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.
Grief…….you never know when the emotions and deep aching wounds will surface. They are always there, sometimes lingering just below, just far enough down that you are able to keep the tears from falling and your breath from catching in your throat. But it is there.
Tonight while coming home from work, I drove by the ponds where Brandon used to hang out, and I thought to myself, he is 22 now, he wouldn’t be hanging out there anymore. None of his friends hang out there anymore. They are all grown up, in love, making a different life for themselves with their mates, they all have full time jobs. And I thought my Brandon didn’t get to get any older, he will forever be 17. He wasn’t able to build a different life. He won’t ever find his woman for life, or have kids….he never got to mature. I don’t even know what he would look like today at more than 22 years old.
Driving by the ponds caused these thoughts and emotions, and I am still crying more than 5 hours later. Brandon, how I wish you were 22 years old. How I wish you were with your lady for life, having that career you dreamed of, doing the things you planned. How I wish I knew what you would look like today. Would your voice be deeper, your laughter richer, your hugs tighter? Would you be a father? You always loved kids. And I think, can I do this without you Brandon? How can I live without you? How can I live, when you aren’t?
God, I miss you, Brandon.
Written by Kim Thomas. Her 17-year-old son Brandon was killed by a drunk driver outside Calgary, Canada, in December 2012. She shared her story in Grief Diaries: Victim Impact Statement.
You say it’s time for me to move on in my grief. Perhaps you’re right, or perhaps you just don’t realize what you’re asking. So why don’t you try this little exercise and maybe it will help you get a better perspective on what I am going through.
To make this really hit home for you it should be practiced for at least 24 hours. The longer the better; but, we do not have that long, so we will do it for 10 minutes. Don’t blow this off as a stupid idea. It works along the same lines as blindfolding yourself to experience being without sight.
First of all, think about your child. I want you to try to imagine the worst thing in the world….. that your beloved child died. Whatever age or stage of development, whether he or she lives with you or not, just imagine you won’t ever see that child on earth again. Let me explain to you the reality…try to imagine, if you can, never seeing your child again, never hearing his/her laugh, never hearing the sound of their voice, never smelling the scent you have come to recognize as your child…. never hearing them say “I love you”…nothing – just silence, emptiness…..Now imagine never seeing your child’s smile, never seeing him upset or happy, never watching him sleep…missing them so much that you are twisted up inside and the pain stays with you 24/7. You smell their pillow, their clothes, you look at his pictures and can only cry – what happened, why?.. You have never felt longing like this in your life! Longing to hear his voice, to see his face again,…and to know deep in your soul you cannot fix this. Now, imagine every single thing that used to give you joy and pleasure turns into hurt and despair overnight. Not a gradual thing, but going from pleasure to hurt, from happiness to sadness, from peace to no peace, changing overnight. Every thing you loved now hurts like hell…
For example: music. I used to be a band director. Music was a big part of my life. Now it’s hard for me to listen to it It sears me like a red hot knife with the pain of losing my child, it cuts me wide open.. especially rap music……my son loved rap music. Almost every song reminds me of the void in my life without my child. I am not unique in that pain – if you lost a child you would know. That is just one little example of how your life is affected by the loss of your child. Just ONE example!
Now imagine calling all your family and friends to tell them your child died.
Next, go to a funeral home and discuss caskets or cremation, headstone, burial plots, etc. Pick out a favorite outfit for your child to be buried in and the flowers that lay at the alter. Sit down and write out the obituary for the newspaper, pick out the music to be played at their memorial and picking out pictures of them to put around the funeral home. Get in his closet of his room and hold onto his clothes that he wore and cry until there are no more tears. Then repeat this until you think you’re losing your mind and your gut is wrenching.
If you made it through that part you are ready for the next step.
As good parents, we were always able to fix things or make things better for our children.. this we cannot fix, we cannot make it better. So; on top of everything else you are feeling, you also feel helplessness…out of control hopelessness…and this is universal. Every parent that truly loves their child will feel this. Are you starting to imagine now how it feels?
Just think you are doing this exercise for only 10 minutes, imagine . . . really imagine, feeling this way 24/7, day after day, month after month, year after year and no matter what you are doing or who you are talking to; memories of your child play over and over in your mind. Your child when he was a baby, a laughing happy little boy, a handsome young teen, a wonderful young man/ woman and it always plays in your head and you do not want to forget even a single second of your beautiful child’s life . . . but; that is a fear you have. You fear that as time passes, you will start to forget . . . so now, please add FEAR to the list of emotions. This is what it really feels like. A part of you has died…. don’t just read the words, FEEL them—DIED . . . gone forever . . . a real, beautiful, living part of you has died… and you are still living. Left behind to try to pick up the pieces of your shattered life and not having a clue where to even begin. No wonder a high percentage of marriages break up, parents have breakdowns, turn to alcohol, drugs or a destructive way of life.
During all of this, remember that the world hasn’t stopped. If you have a job, you will have to return to it. The power company and everyone else still wants their payment each month. You may have doctor’s bills, ambulance bills, and attorney fees if an accident was involved. If your child died at the hands of another, there will be a trial and publicity.
If you were blessed to have other children, you will have to deal with their grief as well as your own. They will still have homework, tests, reports, projects and the class bully. You feel the loss with every thought, every emotion. The loss bleeds into every aspect of your life. Even with your other children . . . you still love your other children just as much as always but, as hard as it is . . . even they hurt you now because when you see them, you feel the LOSS, the loss of the child who died . . . not being with their siblings. It doesn’t fit. There is a piece missing. Your whole life doesn’t fit anymore. Everything that felt right now feels wrong. And of course there is always the missing, the horrible gut wrenching, out of your control . . . MISSING . . .
Next comes the firsts. First birthday without them. First anniversary of death and at first, you count the days, weeks, and months since they passed. Your first Christmas without them, etc. When everyone is singing tra-la-la and jingle bells, you won’t be. Your heart will be too heavy. The hurt will be so intense you will marvel that you can get out of bed each morning. Every morning when you take your other children to school you’ll be reminded that you AREN’T taking one too. You’ll see their friends going on with their lives and it will cut you to the quick. When they all graduate from kindergarten, middle school, high school . . . your child won’t. When you start getting wedding invitations in the mail for these other children, you’ll be reminded again of your loss.
Don’t forget that when you go shopping; you’ll see things that you wanted to buy for your deceased child and many times you will still buy them anyway. You’ll see places the two of you USED to go and sometimes sit in the parking lot and remember that special day.
At home when you prepare a favorite meal of the child who is gone; it won’t taste the same to you. The pictures, cards they made for you or sent you, the toys and other possessions of your child . . . will be both harmful . . . and helpful. They are a link to the past, a way to remember more about what you’ve lost and at the same time; they are a link to the past and a way to remember more about what you’ve lost.
Remember that family portrait you were always so proud of? Well, it will take on a whole new meaning now.
A part of you does not exist anymore and it is scary as hell. That is why they say the loss of a child is like no other loss—you cannot compare it to another loss. With other losses you grieve and you are of course sad, but when your child dies, a part of you ceases to exist. Gone just like that. Gone. No warning, JUST GONE.
And the life that you knew, the things you always felt, the things in your life that made sense, that you held on to, that make up who you are—are gone! That is why when parents who have lost children hear, “I want the old you back,” or “It’s been a year (a month, 6 months-whatever), don’t you feel better yet?” or “You are doing this to yourself, you’re making it harder on yourself,” or “Grief can become a selfish thing, you know,” we can only shake our heads and feel sadness and hopelessness, because there is no way our lives will ever be like it was when our child was alive. No wonder bereaved parents isolate themselves; we are just trying to hold on.
So, were you able to imagine for 10 minutes what it must feel like? Even 2 minutes is too long to imagine the unimaginable, to feel the pain. I would not wish this on anyone. But did you get a sense of how life-changing it is? Imagine you feeling this way 24/7 without getting event a moment of relief from it!
Now, go on and put in your favorite CD to listen to, enjoy the music. Go home and hug your child. Listen to them laugh, watch them smile, smell the scent that you know is his or her and please do not tell me how I should feel or that I am holding onto this. I know that my friends/family must be tired of watching me go through this, because if you haven’t lost a beloved child of yours, you haven’t got a clue.
When you hear these words “The presence of his absence is everywhere,” will you finally understand?
Didn’t mean to ask too much of you. Believe it or not, I could write dozens of things for you to imagine. Fortunately for you, it’s only an exercise. But I live it every day.
IF you have had the guts to stick it out to here, remember that this was just a little exercise. I don’t think you will be so quick to utter those words now. Not if you really did imagine.
In the memory of my son, Crawford Alan Carnahan
August 21,1988 to May 11, 2007