was involved. It involved being teacher, friend, confidant, tormentor and of course protector. My mother likes to tell people how I would sit by my infant brother and scream at ANYONE who came near. A cat passing by his crib would get an earful of, “That’s MY brother”. At  my brother’s baptism I even shouted those words at the pastor as he introduced my brother to the congregation. Yes, in my mind, I came before God when it came to that little boy.

Then, September 18th, 2010 God decided that Josh, my Boshy, was supposed to leave me. At sunset in a place more like Hell then anything we can imagine, my brother, an SPC in the United States Army, was killed while defending a convoy from Taliban terrorists. It was quick and dare I hope painless?

I received the news first from my grandmother on Sunday, September 19th. I answered the phone and she was crying and I thought, “Dear Lord, is she having a heart attack and calling me instead of 911?”.

“Josh is Dead” she said.


Josh is Dead”.

In the Bible we read about the wailing and tearing of clothes when a loved one dies. It seems overly dramatic, even for the Bible. I wailed. I tore at my hair and my clothes. My husband took the phone. Then a knock at the door told us that the official word was here. Two men in dress uniform were here to inform me that my brother was dead.

Shock, despair, grief all of the usual thing followed. I couldn’t look at my 3 year old son because he looked like my brother’s childhood self. I was 3 months pregnant and could not take anything to numb the pain. At my brother’s Wake he was toasted by all except me. There was this sharp pain every time I breathed. And a question I could not answer, “Am I still a Big Sister?”.

Twenty months have passed since then. I have a beautiful daughter. Her Hebrew name is T’shua meaning Salvation, the same as Joshua. I am a wife and mother of two but I know that I can never stop being Josh’s Big Sister.
Big Sister is still an involved role. Now it involves sharing his story and protecting his extended family, the U.S. Military. The men and women who choose to serve this country are fighting for us out there in the world. The very least I can do is fight for them here at home.

Support our troops, not just with words but with actions. Shake their hands and hug them when you see them. Send a letter, send a care package, send a job their way. Because when you don’t, when you ignore our Active Military and our Veterans, when you tell them they have PTSD but you are not a doctor, when you  look at them like animals instead of heroes; I will be there and I will stand between you and them. Because I am a Big Sister, and you can’t pick on my little brother.


You can visit Jessica’s blog at “Always His Sister.”  And you can follow her on Twitter.

5 Tips for Creating a Personal Sendoff

Today’s guest post is from Elizabeth Meyer.  Elizabeth is an expert in planning personalized funeral services, and hopes to make funeral planning a less taboo, more approachable subject. After planning a unique funeral for her own father in 2006, she joined Frank E. Campbell funeral home in New York City as Family Services Liaison, where she served Campbell’s and Riverside Memorial Chapel helping families create exceptional services. She earned an MBA from Cass Business School in London and a BA from New York University. She is currently the Funeral Guru at

All the highlighted words in the following article are live links that allow you to further explore each topic at Everplans’ website.


When I tell people that I work in the funeral industry, most become speechless. Looking at me questioningly, they’ll mange to ask, “But…why?” I tell them about the funeral I planned for my father 6 years ago. It was the most emotionally challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. I understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death. And so I use what I learned from my own experience to guide and empower others to create meaningful sendoffs for their loved ones. I deeply understand the power that a meaningful funeral or memorial service has in the emotional processing, grieving, and healing after a death.  I hope that by helping people create personalized services I am alleviating some pain for these families.

Obviously, I can’t tell you what specifically will be meaningful to you or loved ones. I can, however, share the lessons I learned from planning my dad’s funeral and the dozens of special funeral and memorial services I’ve helped other families plan. So without further ado, here are my top 5 things to consider when creating a personalized sendoff:

1. Religion

Religion is an important factor in funeral plans, and religious rites and traditions can dictate everything from whether the body should be buried or cremated, to where and when the service should be held, to what foods should be eaten afterward. If you’ll be following any religious rituals, get a sense of the traditions before you make any solid plans; the specific rituals you’ll follow may override any other desires you might have.

For example, you might want an ornate casket for your loved one and a lot of flowers at the service. But if you’ll be following Jewish customs, you’ll want to purchase a plain pine casket and forgo flowers, which are not traditional. Or, if you’ll be following Catholic customs, you’ll want to have people deliver eulogies and other speeches at a wake before the funeral service, since the service will be a Mass.

My father was raised Jewish, but was much more frequently found in church with my Catholic mother than in synagogue. While this meant that we were not constrained byto any religious norms at his funeral, it also meant that we were left custom-less, working with a blank canvas. If you’re like us, then the next four issues can be really important, since you’ll basically be traveling without a map.

2. Venue: 

When my father died, hundreds of friends wanted to support us; we needed a venue that could accommodate everyone. It was most practical to hold the funeral in the large non-denominational chapel at the funeral home. But we had other options, too: we could have held the funeral in a large church or synagogue, at an event space, or even a restaurant if we’d wanted.

Some funerals are quite large and others are very intimate; finding a venue that can cater to the number of guests is what matters most. (Remember: a funeral isn’t a popularity contest.) If you have a large number of guests, you’ll want to be able to fit everyone in the space. On the other hand, if there will be only a handful of guests, you’ll want to choose a smaller venue and create an intimate environment where everyone is comfortable.

So whether you choose a funeral home chapel, a church, mosque, or even your own living room, consider the number of people who will be in attendance, and think about where you’d be most comfortable remembering your loved one.

3. Music

When my father died in the prime of his life, my family and I were beyond distraught. But I didn’t want my dad’s funeral to be overwhelmingly morbid. Rather than concentrate on my family’s loss, I focused on making the event a celebration of my father’s incredible life. And one of the ways I made sure the funeral was a celebration was through music.

We had jazz playing as the guests entered. I chose songs that dad always played at home, and I was comforted listening to Miles Davis and feeling like he was there. At the end of the service, guests were caught off guard when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” come blasting out of the speakers. By the time the Rolling Stones came on, everyone was dancing in the aisles as they wiped the tears from their eyes. Dad would have loved this!

Having a pianist or organ would not have been appropriate for my dad; he just wasn’t that kind of guy. But that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be perfect for your loved one. To figure out the right music for your situation, ask yourself: What were his or her favorite songs? What songs do you associate with him or her? What songs do you think he or she would like people to hear as they say goodbye? By choosing meaningful music you’ll feel like you are giving them a fitting sendoff—and it’s likely that the songs will elicit warm memories, too.

4. Speeches, Eulogies, and Readings

At my dad’s funeral, I selected speakers who knew my dad from different walks of life. My brother and I were the first speakers, and we shared our heartfelt and entertaining memories of our father. Dad’s cousin spoke about growing up with my dad; his, business partner spoke about what an amazing attorney and colleague my dad was; and a couple of friends also spoke about who he was as a man and a friend. By having all the speakers from different times and areas of his life, they were able to jointly create the most beautiful and complete image of my dad.

If possible, I would try to replicate have people deliver that same variety of speeches on a variety of topics.  In addition, No matter how entertaining the deceased was, repetitive stories are never fun! Also, it can be nice to consider incorporating readings into the service.  These can range from religious passages, hymns, and to poems from either the reader or the deceased favorite poets.

5. Flowers

I knew when I planned my dad’s funeral that flower choice was crucial. My dad was not particularly passionate about flowers—but flowers are so important to my mother, and I knew that she would be consoled by seeing flowers ones flowers that reminded her of dad.  So I opted for peonies, the flowers he always brought home to my mom.

Moreover, I opted to cover dad’s casket in a blanket of flowers. I knew it would be too difficult for my mom to walk in and see a casket at the front of the room; this way she was distracted and only saw her favorite flowers.

Flowers can remind us of the person we loved or distract us from our pain. Flowers can be in the colors of the person’s favorite sports team or in the shape of a heart, a cross, or even a golf club. They help set the mood, and they help make a funeral feel like a celebration.

These are my broad guidelines for creating a meaningful funeral. But please, get creative! Have a memorial service on a golf course or in a restaurant. Send ashes into outter space or out to sea. The only solid advice I can give is to honor the person who died with a fitting sendoff. I know it made me feel good about the final gift I gave my dad.


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Grieving as an Atheist: A Guest Post

Today’s post is part of the “Death Perspectives” series; a series of guest posts written by those from different faith, or non-faith, persuasions, explaining how they’ve approached death, bereavement and grief.

Today’s guest post is from Willem Dunham.  This from Willem: I’m 55, owned and operated by a pit/lab mix and a batshit crazy rat terrier, both rescues. i believe the greatest gift and responsibility is to bear witness to one another’s lives. to that end, i am chasing down my dream; photography. i occasionally write, philosophize frequently, and wish i’d been braver sooner.


I am an atheist. A man without religion or belief in any gods.

I have two brothers and two sisters. Each of them has a belief in god or a higher power. Each of them worships their beliefs in some fashion.

Both my parents, and their parents, believed in god, although I can’t recall more than a couple of times they went to church.

Almost four years ago, my mom died. I’d spent the last 2-3 years of her life with her, looking after her. Difficult as it was at times, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the world. As much as our parents give us from the time we join this world, they’re trying to teach us to be good people. Toward the end of Mom’s life, she showed me who she was, and allowed me the opportunity to show her the kind of man I am. The hardest thing I will ever do was to watch her draw her last breath on this earth.

People try to find the kindest ways they can to express their sympathies and to try to allay fears and soften pain for someone who is going through this loss. Quite honestly, they don’t help much. I don’t want to hear that Mom is in a better place. For my money, being dead and buried is not better than being alive and moving around. Because America is a predominantly Christian country, most people assume that I believe as they do. That is where hearing that she’s “with the angels now”, “god called her home”, “Jesus needed another angel” isn’t very helpful. I realize (intellectually) that these platitudes give comfort to people who believe, who hope for an afterlife, where you don’t really die, after all. For those of us who believe differently, or believe not at all, this isn’t comfort for us…it’s comfort for the speaker.

The question comes around, then, to where does a nonbeliever find comfort and solace in these times? I can speak only for myself, when I say this: I have faith. Faith in the human spirit, in the resilience of the heart, in the ability of the mind to hold fast to dear memories of perished loved ones. I find little ways to keep Mom present in my life.

Her father was a baker, and she naturally had a love of baked goods. While I enjoy cooking, baking has never really been of interest to me. Until, of course, she couldn’t keep regular food down and would ask and ask for a pie, a cake, some cookies. So, I learned to bake for her. And, in doing it for someone I treasured, I learned to love it. Now, each time I get in the kitchen to bake something, it’s as if she’s right there “helping” like she did. It’s silliness and joking. It’s time I got to have with her, where we were just hanging out and talking.

Mom loved to drive. She’d told me stories of growing up, saving money so she could give it to her Mother for gas in the car, so they could “go for a drive”. As she got older, she had to give driving up, as she just didn’t feel she was safe on the road. Coming from two people who loved roadtrips and travel, I have the wanderlust as well. When she could no longer drive, I would take her for a ride. Some nights, it was the only way she could sleep…sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window. In the last few years of her life, we took roadtrips to places she’d wanted to see. And we loved it. She’d make us sandwiches for the trip, we’d sing to the radio, talk, and ride in comfortable silence.

I have some of her things, the ones that speak to the things she loved to do. I have her oil paints, brushes and canvases. I will learn to paint, to keep her brushes active. I have her sewing machine, and will learn to do a better job of sewing, so I can have an erstwhile hug in the things I learn to make. When I finally settle in someplace, I will grow roses, so I might find the peace in them that she did. I have an old sweater she wore all the time. I have it sealed up in a bag, so it will hold her smell. When I get truly lonely, I can take that out and have her with me.

I have photographs of my mother from different ages in her life. Some are shy and awkward, as teenage girls can be. Some are stunning examples of the most beautiful woman I’ve ever loved. Others show her propensity for silly faces and antics. I am a photographer, and have my own captured moments that I can relive looking at them.

None of these things takes away the pain, the feeling of loss. Time is taking the sharp edges off, but it still remains. I think it will be with me always. I do have small ways to remember, to keep her a part of my world, a part of my life. I still talk to her, ask her opinions, wish she were with me when I travel and see new things.

Rather than rely on religious doctrine and a belief that she’s “up there” waiting for us to be reunited, I take the time to hug babies…they’re squishy and smell funny. Kind of like Mom. I remember. I tell stories, and remember the parts of herself as a person that she trusted with me, trusted to my memory and ideas of her as a person.

In closing, I’d just like to say that, for the people who believe in heaven and the idea of being reunited with all their loved ones… I really hope that’s true for you.


Per the Pew Research Center, the fastest growing religious segment in America are those who claim to be “unaffiliated”, which is comprised mostly of atheists and agnostics.  As a Christian myself, I’m frequently disturbed by the false assumptions and harsh judgments that my fellow believers make towards atheists.  I’m especially thankful for Willem and his willingness to allow a glimpse into his life and how his beliefs have informed his grief process.  It’s particularly valuable for those of us who are religious, as we too can learn something from Willem’s experiences.

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