The Grandparent Connection – Holiday Reflections by Shawn Johnson

Welcome to the next installment of our “More About Me” series. Today we’ll hear from Shawn Johnson.

© Shawn Johnson

As the holidays are upon us, we think of times with loved ones, especially memories of ones we have lost. Close your eyes for a moment and open your treasure trove of memories, taking a step back in time to your childhood. Do you remember your grandfather gently scooping you up into his warm and comforting embrace? Or sitting by your grandmother’s side as she lovingly shared her words of love to you?

This story is about how I remember the ones that I have lost in my life during the holidays.

On October 3, 2016, my birthday of this year, my last grandparent passed away. What is supposed to be a day of celebrating being “another year older and wiser,” felt entirely different. October 3rd is no longer just a birthday for me, it’s a day I will always share in memory of the day my Nana left this world.

A connection with a grandparent is one that cannot be described. It is a love so innocent, pure, deep and strong, that the pain of their loss is more powerful than that of any other loss in life. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that many children view their grandparent as a confidant. As well, having a grandparent around to talk to when your parents are too busy helps encourage better behavior and social skills in children.

Every summer up until I was about 13 years old, my sister and I would spend with our grandparents in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This is the place where my love of my grandmother began. Grandma Lee (also my middle name) was to me, in my life, the definition of unconditional love and happiness.

Even as a child, I was always curious to hear people’s stories, to know and understand them. When I was 7 years old, after a long day on the Cape, I remember so vividly sitting outside with my grandmother on her back porch, helping her set the table for dinner, and smelling her homemade banana bread outside the kitchen window facing the porch. We sat for a few hours and she shared with me all the reasons she loved her family, the importance of love, and why everyone deserves to be heard.

Next, I learned why and how to make a beautiful table for dinner. As we made the table together, my grandmother shared why having a comforting place to eat together helps you feel connected with yourself and others. It took many years to fully understand what my grandmother meant.

To this day, I find myself whispering “F-O-R-K, L-E-F-T” “K-N-I-F-E, R-I-G-H-T,” when I set the table in my home, the oddly invaluable trick my grandmother taught me that summer day.

On the day of my grandmother’s funeral services, dozens of ladybugs – my grandmother’s favorite – surrounded the flowers. In all of our grief, my family and I memorialized her in unity and peace amongst these colorful winged creatures. Ladybugs constantly show up when I need to be reminded to stay present, grateful and connected, reminded of her love. During the holiday time, when I am in a place of needing hope, connection or some sort of love, I more often than not will fall upon a ladybug, whether landing on my hand or windshield, or sitting on a shelf as a stuffed animal right by the entrance of a store I happened to visit.

Even though it is rare to see ladybugs during the colder months, a couple of weeks ago I was up north in a cabin deep in the mountains. The temperature was about 35 degrees. As I walked into the cabin and looked around, I discovered that one of the room was full of thousands of ladybugs.

Evidently, certain types of ladybugs travel to and migrate to the mountains for winter. Where some people may have been upset or disturbed by all these “bugs” on the picturesque wooden planked ceilings, I sat in awe, beauty and deep connection, reminded again of all Grandma Lee left for me to carry on into my life and especially into my growing career as a clinician.

By choosing to share this particular chapter of my life, I wanted to discuss the impact of family. I am a firm believer in working not only with individuals of all ages struggling with eating disorders and their mental health, but also in empowering families.

I work with families to understand how to effectively intervene, especially with adolescents and younger age groups who may be struggling with such issues, as well as managing the myriad of other dynamics often associated with helping any family member overcome the many challenges that come with supporting a loved one during this time.

I have grown in my expertise of incorporating family into patient care. Working with parents, grandparents, friends and other loved ones has been a fundamental component in helping prevent relapses by resolving interpersonal issues related to the eating disorder. I am very passionate about being able to work with and guide family members in understanding the disorder and learning how to cope.

I am continuing to share my passion for family support with a family support group I will be leading at White Picket Fence Counseling Center in January 2017.

Someone shared this quote to honor my grandmother’s life, and I continue to use it as I reflect daily on my passion for my work:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate internal beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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