The Checkered Cloth: A Lesson About Loss

by Bernice Garfield-Szita

Our memories can serve to sensitize us throughout our lives to things we may not otherwise have empathy for. One memory from my childhood has come back to me many times as I have worked with children, parents and loss.

I could not have been more than five years old when this experience happened to me. It was summer and I, my parents and older sister, Audrey, went on a rare vacation to the Catskills in NY. We visited a farm that was turned into a hotel and as a city child everything was exciting and new to me! I loved all the green, the wild flowers, the fresh air and the farm animals. It was here that I fell in love with chickens, an affection I hold to this day!

On one of the days during this vacation, a group of families decided to go on a picnic to a local park. Food, drink, and a bright red and white checkered tablecloth were packed and off we went.

I don’t think I ever saw so much open space, bright blue skies and fluffy clouds before! I loved playing with other children! As a city child, my mom was very protective of me but in the “country”, I felt really free!

The other children and I began playing hide and seek as the adults set up the picnic table. We ran, hid behind trees, found each other, and shrieked with laughter when we were discovered. It felt like we were in a wonderful technicolor Disney film like Bambi, which I had recently seen.

As the game progressed, I got further and further away from our table. After hiding for what seemed a very long time, five year olds don’t have a great sense of time, I became uncomfortable when I could no longer hear the voices of the other children. I peeked out and didn’t recognize anything or anyone around me! I started walking quickly to an unknown destination and tears ran down my face. I was lost! Suddenly, it was as though the technicolor happy movie transformed into a black and white scary film. My little body shook with sobs as I walked aimlessly.

Luckily, a kind man at another picnic table noticed me and asked, “Are you lost little girl?”
“Yes”, I said, barely able to talk. “We have a red and white checkered table cloth, “I added softly.
He took my hand gently and we looked for my family and the checkered cloth. It was a popular design and I was surprised to see that many of the other tables had a cloth like that too!

Finally, we found my family and friends and there was great celebration because they were so worried about me. I hugged my mother and didn’t want to lose sight of her for the rest of the day! It all ended well but the memory of the terrified panic feeling I had when I was “lost” remained with me for the rest of my life!

Now, as a parent and grandparent, I can feel it from these roles, as well. I can only imagine the fear and pain of a child who loses a loved parent or parent, a beloved child through death, divorce, illness, war, or forced separation, not knowing when or if you will see each other again.

Throughout my personal and professional life I have emulated the kind man who helped me find safety and comfort. In this world of great turmoil, I hope we all can spare some time to help those who are experiencing the profound emotions of loss.

A Father’s Day Memory of Daddy

by Bernice Garfield-Szita

As we tell members of our bereavement group, The Mourning After, we never know when a memory will flash into our minds and stir strong emotions. I wanted to share this experience I just recently had with you.

Two weeks ago, My husband Bob and I went on our annual trek to Gasko’s nursery in Monroe Township to buy plants and seedlings for our garden. We both really love this outing and enjoy roaming the sprawling greenhouses that hold trays of intensely colored annual and perennial flowers, herbs, hanging baskets and great assortments of vegetable seedlings.

As I was wandering down the vegetable seedling aisle, my eyes taking in all the amazing growing possibilities, my gaze fell upon a tray of tomato plants that gave me a jolt. They were an old classic called Ramapo tomatoes developed by Rutgers University. I had not seen this variety in many years

My memory swiftly went back to the early 1970’s when I first moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn. Perhaps it was a throwback gene from my roots in Russia, but I was always fascinated by growing things and eating the foods that I tended in my little garden patch outside our home in Manalapan. When my father came to visit my house, he too was excited about the idea of growing a delicious crop in his small garden in the back of their two family home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I offered to buy him tomato plants that were particularly productive, Rutgers Ramapo, so that he could grow them himself. He was a “city boy” and enjoyed this little bit of farming. He loved that idea and so began a bond between us that continued until he died in 1983. He would brag to me that his neighbors were very jealous of his beautiful, abundant crop and would tell me how much he enjoyed sharing the ruby sweet beauties with them.

This story may not sound extraordinary to most but for me it was a miraculous time in my life. Let me tell you about my family’s history so you can have some insight into why this was so important to me. My father was a first generation Russian immigrant who was raised in the lower East Side of Manhattan and had to work for his family starting at the age of twelve when his father died. Hard work was what he knew all his life. He and his younger brother opened a men’s store, Todd’s, and worked six days a week morning to night. On Sunday he was really exhausted and would rest, read the papers, listen to the radio and other things that were relaxing for him. My mother would often instruct my sister and I to “let your father rest, he works very hard“ and so we did.

Needless to say there was not much opportunity for close interactions between us when I was a child and it wasn’t until I was an adult and my father retired from his work that we began sharing warm and connected moments together. I can still see him, watering hose in hand, gentling spraying each and every plant. Our love of gardening and our crops became a bond that I treasure to this day! Even now, I often wish I could show him a particularly handsome vegetable I grew and I hope he can see it wherever he might be

Although I no longer cry over the loss of my father these many years later, I felt tears sting my eyes as I looked at the label that read Ramapo. I bought two trays and they will be planted in honor of my Daddy, the man I had the good fortune to get to know and love in his later years.

Wishing everyone who is a beloved father, has a fine father or had one, a Happy Father’s Day! Enjoy every moment and treasure the happy memories!

The Opportunities Guy Reflects on “The God Box: A Daughter’s Story” Performance

Talk about turning a difficult situation into a remarkable opportunity! The New York Times best-selling author of The God Box, Mary Lou Quinlan, made a special guest appearance in Freehold on Saturday, May 25th. For approximately a year she has been taking her one-woman theatrical performance on the road to help raise money for various charities. According to Mary Lou she’s been able to raise and contribute nearly $150,000! On Saturday nearly 200 people showed up to see her performance of The God Box: A Daughter’s Story to support GIERS: Grief Information, Education & Recovery Services, a local non-profit that helps people survive and thrive after a loss (  The beautiful performing arts center at Applewood Estates provided a great atmosphere for the event. I brought my 69-year-old mother and another close friend who is a mother of three and they both thoroughly enjoyed the show. Mary Lou Quinlan’s performance was funny, heartfelt and touching and she made an important impact on the audience as we laughed and cried. Many audience participants shared stories of loss and grief with deep feeling during the talkback. Mary Lou managed to turn the grief over losing her mother into an opportunity to raise thousands of dollars for worthy causes and create a healing best-selling memoir.

About the author of this posting:

Charles Fleisher, “The Opportunities Guy”, is the author of the inspirational new book The Secret of Difficulties: 4 Steps to Turn Tragedies into Opportunities. He is also a speaker, mentor and coach and a small business owner. He was injured in an automobile accident in 1988. Since his life changing injury he has been able to use many of the related difficulties as unexpected opportunities. For further information or to purchase Charles’ incredible new book go to

Grief Can Be An Uninvited Guest During The Holidays

While many are shopping for holiday gifts, tasty treats and planning festive family and friend events, there are those who cannot enjoy the atmosphere of celebration because their thoughts and feelings dwell on who will not be at the party or dinner and how much they will miss them.  In the over thirty two years I have been working as a counselor in private practice with a specialty in illness and loss, I have seen the powerful emotions and physical reactions that people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, and socio economic status can experience as they face the holidays without a loved one who has died.

There are many variables that influence a person’s grief reactions.  One important element is how recent was the loss?  The first year is very hard as people face special events such as holidays, birthdays and anniversaries for the first time without their loved one.  As the years go on and people create a history of surviving without the lost one, there often is a softening of the emotional pain and a new reality is created that includes happy memories of the person who died.  We never forget the loved one no matter how long ago he or she died.  There are some exceptions for those who get stuck in the grieving process and each year feels as though the loss just happened yesterday, including all of the early grief responses.  We have learned that a person who feels this way after many years of grieving, is experiencing a complicated grief reaction and may need some professional help to heal.

The age and sex of the griever are other variables in the grieving process.  We know that infants feel loss and may respond with loss of appetite, sleeplessness, irritableness, and regressive behavior.  Young children up to the age of about six may feel bewildered and abandoned and expect the person who died to re-appear as if by magic.  After about six, children can understand the permanence of death and sometimes feel responsible.  Children often think they are the center of the universe and something they did or didn’t do caused the person to die.  Teens can turn inward or immerse themselves in their peers or their electronic devices i.e. cell phones or computers.  Some adults want to talk about their feelings of loss while others chose to grieve privately.  Very often women feel more comfortable expressing their emotions, while men tend to feel they must stay in control and continue to function despite the sadness they feel.  No one grieving style is correct and we all must learn to appreciate and respect our own and that of others.

I, and my husband Bob, have been leading bereavement groups for over twenty-seven years and invariably the question of what to do over the holidays when one doesn’t feel in the mood or have the energy to create or attend traditional events is brought up.  Our answer, as with may grieving questions is, there is no one answer for all and one must make decisions based on what will work the best for them and those around them at this time.  For some, creating traditional holidays is comforting, while others need to find a new tradition such as taking a trip to a new place and making new memories.  Some people leave an empty chair to honor the person they lost, give a toast and share memories.  This can help acknowledge the importance of those who are not with us in body any longer.  Whatever one decides to do for the holidays, remember to be gentle with yourself and others healing from a loss.  The most important holiday gift is compassion and love.

GIERS provides a no cost monthly bereavement group called The Mourning After.  It meets the first Friday of each month at Center Playhouse, 35 South Street in Freehold from 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM.  New attendees should call in advance.  In addition GIERS also has a no cost Grief Help Line.  If members of the community have questions or concerns they can call 732-577-1076, leave a message, and receive a callback from either my husband, Bob Szita, MS, LPC or myself.

Am I Going Crazy?

The grief experience can create very powerful emotional reactions. No two people respond exactly the same but there are some symptoms that seem to appear for almost all people recovering from grief. In the first few months, people report feelings of shock and numbness, mental confusion, loss of memory, and a general sense of disorientation. As the months go on, there may be a sharper clarity about the reality of the loss and strong waves of sadness, anger may cause wide mood swings. People who were normally calm and organized prior to the loss, may feel overwhelmed and out of control. Often they will say” Am I going crazy? This is just not me!”

In almost all cases these extreme moods and confusion are normal in response to the disorientation that grieving can produce. If a person is still taking care of themselves by eating, drinking and maintaining some contact with others, they are probably going to pass through this volatile grief stage with relative ease. However, if the person does not seem to be able to function at all for an extended period of time, it would be important for them to see a professional or if necessary go to the emergency room to be evaluated. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

It can be very helpful for people to attend a group that focuses on the loss they have experienced. It can be a great comfort to hear that they are not alone in their reactions and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.



Blog: The Mourning After Met in November

A small, but warm group of strangers, met for their first experience with The Mourning After grief counseling group this past Friday. The welcoming atmosphere of Center Playhouse in Freehold became an ice breaker for the people entering, each carrying their own story.  Attendees appreciated meeting in an informal, creative environment instead of a hospital or house of worship.

We began by introducing ourselves and sharing some of the structure of the way the group is led. Specifically, that all personal information is held in confidence by group members and no one is required to speak or participate  before he or she is ready.

As the group warmed up and began to trust the experience and each other, Bob and I enjoyed the process of helping people recognize that they are not alone and that they can come to a place where they can experience the whole spectrum of their feelings with others doing the same. By the end of the session, everyone seemed more relaxed and comfortable. Some group members took a little more time to talk and connect with each other after the meeting. The seeds of real support were planted and we look forward to our next group meeting on Friday, December 3. What a joy to do this wonderful work together!!

This week’s blog post: Why GIERS?

Why would you found GIERS, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that works to assist people to cope with all kinds of loss? This is a question Bob and I have been asked many times. In our over thirty years of work as Counselors in Private Practice and Hospice /Oncology Trainers and Educators, we have seen the power of unresolved grief in people’s lives. Whether the loss is through death,  divorce, career changes, or  health challenges, people experience a wide range of emotional reactions. They often feel overwhelmed and isolated.These roller coaster feelings can stay with them throughout their lives and damage close relationships, confidence, and may encourage substance abuse and other compulsive habits. If the griever find a way to work through the feelings, he or she can let go of the pain and move on to more fulfilled lives.

The pressures of a tight economy has made it more difficult to find free or affordable services to help with these vital issues. We decided to take our skills, knowledge of running a non-profit and counseling experience to launch this much needed organization. People recovering from loss can find peace with the past, live in the present and dream of a better future. We are so happy to have the opportunity to do what we love and to share what we have been taught by our best teachers; our clients and countless group members.

We are developing exciting groups and programs that will be multi-generational, multi-cultural and inspiring to all who participate. We hope you will join us in this new venture either as a participant, a volunteer, or a donor . We will create this wonderful  organization together.

By Bernice Garfield-Szita Co- Founder and Co-Executive Director of GIERS