7 Years Later: Remembering My Brother

Facebook has this nifty feature where you can search “On This Day” and instantly be transported back to this day in history over the course of your virtual life. I have actually enjoyed this feature. It’s surprised me in fun ways over time and everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good memory.

Back in May, I happened upon a “On This Day” status from 2009 that read something like “Asking for prayers for my brother”, and at that moment, I had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach because I knew that at that moment, seven years ago, I was losing my brother and I had no idea.

For the last 6 or 7 weeks, every morning when I wake up, I have reflexively, searched “On This Day”. For the first time in 7 years, I was able to actually watch from a virtual distance, day by Facebook day, as the time ticked until my brother died. But 7 years ago, I had absolutely no idea.

The first few days after that first “asking for prayers” post, I continued to update people on my brother’s health. Things changed daily and we really didn’t know much. It just didn’t look good. I remember being very scared. About a week into it, I posted something about a clown visiting my brother and fearing for the clown’s life but that wasn’t the case. Looking back, it all really makes sense. You see, my brother had been told a few hours earlier about multiple serious health issues by an asshole doctor with really shitty bedside manner. I didn’t really know the full extent of it at the time but I now refer to it as Ralph looking “broken”. He did. He looked broken. And then he went home.

Life went back to normal according to Facebook. I posted random bullshit about  The Bachelorette and work. At one point, someone asked in a comment about how my brother was doing and I reported that he was doing ok but needed to follow up with the doctor.

I started and finished the last class I needed in order to become licensed as a professional counselor. Yep. In the eight weeks from start to finish of the story of my brother’s death, I completed a class on Career Counseling. Exciting, huh?

In the last week or two, I have really been more interested in what had been happening in those last few days before Ralph died. I mean, I remember but, what about those damn Facebook posts? Again, the Bachelorette was pretty important that year. And I had a few pretty interesting work events in the first few weeks of June.

The last week became increasingly deja vu, though. Because I remember that last week. June 25, 2009 was a pretty big day in history. Farrah Fawcett died that day after a long battle with cancer. Oh, and Michael Jackson died that day too. I still remember standing in the gym at Devereux next to my soon to be boss looking at our respective cell phones,saying “Oh my God, he is only 50 years old. That’s just crazy.”

June 26, 2009 was Ralph’s 5oth birthday, and while I didn’t talk to him that day, I did leave him a message that night. I remember being a little spooked by the whole Michael dead at 50 thing so I didn’t mention it (obviously). No Facebook birthday shout out to my brother. I mean, he didn’t even have Facebook.

June 27th was a Saturday and I took Max and his cousins to the pool. I posted several pictures of them at the pool on Facebook that day. I remember Michael Jackson was playing everywhere and Rylan was moonwalking.

June 28, 2009 was a Sunday and Sundays meant Ciliberti dinners. Ralph had settled down a lot over the past two months. He had been on oxygen when he first got home but was off of it now. He had quit smoking. I knew that he might be going out with his friends here and there but I didn’t want to argue with Ralph. No one but Ralph ever won those arguments. So, Ralph handed me some money and sent me out to the store with a list of things to pick up for dinner. As I was leaving, he said to me, “And pick up a birthday cake too.” I did. A chocolate cake with red and blue balloons. And we did what we did for every other birthday. We sang Happy Birthday to a 50 year old man and we ate cake. I never saw my brother alive again.

June 29, 2009, I posted on Facebook “Carol Ciliberti is cracking up watching Kathy Griffin’s mother refer to Facebook as Facepage.”

I absolutely 100% remember that day. But until now, I never realized that would be the last “pre-Ralph death” day. It’s absolutely stunning to me that the last normal day of my adult life consisted of my watching Kathy Griffin’s mother talk about Facepage.

The next post about Ralph happens on July 1, 2009 in the early morning and consists of the seeds of my blogging career. It was the seed of my teaching career. The seed of my “FUCK YOU ALL” career. The seed of my “Own your shit”.

Life can really suck. But I’ve learned so much. And Ralph is always in my ear. Always telling me I can do it. Always telling me to fuck you all. Of course, he’s smiling the whole fucking time.







The Happiness Project – Weeks 3 & 4

If the Happiness Project occurred in a vacuum, I’d be pretty happy. But June tests me every year. I’m  pretty sure I subconsciously chose this project as a diversionary tactic and in some respects it has been a success. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Summer Sessions are a whirlwind. Six weeks (five, if you are going away the final week, like me) of classes, two nights a week, nearly four hours a night. I tell my students that I know they don’t want to be there nearly four hours a night and that is my goal too, but inevitably, it happens. And my students don’t look happy. This isn’t good for my project.

By the time, we hit Week 4, many of my students (particularly, my younger ones) have forgot that we are trying to be happy. Some are tired. Some are bored. And some have no problem letting me know about it via blank stares, rolling eyes and general checked out body language. Some just stand up and walk out in the middle of class. Eh. You can’t win them all.

But I’ve got a some genuinely hooked. I have a few students (particularly, but not exclusively, my older ones) that have really bought into the Happiness Project. They have embraced it and taken each opportunity as a chance to examine the possibility that there may be something to this happiness thing.

We have continued with our gratitude assignments in every class. I believe that the majority of my students are still invested in this process and continue to put a lot of thought into this. I continue to require them to explore one thing that they are grateful for in depth and I have rarely been disappointed. Some of them are even starting to be grateful for this class. Just a few examples:

  • I am grateful for my brothers for many reasons, including having someone to talk, play and share with, but most importantly, always have around.
  • I am really grateful for my sister because she has been my best friend throughout my entire life. She would always play barbies with me, even though she didn’t want to. She was there for me when I had my first break up.
  • I’m grateful for this class. It has taught me how I can and should change my thought process and be happier and be thankful for what I have. So thank you.
  • I’m grateful for having an amazing family life. Many people live in hostile environments and don’t like being home but I love being with my family and they are always there to make me laugh and cheer me up.
  • I am truly grateful for this class because I had never thought that psychology could be so interesting.
  • I’m grateful for learning from my past mistakes every day.

Students are in the process of completing a Pay It Forward/Random Acts of Kindness project. I was honestly a little worried about this one. I asked each student to go out and commit 3-6 random acts of kindness and report back on what they did, how the receiver responded (if they chose someone they knew, or to be present) and how they felt after giving with no intention of receiving in return. Some of my students have handed in the assignment early and while I’m suspect of the sincerity of a few…..I’m completely blown away by a few of the others.

  • Working in the president’s office, I am fortunate to work with one of the College’s custodians, Kevin. Cleaning our office area is Kevin’s primary responsibility, even though he has duties in other areas of the College as well.  I try to thank him as much as possible for all he does for us, bake him a cake for his birthday, and give him a gift for the holiday; however, last week, as I watched him polish the tables in the conference room in preparation for our board meeting, and observed the expression on his face as he worked, I decided to give him a more personal token of my appreciation – a thank you card, writing about how thankful I am for the work he does.  I tried to be specific, wrote that it is obvious he takes pride in his work as seen in the care he takes keeping the president’s office area sparkling, taking care of our needs throughout the day, as well as taking care of other areas in the College.  I wrote that it is heartwarming to see him do his job so meticulously, and that I am grateful for him.  Later in the day he came over to me to say I made a grown man cry (I was touched.).  The next day his wife, who also works at the College, came over to my office area crying.  At first I thought something was wrong, but she said her husband shared the card with her, and the words I wrote in the card were so beautiful that she and her husband cried together.  I then cried with her as I had no idea I would get that type of reaction by writing my true sentiments in a card.  Oftentimes, I think I have to do something big for people to show them that I care, or to show my appreciation; however, maybe it’s the simple acts of kindness that go a long way; that somehow these simple acts of kindness reach deep down in an individual’s soul.
  • My act was just texting my mom and thanking and apologizing for everything. I texted “Hey mom, thank you for everything you do for me and this family, I never show my gratitude and I apologize for that and when I do not treat you right.” Funny enough a few minutes later she came in and asked me if everything was alright and that was just a confirmation for me that I really don’t tell her how much I appreciate what she does for me. For the rest of that day she and I got along better then ever in years and It just showed how much of a change a little thing like that can do. I think it impacted her in a big way too because living in a house with all men, compliments don’t just come flying out unless they’re are from her.
  • One of my strongest beliefs is that a true act of kindness is done when the recipient cannot reciprocate the act, at least not to the doer. That’s why I chose to place the support card entitled “Win!Win!”and the opening lines read “Life’s like a video game with all of these obstacles popping up in front of you” on the windshield of a minivan in the parking lot of the Kmart store. I choose this particular vehicle because it appeared to be a family vehicle, and it reminded me of my family back home. Many times I had said to people that when I do an act of kindness, I am not doing it for me, I am doing it for my family. I truly believe in the principle of paying it forward, and that by me doing something kind for a stranger, that one act of kindness would be paid forward, and that someday that act of kindness would reach my family. 

I’ve been so impressed at how my students have embraced many aspects of the Happiness Project. They remind me everyday that kindness and simple acts of thanks, even when required in order to pass General Psychology do have a trickle down effect.



The Happiness Project – Weeks 1 & 2

Weeks 1 & 2 of the Happiness Project have left me exhausted, achy and pondering the possibility of a meningitis diagnosis, although Lyme disease is probably more plausible. Hey, I don’t want to blame the happiness project, because it’s really not its fault. But the reality is that I’ve been teaching two nights a week until nearly 10pm, which makes for nearly 12 hour work days, coupled with 2 hours of commuting and prep time in between. Not exactly the recipe for high life satisfaction. And then I received this from a student:

“Some discourage me to either be a writer or a psychologist. So when I hear that you are a writer, and a writer, I was inspire. I said to myself, me and this lady have something in common. If she can do these two things together, then I can do it. One of the thing that really touch me when you was teaching was when you said, “If you don’t know yourself, you won’t know what you want.” I learn from that.”

I left all of the grammatical errors in because this young writer is from Liberia. She comes to class everyday and is basically awestruck by the ability to be in this country and have the opportunity to learn. She is young. She is hungry. She is ready to take on the world. I remember those days.

The greatest part about the happiness project is that my students, who span the ages of 18 to 65 are genuinely interested. I was so worried they would take one look at me and walk out the door. Instead, they have really embraced the process.

Day 1 of the project, the students took two pre-assessments to gauge their current levels of life satisfaction. The hope is that after applying the evidence based curriculum over the course of 5 weeks, they will score higher on the assessments at the end of the semester. I’m not sure if that’s feasible, but we are going to try.

The most consistent intervention we are using is gratitude. Students are required to submit gratitude journals at the end of every class, which record three things they are grateful for. While they can simply list the three things, I do ask that they explore one more fully. I have to say, I am so impressed with their answers. I really thought the majority of my students (specifically my young males) would pay me lip service. I was so wrong. Here are a few examples:

  • Gym: It seems like a silly thing to be thankful for but for me, it’s an outlet/stress reliever. No matter what’s going on in my life when I’m there nothing bothers me. I get in my zone and I think everyone needs a healthy escape.
  • I am grateful for my car. While it seems weird to be thankful for just a car, I worked hard to earn the money for my car and enjoy working on it, and making it better, faster, and nicer.
  • International Food Market: With my four days off this week, I get a chance to go to Upper Darby and buy all of my spices and special curry that I haven’t had in a while. My spices I have purchased from the same person for the last 10 years.

We fail to find gratitude in our everyday lives. We rush through life and seldom stop to really think about how lucky we are. And then we think we have meningitis.

Another small project I’ve had the students working on is savoring. Savoring is an extension of Mindfulness. It is a conscious and deliberate positive attention to the past, present and future from a multi-sensory experience. Think about when we really slow down and savor a meal. When you stop and bask in the best steak, wine, chocolate, etc. that you’ve ever had. That’s savoring.

I’ve asked to student to savor something and write an essay explaining the experience from a multi-sensory experience. It isn’t due until next week but a few students have already submitted the essays, along with photos.


pic milkshake

This is a milkshake that has been and is currently being savored.

It’s clear to me that the happiness project was as much for my students as it was for me. Actually, it was way more for me than it was for them. But they are reaping the benefits, so it’s all good.