Rachel Pieh Jones: Gifts for those with cancer—and their caregivers

Rachel Pieh Jones in pink at the start of the inaugural Somaliland Marathon in which she placed second with the first Somali woman to attempt a marathon on her national soil.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Along with our ReadTheSpirit cover story about Rachel Pieh Jones’s 2021 book, Pillars, she gave us permission to reprint this caregiving column she wrote based on her own challenges with cancer.


Author of Pillars

What to get the person in your life with everything, even tumors—a cancer gift guide.

Comfort and Warmth

Socks. Seriously. Socks. I got wool socks and slippery fuzzy socks and “If You Can Read This Bring Me Coffee” socks. And my feet would have been so cold otherwise. But now they are both warm and funny. Before that, I only had running socks, not great for the hospital or Minnesota winter.

Softest blanket in the world. Softest anything in the world. Don’t worry about color or style. One of my best friends sent me a red and white blanket and what I see when I snuggle up with it (literally every time I sleep or sit ever since surgery), I only see her, our friendship, and her care for me. Of course the color is beautiful because she is awesome and has good taste.

Cute and comfortable clothes that fit around their particular cancer. Shirts or sweaters with low, open necks for head or neck cancers, that easily pull over their heads or are button up so they don’t have to pull them on at all.

Slouchy pants. For the hospital, for after, for looking relaxed but stylish, with pants that are easy to pull on and off if they are in pain, exhausted, or need to get them off right.now!

Ice packs or heating pads. These might be for the wound, if surgery. For the burning sensation after radiation, or for snuggling with during the wild roller coaster rides of hot flashes and chills.

Soul Food

Soup. Chicken noodle, chicken wild rice, tomato, black bean, tortilla soup…soup. Warm, easy to swallow, healthy, delicious. Homemade or from a restaurant or the deli section of a grocery store.

Chocolate. Any and all.

Mints. Something to suck on during waiting room periods or after bad tasting treatments or to counter the grossness of medicines.

Gift card to Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. Some kinds of chemo or radiation (or my treatment: RAI radioactive iodine) can affect taste buds. Either by burning them, swelling them, or just changing them. I threw out a cup of coffee one day because it tasted like burned metal. Made a second cup, from the same beans, and it tasted great. Weird. So a gift card enables the patient to get what might taste right that day to their weird taste buds.

Beauty and Humanity

Pedicure or manicure. Also, pretty nail polish, again a gift idea for people like me, who don’t have a lot of disposable cash. Or, ask if you can give them a pedicure or manicure yourself.

Do their makeup, or hold up a mirror so they can do it. Especially if they are in the hospital for a few days. The first day I put on makeup (and I am an extreme minimalist in terms of beauty products), I felt my morale swing upwards.

Lotion. Skin dries out from treatments, cold, surgery.

Essential oils. My doctor even had some for me to put on my surgical gown. Hospitals and sick rooms smell gross. This can really pick up the mood.

Cute headbands, scarves or hats. Even if they haven’t lost their hair, or won’t, they might be cold if they’re in the hospital for a while, or just want to feel pretty while their face is puffy and their scars heal. There are a lot of cute ones out there.

Hair appointment. Depending, this one is sensitive, I know, so check in on how they are feeling and doing with their hair. My kind of cancer and treatment (most likely) does not affect hair. Maybe a hair cut or color, maybe just a fun up-do.

Time out together, or in their home or hospital room when you don’t talk about cancer. I’m so thankful that I got to participate in my soon-to-be new sister-in-law’s wedding dress appointment and cake tasting. I was exhausted and have foggy memories of these events as they were three days post-surgery, but I’m so glad I could participate and feel human and also celebrate and focus on someone else for a while (she’s awesome, way to go, Kevin!). A friend had to drive me to these events, and wait for me, and drive me back. What service and practical love that showed me.


Movies—even a list of suggested titles, no need to spend a lot of money. Chemo brain fog or post surgery exhaustion makes it hard to make decisions or even remember things, like what we were watching before.

Puzzles. I do puzzles as mindless, relaxing therapy. In fact, I wrote about just this thing for The New York Times. A friend sat with me, three days post-surgery, and we did a hot air balloon puzzle as long as I could stay sitting up. We talked and I felt like I wasn’t utterly boring to her, and also that I had been mildly productive.

Books. Audio or print or digital.

Or gift cards for these things.

Stress Relief

Tea. Chamomile, turmeric, lemon ginger, apple cinnamon, vanilla…

Sleep mask.

Massage. A gift card or just give them one when you visit. Again, this isn’t about big money. You’re visiting, that’s awesome. Rub their feet or their hands or their shoulders. Post-surgery, my upper back ached like crazy, from the position my head had been in during surgery.

Coffee mug with an appropriately funny message. I put this under stress relief because—it relieves stress. My sister sent me my own “Cancer Sucks” mug and when I drink from it, it gives me a little reminder that yeah, this is hard. Coffee (or tea or hot chocolate) is also delicious. It tells me to enjoy the deliciousness in the midst of the sucky thing. In other words, to fight for joy and to be thankful.

Something for their spouse and children. Babysitting, date night, something fun and not cancer related, a chance to be a kid or a man or a woman.


And, I hope that whoever in your life has cancer will feel blessed, held, comforted, provided for, and loved. And that, you, the caregiver and loved one also feel blessed, held, comforted, provided for, and loved.


(This column originally appeared in Rachel Pieh Jones’s website and was republished here with her permission.)

Spiritual director and chaplain Tom Stella’s new book points us toward being ‘In Sync with the Sacred’

EDITOR’s NOTE: Regular readers of our online magazine know Tom Stella’s work from our coverage of his earlier books CPR for the Soul (here’s our 2018 column about that book) and Finding God Beyond Religion (here’s our 2013 column). After many years serving as a Catholic priest, Stella refocused his vocation as a spiritual counselor and chaplain to individuals and groups. As the years have passed, his concept of the Divine has grown beyond traditional religious boundary lines—even as his spiritual advice to us has become ever-more practical. Now in his 70s, Tom’s new book is 11 chapters packed with hard-earned wisdom with chapter-titles that include: Life Is Not a One-Piece Puzzle and We Are More Than Our Limp. With Tom’s permission we are sharing here an abridged version of one of the book’s richest chapters: Pain Is Inevitable—Suffering Is an Option. We urge you to order a copy of Tom’s book, please, and share it with friends.

Pain Is Inevitable, Suffering Is an Option

An abridged version of Chapter 5
from In Sync with the Sacred, Out of Step with the World

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“Life is difficult” is the first sentence of psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled. This statement is both undeniably true and universally experienced. Along with being wonderful, exciting, fulfilling and gratifying, life is also difficult. Life can be challenging and exasperating. More often than not, life tries our patience and tests our faith. Whether we’re talking about physical, mental, emotional or spiritual matters, life can be unfair, maddening and heartbreaking. Life is difficult, and pain is inevitable.

The generally accepted understanding of suffering is that it is pain on steroids. When we say someone suffers from migraines, cancer, Alzheimer’s or depression, we usually mean their pain is intense, prolonged and possibly chronic. However, when I use the word suffer here, I’m not referring to pain writ large, but to its meaning in the Latin sufferre, which means to “bear up” or “to endure.” Suffering in this sense refers to how we carry our pain. We can resist the reality of our pain and resent its causes and consequences, or we can embrace it.

Pain may be inevitable, but we can choose how we deal with it; we can do so grudgingly or gracefully, though I know the latter is a bit of a stretch. As a hospital and hospice chaplain, I have witnessed both kinds of suffering in patients who experience physical pain. Some carry their pain with dignity, not denying or minimizing it, and not allowing it to sour their attitude or the manner in which they relate to medical staff, or to their family and friends. Others, some of whom are actually in less acute pain, both resist and resent their condition thus becoming a pain to themselves and to others.

As a priest, counsellor and spiritual director, I have also observed the different ways people deal with non-somatic pain. The distress of loss and loneliness is no picnic. A heartache is every bit as real as a headache. The spiritual pain known as the “dark night of the soul” is a dis-ease as palpable as any other.

In all of these situations, it can be a good thing to express one’s anger and frustration at no longer feeling whole and healthy, but some turn this phase of the grieving process into a lifestyle. People can become identified with their pain; they become their anger and, as a result, they end up being bitter. Others, those who carry their pain well, allow it to teach them about life and about their need to rely on other people, and maybe also on a Higher/Inner Power.


Tom Stella

What makes it possible to accept our pain rather than rail against it? What gives us the courage to maintain a positive attitude in the face of physical, emotional or spiritual pain? For a great many people, faith can be a difference maker. For some people, it is the traditional religious belief that those who experience pain and sorrow now will be rewarded in the life to come. Whether this is true or even good theology is debatable, but this belief can give meaning to a life of pain which, in turn, can help make it bearable. Those who hold to this conviction often point to the Beatitudes for biblical confirmation: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

But there is another expression of faith that can result in the same ability to suffer well the pain tha comes our way. This faith has nothing to do with an afterlife, but everything to do with the rewards of living with integrity here and now. This kind of faith is not about believing in a ‘just’ God, or in some sort of quid pro quo exchange of present pain for future bliss. Rather, I am speaking of faith as a conviction that our deepest pain has the potential, the power, to bring new life.

The acceptance of pain I am describing is not masochism; it does not mean we would rather know pain than pleasure, or sorrow than joy. Facing pain means we are open to experiencing everything that being wedded to the world entails, the good times and the bad, the easy times and the difficult times.

Novelist and social critic James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Whether or not painful circumstances can be changed, our best option is to move toward our pain. Try to relax into the bodily ache. Confront the discomfort of a strained relationship. Sit still in the abyss of loneliness. Allow the doubt and the darkness that blankets the soul from time to time to have its day. It is amazing how pain, though still present, becomes more tolerable when we suffer it well.

A friend once told me that, in his experience, although pain that is embraced doesn’t go away, “something shifts.” He couldn’t describe the “something,” and he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he meant by the word “shifts,” but he was clear that when he stopped resisting the pain it became less painful and easier to bear.


How we choose to suffer our own pain makes it more or less difficult to bear. But we also have an option when it comes to dealing with the pain of others. We can attempt to cure them, or we can attempt to care for them; that is, we can accompany them in their suffering. Of course, this may not be an either/or matter—but we can be caring at the same time that we administer healing balms, physical or otherwise.

When a cure is not possible, however, when there is no hope for recovery in sight, when everything that can be done has been done to alleviate pain and to facilitate health, there is still another option that can be helpful—this is the way of compassion.

From the Latin cum pati, compassion means “to suffer with.” When we are truly present to those who are in pain, when we don’t try to minimize or spiritualize what they are feeling but instead acknowledge the fear and anger that often arise in the face of hopelessness, helplessness and distress, our understanding and willingness to share their pain can be transformative. It has been said that shared joy is increased, and shared pain is lessened Sharing the pain of others can lighten their load and enable them to suffer it more gracefully, for they then have the consoling and sustaining realization that they are not alone.

It is nothing less than courageous to accompany a person in the midst of pain that cannot be cured. Caregivers who attend to the needs of the seriously or terminally ill often do so at the cost of their own health. They also do so at the cost of their convenience. I witnessed this first-hand as my mother cared for my father in the last years of his life, and as my sister cared for our dying mother. Caring for another is a grueling experience physically and emotionally, but the rewards are worth the cost, for we usually receive more than we give—a truth that is often realized only in retrospect.

“Shit happens” is a not-so-delicate way of saying life is difficult. But in the midst of life’s travails there is a way to navigate that makes pain bearable; we can choose to suffer it. We respond to the sacred whenever we choose this path; and, whenever we embrace life’s difficult times with faith, we discover that they are often the font from which comes new life.


Care to Read More?

GET THE BOOKWe urge you to order a copy of Tom’s book, please, and share it with friends.

REQUEST TOM’S OCCASIONAL COLUMNS, which he writes as part of his ongoing chaplaincy work. Tom is comfortable providing a direct email address: [email protected] Email him and request these columns. He will add you to the list. You’ll be glad you did! (Don’t worry. This is an emailed series of columns that Tom writes and personally distributes about twice a month. You can cancel anytime.)





Zohaib Begg: ‘A lot of people could learn from that 8 year old in finding solutions.’

WASHINGTON DC—Describing Zohaib Begg’s service to needy neighbors in Washington D.C. as “compassion from an unexpected source,” CBS News broadcast this 90-second story that inspired families nationwide.

At another point in the report, we hear, “A lot of people could learn from that 8 year old in finding solutions.”

We are streaming this video in our We Are Caregivers section to remind everyone that caregiving has no age limit.

As the CBS correspondent reports: “In the shadow of a symbol of American accomplishment sits a park lined with tents that most in the nation’s capitol ignore—but not 8-year-old Zohaib Begg. The Virginia third grader is handing out donated meals and care packages of socks, masks and toiletries.”

And this is not the first time the nation has heard of Zohaib’s selfless work on community caregiving.

Zhoaib is the grandson of our author Victor Begg. You can learn much more about Zohaib’s family by reading Victor’s book, Our Muslim Neighbors.

Here is the CBS News video about Zohaib Begg

To learn even more about this CBS story, visit the CBS News website, which has both the video and a full-text story about it.


In caregiving, connection is a crucial social determinant of health. But how do seniors connect in 2021? Here’s the latest data.

THERE ARE MANY REMARKABLE ‘GIFTS’ OF AGING, as our expert authors explain in this new book. That’s why we all need to remain connected as families and communities. Whatever our age might be, we all can give back to the community.


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Isolation and exclusion are major threats to our health and wellbeing as we age. In fact, public health experts around the world say that regular, meaningful connections with other people are “a social determinant of health.” Connection is good for us in many ways!

Experts’ Best Ideas for Staying Connected

In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that all of us:

  • Encourage interactions with family and friends as a counter to the anxiety and depression that afflict many of us as we age, especially if we spend too much time alone.
  • Foster multigenerational conversations to strengthen families and communities, especially positive conversations between parents and children. As we age, we can give back through these relationships as much as we receive from them.
  • Increase each person’s ability to access health care information, both online and also in conversation with loved ones and other community members. We need other people to know about what we’re going through—so they have the opportunity to help, even if that is simply by regularly checking on us.
  • Make sure that family-and-friend networks are active to help meet the challenges of food insecurity in thousands of homes and neighborhoods nationwide. Far too many Americans do not have adequate access to nutritious food where they live. We can’t help each other, if we don’t regularly communicate.

So, How Do Seniors Connect Online in 2021?

In a column about the importance of social media, Front Edge Publishing Marketing Director Susan Stitt recommended that we read the fascinating 2021 Pew Research report on social media usage across America. You can read the top-line summary here—or, on that same page, you can click to download the entire PDF of the report. If you are a community leader, pastor, health care professional, teacher, journalist or you’re simply someone who cares about your loved ones—you’ll find lots of intriguing information in this report!

Here is just one quick question millions of us are asking: If we want to reach our aging loved ones online—where will we find them? Take a moment and look at the information packed in the colorful Pew graphic, below in this column.

Here are just a few of the issues you may want to discuss with others, based on this data:

  • Wonder why all of your delightful Snapchat sharing never reaches Grandma and Grandpa? Only 2 percent of 65-plus men and women use Snapchat!
  • Would your elderly loved ones enjoy some of your Instagram or Twitter posts, especially those fun updates on children, pets, travel and new adventures? First, you’ve got to reach them. Only 13 percent of seniors use Instagram and only 7 percent use Twitter!
  • Think about posting occasional uplifting content to YouTube. Half of 65-plus adults are users of that service!
  • And, the good-old-reliable network for reaching millions of us remains: Facebook.

As you examine this chart—and share this column with others—remember that this data does not have to define your family! You can help your aging loved ones get online—and remain successfully online. That’s a terrific—and a healthy—multigenerational project.

Care to learn more?

There’s a complete chapter about safely enjoying the online world as we age in our book: Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging.

PLEASE—use our social media links to share this story with your loved ones, friends and community today.

Pew Research Chart on Age Gaps in the Online World



‘You Are Not Alone,’ an excerpt from, Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging

Connecting in healthy ways with our community

Here is an excerpt from the book’s first chapter, emphasizing the central theme that regular, meaningful connection with other people is an essential ‘social determinant of health’ as we age. The book’s first chapter begins with these words …


In four words, the message of this book is: You are not alone.

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Everyone from popes to pop musicians keep repeating those four words because isolation and exclusion are the two greatest threats to our health and well-being. In the pages of this book, you will learn dozens of ways people around us can help—if we reach out and welcome that assistance.

This message is no surprise after the many months of isolation in the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all recall, at the start of this global crisis, we hoped we would only need to stay in our homes for a few weeks. At first, many of us felt a bit of relief and perhaps excitement that the busyness of our lives would be replaced by some quiet time at home. Social engagements would not be honored, many of us would be working from home, our calendars were freeing up. We would all be hunkering down for a while, often with loved ones at home.

Then days rolled into weeks—and weeks into months. We longed for the ability to come and go as we pleased—to get our hair cut, to return to our houses of worship, to hug our friends and family. We moved from being alone to being lonely; from being socially isolated to feeling socially excluded. Our mental health was impacted not only by the anxiety and fear that come from living through a pandemic, but also by our lack of human connection.

A moment’s reflection will allow us to translate our personal experiences during that time of self isolation to the experiences of our aging friends, family members and neighbors.

For those who are beginning to experience some aging-related limitations, the slip into times of isolation and periods of loneliness may not have occurred as abruptly as the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. But the aging process often leads to a seemingly endless struggle with isolation and exclusion—a process that can deepen into a dangerous lack of emotional, physical and spiritual resources that can last not only for months, but for many years.

Because this book takes a strengths-based, positive approach to these challenges, the chapters offer many tips and suggestions to help individuals and families thrive and enjoy life. The book is also available immediately on Kindle.

Lucille Sider urges us to step outside: ‘The gods are painting the whole world green again!’


EDITOR’S NOTE—Our caregiving-themed books recommend that all of us spend more time reflecting on the natural world around us. Just a few examples: Suzy Farbman’s GodSigns includes a catalytic scene as Suzy walks along the ocean shore; Never Long Enough includes gorgeous illustrations encouraging families to enjoy nature together; and Now What? urges families to maintain the mobility of aging loved ones—and lists many ideas for stepping outside. (Cover-links to those books are in the left margin.) In Lucille Sider’s memoir, Light Shines in the Darkness, the visual metaphor on the book’s cover is a glorious, sunny morning in a tree-lined meadow. This week, as spring breaks out across North America, Lucille reminds all of us:


The gods are painting the whole world green again!


Contributing Columnist

The ground is thawing,
Roots are stirring,
Long nights are shortening,
The sun is beaming.
Hastas peek through the ground,
Buds climb out of branches,
Grasses spread over the lawn,
Chipmunks ascend from their darkness.
The gods are painting the whole world green again!
Light green,
Lime green,
Blue green,
All glorious greens.
Pine needles, maple leaves, ferns and holly
Tulip leaves, junipers and lily of the valley.
All gloriously Green.
My heart is charmed by,
My mind’s enlivened with,
My pores are fragrant with,
Glorious green.
Robins are singing,
Chickadees are chirping,
The whole world is chanting:



PLEASE, feel free to share this poem with friends—our share it in your discussion group to inspire everyone to spontaneously write their own odes to spring.


Care to Read More?

Click on the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

READ THE BOOK. You can order Lucille’s Light Shines in the Darkness from Amazon in hardcover, paperback and Kindle and Barnes & Noble—as well as many other online retailers.

And, oh yes! Of course, her book is available through Walmart (via Walmart’s website so you don’t actually have to drive to a store as Lucille did in today’s column).

Clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider adds her voice to the chorus of women in the #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo movements. This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. She explains the challenges of finding her way out of a fear-based spirituality into one that is full of grace, hope and forgiveness. The unique richness of her book is that she wrote it to spark healing discussion. As she describes her experiences in these pages, she also steps back and offers helpful analysis as both a psychologist and a clergywoman. At the end of the book, she includes a complete study guide with questions for reflection for individuals, small groups and classes.

“The book is arranged to be a valuable tool in the hands of persons in the helping professions, such as clergy, social workers, psychologists,” writes the Rev. Jo Anne Lyon, General Superintendent Emerita and Ambassador of The Wesleyan Church. “This writing is so powerful, yet gentle, that people will be able to add their own words to combat the pain. Lucille’s credentials enhance the power of the story. Truly a book for these days!”

“Timely, compelling and courageous, this autobiography lays bare the trauma of both child and adolescent abuse. This book deserves to be read by any adult who, living in a culture where 80 percent of females have experienced some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18, are no longer content to keep their proverbial head in the sand.” Carol Schreck, Professor Emerita of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Palmer Theological Seminary


GET IN TOUCH! Lucille Sider has received many requests to give talks and workshops—or to appear in media even in the midst of the pandemic. She considers each request and has accepted many invitations—so her voice and storytelling already is a popular part of the national conversation. Would you like to get in touch with Lucille to make such a request? Email us at [email protected] 

‘CAREGIVER,’ an exhibition: Detroit’s Hannan Center offers a virtual exploration with artists

An Invitation to Virtually Attend this Opening, May 14, 2021 (5 p.m. ET)

Detroit’s nationally known Hannan Center (here’s the century-old nonprofit’s history page) is inviting all of us to attend a virtual opening at Hannan’s main art gallery—an exhibition in which artists interpret issues around the caregiving experience.

Here is the free-registration page. If you fill out the form, you will receive an email with a link to join the hour-long program.