The first time I saw a counselor after the accident she asked me what my goal was, what I wanted to achieve in counseling. The only answer I could give her was “I don’t want to be like a grieving mom I know. Her son died 5 years ago and she still acts like it was yesterday”.
5 years seemed so far away.
But here I am 5 years later and it went by in a flash.
And I understand now, I will always grieve the loss of my boys. Some days it will feel like it just happened yesterday. Other days it will feel like it was a lifetime ago. Some days the pain will be more than I can bear. Other days it will be a small flicker in the background of my life. But it will never go away.
It will always be with me, but it doesn’t have to define me.
That was my goal in the beginning of all this, to grieve the loss of my boys but not let the accident and the loss become my identity.
On Mother’s Day I can think of no mother more deserving than a mother that had to give one back.” ~ Erma Bombeck
This weekend is going to be an emotional rollercoaster ride for me. On Friday I will be graduating from graduate school. It will be a celebration of 2 ½ years of stress and hard work. I will have accomplished something I didn’t think I could. The only damper to my day will be the fact that my boys are not there to share it with me.
Then Sunday is Mother’s Day.
I dread the approach of Mother’s Day. For some reason this holiday is different than the others. I have figured out how to survive holidays and the boy’s birthdays. (You can read about it here). But Mother’s Day is different.
How do you survive an entire day dedicated to celebrating motherhood, when you don’t feel like a mother anymore? Don’t get me wrong. I’m a mom and I always will be. But I don’t FEEL like a mom. There is a certain level of worry you live with when your children are around. All moms’ I know question themselves. Am I doing this right? Am I a good mother? How can I be better? With my children gone, I no longer have that level of worry about my children. I no longer spend my days questioning if I’m doing motherhood right. My days are no longer ordered around my kid’s schedule. I have only myself to think about and worry about. I no longer FEEL like a mom.
I loved being a mom. I had so much fun joking around with my boys and dreaming of their futures. I couldn’t wait to see who they grew up to be. I loved silliness and the craziness of having boys. Their creativity and how they saw the world always astounded me. I loved the organization of making sure they got to where they needed to be and keeping the house picked up after their whirlwind way of playing with toys. I even enjoyed the worry, the fighting, and the annoying little things they did. Because that’s what being a mom is all about. I MISS being a mom.
All holidays point to the fact my children are gone. But Mother’s Day screams it.
So how do I survive the day dedicated to being a mom, without my children around to make me feel like a mom? I hide. I refuse to attend church on Mother’s Day. I stay off Facebook. It hurts to much to see the pictures and read the stories of what has been done for the mom’s, knowing that I will never again have that in my life.
Last week I joined a Facebook group for grieving parents who have lost a child or children and are now childless. Everyday since joining someone has posted the question “How do I survive Mother’s Day?” The responses range from beautiful to desperate. Some spend the day with family; others decorate their children’s graves. Some, like me, hide away from the world for the day.
There really is no right or wrong way to get through the day. As a grieving mom you do what you have to do to survive the day. The best way through these days is to have a plan. Plan out what you would like to do that day. If the plan works you’ll get through the day and survive. If the plan doesn’t work out that’s ok too, you will still survive the day. The idea is to have a plan that you know will get you through the day.
This year my plan is to hide. I will buy myself my favorite chocolate and a new movie. I will curl up on my couch, lose myself in a good movie and pretend the world doesn’t exist. I will do this because on this one day it hurts to much to try and so I shut down. I miss being a mom.
Anxiety: Overestimating the negative future possibilities and under estimating your ability to deal with it. ~ Teresa’s Counselor
I woke up in the middle of the night. Something wasn’t right. Panic. I could feel it spreading through my body. I knew if I gave myself over to it, I would have a panic attack. I tried the deep breathing techniques I’d been practicing. But I couldn’t breathe in deep enough. So I waited. Eventually the feeling subsided.
When I thought back on that night I got mad at myself. A panic attack, really? I’ve never had a panic attack and here I almost had one over ORALS!
I first began hearing about orals my first year of graduate school. The professors started dropping hints about how difficult orals were in the first few classes. No one ever actually explained what orals were so it took me awhile to figure out what everyone was so worked up about. The oral exam is a pass/fail exam all the Masters in Counseling students have to take in order to graduate. You write a paper about a client, submit a video of you working with the client. Then defend your paper and video to a panel of teachers. It sounded hard but not undoable. So I didn’t worry about it.
But then we had our oral exam orientation in October. Yup! There was an orientation to explain what was required to pass our orals. It is that big of a deal. It was around this time my confidence evaporated and anxiety set in.
Somehow I’d talked myself into believing I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t write a giant paper. I didn’t understand theory well enough. I didn’t know how to use theory with my clients. I didn’t know where to put my client in Erickson’s Stages of Development. I didn’t have a good video. I could go on. My negative self-talk was so bad, the anxiety increased with every passing day. I allowed the anxiety to take control and for the first time in my life I got stuck. They gave us 4 months to work on our orals paper. I watched month after month slip past and I still had not written 1 word.
Shortly after my middle of the night almost panic attack, I started thinking about all the anxiety I was experiencing. I couldn’t remember ever going through something like this before. I started looking at the anxiety and wondering where it came from. Was I always this way? I didn’t think so.
I finally asked my mom if I was an anxious person before the accident. She confirmed that I wasn’t. She even pointed out that I was more of a deal with it and move on kind of person. So I assumed the accident had created anxiousness in me. But then my mom said something that surprised me. She said that even after the accident I wasn’t an anxious person. According to my mom the anxiety centered on school. She figured I had so much anxiety about school because I had so much riding on school.
Anyone who goes to college, especially graduate school, has a lot riding on school. So why was I so different? Because, I have EVERYTHING riding on school. Financial stability, employability, a new life purpose, a new identity as a professional and the idea that some day, through helping others, I will be happy. The entire process of rebuilding my life was riding on being able to graduate.
And my oral exam was in the way of that new life.
I was explaining this all to my counselor when she made a statement that stopped me in my tracks.
“It sounds like you have some resentment that you have to be doing this.”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head!
Yes I have some resentment!! I am a stay-at-home-mom with no kids to take care of. All I have ever wanted to be was a mom. And I loved being a mom. But that dream was ripped from me and I watched my entire life crumble around me. Hell yes, I’m resentful. Everything. I lost everything. I am rebuilding my life from the ground up. And I don’t want to have to do this. This is not the life I chose.
I also realized I have some resentment toward God for allowing all this to happen. That is a hard one to admit and will take some time to work through.
Sadly all this realization didn’t make the anxiety go away. The day for my oral board finally came. A bundle of nerves, I sat down in front of a panel of 3 professors. I explained my client and answered their questions. Turns out I enjoyed the mental challenge of the process. And in the end it was like having a conversation about my client.
By the time I got home that day I was mentally and physically drained. (I was even having trouble putting together coherent sentences).
It took me a week and half to emotionally recover from orals. Once I did I realized something. I had let the anxiety completely take over my life. As a result I had wandered away from my relationship with God. Even the daily running conversation I had with God was gone.
In my fear I had tried so hard to control everything around me, I had lost sight of who really is in control. I had lost sight of where my strength comes from. I had lost sight of who I am.
Today for the first time in 5 months I feel like myself again. And now begins the hard work of rebuilding my relationship with God and removing the anxiety from my life.
Now when I feel the anxiety beginning, I stop it before it can build. I say to myself “No! You are not going to do that again.” I remind myself how awful and exhausting it is to live like that. As time goes on I’ll be able to confidently turn to God instead.
I want to leave you with one final thought. Earlier this month a friend posted this on Facebook
“Fear Paralyzes. Faith Mobilizes”
It was fear of failing that had me so stuck I almost didn’t pass orals. It was faith that led me to graduate school and the idea that I can help others. It is faith that keeps me moving forward and dreaming of a better life.
You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3
2014 is almost over. There are only a few days left, and I have to say, I am so happy this year is over. It’s been a very hard year for me. It’s been a year full of grief and stress, and I’ve never been so happy to see a year come to an end.
You can read about why this year has been so difficult here.
But as this difficult year draws to a close, I am reminded of the attitude I had at the end of the hardest year of my life.
At the end of 2011, I sent out my annual Christmas cards and letter. I wanted to say thank you to all the friends and family who had been so supportive throughout the year. But I also wanted to end the year with hope.
The following is an excerpt from that letter:
“Without a doubt this has been the hardest year of my life. I’ve lost everything that gave me purpose and made me who I was. Everything I knew and understood about my life is gone. I’m left with only these 3 things: my photography, family/friends and my faith in God. I have faith that God has been with me through everything and faith that he has brighter plans for me in the future.
A few years ago I asked the boys a question each night as I tucked them into bed. I asked them “What was your favorite part of today?” My goal was to get them thinking of the positive things even if they’d had a bad day. Of course this practice only lasted a week or so. But I’ve been thinking of that question a lot these past few weeks. Only the question has changed to “What was your favorite part of this year?” Believe it or not I can answer that question. With everything I’ve lost and gone through this year I can still find positive things. I think the boys would be proud of that.”
I reread my Christmas letter and was amazed at the faith and positive attitude I had that year. Though my faith in God has never wavered, my trust in God has. I know that seems like a contradiction. Having faith in God with my grief is easy, it’s the only way I can survive this. But it’s the trust in the little things of life that is harder. God has been teaching me to trust him in the little things this year. It’s a hard lesson I am still learning.
It is so strange that in the year 2011 I could easily find things that were good. I had experienced the worst thing a parent can imagine, I was still reeling from the tragedy. Yet I was still able to find something good from that year.
But this year it’s harder for me to find something good. When I look back on the year all I can see is anxiety, stress and grief. Yet because it’s been such a hard year, I’m feeling the need to ask myself this question again, to find something good out of this year.
Three things come to mind when I try and find something good from this year: my photography club, my first speaking engagement and school.
Though school has been where all of my stress has originated this year, it is also the only thing keeping me moving forward. Going to school has given me a sense of purpose and when I am done, hopefully I will be qualified to help others like me who’ve lost everything.
Beyond a sense of purpose, school has also given me new friends. The program I’m in is a cohort style program. This means that I go so class every Thursday night with the same people. My cohort has been together for 2 years now. We’ve been through a lot together as a class and have had a lot of fun. I hope once school is over and that weekly connection is gone, we will find a way to stay connected and remain friends.
The last day of November I had the opportunity to tell my story in church. This is something I have been wanting to do for a couple of years. But I was never sure I really had anything worthwhile to say. To be given the opportunity to share my story was not only an amazing opportunity, it was a healing experience as well.
My photography club has been such a huge part of my support system in many ways. So it’s no surprise to me that they made my list of good things from this year again. This summer my photography club came to Oregon and I was able to show off some of my favorite places. We had so much fun photographing Oregon’s countryside and laughing with each other. I can’t wait for our trip next year.
Besides having a ton of fun with good friends, I learned a lot about myself from that trip. I learned that I am capable of so much more than I thought. I learned that I have some leadership skills and with practice, I could handle doing similar things on a grander scale. As a result, after the group left, I began thinking of another life goal that I hope to implement someday.
All this to say, that even during the worst day, month or year, if you look hard enough you can find something good that happened.
When you are grieving the loss of someone their birthday is no longer about celebrating another year. It’s about remembering them. And that’s not what a birthday is supposed to be about.
Yesterday was, my oldest son’s 16th birthday. Dawson would have been 16 years old. Sixteen!!! No matter how many times I say that, I just cannot get over the fact my baby boy would have been turning 16 years old. No longer a baby, and no longer a boy. He would have hit that magical age of 16 years old, a teenager on the verge of becoming a man.
My memories of Dawson stop when he was 12 years old, a pre-teen on the verge of puberty. He was still into Transformers and Bionicle action figures. He loved airplanes, astronomy and knowing how things work. If anything needed to be put together he was the one I called. He loved building things. He built his own transformer costume out of cardboard boxes. He and his Grandpa built a go cart. He was so proud of the fact that his 1st Lego robotics team dubbed him the “master programmer”.
Yesterday he would have turned 16 years old. A landmark year, a birthday party year. When the boys were young I decided they would have big birthday parties on the landmark years. 5, 10, 13, 16, 18 and 21 are the years that deserved special recognition. I missed out on throwing Dawson his 13th birthday party and now I’m missing out on his 16th birthday.
I’m missing so much.
I wonder all the time how tall he would be? What would his voice sound like? What would he be like as a teenager? What kinds of interests would he have developed as childhood slipped away? Would he be interested in girls yet?
I won’t get to teach him how to drive. I missed his graduation from 8th grade and his entrance into high school.
As time goes on, I will miss out on even more. I will miss out on watching him participate in high school activities. I will miss his first date. I will miss watching my son graduate from high school, going off to college, getting married, and providing me with grandchildren.
I feel like I’ve been cheated. I was so looking forward to having teenage boys in my house. I was looking forward to seeing what kind of young man my son would become. I will never have the answers to my questions. And I’ll never be able to see my son grow into a man. To quote Dawson “It’s not fair”.
I miss my boy so much. I miss watching his mind work as he built something. I miss his intensity. I miss his laugh and his smile. I miss fighting with him over food. I miss the teenage attitude he’d started to develop. I miss teasing him and being teased in return. I miss our movie nights. I miss his adventurous spirit and our bike rides.
I miss so much.
For Dawson’s 12th birthday he received a rocket from his Aunt and Uncle. At the time of the accident the rocket sat unopened in his room. Because his birthday is in the winter and so close to Christmas, we never had a chance to play with it.
Every year since the accident we have launched Dawson’s rocket on his birthday. Last year the rocket broke. The parachute did not open and when it fell back to earth, it hit the ground hard.
This year Dawson’s Uncle bought 2 new rockets so we can keep the tradition going. Dawson’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all gathered to launch the new rockets. We’d planned to start launching the rockets at 2pm. But in true family fashion, it was 4pm before we had all the problems worked out. We launched the first rocket and watched it disappear into the clouds. When it came back down, it landed in the trees far beyond our reach. The first rocket was lost. So we moved locations to launch the second rocket, farther away from the trees. Woosh! The second rocket launched. This rocket had a second booster, which shot it well beyond our vision. The second rocket was lost as well.
Even though the afternoon was filled with launching issues, it was a great way to spend Dawson’s 16th birthday. I just wish he could have been with us.
I thought it would be fun to share part of Dawson’s birthday with you so I made a short video of the rocket launches.
Last week I received a message from my pastor asking if he could use my story as part of his sermon. I asked if he just wanted to mention my story or if he’d like me to come share it personally. He became very excited at the opportunity to have me speak in-person, so I agreed.
I spent all of last week cycling between being excited and nervous. I even had a moment of sheer panic on Saturday night. .
Yesterday I shared my story and my journey of clinging to hope in church.
I have wanted to share my story for a long time. I am very passionate about grief, how to grieve and how to treat those who are grieving. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my story and my passion in a public forum.
After much prayer, I feel led to help others beyond just one-on-one counseling. I believe my story and my journey can benefit others. With a leap of faith and the support of my friends and family, I have decided to open myself up to speak to groups, churches, and support organizations.
The posted video is my first step down this path. Your prayers and your support is appreciated.
“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.
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.
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.