When someone is grieving, we are often tempted to just ask them how you can help. But when someone’s grieving, they don’t know what they need. In this episode, Tina Fornwald interviews her own sister, Ulanka Beckom. They reminisce the time that Ulanka drove countless hours just to assist Tina in her time of need. It’s difficult to provide strength and support during this difficult time, but it isn’t impossible. Listen now as Ulanka shares practical strategies that can help your loved one cope with the pain of loss and help them on their journey towards healing.
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Here For The Long Haul: How To Help A Family Member Who Is Grieving With Ulanka Beckom
My guest for this episode is my sister Ulanka Beckom. Ulanka is 52 years old and single. She’s a retired Senior Chief and now a government contractor. Her hobbies are cooking, watching movies, creating artwork, working out, dancing, spending time with friends, music, and supporting family members. Her ultimate goal is to become an aerospace engineer.
Our conversation with Ulanka is going to give you some insight into being a sibling and the daughter of someone that has been widowed. She shares things that she thinks and knows from her experience will be helpful like being on deck for someone, being in their space and being quiet, understanding that grieving is not over in a year and a lot of other great tips that she’ll share. Thank you for joining me. I look forward to you being part of our conversation. Let’s get into it now.
Welcome to the show. My guest is my sister Ulanka Beckom. Ulanka, thank you for joining us. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your interests, how you spend your day, and things like that.
My typical day is wash, rinse, and repeat. I get up, go workout, go to work, come home, and sit around watching TV.
You like listening to music.
I listen to music on the way to work and at work during the day, but it’s wash, rinse, repeat. It’s the same thing every day. There’s not a lot of variance in what I do daily.
Tell us a little bit about your workout and your favorite music.
The workout I do is with Burn Boot Camp. I go there Monday through Friday. The 5:30 class is the class I go to, 95% of the time. The type of workout program there is a HIIT program. It’s pretty much a high-intensity interval training type of workout. They concentrate on different parts of the body daily like arm day, leg day, core day, cardio day, and everything day. It circulates through all of those. As for music, I like house music.
It’s because we’re from Chicago.
I love some Prince every day of the week and other stuff.
That’s hard. You grind with workout routine. She started incorporating a stretching process. Share a little bit about that.
There’s this place called Stretchlab. Burn Boot Camp nor Stretchlab are paying for any of these endorsements. I go to Stretchlab and just started doing that. You stretch your body yourself. There’s only so much you could push yourself. You have to have someone to help out. Along with going to Stretchlab, I also go to the chiropractor.There's always only so much you can push yourself. Click To Tweet
Going to Stretchlab helps to push your body past limits that you can’t do personally. I keep thinking about the fact that I workout all the time like an athlete. I watch football, basketball, and all these sports. All these athletes are agile and doing all this stuff. If you think about it, they have somebody like the people at Stretchlab. They are there on a regular basis to help them to have maneuverability. I’m like, “I need to do this for myself.” That’s why I do it.
We talked about you now, but we didn’t talk about a little bit before now, about your career, and what you were doing for gazillion years before you started this.
I was in the Navy for twenty years and retired as a Senior Chief in the Navy. It was a good time. My job was called Gas Turbine Systems Technician Mechanical.
What places have you traveled to? This is the fun part.
We used those engines to propel the ship and the generators. We worked on a lot of other accessory equipment. I was pretty much down there with the engine. I was with the engineers. Think of your car but much larger. Think about walking inside your car and working on all the parts. In my last part in the Navy, I was the lead engineer.
I traveled to a lot of places, which is one of the fun parts of being in the Navy. When I met my first ship on deployment. I flew from Norfolk to New York to Spain, then to our ultimate meeting place in Bahrain. After being in Bahrain for a couple of days, we took a helicopter from Bahrain out to the ship. It was a three-month deployment because I did the last half of the deployment.
You’re saying deployments, when you were in the service, were generally about six months?
Most of the time, it’s six months. Some deployments have been seven months but for the most part, six months is normal. If you’re gone for three months, they considered that deployment also. You have to be gone for at least three months for it to be considered a deployment for the Navy. I’ve gone to Spain, Bahrain, UAE, France, Monaco, Italy, and Greece. It’s probably about 60% of the world.
She has a map in her study. You pinned up all the different countries that you’ve traveled to. I would say my greatest experience being in the military was being able to come onto Ulanka’s ship in full Army gear and perform one of her re-enlistments. That was pretty cool.
I don’t know if you remember how packed it was. It was super packed. That was on USS first ship. We were down in Central and there were so many people. When we walked out, people are standing on the steps and all this other stuff. I was like, “Wow.” There were two of us that re-enlisted.
In your twenty years of career in the military, from your experience of watching re-enlistments, have you ever seen a sibling re-enlist another from a different service or branch?
Once. I can’t remember who it was, but it was one other person that I remember that happening. That’s not frequent. It’s very uncommon.
We’re pretty cool. That was neat. Another neat experience I remember with UIanka being in the military, I’m not sure if I have the correct name, but the concept was family members would come onto the ship to be able to go out for a certain distance and come back. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do the first one, but I believe my late husband Mark, and my daughter, Catherine did when she was little. Can you share a little bit about what the Navy offers for that?
That was the friends and family cruise. That was right before going on deployment. I can’t remember which deployment it was. Mark, Catherine, and Petra came over.
Your friend’s mom.
They all came on aboard. It was funny because one of my friends or shipmates was drawn to Petra. She’s a Dominican. She spoke Spanish and Dutch. We were hanging out with her all day. It’s cool. That was interesting. Mark had a good time out there.
Petra is the mother of my friend Vivian. She’s one of the OGs. You will know more about them later. Those have been some of my longest-term friends. I would say of all of my siblings, you probably spent the most time with Mark than anybody else with us being in the military and being in proximity. What would you say?
Maybe. Even before I joined the Navy, the first time I met Mark was when you guys had come home with beers. It was the Super Bowl of ’86 and you were in town. You were there for my birthday. We had family pictures when we were younger taken around the house. Our first professional pictures were taken by Mark, and had all these pictures. He had all the portraits from those pictures. Also, mom and dad had portraits done with those pictures. That was a good time. From there, when I was going to junior college, he was doing a job out in Illinois.
It was Wisconsin.
He stopped and hung out at my place a couple of times going up and coming back down. When I first got stationed here, I was staying at your house.
Ulanka’s a top-rated sibling. We’ll see who has to add to that, but I want to say so. Speaking of Mark, how did you find out what was going on when Mark took ill that day?
You called, Venus and I were in the car. We were coming from a walk or a hike.
Where were you?
We were in San Diego and then you called me. We were like, “What?”
Do you recall what I said or how I sound?
You sounded clear, distraught, and upset as expected. You were still clear with everything that you were describing.
Do you recall what I said or a concept of what I shared?
You said he passed out. He hit his head and was bleeding. He wasn’t breathing or something. You called the ambulance. The ambulance was coming. You were waiting for the ambulance to come. I can’t remember everything verbatim. We were like, “What?” At that point, Venus and I got on the sibling line and started contacting everybody to let them know what we know. You don’t need to call them because Tina told us. We’re calling her back and forth.
I’m glad you mentioned the sibling line. With five siblings, there’s always a lot going on. We were pretty good together as far as intertwining on different projects or when things come about. Generally, the first sibling that you contact becomes the owner of the situation. They’re responsible to contact all the other siblings and let them know what’s going on. The sibling that is in distress tries to eliminate or reduce the conversation so they can focus on what’s going on.
In fact, my children and my sister Venus’s children go, “The siblings.” They call us the unit a lot of times. They’ll speak to one person or another but they go, “The siblings are involved in this,” and it’s like a whole thing. That’s pretty cool to have five siblings and we do get along pretty well. Any memories besides what we talked about that you have of Mark or things that you think of?
The camera, lots of hunting, and always wanting deer meat.
Had you had any before Mark?
Once before because one of dad’s friends had brought something home. We had some before then. They’re putting up the swing set in the backyard.
Let me back up a little bit. Your girl is not that handy when it comes to saws and wood, but my sister right here, remember that job being an engineer in the ship, she could build just about anything. In the house that we have in Gloucester, Mark wanted to put a swing set up for Catherine and Alex. Ulanka and Mark put that together. Tina was making sandwiches and lemonade and providing all the different things they needed. It still is out there. Catherine is 26 or 27. It’s been out there for a long time. Not only can she do it, but it stays and is handy. With my sister and my mom living next door, I get the benefit of her handy work also.
What Ulanka did not mention is her love to cook. She has the ability to whip up things from taste and they are always yummy. I’m always posting about something she made. I was like, “Do you need a taster? Is there something I can come over to do?” That’s something else about my sister that I personally enjoyed. The reason why I have Ulanka here is because she has been with me the longest in this process as far as Mark passing over time. She lived in California when she first heard the news of Mark’s passing. What do you recall from the moment you heard about Mark’s passing until showing up in Virginia?
What did I remember?
Yes. As far as the sibling conversation in that decision, and what was going on in the background that I was not aware of?
The first thing was, “Who’s going out there? Who’s going first?” Jesse headed that up there quickly. I don’t know where that happened. He can travel and transfer his job. He made that happen. He was there overnight. He was on the ground doing all the work and that was impressive. I didn’t know he had that in him. It’s good to know. He got there and took care of all of that, and then we got there.
The reason why I’m asking is that we see people where they are now. It’s been five years since Mark passed, but it’s being there initially and what that looked like, being a sister, and being concerned.
Initially, being there, you’re always focused. You were more focused on what was going on at that moment. We had the funeral going on. “This is going on here.” There wasn’t a breakdown at that moment. You were still yourself, but after the funeral was when more of the breakdown began to happen.Initially being in grief, you are more focused on what was going on at that moment. When a funeral is going on, there wouldn’t be many breakdowns at that moment. You’re still yourself. But after the that, the breakdowns just begin to flood. Click To Tweet
What did that breakdown look like? You can be as graphic and as horrible as it is.
No, it wasn’t horrible. It’s just more shopping.
There was a bit of retail therapy, crying, separation, and fog.
A little bit more wine than normal.
It was white wine.
Overall, I wouldn’t say that it was anything crazy or extreme.
I would not use the word crazy per se because people can look at that differently. My sister is referring more to something extreme or something that was not manageable. Ulanka showed up and from what I recall, I still had her coat on, and told me, “I’m moving to Virginia.” That was an extreme situation. She had a move left in the Navy, but based on the circumstance and a lot of other things, that was a big part of your decision to relocate. Share a little bit about that process.
Tina had been on us for years to move back to Virginia because that was the ultimate place for her to retire because they have the house in Gloucester. She and Mark retire in Gloucester. Everybody moves to Virginia. We have one big happy life from Chicago to around the world. Everybody stays in Virginia. I was still in San Diego and was under a year of retirement trying to figure out what I was going to do next if I was going to stay in San Diego or leave San Diego.
Once Mark passed away, I was like, “Let me talk to people at my job and see if I can move to the Norfolk office because they do have an office in Norfolk.” I talked to them and they said, “Okay.” I was like, “Sweet.” That way I can move to Norfolk and be closer. You’re in Pennsylvania and it’s a six-hour drive. Rather than try to catch a plane and go through the house with all that, I could drive up there whenever need be. I can deal with what needs to be done.
I appreciate you for that. When she says driving up when needs to be, I was still in our family home in Pennsylvania living there at this point. Catherine was away in the military. Alexander was in the military. Mark had passed. It went from November of 2016 to be a full house with four people to literally me being in the house alone. My closest family member was in Chicago and California.
For my sister to make that motion to relocate was extremely helpful. Our garage was packed. I’m in the winter in Pennsylvania. There was no one to shovel the snow and I needed to do something with the car. How was that experience cleaning out the garage and coming and doing all that? What do you remember from that?
There’s a lot of stuff. It’s multifaceted. There’s the fact that there’s a lot of stuff. There are a lot of memories in all the stuff. It’s like, “What do you keep? What do you not keep? What do you need? What do you not need? Do I throw this away? Do I sell this?” It’s a matter of do you give it more life or do you move on. There are a lot of thoughts that go into all of that.
That’s a good point. You being my sister and these not being your items versus me the owner, I found when that was going on, in my mind, going through it, it was hard sometimes to pick up a box and say, “I’m going to go through that,” versus being taken back into the memory of the most minor item. How did you coast me through that or how did that work?
You asked the person, “Do you need this? Do you not need this? Are you going to use this? How are you going to use this? That’s how we came up with the toolbox and figure out which tools were needed and not needed. We realized that we don’t need 50 million extension cords to go forward. It’s a matter of hand over hand, and patience.
That is huge to be able to have patience because somebody may find themselves going through the belongings of their loved one that is commingled or things that are separate. It’s difficult to relinquish those things. Especially, if you’re relocating or downsizing, that’s a big thing to go through. From my experience, there were points where it was helpful to have somebody, and then there were some things that may have been frustrating that you couldn’t go through that I had to go through on my own. It’s that process of being able to have somebody to work with you and be patient.
The one part after we got through everything, we now had a whole garage that was empty. We took bikes and rode them in circles inside the garage to celebrate the idea that we had accomplished that. Let me shift a little bit to our mom. Jesse was the first person on deck for me. How was that experience went with our mom for you?
Denise was the first person on deck for mom.
Our oldest sister.
Denise was there to help our mom and get her around, and do the things that needs to be done.
She was there at the hospital with mom.
Speaking of that, when mom saw dad, she was like, “That’s not him.” She was all right.
His soul had left his body.
She was overall pretty calm.
I’m way more emotional than our mother as you probably already saw.
We then got to Chicago.
You got there first. I came afterward. You were there for about a week before.
Jesse was in town first and left last. Jesse’s on the ground floor again.
We’ll find out when we talked to Jesse who was there first.
He hit the ground running and took care of a lot of stuff. Together as a family, we took care of things. We were all there together because mom was like, “I’m moving to Virginia with you.” I was like, “We’re going to make that happen.” I was like, “That’s what’s happening. Mom’s moving to Virginia.” Doing the whole house, there’s probably more emotion in that because that’s the house where we grew up.
I’m asking mom, “What do you want to keep? What do you not want to keep?” We know that we’re going to keep all the paperwork. The important thing is to make sure that she was a part of the decision-making process. You don’t want to come into someone’s house and take all their stuff and say, “This isn’t important.” That isn’t the way to go. If they want to discard things later, they discard things later, sell things or do whatever, but you never ever tell somebody that your life is not important, especially at a time when they’re grieving. That can spiral things uncontrollably.
I’m glad you mentioned that. That is a good point because I do recall as we were going through everything, this is the home where our mom had raised our children for several decades. That was not an easy lift. In fact, it got to a point when we were going through everything. We were watching her being distraught. She had already identified what to keep, and what not to keep. Now, watching the process of those items come out of the house became a little overwhelming.
Us going back and talking to her and making the decision for her to come to Virginia and for Jesse to stay behind and finish some of that heavy lifting without her having to witness it played out easier for her. That is a good point. The idea of not making someone release things that they’re not ready to do because that’s part of their grieving process. Thank you for bringing that out.
Another thing when mom came, she wants to get rid of a lot of stuff from the house.
It was time now.
I thought it was interesting. I don’t know if it’s because she was older and had been in a relationship so much longer. Mom said that she had talked to dad about if he passed away or if she passed away, how things would look, and what they would do, but then mom is a lot more stoic than dad. Dad would be way more emotional.
Back to who I favor a little bit.
Mom was able to release and go forward a lot easier.If you’re able to release, moving forward would be a lot easier. Click To Tweet
When my mom and I spoke, she mentioned how often dad told her that he was going to leave this world. As you’re saying, those conversations led to her being prepared. Not that it wasn’t difficult when it happened, but the idea that Mark died randomly on vacation, that’s a totally different setup. How it’s going to impact you in moving forward with that loss is a big part of it too. That is true.
I connect also when mom came, we moved a lot of items here to Virginia that I could have let go of in retrospect, but I wasn’t ready. That happened too. All the stuff came to the place I was living and it was like, “What are we going to do with all of this?” Slowly as time happened and unpacking and did things, I was able to release those.
That is a big thing because when that person is no longer here, you’re left with so many things. You’re trying to figure out what to keep. Whether you have to address with children, their siblings, or loved ones of things people may want to have. That is a big part of it. What would you share as far as your experience of someone being the daughter of a parent that has been widowed, and then being the sister of somebody that’s been widowed? How can you help them or what to do?
The biggest thing is to be there for them. A lot of times you want to say, “What do you need?” When someone is grieving, they don’t know what they need. The biggest thing they need is someone to be there. You don’t have to hold someone’s hand. You sit on the couch and watch TV with somebody. It’s having somebody in a room, especially someone that’s used to being with someone on a regular basis. Sometimes people just want company, somebody to talk to, and stay on the phone, and talk all night.
You’re grieving with that person, but you’re not grieving how that person is grieving. They had this immediate thing happen to them, having a spouse or a child pass away, or whatever it may be. Be there to assist if need be. Come and cook a meal. They might not be able to cook a meal. Who knows what might be going on? Be there and don’t belittle anybody’s grieving.
Everyone grieves in their own way. Some people are extremely emotional. Some people are somber, but just because the person over here is somber doesn’t mean that they aren’t grieving. They’re just doing it in a different way. They might break out and be extremely emotional later. It’s being there for them in the moment and thereafter.
The grieving process is a never-ending process. It’s not something that it just stops because the year’s up so I’m done. That isn’t how grieving works. You can have a dream one day, walking down the street, and see something or anything that can remind you of that person. Just because you’re grieving over that person, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a love for the people that are with you now. Those are two different things.
Those are some good points, Ulanka. Thank you. The ability to be present with someone and not push the moment to make it something else is huge. It’s just being in that space. When you have been accustomed to being in the company of someone or having someone that you can trust with your emotions to be there with you is huge.
A good point you also made was that the grieving process is not something that you check mark and it’s over. There are different stages of grief, but those are not linear. You can have one after another, in between each other. They’re not smooth and easy. It is a very messy process of grief. Being honest and allowing people in your circle that will allow you to grieve, and not judge how your grieving process is, that is pretty big. Thank you for bringing that out.
I am so glad to be able to have my sister Ulanka here and have this conversation. As I talked about before, this show is about my hood. My sister Ulanka is a huge component of my hood. She literally lives next door. She was my first best friend because we are born in order to each other. The people in your life and your hood are important. Ulanka is important to me and I’m glad that she can be here. We are heading to Texas and my next guest will be my brother Jesse who you will have an opportunity to know. Thanks for being here with us and have a good day. Bye.
We just finished an episode of the show with my sister, Ulanka. She is probably the quietest one of the bunch, but I am so glad that she joined me and had this conversation. There are so many nuggets that she shared and I’m grateful for her. I’m grateful to her for not shying away, and not being afraid to be in this with me. Even though she may be the quietest of us all, she opened up and shared a lot of good information. I hope that will be helpful to you and your community for being in the hood of this grief journey. Thanks for being here with us and have a good day.