Real Good, Real Life, Real Results with Wellness Coach: Koren Barwis

Grandma Helen’s Last Lesson

GM 1c 10

My maternal grandmother, Helen J. Dunlap, started dying in February of 1994, when my grandfather, the love of her life, died from melanoma. Grandma was never the same. She got more bitter, more negative, more depressed. Then the dementia set in and she became paranoid fand downright mean. Unlike my mother whose death from gall bladder cancer was swift and brutal, my grandmother just faded away. Grandma Helen finally died on Christmas day. Peacefully. Alone.

It is hard writing a positive tribute about someone who I am conflicted about. Losing my mom before Grandma was tough. And the last time I had a real conversation with my grandmother was ten years ago and it didn’t end well. Grandma favored my uncle and had a complex relationship with my mom. Grandma was criticizing my mom for something completely unwarranted and I defended mom. Looking back, I’m guessing that the dementia had already started setting in, making grandma attack those closest to her.

Me and GrandmaShe wasn’t always so ugly. Growing up, Grandma Helen was a strong presence in my life. My grandparents opened their home to my mom, sister, our two dogs (one was a great dane!), and me when my parents split up. While mom got back on her feet, I got to spend a lot of time with my grandma.

I learned the art of holiday entertaining from Grandma. She prepared amazing meals with beautiful touches like chilled butter curls and homemade gravy. She loved food and didn’t skimp on details. My Christmas menu this week included her recipes for yorkshire pudding, grandma potatoes, and steamed cranberry pudding with eggnog sauce.

Grandma was crafty and decorated with an attention to detail. She had an Easter egg tree with plastic eggs she decorated with lace, beads, and ribbon. When my sister and I would travel to see my Dad in California, she would create special goodie bags for the long plane ride. At Christmas, she created Grandma Balls — balls of newspaper with a little knick knack or jewelry in each layer with something special in the center — for my sister and I.

Grandma was a collector. She loved going to garage sales every weekend. She started figurine and doll collections for my sister and I. Every Christmas, she would give us a new addition to our collections. She fueled my love of Barbies and neatly organized all their clothes for me.

Grandma HelenI have a ton of quirky, random memories of Grandma…She was 100% Swedish. She was an only child. Her childhood wasn’t easy. I can attribute my good table manners to her – she was a stickler. Grandma taught me about banking and taking care of my money. She was a nurse for GM and her favorite color was purple (or maybe it was my Grandpa’s, so she wore it all the time to please him). Even her wedding dress was a light purple, which was very progressive for her day. When I smell toast and cheerios in the morning, I will always think of her.

Most of my memories of Grandma are surface snapshots; I didn’t know her as a wife, woman, or as a friend, but I honor her for giving my mom life. And I appreciate everything she taught me, with the last lesson being the most important. In her final years, Grandma Helen showed me first-hand how I don’t want to die — alone, depressed, just fading away. Grandma’s last lesson taught me to to stay active, stay connected, stay positive, and keep living until you die.

I am Light

arieI’m an open book on my blog about most things, but have avoided religion and politics – universally taboo and potentially divisive topics – until now. Today’s experience at church moved me enough that I wanted to share it with my readers. 

I grew up a Methodist, but never really felt connected to the church. We’d attend services on Christmas and Easter. As an adult, I’d say I was spiritual but not religious (whatever that meant), but really just longed for a religious community that I could relate to. When I visited UUCS in February of this year for a friend’s photography exhibit, I knew I had found a special place. I chatted with the Reverend, a woman younger than me, but with a wisdom and peace I strive for. The next Sunday, I attended my first service and joined a few months later. I’ve missed only a few Sundays since then.

UUCS is supportive, calming, educational, spiritual, and did I mention the music? The music director is beyond talented and my hubby even sings in the choir (he isn’t quite sold on the liberal agenda of UUs, but likes to sing). At the first service I attended, the prelude was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the same song I chose to have playing during my mom’s funeral slide show; a believer in signs, this confirmed I was in the right place.

Cut to today, when I woke up in a funk. Well, honestly, the funk has been building. After a few challenging weeks (months), I was a little drained. This morning, I was feeling especially cranky, pouffy, unmotivated, and just wanted to stay in bed. I forced myself to get up and go to church with my hubby and Rubes.

The sermon today was on the many names of God. While thought-provoking, it was the Musical Anthem, “I am Light” originally sung by India.Arie, performed by 3 members of the congregation, that moved me.

Lately, I’ve felt a little heavy. Not literally on the scale (since I don’t get on the scale any more), but mentally, emotionally, and yes, even physically. The lyrics were exactly what I needed to hear…I bolded those that resonated most with me :

I am Light by India.Arie

I am light, I am light [x4]

I am not the things my family did
I am not the voices in my head
I am not the pieces of the brokenness inside

I am light, I am light [x4]

I’m not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain
I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind

I am light, I am light [x4]

I am not the color of my eyes
I am not the skin on the outside
I am not my age, I am not my race, my soul inside is all light

All light, all light [x2]
I am light, I am light [x2]

I am divinity defined
I am the God on the inside
I am a star, a piece of it all
I am light

See the video here.

The woman who sung the lead has such a beautiful, soulful voice. Teary and emotional, I immediately felt better…and lighter. Like an emotional weight was lifted and handed over to this community that has accepted me. My stress level went down and my emotional health improved. Research has consistently shown that people who regularly attend church (no matter what church, denomination does not matter) are healthier and are happier. My experience today supports those findings.

It took me forty years to find my spiritual home. If you haven’t found yours yet, keep looking…you’ll be happier, healthier, and lighter when you do.


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Success Story: 110 Pounds Lost in Eight Months


One of the tools of John’s success

I strive to coach, teach, and inspire my clients, but some of my clients have been so amazing that they have inspired me. This month, as we all navigate holiday parties, treats, and indulgences, I wanted to share a few of those client success stories with my readers so that maybe they can inspire you.

Meet John* from Stone Ridge.

John is a husband and father who in March of this year weighed 288 pounds. At 6’-0”, he was roughly 75- 100 pounds overweight and he felt it. John had always been overweight and was never very athletic. He had poor eating habits and snacked constantly, especially in times of stress. “I’d easily eat an entire bag of chips or cookies. I’d get home from work, eat a huge dinner and then sit on the couch and snack more.” 

Everything changed when at his annual physical, John’s doctor said if his blood pressure were any higher, she would have to send him to the emergency room. She recommended prescription drugs to reduce his blood pressure. The experience scared him so much that the next day, John started walking outside and eating healthier food.

“It was important to me to be a role model for my boys. I want them to be healthy and I knew I couldn’t do that without setting an example.” 

John started eating clean – lots of fruit, vegetables, lean protein, and some complex carbohydrates. “I think I lost probably 75% of my weight simply from eating healthy. If it comes in a package, doesn’t expire within a week or two, is high in fat or ‘bad’ carbs, I probably won’t eat it. I don’t cheat, I don’t snack, and I won’t eat after 6:30 PM. I drink a lot of water.”

(Side note – John has INCREDIBLE, aka atypical, self control)

John also went from being sedentary to exercising daily, adding in biking to his repertoire. “I love (actually, crave) exercise now. 7 months ago, I did none of those things and hated working out.”

For the first several months, John’s weight came off very quickly. His clothes fit better and he slept better at night. Then the weight loss slowed and John learned that in order to keep his momentum, he had to push his body harder. He’d bike longer, and tried running, something he never thought he’d enjoy. He has started strength training and even did his first pull-up EVER last week. There is even talk about running a half marathon next year. As of December 1, John weighs 178 pounds — 110 pounds lost in eight months!

John has had to buy all new clothes and does have some extra loose skin, but he believes “these things are a small price to pay for the health benefits of losing the weight.”

Throughout his weight loss journey, John has learned a lot and has some bits of advice for those just starting out:

  • Figure out what works for you, and make it a passion. If you can seriously commit to 3 months, it just becomes part of your routine and after you see the results, you will probably care more about keeping it up rather than undoing the effort you put into your self-improvement.
  • Set a reasonable goal for yourself, hit your goal, and then create a new goal.
  • Surround yourself with people who’ll support you and encourage you. Ignore the haters – some people ask “what’s your secret” and get turned off in disgust when you tell them that it’s simply eating right and exercise because they are still looking for some miracle, easy solution.
  • Get advice from other healthy people. Everyone has an opinion and the best people to listen to are those who are walking the walk.
  • Lastly, don’t view healthy eating as a diet, because that implies that it is temporary. Clean eating is just how you eat – regularly, permanently. It is truly a lifestyle.

I wish I could take credit for John’s success, but he was already well on his way when he came to see me at The Wellness Connection. I simply helped him gain a deeper understanding of nutrition and fitness and encouraged some adjustments and tweaks to his routine and diet. John is one of the most dedicated and disciplined people I’ve worked with. I’ll suggest a change and he implements it. I don’t know his secret, but his story does confirm one of my core beliefs – when you are ready to change, change happens.


*John’s name has been changed.

(Photo credit: Flickr, gingerchrismc)

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