I have been on quite a journey of self-discovery following the loss of all three of my siblings and my father. After a great deal of searching to find ways to heal my hurting heart, I realized that God was walking long beside me the whole way, as it all culminated into peaceful resolution an my arrival into a place of tranquility. It is imperative that we find an avenue to make the unbearable pain bearable. I did this with God’s love and through my passion for writing which turned into a catharsis. I can only hope that my words can help other hearts that hurt.
I have a vivid memory of walking into a Christmas party seven years ago. My sister, Fran, had died unexpectedly a few months before. I had been having a difficult time reconciling her death. I walked in the door and I instantly began plotting my escape. Everyone was laughing and lively Christmas music was playing. I knew that I would not be able to stay. I had no energy to fake a night of happiness when my heart was hurting so much. I walked through the hall and looped around by the kitchen and back out the front door. I fled like an escape artist. I just yearned to go to a Christmas party and have it feel the way they used to feel… Fun!
Grief is a “soul-ache”—a violent emotional yanking on the heart. You are left with a heart that is full of tears and it blurs your vision to see that life can be good again. You want to feel a part of the world again, but you don’t know where to start. It is a complicated process that involves creeping slowly, slowly on your hands and knees. With the “steady cane of support” from friends and family, you are able to walk bent over. Finally, after peaceful resolution, you can walk up right, as you realize that life IS good and God IS good and he has been walking along beside you the whole journey.
I was two years old when I had my first loss. My brother, Charlie, died at the age of three from a heart defect. We were best friends. After his death, my mother told me that I would walk around the house calling his name with an extra cookie to share. I never found him. Fortunately, my sister, Fran, was born six weeks later and my brother, Robert, two years after that. I can honestly say that I the two decades that followed were the most wonderful childhood, high school and college years. I feel fortunate to be able to draw on those happy years. I understand fully, as you do, about the value of enjoying and utilizing every moment you have with your family and friends and the importance of telling them you love them as often as possible.
My father was a pathologist. He had a rewarding career, but it was cut short when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s when he was 56 years old. He looked young and healthy, but it was a deceiving camouflage for the insidious disease that was robbing his once bright mind. He died nine years later. I wrote my first book-a children’s book called The Everlasting Snowman as a explanation for my own boys of the cycle of life in a gentle fashion. It is about the melting of a snowman family who return in the form of happy raindrops.
My brother, Robert, was diagnosed with an auto-immune connective disease two weeks after my father’s death. He died two years ago after a valiant battle. He was completely incapacitated and in a great deal of pain. He was confined to a lazy boy chair, but he made that chair his home, accepting his circumstances. He had an amazing positive attitude. I would go to visit him for the day and he would have taped comedies for us to watch. We would sit and laugh all day. I draw on those memories often. I would always take him a smoked sausage biscuit from Bojangles and a frozen coke from Burger King. As I was handing it to him once, I was struck by the sadness of his situation. I said, “Robert, I am so sorry.” He said, “What are you talking about? There’s a whole lot worse than this out there.” Amazing. I learned to never say anything like that to him again. I had prepared myself for my brother’s death and that is why I had such difficulty reconciling my sister’s unexpected death when he was the sick one.
So, back to the next morning following my fast escape from the Christmas party seven years ago—I woke up thinking to myself, ‘This is unhealthy. I’ve got to figure out a way to get back into the world again—a world I had always enjoyed. So, I methodically, came up with a plan. I called it the Grief Survival Plan. I listed thirteen steps towards finding wholeness once again. I promised myself that I would adhere to each one.
Here are a few: “When I wake up each morning, let my first thought be, ‘How would my lost loved ones want me to feel today?’ They would want me to be happy. Continue to remind myself of this throughout the day. Smile a lot. Soon my heart will be smiling, too.
Break my day down into manageable segments. Do this by making a list every night of the things I wish to accomplish the next day. Never make the list too long, so the day does not feel overwhelming. Never make it too short, so it will feel like a productive day. Live day to day being aware of pleasurable moments.
Journal –It will be an aid in organizing my thoughts and emotions. I can look back later and see my progress.
Don’t act like I feel sorry for myself. It is unattractive. I am not the only one with troubles. Get beyond myself. Think of someone who has a need and act on it. Send a card. Cook a meal for someone else.
Surround myself with feel-good friends who make me laugh. Accept social invitations to be with them.
The great return from loss is the understanding of the beauty of your relationships with your friends and family. I was reminded of the value of friendships the night the night that my sister died. My wonderful local friends arrived at my doorstep. My Meredith College friends drove in from all areas to spend the night with me. It was a “pajama party” of love and I know my sister would have approved. I noticed that one of my college friends from S.C. had something white on the bottom of her feet. I asked her if she had a yeast infection. She said, “No. I was painting a room in my house when I heard about Fran. I put the paintbrush down, picked up my keys and drove straight here.” The value of our friendships are unsurpassed and taking care of them is so crucial.
My mother has been an incredible role model. Her faith in God is incredibly strong. She has the capacity to accept and move forward without having to ask questions, but I needed understanding. I said, to her after my brother’s death, “I can’t believe you’ve lost a husband and three children and I’m the only one left.” She said, “Would you have preferred that it have happened to someone else?” Powerful! Alls she sees is that she God has blessed her with a fabulous life and she feels fortunate to have had them in her life as long as she did. I’m glad to say that I am finally at that same place at long last, as well.
Back once again to that pivotal morning after the Christmas party. I also realized that it was imperative that I regain my sense of humor, especially since it has healing powers. So, I called The Charlotte Observer and I asked if I could begin writing a humor column for them. I knew that it would force me to look at the world once again in a humorous light and it would help to keep my mind occupied. It was therapeutic and I found myself waking up at night laughing with ideas for columns. It felt good to laugh again and I knew my lost loved ones would want that for me.
Lastly, I began writing my novel, Tapestry—a story of the healing of the soul. I decided I would address all of my emotions about loss in hopes of finding an avenue for peaceful resolution. And I did. It is fiction and truth woven together about someone who is afraid to love because she has had loss. The main character, Olivia, journals at the end of each chapter. I expressed all of my emotions and addressed my floundering faith. I received a letter from a friend after Fran’s death. He had lost both of his parents. He had written, “When you lose someone you love, you lose a piece of your identity.” I was disillusioned with God at that point and he was at the little “g” status –at least until I could make sense of the losses. However, there was a powerful pivotal moment in the chapter called The Golden Tassel where God becomes a big G once again and Olivia once again becomes a big “I.”
The ultimate message is that in the great tapestry of life we must embrace the knots and learn from them. It only makes the gold and silver threads that much more beautiful.
Know that your friends and family are your lifelines. Let yourself step out of your cocoon, and allow them be your support system. Have a complete understanding of how important it is to be good to them while they are here to enjoy. Take advantage of every moment with them. If a relationship needs repair, repair it now. Never miss a chance to tell them you love them.You know that your heart will hurt forever, but there is hope to be whole again. Hope would certainly be a cure vessel, if healing were not there at the end. Healing and hope are cousins of a sort. Wisdom is not learned from living a “bed of roses.” It’s the ‘bed of thorns” that has the greater nourishing power.
If you allow it for yourself, you can arrive at a place where you see life as a fantastic opaque sphere where there are just as many beautiful occurrences as there are hardships. Our only requirement is that we accept the full scope of it and know that God is walking along beside us in each of our journeys.
As Sir Henry Scott Holland so eloquently said:
Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you; whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name. Speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it always was; there is absolute unbroken continuity. I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner…All is well. Hunter Darden-personalized copies of my books may be ordered by scrolling to the top and clicking on the link or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.