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Featured in Grand Rapids Magazine, August 2014

Helping Widows Cope-

Kristin Meekhof was 33 when her husband, Roy, died in 2007, eight weeks after his diagnosis of cancer.

She expected the grief and the loneliness. But the young widow wasn’t prepared for the huge medical bills that began arriving shortly after the funeral.

“Even though we had the Cadillac of insurance policies, I had to appeal items that were denied,” said Meekhof, a Grand Rapids native now living in Oakland County.

“At one point I was told I couldn’t do something without my husband’s signature. It was very overwhelming.”

The worst part was the constant reminder of Roy’s illness.

“The documents force you to relive each procedure.”

Realizing other widows face the same issues, Meekhof decided to write “Just Widowed,” a book offering women practical advice as well as hope and inspiration.

“Women can learn from each other. Loss of a spouse is not the end of their lives.”

The project started very grass roots, explained Meekhof, a licensed social worker who majored in psychology at Kalamazoo College and completed the clinical Master in Social Work program at University of Michigan.

She reached out through social media and wrote about her own experience in a blog for The Huffington Post.

“People, not just widows, connected with it and wrote to me, she said. They said they found it helpful.”

As Meekhof interviewed dozens of widows, she learned that finances often were the No.1 concern for women who lost a spouse. “A lot of widows say they stop opening their mail.”

She was surprised to discover many women say they lost support from friends and acquaintances. “A few weeks after the funeral, they were left hanging.”

Women also talked about deep loneliness and lingering depression, and it didn’t seem to matter how long they’d been married or the type of relationship,” she said.

But perhaps most disconcerting, she said, were the women who told Meekhof they felt relief.

“Some widows were embarrassed to admit it, but they would say the marriage had not been good and they didn’t know how to get out of it.”

Meekhof and co-author Jim Windell, a psychologist and friend of her late husband, also write about widows who’ve turned their loss into something inspiring. In June, the authors were in the final stages of proofing the manuscript before publication.

In the meantime, Meekhof is working to bring awareness of adrenal cancer research at the University of  Michigan. She’s also traveled to Kenya to visit an organization that helps widows and children.

Follow Kristin Meekhof on her journey at kristinmeekhof.com or on Facebook. -by Marty Primeau

Finding Healing in Solo Travel

When Passport Health asked me to write about my travel journeys, I immediately said, “Yes”. I didn’t have to think twice. I loved the idea of talking about why I started to do more solo traveling after my life changing event. While this next paragraph may seem a little dark, I encourage you to read on. I share my tips for taking solo adventure.

I was 33 in 2007 when my husband of four years was diagnosed with adrenal cancer. About eight weeks after his first doctor’s appointment he died. We didn’t have any children together, so I was truly alone. He died in November a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and his birthday was in early December. I was anticipating a tsunami of loss with these two dates followed by the December holidays. I shared this with a dear friend. My friend sustained a personal loss as well, and I felt she understood my situation. She suggested that I “do something different” this December. She shared how following their family’s own devastating loss, she and her husband took their children on a holiday.

I lived in Michigan, and the thought of being in a warmer climate for an extended weekend seemed very attractive. I booked a trip to Florida and made certain that my trip had all of the necessary creature comforts. I didn’t want to rent a car, so I took a shuttle from the airport straight to the hotel.

Kristin-Meekhof-Northern-Michigan

Prior to being married I had traveled alone, but this trip was different. It was less than four weeks after the funeral, and I was feeling raw and vulnerable. I booked the trip online and when asked who my emergency contact was it gave me pause. I tried to skip that part; however, the website wouldn’t allow me to continue. I quickly entered my uncle’s contact information. I packed the essentials in my carry- on, tucked a snapshot of my husband in between the pages of a book, printed my boarding pass, and headed to the airport.

The first solo restaurant meal was difficult. Looking at the menu, I immediately thought of my husband. I noticed that they offered a dish of mussels prepared exactly how my husband loved. I started to question myself if this was a smart decision because now I was looking at the lobster, and remembering the time we were together in Maine eating lobster. However, these intense moments passed. The second and third meals were easier.

Since that first Florida trip, I’ve traveled solo on several occasions. I’ve literally taken planes, trains and an automobile to reach my destination. On multiple occasions, I’ve traveled by myself to northern Michigan, New York City, Boston, and Chicago.

While you may not have experienced a death of a loved one, you may have experienced a different type of loss: a job, a friendship, a relationship, or a divorce. These types of losses are often unexpected, unwanted, and unplanned, which makes it even more painful. Personally, my journey of healing began with that extended weekend to Florida. However, you don’t have to travel a great distance to move closer to your own transformation. If you are planning solo travel for the first time, and you find the task daunting, here are some suggestions:

1. If you’ve never traveled alone, you may want to plan a day trip before scheduling a week long solo vacation. This will get your feet wet so to speak. For example, you will experience dining for one. Getting to know a place through your own lens is a different experience than sharing it with others, but don’t be intimidated.

2. When you are setting your itinerary, be sure to have a back-up plan. Earlier this year I was in Boston when an extreme blizzard hit. The airport, museums, major highways, and some restaurants were closed. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself snowbound to my hotel, but I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to meet my family. I ordered a few movies, instead of having a pity party. Also, plans can quickly change even on a sunny day, and if you have a few alternatives in mind, it is easier to adapt to a sudden schedule shift.

3. Don’t expect a major transforming moment to occur because you may be setting yourself up for a large disappointment. While you may be saying “goodbye” to something or someone, don’t set your expectations too high. It is often in the smaller, unplanned moments that give birth to something new. On the Florida trip I began meditation, and it is something that I still practice.

I am grateful for this opportunity to share with you a part of my journey post loss. I will be traveling this fall to Kenya. A part of the trip will be to visit organizations that service widows. The second part of the trip, I will be on a safari. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you when I return.

You can also read this article on Passport Health

5 Easy Tips to Becoming Your Own Health Advocate

When Wendy Holman noticed her hair was falling out, she immediately assumed the cause to be a recent hair color treatment, and even changed stylists. However, what she thought was one bad hair week quickly turned into a nightmare. Not only was her remaining hair turning brittle, but she also had increased spurts of energy and excessive facial hair.

She made an appointment with her female primary care physician and was told that these symptoms were related to high cholesterol. Holman, then 41, was told to return in six months for a follow up visit.

When she began having vision trouble, she went for an eye check-up, where the doctor discovered fluid in her eye. Still suffering from her other symptoms, Holman went online to do research before heading back to her primary care doctor. With a detailed chart of the symptoms in hand, she told her doctor that she thought she had Cushing’s disease.

From The Shriver Report click here to read complete article.

Reaching for Support

A traditional Danish proverb states that, “No one is rich enough to do without a neighbor.” This in essence is true of everyone. There is a point in all of our lives that we are socially interdependent. Some of us create relationships with others for the very goal of reaching happiness. Health science researchers have found that individuals who have social support experience improved physical health. Not surprisingly, social scientists have also found a connection between social support and an individual’s sense of well being. This sense of having a community of people to talk and share resources with underlies the study of social networks.

Last month, I was interviewed about how I coped with my late husband’s health crisis. On The Huffington Post, I wrote about my husband’s brief battle with adrenal cancer here —http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristin-meekhof/the-moment-i-knew_25_b_3414936.html — and as a result strangers have written to me asking questions. Many of these questions follow a similar pattern. Generally, people want to know if I have any advice for young widows, what adrenal cancer is, how I learned to navigate the health care system, and how I coped with loneliness. So when I agreed to this telephone interview, I thought I was mentally prepared for the usual questions. The interview was coming to a close and I was reaching for my handbag to check my cellphone (yes, I confess, I was not completely focused) when I was asked this: Is there anything you regret about your husband’s medical crisis?

I froze. My shoulders tightened. I couldn’t even swallow. I wasn’t able to process anything. The interviewer sensed my startled response and said, “It’s okay. Take your time.” I couldn’t even mumble, “Thank you.” No words. Nothing. Eventually, these words went through my brain, “No regrets.” This was the safe answer. I could wrap up this interview, show very little vulnerability, and move on. However, I chose to think deeply about this question, and answer it with complete honesty. I did have a regret and it was this — not reaching for more support. When my husband was ill, I was in crisis mode. Things were happening very quickly, and I was running an emotional marathon with no end in sight.

I don’t blame anyone for what I am about to say, but I wish I had said “yes” to more offers of help. I felt raw and adding one more thing to my plate, like meeting for coffee, seemed overwhelming. However, I know in talking with others that support does make a difference.

Recently, I talked with Shauna McLaughlin. In 2010, she faced a mother’s worst nightmare. Her then 19-month-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As a single parent, Ms. McLaughlin was solely responsible for her daughter’s medical, emotional, and financial care. Ms McLaughlin recalls, “I left my job to take care of her because she needed me around the clock. I couldn’t leave her alone at the hospital. She was critically ill, and at times on life support.”

Support is something McLaughlin desperately needed. A social worker at Dana Farber hospital, where the Ms. McLaughlin’s daughter was receiving care, recognized the challenges the family faced. The social worker connected Ms. McLaughlin with Carla Tardif, Executive Director of the Family Reach. Little did Ms. Tardiff know how much this single mother was struggling. Ms. McLaughlin recalls, “I didn’t have heat, and wasn’t able to make the monthly rent payments.” She was struggling in silence, and it was the kindness of a stranger that made all the difference.

Looking back at the time during my husband’s health crisis, I know that acts of kindness from people I knew and those I didn’t know mattered. Reaching out can be challenging for those of us who want to appear pulled together and independent. However, from time to time, we all need a little help from others.

To learn more about Family Reach, you can go here: http://www.familyreach.org/

References: Health Science research studies: Schwazer & Leppin 1991; Uchino, Cacioppo, Marakey, Glaser & Kiecolt- Glaser, 1995; Ryff & Keyes, 1995.

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

Cooking With Compassion

In 2010, Shauna McLaughlin faced a mother’s worst nightmare. Her then 19-month-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. As a single parent, Ms. McLaughlin was solely responsible for her daughter’s medical, emotional, and financial care. Ms McLaughlin recalls, “I left my job to take care of her because she needed me around the clock. I couldn’t leave her alone at the hospital. She was critically ill, and at times on life support.”

Support is something McLaughlin desperately needed. A social worker at Dana Farber hospital, where the Ms. McLaughlin’s daughter was receiving care, recognized the challenges the family faced. The social worker connected Ms. McLaughlin with Carla Tardiff, director of the Family Reach Program. Little did Ms. Tardiff know how much this single mother was struggling. Ms. McLaughlin recalls, “I didn’t have heat and wasn’t able to make the monthly rent payments.”

Sadly, Ms. Mc Laughlin is not alone. The Family Reach Foundation estimates that over 100,000 children and young adults battle cancer, and one half of those families confront a financial hardship. Ms. Tardiff maintains that they help out these families by making direct financial payments to the landlord or a utility company. Ms. Tardif also recognizes other areas where families need financial assistance. Some families, for example, struggle to pay hospital parking fees and medical co-pays.

Last month in Boston, I met Ms. Ms Tardif at Chef Ming Tsai’s Blue Dragon restaurant. Ms. Tardif, herself a breast cancer survivor, arrived early and was slightly distracted. She remarked, “It was a tough week. Two of the families we help lost loved ones. Over the weekend, I called Ming (Tsai) telling him that this family really needed help. He immediately drove out to their home and brought all of this food. When we left, Ming knew that the child didn’t have long to live. I said, ‘No, I think it will be a while.’ It wasn’t long.”

Shortly after Ms. Tardiff finishes her story, Chef Tsai arrives, dressed casually and ready to talk about the foundation. He never once mentions his own success as a chef and business man. Ms. Tardiff reached out to Chef Tsai in December 2010, to help grant a final wish of a young woman, named Darlene. Darlene knew that she was dying from cancer. She wanted to meet Chef Tsai, and have him prepare a meal for her. Chef Tsai not only granted Darlene’s wish, he vowed to help Ms. Tardiff reach other families. Chef Tsai explains, “I can’t fix cancer, but I can help with the foundation. Financially, families don’t recover when something like this happens. They wonder if they can make their car payments and if they have enough money to get gas. Family Reach helps with gas cards, and other expenses, and these families appreciate it.”

Ms. Tardiff is extremely appreciative for Chef Tsai’s support. In 2012, he founded “Cooking Live with Ming Tsai and Friends.” Families fighting cancer are given front row seats and other celebrities participate. These events are an important fundraiser to support families like Ms. McLaughlin. She says, “Carla (Tardiff) and Ming have becomes friends. They’re always emotionally there for me. I feel that Ming puts his whole heart into this foundation and genuinely cares about everyone.”

To learn about the April 1, 2014 “Cooking Live with Ming Tsai and Friends” in Denver, you can go here: http://www.familyreach.org/events/cooking-live-kick-denver/

To learn more about the Family Reach Foundation, go herehttp://www.familyreach.org/

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

3 Things I Would Like Health Care Workers to Know About Hospice Caregiving

In 2007, I was 33, and my husband was diagnosed with a rare cancer — adrenal. Approximately seven weeks after his diagnosis, we made the decision to begin hospice care. In our home, my husband received hospice for about one week, and then he died.

These are three things that I would like health care workers to know about hospice caregiving.

1. As a Caregiver, I Was Living on Empty
Despite a graduate degree in clinical social work, I struggled with understanding what the hospice workers told me. Before my husband came home to hospice, I was living in a state of crisis. I thought my husband was healthy. His blood work was normal. Adrenal cancer is often asymptomatic. Now, suddenly, we were told that my husband had maybe seven months to live. I hadn’t slept. I misspelled my name on the initial hospice paperwork, and that home health worker seemed annoyed that I’d not only signed on the wrong line, but there was also a spelling error. And in normal circumstances, I read everything. However, that first day my husband came home from the hospital to enter hospice, I was in shock. I read nothing, and I signed all the paperwork. Big error in judgment, you say. Honestly, I was living on empty.

2. “Just One More Thing” Is the Tipping Point
Let me explain what I mean by this sentence. If you read number one, you know that I was living on empty. The emotional marathon had taken its toll, and I was only 33. I was in good health, and I looked strong. However, I was often sick to my stomach. I wasn’t able to keep food down and had no appetite. I was the primary caregiver for my husband. He knew that he was dying, and so did I. The stress was unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. And while it appeared that I was able to manage his pain through morphine drops, there was nothing to help ease my emotional pain. And that pain was real. Watching my husband melt away was hell. So, when the health care worker comes into my home and says, “Just do this one more thing — like write down when he was awake or how much he ate,” I lost it. That “one more thing” may appear trivial, but it was the tipping point that sent me into a complete meltdown.

3. Living in a Cloud of Fear
Each day, fear was as fresh as morning sunlight peeking through the clouds. However, the only cloud that appeared over me was fear. I was afraid I would make a mistake with the morphine. I feared that I would hurt him when I would try to roll him on his side to avoid bed sores. I was afraid that he was in more pain than I realized. I was afraid that my husband could sense my fear, and he would think that he was a burden. I was afraid that if I made a serious mistake, hospice would remove my husband from my care and place him outside of our home. That was his worst fear and mine as well.

It is my hope that in reading this you may get a little glimpse inside the fragile state that caregivers often live in. While caregivers may be extremely successful in other areas of their life, very little prepares them for the responsibility of caring for their loved one. Few caregivers have done this before. It is an emotional marathon.

This article also appears on Huffington Post