Sunday, July 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Grieving Friends

The following article, An Open Letter to Grieving Friends, appeared in the Compassionate Friends Magazine, “We Need Not Walk Alone” copyright 2013. I reprint this with permission from the magazine as an example of how one family processed their grief, helping them to survive, normalize and transcend their situation. Author is Wesley Merritt, father, husband, executive, writer and public speaker.

Dear Friends,

Twelve years ago my 15 month old daughter, Sarah, died in a tragic accidental window fall while we were vacationing at a New Jersey beach. Sarah would be turning 14 this past May, which is a fact that never really drifts too far from our thoughts. If you are anything like we were during that first year after Sarah’s death, the lull period after people had gone back to their lives were the moments where we were hit square in the face with the grief of our loss. Things were at their worst when the funerals concluded, attention lessened, and the many others who were so wonderful during the immediate window after the tragedy began to move on…while we were firmly cemented to the tragedy. For us, the hardest time came when things slowed down, and we were left alone to answer the existential question of “Now what?” That was the moment our hard grief work began.

This question is what brings me to this letter. Events over the last few months have seen children taken from us. Violent acts like the Sandy Hook shooting and a local upstate New York car accident that recently killed two high school seniors are just two examples of events that have had great personal effect. While we can’t all fully appreciate every nuance of one another’s pain, we all share emotional proximity through grief, and that is what bonds us together.

So, family…a few suggestions for those of you who are battling the pain of recent loss:

1.      Try to believe that hope exists despite the pain and confusion you may be experiencing now. You can choose to grow and heal. You will get through this. Joy will return if you let it.

2.      Try to focus on individual moments. Many of you likely feel wounded right now. Survival of the bad moments comes through the understanding that everything changes…moment by moment. While you may hurt right now, try to hand on with the understanding that something will come along soon to buoy you up, and it will likely happen in the next moment. You may be familiar with the term “one day at a time…” For the grieving, shorten it. An hour, a minute, and if need be, seconds are what you may require. Have hope that pain is temporary and everything changes quickly.

3.      Try to stay open. When wounded, a natural reaction for people is to close down and hide. Hiding helps us to ignore the pain and stay away from perceived harm. It is also natural that we deflect our pain by judging, blaming, or attaching the cause of our immediate pain to others. When people don’t act the way we think they should, or when someone says something to us that appears insensitive, our inclination may be to judge them. That action, however, works by closing our hearts so we do not feel the full range of emotion, a state that can become toxic over time. Openness, while not always easy, will help us to accept things as they are…acceptance will offer new ways to live, and ultimately show us the path to healing.

4.      Try to feel, grief is a process. While you are inside your moments of pain and longing, cry. Let go. It’s all okay. Tears are cleansing, and the quiet moments after crying open doors to help us heal. At the same time, remember to hug others. Find support in friends. If needed, enlist a professional to listen without judgment. Walk in nature. Write in a journal. Paint something. Draw. Give. Breathe. Listen. Feel. Remember that amazing things happen when you sit and take in what is around you. Personally, we focus on both wind and the light as our source of eternal hope.

In answer to the question, “What now?” I am sorry that I do not have a definitive answer. That said, I believe the ultimate answer lies within each of your hearts, within your spirit and with the love you hold for your missing loved one. Remember, while the past will  change, every new moment offers a new opportunity. The possibilities of your choices are endless, and they offer an amazing way for you to celebrate the lives of your lost love.

In closing, let me just say that all of what I’ve offered above has been summed up through our own family mantra: “Embrace life.” To us, this means that we live differently now, but we also celebrate with a wisdom and clarity we did not have before Sarah died. We’ve had more children; we’ve moved to undertake new pursuits; we dedicated ourselves to causes (organ donation and grief support). We’ve decided to live in ways that embrace love and compassion, which has been borne from an understanding that while suffering exists, joy is still possible. For all of this, we are able to live an authentic life, a life that is better than we imagined it could ever be after our loss.

Peace and blessings,


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Magazine Collage of Your Child

It is always nice to have items in your home to remind you of your child. If you have items you have made yourself, it is even better! One item, easy to make, is a magazine collage of your child in pictures, words and phrases, all of which remind you of your child. You can also include a few photos of your child at special events or just happy moments. This is somewhat different than just a photo collage since it will have words too. Sometimes words and phrases that describe your child become meaningful when combined with just a few photos.

First, buy a large poster board, sold in paper supply stores, like Office Max. Then gather a few magazines together. Look through the magazine at some headlines. For example, if your child was active in school plays, you might find the word “ACTOR” or if he/she was into sports, you might find the word “FOOTBALL” or the phrase “TROPHY WINNER.” If he/she got good grades in school, you can include the word “INTELLIGENT” or “SMART” or the phrase “WILL DO GREAT THINGS,” if available. Pictures in the magazine for any of these could be a football or football game or someone holding up a trophy. You could also find magazine pictures of a clock, representing the fact that he/she was always on time or always late for events. If your son or daughter liked to travel, any magazine photo of a destination would emphasize that. If your child liked to talk on the phone, cut out a phone and paste it on the poster board. If your child liked music, cut out musical notes, sheet music, earphones, or a tape player.

There is no limit to what you can find that will connect you to your child. Just don’t make the poster board too crowded. Be able to see everything, but it doesn’t have to all be in a straight line. Some of the words can be slanted as can a few magazine pictures or some of your real photos. Make it creative, without ruining its appeal.

Make sure you cut out the letters of your child’s name and place them somewhere on the poster board. Copy stores can laminate everything you have pasted on to preserve it.

You have many choices of what to include. Just make sure you get the essence of your child’s personality and no doubt, it will come shinning through as you look at it on your wall with a big smile on your face.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Learned to Face My Grief

Alan Pedersen, the new executive director of The Compassionate Friends and featured in my second book as a terrific composer and singer at many national conferences, offers his view to Everyday Health as a contributor, of how he faced his grief after the death of his daughter. He hopes this story is read and shared with many others. Here is a summary of what he said in his own words.

On August 15, 2001, I found out from a friend that my 18-year-old daughter Ashley had been killed in an automobile accident. Little did I know that this one single moment in time would become the demarcation point in my life. Time just stopped, I felt frozen and in disbelief. I was paralyzed and in shock.

Somehow I stumbled through the fog and within a few days, we gathered together family, friends, music and food for what we were calling a celebration of Ashley’s life. I spoke with calm and clarity at Ashley’s service and spent hours hugging and comforting those who attended. Shock is an amazing anesthetic when you are in deep and early grief as it allows you to function. People commented on how strong I was that day. Little did they know that just a few months later, I would become nearly incapacitated by the trauma of my grief.

Shock gave way to the reality of all that I was facing. Grief wore me down until I became a shell of the man I once was. My mind was broken, leaving it scattered and unable to focus. My heart was broken because it hurt so badly I could barely breathe. Grief broke my spirit because it made me question God and anything good in this life. Grief broke my body by zapping it of its energy and leaving me with aches and pains.
Well-meaning family and friends were of little help as I spiraled deeper into the darkest days of my grief. I began to choose isolation over confrontation with those who would marginalize my struggle by suggesting that I take comfort in the fact that God has another angel or that Ashley is in a better place. I began to wonder if I was crazy.

Like most people, I had very little understanding at that time about what grief is, and the real and devastating impact it can have on those of us who are thrust into its path. Many of us do not know what we can do to help ourselves or others when a loved one dies or when we face the grief that comes from a divorce or other losses, such as a job, mobility, health, or our independence. My inability to cope caused me to reach out and seek support.

I first reached out to my local chapter of Compassionate Friends. The first monthly meeting I attended helped so much. I met others walking this same journey who validated my feelings and who understood my pain. It was there when I learned that I did not have to walk this journey alone and where I found the hope to believe that I could survive. My group of new compassionate friends became my trusted family who were willing to walk with me and hurt with me for a long as I would need.

I also sought support from a 12-week grief education program. It was here that I learned what grief really is, what it does to our lives, and how it affects us mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Ashley’s death has left me with much unfinished emotional business, and this program helped me to process my pain in constructive ways.

My grief work was hard work, but it began paying off as I was able to emerge from the darkness a stronger person with a clear focus on helping others. Grief has been a transformational teacher. Grief taught me to live in the moment, to value each friendship and relationship, to cherish the gift I am given each day to love and to be loved. Grief taught me to honor the love I will always have for Ashley by living my life.

The Compassionate Friends Conference will be held this coming week, July 10-13. Alan and all the people associated with the conference hope that you can attend in Chicago and learn how to move on with your life after the death of your child.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Unique Aspects of Losing an Only Child, part 2

...continuation of last weeks column: Unique Aspects of Losing an Only Child. Please read last Sunday's column before continuing on to this one. This is continued from 6/22/14.

Does losing my only child have to affect my marriage? If anything, it can bring you closer. Your child is part of both the wife and husband and although you may grieve differently, you can still come together and talk about the child, especially the good memories of your life together. The death can also tear you apart because of the differences in grieving techniques, but if you have a good relationship and have always gotten along well, you can survive this too. Surveys show that if the marriage breaks up, it is not because of the child's death, as many believe. There was something wrong with the marriage in the first place. If your marriage is worth saving in your eyes, seek professional help.

Will I lose my friends who still have children? Many believe their friends are uncomfortable around them now that your child is gone. It's that old syndrome: I don't want what happened to you to rub off on me. Grief does shove away friends and scares away so-called friends and rewrites your address book for you. Be prepared to deal with some rejection, but you will always have those good friends that will stick by you no matter what. I lost a few friends. At first I was heartbroken. Why couldn't they understand what I was going through? The good friends who stuck by me made up for that heartache in time.

If I remarry, will I have problems with stepchildren? There is always that possibility. Stepchildren can resent you; they see you as disrupting their lives; they want their mother or father back, therefore, they resent you. As for your new spouse, he/she should be supportive of what you've gone through. They should understand you will have good days and bad days. I am very lucky to have a stepdaughter who is very understanding. She recently had her own child, and I know that now she "gets it" better than any one of her friends that don't have children yet, ever can.

I'm single and lost my only child. What will I do with my life now? What is my reason for living? One thing you can do is to stay in touch with your child's friends. I stayed in touch with my daughter's best friend. She now has three children and I am the Godmother to them. And what a joy they are to me. For some, it may hurt too much, knowing your child should have been able to have her own. Another thing you can do if you have no other family members is to help others by volunteering in a retirement home. These older people are just as lonely as you are. You'd be amazed at the friendships that can form. Of great concern is who will take care of me in my elderly years or if I become ill? That is a serious question that needs to be addressed so that all your papers say exactly what you'd like done, not what the state decides. You need to prepare for getting older for your peace of mind.

How do I get people to understand the "new me?" Attempt to tell others how you have become different since your child died. What has happened has changed you forever. Explain how you have different goals and different priorities now. What was once important to you may no longer have any meaning. Grief makes what others think of us of no importance. It shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty out of your mouth before propriety can stop you. My child is dead and nothing else is as important as that at this moment. Being bitter doesn't help. What helps is having others understand and be part of your grief journey.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Unique Aspects of Losing an Only Child, part 1

Questions. Questions. Questions. The bereaved always have questions for those of us who have gone through the initial grief period and have come out on the other side. We know only what we have experienced, but it is a start for those of you who are newly bereaved. I write this column this week and next for those who are now childless. Here are the first five most asked questions. Even if you have other surviving children, you may be able to apply these situations to your own life.

Am I still a mother? The answer is yes, you are and will always be a mother, whether your child is alive or has died. You should always think of yourself in that way, no matter who asks.

Related to this is the question "Do you have any children?" Do you say, no children? Do you say one child (and in some cases, more than one child (with multiple deaths)? Or do you explain your situation? I have been asked that question so many times that I now have my answer: "I have one daughter who died 20 years ago in a car accident." Although the other person may now feel awkward, didn't you, too, feel awkward when confronted with the question and dreading to say the answer? Tell it like it is and go from there. You will feel better acknowledging you are a mother and always will be, and now you can ask the other person the same question and release the tension, letting them talk about their children. You have said what you needed to say and have turned the tables, so that they now have something to say and there is no uncomfortable silence.

There will no longer be any special events in my life like graduation, prom, birthdays, weddings. How will I ever be able to go to another event and not cry my way through it? No, it won't be easy. In fact it took me a long time to attend a special event of even a special friend's child. I explained the situation and said I would have to take a pass; that I hoped they would understand. If they are a true friend, they will understand. Then, little by little I started going to celebrations again. I had to take tiny steps; when I made it through the first one, I continued the tiny steps until I was comfortable about it. And there will be a time when you will be comfortable. Tell your friends to keep trying and not forget you.

Who will I leave everything to? If your only child has died and was not married, you will probably not have any grandchildren. You will have to think about making a new will or trust and think of any legal issues that might entail. You might still have siblings, aunts, uncles, and special friends who you would like to leave things to. Or, if very lucky, you may have a grandchild and the decision will not be that hard. I have put my step-grandchild into my will; I love him very much and since I do not have any living relatives, it was a perfect solution for me. Think about who else you might want to leave things to.

What should I do with my child's possessions? That should be entirely up to you. Don't let anyone influence you. Take your time to decide what you want to keep and what you want to give away to others or even your child's friends. Some parents gain much comfort from seeing, touching, wearing their child's items. Others find it too painful. Again, that is your decision and there is no right or wrong answer. But be sure not to dispose of items too quickly as later you may regret it. I kept all my daughter jewelry because I like to wear it. It makes me feel close to her and we had very similar tastes. Some of the clothes I gave away to her friends, others to Goodwill. The rest I have worn over the years. You'll know when you are ready for a change. And if you want to keep items, store them in an area with a good temperature. I also display some of her belongings, like stuffed animals, trophies she won and photos that were taken of her. Remember, putting your loved ones things away does not mean putting them out of your life.

to be continued next Sunday...

Editor's Note: I discovered two days ago that my web site had been taken down months ago, and I knew nothing about it. Apparently, a new format was now being used in combination with another company, and what I had used for the past 13 years had become outdated. So there I was, no site, no copy, nothing. They claimed to have sent me an email, but I never received it. I finally found a site that achived old websites and there it all was and I didn't have to reinvent it again. So I hopped on the band wagon and have finally gotten my new site up for anyone who would like to go to it for information about my books and more. Sorry for the inconvenience:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day 2014

Today is Father’s Day and I wanted to pay tribute to those fathers who have lost a child, no matter the age, no matter the reason.

Sometimes fathers get lost in the shuffle of a tragic event. Many dads are asked by friends, “How is your wife doing?”

“What about me,” some of the father’s shout inside themselves. “I am just as important, and I have feelings too!”

Many look at the male figure as being able to cope better than the female, but that definitely isn’t true. While some men believe they are the rock that holds the family together; and they very well may be, when all is said and done, they too hurt; they too cry for the loss; and they too may very well fall apart.

It is true that men hold their feelings in more so than women. He is the fixer; he is the problem solver. He is told since his youngest days that he must be strong; he must not cry. No matter what he did, he could not stop what happened.

Inside, they think, “Am I still a father if my only child has died?” Rest assured that you will always be a father, whether your child is alive or not. Nothing can take that from you and nothing can take your child’s memory from you or how much you loved him/her.

Perhaps this Father’s Day should be a time when family members, whoever they are, give dad a hug, do something special, help him with the chores, and, most of all, let him know how important, needed and loved he is.

Happy Father’s Day to all.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Helping Others Understand and Be Part of the New You

If you want to help others understand and be part of your grief journey, here are some thoughts for you to share with those close to you. Perhaps you can gain a new level of understanding of what you are about in this period of your life and, in turn, allow others to react differently to you as you try to move on.

l. Tell those close to you that you want to TALK ABOUT YOUR CHILD. This is the number 1 thing parents want from others. Most family or friends will be terrified to talk about your child for fear it will be too painful for you. But parents do not want their child to be forgotten, and they are so afraid that after a period of time has gone by, that is exactly what will happen. As a parent, tell them stories of your child, and ask them to respond to events they, too, remember. Make it comfortable for them and , in turn, it will be comfortable for you.

2. Tell others that even if we look all right; even if we say we area all right; even if we act all right, WE WILL NEVER BE ALL RIGHT AGAIN BECAUSE OUR CHILD DIED. We will never get over it or forget it, as some friends and relatives would like us to. These same people also need to accept the fact that we will never say good-bye to our children. They will always be in our hearts, our minds, our very beings. We will never forget them. The slightest thing can trigger a bad time for us. It can be an anniversary, a birthday, a song, or even smells or sounds.

3. Others should understand that THERE IS NO SET TIME LIMIT TO OUR GRIEF. It could take us two years; it could take five years; it could take a lifetime to move on. Explain that we have to do what if comfortable for us.

4. ASK FOR THEIR PATIENCE AS YOU MOVE THROUGH THE GRIEF PROCESS and to call once in a while, invite you to dinner, ask you to go to a movie or lunch. There will be a time when you will feel comfortable again doing those things.

5. ASK THEM TO LET YOU DO WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY; that you may need to try different things before you find what will be right for you in your new life, but that any encouragement means a lot.