An Open Letter to Newly Bereaved Parents

Welcome,

If you are reading this because you have lost a child, I am so very sorry. I know the pain you feel, because I have felt it too. I know the depth of suffering that comes from losing a child. I wish no one had to experience this, but sadly there are too many of us.

My purpose in writing this letter is to outline a few of the things I have learned in my grief. Maybe in doing so, your journey will seem a little less scary. It’s so easy to feel alone and grief is so unscripted you may think you are going crazy. I want you to know you are not alone and what you are experiencing is normal, for the circumstances you find yourself in.

There is No Order

Shortly after losing my 2 boys in a car accident someone said something to me that I have always appreciated. I have no idea who it was, or exactly the words they used, but their comment helped me navigate that first year. This person told me there are no stages to grief. You may have heard about the “Stages of Grief” but, after 6 years, I am here to tell you there is no such thing. Stages imply order. Once you complete the first stage you move onto the next and so on. As you get through all the steps, viola, you are done grieving. Oh, how I wish it were that easy!

Grief is unpredictable and it can take you by surprise. It’s more like a rollercoaster where you can’t see the dips and turns. I’ve also described grief like ocean waves that sneak up on you when you’re not ready. You may take weeks to go through the different emotions, or you my go through them all in a 30 second whirlwind. Grief cycles and turns so much you may feel like you are going crazy.

You Are Not Going Crazy

I believe child loss is the most agonizing emotional pain there is. Our bodies simply don’t know how to handle the intensity. One minute you may be fine and even able to smile. The next you collapse into tears. Or maybe you are laughing at something and your laughter dissolves into sobs. The smallest or strangest things can set off the tears. I’ve been triggered by an aisle full of kitchen mixers at the store, an innocuous comment by a friend and even a Taylor Swift song (the reason behind this one seems so silly).

As exhausting as the mood swings are, they are normal. I’ve melted down in the grocery store, the bathroom at work, my car, in front of family, and even in the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and other equally embarrassing places. Sometimes your emotions will make sense and be easier to control. Other times the power of your grief will be so overwhelming you will break down despite your best intentions. Both are ok. Both are good. It’s normal you are not crazy.

The Intensity of the Pain will subside

I was astonished at the intensity of the emotional pain I was in. It was so painful I could feel it physically. My heart hurt, I couldn’t breathe, and any movement I made took an enormous amount of effort.

Writing this letter 6 years later, the pain is now a dull sadness. Every now and then the intensity returns, but it’s not an everyday occurrence anymore. Thankfully so, I’m not sure I could have survived 6 years of that kind of intensity. I’m not sure when it started to subside, but it did. It was a slow and gradual process over the course of time.

You’ve probably heard the expression “Time heals all wounds”. (I hope no one has said this to you in the face of your loss). I disagree with this statement. I think there are some wounds that the passage of time can heal, but not all. Time itself doesn’t heal anything just by continuing to march forward. All time really does is put distance between us, and the day of our loss. It’s what we do with that time that determines if we “heal” or remain stuck.

The only way to “heal” from grief is to go through it. I know it hurts and I know it’s hard, but you have to feel it. You have to let it in, because that is the only way through. It may seem easier to run from or hide from your grief. But remember this, GRIEF WILL NOT BE DENIED. It will always come out. The more you run from it, the more likely it will come out in a way you have no control over. Facing your grief head on is the hardest and easiest way through this journey.

There is Hope

I still remember the first Compassionate Friends meting I went to. (CF is a national support group for bereaved parents/siblings/and grandparents.) It was only a few weeks after the accident and I couldn’t imagine life without the intense pain that had become my constant companion. The leader of the group was 10 years into her child loss journey. I remember listening to her talk and realizing there was hope. She was able to function and live a life. I listened to her story and knew I wouldn’t always be in this place of powerful pain. Attending the local Compassionate Friends chapters has helped me in many ways. I realize I’m not alone on this journey. And in seeing others farther along in their journey, I knew what to expect as the weeks, months and years marched past. I knew there was hope.

Hope can also come from faith. I don’t know what your spiritual beliefs are and I know in the face of losing a child talk about God can feel trite. I hope you will continue reading what I have to say. I’m not going to tell you things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “God needed another angel”. (Please excuse me while I throw up over those statements). No, what I want you to know is God is here for you, if you’ll let him in. He can offer you comfort and peace. I know there are a lot of hard questions about God and painful circumstances like ours. But that is a conversation for another day.

I found when the pain hurt the most and the tears wouldn’t stop, God was there for me when I cried out for help. He gave me peace and surrounded me with support. He makes this burden we carry lighter. I know he will do the same for you; all you have to do is ask.

There is so much more I want to say, but I’ve already written more than I planned. If you have any questions or would like prayer, feel free to comment, send me an email or message me on Facebook.

I am so sorry you’ve joined this awful club, but know you are not alone.

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

 

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