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
One magical moment in the summer of 1969 changed my life forever. A chance meeting. A spark. A love that was meant to be. A love that defined me. A love I will carry with me forever.
In 1964, my husband arrived as a first year teacher and basketball coach at my high school. I arrived there as an eighth grade student. No one—especially us—would have ever guessed that five years later we would fall in love and marry.
We were blessed with a son in 1976. In 1982, we moved to Las Vegas and, after a year of coaching, Vern went to work at UNLV’s sports arena. After twenty years, he retired to open the Orleans Arena. Vern was an amazing teacher, fabulous coach and inspiring mentor to many.
Vern had back issues that flared from time to time, so we weren’t initially alarmed when the pain began in 2006. However, when he got to the point where he could hardly walk, I convinced him to see a doctor. A CT scan was done but didn’t show anything, so Vern was sent to a physical therapist. And he got worse. We finally begged his primary physician to get insurance approval for an MRI. We weren’t home too long after the procedure when the doctor called and said, “My God, man, you have a tumor on your spine.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget those words.
We met with the surgeon early the next morning. A small room. Vern in a wheelchair, me on a stool, the doctor showing us the MRI scans. The tumor. The hot spots. Spinal compression fractures. And so many lytic lesions. Multiple myeloma. Cancer. Metastasized. Not a good prognosis.
And so it began, four plus years. Surgeries. Mistakes. Rehab. Physical therapy. Infections. GI bleeds. Pleural effusions. Pneumonia. Pulmonary embolism. Chemo. Radiation. So very many blood transfusions. Colostomy. Kidney failure. Dialysis. He went through so much. And then there was nothing more they could do to him. For him.
Vern’s final days were spent at Nathan Adelson Hospice. No more pricks and prods or waking him up for rounds. He was peaceful. I stayed with him twenty-four hours a day. And those final four days were a gift. He spoke very little the first two days and then was silent, but I have no doubt at all that he was able to hear my words.
When the death rattle arrived, I gently slid into his hospital bed, held him close and spoke to him until he slipped away.
Written by Dianne West in How to Help the Newly Bereaved. Dianne’s beloved 69-year-old husband Vern died from multiple myeloma in 2010.
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?
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.
How do I describe my mom? She was a bundle of contradictions, especially toward the end of her life. My mother was born to a very poor farming family in upstate New York. She was the kid who literally got one pair of shoes a year and put cardboard in the bottom when the soles wore out. This led her to be determined that her children would never be without the desires of their hearts. She was generous with those she loved to a fault. I used to say that I had to watch her finances because she would be the little old lady eating cat food while she paid for her children to dine on filet mignon.
My father worked for the United States Government. We, my parents and four siblings, traveled the world and got to experience things that many dream of. I watched my mom entertain ambassadors and foreign dignitaries with an ease that would have put the finest event planner to shame. She always reminded me of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She dressed like her, had amazing poise and seemed to be flawless in her ability to make everything look easy. Memories of fine china and white linen are as ingrained in my childhood recollections as Barbies and Match Box cars. Mom was simply magnificent when she was in her element.
My father died in 2001 from pharyngeal cancer. It was slow and ugly. My oldest sister and I made a pact during that time. Our motto was “no regrets.” Looking back, I have none. I was there constantly for my dad; my world stopped that year. When it was time to say goodbye, I was holding his hand and there was no doubt in my mind or in his how deep our love for the other was. In retrospect, I was afforded that luxury because Mom was once again doing her Jackie Onassis impression and keeping everything running flawlessly. We supported her and dad, but she was definitely the backbone. I hated what happened that year, but I have no regrets. I wish I could say the same for my mom’s passing.
People loved mom, but she never fully trusted their loyalty. She was always sure that she was not up to the standards of others. Her self-confidence was frighteningly low. She masked it well most of her life, but toward the end, as her filters began to fade, I saw how the fear of what she perceived others’ opinions to be had removed much of the joy from her life. It was a shame because it was all self-induced. As I said, people loved her; she just did not allow herself to be vulnerable enough to be fully loved. In June 2014, I received a call from my oldest sister saying she thought mom had had a stroke. I threw some clothes into a suitcase and immediately began the twelve-hour drive to my mom’s house, while my sister began her nine-hour drive. It was the beginning of the longest seven months of my life. Mom had indeed had a stroke and would require extended hospital and post-hospital therapy to recover. Again, my sister and I made a pact, no regrets.
I can honestly say that from that point on, Mom was not alone for one single day until she died on January 21, 2015. We battled through stroke recovery, which is a story unto itself. One must experience it firsthand to even begin to understand the trials that accompany stroke recovery. We were two weeks away from Mom being able to live independently when she took a small fall. Due to the blood thinners she was on, we went to the hospital for a precautionary check-up. They found lung cancer.
After consulting with specialists, looking at Mom’s overall health and mental state, we decided to go with an intense five-day radiation plan known as CyberKnife. Mom did fantastic. Although we would not be sure of the results for six months, we felt very confident and went into the holiday season with high hopes for the future.
Thanksgiving and Christmas went by with no glitches. We were happy and had a house full of children and grandchildren. It was a happy time. My sister came to my home to stay with Mom so I could go on my annual family vacation between the week of Christmas and New Year’s. We wanted Mom to go with us, but she was just not prepared for the amount of “go time” we experienced. Our family squeezes a lot into that week. When I got home from vacation, Mom came down with a cold which turned into pneumonia. It was time to go back to the hospital. Mom was in the hospital for about ten days. She was released to a rehab hospital to regain strength and walking ability. I was confident she would overcome this as she had every other battle. I was wrong.
Monday, January 20, 2015. I was heading to the rehab after school. I was staying there so I could be close to Mom. I got a call saying she was being combative and disoriented. I got there and found her bed had been lowered to the floor so she would not be able to fall out of it or to climb out as easily. My guts screamed to get Mom to the ER, but the nurses assured me it was just digestive and they were taking care of it. After a half hour of watching her hurt, I looked her in the eyes and asked if she wanted to go to the hospital. She nodded yes. The nurses argued with me, and I ended up telling them that they could call the ambulance or I would.
Mom arrived at the hospital around 11 p.m. I remember thinking I should call my husband, my kids, someone. But I knew I needed to be alone through this. I didn’t want to have to console anyone else. Although the doctors kept telling me that my mom was going to be fine, there was one nurse who was brutally honest. I looked at him and asked if I should call my siblings. He said it wouldn’t be a bad idea. One of my brothers and one of my sisters made it in time. The other two did not. I hold guilt that I should have called sooner.
That night has some of the worst nightmares of my life. I can’t tell anyone about them because I don’t want them to have the same images in their mind that I hold in mine. It was not a peaceful passing. I hate myself for some of the things I did. I excuse it by saying that I thought I was saving my mom’s life and doing what the doctors said, but it does not change the fact that I participated in the pain and fear my mom felt before she died.
No amount of self-talk takes away the pictures that are on a constant loop when I close my eyes.
Written by Sophia Blowers. Sophia’s 79-year-old mother died of internal bleeding in 2015. Read her full story in Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss of a Parent.
Michele Neff Hernandez lost her 39-year-old husband Phil in a cycling accident in 2005. Faced with darkness and hopelessness, she set out to find out how other widows survived. This is her story.