Category

Grief/Loss

7 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Grief

By | Grief/Loss

Grief, in its normal context, is already difficult to bear and elicits a variety of emotions. When you add in the element of trauma, everything becomes more complicated. When a loss is sudden, unexpected, or associated with horror, the impact is profound, and it will take much longer to heal.

Defining Grief

According to nationally-recognized grief counselor, educator, and author Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief is “everything we think and feel inside after someone we love dies or leaves or something we are attached to goes away. In other words, grief is the instinctive human response to loss. Grief is natural and necessary, [though] our culture tends to deny, diminish, and judge the pain of grief…. If you are grieving, rest assured that what you are experiencing is not only normal, it is the very thing that will help you heal.

We grieve because we love, so it is natural to experience feelings of grief at a time of loss. The feelings that manifest will vary from person to person with some experiencing sadness while others experience anger, relief, or disbelief. There is no right or wrong way – you simply feel what you feel.

Defining Trauma

Trauma is defined asa psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” The element of trauma can complicate grief in a wide variety of situations: violent or sudden deaths, witnessing the death, serious illness or injury, accidental death, experiencing a natural disaster, or going through a divorce, to name a few. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which type of event you experienced, what matters is your response to it and how deeply it affected you.

It is important to note that some individuals who experience traumatic grief (or traumatic loss) will likely exhibit Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. This doesn’t mean that everyone will showcase symptoms, but a minority will, depending on the situation. For survivors of assault and other crimes, natural disasters, car accidents, mass shootings or the sudden death of a loved one, some degree of PTSD is common and can have deep psychological effects.

Dealing with Traumatic Grief

With traumatic grief, there is a dual challenge: coping with the trauma while also coping with the grief.

In the beginning, trauma will overshadow grief. In many cases, this means that shock and disbelief will take hold at first, interfering with the normal grief process. These feelings of shock and disbelief will actually protect you. As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “If you are in the early days of your grief journey, you are likely still feeling numbed by shock and disbelief. This is a normal and necessary step, for it is nature’s way of protecting you from the full force of the loss all at once.” Eventually, the feelings will abate, as you become ready to deal with reality.

It’s important to be on the lookout for indicators that a person is suffering from traumatic grief. Some symptoms include: insomnia or sleep disturbances, anxiety, poor concentration, loss of appetite, feelings of guilt and blame, shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others, or fear of grief and trauma reactions.

In general, trauma makes grief harder to resolve. In other words, it will take longer and require more work, but it most certainly can be done. People who have experienced a traumatic loss can go on to find new meaning in their lives and eventually reconcile themselves to their loss.

7 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Grief

1. Take your time.

The grief journey is different for everyone, and there’s no set time frame. With the added complication of trauma, it’s best not to rush. Instead, take the time you need to fully explore both your feelings regarding the traumatic event itself and your grief feelings associated with that event. Dr. Wolfelt says, “Grief is not something you can do all at once. Feeling so many feelings often leads to [feeling overwhelmed]. Instead, take in ‘doses’ of grief and mourn in bits and pieces.”

2. Be kind to yourself.

Grief is hard work, and if you are to reconcile yourself to the loss you have suffered, you will need energy for the days, months, and possibly years to come. Practicing self-care is not about feeling sorry for yourself, but about caring for yourself with compassion. You have suffered a loss, and you need compassion. Dr. Wolfelt reminds us that “self-care fortifies your long and challenging grief journey…to be self-nurturing is to have the courage to pay attention to your needs.”

3. Don’t fear your feelings.

After a traumatic event, it’s natural to experience shock and disbelief. However, eventually these two feelings will disappear, and others will take their place. When this happens, don’t be afraid. You may experience fear, anxiety, anger or a strong sense of loss or sadness. In cases of traumatic loss, you may experience flashbacks or sensitivity to certain sounds or words (e.g. sudden, loud noises; squealing tires, etc.). Don’t try to “be strong” but instead focus on letting yourself replay the events in your mind as you work to come to grips with them.

4. Allow yourself to replay events.

This may seem counterintuitive and scary, but in order to process an event, you have to face it. Dr. Wolfelt assures us that replay is natural and normal. He says, “Replay helps you begin to acknowledge the reality of the death and integrate it into your life. It is as if your mind needs to devote time and energy to comprehending the circumstances of the death before it can move on to confronting the fact that someone you love has died and will never be present to you again.” Depending on the traumatic event you experienced, it may be best to replay the events in small “doses” so that you don’t become overwhelmed. You may even find an experienced counselor to take the journey with you.

5. Be aware of PTSD symptoms.

As we discussed earlier, someone who has experienced a traumatic event may exhibit symptoms of PTSD. While it is most commonly associated with veterans, civilians can also experience PTSD. A few symptoms to look out for: nightmares or scary thoughts, anger, inability to trust people, high anxiety levels, always expecting danger, to name a few. A person can exhibit a few of these symptoms without it being full-blown PTSD. To determine whether you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD, it’s best to speak with a professional. Above all, remember that PTSD is not linked to your personality, but to the intensity and duration of a stressful event.

6. Find ways to express yourself.

Self-expression can change you and the way you perceive and experience your world. Transforming your thoughts and feelings into words gives them meaning and shape. The alternative—denying or suppressing your pain—is in fact more painful. If you do not honor your grief by acknowledging it, it will accumulate and fester.” Dr. Wolfelt makes an excellent point. We must make time to explore and express our feelings, or they will destroy us from the inside. There are many ways to do this. Pick one that fits you best: journaling, painting, talking it out, building, hiking, exercising, etc.

7. Seek out support.

You have experienced something difficult, heartbreaking, and traumatic. You can’t move forward all alone – you need people. A group of people to offer support and encouragement, to give you hope when the days are dark, and to stick with you no matter what lies ahead. And for many, it’s helpful to speak to a licensed counselor who can help you navigate through the murky waters of traumatic grief.

The journey ahead is not something you asked for. It will include some long and difficult days. But you and your future are worth it. Don’t give up on finding new meaning and joy in life and learning how to incorporate what you’ve experienced into the story of your life. The past doesn’t define you unless you let it. Your present choices can pave a new path into a bright future.

The Value of Vigils

By | Current Events, Grief/Loss

Things happen in this world that break our hearts. In many cases, there’s nothing we personally could have done to prevent the events from occurring. Twenty people died in a limo crash in New York state. Mass shootings continue to occur – Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Parkland. People – old and young – lose their lives and their possessions due to hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. And in the midst of it all, as human beings, we must stand together and mourn together. This is why candlelight and prayer vigils are necessary.

The grief journey is long and hard. On some days, we feel horrible, while on other days, we feel bad for feeling okay. All of this is part of the journey toward reconciliation. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief educator and counselor, says, “We, as human beings, never resolve our grief, but instead become reconciled to it…You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it if you are to reconcile yourself to it.” In other words, we should not seek a resolution to our grief, but instead, we must pursue reconciliation. We will not “get over” what we’ve lost or go back to our “old normal.” However, we can find our “new normal” and renewed purpose and meaning.

In many ways, this healthy human need to grieve is one of the many reasons why attending a vigil may be helpful to your grief journey, especially after an expected or traumatic event. Here are 5 more reasons why attending a vigil may assist you in your grief.

Time of Remembrance

First of all, a vigil is about remembering the person or people who have died. Everyone takes time to intentionally dwell on and recall each life and mourn their loss. Often, close loved ones speak and share memories and anecdotes. These stories draw us in and give us a glimpse into the person’s life that we may not have had before. As a result, we feel closer to the one who has died and can mourn in a more personal way.

Invitation to Action

Taking part in symbolic actions has grief-healing benefits. Dr. Wolfelt says, “When mourners light a candle…they are provided with a physical means of expressing their grief.” Mourning is the outward expression of an internal grief. In order to heal and find a way to move forward, we must allow our grief expression and give motion to our feelings. Attending a vigil or funeral, lighting a candle, or writing a grief journal are all examples of putting motion to grief.

Affirmation of Our Values and Beliefs

A third benefit to vigils is that they provide a time for us to affirm our values and beliefs. We come together with a common purpose: to mourn the loss of someone precious. During this time, we also remember that we value life, we all know the pain of loss, and we all believe in a better world. In a moving speech at a candlelight service just after 9/11, Dave Frohnmayer put it this way, this is “a time to understand even more clearly what we believe…and proudly to affirm, live and act upon those beliefs.”

Expression of Our Love and Emotions

Loss unleashes a variety of emotions: confusion, yearning, anger, sadness, guilt, regret. We should not feel ashamed of our emotions; we feel what we feel. Many times, society as a whole frowns upon open expressions of grief, but this attitude is flawed. We are human. We feel, and we feel deeply. It would be unnatural not to grieve. The vigil offers an opportunity to move toward embracing your pain so that you can begin to process the loss that you feel.

Opportunity to Offer Support and Stand in Unity

Finally, a vigil brings us together as one people, one community. It is an opportunity to offer and receive support, which is absolutely vital to healthy healing. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “The quality and quantity of understanding support you get during your grief journey will have a major influence on your capacity to heal.” So, a vigil provides us the ability to join with others, to stand in unity, and to mourn the loss together. We are not meant to live life alone, and our journey with grief is no different.

If you’ve lost someone to an unexpected or traumatic event, please know that your grief is normal and to be expected. Do not feel ashamed of whatever it is that you feel. Instead, do the work of grieving. Attend a candlelight or prayer vigil. Talk to people. Find a support group. Write down what you’re thinking and feeling. Paint. Dance. Whatever it is that you need to do to express your emotions in a healthy way, do it! The process will not be easy, and there will be days when you just want to give up. But if you keep moving forward, you will one day find that the intense pangs of grief are less frequent, and you have renewed hope for the future.

10 Remembrance Activities for Your Holiday Season

By | Christmas, Grief/Loss, Seasonal

The holiday season is often particularly difficult for those who have recently lost someone or for those whose loss may not be recent but is still fresh and closely felt. Because the holidays center around spending time with family, the season might stir up some unpleasant emotions: grief, loneliness, anger, anxiety, sadness. One way to combat these emotions is to take time to remember your loved one and find ways to include their memory in your holiday activities. If you aren’t sure where to start, here are some holiday remembrance activities you can incorporate. Many can be done alone, while for others, you might consider inviting your children, friends, or other family members to join you.

1. Create a remembrance ornament

You can create any type of ornament you wish for this project. You could keep it simple by selecting an ornament from the store and adding a favorite photo to it. Alternatively, you could use papier-mâché, wood, pine cones, or other materials to create your own. Another option – one that would work well with kids – is to use clear, premade, round ornaments and then fill them up with items. You could use ribbons to represent the different emotions each person may be feeling. Or, you could use buttons, glitter, beads, sand, seashells, rocks, seeds, etcetera, or perhaps something that was special to your loved one. The possibilities are numerous.

2. Attend a remembrance event at a local church or funeral home

Churches and funeral homes often host remembrance events around the holidays. They are very much aware of the need to remember those we love and feel close to them, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Because of that, you will likely be able to find a remembrance event happening in your town or a neighboring town. If you’d like to attend, consider taking the whole family or close friends. By inviting others into your grief, you let them know you value them and want a deeper friendship with them.

3. Make your own necktie wreath or quilt

If you’ve lost a loved one who owned an abundance of ties, you could make a necktie wreath or quilt during the holiday season. For both projects, you can select the ties you want to use as you see fit. You could select ties to follow a holiday theme, use the ties that were most loved, or follow a color scheme. Also, with the necktie quilt, the ties will make a centerpiece. You will need to select material from the fabric store to pair with your centerpiece. You could go with a holiday theme or simply select colors that are meaningful to you or to your lost loved one.

4. Design a personalized puzzle and assemble it

With the online services available today, almost anything can be made. In this case, you can select a favorite photo of your loved one, upload it to an image publishing service (i.e. Shutterfly, Snapfish), and order a puzzle of that photo. Once the puzzle arrives, you can sit down and put it together on your own or with family or friends. This is a way to do something tangible, and while you assemble the puzzle, you can think about or talk about your loved one and your memories.

5. Decorate a special memory tree

If you set up a Christmas tree in your home, you might consider putting up a memory tree as well. You can decorate this tree in the way that best suits you, perhaps adding a photo of the one you love. You can put your loved one’s favorite ornaments on it or you could theme it after their favorite color, movie, book, etc. Another option is to keep a pile of small pieces of paper nearby with writing utensils. When others see the memory tree, they could pick up a piece of paper and write down a special memory they have of your loved one. Alternatively, the paper could have prompts like, “I wish…” or “I remember when…” and so on. This exercise allows you and others to outwardly express what you feel inside. Also, it’s a great way to allow children to share what may be on their hearts.

6. Cook your loved one’s favorite holiday dish

Food is a part of the holiday package, and we all have our favorite dishes. As a way to bring your loved one’s memory into the festivities, you can take time to prepare some of their favorite holiday meals. This is an activity you can easily invite children, family, or friends to join. Alternatively, if you know others who are also grieving, you could get a group together and each cook the favored dish of your loved ones. Then, after everything is ready, you can sit down as a group and share a time of remembrance.

7. Watch your loved one’s favorite holiday movie

Most of us have a favorite movie to watch during the holiday season, and most likely, your loved one was the same. In some cases, it may not even be a holiday movie but just one that they liked to watch in December. Call a few friends and invite them over for an evening to enjoy watching what brought delight to your loved one, and either before or after the movie, share a few words about how much you appreciate their coming to remember your loved one with you.

8. Assemble a memory capsule

You’ve likely heard about time capsules – people decades ago put items and notes into a sealed container and oftentimes bury it, setting a date to open it again. This activity is similar, except it’s a memory capsule. Find an appropriate receptacle, and then start placing special things in it. A note to your future self about where you hope you will be in your grief journey when you open the capsule. A letter written by your loved one. Special trinkets. Photos. For children, it may be adding a treasured toy or drawing a picture. After everything is together, set a date to open the capsule and anticipate the day.

9. Craft a memory chain

For this activity, cut strips of red and green paper (or whatever color you prefer) into rectangles (roughly 8 inches long and 1 inch high). Then, on each piece, write a memory of your loved one, share how you’re feeling, talk about what you missed about your loved one, what you valued. Once you’ve written on the strips, form them into interlocking loops and create a paper chain that you can use as garland for the tree or mantle or drape over a doorway. This one is also a great activity for children, though adults will benefit as well. During times of grief, we all need to take time to express how we feel, especially when the world around us seems more merry and joyful.

10. Ask the kids what they want to do

Children are full of fun and unexpected ideas. If you have children, and you are all grieving a loss, ask them what they’d like to do to remember. They may think of something that hasn’t even occurred to you. Plus, it’s a way to invite them to use their creativity and express their own feelings, which can sometimes be difficult for children since they are still learning to navigate their emotional lives.

This list barely scratches the surface of all the activities you could take part in during the holiday season. The most important thing is to choose the activities that are most meaningful to you and to make sure not to overload yourself. It’s a busy time of year and those who are grieving still need to take time to care for themselves amidst the fullness of the season.

Gratitude & Your Grief Journey

By | Grief/Loss, Thanksgiving

During times of grief, we often turn our focus inward. While this tendency is natural, it may also lead to feelings of isolation and intense, singular focus on the loss we have suffered. Cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude can help us better process the losses in our lives by moving our eyes beyond our pain, allowing us to see the good things in life that still remain.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.  A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Let’s Start With a Definition

To begin with, what is gratitude? The Harvard Medical School describes it this way: gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” 

In so many ways, we get caught up in our own troubles, our own grief. We can easily sink into the mentality that there’s nothing going right in our lives. But an attitude of gratitude helps us turn our eyes outward and see the positives in life.

What Are the Benefits of Gratitude?

Gratitude affirms that life is good and worth living.

In his book Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier, Dr. Robert Emmons shares the two stages of gratitude. In the first stage, we acknowledge the good in our lives. In essence, we “say yes to life. We affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living.” Gratitude helps us look beyond the pain we feel to see the bigger picture – that good things still exist in our present and will in our future.

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others. – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Gratitude helps us recognize sources of goodness.

In the second stage of gratitude, we recognize that many sources of good in our lives exist outside us. We realize that it is to others that we are grateful, not ourselves. In grief, we tend to isolate and keep our emotions locked inside, perhaps a bit afraid of what people will think. However, as we focus on the person or people to whom we are grateful, we look outside the bubble we’ve built and invite people into our grief journey.

Gratitude increases positive emotions and overall well-being.

By thanking those around us, we focus on the good things in our lives. And, as you might guess, dwelling on the positives naturally boosts our positive emotions. And if we are more satisfied, hopeful, and optimistic, then our overall well-being is improved.

The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude. – Thornton Wilder

Gratitude strengthens and fosters relationships.

We’ve all had that friend who takes and takes and is never grateful. Do you want to stay in a relationship with that kind of person? Usually not. A little gratitude goes a long way in strengthening and fostering relationships. During times of grief, our relationships are all the more important because we don’t have to walk alone.

Gratitude improves sleep.

In a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, it was found that by writing in a gratitude journal for 15 minutes every evening before bed, participants experienced longer and better sleep. When we are grieving, sleep is often elusive. Grief is hard and physically taxing, which is why our sleeping hours are so important. Perhaps a gratitude journal will work for you and improve your rest.

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. – William Arthur Ward

Gratitude positively affects both physical and mental health.

Dr. Robert Emmons, who has conducted studies focused on the relationship between gratitude and health, states that “those who kept gratitude journals…exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic….” In addition to Dr. Emmons’ findings, gratitude also contributes to decreased levels of depression, envy, anxiety, and stress. In time of grief, it’s important to balance the emotions we feel – whether positive or negative – and gratitude can help us find that balance.

Gratitude fosters resilience in the face of difficulty.

Resilience is the ability to successfully adapt and cope after facing adversity, trauma, or tragedy, and is often associated with mental strength. People are not born resilient. The trait is cultivated and learned through life’s circumstances. One way we can build resilience in the face of grief is to express gratitude. Realizing that we can be thankful – even at the worst of times – builds resilience. In turn, we will have the mental strength needed to process grief and move toward reconciling with the losses we feel.

What’s Next?

There are many ways to incorporate a lifestyle of gratitude into your everyday routine. A few simple options are:

  • Write thank you notes regularly
  • If you don’t have the time to write or are grateful to a stranger, thank someone mentally
  • Pray or meditate a few minutes each day, acknowledging the day’s good things
  • Keep a gratitude journal, where you regularly record what you’re grateful for
  • Express your gratitude to someone verbally

These ideas are only to get you started. Find the way that works best for you to cultivate a daily attitude of gratitude.

The Benefits of a Grief Journal

By | Grief/Loss

Grief is an inescapable part of life. For many, grief is associated with losing someone dearly loved. However, it is important to note that grief is not always associated with losing someone; you may be grieving the loss of a job, the collapse of a dream, or the breakup of a relationship. As human beings, we possess deep, complex, multi-faceted emotions, and it’s our responsibility to learn how we individually need to process those emotions. If you are facing a season of grief – whether you’ve lost someone you loved or are experiencing some other pain – keeping a grief journal might be the answer to helping you cope with and process your feelings.

I know now that we never get over great losses; we absorb them and they carve us into different, often kinder, creatures. – Gail Caldwell

Why Should I Keep a Grief Journal?

1. Writing things down can often make you more aware of what you are feeling. For some people, they don’t know what they are feeling until they write it down. Putting thoughts and emotions into words forces you to slow down and gives you an opportunity to deeply reflect on, and perhaps better understand, the emotions within you. It’s a method of self-reflection and can reveal things you haven’t consciously thought about.

2. For those mourning a loved one, you can journal to remember them. Recall your favorite memories. Record their favorite colors, smells, foods, places. Write down what they meant to you and why. Create a narrative of your relationship with them and how they impacted your life, the good and the bad. In your journal, if it’s helpful, you can even write directly to the person you’ve lost, saying whatever you feel needs to be said.

3. A grief journal gives you a safe and judgment-free place to explore your jumbled thoughts and feelings, to find ways to remember your loved one, and to record your ongoing journey through grief. Often, it’s comforting to look back and see just how far you’ve come from day one. Sometimes, people may feel like they aren’t making any progress at all, but when they have something tangible to look back on, it’s easier to see the progress they’ve made.

4. There are no rules. This journal belongs to you, and you can utilize it in whatever way you see fit. There may be days that you don’t feel like writing. That’s okay – you can also draw, color, paint, glue, or create something else in the journal’s pages. It’s entirely up to you – it’s your space.

5. Journaling can actually improve your physical and emotional health. By putting your thoughts and feelings into words, they come into sharper focus, and you can outwardly express what you inwardly feel. Among other things, this outward expression, this releasing of thoughts and emotions, reduces stress, which improves sleep.

Selecting a Grief Journal

Ultimately, you should choose a grief journal that appeals to you. However, if you’d like some tips, here are a few questions you could ask yourself before making a purchase.

  • How big or small do you want it to be (i.e. easily fits into a backpack, purse, or pocket)?
  • Do you want it to have writing prompts included or not?
  • Do you plan to use the journal to record your grief journey exclusively, or do you want to use it for multiple purposes?
  • Will you add art to your writing or use a special pen? If so, you might consider how thick the pages are so the ink doesn’t bleed through.
  • Do you prefer ruled or unruled paper?
  • Would you want the journal to include quotes or information about grief and loss?
  • Is it important to you that the journal appeal to you visually?
  • Would you want a journal that carries meaning for you, such as one that depicts something your lost loved one valued (i.e. favorite animal, work of art, color, etc.)?

Also, it’s not a requirement that you handwrite your grief journal. If you prefer, you could type it or even dictate it. The simplest way to keep a digital journal is to open a Word document and start typing, but there are websites online that offer a place to record your grief journey. Another option that may appeal to some is creating a blog where thoughts are recorded and shared with others.

Grief Journal Writing Prompts

You can find writing prompts online easily, but here are a few to get you started.

  1. Think of a word that reflects how you feel today and explore it. What does the word mean to you? Why do you feel that way? How would you describe how you’re feeling to someone else?
  2. Find a quote that speaks to you and mull over it. Write down why you chose that particular quote and what it means to you.
  3. Spend time remembering your loved one – days you spent together, things they loved.
  4. Write down things they used to say and why you remember the words so well.
  5. Write a message to your loved one.
  6. Ask yourself open-ended questions, like:
    • “The things I miss most…”
    • “A color that makes me think of you…”
    • “This memory always makes me happy…”
    • “I wish I knew…”
    • “Today, my grief feels like…”

Feel free to add your own prompts and make the journal personal and intimate. It’s about you, your journey, your grief, your loss.

Write what comes out and don’t be ashamed of it. Some of the things you feel may be unexpected or scary, and that’s okay. Giving voice to your feelings will help you identify them, take responsibility for them, and eventually, release them. Nationally respected grief expert Alan Wolfelt believes that we never truly get over grief, but instead, we become reconciled to it. We learn what life looks like beyond our loss. He puts it this way, “To experience reconciliation requires that you descend, not transcend. You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it if you are to reconcile yourself to it.”

The Unspoken Grief of Pregnancy and Infant Loss

By | Current Events, Grief/Loss

Pregnancy and infant loss is all around us. Mothers, fathers, and families the world over have felt the pain of losing a lovingly anticipated child. No matter how the child is lost – miscarriage, stillbirth, sudden infant death syndrome, complications, birth defects, or unexpected events – the grief is real and deep and living.

Noted grief educator and counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt attests to the reality of the deep pain that accompanies the loss of a child. He says, “With the death of your child, your hopes, dreams and plans for the future are turned upside down. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, and overwhelming. The death of a child results in the most profound bereavement.”

But sadly, the society we live in is not always as compassionate and understanding, particularly in relation to pregnancy and infant loss. There are certain types of losses that go largely unacknowledged by society or are not given public expression. These losses are mourned in secret and are often not spoken of. We even have a name for this type of grief – disenfranchised grief. Dr. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, describes it as, “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

To the many mothers and fathers who have lost an infant or a child in the womb, society may not acknowledge the gravity of your loss, but your loss is significant and worth grieving. Your grief is not something that should be swept under the rug or spoken of in whispers. It is real, and it is important.

So, as you move forward in your grief journey, as you mourn the loss of the child who carried many of your hopes and dreams, remember these things:

You have the right to grieve your loss

Despite what society may say, your loss is real and legitimate. You have the right to grieve. Every parent has hopes and dreams for their baby, and when the baby is lost, those deeply cherished wishes are crushed. You are left with a hollowness in your heart. But remember this – your baby was special, unique, and you have a right to mourn what will not be.

You have the right to talk about what you’ve been through

Find people you trust or others who have experienced a similar loss and talk with them. Share the weight of your grief. You don’t have to walk through this journey alone – you can invite others in. By talking about the loss, you help us all move toward being a society that acknowledges the depth of pain associated with pregnancy and infant loss.

You have the right to feel whatever it is you feel

Grief expresses itself in many different ways. Shock, denial, confusion, yearning, guilt, sadness, depression, to name a few. None of these are wrong. They are all normal. In fact, there’s no “right” way to grieve. For every one of us, the experience is different. So, embrace whatever it is that you feel – don’t push it away. We must go through the pain to move toward healing and reconciliation.

You have the right to be physically and emotionally weary

Grief is hard work. All of the emotions swirling inside, often not finding expression, sap your energy. You may find it hard to sleep, and as a result, feel tired and overwhelmed. In some cases, people may even experience physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and weight loss or gain. Please know – this is a natural reaction. The body is in distress, the same as the mind and heart. Be kind to yourself as you grieve.

You have the right to grieve differently than your partner

Since there’s no “right” way to grieve, it stands to reason that no two people will grieve in the exact same way. But just because your grief and your partner’s grief don’t look the same doesn’t mean you aren’t both grieving. Give each other room to grieve. Give each other grace to grieve differently. And move toward each other, rather than away, as you process this profound loss in your lives.

You have the right to be unashamed of your loss

Despite what society or insensitive people around you may say, your loss is legitimate. You have every right to feel deep emotions. You have every right to mourn what might have been, what you hoped for. Do not try to hide what you feel. Openly express what your baby’s loss has meant to you. If others don’t understand, that doesn’t mean you should try to conceal your grief. By no means do you need their permission to grieve.

You have the right to have your loss acknowledged

You do have the right to have your loss acknowledged, though you shouldn’t go around demanding that people do so. Forcing people into something is never truly successful. Instead, find comfort in the knowledge that your loss is worth acknowledgment, and because it is, awareness groups all over the country are working to bring it out of the shadows and into the light.

You have the right to experience grief bursts

A grief burst is a moment when something triggers a surge of grief. The trigger could be anything – your due date, another baby the same age as yours, a quote, a movie, an article of clothing. These bursts are a normal and natural part of the grieving process. Don’t be surprised when you experience them and find someone who knows your struggle to talk with when they occur.

You have the right to cherish your memories

There are many ways to cherish your memories. Collect keepsakes – ultrasound photos, handmade items, a lock of hair, photos, etc. – and create a memory box or scrapbook. Write your thoughts and feelings down or write letters to your baby. Have a piece of jewelry made with your baby’s initials or birthstone. Start a tradition that brings you comfort.

You have the right to move toward your grief and heal

Like any grief – recognized or not – you have the right to grieve and to heal. Dr. Wolfelt tells us that we never get over a death; instead, we learn to reconcile ourselves to the loss. He states, “Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future…. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

If you take nothing else away, know that your loss is significant, and it is heartbreaking. You have the right to mourn the loss of a child much loved and gone too soon. Grieve in whatever way you need so that you can find healing, peace, and reconciliation.

Writing a Letter to Say All the Things Left Unsaid

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

When we lose someone we love – whether to an unexpected event or a prolonged illness – we don’t always get the chance to say the words we wish we had. And for some, the loss is harder to process because of the things left unsaid. But there is hope. Taking time to write these thoughts down is an excellent and proven method for helping people heal from emotionally stressful events. By writing a letter to your lost loved one, you can give expression to the thoughts and feelings rolling around inside your mind and heart, so that you can move forward in the healing journey.

By writing a letter, you give yourself time to think through all the questions in your mind. You can be honest and reflect on your true feelings. Do you wish you’d shared something with them, whether good or bad? Are you struggling with “why” questions? Do you simply miss them and want to feel connected again? All of these are good reasons to take time to write a letter addressed to your loved one, allowing yourself the opportunity to release your emotions and unburden yourself.

A Few Tips

  1. This is an exercise for you, so there’s no time frame. Take all the time you need.
  2. You may need to write more than one letter. That’s perfectly fine. Write to your loved one as often as you need. In the beginning, you may write more often.
  3. Write down EVERYTHING you want to say. Don’t hold anything back, even if it’s something negative.
  4. If you’d like, after you’ve written the letter, you can read it aloud. Perhaps you can go to your loved one’s gravesite or another significant place to read it so that you feel close to them.

To Get Started

First, choose a medium. Do you want to write a series of letters? Perhaps a notebook or journal would be appropriate. Would you prefer to write a traditional letter on stationery? Or would you prefer to type on a computer or smart device? Take a look at a few examples, and choose whatever medium best fits your needs.

Second, find a comfortable place to write, knowing that this may be an emotional process. For some, coffee shops are appealing, and for others, a quiet room at home is preferred. Alternatively, you can find a beautiful spot outdoors or visit a special place to begin your letter.

Third, write. There’s no instruction manual, so there’s no way you can do this the wrong way. Just write openly and from the heart. Tell your loved one all the things you didn’t say. Allow yourself to really enter into the exercise and put it all out there. Maybe you need to ask their forgiveness. Or, you just wish you’d said, “I love you” one more time. Maybe they hurt you deeply and you need to put that pain into words. No matter what you feel, tell them.

Different Approaches & Prompts

Again, there’s no wrong way to do this, but if you’d like a place to start, here are some tips and prompts to help.

  • Share what has happened in your life since their death.
  • How do you feel?
  • What do you miss about them?
  • Is there something you regret not doing or saying?
  • Were there unresolved issues that you need to get off your chest?
  • Talk about ways that you’ve grown and changed.
  • Tell them how you plan to honor their memory.

Write to them as if they are still alive, and make sure to say everything you need to.

What Do I Do Once It’s Written?

There are a number of things you can do with your letter. It will all depend on what is most satisfactory to you. This is not a comprehensive list, so feel free to come up with another option that may work better for you.

  • Destroy the letter – burn it, rip it up, shred it, or some other method.
  • Seal it in an envelope and keep it in a special place.
  • Keep it in a place where you can see it often, like on a bedside table.
  • Save it on your hard drive for reference later (if you used an electronic device).
  • Send it to someone you trust, who will take care of it until you want it back.
  • Share your letter with others through email, social media or a blog.

No matter what you decide, writing a letter to your loved one and saying everything that’s on your heart and in your mind is a step toward greater acceptance and reconciliation to the loss you’ve suffered. This exercise will not miraculously remove your grief. In fact, grief isn’t really something we can “get over.” But we can give our grief a voice, and you will find that the more you express your feelings of grief, the easier it becomes to deal with those emotions. Sharing your heart and giving expression to all the emotions – good, bad, tender, destructive – is an important step on the journey toward healing.

 

Young boy embracing his military father, American flag draped over father's shoulder

Suicide Prevention and Mental Health: What Can We Do to Help Our Nation’s Veterans?

By | Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

September is suicide prevention month, and one of our nation’s most vulnerable populations are our own veterans and military personnel. Veterans embody qualities such as bravery, sacrifice, and dedication to a greater cause—all qualities we value deeply. Yet even as they fought for our freedom, many military members have found themselves suffering alone, and in silence.

Veterans today are facing one of the worst mental health crises we have ever seen. According to a 2014 Veterans Affairs study, it was discovered that an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. That same year, veterans accounted for 18% of ALL suicide deaths but only accounted for 8.5% of the total population. Why are the numbers so high? And practically speaking, what can we do?

We can support our veterans by actively seeking to understand the challenges they face and become part of the solution. Here are a few things we can do to help our nation’s veterans and active duty military:

Woman comforting male solider, who looks distraught and has a hand to his face

1. Be Aware of the Signs of Depression

If you are a veteran, or if you have a loved one who is a veteran or active duty military personnel, be aware of the signs of depression. Depression is a very serious illness, leading to feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. In some cases, depression causes mental and emotional problems. If these problems occur, it can lead to an inability to function in the home or the workplace.

For veterans and active duty military members, depression may have a variety of causes, such as the death of a friend or fellow service member, traumatic events like combat or injury, preparing for deployment, or transitioning to civilian life, to name a few. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one in every ten older veterans (ages 65+) are currently battling depression, which is more than twice the percentage found in the general population of the same age.

What you can do: There are many ways that the friends and family can help a loved one who is battling depression. Working with a professional counselor or psychologist can help. In addition, new activities such as exercise, dietary changes, and getting enough direct sunlight can relieve symptoms.

American military uniform with American flag patch lying on wooden surface. Stethoscope lying beside it.

2. Educate Yourself about Traumatic Brain Injury and Its Effects

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is becoming increasingly more common among our military personnel as the methods of warfare evolve. In simple terms, TBI is a blow to the head that causes a disruption in brain function. For veterans and military members, this may occur during drills or as the result of a bomb blast.

Some cases register as a mild concussion, but in severe cases, TBI leads to changes in behavior and memory recall. The severity of a case is determined by how long consciousness is lost, how long memory loss or disorientation may last, and how responsive the person was after the initial injury. According to an article by PBS, “Those who go untreated may find their symptoms worsening over time, with some patients at risk for depression, substance abuse, severe anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, Alzheimer’s and suicide.”

What you can do: Be supportive and encourage TBI sufferers to seek professional support. In the meantime, remember that there are many others out there who are supporting a loved one living with TBI, and you can learn from their journeys.

Older man, fingers to lips, staring toward camera, looking sad

3. Recognize Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Its Symptoms

More than anything, it’s important to remember that PTSD is common and affects more than just military personnel. Absolutely anyone can suffer from PTSD. However, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, the percentage of persons suffering from PTSD is higher in the military than in the general population. For those in military service, PTSD has many root causes. Most commonly, it is connected to combat exposure, terrorist attacks, and sometimes physical assault. There are four major types of symptoms: 1) reliving the event, 2) avoiding situations that are a reminder of the past, 3) negative changes in beliefs or feelings, and 4) feeling wired all the time.

What you can do: When you see your loved one struggle, it’s hard to stand by and do nothing. Two practical actions you can take are: 1) offer to go to doctor’s visits with them so you can be familiar with medications and the doctor’s advice in addition to offering support and 2) encourage contact with friends and family to help create a support system. Additionally, as you try to encourage your veteran, seek out the resources available to bring them back to good mental health.

Young male soldier, sitting in a field, helmet in lap, knees drawn up, face pressed to helmet

4. Understand the Threat of Suicide

There has been a significant spike in veteran suicides since 2005, and according to recent research, the most common reason given for contemplating suicide is a desire to end intense emotional distress. Research continues to explore the link between PTSD cases and suicides. As noted above, veteran suicides make up 18% of ALL suicides, even though veterans constitute only 8.5% of the population. The numbers are staggering. A recent study from the Public Health Department revealed that veterans who were deployed have a 41% higher suicide risk than the general population while non-deployed veterans have a 61% higher risk!

What you can do: The best things you can do are to educate yourself on the signs of suicide risk, familiarize yourself with available resources, and encourage your loved one to seek the help and support they need. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, remember that everyone deals with grief differently. For helpful suggestions for processing grief, find resources online, join a support group and/or set up an appointment with a grief counselor.

African American soldier staring solemnly toward the camera

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About It

Active military members are less likely to seek out mental health services and support. This is mainly because they fear for their jobs or don’t want to be viewed differently because they are struggling. A stigma still remains regarding mental health issues, though the Defense Department has taken deliberate actions to reverse this viewpoint. Veterans, though not in active service, also struggle with this very real stigma. Move forward with actively educating yourself on these mental health challenges. Don’t be afraid to talk to loved ones about their mental health or to express your loving concern. They need your support and understanding.

6. Draw Encouragement from the Success Stories of Others

The Department of Veterans Affairs has created a helpful website called Making the Connection. This website is filled with excellent resources and information regarding symptoms, support groups, and treatment. But most of all, real veterans share personal struggles of their fight for good mental health. Find encouragement and inspiration in their stories of struggle and victory.

With the trauma associated with military service, it is no surprise that our veterans are struggling. Educate yourself on the symptoms and look for ways to support veterans physically and emotionally. In closing, a reminder. The men and women of the military safeguard our freedom every day. Let’s work together to safeguard their mental health by becoming knowledgeable, capable, and ready to act. Our veterans deserve to live full and meaningful lives after their years of service to our country.

7 Ways to Keep Your Loved One’s Memory Alive

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Grief is not…a “two steps forward, one step backward” kind of journey; it is often one step forward, two steps in a circle, one step backward. It takes time, patience, and, yes, lots of backward motion before forward motion occurs.  – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

Losing someone we love is one of the most heartbreaking and difficult events we will ever face in life. While death deprives us of a loved one’s physical presence, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything we love about the person. Our relationship becomes one based on memory rather than physical presence. As Dr. Wolfelt states above, the grief journey is a meandering way, filled with many steps. And part of the journey is traveling back into our memories in order to move forward toward reconciliation with our loss. That said, our loved one may be gone, but their memory need never die. Below are several ways you can remember and honor your loved one’s memory long after they have gone on.

1. Celebrate your loved one’s birthday

The first birthday after your loved one has passed can be a painful a milestone. But it can also be a special time set aside to honor the one you love. Every year, take a few moments to be thankful for the life they lived and the positive ways they impacted you. You can look back on the wisdom shared, the joyful moments, the love and support you received, and you can honor those memories by sharing that wisdom, love, and support with others.

2. Host a dinner in their honor

Choose a special day (birthday or anniversary, for example) to honor your loved one’s memory by inviting a group of friends to dinner. You could hold it at the person’s favorite restaurant or craft a menu of dishes that your loved one particularly enjoyed, then share memories and receive support from friendships in your life.

3. Get involved

If your loved one favored a particular organization or charity, you can get involved with that group as a way of continuing your loved one’s legacy. Or, if they weren’t involved with a particular group, think about what they loved. Were they a teacher? Provide backpacks full of school supplies to kids in need. Did they enjoy walking at a particular park? Volunteer your time to maintain the park by picking up litter or ask about upkeep and/or gardening. Did they volunteer at the local soup kitchen? Consider volunteering and invite a few friends to join you.

4. Set up a permanent memorial and visit regularly

For those who are grieving, it’s often helpful to have a place to go where you feel close to the one you’ve lost. For many people, a memorial or gravesite becomes that special place. If there is not a gravesite, installing a memorial bench at a significant place or planting a memorial tree may be an alternative. You could even include a memorial plaque so that anyone who passes by will be touched by your loved one’s life.

5. Create a memorial video/memory box

This activity may be especially helpful for those with young children. Children’s memories fade over time, so a memorial video or memory box can help a child hold onto memories and form a connection with the person they love and miss. The child can see his or her loved one regularly and watch the video as much as needed. With a memory box, they can touch and hold items that once belonged to the person who died and create a connection in that way.

6. Create your own tradition

If your loved one enjoyed dominoes, play dominoes on their birthday. If your loved one enjoyed action movies, set up a monthly night to watch the newest one. Let’s say your loved one enjoyed reading westerns – commit to reading one a year in their memory. Did your loved one just adore bananas? Set up an evening of banana-flavored foods with friends. Banana bread. Strawberry-banana smoothies. Banana pudding or pancakes. Your grandmother’s banana punch. The possibilities are as unique are your loved one.

7. Visit special places

If you and your loved one had places you always enjoyed going together, continue to visit those places. Did you have a favorite coffee shop or bookstore? Perhaps a favorite vacation destination or state park? Go to those places and enjoy yourself while also setting aside time to remember your loved one. You might even consider writing them a letter each time you visit, telling them about a specific time you visited together or sharing how much you miss them.

Death does not stop us from loving those we’ve lost. The love stays with us. The relationship you shared is important and worth remembering and sharing with others. We all need an outlet to express what we are feeling on the inside, and these activities will help you do that. By taking part in any or all of these activities, you will feel closer to your lost loved one and create forward motion in your grief journey.

Guilt, Anger, and Other Normal Reactions to Loss

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

We experience a wide range of emotions when faced with the death of a loved one. And those emotions aren’t the same for everyone. Perhaps, if everyone grieved in the same way, we could craft a formula for grief – something that worked every time. But that’s not how it works. There’s no “correct” response to death. Every grief journey is different, as are the emotions swirling around within us.

As you deal with emotional stress, it’s important to name your feelings and acknowledge them. Nationally renowned and respected grief expert Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, “I have worked with thousands of grieving people and they have taught me about many, many different thoughts and feelings after a death. Rest assured that whatever you are thinking and feeling, while in one sense your thoughts and feelings are completely unique to you, they are also usually a common human response to loss.” Whatever you’re feeling – whether it seems typical or unusual – is normal. There are, however, a few normal emotional reactions that are often viewed negatively – ones that we think we shouldn’t feel after a loss. Let’s take a few moments to discuss them.

Anger

If you are feeling angry, you are not alone. Your anger may stem from feeling helpless, powerless, or abandoned. It may also be directed at someone or something in particular, like the doctors, your loved one’s health choices, God, or even life in general.

It’s important to remember that being angry is a normal response. As long as you don’t hurt yourself or others, it’s good to find a way to vent your feelings. If you are able to articulate what you feel, then consider writing it down or talking with a safe person (either a counselor or a good friend). However, if your emotions are more explosive, you might try using a punching bag, running, or participating in some other physical activity to help you release your anger.

Also, pay close attention to your words and actions. You may be more irritable and easily triggered than normal, causing you to be short-tempered with those you love.

Anxiety, Fear

For some, death can stir up anxiety or fear. Questions may arise in your mind. Will I be okay? Does my life have any purpose after this? Will other people I love die soon, too? What if something happens to me?

Feelings of anxiety or fear are often triggered by feeling vulnerable or that your security is threatened. For example, a child who loses a parent may feel anxious or fearful about whether something will happen to their remaining parent as well. Other options are that fear and anxiety are learned responses (a previous experience has conditioned you to respond this way) or that you aren’t sure how you will be able to cope so your anxiety rises, or you are worried that other sad things might happen.

Guilt & Regret

Another common emotion after a loss is feeling guilty about what happened or what didn’t happen. However, in many cases, it is misplaced guilt, though that doesn’t make the feeling any less real. Someone might feel guilty for not being a donor match, for not calling or visiting more often, or for not doing more to prevent the death (such as in the cases of depression, suicide, or substance abuse).

If you are dealing with feelings of guilt, remember that, while it’s a normal reaction to feel this way, your feelings may not be accurate. Consider why you feel guilty and whether you might actually be feeling regretful. There is a difference. Guilt, by definition, means that you have intentionally done harm to the person who has died. However, regret means that you wish you had done something differently. The main difference between the two is intent.

If you determine that you are guilty of some wrongdoing, look for ways to make up for your mistake – write a letter to your lost loved one to apologize or ask forgiveness of other people affected by your actions. Also, try to forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. On the other hand, if you are feeling regret, work through your emotions. Determine what changes you can make to avoid regret in the future.

Relief

Relief may be one of the most common yet misunderstood emotions a person may experience after a death. We feel so strongly that we shouldn’t be relieved that we sometimes hide the fact that we are. But relief is to be expected, especially after a period of intense or prolonged suffering (as is the case with terminal illnesses). If a person dies after a long period of illness or was the cause (directly or indirectly) of increased stress in your life, it’s only natural to feel relieved when you are no longer suffering under high levels of stress. It doesn’t mean you wanted them to die or that you didn’t love the person. It simply means that you have been through a difficult time and are now emerging on the other side. Relief is normal and natural in such circumstances. As human beings, we are complex and can feel both relieved and sad at the same time. What you feel does not minimize your love for the person or the depth of your grief.

A Few Tips for Dealing with Your Emotions

  1. Don’t bottle them up. Let yourself feel what you feel.
  2. Realize and accept that your emotions are complex.
  3. Find a way to express yourself.
  4. Give yourself time to grieve and process. There’s no rush.
  5. If you need additional help, consider joining a grief support group or visiting a grief therapist.

Taking time to process and confront your emotions is a necessary part of every grief journey. Experiencing any or all of the emotions we’ve covered is normal, as are others we didn’t cover, like sadness, numbness, denial, and confusion. However, as time passes, and you do the work of mourning, the emotional intensity should lessen. As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent.  Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person you have given love to and received love from will never be forgotten. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

Embrace your grief in all its complexities and allow yourself to feel all of your emotions (they are natural!). In time, if you do the work of mourning, you will find your “new normal.”