She Was My Hero

The heavens opened up to welcome my friend Sally, who passed away from her earthly journey last night about six o'clock. So today I'm sad for us but celebrating the beautiful life of a sweet, sweet soul. 
She was my mentor, my confidant, my role model, my compass.

Here we are celebrating her retirement; Sally is in the middle back.

 Here's a tribute I wrote for her six years back 
when she first got sick. 
I will always miss you, dearest friend.

Lost and ----- by Barbara Gruener

Found. It's supposed to be Lost and Found, right? But how will I ever get to the Found if it's my Compass that's Lost? Even though I've only had this Compass for a little over five years now, I've grown so attached to and dependent upon her that I'm not sure how to manage life without her. Thing is, she’s not just my Compass. She’s my road map, my tour guide, my co-pilot.  She’s the one I call when I’m not sure where to go or how best to get there. When I left secondary education, for example, to become a counselor in an elementary school, it was she who helped me go about making that transition.  She willingly shared her experiential wisdom before setting me on my current course with just two words:  character education. When I first met with her, I had no idea what she even meant by that. But now, some five years down the road, I’m a character coach and have spoken publicly on the topic several dozen times. She truly was the inspiration for my current career path.
She always helps me maneuver through the tight spots and over rocky terrain. She refuels me when I’m running on empty. Just last month, like numerous other times over the years, I left school early because I was exhausted and had nothing more to give. I heard her voice inside my head telling me to take care of myself, to give myself a break, to get quiet and just be. After three glorious hours of solitude at home and a quick nap, I called her to ask her to check on my son, a student at her school. Explaining that I’d been short with, even mean to, him lately, I needed to know that he was okay. Just hearing the kindness and compassion in her voice reduced me to tears. I was a nervous wreck on what seemed like a collision course and she understood. She waited so patiently for the tears to subside and my words to come out that the silence on the other end of the line wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable. When I could finally speak, her soothing calm enveloped me so thoroughly that my blanket of dense fog began to lift and the blinding glare of my inadequacies as a mom began to dim. We weren’t even on the phone for fifteen minutes. She truly is the air in my tires when I feel deflated.
She’s also the seatbelt that hugs me to keep me safe.  She’s the soft background music that relaxes me when the stress of the journey overwhelms. “Take care of your inner child,” she would tell me. “Everyone has a story; tell me yours,” she’d add. Or “everything happens for a reason; let go and let God.” It sounded so profound and wise every time she said it. God, I just want to hear that voice again, her voice, one more time, even if it’s just to say, “I told you so!” (though she wouldn’t ever say that to me). She’d ask, “where’s the gift in all of this?” She’s the voice of reason that constantly reminds me to put the brakes on when my mind is rushing full speed ahead, to make precious stops along the way and to enjoy the journey instead of just focusing on my destination. She personifies stress management and rejuvenation.
Found. What a relief it’ll be when someone says they’ve found my Compass. I’m so Lost without her. I don’t think I realized until I lost her how much I rely on and appreciate the direction she brings to my life. I’m so scared, so lonely, so small without her guidance, without her joy, without her. I’m not ready, of course, but something tells me that maybe it’s time to use those skills she taught me along the way. Is that what this is all about? Is her leaving part of the big plan? Am I supposed to do this alone?  I’m not ready yet. Will I ever be ready? I’m struggling to catch my breath now. My heart is racing and my head is pounding. How will I ever get to the Found when it’s my Compass that’s Lost? Found. There’s incredible power in that one syllable. It’s always Lost and Found, right?
My missing Compass came along when I was making a major career change. I had met her first as the mother of one of my high school students, a creatively entertaining kid. I couldn’t help but appreciate her son’s work ethic and drive. It was ten years since her son’s graduation from high school when I phoned Sally on that day to ask what the heck an intermediate-school counselor does. With no course credits to count and no college applications to process, I had accepted a job that I had no idea how to do. Without hesitation, she offered to meet with me and help get me started down the path into my new journey. After just one year down the road at Jamison Middle School, I was offered a position at the school next door to her, allowing me even greater access to my new Compass. How I loved spending time with Sally. She encouraged me, affirmed me, comforted me, and guided me. I always felt Found when I was with her. As I spent time with her and watched her gentle manner with my former students as well as with my own son, I wanted more and more to be like her. She was my hero.
As the time neared for her to retire, I had visions of losing my Compass. Bringing me counseling books and other resources that she no longer needed, Sally was systematically saying ‘goodbye’ and trying to prepare me for the loss as she prepared herself for that next step in her journey. With so much to look forward to, she wasn’t looking back. But the darkness in a tunnel just prior to the light can sometimes be blinding, and that’s where Sally lost herself for a spell. I guess I took her for granted. Maybe I needed to take better care of my Compass. Did I get too selfish with her? Is it possible that she got Lost because of people who needed her, like me? Was her job as my Compass too demanding, too taxing, too immense? Did her exterior strength mask her internal vulnerability? I continued to hope and pray that she’d make her way out of that dark place, that she’d be Found. I wanted to be given another chance with her so that I could tell her how much she means to me, so that I could thank her for her support over the years, so that I could say “I love you.” I never gave up hope, but I wasn’t certain she’d ever be Found and I think I felt as Lost as she must have been.

It was a sunny summer day, months after I’d lost my Compass, when the phone rang. Busily grating zucchini for my latest kitchen creation, I stopped momentarily to answer the call. After I said “hello” and heard her voice, I knew instantly that God had answered my prayers and that my Compass had been Found. I hung on her every word as I marveled at what a miracle she is. Found. There’s incredible power in that little word. Found. Life was very dark and confusing without her. Found. Thank goodness it’s always Lost and Found.

Rest in peace and joy, Sally. 
Thank you for being my Compass.


  1. beautiful. (and I'm crying, again!) I immediately thought of you when I heard the news. You're in my thoughts, friend! hugs...

    1. Caryn, you probably remember the day I wrote this because I was crying as I took my morning walk and I stopped by your place for a hug ... and if I remember correctly, you put your shoes on and joined me for a block or two.


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