My youngest daughter, while walking out the door today said she was quitting her internship at the local NAMI art therapy position. I asked why? I thought it was a good fit? She went on to tell me how her instructor for the internship had told her that her losing her sister was meant to be and that she would be stronger for it. I was shocked that someone working with teens in the school system would say that to her. How could she not realize she just told my daughter that her sister’s death was the reason that she will do well in this world? I told her, unfortunately, people don’t know what to say, or how to just sit next to someone and listen. They feel the need to help, provide advice, even if none of it is helpful or is useful.
22 months ago, when my daughter passed, someone wrote to me in a card, “God only gives you what you can handle.” I actually had to look up the verse, 1 Cor. 10, because there is no way God would give me the death of my child because I could handle it?? Actually, in 2 Corinthians 1, Paul explains that he and his companions were “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired life itself.” I am guessing that it didn’t sound as pretty in condolence cards. Instead, 2 Cor. 12:9 “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee for my power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Again, maybe these words would be more helpful, but what people want to do, is to make themselves less uncomfortable when faced with the unexplainable, like the death of a daughter or sister.
Just recently, as if we haven’t had enough loss, my oldest daughter’s boyfriend unexpectedly left the relationship and then soon after also passed. The double loss for my daughter is unfair. Even I caught myself at first, trying to offer lame words of condolence to her, luckily I stopped myself. The loss is not rational. Taking my own advice, I just listened when she wanted to talk, I put my hand on hers when her eyes fill with tears at the restaurant. I cannot take away her pain, or make myself feel better with empty words. I can sit with her in her grief, acknowledge how she feels once again her life path altered. I didn’t try and tell her maybe it wasn’t meant to be, or she will be stronger for this, I just sat next to her.
My youngest daughter, who has some emotional regulation issues, burst into tears when she saw her sister walk in the door and move back home yesterday. She couldn’t express it, but she felt the sadness of her sisters’ new loss and her reaction was an honest expression of her love for her. She later asked me, why has this happened, again? (I even had a couple co-workers ask me the same question). The old me, before the unexpected loss of my daughter, might have tried to justify a loss in a way that could make me feel like it wouldn’t happen to me. I explained to my youngest this morning, that there is no good answer. We live in a messy world. I told her about my 18-year-old patient last week with facial bone cancer. He has about 5 years to live with that prognosis. I recognized the parents drained and exhausted facial expressions, like one I have held, as he was being prepped for surgery. The boy expressed content at whatever he had left, compelled to live his last few years to the fullest, the look on his parent’s faces seemed to say they felt differently. It is unfair and there is no answer. We can just love and support each other, sitting next to each other in the valley.
In the late hours of 2015 Mikenna got mono. It came as a surprise to us because in 8th grade her best friend and her shared everything and they both tested positive for mono. This was the first time I learned that although the virus lays dormant, some people have it reactivated. Those people are usually physically and/or emotionally stressed. Mikenna had just moved back home from college, was dealing with an eating disorder and we now know most likely the onset of bipolar depression. She was unable to hardly move out of her bed for weeks. Fast-forward a year later from then and I would find myself dealing with a preview of what it might feel like to live in grief, I just didn’t know it yet.
A few months after Mikenna, I also developed mono. It seemed ridiculous at 44, but my Epstein-Barr virus was off the charts and I was suffering from flu-like symptoms that had lasted for weeks. It wasn’t a feeling of being tired, it was severe body fatigue that did not ease with sleep. I could barely work. After two months I went back to the doctor. They couldn’t figure out why I was still feeling like I had acute mono. Months went by and I was tested for everything including infectious diseases. Finally, I was given a steroid, and the flue-like body aches subsided. As months went on, I would wake up with pain in my wrists, hands, feet, and ankles. Some days my wrists would be swollen, other days, my thumb would feel like it wanted to come off. That summer I planned a rafting trip for all of my co-workers. The weekend of the trip, I woke up completely unable to use my hands, I couldn’t hold a toothbrush. During this first year, I felt crazy. I work as a nurse, I have over 8 years of advanced education, and I felt insane. Nothing on the internet made sense. My family physician was baffled and was one of the most intelligent physicians I had ever known. She referred me to rheumatology as a last-ditch effort, hoping they could figure it out.
One of the first things the Rheumatologist said to me after labs and my examination was, “you are not crazy. you have an autoimmune disease.” She explained to me it wasn’t uncommon for mono to accelerate the autoimmune process. She explained I already had the syndrome where my hands, feet, and face would not tolerate extreme cold and would turn blue or purple, was in my chart from years earlier. Something I hadn’t thought much about, I’m a colorful person. I’m the ice queen and my husband is a furnace. It never bothered me much. It wasn’t that uncommon. I didn’t really pay attention until then, that these were early markers of an autoimmune process. A process already set in motion by my own genetics, accelerated by extreme stress and mono or more precisely the Epstein-Barr virus. She diagnosed me with Sicca syndrome (dry eyes, nose, and throat) and the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, RA. I at least had something to research.
As I went down the rabbit hole of autoimmune diseases, causes, treatment, and symptoms, I realized it was an invisible disease process. Similar to my youngest daughter’s Asperger-like learning disabilities, they are complicated, invisible, and even in the modern world of science, some people believe they are unreal. I was thankful enough to join a few online support groups. I found a world where other people were being treated for RA, and Sjogren’s (Sicca). We were from all over the world, but we shared the swollen joints, dry eyes, and lack of understanding from the world around us.
I learned to stop talking about it too much around other people. How holding scissors for more than a few minuted might make my hands go stiff. How I cannot sit criss-cross without my ankles and knees swelling and then being unable to walk, I cannot paint without being unable to use my hands for days later, I cannot wear heeled shoes ever again. I wear orthopedic unattractive shoes at work. I take a mild cancer medication weekly, it keeps my symptoms from getting worse and I am thankful. The medication causes IBS symptoms and I have to be careful about the day I choose to take it. I take another medication for the all-over body fatigue, it also causes an upset stomach, so I have to take it at night and if I stop taking it, the flu-like symptoms return. This medication causes severe sun sensitivity so I have to wear long shirts and sunscreen always. If I am in the sun and become overheated, I get sun-sick and I’m down for days. The cold intolerance of Reynaurds, has me in multiple layers below 60 degrees and stiff, but I am lucky, I do not have Parkinson’s, cancer, or MS. I am lucky because of my rheumatologist, recognized right away what I was dealing with. There are people that wait years, some wheel-chair bound before they are acknowledged. Some people do not have medical insurance to cover appointments and medication. It is an invisible disease process, but I am fortunate I can work, I can play, maybe a little less, but more than so many and I am very thankful.
Outside my on-line group, I know a few people in my life with autoimmune diseases. All different kinds. One of my best-friends carries on with one that is more severe and with a worse prognosis. Ankylosing spondylitis (AS) is a type of arthritis in which there is long-term inflammation of the joints and spine, pelvis and hips, shoulders and it becomes worse over time). I don’t dare tell her when I am having a bad day with my joints, hands or feet. I know every day she can walk is a good day. I noticed most people with autoimmune disease don’t talk about how they feel. They don’t want to appear whiny. They quietly soldier on, only talking to others with the same disease not wanting to seem weak or incapable. This was a glimpse as to what was to come next.
Then my daughter passed. I entered the world of mothers who had lost a child. A group no one asks to join. Not only that but my daughter ended her life, under the influence one night, suffering from anxiety and depression, in a rocky relationship. It didn’t matter she was insanely gorgeous, a straight-A student with multiple scholarships, from a pretty normal loving family. I couldn’t even say the word suicide at the time. It left a world of unanswered questions. I felt people back away from me, uncomfortable. Another alien world. People did not know what to say, or how to be a comfort. In this world, talking about your grief, after the initial loss, makes people uncomfortable. In this world, it is unacceptable to talk about your child that passed on a regular basis. (Even though they will always be a part of your life). On-line, parents seek each other out, like with autoimmune diseases, to have a safe place to express their sadness and questions, and experiences. People around us, secretly thankful it didn’t happen to them. They rationalized why it happened, parents didn’t see the signs, or major depression, drugs or alcohol, lack of faith, whatever. The truth is there is no one correct answer. It is a combination of factors. They theorize without realizing that they are doing it, why it happened and how it won’t happen to them, I know because I used to do it myself.
If I raise my children right, if I love them, if I teach them x.y.z nothing bad will happen to them right? We live in a broken world. That doesn’t mean we give up, it means bad things happen to good people. It means a person, who eats healthily and gets exercise might still get an autoimmune disease or cancer. We still try and eat healthy, hedge our bets. It means at 4am a young heartbroken girl, might impulsively choose to close her eyes. I will still keep trying to prevent this from happening to others. It’s a messy, messy, world.
I have learned so much through these processes. How we categorize people quicky. Right, wrong, healthy, crazy. How we avoid what makes us uncomfortable. How we choose to not talk about physical or emotional pain for fear of judgment. If there was anything good to come out of such a horrible tragedy, it would be this new knowledge. My eyes are now opened to how we shun those that make us uncomfortable, and how that makes the people we are moving away from, even more, isolated and vulnerable.
In nursing, we learn to look for signs and symptoms that lead to nursing diagnosis. If you follow the clues, they usually lead to the problem or the source. What if you were broken and lived in a world where you asked your source for signs? It’s like an equation in my mind. Move one piece around and the same pieces fall into the spots.
My friend at work who lost her best friend and had the butterfly on her wedding dress recommended a book. Signs the Secret Language of the Universe. She explains in the first part of the book that the source is God and everything comes from him. She tells a story about giving a speech at a conference and asking for confirmation that it went well by an orange. She walks out into the area where they are preparing lunch and there are crates and crates of oranges everywhere. She didn’t get one, she got thousands.
I find this concept fascinating. Do we psychologically pick something that will make sense later or that we invite into the world as my daughter’s boyfriend suggests? I don’t know, but I was determined to give it a try after a week of trying to hold myself together without losing my emotions around my family.
I was contemplating this while finishing up a procedure at work. What would be something relevant to Mikenna that I could ask for as a sign? I thought about a song I used to sing to her when she was little in her bed at night after butterfly kisses on both cheeks, or when we were hiking and she would complain we still had quite a way to go. I would sing a version of Frank Sinatra’s, High Hopes song. What can make that little old ant, think he can move a rubber tree plant? Everyone knows an ant can’t Move a rubber tree plant. But he had highhhh hopes. He had highhhhh hopes. He had high apple pie in the sky hopes. So every time you’re feeling down and you start to frown, just remember that ant!
So I asked for an ant. Riding home on the train, I got an email from my 23 and me about a second cousin. I reached out to my cousin on my father’s side and told her about the ancestry information. She said it was too bad I didn’t have any contact with my biological father or his sister since she had had all of our ancestry information. I hadn’t talked to my bio dad in 18 years or his sister. In fact, I noticed I had tried to reach out to her by facebook 2 years ago and hadn’t had any response. My cousin also sent her cell info so I sent her another message and went about my day. About an hour later, to my surprise, I received a very detailed message from my Aunt including information and contact information about my biological father. As I look at the phone I thought, wait a minute, is this my ANT/AUNT? I was given an aunt, interesting.
Still considering this as my possible sign, I went back to work the following day and I was the head nurse for the day. Sometime around lunch, I got the strangest call. In the operating room, all the air is filtered and all the gowns and drapes are sterile to prevent the patient from infection. Outside boxes, bags, and shoes are not permitted in an operating room. The surgical assistant called me into the room because for the first time, in anyone’s experience, an ant was on the surgeon’s surgical gown. No one could explain how it got there. Crazy.
Still pondering the idea of asking for confirmation that I am on the correct path, I straightened my hair before going to my first high school to present a suicide prevention video. It wasn’t just any school, It was the school my daughter that passed and my eldest daughter attended. I couldn’t come up with anything that would be a decent confirmation that what I am doing is worthwhile. The author of the book used an orange. How about grapes? I had nothing else I could think of so grapes it was. Being a nurse I figured I had the ability to put my emotions aside and talk to the students as a professional. Nope.
I entered the building and immediately remembered bringing Mikenna there for her orientation. I remembered being a parent sitting at the round tables signing up to volunteer. I shook hands with the principal and felt a lump in my throat. Luckily the representative for AFSP was there. I asked him to do all the talking so I could watch him facilitate and I could know how to run a presentation for the next school. I wouldn’t have to talk. (Or so I thought.)
The presentation got started and I sat down. I looked around the room and noticed they had painted the entire inside of the common room where the presentation was. The same room I had sat years earlier with Mikenna. I turned around and asked the counselor if they had recently painted the inside of the school. She acknowledged that they had. I said, “it is such a dramatic color”. I was thinking I know that color well, It is one of my favorite colors, the color of my nonprofit, Mikenna’s favorite color, but more specifically it is the exact color of years of making sandwiches, it is the one side of a PB and J) I love it I said, “It’s GRAPE”.
A few minutes later and the principal askes me to stand up and share my story. Crap. I stand up and after a brief shaking of my voice, I share a little about Mikenna and her struggle. I made sure to do her proud and mention being second in her class with a 3.99999. Valedictorian was taken away from her the day before her speech by her runner up.
We made it through the presentation and I thought about the 170 kids that had just heard it. I’ll never know if we reached someone enough to get help. If we kept another family from walking this path. I came home and fell apart and hugged my husband. I have to keep trying in her name, I am thankful for the people that have joined my crusade and walk alongside me. Maybe following the signs is part of my own psyche. A way to cope with the impossible. I choose to believe and have faith that God knows I am trudging through quicksand and will give me what I need to continue on. To celebrate getting through this hurdle of speaking at her school, I have chosen to have myself a PBJ, here in the kitchen, with all my memories or four little loud girls rushing out the door sack lunches in hand.
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.
When I find myself down for days, I know I need a project or something to distract me. A goal, a craft, something to pour my energy into. This can go on for days or weeks, sometimes working through meals and long past the hours when I should be sleeping. The tricky part is this can lead to insomnia, and many in loss of any kind, battle with it.
I talk to others going through this process of living with loss, some years further out than myself, and many threw themselves into work or a huge life change to give them something, anything else to focus on. The difficulty they then found was at some point they had to stop going a 100 mph as the wall of loss hit them like a tsunami wave. Some people are unable to work the same career any longer after a tragedy.
I didn’t understand at first the, “wait two years before changing careers,” advice of loss. At times I have hated everything about the place I work, and I would say 75% of people in my type of grief, also hated their jobs and everything about it. After some serious inner perspective, I realized this really is more about projection, a place to direct the anger of the loss of control of my environment. Sure there were things I didn’t like about my place of work, but another grief mama and dear friend so sweetly pointed out to me, these were the people that understood my good days and my bad days, the people that knew who I was and what I am capable of, they know my leadership skills and why I stepped down from most of my positions, they also knew I would come back to it when I was ready.
In some ways, I had wished I had found the ability to take a long sabbatical, but I think I may have never gone back to work if I had. The other side of the pendulum isolation. I also completely understand this. The truth is it takes so much energy to be social, especially now idle chit chat seems pointless. I have always been someone the would rather just be real with people. It is probably why I tend to hang out with people that are the same way. Even before the loss, I wasn’s someone that would go out of my way to meet people of importance to my career, social status, or my children’s social status. Even growing up I was more of a tomboy, happier to hang and play cards with the guys or have one or two girlfriends I had known since elementary school, sit up all night with me and watch the sun come up over our sleepy town.
Many people struggling with loss just don’t have the energy for any of that anymore, the problem happens when this becomes so much easier. It is similar to depression in that it’s easier to stay in your comfort zones where your cat and dog can snuggle up to you and no one cares if you watch movies all day in your bathrobe. The tricky part is, after a while, getting up and out becomes harder and less appealing. If we are lucky enough, we have friends that come around to drag us up and out, the ones that don’t care how much we talk or what we talk about.
This is called the balancing act of Loss. Too much distraction all the time is unhealthy for us and sooner or later the tidal wave comes at us and we can’t get back up. Too little engagement in the outside world and we can stay incapacitated to the point of also not getting back up. It’s finding the ability to do things that have meaning and putting some energy into those things, while still giving ourselves permission to sit in the quiet spaces.
Recently I took my girls camping. It is something we have done every year since the girls were little. It almost didn’t happen due to sports and other complications. I was determined to go even though It took a lot of energy to make it happen. While we were camping I had the ability to reflect on camping trips past, the games we played, the food we made. As I reached into my daughter who passed favorite game, Bananagrams, a bag of probably 200 letters, I pulled out four squares. They happened to be my daughter’s initials M.M.V. with an A. @MMV is teen lingo for tagging someone. I don’t think it was random and my oldest daughter watched me do it and stated, “I sometimes think you make this stuff up, but I just watched that happen!” Of course, I came home and was physically and mentally exhausted, after all the distraction and effort, I need a day of serious downtime.
The balancing act doesn’t end after 18 months I’ve found. I kept thinking I would hit some magical date and everything would be back to somewhat normal. I have decided to stop looking for the day when something doesn’t make my eyes tear up, this is just who I am. I give myself permission to be sad sometimes, to feel the moment, the memory, to be mindful of it and acknowledge it.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell some of my acquaintances, (maybe they will read this) Don’t stop asking if I would like to do things. I know I said no for over a year to most of the lunches, coffee dates and glass of wine offers. There might be times I am not up for it still, but there might be times that I am. People isolate for many reasons besides loss, keep asking, keep calling, keep coming over with your hard lemonade, ice tea or PBR and sitting on the porch. When the cards are put away, and the tissues have been put back in the cabinet, the casserole dishes have been returned from whatever life event we had, we could still use the company once in a while, hopefully, now we will actually accept it.
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
The conversations around my house for weeks were centered around Prom. You can blame Disney, social media, or our culture, but being a pretty princess is somewhere in our DNA or at least part of our little girl daydreams. The talk was on dresses and shoes, clutches and nails, dinner and transportation, make-up and hair. What we should have discussed with my introverted daughter, was skills for feeling overwhelmed when 250 teenagers are bumping and grinding in a dance circle. All and all she did well, she spent more time in the bathroom than the average teenager, but she went, she took pictures, she talked to the people she felt the most comfortable with and next year when she goes again, she’ll know what to expect. She will have ideas on how to navigate the dance circles and awkward conversations. Honestly, the most difficult things in life are the unknowns.
The day after prom I found a post in my feed about grounding. It was called, “Tips to Help with an Anxiety Attack. Look around you and find Five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. The post continues to say this is grounding. It can help when you feel like you have lost all control of your surroundings” -The Anxiety Therapist. The first thing I thought was the person that wrote this has never had an anxiety attack. When you are feeling anxious, your body gears up for a fight or flight response, your heart beats faster, you can be agitated or restless, and mostly you have impaired concentration where your mind goes blank. Not to mention in an actual attack, your vision can become narrowed and your hearing can feel overstimulated. This made me chuckle to myself. I just envisioned myself at nursing school breathing heavy with my head down asking, “I’m supposed to touch something, or smell something? Five of what and four of what? I’ve only had a couple of these anxiety attacks, one in nursing school many years ago, and the other when my daughter passed unexpectedly, I do, however, see the merit of teaching yourself or a friend the concept of grounding, taking your shoes off or holding an inanimate object. It is supposed to help with bringing you back to the present moment. I think that might be a teachable concept that someone can remember when they are feeling anxious if you keep it simple.
Later I was dusting and noticing how the dust was everywhere. It was on every crevice, top, bottom, sides on all the knick-knacks on my shelving unit. Two analogies came to mind. First, dust is like a loss. It is everywhere, there is no hiding it. It touches everything, every part of your life is touched by loss. Second is that loss and grief scatters a person like dust in the wind. I have never felt more fragmented than the months following the loss of my daughter. My thoughts were scattered, my emotions were scattered, and the concept of time was also scattered. I am just now slowly piecing myself back together. The concept of grounding comes back to me and I think about different forms of grounding.
Months ago I noticed some people, that were years out from their loss, seemed to be doing a tiny bit better than others. There were some that were still having a hard time functioning on a day to day basis and others that struggled but seemed to be functioning. I met with a few of them trying to understand what it was I was going through, reaching for someone who understood the terrible pain. I started to notice a theme. My one friend and husband organize a charity for children with the same disease as their son, Another set of parent went on to battle in courts to change a law that would save other children, and another couple works around the clock running a non-profit for wilderness therapy. A father, I haven’t met in person, collects books annually because his child loved to read. These people were also still married to their spouses after suffering such a loss, I believe the father was a single Dad before the loss, but he was writing and functioning a few years outside of the loss of his child. One study indicated that divorce rates among bereaved parents are as much as eight times the norm (Lehman, Wortman, & Williams, 1987). What did these parents have in common? A sense of purpose, a focal point, a different form of grounding to the here and now. Their pieces that had been broken and scattered to the wind brought together for a sense of purpose they had found.
Sitting in my Sunday morning coffee bible study group, somehow the subject of grounding came up, (probably I brought it up). One man discusses the importance of using grounding wire, it keeps you from blowing your circuit and from the electrical current being scattered everywhere. We talk about how having faith is like being grounded. Faith helps keep a person from being scattered, it brings light to the darkness.
Our group leader then reads Psalm 119 verse 105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” Without anyone near the light switch that we could see, the rest of the conference room lights, at that same moment, turn on. Luckily, this time, it was in a room full of people, and one of my friends that was with me the last time I had a similar experience, was there. God has such a funny way of getting my attention, I felt like I got a “right on” and I can’t help but think my daughter’s sense of humor could also be at play here.
I remember learning that my grandfather took all of my grandmother’s things and gave them to the Good Will. I remember being so upset that all of her things were gone. A few years later my other grandmother past away. All of her things that had not been distributed to her children, such as jewelry, sat for over ten years before my sister and I sorted some of the things that remained. My very good friend lost her husband a couple of years ago, and she found herself “stuck” when just trying to sort through his books.
I’ve learned a few things from online loss groups. First of all, there are different kinds of loss that can get someone stuck. Divorce, the loss of a career, a drastic move or a major change in your life. All of these life-changing events can leave you stuck emotionally with your stuff or your loved one’s stuff, or stuff from memories of the years gone by.
What I have found, is there is no right way to deal with STUFF. Some people cannot look at it ever again, like my grandfather. The memories of each item are just too painful. Some people would like to sort through it and give away what they don’t really need, but they want to give it to someone that really needs it or someone they feel good about giving it to. Others want to keep everything just as it was left, as a way to remember the person or the time of their life before the change or loss. Then there are people that want to repurpose or make memorable items from their loved one’s stuff.
None of these solutions are wrong, and I have learned it is a very personal choice, a choice that if you have to give your opinion, you should tread very lightly when giving it. Such as, “I took many of my daughter’s favorite shirts and made a quilt, if you are interested in the website, let me know.” I found by reading the different posts, I was somewhat of a blend of all these types of people. I wanted somethings of my daughters to keep, some things like size 8.5 shoes, when no one wears 8.5 shoes now, to go to someone that could really use them, and some things repurposed into meaningful items for my family.
I recently found myself, “Stuck like Chuck.” I looked up the origin of that, by the way, and nobody knows where it came from, possibly a Chuck Norris reference. I realized over the last 14 months I have been unable to sort through much of anything without spending hours lost in time. A pair of socks, a book written in forth grade, pictures of four years ago when life was easier. Not to mention the Dang Facebook memories! I actually am glad to see them, but they also can suck me down into memory lane for hours.
I knew I needed to finally take the help I have been offered. I kept putting it off, not wanting anyone to see how my craft room looked like a hoarders oasis. I had decided to take on one room at a time, and to suck it up and take the help of my type A friends and relatives. I was also happy to hear that my friend that lost her husband did a similar project by paying a teen for the summer to help her sort items. That way she could dole out small projects and not be overwhelmed. I had a girlfriend help initially with sorting clothes, but I found in the last year I was unable to do much of anything besides survive.
So we spent the afternoon sorting kids craft stuff and my craft stuff. I had moments of tears when finding items of sentimental value. These items got there own box. My family member offered to take and sort the boxes of pictures I wasn’t ready to look at. The room got organized and some things left for a later date, but I am able to walk into the room now without dread.
My advice for anyone reading this is to help each other out. If you know someone going through a big change or a loss, offer a Sunday afternoon to sort their most challenging items or place in their house. Just make sure to leave the judgment of what they should be doing at home.
If you are that someone going through a loss or a huge change in your life, go ahead and ask for help. Take the help you turned away previously. There is almost always someone around, a retired person in your church group, a type A coworker, a teen that need summer work. Below is a craft from the Celebration of Life flowers
Memorial Rose Oil
small clear dropper bottles 1 ounce
small gift tags
Almond oil 16-ounce bottle
jojoba oil 4- ounce
vitamin E oil capsules
essential rose oil
(optional) vanilla essential oil
First, lay your flowers out on a screen to dry. Roses are the best for this particular craft. Somewhere air can circulate around them, such as the garage. Forget about them for a few months while they dry.
Take one of the dried rose buds or petals and drop it into the bottom of the clear bottle. Then fill the bottle 1/2 of the way with almond oil. Add Jojoba oil until it is 3/4 full. Add two drops of rose oil. You can also add one drop of vanilla. Mark the gift tag with the date or name of remembrance. You can give your memorial rose oil to friends and family or you can choose a larger dropper bottle and make yourself a larger body oil size. Rose oil has been known for its anti-aging properties and a small 1-ounce bottle sells for about $15 in stores.