Surviving the Holidays

“The absence of a loved one is noted and highlighted by what is supposed to be a time of celebration.” ~ psychologist Dr. Velleda Ceccoli

After my blog post last week I received a couple of emails asking me how I’ve dealt with the holidays.

The short answer is I make sure to have a plan. I learned early on the only way to get through the difficult days like Christmas, the boys birthdays, or the accident day is to have a plan. It doesn’t matter what the plan is. It doesn’t matter if the plan is actually followed. But having a plan is an absolute necessity. I learned this the hard way.

The first Thanksgiving without the boys was terrible. I didn’t bother to have a plan because I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Thanksgiving was never that exciting of a holiday for me, so I didn’t think it would be hard without the boys. However, as a friend reminded me, Thanksgiving is a tradition. It turned out to be an incredibly difficult day. Last year, the plan I had to get through Thanksgiving, wasn’t a very good plan. The holiday was so bad last year that I’m really dreading Thanksgiving this year.

The purpose behind having a plan is to deal with the dread leading up to the actual day. When you know a difficult day is coming all you can think about is how you are going to survive that day. Questions like, “How am I going to get through that day? What should I do?” occupy your mind. These days, the holidays, birthdays and memorial days are hard because they shout that the boys are no longer here. Birthdays are no longer about celebrating becoming a year older, they are about remembering. The accident day is a reminder that my life shattered in one brief second. And the holidays . . . . well the holidays are not nearly as much fun without the boys to share them with.

Christmas has been the holiday I’ve obsessed over the most. The first Christmas without the boys had me so panicked I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone in my home. No kids to pull me out of bed before I was awake, no excitement over presents, no Christmas mess to clean up and no playing with new toys. I just couldn’t handle the emptiness of it. So I did the only thing I could think of, I ran away.

I went to Hawaii. I can still remember the smell that hung in the air when I walked out of the airport. The whole island smelled like perfume. Palm trees, blue skies, and perfect temperatures made it hard to believe it was Christmas time. There were not many decorations around and everything was open on Christmas day. If you want to avoid Christmas, Hawaii is the place to go.

A few photos from my trip to Hawaii
A few photos from my trip to Hawaii

The second Christmas after the accident caused me almost as much angst as that first year. I wanted to avoid Christmas again. But I could not afford the trip to Hawaii, nor did I want to spend the holiday alone again. So I talked my parents and my sister’s family into renting a cabin in the woods. My parents found a house for us to rent up near Mt. Hood. I was excited about this idea because, being closer to the mountain we had a better chance of having snow for Christmas. Living in Oregon’s Willamette Valley snow is pretty rare, especially for Christmas.

It turned out to be a wonderful Christmas. We woke up Christmas morning to snow gently falling from the sky. It did not stop snowing until 4pm. I had not had a white Christmas like that since I was a child living in Minnesota. I felt like it was a gift from God. It was like God was telling this hurting family hiding in the woods how much he loved them.

The snow that made me feel so at peace that Christmas, with the lights of the Christmas tree in the background.
The snow that made me feel so at peace that Christmas, with the lights of the Christmas tree in the background.

Last year was the first year I didn’t feel the need to run away. Maybe enough time had passed, maybe it was because I had moved and was no longer in the home where I’d raised my boys. Whatever the reason last year was the first year I stayed home for Christmas. It was a nice Christmas, with my family, that turned into a spontaneous slumber party at my parent’s house.

I still have not decorated for Christmas. My sister asked me if I was going to decorate this year. I said “No”.

“Not even a little bit?” she asked

“No, not yet” I replied

The thought of opening all my Christmas boxes and seeing the boy’s special ornaments, their homemade ornaments or the Christmas stockings I spend a year cross-stitching for them is too painful. Someday I will be able to open the boxes of Christmas decorations and fill my house with holiday decorations and memories. But right now I just can’t do it.

For me the holidays are still about surviving them. I’ve learned that each holiday is different and what I need to do to get through them is different.

So I make a plan. The plan can be as simple as going to a movie, or as big as going on a vacation. Playing games with family, going shopping, hanging out with friends are all good ways to get through a holiday. The key is to have a way to get through the day so the grief doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s not avoiding the grief but finding a way to cope on one of the hardest days of the year.

Sometimes having an exit strategy is necessary. If the original plan is failing, having something to fall back on is key to salvaging the day. This is the first year I have made an exit strategy. I’m dreading the holidays so much; I feel the need for a backup plan. I may take myself to the movies, or go home and watch a new movie I purchased just for this reason. Though I am hoping to not need my backup plan, I’m glad I know that I have a way to survive the day if my original plan fails again.

I’ve learned that during the holidays I can only worry about what is going to help me survive the best. Someday I will have joy in the holidays again. But for now I hold my breath until it’s over.

Holidays (1 of 1)

Why I Am Afraid

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear” ~ C. S. Lewis

The last couple of weeks I’ve been struggling. I haven’t been sleeping well. I have had trouble focusing in class and with my clients. (I’m in graduate school working towards my degree in counseling) I’d rather lie around all day watching tv than get anything accomplished. I was starting to recognize the funk I was in as depression.

I’ve been trying to shake it. I thought I just needed to get myself organized and then I’d be able to focus again. I switched internships a few weeks ago and I thought the schedule change was contributing to my funk. Then I thought I needed to get the paperwork organized so I had an idea of what I was doing.

Tuesday I realized there was so much more going on. I was talking to my supervisor at school about my inability to focus with clients. He asked me one simple question and it all fell into place. “Do you have a hard memorial day coming up?”

I looked at him and I said I have 4. Both of my boys birthdays, the accident date and Christmas all fall within the same 3 month period. December – February.

After 4 years you’d think I would recognize the signs that I’m entering the hardest time of the year for me. But no, it didn’t even dawn on me. It took an outside observer for me to realize that my “funk” was really about the boys.

As I talked to my supervisor I admitted something I haven’t been willing to admit to myself or anyone else. I haven’t been allowing the pain in. I know I desperately need to, but I just don’t want to. I’m so tired of hurting. I’m so tired of the intense pain.

This year has been the hardest year since that first year. The cloud of the surreal is lifting and the reality is really setting in. The last few years my life has been separated into 2 worlds. The reality I’m living and the dream of my old life. Most of the time the life I’m living now feels like it’s the life I’ve always lived. And the life with the boys feels like a dream. Every now and then that barrier would be crossed and I’d feel the pain of what I’ve lost. But eventually the barrier would go back and I could continue to carry on. This is all so hard to explain, but so normal in the grief process.

This year has been different. The dream of my old life and the reality of my new life have been trying to merge into 1 reality. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid to let the pain in, because I know that this time the protective barrier isn’t coming back. The reality that my boys are truly gone is setting in with a finality that I don’t want to deal with yet.

Yes I will admit it . . . I am afraid. I know how intense the pain of grief is, and how exhausting it is.

It’s sitting at a stop sign and realizing it hurts so much you have stopped breathing. It’s the sharp, searing hot pain that slices through your heart when you weren’t expecting it. It’s the dull ache in your heart from not being able to hold your child anymore. It’s collapsing to the floor of the boy’s room because your legs will no longer support your weight. It’s crying so hard you cannot breathe. It’s feeling alone even when you are in a room surrounded by friends and family.

I wish I could fully explain the depth of the pain and grief that comes with losing a child. But unless you’ve experienced it, you can never really fully understand. And that’s good; I wish people didn’t have to know this pain. I hope you never have to.

C.S. Lewis is right; grief and fear are incredibly linked. The fear comes from knowing the pain is intense and cannot be avoided. It has to be dealt with. Grief cannot be ignored, it will come out eventually.

I know I need to let the pain in, or as I like to put it, have a meltdown. And I will. I cried while writing this post, and that’s a step in the right direction. I may have to deal with this in small bits instead of my normal big meltdown. Or I may need to have a full on crying fit. Either way, I need to make time in my life to grieve. These next few months are going to be hard and I need to allow that into my life. The only way through grief is to deal with it head on. And I will, when I am able to.

Lewis Fear

Being Carried Through Grief

“Come on Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you . . . but I can carry you!” ~ Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

From the very beginning I have been surrounded with a wonderful support system. Because of this I feel very lucky.

When my parents and I finally arrived at OHSU the hospital staff quickly ushered us past the ER waiting room and upstairs to our own private room. I was so thankful for this. I knew many people from our church had filled up the ER waiting room. I would not have been able to handle being around so many people in that moment. But I was so very grateful they were there. In a strange way just knowing they were there made me feel supported.

We had our own private room for the family on the floor of the ICU. There was also another waiting room on this floor. This second waiting room slowly filled with other supporters who showed up at the hospital as the news spread. Friends from college, an elder from our previous church, long time friends and new friends. I was such a mess during this time, I’m not sure I was able to talk to most of those who came. But I was so happy they were there.

When my husband was discharged the following afternoon the hospital social worker said to me “You have the largest support group I’ve ever seen”.

What she saw was only the tip of the iceberg.

The amount of support I have received over the years is truly inspiring. Family, extended family, friends, acquaintances, churches, and even complete strangers, have all supported me in one way or another. With the photography community I was involved in and missionary friends there were people praying from all around the world. Everyday I would hear of someone else, usually someone I didn’t know, who’d heard about the accident and was praying for us. I received cards and gifts from complete strangers. Even today I still have people tell me they’ve been thinking of me and praying for me.

Every time someone told me they thought of me that day, or prayed for me, or sent a card, or gave me a gift I felt supported. Everyone who came to visit or let me talk about the boys supported me. Every time I heard how the accident affected someone I felt supported. Every time someone talked about my boys or shared memories of them I was encouraged. Even to this day the support continues.

I could go on about the support I have received. And I will in future posts. 🙂

I wish everyone who has to go through such difficult times could have the support group I have. I’ve heard terrible things about how grieving parents have been treated. I breaks my heart to hear their stories, and it makes me angry. I get angry when I hear about people who are in pain and that pain is increased because of the insensitivity or downright mean spiritedness of others. And many times it comes from people who should know better. We are supposed to support each other in our pain, not make it worse.

I am so incredibly fortunate that I have not had to experience the mean spirit of some people. I’ve had people say things to me that hurt, but I know they had good intentions. I’ve had people say insensitive things, but not downright mean. Most of the time these people say things because they want to take away the pain I’m feeling.

One thing I’ve learned is you cannot, and you should not try to, take away someone’s pain. But you can make it easier to carry.

I love the quote from Lord of the Rings. It’s near the end of the movie when Frodo and Sam are trying to get into the heart of Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring of Power. Frodo, burdened with carrying the ring, is exhausted, beat up, completely worn down and cannot move. Sam knows he cannot take the burden of the ring from Frodo, so he carry’s Frodo instead. It’s such a great moment in the movie. But after the accident I saw it a little bit differently, it became a metaphor for my support system. The Ring became my grief, a burden that only I can carry. Sam became my support system, all the people who prayed for me and supported me, were carrying me so I wouldn’t have to bear my burden alone.

Every time I felt the support of others, my burden was lifted a little bit.

I feel like God has given me an incredible gift in the people who’ve surrounded me and held me up during these last few years. I also feel like I’ve been given a glimpse of a vision God had for his church. I believe we are meant to help share each other’s burdens, to support and encourage each other through our pain and struggles.

 “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” 2 Corinthians 1:4 (New Living Translation)

When we share the burden of grief and pain, we make that burden lighter. We can then turn around and use the support we were given to help support others in their pain.

I can honestly say having the support system I do, has made all the difference in my life. So Thank You to everyone who has prayed for me, supported me, encouraged me and listened to me. I would not be where I am today without you.

Mountain (1 of 1)


The Day My World Shattered

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.” ~ C. S. Lewis A Grief Observed

I discovered the truth of those words on January 22, 2011.

I remember the day starting out hectic. I was rushing around trying to get ready for a photo shoot. My two boys were watching TV while they ate their breakfast. My husband was preparing for a Geo Cashing adventure planned for that morning with the boys, my sister and her family. Soon we were all headed out the door.

I waited for my client for half an hour before I headed home. Everyone was gone on their adventure, so I took advantage of the quite house to work on some photo editing. I was engrossed in my editing and wasn’t paying attention to the passing of time. After a while, I realized they should be home by now. The worry I was starting to feel barely had time to take hold when my phone rang.

My brother-in-law was on the other end. There’d been a car accident. My husband was in an ambulance on the way to the local hospital. My sister and her family were on their way to pick me up. I asked about the boys. He refused to answer me and said, “Just be ready”.

The next thing I can remember is opening my front door when they arrived. My nephew was crying so much I think wailing would be a better word to describe the sound he was making. I will NEVER forget that sound.

I met my brother-in-law in front of their car. I don’t remember the words he used, but I knew he was trying to tell me something my mind was refusing to hear.

During the drive to the hospital I rode in the passenger seat of my sisters car. I sat there wringing my hands. Nervous, agitated movements, designed to keep me in tact, to keep me from falling apart. We finally arrived at the hospital. I was out of the car before it had come to a complete stop. I rushed into the ER entrance and heard an announcement over the PA system. They were asking people to move their cars so life flight could land in the parking lot. “Oh good, one of the boys made it”, I thought.

I ran up to the desk and told the lady behind the counter that my husband had just been brought in. I was directed to a nurse who told me they had him sedated, that all his x-rays came back normal and they were just waiting on the tests to see if he had internal bleeding. I asked her about the boys, a strange look crossed her face, and she told me she’d see what she could find out.

I was then taken in to see my husband. I stood in the doorway of his room. It was a terrifying site. People surrounded him and there were wires and tubes everywhere. I was not allowed to stay long because they were preparing to put him on the life flight helicopter.

I was then led to an ER waiting room. After a few minutes a train of doctors, nurses and EMT’s filed in. I knew what they were going to say, but I had to hear the words. My boys had not survived the accident. They were gone.

In that split second my entire life changed.

My memories over the next several minutes and hours are in jumbled snippets. I became very robotic, numb. I went through the motions of preparing to go meet my husband at the hospital in Portland. I packed a bag in case I had to stay the night in the hospital. I robotically contacted people to deliver the news.

Time had stopped.

I don’t know how long it was before my brain was able to form thoughts. An hour? Two? All I know is the first few thoughts I had were defining moments for me. These thoughts would be my guide as I learned how to live a life without my children.

The first conscious thought I can remember having was the realization that God knew when they were born, my boys lives would be short. With that thought came a small measure of peace. In the months leading up to the accident I’d begun to question my faith. Did I believe in God because I was raised in the church, or because I believed in him? Standing in the hallway at OHSU in Portland, I had the answer to my question. Like the C.S. Lewis quote, with life and death staring me in the face, I realized how much I truly believed in God, and I would not turn my back on him.

Later like a flash of lightening another thought hit me. A fragment of a verse I’d memorized long ago, about God working everything out for good. I believed God would use this tragedy for something good . . . . someday. I’ve been clinging to that Hope ever since that moment. It is what gets me up in the morning. It’s how I am able to put one foot in front of another every single day.

The final defining moment for me was an actual decision I made. I decided I was going to be real with my pain. I didn’t want to hide behind the I’m a Christian so life is good attitude that seems to permeate in the church. I wanted to show people that pain and God could co-exist in life.

It’s been almost 4 years since my life came crashing down. I’ve learned a lot from the decision I made in that defining moment. I learned that not only can a life lived for God be full of pain, I learned that even in the most excruciating pain imaginable God is there . . . holding you while you cry.

My purpose in starting this blog is to share my story in the hopes that it will help others. I want to help individuals like myself who’ve lost so much find the hope they need. I want to help our society understand what it’s like to really grieve. And I want to help the church reach out to those in pain with understanding and compassion so that their pain can be eased.

I hope you will join me as I begin this new journey in my life.

CS Lewis