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Chopped All-Stars! (Part 1)

To say my husband John is “into” cooking would be an understatement. Because although he has never pursued a career in food, cooking has been a life-long passion for him. (When most kids were watching cartoons, John was watching the Galloping Gourmet.)

So in John’s world, there’s pretty much nothing better than meeting a celebrity chef. Except maybe becoming friends with a celebrity chef. Or maybe… learning that his friend-slash-celebrity chef was selected to be on a cooking competition in which each chef was invited to compete for a charity, and this friend-slash-celebrity chef selected the Children’s Cancer Research Fund in memory of Julian.

And that’s exactly what happened!

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Gavin and John on 7/22/11

As I described in a post from January 2012, we initially met Chef Gavin Kaysen after my dad (a friend of Gavin’s dad) visited Gavin’s restaurant in New York City. My dad introduced himself to Gavin, and ended up telling him Julian’s story… and also told Gavin about his son-in-law’s passion for cooking.

One thing lead to another, and a couple of months later, my dad and Gavin had planned John’s ultimate birthday gift — a day of cooking with Gavin, resulting in a dinner party for John and our closest friends… all in honor of Julian. That day of cooking together turned into an ongoing friendship, including unforgettable meals in Gavin’s restaurant, joyful celebrations with his family, and a trip France to cheer Gavin on as he coached the Bocuse d’Or USA team.

If you visit the videos page on Gavin’s website, you’ll see that he is no stranger to cooking competitions and TV appearances. In addition to representing the USA in the Bocuse d’Or, he has competed on the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, and more.

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Gavin in an interview segment on 4/14/13.

So it didn’t surprise us a bit when Gavin shared his secret with us… he would be competing in a televised cooking competition! John and I both had tears in our eyes when he asked us if it would be ok if he told Julian’s story, and then if he wins, $50,000 will be donated to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund in memory of Julian.

The televised competition isn’t just any cooking competition. It’s Chopped *All-Stars*, currently airing on the Food Network. There are four categories of four chefs each — The winner of each category will then go on to compete against each other in the final round on Sunday, May 5.

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My family with Gavin’s parents on 4/14/13.

Gavin is in the appropriately-named “Mega Chefs” category, which aired on Sunday, April 14. We were thrilled to watch Gavin make his magic on the TV screen, and cook his way to victory! That means he is will be competing in the final round on May 5.

So if you have cable, please watch Chopped on the Food Network on Sunday May 5. You’ll see that the only thing bigger than Gavin’s talent is his heart.

This whole experience has been amazing, and reminds us once again that the tragedy of Julian’s death has not prevented us from feeling love and joy. We are so incredibly greatful for the gifts Julian has given us in his life as well as in his death, not the least of which is our friend Gavin Kaysen and the attention he is bringing to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2013 in year 3

 

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The last of the firsts.


Today is March 3rd. That means it’s Julian’s first Angelversary. One year since the worst day of my life. The last milestone in a year of unimaginable “firsts.”

The first time I woke up, convinced it was all a horrible nightmare… and later, the first time I woke up and knew it wasn’t. The first time I laughed… and later, the first time I realized I had gone a whole day without crying.

The first of his birthdays without him; the first of my birthdays without him. The first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; the first Christmas and New Year’s. The first time someone asked me how many children I have; the first time I heard Oscar refer to himself as “an only child.”

There’s a surprising amount of relief in reaching the last of these firsts, the first anniversary of his death. Perhaps the only thing I’ve heard about grieving that might be universally true is, “the first year is the hardest.” And as of today, my family and I have survived that year. It’s behind us now. Another bereaved parent recently told me, “it never gets better, but it does get easier.” I believe that will be true for us, too.

Today, I’m thankful for many things. In this particular moment, I’m thankful that my parents encouraged John and I to take a week off of work and take Oscar out of school to join them in Mexico, at the resort that we spent many family spring breaks growing up. I’m thankful that we agreed to it, despite the fact that we had already planned a vacation for the end of March. It’s peaceful and relaxing here, and I’m grateful to be able to spend this day with my husband, oldest son, and parents.

Today I’ve been reflecting on how I have changed in the past year, as I listen to the waves crashing nearby. As irrational as it seems now, I remember that in the first days after Julian’s death, I felt a very real fear that I would somehow forget him. I also started feeling internal and external judgement about my grieving process — as if intense grief indicated intense love, and healing from grief indicated a lack of love. And if I stopped grieving, I would forget him.

But with time, I gained confidence in my own approach to grieving and healing. Thankfully, I eventually came to the conclusion that Martha Whitmore Hickman described so eloquently in Healing After Loss:

“Of course time eases our grief, provided we let it follow its course and give it its due. Few of us would want the intensity and desolation of early grief to stay with us forever. That’s not what we’re afraid of.

But we may be afraid that we’ll lose the intensity of love we felt for the one we have lost.

At first these two–the grief and the love–are so wedded to each other that we cannot separate them. We may cling to the grief in desperation so we will be sure not to lose the love.

Perhaps the grief and the love will always be wedded to each other to some degree, like two sides of a coin. But maybe after a while, when we flip the coin, it will almost always be the love that turns up on top.”

Today, I’m thankful that in fact love almost always does turn up on top. I’m also thankful that a year has passed and I can say with all certainty that he isn’t alive, but he isn’t gone. I still have a relationship with him. I see him everywhere. I see him in my dreams. I saw him in the whales that appeared a short distance off the beach this morning, despite the fact that they weren’t expected for a couple more weeks. I see him in every sunset.

Sometimes, even in Mexico, the sunset is obstructed by clouds. But that doesn’t make me question whether or not the sun exists. Similarly, even if I don’t see or feel him, I know he’s there. A year ago I was afraid he was gone forever. Today I know he’s with me always.

Today is the first anniversary, the last of the firsts. And as my mom said to me just a few minutes ago, “It’s a good day.”

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in Angelversaries, year 2

 

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A good day.

It’s been a while since I wrote a blog post. And I know people have been curious. How did the holidays go? How does it feel to be approaching the one-year mark? What does “normal” feel like these days?

The answer to each of these questions is, it depends on the day. As I’ve said before, the best question to ask is, how am I … today? I’m happy to report that today was a great day. One of the best days ever, in fact.

Today. January 29, 2012… my husband John and I attended the Bocuse d’Or USA 2012 competition in Hyde Park, NY. John and I both have a passion for gourmet food, so for us it was like having box seats at the super bowl. The winner, Richard Rosendale, was just announced a couple of hours ago and will represent the USA in the 2013 Bocuse d’Or in Lyon, France — the Olympics of food — one year from now. The judges of the event were culinary royalty, and we met most of them personally. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.

As exciting as today was, I can can’t help thinking about one year ago today. January 29, 2011… John and I returned from a business conference and noticed that Julian had some unusual bruises. That was the first night that we sensed that something wasn’t quite right. We didn’t know it then, but we were right on the cusp of the worst thing that could happen to a parent. Oh what a difference a year makes.

So, yes. I could dwell on that milestone. I could let my brain go back to that day and the weeks that followed. I could re-live all of that pain. It wouldn’t be hard to do. But yet again I’m reminded of one of my core beliefs: I can choose to focus on what I have lost, or I can choose to focus on the gifts that each day brings. As Pema Chödrön says, “Moment by moment we can choose to go toward further clarity and happiness or toward confusion and pain.”

Some days, like today, it’s relatively easy to choose to go toward happiness. Today, I have the strength to keep the negative emotions at bay, and feel gratitude for the wonderful things that have happened in the past year. Not the least of which was becoming friends with Chef Gavin Kaysen, who represented the USA in the 2007 Bocuse d’Or and will be the 2013 team’s coach for the coming year. It’s because of Gavin Kaysen that we were able to attend the prestigious event today. And it’s because of Julian that we met Gavin.

Here’s how it happened: Last spring shortly after Julian died, my dad was in NYC and went to Gavin’s restaurant because he’s friends with Gavin’s dad and was curious to meet his friend’s famous son. He asked to meet the chef, and they chatted for a while. My dad described how much his daughter and son-in-law appreciate gourmet food, and he also shared Julian’s story. Gavin, being a father of a young son and with another on the way, was moved by our story.

As it turned out, Gavin was coming to Minneapolis a few weeks later to cook for a fundraising event. One thing lead to another, and he and my dad came up with a plan for Gavin to come in a day early and prepare a meal at my house as a very special birthday gift from my parents to my husband John.

On July 22, 2011, Gavin arrived in Minneapolis and came to our house to spend the day cooking with John, and prepare a wonderful multi-course meal for us and our best foodie friends. We’ve considered him a friend ever since. Our friend, the world-class chef and Bocuse d’Or USA head coach.

I share this story for two reasons. First, because it was exciting to see Gavin in his glory this weekend, sitting at the head table with Chef Thomas Keller, Chef Daniel Boulud, and others. And second, because I believe it is important to celebrate the good things.

None of us needs to be reminded that sometimes bad things happen to good people. But good things happen to good people, too. Life is full of good things and bad things, big things and small things.

The question is, what do I focus on? Do I wallow in my grief and think of January 29, 2011? Or do I feel grateful for the exciting day that was January 29, 2012? Or better yet, do I look forward to John and I joining Gavin in Lyon, France on January 29, 2013? I think you know my answer.

I will never forget that I have suffered an irreplaceable loss. But I will not let it prevent me from having a life that includes joy, wonderful new friends, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in the second six months

 

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The six-month milestone.

Here it is. Six months. Some call it an “angelversary.” Or as a wise friend said recently, “I like to think of it as his birthday. His new birthday. The day he was born into whatever comes next.” I like that. Happy six-month new birthday, little one.

For me and my family, it means six months of the “after.” It’s the six-month milestone of “new normal.” In charts and graphs about grief and bereavement, it’s often the first milestone in the timeline, like this one from The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonanno (yellow highlighting is mine):

I first saw this chart, and the book that contains it, around the two-month mark. It meant so much to me to learn that science shows that bereaved people fall into one of three categories — chronic grief, recovery, and resilience. Until that point, I’d only found memoirs and books written by therapists that made it seem that most people were chronic grievers who only reached a sense of “recovery” after years of therapy and support groups (if ever).

Turns out, many of us — perhaps even most of us — fall into the “resilience” category. It’s hard for researchers to know for sure what the percentages are, because these aren’t the people writing memoirs or visiting therapists for years on end, and therefore aren’t on the radar of the therapists and grief counselors who are writing books about their work.

I wrote a lot about The Other Side of Sadness in my two-month blog post, and it seems fitting to revisit it again now. One of the most fascinating details about the scientific research described in this book is that they studied people both before and after their loss. Because of this, the researchers were able to discern the difference between someone who started displaying frequent and prolonged grief symptoms after their loss, vs. someone whose personality and outlook on life was grief-like even before the loss.

The researchers were able to identify personality traits of each group that were apparent before and after their loss. My friends and family would probably agree that the traits observed in “resilient” people sound a lot like me (and my husband, too). The research showed that resilient people are:

  • optimistic
  • flexible (can share AND suppress emotion)
  • can find benefits, and believe that “the world is basically a decent place, and life is good”
  • have a support system of family and friends
  • are “able to evoke comforting memories of the lost loved one”

With six months behind me now, I have a new appreciation for Mr. Bonanno‘s observation that “the human inquiry into the mysteries of life and the nature of the soul is acute during bereavement. When a loved one dies, we have no choice but to face up to nearly imponderable questions…. Many of us discover, in fact, that we have found something quite profound hidden in the experience.”

I’ve now had six months of “facing up to imponderable questions.” I wholeheartedly agree that “the mysteries of life and the nature of the soul is acute during bereavement.” I’ve pondered the imponderable. I’ve inquired into the mysteries of life. I have a new understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be alive. If there could possibly be a silver lining to this experience, that’s it.

I’ve survived six months of the after. I’ve spent six months creating new normal. I don’t know where I’ll be in 6, 12, and 18 months from now, but I know I’m resilient. And I know my future will be filled with happiness — because I choose to make it that way.

 
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Posted by on September 3, 2011 in the second six months

 

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It’s time for a new chapter in the American history of death.

For much of our American history, it was not uncommon for a family to lose a child. Disease, childbirth, war, and lack of hospitals made it unusual for a household *not* to have been touched by death in some way.

Despite the frequency of death, or perhaps because of it, grief was not discussed in those days. Grief was expressed in the appropriate times and places, such as at a funeral, but it was not discussed. Our American ancestors were never urged to go to group therapy to revisit their loss… over, and over, and over.

Then, there were two important changes in our country’s history. First, the medical world made significant advances: hospitals became more accessible and more sanitary, vaccines were discovered and distributed, and diseases became more curable — resulting in fewer deaths. Second, death became a topic of interest among philosophers and psychologists, who suggested that death had become an “unnatural taboo” which caused repression of emotion that would surely cause damage to one’s mental health.

On one end of the pendulum swing, in 1911, an article called “Facing Death” in Harpers Bazaar said, “Grief is self-pity. Perhaps if we were less centered upon our own happiness, grief over the loss of our beloved ones would not be the terrible thing that it is.” On the other end of the pendulum swing, the 1960s and 1970s brought about an emphasis on self-expression, talk therapy, and the overwhelming influence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s book On Death and Dying* published in 1969. By the late 1990s, it had become a widespread belief that people must “give voice” to their grief, or else it would fester. And now we do get urged to go to group therapy to revisit our loss… over, and over, and over.

In other words, death went from being a frequent occurrence with an expectation of limited outward expression, to being an infrequent occurrence with an expectation of significant outward expression.

Here’s why our culture’s history of death is of interest to me: I believe we must let the pendulum fall closer to the middle. I want us to all be thankful that the death of a child is so uncommon… but I want us to remember that it is not unheard of. I want us to respect those who choose to express their grief outwardly… but not judge or “worry about” those who don’t. I want us to remember that life is a gift… but also remember that death is part of the same cycle. I want us to honor the loved ones we have lost… but not lose ourselves in the process.

It’s time for a new chapter in our American history of death. In this chapter, we don’t expect people to die, and we don’t expect people not to die. We don’t judge people for expressing themselves, and we don’t judge people for not expressing themselves. We mourn the ones we have lost, and we celebrate that we had them in the first place. We remember the loved ones who have died, but we never forget that we are still alive… and we have a lot of living left to do.

* Note: I wrote about this book in one of my first blog posts, and I’ll be writing about it again in one of my next blog posts.
 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in month 6

 

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Red sunsets.

I feel like it’s been a long time since I wrote a blog post. Early on, I wrote because it was therapeutic and the writing process created a good structure for me to understand my own thoughts and feelings. Later, I wrote because I was reading books and discovering new things that I wanted to explore. Today, I’m writing just to share what’s going on in my life.

When I wrote my last blog post, I was at a cabin on a beautiful MN lake with my extended family. It was hard to be there without Julian, but it was a wonderful week. The relaxing environment and the beauty of the lake made me feel more peaceful than I’ve been since Julian died.

Almost immediately after leaving the cabin at the end of the week, I longed for more. I instantly missed that peacefulness the lake inspired in me, and I had a whole new appreciation for getting away and having focused family time. John and I talked about it, and we decided to consider buying our own cabin. We started researching our options.

I have now viewed hundreds of cabins online. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have beautiful lakes within driving distance of our home. We want something small, and certain details are important to us — for me, feature that is most important is that the cabin must be West-facing. I need to be able to see the sunset.

My whole life, I’ve sought out the sunset. I’ve planned vacations specifically to see the sunset over the ocean. I’ve strategized the best reservation time to watch a sunset from a restaurant. My boys would sometime’s tease me about needing to “watch mommy’s sunset.” If we are going to buy a cabin, a beautiful sunset is a must.

Two weeks ago, we rented a cabin that is also for sale. It had wonderful ’70s modern architecture that reminded John and I of our own house… but most importantly, it had what the owners describe as an “Aloha sunset.” We were only there for 2 nights, and I was so disappointed when the first night was cloudy. I could see a glow in the distance where the sunset would have been, but not the real deal.

The second night was beautiful. It was, indeed, an “Aloha sunset.” As I sat there on the shoreline, I watched John and Oscar fishing right off the dock (and actually catching fish!). It reminded me of the times when Julian was John’s fishing buddy, as shown in this cute photo, and this one too.

I was entranced as I watched the sky change from blue to purple to orange and red. When the red tones came out, it hit me. THIS is why sunsets are important to me. The red sky, the beauty of nature, the cycle of sunrise to sunset, the cycle of birth to death. THIS is where I feel close to Julian’s spirit. His favorite color, red, is what makes a sunset beautiful.

From now on, every time I see a sunset, I will think of my sweet boy and the beautiful things he contributed to my life. Hopefully, soon, we will own a cabin with a sunset of our own. Until then, all I have to do is look at the photos I took (like the one shown above), and I feel peace.

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UPDATE ON 8/10/11: This week we made an offer on the cabin I mentioned in this post, and it was accepted! Now we will own that sunset — and the sweet little cabin that looks out over the lake. We look forward to creating wonderful family memories there.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in month 5

 

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Julian + Daddy.

Today is Father’s Day. Today I’m remembering and appreciating how Julian’s too-short life was filled to the brim with love and attention from his daddy.

I wanted to share some photos that offer just a glimpse of the special connection they had. Sadly, I never caught a photo of them in the kitchen together (Julian loved to watch John cook) — but the ones of them fishing together are some of my favorites…

S L I D E S H O W

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G A L L E R Y
 
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Posted by on June 19, 2011 in month 4

 

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