I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard…
“I don’t know how you do it.”
“I would go crazy if I were you.”
“I couldn’t survive losing my child,” not to mention the comments many say quietly to themselves, secretly thankful it wasn't their child. Let's be honest. I know many of you suffering through grief have heard similar things and more. Hearing these words makes a grieving soul cringe with pain.
We didn't choose this life, yet what are we supposed to do when we come face to face with our worst nightmare?
No matter what your grief is let me tell you, you can survive. And no, it's not all sunshine and roses, it's a dark, lonely, road less taken but believe it or not it is possible to come out on the other side.
So how did I survive all these years? At the time, overcome with despair, loneliness and heartache, I honestly didn't think I would make it. Many times it felt like the end and I wished for the pain to cease. However, looking back eight years later, I am so grateful that I am able to clearly understand what led me to where I am today.
Those first years maintain a vivid presence in my mind, despite all the time that has passed. A place where I used to dwell, so life changing that I will never forget. It’s not been easy and at times is still exceptionally difficult. The heart is a tender place that holds our most precious feelings which can be punctured when we least expect it, causing our deepest emotions to seep out, leaving us yearning for the life that once was.
Over the years, I have come to realize the magic potion that kept me moving forward. If it can help even one hurting heart out there, then it’s worth it to share with all. Here are my ten secrets to survival after the death of my child.
1) First and foremost, initially the only thing you can do is to breathe. Breathe and take things as they come, one minute and one day at a time. The first day, night, weeks and months after my daughter Lydia died it was physically hard for me to breathe. Getting up to get a drink of water was a turnoff and seemed like way too much effort for someone like me. I would get so exhausted and could barely get off the couch those first few weeks. I even went to the doctor thinking something was seriously wrong with me due to my shortness of breath. Come to find out, it was just the stress and anxiety of a grieving mother. How sad. Who knew there was such a thing?
Learning how to breathe over again literally took all the energy I had. All too often I would find myself forgetting to breathe as I became light-headed and dizzy at the smallest movements. Sounds crazy but I seriously had to make a conscious effort and remind myself to take in that beloved oxygen!
It's incredibly important to take deep breaths to ease your anxieties and calm the soul. If this was all I could concentrate on and accomplish during a day, I soon learned that it was okay. When we are struck with such trauma from our loss, day-to-day tasks are nearly impossible. And you know what? It's alright to let the house go. The pile of clothes, stack of dirty dishes, unfolded laundry, unpaid bills, overgrown lawn and even the forgotten garbage will always be there. It's okay, normal, and it happens to the best of us. Just let it go and breathe. Once we have this down, the rest will come in time. Remember one day at a time.
2) Secondly, I learned to give it to God. Absolutely the most important, and essential key to my survival. When grief is so raw, it's so easy to become angry with God. We wonder, why He had to take our loved one over and over again, trying to make sense of the senseless. Naturally, we seek answers to life's most complicated problems. Although it’s not easy, in order to avoid a vicious circle of torment, we must learn trust and have faith.
Those first few nights which turned to weeks, months and years, were frightful and strenuous. If one bystander could have looked in our window as we turned out the lights and lay in bed in the silent darkness, what would they have seen?
They would have seen a mother and father soaked with tears, terrified with another day gone, clutching their surviving child’s hands and as well as each other’s. Bowing their heads and in their trembling voices, they quietly ask God to give them strength to get through another day, to ease their sadness, the courage to be a parent to their only child now, and faith to show them the way.
Seeing the sunrise each new day meant time was moving on and we weren’t. Over the years, the nightly ritual of prayers turned to thankfulness and praise for the time we did have with Lydia, asking God again to guide us as to our new life and purpose.
God has done amazing things and has been the foundation in which our marriage and family has endured. Hope became the catalyst to surviving this new life we had been given.
3) Third, for me it was crucial to make connections with others who had lost a child, for they are the only ones who truly knew this horrific journey. As for any loss, connecting and meeting with those who have similar losses can be life changing.
It had only been three weeks since Lydia died and my husband had to pretty much drag me with my feet in the ground to my first grief support group. We went to a Compassionate Friends meeting. I had never heard of this organization, nor did I want to learn about it. Reluctantly, I went and hated every minute of it, never wanting to go back. During this first meeting, I sat with my head hung low while crying incessantly hoping no one would look at me. Overcome with disbelief and shock, it felt like I was living in someone else’s life, not my own. Very surreal. Who wanted to hear about all the depressing stories of grief, seeing firsthand the pain and agony so many are suffering from? Not me. I couldn't even handle my own.
But I went back. A couple weeks later, something drew me to them. I wasn’t one to ever talk, as I barely muttered my name the first meeting amidst all the tears.
Yet before I knew it, I felt a strange connection. I could relate.
Here were all these people-old, young, married, single who had walked my path and they were still here. Some barely holding it together, while others paved the way with strength and hope. This was a group who “got it.” They knew what it was like to have a birthday or anniversary come around and have no one mention your child's name. They knew the anguish of sitting alone in the dark, crying hysterically until you have nothing left and nearly pass out on the floor. The feeling like your life has been stripped away, leaving without a reason to live. They understood the emptiness and pain of a quiet house, no smiles, giggles or laughs, but especially, they knew how deep our love was for our child who died.
Unexpectedly, upon leaving the meeting I found myself entering a world of people who didn’t “get it." Of no fault of their own, they simply hadn't been there. I'm sorry but there's no way to "get it" or to fully understand unless you've been there.
Eight years later, some of these people I have met who have also suffered losses remain close friends. Absolutely, they came into my life for a reason at just the right time.
4) It’s so imperative that you honor your child’s memory, birthday, simply that they are remembered. It doesn’t matter how, just honor your child. Yes, even this can be a tough one.
When I went to a meeting early on after Lydia died, people were talking about making birthday cakes for their loved ones no longer with them on their special days. Initially, this struck an odd chord within me and I was appalled that people would do that and thought they were crazy and delusional.
Seriously, that’s what I thought. When Lydia’s birthday came around that first year, I couldn’t bear the thought of having a cake to celebrate her day. The pain was too great and I believed there simply was nothing to celebrate and how disrespectful of people to do such a thing.
However, as time passed, my thinking changed.
While difficult at first, after two years, the fog slowly cleared and I realized what I was missing out on. The lightbulb had come on. Of course she should be celebrated! She was my girl, so full of life and bursting with personality.
At the present time, my husband, children and I are about the only ones who recognize her birthday. Yes, it does hurt when others don't remember, but we can't expect them all too. Some may believe it’s too painful for us, or it may be too painful for them, while others believe we should "move on" and "get over it."
But she was here. She lived, and you know what, she still has a birthday!
It's now been eight years. Every year on her birthday you will find us gathering as a family, enjoying her favorite meal of chicken strips with French fries, complete with ranch dressing. We take turns exchanging memories and stories of our beautiful girl. We will forever celebrate this beautiful day, the day that God blessed us with her and are reminded of how our lives have been impacted because she lived.
5) Find a new purpose in life. Can you or should you change careers, your focus, or path in life? Absolutely, why not! After such a devastating loss, I was lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore, but what I did know, was that I wasn’t the same person. My life was forever different. I remember, it was 2 ½ years later and I found myself searching for my purpose in life because I didn't fit in where I was. I was broken and at a standstill. I prayed incessantly to God to guide me and give me direction in the path I was to take.
Having a busy and stressful career as an adult parole officer, I found myself being ineffective at my job, often times welcoming my wandering mind, oblivious to what I was being paid to do. Yet I had found a whole new empathy and outlook on life that mirrored compassion and understand for those enduring tough times. Slowly, doors began to open, while some painfully closed, but God was showing me the way.
Losing my daughter opened my eyes to another world. A world posing the questions, "Why are we here? What is the meaning of this life we have been given?" Life is too short to not explore your dreams and passions in life. So after 13 years, I ended my career and set off on new adventures. In retrospect, it was the best decision of my life. A huge weight off my shoulders and a sense of freedom I find hard to describe. Let's just say it's an exhilarating feeling of freshness, new beginnings, possibilities and hope!
6) The next secret that impacted my grief was bringing joy to others. Nothing is more fulfilling or rewarding than serving others. Whether it be in a small way or a big way, this can heal you in a way like nothing else. From feeding the homeless, to sending a short thank you card, to giving a smile to that one person who needed it most. By making a difference in the life of another human being, you can't help but notice that it will lift your spirits and give you a sense of worth, pride and healing from the inside out. Co-founding an organization in memory of my daughter has been an experience like no other. Being able to reach out to underprivileged children and see them smile has impacted me and my family in an amazing way. How incredible of God to use Lydia to bring sunshine to those in dark places.
7) Share your journey. Reach out to others no matter how difficult. After feeling compelled by God to share my journey via my blog, memoir and other books, I began writing more and more which has made a remarkable transformation in me. For sure apprehensive and scary, yet rewarding and miraculous at the same time. I've made so many new friends and reached deep into the hearts of many that struggled with the same feelings of loss that I had. Learning from each other is priceless and planting seeds of hope for others is invaluable.
8) Slowdown in your life and count those blessings. Yes, take time to smell those fragrant roses. Take time to read a book, go for a walk, play a game, or admire a sunset. Grief takes us back to the stone ages with no cell phones or internet, like a time warp of dream lands filled with precious memories, heartache, making us wish that we could go back and do things differently. So when my children accidentally erase my writing on the computer, spill milk all over my papers, color a rainbow of permanent marker on the walls or make a complete disaster out of the house, I try to embrace these silly little inconveniences, as I know it could be worse.
In an instant, we learn what’s really important. We learn to appreciate the little things. And you know that saying "don't sweat the small stuff," that couldn't be truer.
9) Keep a journal. Writing is an integral part of the grieving process for many. Hesitant at first, for me it started as simple words on sticky notes, thoughts that would rush into my mind that I didn’t want to forget, which then progressed to a few sentences, scriptures, etc., ultimately turning into journaling, blogging and a memoir in progress.
Yet after reading my words back after all this time, a picture has clearly been painted for me, bringing light and understanding, a whole new dimension of life. Without a doubt I would recommend this to everyone dealing with loss. You just can't recognize the value of your thoughts on paper until years later. I promise you won't regret this!
10) Reading and other distractions. I read so many books about God, Heaven and the spiritual realm which were immensely helpful, however, one thing I needed was time off and unfortunately, you can’t get a break from this new life. So, especially at night when it was difficult to sleep, I found myself needing an escape.
In addition to those self-help books we all reach for, it is important to read what I call "mindless" books. You know the ones that are ridiculously meaningless, but transport you to a whole new world and take you places you've never been. I had to stay away from any book that involved death, murder and mystery, but bring on the humorous and entertaining books and I tore through them like a kid through a candy store!
I craved, especially during those dreaded long nights, to go to a world that was not my reality. It brought relief being able to focus on fictional story and somehow live that life until I was able to fall asleep. I'm sure I would've won some kind of award for reading the most books in a short time if there was one! If you're not into reading, other distractions such as painting, coloring, building, hands on activities to channel your energy and mind which can be extremely therapeutic.
When we're grieving, we need a break from our reality, as the mind can only take so much before it reaches overload capacity. Overcome with grief and trauma, I still look forward to my "escapes," giving some much-needed rest from the heavy weight of my sorrow.
So, let’s recap. Ten Secrets to Survival after the Death of My Child
2-Give it to God
3-Connect with others
4-Honor your child’s memory
5-Find a new purpose in life-explore your passions
6-Bring joy to others
7-Share your journey
8-Slow down & count your blessings
10-Read & other distractions
My secrets are now yours. A few helpful tips from a mother whose heart has been shattered to pieces, but with the grace of God, found new meaning, purpose, and valuable connections with others to create a new beginning and the ability to live the impossible life.
My heart is a little bigger, my eyes are a little wider, my skin is a little thicker, my body is a little tougher, my mind is a little wiser, and my looks are a little older. But, I am still here. I am surviving. I WILL survive.