Struggling with Loss? Here are 3 Often Overlooked Tools to Live Life AgainNov 21, 2023
Deliberate steps and a commitment to healing will help you through those hard times.
Healing from grief is one of the hardest experiences you’ll ever go through, and it’s the one common human experience we all have at some time in our lives.
I heard someone say experiencing loss isn’t a life sentence; it’s a life passage. But I never expected it to be the death of a child. My child.
If you’re reading this and you’ve lost a loved one, you’re now discovering that grieving is the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
It may not even be your loss. Perhaps a friend lost their spouse, or a coworker lost a mother. You’re surprised to discover how deeply affected you are. You feel troubled, anxious, and helpless… that’s grief, too.
It’s also not uncommon to feel unusually upset by the tragedies witnessed on the news or the internet. It could be a celebrity or a random person in a tragic event. If you struggle to shake the emotion and wonder why it’s hit you so hard, it’s part of being human. It’s normal and natural to feel the pain for others, unknown or not. It’s collective empathic grief, and we all mourn together. That’s humankind.
If any of this resonates with you, you’re not alone. We can’t plan for grief or know ahead of time how it feels… until it happens to us. There are deliberate steps you can take to learn how to move forward. There’s no “getting over it,” nor will time heal such a loss. But you will evolve in the process, and you have the potential to become more aware, compassionate, loving, and kind. And your life will have a deeper meaning.
This is how my story of loss began…
On a day in December, my beautiful 16-year-old son returned home from school with a fever. He was rarely sick, so I hastily made a doctor’s appointment. The Type A Flu was going around that year, and that’s exactly how the doctor diagnosed him.
Garrett spent the day in bed. I made him chicken soup and sat with him well into the night, watching “Saturday Night Live.” I kissed him goodnight and promised we’d go Christmas shopping as soon as he felt better.
Sometimes, during the wee hours of the early morning, my boy left me forever. I found him in his bed, lifeless. I tried desperately to save him with CPR while my husband called 911. But it was too late.
The doctor had been dead wrong. Weeks later, the autopsy showed it was a toxic and deadly form of bacterial meningitis. He went from being a vibrant, athletic, healthy teenager to taking his last breath in less than 24 hours.
If you’ve experienced such a loss, you know there’s no greater trauma and assault on your life than losing your child. It’s an unimaginable loss feared by all parents. It’s unimaginable until it happens to you. People often say it’s “the worst that can happen,” and that’s exactly how it feels.
In the years following Garrett’s death, I discovered no matter how great my loss or how deep my grief, the world doesn’t stop, and yet, I couldn’t imagine a world without my beautiful son.
I remember thinking, how could I ever be happy again? Was my pain visible to others? Would they whisper about me in the grocery store, “Oh… she’s the one who just lost her son… so tragic.”
And darn it…. It was six days before Christmas. How could I ever feel the same about that time of year?
Following the memorial service, a friend handed me a journal tied with a ribbon and a pen. She said, “Write, just write.”
I’d published two children’s books in the years prior, and writing for me was usually a pleasure. But how do I write about the most tragic event of my life?
The first blank page was torture. I could only scribble a single sentence, My son died, and my life will never be the same.
The next day, I could write a paragraph. Then, each day after, words came more easily. It became my safe harbor of emotions. I could be honest, angry, sad… whatever the barrage of emotions dealt me daily. But, when I wrote them down, I could leave the torrential rain of tears on the page and let my feelings rest for a while.
My only choice was to survive. I had three living children who needed me now more than ever. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my role in their lives by succumbing to paralyzing grief.
Don’t stop believing in yourself… you have the strength to heal
I used to believe “everything happens for a reason,” but with this kind of tragedy, it doesn’t make sense. This was a child who should have had a whole life ahead.
I was aware of the stages of grief defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally… acceptance. Except here’s nothing final about any of the stages. They rear up again and again.
I struggled to imagine how I could ever fully accept Garrett’s death. There had to be something more. How do you bounce back to what life once was? Is that even possible?
I tried to find the evidence I was strong and capable of surviving. I’d experienced challenges in my lifetime. As a teenager, I’d lost both of my grandmothers. I grieved.
My daughter was born with an unexpected birth defect. She had a facial bilateral cleft lip and gum and needed several surgeries to correct it. I grieved.
But the loss of a child? Unimaginable.
I wondered… what makes it possible for some people to survive and others struggle a lifetime to overcome?
It’s resilience. Resilience is more than the ability to bounce back because there is no going back with loss, but you must bounce forward.
When you think about the tiny seed stuck in a crack on the sidewalk, a little rain activates its desire to thrive. Up pops a green seedling in all its glory! That little seed represents all of us in our will to survive… and survive you must.
I began to call the next stage in my grief recovery… resilience.
The Overlooked Tools for Healing
Surprisingly, we’re all capable of being resilient, but we have to choose it. Just as you go through the five stages of grief, you must go through the process of finding your inner resilience.
First, believe in your ability to be resilient and to rejuvenate your life by committing to the internal work. This is where the mindset is so important. It takes undying commitment to want joy again.
Sometimes we feel guilty with joy. We think we don’t deserve it because it will take away the love for the one whom we’re grieving.
It’s simply not so. Joy is your human right and your life’s quest. It comes from giving love and being loved. You loved the person who is gone, but wouldn’t they want you to be happy?
There’s no hurrying through the grief process. You hear the saying, “Time heals all wounds.” Well, not this one. At times I wanted the tears to last forever because that’s how deeply I loved my child, but how could I live with this deep sadness forever? How could I restore joy?
I began to imagine it.
How would it feel? I practiced picturing my life without the pain. I’d write down that very question in my journal, How would it feel to remember Garrett’s life without pain?
Grieving can make even the sweetest memories hurt. I fought it. I wanted to reclaim the joy of those life moments and not have them shrouded in loss.
In the quiet spaces of my mind, I began to imagine peace flowing into every thought and every story. I could see toddler Garrett riding his Big Wheel, and instead of spiraling into sorrow, I’d force myself to stay in the sweetness of the memory.
And for a brief moment, I could feel it. As time went on, I captured that peaceful feeling more frequently. With this mindset practice (I did over and over), I knew there’d be a time when I could restore joy in my life.
But it’s a very different life.
Write to heal
Healing doesn’t mean you’ll never feel the pain. Healing infuses you with the ability to learn how to live with loss and sometimes compartmentalize your sorrow.
I’d go into my garden, sit on the bench, and allow myself to access whatever I felt. Then, I’d write in my journal. I’d let the tears fall, and I could hardly see what I’d written some days.
But I kept writing. As weeks passed, I read back over my entries and began seeing something remarkable. I’d survived another day, another week, another month, and I was growing stronger. I almost didn’t recognize the person I was in the early days of grieving. I saw how strong I had become.
My memories of Garrett were detached from the pain. The memories could be whole and beautiful again.
This isn’t always a sure thing because there will be times when grief will surprise you. Trust, though, that you’ll manage it and get through it.
Now you have three tools you may not have thought about: resilience, imagination, and writing. Once you’re aware of how it works, you’ll look forward to those sacred healing times. It’s the moment your grieving will shift.
Learning to Live Again
I now look at my son’s life and feel grateful to have had him for 16 years, three months, and 10 days. I’m still his mother. I would never trade the pain of losing him for not having him at all.
His birth transformed me, and so did his death. Each transformation was a whole new me.
I chose to reclaim my life. My journal and mindset practices were a big part of it.
Writing changed me; it gave me a purpose. I knew it was Garrett’s legacy in my hands. His life and his death meant something to the world. Writing gave me a way to share my story with the hope it could reassure other grieving parents that there is life after loss.
My book, How to Survive the Worst that Can Happen (a parent’s step-by-step guide to healing after the loss of a child), has been out for several years now, and because of it, I’ve connected with many other parents on their healing path.
My story and theirs confirm that love never diminishes. You will always feel their presence. Your love grows, just as it would if they were still alive.
I urge you to honor yourself by healing. It’s the only way you’ll restore life to its fullest potential. You’re meant to have a happy life… and your loved one wouldn’t have it any other way.
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**Previously published on Medium.com**