Memory is something I used to take for granted, at least up until Aly died. Nobody told me I would lose my memory after losing a child. It was so bad I often worried about early onset Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that we’re not alone. The better news is that there’s an explanation, and it’s not because we’re going crazy.
It turns out that when a part of the brain called the amygdala is flooded with adrenaline from fear or trauma, it anesthetizes other parts of the brain. Memory is impacted, time gets distorted, and events come back like a strobe light rather than a story.
So if nobody told you that memory loss, tunnel vision and time distortion are normal responses to emotional trauma, rest assured it’s common. I promise. Symptoms are especially pronounced after a traumatic loss.
Yes, I know—they’re still embarrassing. Especially to our kids.
Next time your kids give you the stink eye for asking the same question you did 10 minutes ago, bore them with the above explanation. With luck, they’ll never question your sanity again.
At least not out loud.
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.
Cancer. It’s an ugly word that strikes fear deep in the heart. From the very moment the diagnosis is delivered, our worlds pivot in unimaginable ways.
It’s with great honor that in conjunction with tonight’s telecast Stand Up to Cancer in Los Angeles, I share the newest release in the Grief Diaries series, Surviving Loss by Cancer.
The book is a collection of stories from people who have lost someone they love to cancer ranging in age from 24 to 77. Those who face the same loss can hold this book in their hands and draw strength from the written words. Filled with understanding and compassion, each poignant story weaves a journey beginning with their loved one’s first symptoms, to the moment of diagnosis, through to their loved one’s final breath, and beyond.
The purpose of such a book? To serve as a life raft in the storm by offering readers hope, strength, courage as they too transition into life without their loved one.
A heartfelt thank you to the courageous writers who penned their journeys in this book for the purpose of helping others. You are all heroes in my world, and I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart.
If you know someone who lost a loved one to cancer, please share this book with them. It’s available on Amazon and Kindle, and will soon be available in Barnes & Nobles along with 40,000 other retail outlets around the world. Thank you. XOXO
Lynda Cheldelin Fell
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.
I met James Cameron Mjelve in 2005 while we were both living in Edmonton. At the time he worked for a laborer’s union. We married in 2007 and had three beautiful children together, one boy and two girls. In 2009, Cameron decided to go back to university and finish his Education degree.
In 2010, Cameron was in his second year when I began to notice that he was struggling more with the course load. During Christmas break Cameron seemed different, a little off from his usual self. Perhaps a little depressed, but nothing to be overly concerned about. In January 2011, our youngest daughter was born with a disability and the stresses of life became overwhelming for Cameron. He began to struggle even more with his university courses.
On July 21, 2011, my husband committed suicide. We were both forty-two at the time and our children were three, two, and five months old.
There is much that has changed in my life from losing a spouse. Perhaps the first is that I’ve had to learn how to use the word widow when speaking about myself. That alone has been a tough adjustment. I’ve become single again and I’ve had to learn how to be comfortable in a room full of couples. I’ve had to become comfortable in a room full of widows. I’ve had to become comfortable crying in front of both those groups of people.
It has been a difficult experience, losing a spouse. I’ve had to face major decisions for myself and the children alone. At times this has been very stressful, especially when I’ve had to make decisions which impact my children’s health or our financial stability. It has been so difficult not having anyone to bounce ideas off of. Friends will always tell you they are there to help you and listen, but it’s still not the same. I miss my friend who shared everything with me.
But I have learned from my experience, and developed a stronger decision-making process. As a result, I have been able to become more confident in the decisions I make. Another way my life is different is that I simply cannot do the things I want to do. I cannot run to the store at 10 p.m., there is no one to watch the children. I cannot sleep in on a Saturday if it’s been a tough week of being up in the night with sick children. Even something so simple as taking a vacation has become a major undertaking. Not only is there no one to help me with the children, but there’s no one for me to share the experience with. Even if we as a family are on vacation and the children are enjoying themselves, who did I get to tell about my experience?
Life is lonely. I don’t have anyone to share even the small moments with. There is no spouse who laughs with you or remembers with you. There is also no one who touches you. Yes, the kids hug and climb all over me, but it’s different than the simple loving touch of a husband.
Life has been different and even difficult, for sure. But I also see it as an opportunity to grow. Although my life will never be what I had dreamed it would be, I am discovering there is a new life that I can make. It unfortunately doesn’t include my husband, but it does include my children and we take Cameron’s memory with us wherever we go. And we are learning that we can still live a life that is full of meaning and adventure, even if it wasn’t the life we originally chose. And I do feel like I have a choice. We live in a society that is very focused on couples. This is not the life that I chose, to be single at forty-two years old, but I also feel like I’m presented with a choice on how to react. I can sit and wallow in self-pity and despair over broken dreams, or I can get up and start life over again.
I will always, always remember my husband. I will always grieve his loss. I will still cry over his loss. But I will choose to keep on living and to help my children find their life as well.
Written by Julie Mjelve. Julie’s 42-year-old husband Cameron died by suicide in 2011 Read her full story in Surviving Loss of a Spouse.
An inside look at traumatic sibling loss with guest expert Dr. Heidi Horsley, professor of Traumatic Loss During Childhood at Columbia University, on the 35th anniversary of her brother’s death at age 17 from a car crash.
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.