Put Down Your Phone: Why Presence Is the Best Gift You’ll Ever Give

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“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

The only thing worse than not listening to someone is pretending to listen.

Giving the vague murmur of agreement, or a quick nod to communicate “Yes, I’m listening, totally,” when really, we’re not.

I remember vividly a dinner I had with friends about four years ago. I’d been backpacking in New Zealand for twelve months and had just returned to the UK. Traveling in the car to my friend’s house, I imagined how the night would look…

There would be lots of laughter (it was always side-splitting when we all got together).

There would be lots of hugging (I hadn’t seen them for a whole year after all)!

There would be lots of storytelling (I would get to share my epic adventure).

Did all of this happen? To some extent, yes, but not how I had imagined.

In fact, I left feeling a little miffed, a little gutted.

At first, I couldn’t work out why.

My friends were the same old fun-to-be-around people.

Despite ‘finding myself’ while traveling (I joke), I felt I was pretty much the same old person.

So what was different?

It hit me.

The constant. Mobile. Phones.

The entire evening was tainted by endless selfies, videos, status updates, incoming phone calls, outgoing phone calls, and notifications.

Distraction, after distraction, after distraction.

There were moments you could have heard a pin drop as the four of us, faces illuminated by the glow of the mobile phones, sat, hands glued to our devices. Ironically, telling anyone who was on Facebook and Instagram that night what a terrific time we were having.

To begin with, I was angry with my friends. But sooner I realized I was really angry with myself. I was equally guilty, and people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones after all.

What could have been, rather, what should have been, an evening of being deeply present with one another, each one of us offering our full and undivided attention, was tainted by technology, spoiled by social media, marred by meddling mobiles.

Backpacking was more campfires and deep life conversations below the stars, so this evening was felt like a return to reality. Most of us struggle to put our flipping phones down.

If we stop and think about it, what message does it send to the human beings in front of us when we are busy on our phones?

I made a vow that evening to get better at this, to be more present with friends and family, anyone I’m communicating with.

I didn’t want to make anyone feel how I felt that evening—unheard and unimportant.

Zoom forward to today and, well, I’m much better but far from perfect.

Technology certainly is a huge barrier to presence, but it’s not the main culprit.

The main culprit lives between our ears, the mind.

The mind is a lot like a talking alarm clock, and you have no control over when it goes off and what it will say.

For example, I can be sitting face to face with someone, physically a few centimeters in distance, but consciously, a world away.

Instead of listening to what the person sitting across from us is saying, we listen to our thoughts.

Hey, did I leave the oven on this morning when I left the house?

I hope my breath doesn’t stink.

Why is that stranger in the corner laughing—is my underwear tucking into my shirt?

Or literally, anything else. Anything. Any other thought can pop up at any moment, pulling my focus momentarily away from the person in front of me.

Luckily for us, people can’t always be certain when we’re not being fully present with them, especially if we’re an expert fake listener, able to give a very convincing response like “Yeah, sure, I get you.” Occasionally, I sense that the person I’m talking to senses I haven’t been listening. I feel bad and forgive myself for being human, before returning to the conversation.

On the other hand, when someone is really listening to us, fully present with us in the moment, we can be certain. Without a doubt, because we feel it.

It’s tough to put such moments into words, but you just know.

Moments when we’re fully present with someone and it’s reciprocated, it’s like magic, like the rest of the world fades into the background. Like the first time you fall in love and you just feel connected; you feel the dance of communication, the resonating, the synchronicity, the oneness.

That’s it. This, for me, is what presence is all about. The oneness.

A few of my favorite ways to get present and cultivate oneness are:

Eye contact

The eyes truly are the windows to the soul. Giving eye contact really lets people know they’re being heard.

Listening to understand instead of listening to respond

We’re stuck in our heads if we’re listening purely to plan our response. Tuning into a person’s words and also how they say the words has greatly helped me to connect with people.

Limiting distractions.

Technology, off. The world can wait.

Remember the good old days when only landline phones existed and if you weren’t at home people would leave a message and patiently wait for a response? Bliss. Nowadays, we’re available on mobile, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat, email… the list goes on. Flight mode is my friend. Anytime I want to get present, flight mode is activated.

Facial expressions.

When I really listen to someone, I find I empathize with them so much more. Naturally my facial expressions will reflect this, communicating I understand how they’re feeling. We all wish to feel understood.

In a few weeks’ time, I’ll be flying back to the UK to spend time with my family. In fact, this will be the first Christmas in six years we’ll all be together (my dear parents, older sister, younger brother, and me).

A part of me is sad knowing that around the world, there will be families sitting in their living rooms, surrounded by their nearest and dearest, but not really being there.

Distracted either by their own minds, their mobiles, or maybe their new presents.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Board games can be played and conversations can be had, with presence, together.

In truth, we needn’t wait until the holidays to connect in this way, as any moment, any conversation, offers a chance to be present with each other. But the holidays, for me, really are prime opportunities.

To be surrounded by the ones we love most and be with them more than just physically, but emotionally and spirituality too, well, this is worth more than any gift you’ll give or receive this year. This holiday season, give presence.

About Will Aylward

Will Aylward lives to help others and spends his days coaching people to become more confident in themselves and their ability. Will’s loves are travel, drinking good coffee, turning strangers into friends, and making music. Will lives in Germany with his partner (in crime), Yvonne. Visit him at

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20 Inspiring Gratitude Quotes and Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal Giveaway

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Hi friends! Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate.

I’m so grateful to all of you who share your experiences and insights on the blog, and to those who you who give your time and energy to help others in the comments and community forums. I am endlessly inspired by your openness, your empathy, and your kindness.

To celebrate this day, I gathered some of my favorite gratitude quotes (mostly from anonymous sources), and I’ve also put aside two copies of Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal for a special giveaway.

About the Journal

Including questions and prompts pertaining to both your past and present, the journal will help you see your life through a new, more positive lens.

The book also includes fifteen coloring pages, depicting awesome things we often take for granted, like nature and music.

With space for written reflection, these pages provide all the benefits of coloring—including mindfulness and stress relief—and also guide you to recognize the beauty in the ordinary.

Whether you’ve been gratitude journaling for years or you’re just giving it a try for the first time, Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal will help you access a state of inner peace, contentment, and joy.

The Giveaway

To enter to win one of two free copies of  Tiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, leave a comment below sharing something you’re grateful for today.
For a second entry, share this post on one of your social media pages and include the link in a second comment.

You can enter until midnight, PST, on Thursday, November 30th.

If you’ve already received your copy, I would appreciate if you’d leave a review on Amazon here. It doesn’t need to be long—even a tiny review can make a big difference.

The Quotes


Yes, that last one is my own quote, so it’s probably kind of odd to include it in a list of my favorites. But I wanted to add this one in case you’re going through a tough time right now and not feeling all that grateful. Be good to yourself. Take care of yourself. And know that you are loved and appreciated.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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The Power of Thankfulness: 5 Essential Tips

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“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
G.K. Chesterton

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”
Robert Brault

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

This week many of my readers will celebrate Thanksgiving.

So I thought it would be a good time to share a handful of my favorite tips for making thankfulness a daily part of life.

Because being thankful for what you have is one of the simplest and easiest ways to lift your mood. To give your motivation a jolt. And to live a happier life.

No matter who you are or where you live in the world.

1. Pause and look around yourself.

A simple first step to being more thankful is to pause during your day and ask yourself these two questions:

What are 3 things I can be thankful for in my life today?
Who are 3 people I can be thankful to have in my life and why?

If you don’t come up with 3 people and 3 things each day then that is OK. One thing or person is great too.

But if you can, try to not repeat yourself too often. Instead, think of more people and things to be grateful for to, day by day, expand your thankful view of your world.

2. Express your thankfulness.

Don’t stop at just coming up with people for whom you are grateful to have in your life.

Take a few seconds to tell them about it. This will make their lives happier. And as their faces light up with a smile you’ll feel happier too.

Now, that gratitude could just be a small sentence. But it can have a big impact on someone’s day, week or even life.

So be sure to make the small effort to express it.

3. Look towards yourself too.

It is not only things that are important. Or other people.

You are important and valuable too.

So appreciate that.

Ask yourself:

What are 3 things I can be thankful for about myself?

It could be that you were a good sister during a crisis last week. It could be that you finally got done with that boring or difficult task you had been procrastinating on.

Your self-gratitude does not have to be all about achievements. You can simply be thankful for your good sense of humor. Or the help you give your friends and family by being a good listener from time to time.

And the thankfulness doesn’t have to be about big things either. It could simply be about the fact that you floss for a couple of minutes in the morning.

4. Be thankful for the things you may take for granted.

The things we get very used to having can become things we take for granted. But they are not things everyone in the world has access to.

A few such things that I like to reflect upon and feel very thankful for having are:

A roof over my head and a warm home.
Plenty of drinkable water.
That I don’t have to go hungry.
Being able to enjoy the small and free pleasures of life.
Access to the internet so that I can learn and connect with people.

I have found that being grateful for things like these are especially helpful to zoom out and to put my situation in perspective when I am going through a tough time in life.

5. Start or end your day with thankfulness.

To make thankfulness into a habit that sticks find a regular time for it in your day.

For example, you can start your day in a good way by finding 3 things to be grateful for about yourself over breakfast.

Or you can take a few minutes in the evening, just before going to bed, to use a journal to write down 3 things you are grateful for about your day.

Try a tiny time commitment like one of these and see what impact it has on your life.


Cultivating Beginner’s Mind: Adventure Lies Outside Your Comfort Zone

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“The don’t-know mind… doesn’t fear, has no wish to control or foresee, steps off the cliff of the moment with absolute trust that the next step will land somewhere, and the next step somewhere else, and the feet will take us wherever we need to go.” ~Byron Katie

I am fifty-five years old. I’ve raised a family, been through two divorces, bought and sold four houses, and had a successful professional career. And right now I’m doing one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, which is learning to host in a busy restaurant.

My coworkers range from mid-twenties to early thirties. They are smart and hardworking. I feel like my brain is about to explode.

Why am I doing this? Well, money, for one thing. For better or worse, I can’t go back to my original profession after taking two decades off to be a mom. But another large motivator is that I want to do something totally new and out of my comfort zone, to experience what Buddhists call the “not-know mind” or beginner’s mind.

In my experience, adults older than about twenty-five are exceptionally good at stacking the odds in their own favor. We like to do what’s familiar, what’s comfortably in our wheelhouse.

Let’s face it: It feels good to know what you’re doing—especially when you’re the oldest one in the room!

Throughout childhood and young adulthood, avoiding new experiences is not optional (however much we might resist them). Every year in school we get a new teacher, perhaps new classmates, and continually new material to learn.

Starting a new career, moving into new social roles and responsibilities, all require us to be a beginner, to not know for that uncomfortable initial period.

Our goal in life is usually to reduce this sense of uncertainty and vulnerability as quickly as possible. Resisting new experiences, even the ones we actively desire, makes them still more uncomfortable. If we could crack this nut and truly embrace the vulnerability (and excitement!) of being a beginner, our lives would be more interesting—and a lot less stressful.

The discomfort we feel is pure ego. Ego is the part of us that needs to look large and in charge at all times. It is not a fan of beginner’s mind. Ego tells us we’re in danger when we’re not in familiar territory. Its job is to keep us “safe,” and if that means living a small and boring life, so be it.

I have to actively calm and soothe my ego each night when I report to work, filled with unfamiliar butterflies. I use self-talk that sounds exactly like what I say to my daughter when she embarks on a new experience:

“Just do your best. No one expects you to know everything right off the bat. New things are always scary, but you learn more every night.”

One of the keys to beginner’s mind is humility—a characteristic not highly regarded in this society. We are mostly about pumping ourselves up (there’s ego again). Humility requires us to acknowledge and honor what others know that we do not. For instance, I never knew how challenging restaurant work was before this, but I will never take a server for granted again!

Humility and humiliation are not the same thing. Recognition isn’t a zero-sum game: Genuine admiration of someone else’s ability or expertise does not automatically make me “less than” as a person. In fact, it makes me stronger! To be humble in this sense is a mark of maturity and real self-esteem.

Humility isn’t about falsely running ourselves down, but about seeing ourselves—our strengths and weaknesses—clearly. In this job, it doesn’t matter that I have a master’s degree (there are lots of servers with master’s degrees, I find) and no one cares what my previous profession was. What matters is that I’m willing to learn from anyone with the time to teach me.

Beginner’s mind is all about being willing to learn, which can (and should) happen at any age. But you can’t learn something new if you only do what you’re already good at. You can’t learn if you insist on being the expert. You can’t learn if you’re not willing to get it wrong for a while, to make mistakes—even in public.

The pay-offs are many, although it might be hard to convince yourself of that when you’re full of butterflies and dread. Life is an adventure, and adventures require us to step out of our comfort zones.

Ask yourself: Am I really ready to settle for more of the same for the rest of my life? Isn’t it worth a little discomfort (even a lot) to learn a new skill, meet a new person, or discover a new aspect of myself?

We can ask the ego to take a back seat for a while, and no one will be the worse for it. We can take our courage in our hands, and step out into the unknown, over the cliff, trusting that the next step will land somewhere.

Usually, the worst that can happen is that we will feel uncomfortable, maybe even embarrassed. Maybe we’ll actually fail! I’ve considered that outcome and decided that I’ll survive if it happens. I’d rather try and fail than wonder if I might have succeeded.

I hope that I’m providing a positive role model for my younger coworkers; maybe when they’re fifty-something they won’t hesitate to step out on a limb either. I know that I’m providing a good role model for my daughter. She texts me good luck almost every night on my way to work, and says things like, “I’m proud of us, Mom.”

We lose touch with what our children are going through when we get too comfortable with our lives. They don’t put much credence in our advice to “just try it” when they never see us taking a risk. We can’t model courage, or how to handle mistakes and survive failure, if we always stay safely ensconced in our comfort zones.

And the fact is, change will come even when we do our best to guard against it. The safety of a comfort zone is temporary, at best. In embracing humility and beginner’s mind, we really have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We’ll either succeed, or we’ll learn something—or, most likely, both. It’s a win/win (although you might never convince your ego of that)!

About Amaya Pryce

Amaya Pryce is a spiritual coach and writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Her newest book, How to Grow Your Soul, is available on Amazon. For coaching or to follow her blog, please visit

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How Surfing Helped Me Turn Fear and Anxiety into Confidence

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“If you want to conquer fear, don’t sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” ~Dale Carnegie

Not too long ago I went through an extremely chaotic and emotional two-week period. Anything that could go wrong or be difficult did and was. I thought it would never end.

When it began, the little hiccups were easy to let roll off my shoulders. After about a week, I was feeling pretty worn down and was in tears daily. At the end, I felt numb, and when things kept going wrong I would say to myself “Sure… Okay …what’s next?”

These two weeks were filled with miscommunications, the realities of parenting a teenager, negative art critiques, the end of a three-year business relationship, technical difficulties with my social media accounts, a shoulder injury, and an art block, and none of my efforts seemed to put any of the proverbial fires out.

Not to mention that we were surrounded by literal fires here in Southern Oregon, which brought oppressive smoke and stress.

I was tired, scared, tired, hurt, tired, irritable, and physically taxed. And did I say tired? Usually getting into the art studio and painting is the best way to bring me back around, but that wasn’t working either. I would stare at my painting and just not know what to do, so I would do nothing.

About a week in, I drove myself to the coast to surf for the day, thinking that getting out of the smoke and into the ocean would wash away the negativity. But the conditions were not in my favor, and the day was frustrating as I paddled my way from one side of the beach to the other searching for waves. I drove back into the smoke feeling defeated, complacency of the crapolicious period of time setting in.

The next week, I decided that there was nothing left to do but treat myself with some kindness and compassion. I rested, ate a carton of ice cream, and watched schlocky movies. I thought that maybe by just not fighting it anymore, the procession of poop would lift. But no, the hits just kept coming.

I felt the depression creeping in as it has a tendency to do after anxiety has beat me into submission.

For me, anxiety and depression have a way of cultivating more anxiety and depression. As the challenges arose in continuum, seeing the positive became harder and harder. The negativity took the lead and thus started a downward spiral of adversity and uncertainly. It is a horribly stagnant and uncomfortable place to live.

So, I decided to participate in a surfing competition. Wait… wha?

I had actually planned to compete months before. It was not something that I had ever done prior, and it is generally an activity that I would consider completely out of my comfort zone.

I’ve never been interested in competitive sports; I’m nervous when put on the spot and I am not comfortable being the center of attention. A friend who competes annually told me it would be casual fun, but it didn’t necessarily sound like a good time to me. It sounded nerve racking.

Nevertheless, I had registered to compete. The timing couldn’t have been worse. I already felt like I had been hit by an emotional mac truck, and the physical ailments were tagging along like uninvited hitchhikers.

I decided that I would go, but if I wasn’t feeling it, I would back out and just be there to enjoy the beach and support my husband and our friends. And so, we prepared for a long weekend at the coast.

The day before our departure my husband got a cold and I could feel one coming on. The morning we left I woke with a migraine.

“Oh, this is starting out fantastic,” I thought to myself, but I kept my snarky remarks to myself, climbed into the van, and off we went. Hubbie sniffing and sneezing and me unable to keep my eyes open for very long.

I have to admit that I was glad to get out of my art studio. Staring at my painting that I was stuck on had been a source of irritation that I was relieved to take a vacation from.

We arrived at the beach to find almost non-existent waves, which would make a surf competition pretty difficult. Then, I received a not such fantastic report from a friend whose father is in poor health and I realized that my parents had missed my daughter’s volleyball game because I had told them the wrong time. And my shoulder was killing me. Would it ever end?

The more it came, the more indifferent I felt. The apathy was only interrupted by sporadic bursts of tears followed by the need to collapse and sleep.

I swear the sole reason that I didn’t back out of the competition was simply because I just couldn’t walk back up the beach one more time to get to the registration table again. Plus, I started to question if I would be disappointed in myself and regret it if I surrendered.

So, I went on. My heat was at 11:40 the next morning. I would have twenty minutes to catch as many waves as I could, only two of which would count toward my score. The waves were ankle height. How on earth was this going to work? I ate some chocolate and went to bed.

The morning of the competition, I woke with small butterfly flutters in my stomach that in the hours leading up to 11:40am turned into a swarm. I was nauseous, shaky, and terrified. At least I had seemed to have beaten the sickness and my migraine was gone. Focus on the positive, right?

I paddled out in to the water with my six competitors and sat for what seemed to be an eternity. Then the horn blew and my twenty minutes began. I caught as many waves as I could and it was actually going okay.

The horn blew again ending my heat and I came out the water with the biggest smile on my face. I had done it. I was happy with how I had surfed but mostly, I was just psyched that I had gotten out there. All of the crap from the previous two weeks melted away and all of a sudden, my problems didn’t seem like such a big deal.

“Look what I just did!” I exclaimed. I felt proud and accomplished, the sky seemed bluer, and the world brighter. I felt ready to tackle anything. I found out that I came in dead last in my heat but it didn’t matter. I had gone through with it.

I brought that feeling home and immediately was able to resolve the painting I had been stuck on. The technical problems I was having got fixed, and harmony seemed to be on its way to restoration. I, once again, felt I could take on the world.

I am a highly sensitive person who struggles with anxiety. When things are going well, it feels like the good will never end. When life is not working in my favor, I feel as though I’ve been sucker punched and then repeatedly kicked when down. Like all of the warranties have just expired. Like I’m making all the wrong choices and doing all the wrong things.

It can be hard to stand back up again when I’m questioning every option. The fear is overwhelming and paralyzing. But I now realize one way to effectively shake off these negative cycles, which are inevitable: I can turn fear on itself by doing something that intimidates me.

I can fight fear with action.

During this particularly bad negative cycle, I became scared of everything and it was hard for me to move forward, as I was petrified by all of the possible outcomes. It destroyed my confidence.

My everyday coping methods of dealing with anxiety were not working. But by doing something that scared the crap out of me, something completely out of my comfort zone, I showed myself that I am strong.

Also, I am aware that surfing, skiing, hiking, and mountain biking are all activities that force me to engage with the present. I can’t think about what’s happening in other areas of my life when I’m dropping into a wave or flying down the side of a mountain. It’s like jet-fueled mindfulness. I am reminded that there are things that I cannot control, and I become aware of the smallness of my problems.

In this particular instance, I was so lost in doubt and confusion that merely going to the coast for a surf didn’t boost me. However, by surfing in a competition, something that was completely foreign to me, I was able to not only get outside myself for a minute through the physical act of surfing, but I was also able to prove to myself that I can accomplish things that I interpret as out of my reach.

Sure, I may not have ended up on the winners’ podium, but in non-existent surf and with every eye on the beach watching, I competed. And when I walked out the water, I was cheered.

Want proof of how doing something terrifying changed my outlook? Take a look at the photo to the right. That’s me coming out of the water after my heat. That smile is genuine. I felt like a winner.

For me, there is nothing more debilitating than being fear-driven. It is a barrier to progress and I, for one, feel I have come too far to let anxiety sit at my table for long.

Don’t get me wrong. There is such a thing as healthy fear. If I would have shown up to the competition and the waves were fourteen feet high, I don’t think I would have surfed. But if I would have backed out because things had been going poorly and so, “this will probably be a disaster too,” well, I just plain refuse to adhere to that mind set, even if that’s where my brain wants to go.

We all go through periods of time when the world just seems to be working against us. Cycles when we feel we are swimming against the current. Sometimes the best way to break the cycle is to show ourselves that worry and doubt have not taken total control.

We can take the power away from fear and stock it back into our arsenal by taking action.

We set ourselves free by proving that we can do the very things that scare the bejesus out of us and that life will still go on, possibly with a renewed confidence, even greater than it was before. So, go out and do something that scares you. I double dog dare ya’!

Photo credit for Marigny’s surfing picture: Chris Goodyear

About Marigny Goodyear

Marigny Goodyear is an artist, living and working in Talent, Oregon with her husband, Goody and daughter, Nora. She plays in Crescent City, California where the ocean keeps her strong and inspired and often visits her hometown of New Orleans (also nicknamed The Crescent City), where the rhythm of her heartbeat is renewed. Visit her at and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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You Can’t go Wrong

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You can’t go wrong when you focus on creating a positive higher thought and feeling.  It puts you in a positive mindset, it creates a wonderful vibration for life to be in, and no matter what direction you take, it will unfold into a positive experience. Make an effort to focus on creating a positive […]


Create a Good Day

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No matter what your day starts out to be, no matter what your moments bring about, no matter what unexpectedly pops up in your day, you can choose to have a good day. You can experience each moment, yet keep in mind that you can choose positive thoughts and feelings. Even in those moments that […]


How to Enjoy the Holidays When Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

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This post contains an excerpt from GETTING GRIEF RIGHT: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, by Patrick O’Malley, PhD with Tim Madigan.

It was spring 1980 when my wife, Nancy, and I received some of the best news of our lives—she was pregnant with our first child.

On a Tuesday morning that September, we found ourselves sitting in her obstetrician’s office. Nancy, not due to deliver for three months, had been awakened the night before by a strange physical sensation.

She had wanted to get checked out, just to be safe. But after the examination that morning, her doctor said we needed t get to the hospital. Labor had begun. I remember how Nancy’s voice trembled.

“Can a baby this premature live?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” the doctor said. “We will try to buy time. He will be a pipsqueak of a kid.”

Thirty-six hours later, on September 3, 1980, Ryan Palmer O’Malley was born, weighing a little over two pounds. You couldn’t have imagined a more fragile looking creature. He had been far from ready to leave his mother’s womb, yet there he was.

In the first few moments of his life, I was aware of the great risk of loving my son, but I was powerless to resist. From the first glimpse of Ryan, I knew he would have a place in my heart forever.

His early life was a succession of seemingly endless days and nights. We hovered over the side of his crib in the hospital, looking down at our boy who was hooked up to all this noisy equipment. His life was measured in minutes and hours. On several terrifying occasions, Ryan stopped breathing, and his medical team would rush in to resuscitate.

All this time, Nancy and I yearned to hold him, but his frailty and the equipment made that impossible. The most we could do was touch a tiny finger, rub a tiny arm.

Instead of cooing, the sounds around my son were the mechanical beeping of intensive care machines. Instead of that wonderful new baby smell, there was the pungent scent of antiseptic soap we had to use to scrub up before seeing him. Despite not being able to hold him, despite all the machines between him and us, we loved him deeply.

Early fall turned to Thanksgiving and then to Christmas. Our son gradually grew stronger. One day in January his doctor weaned him from the respirator. We could now hold him without the tangle of tubes and wires.

On March 9, 1981, our seventh wedding anniversary, we were finally able to bring our baby home to hold him, bathe him, kiss him, dance with him, feed him, and rock him. He smiled for the first time in those days. Though he was still fragile and underweight, we allowed ourselves to start imagining Ryan’s future. No parents loved a son more.

And then he was gone.

On Saturday night, May 16, 1981, we were treating him for a cold but not particularly concerned. We had been through much worse. But early Sunday morning our precious son suddenly stopped breathing.

I started CPR. Ryan’s doctor and an ambulance were at our house within minutes. His doctor administered a shot of adrenalin to his heart as the medical technicians continued CPR. Nancy and I silently prayed as we followed the speeding ambulance to the hospital.

The next several hours are a series of snapshots forever imprinted in my mind.

His physician coming into the waiting room with tears in his eyes, saying, “I could not save him.”
Holding Ryan’s body
Returning home without him
The heartbreak of our family and friends as we broke the news of his death
The dream-like, adrenalin-fueled rituals of visitation and funeral
The faces of all those who filled the church
The sight of his tiny casket by the altar
Seeing construction workers removing their hard hats as the funeral procession drove by
Leaving the cemetery on that sunny spring day

I have taken off work on the anniversary of Ryan’s death every year since that first year. I go to the cemetery to think about him and the years now behind me. Powerful feelings rise each time I see my son’s name on the grave marker: RYAN PALMER O’MALLEY. It grounds me in the hard reality—this really happened.

In my experience as both a grief therapist and bereaved father, the holiday season can be one of the most difficult times of the year for those grieving. Many who have experienced the death of a loved one wish they could lie down for a nap on October 30 and awake again on January 2. This season can be challenging when the shadow of loss is present.

The collision between the cultural expectations of happiness and the personal reality of grief can create stress, confusion, and an increase in emotional pain for those who mourn. The gatherings of family and friends during this season may shine a brighter light on the absence of the one who has died.

If this is the first holiday season after the death of a loved one, there can often be a buildup of anxiety, anticipating how it will feel to be without the one who is gone. And, even if the loss occurred many years ago like mine, the holidays are always a reminder of what was and what might have been.

Confusion, yearning, exhaustion, sorrow, and all the other feelings that come with grief are absolutely normal during this time. Difficult but normal. Painful but normal. Grief is not a psychological abnormality or an illness to cure. Grief is about love. We grieve because we loved. Holidays may be a strong emotional connection to special times of remembering that love.

Here are eight ideas to help you enjoy the holidays while also honoring your loss.

Both And 

Enter into this season in a state of mind of “both and” rather than “either or.” Sorrow does not exclude all joy, and celebration does not eliminate all sorrow. Yet, it can be confusing to experience opposing emotions at the same time or feel your mood vacillate between light and dark.

Joy may transition into sadness in the blink of an eye. Contentment may suddenly shift into yearning. Both experiences have value because both are part of your grief story.

Be present to the moments of enjoyment, and at the same time, respect your feelings of loss.

Sights, Sounds, and Scents

Most who grieve prepare themselves emotionally for those significant moments during the holidays, such as sitting down for a holiday meal and attending parties; yet, some triggering experiences can occur when you least expect it.

A sight, sound, or smell may zip right past your defenses and cause an intense surge of sorrow. And sometimes, that surge may happen in public. To this day, certain Christmas carols I hear while shopping elicits a sudden sense of melancholy because of the strong identification they have for me with the first and only holiday season my son was alive.

We knew our loved one in a shared environment that is full of these sensory experiences that can provoke feelings of loss in an instant because of this connection created from past holiday seasons. This is perfectly normal and doesn’t mean that you’re going backward in your grief. Value these moments as important connections to the one who has died.

Social Splitting

The transition back into your work setting and your social groups after a loss can create a strain because you may have to act better than you feel in order to appear socially appropriate. This social splitting can be exhausting. Add to that the cultural expectation of being “up” for the holidays, and the exhaustion may be compounded.

This type of fatigue is normal. Monitor your energy, and be willing to moderate your social engagements, if needed. To recharge yourself from the drain of social splitting, spend ample time with those with whom you can fully be yourself and who will support you without judgement.

Approach and Avoid

Our most basic nature is to approach pleasure and avoid pain. Our more evolved nature can approach pain if we know there is an ultimate benefit in doing so. Our natural resistance to the pain of grief can create more pain.

Be intentional about scheduling time during this hectic season to approach your pain. Create rituals that represent the unique relationship you had to the one who died, such as listening to his or her favorite music or reading a favorite poem.

Light a candle or ring a bell to mark this special time of remembering and reflecting. Visit the cemetery or mausoleum if that provides a connection for you.

I’m grateful to our Japanese daughter-in-law who requests each holiday season that we participate in the Japanese custom of taking food to the gravesites where our son and other family members are buried. Her ritual has now become ours.

Seek Heathy Distractions

In a season fraught with overindulgences, be aware of the risk of numbing the feelings of loss through unhealthy escape behaviors. Also, know that it’s not possible to stay in the emotional intensity of grief without some relief, so give yourself permission to engage in healthy distractions.

The key to a healthy distraction is a behavior that allows you to pause your feelings for a moment so that you may come back, and be truly present to them later. My ritual of watching comedy holiday movies has served me well through the years.

Reach out to a trusted friend if you’re concerned about harmful escape behaviors during the holidays. Ask if you can be accountable to them for these behaviors and if they will participate with you in heathier activities that provide you with some respite from your grief.

Tell Your Story 

My professional training taught me that grief is a series of steps and stages to work through, which will lead to a conclusion called closure. My experience as a grieving dad did not at all match up with this psychological model.

Through my own grief and by working with so many who mourn, I came to understand that grief is an ongoing narrative of love, not an emotional finish line to be crossed.

Stories help us stay connected to those who have died and help us create meaning about what we have experienced. Finding a place for that story to be received is an important part of the grief journey.

Tell the story of your loved one as it relates to the holiday season to someone who listens well. Or spend some time writing specific memories related to your loved one and the holidays.

Acknowledge Someone Else’s Loss

Those who grieve want their loss and their loved one remembered, so consider making contact with someone who is grieving, as well. It doesn’t matter how long ago that loss may have been. Offer the compassion to others you desire for yourself.

Compassion literally means to suffer with and calls us to enter into the pain of another. Listen with gentle curiosity and an open heart. Consider making a donation to a cause that is relevant to the person who is grieving.

Be Forgiving 

Let self-compassion replace any self-criticism as you do your best to balance holiday enjoyment with your grief. Be forgiving of well-meaning others who may try to help you with your grief by “cheering you up.”

How you measure what’s significant and what’s trivial may have changed as you grieve. Patience may be needed when you’re in the midst of others during the holidays who experience the trivial as significant.

As you reflect on your loss, you may also benefit from reviewing your history with the loved one who has died, and offering and accepting forgiveness for the human flaws you each had that affected your relationship.

Remember always, you grieve because you loved. May you have peace and light as you embrace your story of love and loss this holiday season.

Adapted excerpt from GETTING GRIEF RIGHT: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, by Patrick O’Malley, PhD with Tim Madigan. Sounds True, July 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About Dr. Patrick O’Malley

Patrick O’Malley, Ph.D. has been providing grief counseling and education to clients and colleagues for over thirty-five years. For more information, visit

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