How I Survived Child Loss: Part 3 – Faith

God gives us his strength in our weakness, so “that everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and not our own”. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:7

“You are so strong.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this statement over the past 6 years. While a part of me loves to hear it and part of me feels strong, I know I could not have done any of this on my own. The strength I have does not come from me; it comes from within me, from God living in me.

A few months ago I watched a video with my favorite radio show host. He was interviewing a Christian musician. I don’t remember most of the interview, but I the one thing I do remember really hit home. He said, in the wake of a personal trauma, his grief over the situation, kept crashing up against something solid inside him – his faith in God. When I heard that, I knew exactly what he meant. I’d felt the same thing in my own life.

Every time the intense pain of grief washed over me, I turned to God. I’d cry out “help me”. They were the only words I could utter. I’d ugly cry in God’s presence because I couldn’t do it alone. Through this process a strange thing happened, I realized when my grief was at its strongest I felt closer to God than at any other point in my life.

When I turned to God in the middle of my pain, he was there for me. Every. Single. Time. Sometimes I could hear him talk to me. Others I just knew he was there.

One afternoon, I was on the floor of my boy’s bedroom crying out to God my desperate “help me” plea. I was feeling very alone that particular day. Later that afternoon I received messages from 3 different people who didn’t know each other but knew me. Each message was a variation of “I’m thinking of you and praying for you”. I was overwhelmed and in that moment I knew God had heard my prayer of tears and was letting me know he was with me.

Through this journey I have learned when you reach into your deepest pain, you’ll find God there holding you.

Sunday mornings became a time of meeting God on a whole new level. I would go to church and hide in the balcony. I would sing the worship songs and cry through the whole thing. One of the most spiritual experiences in my life was praising God while in the greatest emotional pain I’d ever known. I wish I could accurately describe what it was like. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to God. I could almost see him. I felt like he was reaching down and gently pulling my pain to himself. Pain, relief, praise and comfort it was such an interesting mix of emotions. But it gave me the strength I needed to face the day.

There are so many ways God has given me strength to travel this journey. My first thoughts after the accident were of God (you can read about it here). He provided me an amazing support system that has prayed for me and carried me through (read here). He’s been there in my pain and held me when I cried. All my tears of grief have been spent in God’s presence.

I don’t know how people travel through this cruel world without God. And I don’t know how people get through child loss without Him to lean on. I would not be here today, if not for the hope and strength God has given me. I could not have made it this far without God. Left to my own devices I would have curled up in a ball and stayed there. The strength God has given me is the only thing that has kept me going. I could not have done this alone.

 

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 I Survived Child Loss: Part 1 – Facing It

I will admit this title is misleading. There is no “survived” in child loss, there is only enduring it. But survived sounds more socially acceptable, doesn’t it?

Early on I made a decision to let the grief in. I’m generally a pretty emotionally controlled person, more of a thinker than a feeler if you will. Somehow I knew this journey would require me to feel the pain. I was terrified of the road that now stood in front of me.

The fear started after my extended family left. The chaos of my mom’s side of the family had kept me going that first week. As soon as the last one left for the airport, I felt empty. Then is settled on me . . . Fear. I looked at my future and all I saw was a long, dark road filled with pain. I was scared of the coming days because I knew they would be filled with the most intense and painful feelings I have ever felt. I curled up on my mom’s couch and cried. I was too exhausted to go home, too scared to be completely alone, so I spent the night at my parent’s house. How was I supposed to move forward?

I knew a mom who’d lost her son 5 years prior. From the way she talked, it seemed like it had just happened. She was stuck in her grief, and I did not want that to be me. I didn’t want to have to start over 5 years from now because I didn’t deal with it first. Somehow I knew the only way through this would be to let the pain in. So I decided to face the pain and grief head on.

It is the hardest thing I have ever done . . . .

When the searing pain would hit, instead of pushing it down, I would let it wash over me. I’d let the tears fall until there were no more.

I went deep into my grief, I allowed myself to feel the crushing pain. I would wander into the boy’s room and sit on their beds. I would go through their things, trying to connect with them. The sadness would start first, and then the full impact of the consuming pain would hit me and flood through me. I couldn’t breathe. I’d collapse on the floor in paralyzing tears. It hurt so bad, my legs would not support my weight. I cried out to God asking, “Why couldn’t I keep them?” or just pleading, “help me”.

It hurt. It was hard.

I’ve had “meltdowns” in the bathroom at work and other public places. I’ve cried so hard I can’t see while driving. I’ve cried at church, in museums, while watching movies, and my favorite place the privacy of my bedroom.

Grief comes is waves. Sometimes the waves completely overwhelm you and others are smaller, more tolerable. I rode the waves of grief today, so tomorrow the wave would be smaller. Sometimes there is no warning, it just hits you like a sneaker wave at the beach. The kind of wave that’s stronger than you realize and rips your feet out from under you. Other times you can see the waves coming and you dread the moment they hit. Those times it’s really tempting to run and hide from the coming wave.

It was late July, a few years ago, when I learned how trying to hold your grief in will backfire.

I was having a bad day. The kind of day where the grief sneaks up on you, and before you know it you are in tears. I’d already cried through much of the church service while struggling to maintain control because I was in a public place. I tried, really hard to keep myself under control.

It was my sister’s birthday and I didn’t want to make the day about me.

 After the service, driving to my parent’s house, I allowed myself a few tears. The drive to mom and dad’s was not long enough. I needed more time to let my grief out. I was expected to be there, so I sucked in my pain and put on the best happy face I could muster.

It took so much of my energy to hold myself together, I couldn’t fake the happy attitude I needed to keep everyone from knowing I was having a bad day. There were questions I tried to deflect but wasn’t able to do so successfully. Thankfully they quit asking what was wrong. I was doing fairly well. It was obvious I wasn’t in a good mood, but at least I wasn’t crying.

After the birthday lunch and presents we all gathered in the family room. My sister said something that started me laughing. I was laughing so hard, really harder than was necessary for the comment. I quickly lost control. The dam burst and next thing I knew my control crumbled, I was in tears. I flew to the bathroom so I could break down in private. I locked the door behind me and my legs gave out. I sunk to my knees and cried. The tears were falling from my eyes to the floor. It’s hard to sob without making noise, but I didn’t want people at the door asking if I was ok.

After the crying subsided, I still wasn’t ready to face anyone. I stayed in the bathroom for a while and played a game on my phone until my mom started texting me. After a couple more minutes I used a cold washcloth to try and reduce the effects crying had on my face. Once I felt I would be able to maintain control and deal with any looks or questions from my family, I left the bathroom.

I tried so hard to push my grief aside, to be ok for my sister. I ended up making everything worse. That day I needed to give myself the time and space I needed to grieve. But I denied it and it pushed it’s way forward anyway.

Grief will always push its way out.

Grief is exhausting. But it’s more exhausting to not let it out. Trying to constantly maintain control takes and exorbitant amount of effort. Grief is hard, but it’s harder not to grieve.

So I learned to let it out, scream, cry, do whatever I needed to do to release that emotion. For me its crying fits. I’d cry so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’d try to stop crying just so I could breathe. I’d gasp for air only to start crying all over again.

It sucks, it’s hard and it hurts. Oh boy, does it hurt! But when the crying is over, the pain has subsided. I feel empty, poured out in tears. But with the emptiness comes a lightness I didn’t feel before. The weight of the grief has lifted temporarily and I can go on. Until the cycle repeats itself, I am free.

Because I faced my pain when I did, today I can breathe. The waves are smaller and come less frequently. Sitting here 6 years later, I know I did the hardest work of processing my grief early on. I know that’s why I can function and teach others about grief.

At work, I help run a grief group. I talk to them about how they have to face their grief and let the pain in because that is the only way through this.

In the group, we talk about how grief will always come out. It doesn’t matter how much you hide or run from it, grief will not be denied. If you don’t face it, you only make the process harder. Anxiety, physical issues, chronic pain, depression can all come from unprocessed grief. When grief is not dealt with it will come out in the most inconvenient and uncontrollable ways. The only way to have any amount of control with grief is to face it, feel it and ride the waves.

I’m here because I let the pain in.

I’m enduring. I’m surviving.

Are you having trouble letting the pain in? Are you running or hiding from grief? Feel free to comment, send me an email or message me on Facebook. Do you know someone who is grieving and could be helped by this post? Feel free to share.

Teresa

 

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.

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 Weight of Grief

I sat in bible study struggling to stop the tears. Despite my best efforts they still flowed.

I still have no idea what hit me so hard. I just know it was more confirmation of what I’ve been learning the past few weeks. I’m learning exactly why this journey of grief is forever.

Last month I wrote about my experience at a trauma workshop. When I first volunteered, I told the leader I didn’t think I’d be a good candidate because I’ve been doing so much better lately. However, as soon as I started filling out the mood log, the emotions appeared. Certain words triggered immediate tears. I began to realize no matter how well I’m doing or how much the intense pain has lessened, it’s always there, just beneath the surface. Waiting.

I never know when it will hit or what will trigger it, but it’s always there. Always.

A few weeks ago, I posted a photo I found in one of my grief pages. Within hours it had been viewed and shared more than anything else I’ve ever put on FB. The image was a sculpture of a man kneeling, bent over. He was made out of rocks. The image describes what grief feels like in one profound visual. I’ve often described it as feeling like I’m made out of cement. Rocks works too.

As I looked at that picture, it occurred to me that I still feel that way. I’ve just learned to carry the weight.

That weight is why my energy level is lower than it was before the accident. That’s why everything sits just below the surface. To survive, I’ve learned to carry the pain and keep it at bay most days, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. Some days it leaks out, like it did in bible study.

I’m slowly understanding why everyone says this is a forever journey. The pain. The weight of grief. It never goes away. It is simply too heavy.

The Pain.

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

 

Child Loss is a Forever Grief

Well it’s happened. It took longer than I thought it would. I began to think I’d escape it. But I guess it was inevitable. No one who grieves escapes it.

The “gentle” comments that “subtly” imply “aren’t you over this yet?” or “it’s time to move on”.

I can’t blame them really. If I were in their shoes I’d probably be doing the same thing. Thinking I know better what grief should look like.

What they don’t understand is this is a forever journey. Every thing I do in my life from the day my children died until the day I join them is colored with grief. Sometimes the page of my life is awash in the angry coloring strokes of searing pain. Other times my life’s page is full of bright happy colors with just a small section in the corner colored in the gentle strokes of grief.

Every happy moment I experience is a moment I don’t get to share with my boys. Every time I accomplish something I didn’t think I could is a teachable moment from my life my boys don’t get to see. Every milestone in my life is reached alone.

It’s because of this . . . . The grief is always there. It never goes away. And it never will.

Though I want those around me to understand and not pressure me to “get over it” or “be like my old self”, I’m glad they don’t understand. The only way to truly understand what this journey is like is to lose a child. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

Child loss

5 Years Later

It’s been 5 years . . . .

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.

5 years later . . . I’m still working on it.

I will always grieve

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