The Journey - Your Newsletter
What Are Our Choices?
A Personal Story

By Susan Whitmore, Founder and CEO, griefHaven
How do we handle the road stretching
before us when we are grieving?

Erika, my daughter and only child, died at the age of 32 in 2002 from a rare sinus cancer. I started griefHaven a year later with the love and support of many people. Pre-Erika’s death, time felt like my friend. Post-Erika’s death, time felt like my tormentor, dragging along every day, stretching out in front of me as an endless series of moments to live through and roads leading endlessly on and on.

I saw that whenever I looked ahead to the next several months before me, life no longer held the idea of what used to be the fun possibilities. Rather, what lay before me were unending miles that had to be simply endured without her. What a shocking change that was! After all, heartbreak hits like an unexpected tsunami, leaving us gasping for air, flailing around, trying to figure out how to survive what has just happened to us. “What an unfair price to pay for loving my daughter so deeply and profoundly," I often used to think. “How can life be so heartless and cruel?”

That was then. This is now.

I needed to know that all that I would go through would
lead somewhere meaningful and that I had
some control over creating where that might be.
 
For those of us who have lost someone we dearly and deeply love, time that stretches before us can seem like one of our greatest challenges, for we aren't sure what to do with all that is before us. Yet through the years, many surprising revelations inspired me and showed me the way. Looking back now, I can see that my greatest concern was that there would be no end to the pain—that I would never experience true joy or happiness and that I no longer had any meaning or purpose in life. I was afraid that all the pain, anguish, and grief I was going through would be completely in vain. I needed to know that all that I would go through would lead somewhere meaningful and that I had some control over creating where that would be.
 
We all hear that healthy grieving is important in order to get on with life—that it is important to release the grief so it doesn’t wreak havoc on us for the rest of our lives. Grief will patiently wait for us to give it a voicean outlet. From the beginning, I knew that was true, and years of research has also proven that to be true. Yet I also knew there had to be more in store for me than just grieving for the sake of releasing the pain. I kept thinking, “Life can be difficult and challenging, but certainly it’s not simply cruel. All of this has to be creating something meaningful." Did I raise Erika with all the love I had, creating that beautiful bond with my only child, only to see her die and leave me relegated to nothing but a life of endurance? That was simply not possible! I refused to believe it!
I refused to believe that ...
the only thing to come out of all that pain would be the lessening of pain. There had to be more, and I became determined to find it and then bring it to others who needed to know, so I began to watch, listen, research, and try everything.

I eventually began to understand and feel that I was not to be
relegated to a life absent of meaning and joy—that
I was not a powerless victim to the death of my daughter.

Of course it didn’t take long for me to realize that my life would never be the same as the life I had when Erika was here sharing it with me. I mean, how could it? Anytime anything major happens in our lives, it changes every part of our lives. But in my mind and heart, I eventually began to understand and feel that I was not to be relegated to a life absent of meaning and joy—that in fact I was not a powerless mother against what felt like the big, bad grief wolf—that there were many things available for me to help myself, including scientifically-based tools of tremendous value when used, like Mindfulness living, and many others you will find on our website. I could see that my grief path actually included guideposts along the way that had already helped me with choices I had made and the life I was creating and would continue to create.
Determination Took Over
So it was one particular moment in time when I found myself looking to the stretching of time before me, and it struck me, “You know what? I want to have more meaning and joy in my life, and I am ready to do whatever it takes to get there."

I began to see that the life I was to rebuild was something
that I had to create. The hardest part was realizing that
I had to create everything my new life was to be.
 
So it was one particular moment in time when I found myself looking to the stretching of time before me, and it struck me, “You know what? I want to have more meaning and joy in my life, and I am ready to do whatever it takes to get there." Determination took over. I was inspired by the idea that once I learned what those things were, I would be able to show others that it can be done. "And," I remember saying out loud, "I’m going to get there because I deserve it.” I didn’t know how, but I made that commitment. I had done a lot of grief work by then, and it was time.

What Did I Realize?

I also realized that a life including joy, happiness, and meaning
was worth whatever hard work it might entail.
I knew that I had to make that happen.
 
I began to see that the life I was to rebuild was something that I had to create. The hardest part was realizing that I had to create everything my new life was to be. I knew that my life wasn’t just going to magically become happier and more joyful as time ticked on. That is why I don't like the saying "Time heals all wounds." It's what you DO with the time that matters. I also realized that a life including joy, happiness, and meaning was worth whatever hard work it might entail. I knew that I had to make that happen. THAT was a surprising truth for me. You see, the reason it was surprising was because, in the past, when I had experienced other painful losses, eventually with time and tears, my life just naturally went back to what I will call “normal,” and I eventually felt happy again. I didn’t do a lot to make that happen. It just pretty much happened on its own. But this was different. Erika's death showed me that this was not like anything else, and I could not approach it the way I had other difficult experiences in the past. I knew it was time for me to begin looking at things differently and really focusing on finding my way. I wanted it, I deserved it, and I was passionate about it. And could I have heard Erika at that moment, I am sure she would have been gleefully exclaiming, “You go Mom!”
 
One of the many things I discovered that worked well and that I will practice for the rest of my life is Mindfulness. Today the idea of Mindfulness has taken on new recognition as research study after research study is done, many using fMRIs to look into our brains to see how Mindfulness works. And work it does! If I had known about Mindfulness all those years ago, I would have known to pay attention to the step in front of me and not the whole staircase.
Baby steps. One minute at a time. One hour at a time. One day at a time. Not, "Oh my God, how will I live through all of that time ahead of me?"

It’s not unusual for people to tell me that they feel guilty enjoying life or even being happy after their loved one has died. They feel that they have no right enjoying life or being happy when their loved one doesn't get to any longer. Yet I know that is exactly what we are here to do, and it is what our loved one did when they were here. Life is not meant to only be endured, but to be fully lived, fully embraced, all of it, the highs and lows, as awful as the lows may be. That's right. Because fully embracing life is exactly what leads us to the answers we seek.
 
It's been 18 years since Erika died, and I am still rebuilding my life without her here, still constantly learning. The rebuilding I do includes all of the beautiful memories of Erika tucked neatly therein. In other words, even though we are building a new foundation and structure, we are also making a special place within it for our loved one. I see it like having my home torn apart by Mother Nature. Sure, maybe everything inside was destroyed, but not my memories, not my love, and not what truly matters in life. So wherever I go and whatever structure I build, with all its newness, Erika will come right along with me. In fact, as I rebuild my life, I envision that many of the new things I create are in Erika's honor, including griefHaven and all of you who are now in our lives. How appropriate it is that we call this organization a “foundation,” since that is truly what we are all doing after we lose our loved ones—creating a new foundation upon which we build the rest of our lives. If you are still in the early period of grief, this might be hard to fathom, so hold on to the shear power of it, because its truth will become evident.
 
Once we make that commitment, little by little life comes back alive, and we begin to enjoy those things that we never believed we would enjoy again. So know that one day you will look ahead and not dread it. As I’ve said over and over, if I can do it, if all those parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandparents, and others who have been grieving before you have done it, then so can you. Yes, you will. That is our promise to you.
 
My vision for each of you is that you feel the easing up—a lessening—of the pain you live in now, even if it is but slight. I hope for you that you will feel the winter of your hearts thawing so you can reawaken those warm and loving feelings you once knew. My hope for you is that you will become aware that you have been planting the seeds of your future, little by little, and that it is your tears that are watering those seedlings.
They say that raindrops are nature’s tears. I say that our tears, then, are the raindrops of the soul, and you will one day see the sprouts that come from your pain and sorrow peeking up through the earth of your life. You will begin to see the buds on those sprouts, and then the beautiful blossoms.
I call it the “spring of your heart.” Then, one day, you will see that you have created an entire garden of blooms and colors that started with your willingness to take your grief and love for your loved one and allow your tears to gently nurture that new life—a life of new meaning and purpose. Because you, my friend, deserve it.
 
Big Hugs, Susan
Coalition to Help Grieving Students
Coalition to Help
Grieving Students
Thanks to AfterTalk, griefHaven learned about this wonderful organization providing all levels of grief support for children.

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