How I Survived Child Loss: Part 2 – Support System

“You have the largest support system I’ve ever seen.”

The hospital social worker said this to me as we left the hospital the day after the accident. I still remember the look on her face, a mixture of disbelief and pride. Friends, family and church members had been flowing in and out of the hospital for the last 2 days.

Before we even arrived at the hospital that horrible Saturday afternoon, members of our church had started to fill the ER waiting room. By the time we arrived, my parents and I had to be ushered past the waiting room through staff only doors so those who’d come to support us wouldn’t overwhelm us. Friends had completely filled the ER waiting area. Most were stopped there and not allowed on the ICU floor where we were taken. I never ventured into the waiting area to see the crowd. I was barely holding it together as it was, I couldn’t emotionally handle that. Though I never saw them, I appreciated their presence.

Many other friends, who came to support us, came in through a different hospital entrance. They were able to make it to the ICU floor where my family and I waited for news of my husband. I can still remember looking in the waiting room and seeing them, sitting and talking to each other. I felt like I should go over there and join their conversation, but I just couldn’t. I stayed close to my family because I could not handle any conversation. I couldn’t talk to them, but I was so glad they were there.

The group of friends who came to the hospital shifted throughout the day. Some came and went, others stayed for hours; new ones arrived as word of the accident spread. I appreciated their presence and the fact they didn’t intrude on my need for distance. The social worker who spent time with us during our 36 hours in the hospital watched the ever-shifting crowd of people who’d come to support us. Apparently, they made an impression on her prompting the comment as we prepared to leave the hospital that Sunday afternoon.

Years later I understand why she was so impressed. I could not have made it this far without my support system.

Going to graduate school to become a counselor I learned one of the most important factors for success in therapy is the individual’s support system. It’s not the relationship with the counselor or the therapeutic techniques used, it is the support system that makes the most difference.

I can only imagine the hospital social worker saw the size of our support and knew we would be able to travel the hard road ahead.

In truth, she saw only a fraction of those who’ve shown up to support me on my journey of grief.

Through social media, my online photography club, and my rather large extended family I have been carried through my grief. I haven’t had to do any of this alone.

One night while working my new, I’m no longer a stay-at-home mom, job I had a meltdown. It was one of those bad grief days that I couldn’t contain. I was stuck in a call center customer service job and all I wanted was to go home and cry. But I had to keep answering phone calls. I made some big mistakes that night because I couldn’t focus. I was struggling to stay together so I could finish my shift.

I posted on Facebook how bad my night was going. I watched the slowly moving clock, willing it to move faster so I could go home and break down properly. Finally, the time came for me log out of my computer and leave work. I walked out of the building and started heading to my car, only to discover my parents had come to pick me up from work.

They had seen my Facebook post and had seen beyond the vague words and knew I was doing worse than I’d let on. My mom said to me “We weren’t sure if this would be ok”. It was a little weird, yes, but it was such an awesome thing for them to do. I curled up in the passenger seat of my van and cried as my mom drove me home, with dad following behind us.

This is just one of the small ways my parents have supported me.

The second Christmas after the accident, I wanted to hide away from reality. I couldn’t afford to go on vacation like I had the year before. So I talked my family into hiding out in the mountains with me. My parents found a rental house big enough for us, along with my sister and her family. We spent 3 days hiding from the world. It was peaceful and fun. (You can read about it here.)

I realized my sister and her family had given up all their holiday traditions to hide away with me. I felt bad about taking them away from their traditions until I mentioned it to my sister, she replied, “It’s the only thing you’ve asked us to do”. After all these years I still tear up at the selfless support.

My extended family has been another layer of support. Both of my parents come from large families. Growing up I loved having so many uncles, aunts, and cousins. But I have never been so thankful to come from a large family as I have since the accident. As news of the accident spread my mom’s family descended upon us, flying in from all over the country. The chaos of the Greeley side of my family was exactly what I needed. They held me together that first week. My dad’s family is more quite, but their support as time has stretched on has sustained me too. I have such an amazing family.

I could also go on about all the different ways my friends have shown me support. But this post is getting long. You can read about it (here, here and here).

I don’t know why God has blessed me with such a wonderful support system. So many grieving parents are on this awful journey alone. I’ve heard horrible stories of the things other bereaved parents have had to endure from family, friends and even their church. It breaks my heart when I see how little support some people have.

At the Compassionate Friends support group I attend, we have a saying “Your address book changes after the loss of a child”. It’s so true. People you thought would always be there for you disappear and others surprise you by becoming new friends. Even with my support system, I’ve had my address book change. People I thought were good friends are gone. And others I’ve had minimal contact with over the years became a larger part of my support.

I would not have been able to walk this path alone. I need every single person who has supported me in any way they can. Each one of them has carried me on this journey.

We are not meant to carry the burden of our pain alone. It’s too heavy and too hard. We need people to love us, support us and help carry us through.

This concept is so beautifully demonstrated at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo and Sam are trying to get to Mt. Doom so Frodo can destroy the ring of evil. No one but Frodo can carry the ring and at this point in the journey, the weight of the ring is too much for him. Frodo collapses and cannot go on. Sam, his trusted friend, in a climatic moment says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”. This is such a great demonstration of how we are to support one another. No one can ever carry or take away my pain, but I have been carried through the pain by the love and support of those God sent to comfort me.

If you don’t have support in your grief journey look for a local chapter of Compassionate Friends or Grief Share.

How a 100 Year Old Tragedy Still Affects My Family

The first week of July I went to a family reunion in the Midwest. I spent a peaceful week on my uncle’s farm reconnecting with uncles, aunts and cousins. One of our activities was to visit several cemeteries. I know this sounds odd, many of us in the younger generation thought it was. But it was a way for Dad and his 5 brothers to pass on family history. While I know most of the family stories, I did learn some new things.

There is one family story I have heard about since I was a little girl. I’ve always been interested in it, but this time the story came alive for me in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s the story of the train accident.

In 1919 my Great-Grandpa George piled his wife and several of their children into their car to drive the preacher home. On the way a train going backwards through the train crossing struck the car. My Great-Grandmother Lily, who was pregnant at the time, and the 3 youngest girls were killed. My 4-year-old Grandpa spent a month in the hospital.

The car filled with George's family
The car filled with George’s family
My Grandpa is second from the left. The 3 younger girls were killed in the accident
My Grandpa is second from the left. The 3 younger girls were killed in the accident

The newspaper article on the accident is surprisingly graphic. It included gruesome detail about how Lily and the youngest child died. Though I’ve known this story for most of my life, reading the article was shocking.

Yet there are things not included in the article that have become part of my family history. I know that after the accident George went to his mother and said, “I killed my family”. The guilt he must have felt having been the one driving the car. My grandpa came home from the hospital and went through the house looking for his mom. No one told him she had died. My grandpa grew up without a mother and when he married my grandma he said, “Now I have a mother”. (I recently learned my grandma found this romantic). My grandma had to teach my grandpa how to celebrate birthdays and holidays, because this was not something George did with his surviving children.

I always thought it was sad George never celebrated his children’s birthdays or holidays. I will admit on some level I judged him for it. But now I understand. Birthdays and holidays are so hard without my boys. It’s easier to respond to those days the way George did, pretending they don’t exist. I have no desire to celebrate the holidays. My birthday is hard without my boys. Their birthdays are even harder. While there are a few holidays I tolerate, most I’d just rather ignore. In this I feel a kinship with my great-grandfather.

Like George I know the anguish of losing more than 1 child in a tragic accident. I understand the depression and fear he must have felt from that day forward. And thought I don’t carry the guilt he must have felt, I can imagine it compounded his feelings of grief.

During the family reunion last month we stopped by the accident site. The family gathered around my Uncle Robert, the oldest of my dad’s brothers, as he again told the familiar story. We wandered around the area trying to find evidence of the train tracks long since removed.

Train Accident

My cousin was able to identify the train bed and we were able to see where the road had been repaired to accommodate the missing tracks. As I stood on the ground where the train tracks used to be, and faced the direction the train had been traveling, I could see my family wandering on the road where the impact happened. And it struck me, nearly 100 years later and we are still talking about this accident. I was filled with awe and overwhelmed by the meaning of what I was witnessing. Tragedy like this doesn’t just effect those involved, it effects future generations.

After my uncle recounted the story, my Uncle Chuck stated to my cousins and I “If you think your grandpa was odd, or your dad’s are odd, this accident is why”. This tragedy shaped my grandpa, who he was and how he lived his life. It affected my grandpa’s personality and how he raised his boys. My dad and his brothers were raised by a father who’d suffered trauma and loss at a very young age. Trauma shaped their lives. My cousins and I were raised by fathers who learned how to deal with life through the lens of trauma.

Standing on that quite Midwest road I couldn’t help but wonder if George would have liked knowing we are still talking about him and those lost in the accident. Three and four generations later and we still remember, as a fellow grieving parent, I know George would have liked that. Though I now understand my Great-Grandpa George in a way only another grieving parent could, he had something I don’t . . . surviving children. He has descendants who 100 years later still remember him and those he lost. I have no surviving children. I will never be a grandmother or great-grandmother. I can’t help but wonder, who will be at my children’s accident site to remember them 100 years from now.

clingingtohope.com

The Game Changer

Friday evening I had an amazing opportunity that became a game changer for me. I was attending a trauma workshop conducted by Dr. David Burns, a psychologist who has written many books on depression and anxiety. In the workshop, Dr. Burns was teaching us how to use his methods to treat trauma. He stated there would be a live demonstration of these techniques at the end of the first day, if anyone would be willing to volunteer. I thought about volunteering, but that’s as far as it went. A couple of my co-workers attending the conference with me suggested I volunteer. Well in reality, they were a bit pushy. 😉 On our first break, with the support of a friend, I went and talked with Dr. Burns. I gave him a brief description of my trauma, of losing the boys, along with the depression and anxiety I’ve dealt with since. (You can read about some of it here). He thought I’d be a great subject and asked me to fill out a mood log.

I did not hear much of the next segment of the workshop because my nerves went crazy. My stomach was fluttering and my hands were shaking. I managed to fill out the mood log (I hate filling out those things). On our lunch break I showed Dr. Burns my log and he asked me to sign a release because they were going to videotape the session.

10 minutes before we were to begin the live demonstration, I started getting nervous again. I said a quick prayer, for courage.

The demonstration got off to a rocky start. Since I’ve shared my story publicly a few times, I had a bit of trouble shifting out of presentation mode. I had to remind myself this is supposed to be a counseling session, not a presentation. Dr. Burns and I had trouble connecting in a way that would make any therapy possible. He brought up the disconnection and we managed to work through it enough that I was able to let my guard down. Once that happened, all the pain I keep at bay to survive, bubbled to the surface.

What followed was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had since the accident. It was so that intense at one point I doubled over because I was crying so hard.

Together we walked through my mood log. I had listed several of my negative thoughts I have when my depression and anxiety are at their worst.

“I’ll be alone forever”

“My life will always be like this”

“I’ll never be successful or financially stable”

“I’m a fraud at work”

“Life sucks, life is hard”

We added to the list too. When the subject of my faith came up, I was a bit reluctant to talk about it because I didn’t know what everyone in the room believed. As we processed my reluctance to be bold about my faith, I realized I sometimes edit my story because of my fear of being ridiculed or disregarded. The thoughts we added to my list were “David may be judging me” and “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”.

We moved on to identifying the distortions of these thoughts. Black and white thinking, Overgeneralizing, Discounting the positives, Emotional reasoning . . . the list goes on. As a trained counselor, I know the next step is to look for the evidence that these are true or false, and find the positive thoughts to combat the negative thoughts.

It was then that Dr. Burns did something completely unexpected. He basically said, “What do these negative thoughts and feelings reveal about you that is beautiful”

Ummmm . . . . . what??

We then made a new list. This list looked at all my negative thoughts and emotions and discovered the positive attributes of myself. It was hard to do at first, but once we got the ball rolling, I couldn’t write them down fast enough.

“These feelings show how much I love my boys”

“Shows I’ve been through something significant and awful”

“Shows my high standards, my concern for my clients, and wanting to help”

“Honesty, Humility”

“Spirituality”

“Protecting my beautiful faith”

“Protect myself from being hurt and un-respected”

“I want to have people in my life to love”

“I want meaningful relationships”

“Protecting myself from future heartbreak”

“Being realistic and not denying reality”

“My anger is justified”

“My worry protects me by keeping me vigilant and alert.”

For me, this list changed everything. Once we were done with the list I felt lighter, like a 50-pound bag of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt Happy.

There are good reasons I think these negative thoughts and I’m not just beating up on myself. Because these messages are given in a negative way, I sink deeper into depression or anxiety. And the cycle perpetuates itself.

Now when I have a negative thought, I try to identify the good part of me that brings that thought into existence. For example: the next morning I woke up feeling really foolish. As I was getting ready for Day 2 of the workshop and having to confront all those people who had witnessed me breaking down and hearing how I talk to myself in my dark times, I felt really foolish. But, instead of letting that thought linger and grow, I searched for the meaning behind it. I realized I felt foolish because I had opened up. I had been vulnerable in front of a large roomful of strangers. They had seen some of my deepest pain. The vulnerability which connected me to every person in that room the night before, was now making me feel very silly. So I said to myself “No you were not foolish last night, you were vulnerable. And vulnerability is something you want in your life, even though it feels uncomfortable”.

Carefully guard your

After identifying the beautiful parts of me that led to the negative thoughts, Dr. Burns asked if I was ready to attack the negative thoughts. After I agreed, he began role-playing my inner voice and would speak one of my negative thoughts to me. I would then have to refute the thought. If I didn’t win, we’d change places and he’d be the one defeating the thought. We kept going back and fourth until I had defeated all my negative thoughts in a huge way. Through the role-playing, I learned to not only defeat the negative thoughts, but to obliterate them! Below are some of the ways he helped me to stop thought thoughts in their tracks:

Negative thought: “I’ll be alone forever”

Response now: “I might be alone right now, but I don’t know the future. Anything can happen. Besides I am not alone right now. I have amazing friends and family. I could probably let my walls down with them a bit more so I don’t feel so alone. But I am not alone now”

Negative thought: “My life will always be like this”

Response now: “My life has changed so much in the last 5 years. What on earth makes me think it will stay the same now!!”

Negative thought: “I’ll never be successful or financially stable”

Response now: “I completed graduate school in the midst of the worst kind of grief. I didn’t curl up in the corner and bemoan the terribleness of my life. I set out to do something about it. That same determination will keep me moving forward”

Negative thought: “I’m a fraud at work”

Response now: “I’m inexperienced. Good grief! I got out of graduate school less than a year ago. Of course I don’t understand everything about how to help my clients. But I have client’s that are improving and making progress. And some of them even like me.”

Negative thought: “Life sucks, life is hard”

Response now: “Yes, my life sucks. But there are good things about my life too. I have friends who love me and pray for me. I have family who would do anything for me. I can get out and take pictures and share the beauty I see around me with others. Yes, life is hard. No one ever said it would be easy. But I have help. I have lots of help. I don’t have to do it alone.”

Negative thought: “David (Dr. Burns) may be judging me”

Response now: “Yes he may. But that’s his problem. My faith is what has brought me through this hell, and it’s what keeps me going. My faith has helped me survive. My faith is what’s given me hope. If he cannot appreciate that about me, then he doesn’t need to be part of my life.”

Negative thought: “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”

Response now: “They might think that. But that’s because they’ve never experience the peace of God. They’ve never understood the power that peace can have over their lives. They’ve never known what it’s like to be held in God’s hands. And that thought makes me sad for them.”

This process gave me a profound sense of relief. The negative thoughts have always communicated, in some way, a message of self-hate. After walking through these exercises, the connection between the negative thought and the message it conveys has been severed. That made all the difference and for a moment I felt carefree.

Though this experience was intense, I learned something. I learned the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced the last few years are not things I need to fight against. They honor my loss and the pain I’ve gone through, though that doesn’t mean I have to live with the messages the depression and anxiety speak into my life. I now have the tools to obliterate my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth.

Depression and Anxiety

 

7 Things NOT to Say to A Grieving Parent

Kindly callers hurt her, too, with the well-meant platitudes with which they strove to cover the nakedness of bereavement. – Anne’s House of Dreams by L. M. Montgomery

I first fell in love with Anne from Anne of Green Gables in 1989 when my family moved from Minnesota to Oregon. I was 14 years old and anticipating the move. The night before we left, my sisters and I stayed at my best friends house where we watched the Anne of Green Gables movies for the first time. I fell in love with Anne’s spunk and never ending chatter. However we were left with a cliffhanger. Gilbert was sick and dying but we couldn’t finish the end of the movie. I had to know what happened, so I read the books.

It’s interesting what you remember and don’t remember. After all these years all I remembered of Anne’s adult years was that Gilbert was able to get her dream house complete with a stream running through the yard. So imagine my surprise as I was reading through the books again to discover that Anne’s first child was stillborn. In the world created by L.M. Montgomery everything seemed happy and serene. Life was simple and pleasant. Sure the characters went through troubles, but nothing so terrible as child loss.

What Not to Say to Grieving Parents

It’s strange, but I found some measure of comfort in knowing that even in L.M. Montgomery’s day, people did not know how to handle grief. When people don’t know what to do or say, the platitudes they end up offering hurt so much more than they realize.

People sometimes think if they say the “right” thing they can help lessen or take away the pain. But in reality there are no words that can “cover the nakedness of bereavement”.

After the accident that claimed the lives of my only 2 children (you can read about it here), I heard my fair share of “well-meant platitudes”. Though I understood people were trying to help, the following words hurt and minimized my grief.

1) They’re in a better place

A kind older lady said this to me at the reception following the memorial service. I still remember how this statement was an emotional punch to the gut that had me physically take a step back. This statement completely misses the point of grief. It doesn’t matter where my children are. They are NOT with ME and I miss them. As long as they are gone I will be grieving.

2) How can I help? Let me know if I can do anything?

I know people say this out of a desire to be helpful, but really isn’t. My entire world had just imploded. I could barely breath. Getting dressed was an accomplishment of epic proportions. If that’s all I managed in a day, things were going good. I didn’t have a clue what I needed. And if I did know what I needed, I most likely didn’t care. Asking the bereaved person how you can help generates pressure for them to think about and give you ideas. If you truly want to help, here is a list of things others did for me that I found helpful and deeply appreciated.

3) Call me if you need to talk

 I had perfect strangers giving me their phone numbers. People I barely knew offering to listen. I even had someone set up a meeting for me to speak with a pastor I didn’t know, just because he too had lost a child. Again, I know people just wanted to help, but this wasn’t helpful. And in some cases it just made me mad.

Grief is an intense and intimate emotion. I wasn’t about to share my grief with strangers or acquaintances. I couldn’t share the intensity of what I was feeling with people I had no relationship with. I would share my grief with my family; friends and those I already had an established relationship with. I did not have the energy to build new relationships.

I would talk with the people who didn’t have to offer to be there for me, because I already knew they were.

4) I know what you are going through because my ________________________ died.

With this statement people are trying to find a way to connect to my grief. I get that. But there is nothing like the loss of a child. NOTHING. Our children represent the future. As parents we have dreams for our children as they grow. We worry over them, take care of them and guide them. Children are supposed to survive their parents. When a child dies this natural order is broken.

Child loss is not the same thing as losing your parent, step-parent, uncle or dog. I once heard that my Grandpa had said he’d lost his parents, a wife and a child and by far the worst was losing a child.

So PLEASE unless you have lost a child, never tell grieving parents you know how they feel.

5) You can have more children.

Shortly after the accident, I actually had someone tell me they were praying I would have another baby by the end of the year.

This statement implies that my children can be replaced. No child can ever be replaced. Each one has a unique personality and purpose in life. Whether or not more children are possible, my children are gone. And as long as they are gone, my grief will exist.

Child Loss has no end to grief.

6) This is a good time to reinvent yourself. (Or any version of “Its time to move on”)

Most of the time when people say things that are hurtful, I know they are trying to help and I let it go. But this statement was the one time I let the person know what I thought of what they had to say. I had seen the damage this kind of statement made in the lives of those around me.

People who are grieving a traumatic loss are not in a place to make major life decisions. The best advice I think I’d ever heard after dealing with a huge loss was “Don’t make any major life changes for a year”. It took me 2 years to voluntarily make any changes to my life. But when I did I knew it was the right time.

The problem with trying to make major life decisions or changes right after a traumatic loss is that we are still in shock. It takes a lot longer than people realize for this shock to wear off. It doesn’t go away after a few weeks, or even months. It can take a year or more. It took me longer because I went through a series of other losses after losing the boys. As one of my professors in college stated, “Loss begets more loss”.

Our society is in such a hurry with grief. But grief cannot be rushed. After experiencing a loss, individuals need to take the time to process that grief. It’s not a time to work on breaking bad habits, trying to start a new habit or a time to reinvent yourself. It’s a time to just breathe, cry, and adjust to a life without the loved one who was lost. And that takes time. A lot of time.

7) God won’t give you anymore than you can handle.

This statement. Sigh. I have a physical reaction to this statement every single time I hear it. I cannot smile at the well-meaning people who say it and pretend it’s ok, because I know they mean well. I have to say something, because this statement is simply not true. Nowhere in the Bible does God say “I won’t give you more than you can handle”. But God does PROMISE to be there for us in ALL THINGS.

I think this one needs a blog post all its own.

The next time you encounter someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one and you feel like you need to say something a simple “I’m so sorry” or “I’m sorry for your loss” is sufficient. It may feel inadequate, but it’s the kindest thing you can say.

7 Things NOT to Say to A Grieving Parent

Giving Myself Permission

Well it’s over. Done. Finished. Last week I turned in my final assignment for graduate school. As soon as the grades post I will officially have my Masters in Counseling. It’s still a bit surreal at this point.

At the beginning of May my internships ended and I walked in the graduation ceremony. Suddenly I found myself with extra time on my hands. Internship was over and school was winding down.

Once everything started slowing down and I had extra time on my hands, I thought I would be able to get so much personal stuff done. Graduate school is very time consuming and many of my personal interests took a back seat during the past 2 years. Now I have so many ideas I want to work on. So I was excited to have this extra time. I was going to be SO productive.

Suddenly my life resembled life before the accident. I could be home all day working on photography or other things. I could go shopping in the middle of the day if I wanted. With no internship, little homework and the only thing on my calendar was class on Thursday nights, my schedule was my own again. The only difference was there were no children to pick up from school in the afternoon. No family dinner to prepare for. There was nothing to say this is your time, so you’d better get your stuff done because kids will be coming home soon.

What I discovered was that the “I’m almost done with school” lack of motivation toward my schoolwork filtered into every other area of my life. (Hence the reason there have been so few blog posts lately 😉 ). I suddenly didn’t want to do anything. Because I had so much time it was easier to procrastinate. The more I wasn’t productive, the more guilty I felt. And the guiltier I felt, the worse I felt about myself.

I was discussing this all with my counselor and it dawned on me . . . I just spent 2 ½ years going through the most intense schooling I have ever experienced. I’ve done nothing but homework, stressing about homework, and thinking about homework for the past 2 ½ years. I am allowed a break.

I don’t have to be productive right now. I CAN take a break. I’m in a period of limbo. School is done, but I haven’t started my career yet. I realized I would never have a time of no commitments in my life again. How many people get a gift like that?

I could spend the month of June doing basically nothing if I wanted to. But I still had trouble allowing myself this time of rest. We are programed that we have to be productive to matter. So we are always busy. We fill our lives with tasks, to do lists, and productivity. But we don’t rest. True relaxation is hard to find in our society of constant achieving. So how do you find this rest? How do you set productivity aside long enough to truly relax?

I had to give myself permission. I had to physically say out loud say, “It’s ok to not be productive right now”. I had to talk to others about it and seek some validation. We are so ingrained to be busy and productive every minute of the day, that we don’t really know how to stop.

Busy Productive

Knowing that soon a new chapter in my life would be starting, I chose to allow myself this time of rest. For once I was not going to push myself and I allowed myself to just relax. I have been sleeping in, reading fiction, shopping with my mom, talking with my sister, editing pictures, watching movies, and jotting down ideas for things I want to do. Overall I am enjoying just being able to relax.

On Thursday I will leave for my celebratory “I’m done with graduate school” vacation. I will be spending 2 weeks with friends doing nothing but hanging out and taking pictures. When I come back I plan to start implementing some of the ideas bouncing around in my head and dive into a new career helping others.

Is there something you need to give yourself permission to do?

Take time

My Lesson in Anxiety

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.

Anxiety

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

Me the day I finished my orals paper
Me the day I finished my orals paper

It’s Been 4 Years . . . .

Miss boys 2“You might be but one drop in a bigger ocean, but even that drop causes ripples which affect every other drop. ~ Sue Krebs

Today marks the 4-year anniversary of the accident that took the lives of my children and changed my life forever. Anniversary . . . . . . it really does not seem like the right word to use. To me an anniversary indicates a happy event, an event worth celebrating. Today is not about celebrating, it is about remembering.

It has been 4 years since I have seen my children. There are so many things I have missed in those 4 years.

I have missed having mountains of laundry to do.

I have missed breaking up fights.

I have missed navigating the messy bedroom just to tuck them in and say goodnight.

I have missed stepping on Legos. Yes . . . I do miss this!

I have missed the incessant questions.

I have missed repeating myself because they were not listening the first 40 times.

I have missed the bickering.

I have missed the back talk.

I have missed the “can’t keep it clean” house.

I have missed the creativity.

I have missed watching kid movies and tv shows.

I have missed reading stories at bedtime.

I have missed the laughter.

I have missed the joking and goofiness.

I have missed the craziness that having boys brings into your life.

I have missed their hugs.

I have missed touching them and having them touch me.

I have missed my boys.

The other day a friend asked, “If you could ask God one question what would it be?”

My answer to that question is simple. I would ask God to allow me to see the far reaching effect my life has had on other people. I want to know that what I am going through has meaning. I want to know that someone is living a better life because of what I have been asked to deal with.

I have friends tell me how their friends have been affected by my story. These are people I don’t know. I love hearing these stories, but I want to know more. I want to see the whole story of my life, the part that only God can see. I would love to see the part of my life that God can see, that kept him from stopping the accident from happening. I want to know and understand why I have to live the rest of my life without my boys. I want to see what God can see . . . . the ripple effect.

I know I will probably never be privy to this information this side of Heaven. But I sure hope that God allows me to see the ripple effect of my life when I get Home.

Ripple

The Creation Of Hope

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 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