Dear newly bereaved mother,
Welcome to the sisterhood of the wailing tent. With profound condolences, I know this greeting will soon be forgotten, for your heart and soul have sustained a terrible blow. The shock known as The Fog will accompany you for some time, greatly impacting your memory. So I offer you this written welcome to refer to when your recollection falters.
The wailing tent is an honored place where only mothers with a broken spirit can enter. Admittance is gained not with an ID card bearing your name, but with the profound sorrow freshly etched on your heart. Membership is free, for you have already paid the unfathomable price. The directions to the wailing tent are secret, available only to mothers who speak our loss language of everlasting grief. No rules are posted, no hours are noted. There is no hierarchy, no governing body. Your membership has no expiration date—it is lifelong. The refuge offered within its walls does not judge members based on age, religious belief, or social status. You can hang your camouflage and mask outside, and if you can’t make it past the door we will surround you with love right where you lay.
The wailing tent is a shelter where mothers shed anguished tears among her newfound sisters, a haven where all forms of wailing are honored, understood, and accepted. In the beginning, you will be very afraid and will hate the wailing tent and everything it stands for. You will flail, thrash about, and spew vile words in protest. You will fight to be free of the walls, wishing desperately to offer a plea bargain for a different tent, learn a different language. Those emotions will last for some time.
Your family and friends cannot accompany you here. The needs of the wailing tent are invisible to them and though they will try, they simply cannot comprehend the language nor fathom the disembodied, guttural howls heard within.
In the beginning, your stays here will seem endless. Over time, the need for your visits will change and eventually you will observe some mothers talking, even smiling, rather than wailing. Those are the mothers who have learned to balance profound anguish with moments of peace, though they still need to seek refuge among us from time to time. Do not judge those mothers as callused or strong, for they have endured profound heartache to attain the peace they have found. Their visits here are greatly valued, for their hard earned wisdom offers hope that we, too, will learn to balance the sadness in our hearts.
Lastly, you need not flash your ID card or introduce yourself each time you visit, for we know who you are. You are one of us, an honorary lifelong sister of the wailing tent. Welcome, my wailing sister.
Written by Lynda Cheldelin Fell 01/26/14
After losing his 18-year-old daughter to a rare form of cancer known as alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, psychology professor and addiction specialist Dave Roberts was spiritually awakened to a new life. Watch his story here. #cancer #grief #healing #hope
Teenaged girls giggled around my sister and me at the mall. They walked together in a tight group, swinging bags of merchandise. Any minute I expected to see my own daughter Liz come around a corner with a group of friends.
But Liz wasn’t here. She died in a duplex fire at college the day before.
“Let’s try this one,” my sister Sue said, guiding me into a shop that looked familiar. Of course. Liz had worked at this store during high school. A true clothes-a-holic, she’d loved the employee discount. Most of her earnings went right back to the store. Now here I was buying one final outfit for Liz—her burial outfit.
“Can I help you?” the salesgirl asked.
“Just looking,” I said.
I felt numb and far away. Sue had driven us to the mall because I couldn’t focus on the road. I couldn’t focus on anything. At the funeral home I had sat with my husband and father in silence while the director went over all the details.
“You’ll need to bring us some of Liz’s clothing,” he explained. “Any time in the next couple of days.”
I sat like a statue, not really understanding. It wasn’t until I got home that his words actually registered: Liz needed new clothes. Her entire wardrobe had been destroyed in the fire along with everything else.
I flipped through the racks around me. How many times had Liz needed new clothes? She seemed to come up with a reason every other week. My daughter was a champion shopper. If it ever became an Olympic sport, Liz surely would have won the gold medal.
“Liz didn’t get her love of shopping from me,” I said, holding up a dress for Sue’s opinion.
I put the dress back on the rack. Sue agreed: It just wasn’t Liz. How could I ever pick the right outfit without her? The clothes in the store swam together like a jumbled mass of fabric.
Liz, you’ve got to help me here, I thought to myself. I have absolutely no idea what to pick.
Sue and I moved through the store and my gaze wandered over the racks. Suddenly, a pair of khaki pants caught my eye. I grabbed a pair in Liz’s size. A few minutes later I reached for a pale blue sweater. “That’s pretty,” Sue said. “Let’s get that.”
“I have no idea if this is what Liz would want,” I admitted.
In my mind I saw Liz picking through racks of clothes. Maybe she can’t care about things like that anymore.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter if I don’t get it right,” I said.
I had once wished my daughter didn’t care so much about clothes. Now the thought of her not being able to care was unbearable, because it meant she no longer existed. Not on earth, anyway. I would never see her again.
The funeral went smoothly, not that I would have noticed any mistakes. Nothing mattered to Liz anymore. Why should it matter to me?
The day after the funeral my sister-in-law stopped by. Karen was the family photographer and had gone through her collection searching for shots of Liz.
“I found one from last Christmas when Liz was over at my house,” she said, digging into her purse. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen it.”
She handed me the photo showing Liz smiling and happily sitting on a couch with her cousins.
I drank in the sight of her face for a moment before scanning the rest of the photo. And when I did, I couldn’t believe it.
Liz was wearing a pair of khaki pants and a pale blue sweater.
You weren’t on your own, I realized. I had asked for Liz’s help. And she did.
A fashionista angel helped me choose the perfect outfit for my daughter, the champion shopper. No longer here with me on earth, but alive as ever in heaven, where one day I will see her again.
No doubt she has a new outfit ready and waiting for the reunion.
I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. Not because today marks nine years since losing Aly. Rather, the feel of the cool sheets, my sleeping hubby next to me, and the warm sun filtering through our bedroom window felt too peaceful to disturb.
So I laid there and allowed my mind to wander over the past nine years. I replayed that night in the field when I sat next to Aly, how I held her warm hand while strangers on scene surrounded me with love. How Jamie called for an update on the fender-bender only to learn his youngest daughter was covered by the stark white sheet of death.
How we made our way home as the full moon gave way to dawn, wondering when we’ll wake from this nightmare.
What I didn’t know then that I know now is that I would survive.
In those early days I didn’t think I could endure the agony, and many days I didn’t want to. The pain is beyond any words in a college textbook.
How could I learn to live with Aly in my heart instead of my arms? I didn’t know. But whether I liked it or not, I was about to learn.
My playbook of grief begins with a fog of shock so strong, I don’t remember much. The next few chapters are filled with wailing, gnashing of teeth, and spewing vile words. I then embarked on a desperate search for comfort, for relief from the agony. The end of my playbook remains unwritten but the rawness has softened and the current chapters teach that my heart can hold joy the same time as sorrow.
There are many lessons and chapters in my playbook, but the most surprising of all is the one about transformation. In the early days we don’t believe this is possible. How could we? We can’t see past the pain. But as the rawness softens and our coping skills strengthen, we move into an unexpected—and often positive—transformative phase.
What I didn’t know nine years ago that I know now is that Aly’s death was the gateway to many blessings.
My circle of friends has expanded to strangers around the world who speak all loss languages. This taught me that the foundation of mankind is love.
My skillset has expanded to things I didn’t know I could do. This taught me that limitations are self induced, and I can do more than I think.
My compassion has grown in ways I could never have imagined. I learned to see outside my own pain into other hurting hearts, and how helping them helps my own heart to heal.
My gratitude has evolved into an intentional mindset. This taught me that being grateful is a powerful healing modality. The more grateful I am, the more gratitude I have.
Nine years ago I didn’t want to live. But others held that light of hope when I had none. This taught me the importance of sparking, igniting, and shining our light for those in the darkness behind us.
I’m often asked whether the pain ever truly ends. One cliche is that we don’t get over grief, we move through it. I don’t believe we move through it. I believe we learn to carry it with us as we move forward in life.
To answer the question, I do believe pain eases. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. The timing might be different, but don’t give up. Life’s second act will be different, but enjoy the moments when the pain isn’t as suffocating and you’ll find that you don’t have to choose between sorrow or joy. The heart has room for both, and eventually the joy will grow.
Nine years ago I didn’t believe I would survive losing Aly. What I didn’t know then that I know now is not only would I survive, I might actually like—no, love—life.
I love you, Lovey.
Written by Lynda Cheldelin Fell
Her body sank to the floor, her shoulders heaving with sobs. I knelt down, wrapped my arms around her and rested my cheek on her soft hair. I didn’t know her name but I knew her pain.
I saw her again the next day, yesterday, at the top of the escalator. When our eyes met, sobs once again overtook her body. I couldn’t stop her tears but I did know the power of a hug from one bereaved mother to another. I held her right there on the spot, oblivious to others coming and going. Because in that moment, nothing else mattered. Nothing else but her grief. And my love for her, for a stranger.
I didn’t know her name but I knew her pain.
Some wonder why those of us who are years down the road attend grief conferences. Don’t they remind us of the darkest moment of our lives? Why would we want to revisit such pain?
Because when we help others we help our own hearts to heal.
These conferences remind us how far we’ve come.
They remind us how much we’ve changed for the better.
That we’re the hero of our own story by holding the light of hope for those who have none.
Grief conferences recharge our batteries in ways nothing else can. We meet others who speak our loss language, and become lifelong friends based on that alone. Politics, religion, nor socioeconomic backgrounds do not matter here. What matters is that hope is ignited, shared, and protected.
I’m home now, having climbed into bed next to my dear sweet hubby before daybreak this morning. My body is weary but my heart is content. Physically I didn’t do much at this conference, but spiritually I gave all I had. And I’ll do it again next week, next month and next year.
I may not know all their names but I know their pain. When we lose a child we become The Others. And when I hold another Other in her darkest hour, all is right with my world.
I am grateful.
-Lynda Cheldelin Fell XOXO
It was a beautiful fall day. The temperature was perfect and only a few clouds hung suspended in the blue sky.
The date was November 18, 2007, a Sunday. We had been living in a hotel because our home had been flooded when Jacksonville Electric Authority did something called pipe bursting on the house behind ours. That day we were finally able to get into our home to start the cleanup. Barry asked if we would need him there all day because he needed to finish a project for school. He said he would be at Auntie’s house using her computer and then was going to help with the setup for his younger cousin’s birthday party. A couple of hours later he called to ask if we were going to make the party. We said no, because we still had more to do and no time to change. He said okay and then we exchanged, “I love you.”
We received three more phone calls from our son’s cellphone. First, he said he was back at the hotel and asked if we were going to bring something to eat. In the next call he said he was going out with friends. The third call was from his friend saying Barry had been shot and they needed to know what hospital to take him to.
We drove so fast down U.S. 17 that we saw the ambulance and followed it all the way to Shands Hospital. Barry was whisked into surgery and we were ushered into a waiting room. Hours later a minister came and asked if we’d spoken to the doctor yet. We told him we hadn’t, and he left to go get him.
We are so sorry.
Nobody likes those words at the beginning of a doctor’s statement.
Barry and his girlfriend were robbed while walking to a friend’s apartment. They stole Barry’s cross and wanted to accost the young lady. When Barry stopped one robber, the other shot Barry in the chest. The bullet pierced an artery in the heart, and they couldn’t stop the bleeding. He died in the early morning hours of Monday, November 19, 2007.
I was told by a couple of people that my wife and I wouldn’t survive the loss of a child. Not because they were being mean or spiteful, but because of what they’ve seen happen to others in our situation. And it is true, I’ve seen it also. There is no guaranteed survival after the loss of a child. There is work. You have to want to do this work. The hardest thing in life to do is bury a child. Your child. So if you work at it slowly, because it’s going to take time, you can make it through.
Burying a parent, you know you have to do that, and even your spouse. Life will not start over for you, and the majority of the people you meet won’t have a clue as to what you’re dealing with. Everything outside of you will exist as it is. Children will play in the park, people will still wave their fists in anger when someone cuts them off on the road, and you will survive. You will be a survivor.
I can’t promise you that every day from here on out will be sunshine, and you wouldn’t want me to. I can tell you it will be hard, exhausting, and it will feel like it would be easier to go your separate ways. Love tests for your heart and soul multiplied by infinity. Stay in that love, and communicate. You are a survivor!
Written by Barry Brooks, Barry’s 19-year-old son was murdered in 2007. His full story is published in Grief Diaries: Will We Survive?
The warm summer day started out just like any other. I was busy organizing the kids, planning dinner, making a mental note to fill the car with gas and pick up a gallon of milk on my way home from their soccer game. Suddenly without warning, I was engulfed by a raging fire. I suffered third degree burns over my entire body. Not an inch of me was spared.
People rushed to my side to help but there was nothing they could do. Medical care was limited and the best medications did little to ease the agony. I wasn’t sure I could survive such intense suffering. Worse, nobody could tell me how long such agony would last.
Doctors gently gave me the news that although my physical self would heal, the disfigurement would remain for life. My family, friends, and coworkers no longer recognized me. I no longer recognized myself.
At first, doing little things like sitting up in bed or standing were so excruciating they took my breath away. The mere thought of eating, bathing, and dressing left me feeling helpless and hopeless.
Pity and sadness were apparent in the eyes of everyone who came to my side. I understood the sadness but hated the pity. Why on God’s green earth was I spared the peace of death?
Learning to live with complete disfigurement and extreme pain is overwhelming. Excruciatingly slow and exhausting, it takes years of great effort to master what were once basic activities. Some days I hurt too bad to even try.
When out in public I pretend to be normal to ease the discomfort of others who are brave enough to approach me. Those who avoid me merely add further angst to my broken spirit. Pretending to be normal is exhausting and quickly depletes all my reserves. By the time I finish errands and return home, I’m utterly spent.
Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing that I nor anyone else can do about it.
For you see, that complete disfigurement and intolerable pain described above is on the inside of my body. The pain is unchanged, the disfigurement is still complete, and the scars are permanent. The new life thrust upon me that day when my child died caused a firestorm that engulfed every part of my life. The only differences between me and the patient who suffered third degree burns over her entire body is that I lived. And my pain is invisible to the world.
Welcome to the life of a grieving mother.
What would you do if your unborn baby was diagnosed with a fatal syndrome? Meet Dianna Vagianos Armentrout, author of Walking the Labyrinth of My Heart, who shares her poignant journey of carrying a baby with trisomy 18 to term.
Today is International Bereaved Mother’s Day, a day to honor those who walk the hardest journey known to motherhood. It’s been nearly nine years since I began such as transformative path, and although that isn’t much time in the world of grief, it’s enough to uncover treasured lessons buried deep under the rubble.
The journey begins very ugly.
“Why me, God?” I wailed. “What did I fail to do to deserve such a fate?”
“It’s not what you did not do,” he said. “It’s what you will do.”
I didn’t understand, and stood at the door of The Wailing Tent spewing vile words and gnashing my teeth. Outside were solitary tents for mothers who weren’t willing to accept fate’s invitation. Not wanting to be alone in my agony, I forced myself across the threshold.
Inside the tent, sisters tended to my broken soul without judgment. They taught me that love comes in many forms, and we don’t need to know someone in order to love someone. For we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
I also learned to love without boundaries and judgment. This is the point on my journey when judgment of others faded from my heart.
I learned about compassion in ways I never comprehended. My sisters taught me to have compassion without fixing another soul’s problem, lest I rob them of an opportunity to grow.
In addition to love and compassion, I learned about forgiveness. Forgiveness not just for perceived imperfections in others, but for myself as well. This opens the door to self love.
Next comes gratitude. This isn’t fathomable in the journey’s beginning. But through profound sorrow we learn that life can change in an instant, and to appreciate all we have. A grateful heart is a happy heart.
I then learned about hope. I discovered that grief comes in many forms, and without grief there would be no need for hope. Many are robbed of hope but when we help them find it, it helps our own heart to heal.
Finally comes beauty. I learned that our hearts can hold joy the same time as sorrow, and I merely had to give myself permission to embrace life’s beauty. In doing so, it balances the sorrow. That was perhaps the hardest lesson of all, and yet one I treasure most.
Inside The Wailing Tent, no words are spoken. The eyes and heart teach everything we need to know.
So you see, while my journey began very ugly, it has transformed into one of beauty. When I earned my membership into The Wailing Tent, an ancient and sacred sisterhood known simply as the club, I learned to become an ambassador for love, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, and beauty. Although I don’t always get it right, the lessons I gained through losing a child helped me evolve into a better version of myself.
“It’s not what you did not do. It’s what you will do,” God said.
Today I’m honored to be a member of The Wailing Tent, a place that receives all mothers embarking on life’s hardest teachings. I miss my child with every breath, an ache that lives inside my bones, but without such a journey I would never have had the opportunity to learn life’s most valuable lessons.
I am grateful.
Happy Bereaved Mother’s Day to all.