A storm came, went and left me with an unrecognizable life. When tragedy struck out of nowhere, I wasn’t given a handbook on what comes next. The natural responses of panic, shock, numbness, confusion, sadness, depression, anxiety and fatigue, took over every part of my being. Grief set up camp in my mind and heart and I had no idea how to mange it or how to navigate the unbearable pain. I vividly remember asking my friends to call someone who had lost a child, because I needed her to tell me what to do. I felt like I was lost in a tunnel of darkness where even remembering to breathe was hard. I came to the realization pretty quickly that I had a lot of pain, heartache and hard work in front of me, and these were not welcome realities!
I explain coping with trauma and grief like this: When we get food poisoning our bodies begins to react to it. We begin sweating, feeling pain, nausea and downright terrible. What happens after that? Our bodies start to get rid of the food poison inside of us. Why? Because they weren’t designed to keep the poison inside. It’s the same with trauma and grief. When the tragedy happens and trauma and grief are trapped inside of us, they need a way out or they will consume us. It would have been really easy to let the aftermath control my life, but I knew that was not the right answer for me. Coping is a choice, and a process.
My ABC’s of Coping With and Moving Through Trauma and Grief
Ask for help. It’s not my forte to ask for help. I’m a very independent person and like to figure things out on my own, but that is just not possible anymore. Since Caleb died, I have asked for help many times and will probably have to for a really long time. When I do ask for help I am helped almost instantaneously, my supporters are eager to help any way they can.
Breathe. When I feel stuck or I know I’m headed in a downward spiral, stopping myself to focus on my breath and nothing else helps ground me and bring me back to the moment. Breathe in 2-3-4, Breathe out 4-3-2-1. The exhale is longer to help bring calm and help me concentrate. Before learning this coping skill, I honestly took my own breath for granted. I never learned that focusing on my breath could be so helpful.
Calm App & Counseling. I use the Calm App everyday…the Sleep Stories help me fall asleep and there’s a Meditation for everything! Counseling and EMDR therapy have been necessary tools in my processing and healing. It was hard to get comfortable talking to someone about something so sensitive and painful but it got easier as time went on and now, I couldn’t imagine not having that resource to help me.
Dogs. We adopted our first Golden Doodle, Rocky, 2.5 months after Caleb died and Champ after one year. These two are a huge emotional support to all of us and we love them so much! They bring smiles, laughter and comfort to us everyday!
Eat a snack. This mostly applies during my work day when I get emotional or my thoughts take a turn for the worst. I keep a bag of Chewy Mini Sweet Tarts in my desk for a quick way to get my mind focused what I’m tasting, instead of thoughts that will take me to mental place I can’t go at the time.
Family, Friends & Faith. I don’t say lightly that these 3 things are crucial to my healing. I depend on them, rely on them and know without a doubt, none of them will let me down.
Grieve. Grieving is a verb, an action, an outward expression of an inner pain. The greater the love for the person, place or thing you lost, the deeper the grief you will feel. I had experienced a lot of grief in my life over many different things before my child died, but the pain cannot be compared. Grief took its natural course with prior deaths and adversities, but grieving Caleb has been extremely difficult and challenging. Grief and work go hand in hand…in order for me to process my way through the pain, I have to put actions behind it. Bottling it up or ignoring it will only delay the process. My grief for Caleb will never go away, but I have felt the process get easier as time goes on.
Hot Bath. I was not a bath taker before, but I am now! Bath water as hot as I can stand it with scented Epsom salts, candles burning and a meditation playing on my phone can change my mood and the direction of my thoughts quickly and now, I can’t go more than 3 or 4 days without one!
Ignore. Not in a rude way, but I’m learning to ignore people and the stupid things they say. Sometimes, well-meaning people say the most hurtful things! Please don’t every say, “He’s in a better place”, “God had other plans for him,” “I understand how you feel” or “Everything happens for a reason” to a grieving mother or person. Just don’t. If you’re reading this looking for coping strategies, ignoring people is easy, but not letting what they say bother you takes practice.
Journaling. I wrote my first journal entry on Day 26. Sometimes I write to Caleb, sometimes to God and sometimes I just write to get thoughts out of my head and onto paper. Many tears have been shed on the pages of my journals as my aches and pains come out in written words.
Keepsakes. Looking at pictures of Caleb, wearing his clothes, smelling his laundry, crying into his pillows, reading cards he gave me, watching his Snapchat videos and listening to his voicemails are just a few of the things I do on the regular to stay connected to him. The keepsakes I have from him are priceless and they help me cope when he feels so far away.
Lament. A passionate expression of grief or sorrow and my awareness that God is big enough. In lament our suffering is not denied and it is not minimized. When you lament you know that God can act and that your circumstances can change, and so there is an ease of suffering through God’s intervention. What does lament look like for me? Laying with my face to the ground or curled up in the fetal position sobbing, screaming, praying, all-the-while, trusting and knowing God is near. I don’t plan it, it just happens and when it does, I feel an ease of suffering.
Mindfulness and Meditation. Mindfulness: The quality or state of being conscious and aware of something. When painful thoughts, memories and visions of the day Caleb died started to consume me at any point during the day, I would close my eyes and do this five senses exercise: Notice 5 things I could see, 4 things I could feel, 3 things I could hear, 2 things I could smell and 1 thing I could taste. This has been a really useful tool for me.
A week or so after Caleb died, my well-meaning sister put headphones on my head and turned on a meditation about grief. Within seconds I threw it off and said I couldn’t and didn’t want to do it. Looking inside myself and finding my strength and focus took time. I wasn’t able to start meditating until nearly a year later. I have found meditating to be calming, and mind de-cluttering. I’m not a daily-dedicated-meditator by any means, but the tool is there for me when I need it. Here is a part of one that I find helpful…
Daily Calm – “Storms”
By Tamara Levitt
…In the moments of volatile emotions our breath, and especially the exhale, can serve as an anchor. Just as Dolly Parton said, “Storms make trees take deeper roots.” So when you’re faced with a gust of emotion that threatens to sweep you away, imagine yourself strong and rooted like a tree in the midst of a storm. Though the branches and leaves may thrust wildly in the wind and rain, the trunk remains steady and grounded its roots anchored deeply into the earth. So whenever you need to, call on the grounding quality of your exhales to find your center. Strong emotions may still be present, they might still stir up the leaves and rattle the windows, but with grounding you can harness the strength to face the storm and ride it out.”
Normalize. I realized very quickly that people in general do not like talking about grief and they definitely don’t like talking about the death of a child. Sometimes it seems with their eyes they’re saying, “If it can happen to you then it can happen to me, and I don’t want to talk about that.” Grief is a normal human feeling that must be normalized and talked about. What’s your grief?
Opportunity. I take advantage of any opportunity I get to share my story, Caleb’s story or where I am on this Journey of learning to live without him. If by talking about any of these helps someone, saves someones life or brings them comfort then that’s all the reason more to seize the opportunity.
Podcast. A few weeks after Caleb died I Googled, “Encouraging Podcast about losing a child,” and this came up in the searches: ‘Losing a Child, Always Andy’s Mom.’ I listened to her first few episodes with tears, sobs and comfort knowing that there was someone out there who knew my pain and talked about it in hopes it would reach someone who needed it…me. I needed it more than I can explain. I have since not only listened to every episode, but I have shared my story on her podcast twice. This avenue of coping with my loss is very important to me. I’m comforted each and every week as I listen and relate to other moms who share about their child’s death and their own personal grief journey.
The ‘While We’re Waiting’ Podcast is another one I have found that is helping me. While we’re waiting to see our children again, we share our story in hopes of healing, encouraging others and normalizing grief for bereaved parents. This is a ministry that hosts retreats for bereaved parents and also have support groups all around the country. My husband and I will be attending one of their retreats very soon that will be hosted by another couple who lost a child very suddenly to suicide. I’m thankful to those who have gone before me to pave the way for my healing, and I strive to do the same for those who are coming behind me.
Question myself. “Is this hurting me or helping me?” When my head goes below the water in my pool of grief, I have this gap of time to consider where I’m headed emotionally. Do I want to sink or swim? Sometimes I want to sink and I do. I allow myself that time to hold his dirty laundry, cry and scream. Sometimes I’m able to swim. I look at the container of dirty clothes and say, “I don’t think I need to do that tonight.” Is this helping me or hurting me is a question that I’m getting better at asking myself. If something is hurting me, then I tell myself that it’s okay not to think about, or do a certain thing at that time.
Reframing Technique. Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then change the way situations, experiences, events, ideas and/or emotions are viewed. Cognitive reframing is the process by which such situations or thoughts are challenged and then changed (source: Wikipedia). For example, because Caleb died on a Monday, I hate Mondays. Every Monday following August 12, 2019, caused me immense stress, anxiety, sadness and uncontrollable emotions. After one really bad Monday night, I told my therapist about it and she suggested that maybe Mondays could be the night that we always eat out, or always go to a friends house, instead of being home and reliving the worst Monday of my life over and over again. From then on we’ve had what we call “Monday Night Dinner” with a group of friends. We rotate a couple houses and eating out, and it has helped me tremendously. They have helped me reframe Mondays into something good and something our family (and the group as a whole) now look forward to. Bad Monday —-> Better Monday!
Screams & Smells. Screaming in my car is a coping skill I have found very helpful. No-one can hear me so I have the freedom to scream as loud as I can for as long as I want to. Trauma is trapped inside of me and it needs a release, for me that is screaming in my car sometimes.
I am not a proclaimed ‘oily person,’ but I do use essential oils in a diffuser as I sleep, when I’m working and I use them in my bath water. Certain smells are relaxing and sometimes just what I need to calm me down quickly.
Talk about Caleb. If you know me personally and we are involved in each others day to day life, you know that I talk about Caleb all.the.time! He is no longer here with me physically, but he remains a part of my life in every other form. I love hearing his name spoken, I love it when other people talk about him, remember him and allow his life story to influence their life and the lives of people they know. Talking about Caleb is an important coping skill because it keeps me connected to him.
Unwind. Every night after tucking my youngest daughter into bed, I sit in my safe place and unwind. I cry, journal, think, process, read, watch tv or all of the above. This time is essential in managing my grief.
Visuals. Sunrises, sunsets, landscapes, cardinals, rainbows, butterflies, hummingbirds and dragonflies are all things that give my heart a little hug. Just taking an extra few seconds to enjoy the beauty in these things can make all the difference in my day.
Writing. Since creating this Blog and giving purpose to my thoughts, emotions and struggles, I have felt a release. I have never once doubted my decision to be open, honest and raw about my grief journey. I find healing as I write and as you read.
Xanax. I debated with myself on whether or not to use this word because it could stir up some negative emotions in others who might have had a negative experience, or even lost someone they loved because it was used uncontrollably. I decided to share it because I’m not too proud to admit that I need it. Since the night Caleb died I have taken one every night to help me sleep. My long term goal is to find a natural product that works for me and my short term goal is to make sure I get sleep.
You. You help me cope with my grief and sadness. By reading my Blog and following me on this journey, you support me more than you will ever know. When you send me messages and share with me that my posts are helping you, it encourages me to keep writing and to keep sharing. I’m thankful for you!
Zoloft. In the weeks following Caleb’s death, not surprisingly, I struggled to eat and take care of my basic personal needs. I couldn’t perform even small normal tasks like doing the dishes or laundry and I wasn’t able to take care of my girls. Driving brought me major stress and anxiety because it reminded me of driving home the night he died. My therapist and doctor encouraged me to try Zoloft to help with my PTSD and depression. It took a few weeks of them educating me on it for me to realize that it was a necessity if I hoped to do normal day-to-day activities again. I still take it daily and will continue to for a long time.
The only thing I knew for sure as I closed my eyes the night my son died, was that I didn’t want to wake up in the morning. I thought not waking up in the morning would solve everything because I wouldn’t have to feel pain, grief, heartache and I wouldn’t have to live without Caleb.
I woke up on Tuesday, August 13, 2019, and every morning since. The coping skills I have learned and just shared with you, have helped me do just that. Do you have a coping skill you’d like to share with me? I’d love to hear it, please comment and tell me all about it!