I was driving home from visiting my oldest daughter for her birthday. It’s a long tedious drive I had done dozens of times. After losing her sister, only 20 months younger than her, and her best friend, I count every birthday as a blessing. She finally looked like my beautiful girl again, except now she was a 23-year-old woman. Grief has given her a maturity in her eyes too young for her sweet face, but on this day, the circles under her eyes seemed faded and I could now see hope and possibilities shining from within her.
The house she lives in still holds recent memories or her sister. Bittersweet to look at, but I am still so thankful to look at them. The funny thing with grief, there is no right way to view loss. I say it again, THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG WAY TO VIEW LOSS! Some people need to put every picture away to cope through their day, some people need every item and picture their loved one held in their presence. I live somewhere in the middle, I need to keep certain things, and all the pictures, but I have learned that I need to find uses for some things, I need to give it a purpose. That is just me, I made boot planters, I had blankets made from clothing, I had bears made, I made Christmas ornaments from sympathy cards. It has given me a feeling of purpose to give things a purpose.
At some point in therapy, even before my daughter passed, I learned most of us carry around these past hurts and feelings we let drive our actions. We have an emotional feeling about a situation and we impulsively act on it without acknowledging the feeling, processing how it makes us feel and letting it move past us. My family of the ADHD variety has always struggled with impulsivity, some of that changes with maturity luckily.
Through losing M, I have had to do this a lot. Process. As I was driving home I made the analogy it is like driving into the storm. Why would anyone want to do that? Driving into a dark ominous mass that is right in front of us gives us the opportunity to come out the other side. To try and run from it, ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there does nothing for us. It eventually catches us off guard and unprepared.
The kind of grief I have been dealing with is called complicated grief. It’s the only name they can give someone that has suffered through an unexpected trauma. All grief is different, complicated grief means I didn’t get a reason for my loss like cancer or a car accident. The passing of my daughter is complicated, to say the least, so what I am doing to keep myself together? Just about everything.
I was driving home thinking about an unpleasant conversation I was going to have about her passing. It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have, but I knew that if I didn’t have it I couldn’t put this storm, this dark cloud behind me. I have been focusing on the positive, how to help others in her name and this felt icky. Just like cleaning out her closet, this needed to be done. I needed to feel how it made me feel, acknowledge it, have the conversation and move forward. I made the call as I pulled over at the rest area.
Almost home I see the evening sunset after the rain. The grey clouds moving in the direction I had just come from. The conversation wasn’t wonderful but I had made it. I could take a deep breath without thinking about what might be said or what should be said.
Thinking about my recent visit to my daughter, I remember and appreciate the little white butterfly that said hello when I first arrived. It may or may not have been a little hello from heaven, but I appreciated it all the same. I have realized we get the signs and messages when we need them, maybe not always when we want them.
My friend at work recently got married. She had a beautiful wedding in a beautiful private place in either Alaska or Canada. The wedding she planned as a young girl with her best friend.
Every young girl these days most likely has a wedding Pinterest site. When I was young I cut up pictures of gowns and saved them. My friend from work had done the same I am sure. She had everything she ever wished for, the most beautiful place, the most beautiful dress, the handsome groom, but she didn’t have her maid of honor, her best friend, who had passed a few years earlier. On that day, as she stood in the most beautiful place, in her expensive dress, looking into her handsome groom’s eyes, a monarch butterfly circled her and then landed on her white dress. At that moment she was breathless. Heaven had sent her a little gift. Her best friend and maid of honor had sent her love. Here is the picture of that moment as she stood in the sunshine, still shaken by the storm but surrounded now in light and love.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Yes Man, with Jim Carrey, then you might relate to this bizarre phase of grief and healing I have been going through. In the movie, the main character has suffered the loss of his marriage and has a negative outlook on himself and life in general. He attends a seminar and is inspired to say yes to everything and besides some minor chaos, he changes his life and the life of random or not so random strangers lives, even to go so far as to save a man from suicide. I didn’t really have this movie in mind, but honestly, I was fighting for my own life when I determined this might be the way to save it.
After the tragedy of losing my daughter and one of my best friends who we shared so much in common, I could barely breathe, and still have moments where I have to focus on just putting one step in front of the other, one moment at a time. It has felt at times like I have been struggling to hang on to everything I hold dear like it used to feel when I would attempt rock climbing and would decide to stick my hands between a crack to hold myself on a narrow footing.
The first “thing” I said yes to was a walk for suicide prevention. It didn’t make everything better, but it was like putting ice on a bee sting, doing something positive in her name took the sharp pang away, even if for a little while. Then we did the first Hike for Hope, and the nonprofit, the http://www.MikennaVanekProject.org with ongoing projects, then the Mexico mission with my family and church and then recently I was asked to be the camp nurse while in Mexico. I didn’t want to say no, I wasn’t sure the reason I needed to go, especially two weeks later after my Mexico mission, but like the Yes Man movie I went.
My thoughts were that I would pass out a few bandaids, I hadn’t been a camp nurse in a long while. The first night I was there, a young girl came in extremely upset for the physical health of her sister. We talked for a while and she left. I remembered nights past of my daughters worried for one of their sisters, and it broke my heart for her. I hoped that telling her some resources would be enough. I also wondered was this an isolated thing or would more campers come to talk?
Over the week I got to know kiddos with different mental health issues, relationship issues, transitional living type situations and in general, as a nurse, emotionally a lot more difficult to treat than a just an icepack or a bandaid. They came in for their meds or vitamins, or feminine products, ice or bandaids, looking for candy or snacks and stayed just talking life with me. I then watched as some of them formed friendships with each other, interestingly enough, the kids with the most difficult hardships seemed to find each other and connect.
During my time as a camp nurse, two of the campers who were best friends got into a fight. Emotions ran high and in the heat of the moment, one of the boys hit a wall. After Xrays, ice and Advil he was extremely remorseful. He was ashamed of himself and wanted to go home. In another situation just a couple days later after another angry outburst, a different also embarrassed wanted to go home. In both situations after they cooled off and with major coaxing from different counselors, they both stayed and went on to enjoy the rest of the camp. I heard one counselor say, “one impulsive act does not define you”. I contemplated that statement for days. The truth is, one defining moment does not define you, it may change your life forever, but it is not the definition of the person you truly are. It is one moment, one choice. I think about the beautiful soul my daughter was and how one tragic moment ended her life, but it did not define the beautiful person that will always be her.
From hugs to the brokenhearted, that I felt so deep it broke mine also, to gathering personal hygiene items for teens in need, to a nap in a quiet area for the anxiety-ridden camper labeled as being “drama” by other campers, to explaining to the neurodiverse (not neurotypical) teens that they aren’t alone at camp or in life. I didn’t have a sign like Lucy in Peanuts but the campers just came and needed me to be present and listen. I will be honest after the first young lady visited, I thought to myself this isn’t what I signed up for, but it was what they needed and ultimately what I needed to give.
One of the first moments there I found myself face to face with my daughter that passed away’s, youth leader. He reintroduced himself. What he didn’t know is that I harbored some unresolved feelings towards him. Why hadn’t he connected in the last 18 months? As he fumbled for words of telling me how sorry he felt, the words forgiveness filled my heart. I struggled with questions of what-ifs. I knew that before this event I would also struggle with reaching out to someone in my shoes. I now know that any effort is worth giving and I feel like it’s my life’s mission to make that effort when I see the need, but I would have struggled in his shoes before the tragic event of losing my daughter. I was thankful he had finally talked to me and thankful I was able to not let that hurt define me, and I was able to let go.
Below is a craft of beach shells my daughter had gathered and a few I added from the dollar store:
two pieces of small scrap wood
attach the two small pieces of wood into a cross with the two nails and hot glue all of the shells until all the surface is covered Attach a step in the back with the staple gun if you choose to hang it or place in your garden
Isolation, the result, and the enemy of most of us, is also sort of a commodity. To not have to answer questions about how you are feeling, what you plan on doing or what you did over the weekend. The truth is that my feelings changes from day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute. For instance, over mother’s day, I couldn’t stand to talk to anyone, only to then regret not making plans later that day.
Did I isolate myself, by not having the energy for small talk, by sitting alone at lunch, (if I even took my lunch)? Did I isolate myself by not reaching out to relationships that weren’t in my immediate small circle or was I isolated by being softly pushed away by those around me that felt uncomfortable with my loss, my trauma? It has been 16 months, but the first few months, I wasn’t really up for lunches and coffee dates but I was asked. I realized recently that unless I reach out, I am no longer being asked to social engagements. I am not complaining, I am just noticing the results of going through something traumatic. Honestly, I don’t really mind not doing things for the most part, things that now can seem meaningless, at times. Like I used to go to every event I felt obligated to go, versus only going to things I really want to go to. I used to care more about what I wore, now I wear only what makes me feel comfortable. Things that I used to not make time for, now seem extremely important like walking, writing, and working on my projects. Worrying about what others think of me, if I was invited to go to a social gathering or not, seems unimportant now, though it would be nice to be asked and to at least consider the event. Oh well, as my husband says, “I know who loves me,” and that’s all that matters. (Sometimes he’s so smart.)
The other day, my nurse anesthetist and I had a case cancel and had downtime. (I work in the operating room at a nearby hospital) She started talking to me about the trauma she has been in over her daughter’s critical health condition. The condition was life-threatening and her young child had to undergo intense surgeries. During the process she realized she felt somewhat alienated from others, She also felt co-workers might not understand the ongoing stress of the condition. I completely related. The PTSD I still battle with over the loss of my daughter has had me miss random days, including therapy for myself and my other children. I have stepped down from many of my leadership positions, I don’t pick up extra shifts or take others shifts. After a while, the feeling of guilt tends to make us trauma mammas feel like we are supposed to soldier on, pretend everything is fine, we don’t want to be viewed as a slacker, pitied and avoided.
I was thankful for the conversation. It was like a sense of relief to talk to another mom about how stress affects your career, your family life, and your relationships. She has written about her experience through online journalling and I am thankful for people like her that aren’t afraid to be open and to share their experiences. We cannot empathize or help each other if we have no idea what others are going through.
Loss, grief and trauma does strange things to people. We in some ways become the most empathetic people in the world, but in other ways we are so engulfed in our own stuff, that we have a difficult time seeing someone else’s circumstances. For example, my neighbor just had a baby. My old self would have made something for her. In the aftermath of loosing my daughter, I’ve had a difficult time paying attention to what’s going on next door. Another example being my friends child was recently diagnosed with a severe learning disability. I know that’s difficult and I empathize having a child that has some learning challenges myself, but I haven’t been able to reach out yet, and I’m not sure why.
One connection that I have to other parents that have also lost children, is that many of my online friends in the support groups, look for signs. It is a common understandable thing to do when your heart has been ripped to pieces. They look for signs from God, for comfort, messages from their children or loved one, anything to ease some of the stabbing pains of loss. Sometimes I read about the most amazing signs, and I have found myself feeling happy for them but down for myself, that I wasn’t getting the same types of signs. Looking back on my blog posts, I have been given many moments of comfort (signs) and I am thankful, I’m not sure why we instantly forget them. I realized that all of our Spiritual relationships are different, and all of our relationships with our loved ones were different, so any messages, thoughts, or feelings of comfort, will also be different.
Last week I was waking with one of my daughter’s best friends and I looked down and there were four purple flowers along our path. It gave me a little heart squeeze. It could be Coincidence that I have four girls and my daughter’s color was purple, or not, it still made me smile. As we were walking I had just finished telling him about going to get my nails done the day earlier, for the event we were having for her birthday, and telling the nail guy to choose any color out of his 100 different colors. He chose purple.
Sometimes I think that the types of signs I get are ways to encourage me to keep going, messages to keep working towards reaching out to others no matter how difficult it might be. Sunday I got a call from a friend of mine that someone posted in the Portland and neighboring cities neighborhood news that they were selling their daughter’s dresses and donating the money towards the American Foundation for suicide prevention. This is the same group we have been working with and donating to also. My friend said I should reach out to her. I did so at first reluctantly, wondering if this was now my mission, reaching out to other parents that were dealing with loss. (I didn’t really ask for it) I sent her a message and then my youngest daughter and friends wanted to go get tea in the neighboring city so I decided to take them forgetting about the message I had sent.
As we were leaving the tea shop, I remembered messaging the gal with the dresses and looked at my phone to see what the address was, what city it was in and how long it would take to get there. I realized we weren’t driving distance, we were actually 300 feet walking distance. How crazy that the obscure tea shop was a stones throw from the sale address. We walked to her sale and when I saw the mom, she instantly hugged me with tears in her eyes. She told me about her daughter, her love of unique dresses, her love of vintage items, her passion for teaching. She also told me that her daughter graduated from the same college as my oldest daughter and had lived in the same city. I wondered how often she was given the chance to talk about her, to say her name, to show her picture. I thought this was the best sign of love I could have been given on this day. To witness a mother fighting to survive and give back after loosing her precious daughter. That is what inspires me I thought to myself, maybe I don’t need small talk and coffee shops anymore. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could just be real, vulnerable, and open? Imagine the things we could learn from each other.
One of my few and closest friends joined me on my walk today. For some reason I found where I walk so much more beautiful today with all of the wildflowers blooming. I felt like the purple flowers bloomed just for me. I know that I may not feel this way tomorrow. Tomorrow I might not like being around anyone, something might make me feel extremely sad, or maybe it won’t, I never know. For today though I appreciate the beauty around me, and for now, I can just breathe.
Staring at the rhododendron in my memorial garden I realized it was going through stress. My neighbor, concerned a limb would hit his roof, had cut some of the limbs from the large oak back to the main branch. The tree was not harmed, but the purple bush below it now was exposed to the full sun. The leaves drooped, the bush leaned toward the shade, and the stems of the bush became longer with new growth somewhat stunted. I couldn’t stop contemplating the similarities of a tree or bush in shock or stress compared to humans. The slowing of new growth and the withering of leaves being two of the main symptoms. One of the most common reasons for shock is that the tree loses part of its root system. A tree affected by severe stress such as drought, improper planting, improper fertilizer, or any severe weather condition, can take two to five years to recover! When I read this I thought, If we can allow a tree 2-5 years to recover from stress, shock and losing part of its root system, why can’t we allow humans? One online friend said she was told to move on after 8 months?! What is wrong with people????
Why can’t we allow our friends, our families, our co-workers time to overcome the stress of trauma, loss, or injury and the time it takes to adapt to an unfamiliar world. A world where your dreams and expectations are all different now, a world possibly without a loved one, a world seen differently because bad things really do happen and it cannot be controlled. That perceived control of your world bubble has been burst. Can you imagine?
Why do the people who have not experienced the same kind of pain feel the need to insert their opinion and lack of empathy or patience towards those trying to recover from an unimaginable barrier? I pondered this thought over and over for weeks. Rolling it around in my mind. I even posed the questions to my online groups. Have you been told to stop talking about your loved ones, to move on, to put all their items away?
In all four online support groups, there were a few people that had family members walk away from them, who couldn’t stand to see them grieve anymore. Thank goodness for support groups! Many people believe it is our own culture problem. If you think about other non-western cultures, grieving is embraced, expected, and not talking about their loved in most other cultures would be odd. Everyone has their own way to work through it and it may take years or maybe a lifetime. What some outsiders may not realize is that losing a loved one puts you in a category of losing your own life. Finding a way to move through the pain is necessary to survive not just physically but mentally. To criticize how someone tries to cope with their pain to me is almost cruel.
What if we lived in a more empathetic world? My friend from high school lost a fellow soldier to suicide from PTSD. When I read his story I thought back to when I came home from Desert Storm. I was alone, no one understood my sadness and it took a couple years for me to really transition back to civilian life mentally. I look back and I really could have used more support. Counseling, group support, military support and people around me giving me grace, anything. I felt awkward when I first came home like I didn’t fit in. Everything around me felt strange. I had lost the people around me that I had lived with for a year, learned to sleep through the sound of Scud missiles, learned to eat the same thing every day, wear the same clothes, look at the same terrain. This was only with one tour, our soldiers have been going for multiple tours. They come home to an impatient world, but the human mind and heart take time to heal. Could we just learn to emphasize more and for longer even to situations we do not relate to? When people are in stress and shock they need more support, not avoidance and isolation. We tend to scoot away from unpleasant people and situations as if we will catch their sadness or their pain. Like I said, we give a tree in shock two to five years of support and nurturing to return to thrive.
I have a friend who lost her son to an illness when our kids were in second grade, about 9 years ago. I remember when it happened secretly being thankful it had not happened to my family. It was hard to wrap my head around, it seemed to come out of the blue. As a parent, you start to rationalize how to keep your own children safe. You think if I do X, and Y and Z my children will be protected from whatever. We still need to do those things, we still need to try to protect our families, but I was so wrong, bad things happen to good people. It’s not contagious, and hiding and ignoring problems in our society don’t make them go away. Bringing light to the darkness does. Talking about taboo things like grief, suicide, depression, PTSD has been proven to actually help that affected heal. I wish I could go back in time and hug and walk with my friend when she went through what she did. I sent her my condolences, saw that she had people around her so I didn’t think she needed my help, or that is what I told myself. If you are reading this now Deana, I apologize from the bottom and deepest part of my heart.
Before I even started the nonprofit, or read the amazing book, It’s ok to not be ok, https://www.refugeingrief.com/book/ a book everyone should skim through that knows someone going through grief, especially family members, I talked to multiple people about how they were coping with losing their child. The people that were doing more than merely surviving seemed to be finding a sense of purpose or legacy, anything from planting a tree in their child’s name in a much needed reforested area or place they loved, a book drive in their child’s honor, buying a birthday cake on their child’s birthday for someone else or paying it forward. When talking with Deana, she had spent valuable time and money to bring change to medical procedures for other children suffering from her child’s same illness. My other friend who lost her six-month-old to SCID runs a fundraiser every year on his birthday. Their entire family is involved every year, they are helping others with their child’s same disease. I am very proud to know them and their story, I now realize how important it is to talk about and share our stories. Thank you, James and Stacey, for what you do https://primaryimmune.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/StaceyBarrettTestimony.pdf
According to psychology, helping others helps heal ourselves. It’s the reason I felt led to take my family to build houses with our church in Mexico next month. I knew we didn’t have the resources to go, but as I walked into my small group, I asked for a sign or answer if we should go. Ten minutes later as we talked in our small group, my family was given half the funds needed to go by another couple that couldn’t physically go themselves. I had my answer. I don’t expect it to completely heal the root we are missing from our tree, but I believe it will help as we learn to grow a different direction.
Since I have lost my daughter, I have been extremely blessed by the support of most everyone around me, but I have had some things said to me and about me that have been unkind, though I now know, they do not know, how unkind these words truly are. I have had people, that are my closest friends not utter a word to me, (you can just give me a hug, you don’t have to say anything its ok friend.) I have been told to put my pictures of my daughter away, (By the way they will be out until I die so get over it), that my blog just throws my grief in everyone’s face, (Um, Don’t read it), that my non-profit for depression awareness isn’t healthy for me or my family. (That’s totally against what all of the psychological community says, but o.k.) This is where I have to thank my online community. When I asked honestly if these things were healthy or not, you all gave me honest answers and reminded me to follow my heart to heal, and that awareness, even if it only keeps one family out of this grief club, is worth it. At first, I was angry at these comments, but how can I be angry when in the past I am guilty of it too before I walked this path? Now I know its fear and ignorance to this world I sometimes wish I was also ignorant to, along with people carrying their own baggage, thinking they know what’s best. They don’t. Let’s try empathy on first.
I just read that Michael Phelps struggled with depression and in the past suicidal ideation. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2838142-michael-phelps-details-struggles-with-anxiety-and-depression-on-twitter When you look at someone so talented and with so many followers we think they have it all. We think we know what kind of life they have. The one thing I can say that has come out of all this grief is that I have realized you never know what the person next to you is going through. The irritated old man in line may be mourning the loss of his wife, maybe today is their wedding anniversary. The young man in line covered in tattoos buying beer at 9am might be suffering from PTSD. The lady crying in the flower aisle at Costco, and moments later snapping at the clerk for the mismarked prices of flowers might be trying to decide what color roses to bury her daughter with.