Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child

Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child

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by Ellen Mitchell

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Nine mothers who lost a child and met in a support group give comfort and direction to bereaved parents in a chorus of supportive voices.

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Nine mothers who lost a child and met in a support group give comfort and direction to bereaved parents in a chorus of supportive voices.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Having lost a child, nine mothers met in a support group; now, under the direction of Newsday contributor Mitchell, they share what has helped them get up every morning and move through their grief. They discuss how relationships can be strained, why there simply is no answer to the question "why?", and what they do when a longtime acquaintance crosses the street to avoid talking to them. A chapter devoted to fathers reveals how they grieve differently than mothers. The thoughts and feelings related here are incredibly honest and courageous and would greatly assist any parent who has lost a child and feels alone. Highly recommended for all libraries. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

[Beyond Tears] lets readers know that there are folks out there who have been in their shoes, felt their feelings and learned to live life again.

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St. Martin's Press
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Edition description:
First Edition
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5.52(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.49(d)

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Beyond Tears

Living After Losing a Child

By Ellen Mitchell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2009 Ellen Mitchel, Carol Barkin, et al.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3355-1


The Mourning After: The First Year

We were studies in contrast in those early months. We were filled with rage and yet we felt hollow. Our eyes brimmed with tears and yet they were empty. We could scream but speech came rarely, if at all. We were in excruciating pain and yet we were numb. Our self-esteem was beaten down and our trust shattered, but there was no one who could console us. There was no place to feel secure. We tried to crawl inside ourselves, but even that afforded us no place to hide. It was as if our very being died along with that of our children. We were and remain forever changed.

Carol:"I had an earlier photo of myself on my driver's license. I looked at the eyes. I was a different person before Lisa died."

Whatever we did during that first year was done from behind a veil of shock. Indeed, if we had to pick one word, one emotion that imbued our minds, our thoughts, our very being in that horrible first year, it would be shock. In some ways it obviously insulated us because we learned later that what we thought was the worst possible pain could from time to time become even more acute as our lives unfolded.

If there was any sensation at all that permeated the cocoon of shock in which we wrapped ourselves it was exhaustion. Our bodies were encased in a relentless fatigue that left us drained of energy and debilitated during the days, but refused to allow us the luxury of restorative sleep at night.

In that first year, we all refused to accept the finality of the death of our children, and some of us never will. It seemed that our existence had become surreal; it was as if we were each having an out-of-body experience. We wanted to wake up and find it was not true.... This could not be our life.

Phyllis: "In that first year, I couldn't bring myself to say 'killed.' I talked about loss. Only later could I say that Andrea was alone in the car and she was killed by an eighteen-year-old who didn't know what he was doing. Only fifteen years later did I request a copy of the medical examiner's report."

We speak of the "first year" but actually attempting to define a first year is disingenuous. There is no universal calendar by which to gauge grief. With the passage of time, we have learned that the reactions of the bereaved differ from person to person depending on where they are in their grief. Medical personnel, clergy, counselors well-meaning but misguided acquaintances may tell you that you can expect to feel better by such-and-such a date, but they are wrong. No such timeline exists.

Barbara G.: "There is no schedule for when you'll start to feel better. It's as if a scab forms over a wound; it can be reopened by the slightest trigger."

Barbara E.: "It took me five years to even talk to my colleagues at work about it. Five years seemed to be some kind of a milestone for me."

Maddy: "You have reached a new level when your first thought is of your child's life rather than a replay of their death."

Early on you will have to fortify yourself against insensitive comments from blundering friends, relatives and acquaintances, some of whom should know better and others who have no idea that you are bereaved. Even seemingly benign questions such as "how are you?" or "how was your summer?," or comments such as "have a good day," will stab into you and throw you off balance.

There is a cold chill that goes through your body each time some unthinking acquaintance tells you "it's time to get over it." There is no "getting over it." You will carry every detail of what happened throughout every day of your life, and you will forevermore categorize all events as occurring either "before" or "after" your child's death. The memory of your son or daughter is all that remains of them here on earth, and certainly if they were still alive you would think of them each day and worry about their well-being.

Audrey: "In fact, when your children are here you tend to take them for granted. When they are gone you think of them twenty-four hours a day."

Ariella: "You almost expect your child to call you and awaken you from the nightmare."

Each of us has had to find our own way to accept the reality of our child's death. The best hope is that you will be able to hold close the beautiful recollections and let go of some of the dreadfulness.

In the first months, the pain is raw and there is no escaping it. There are a couple of unlikely places, however, where we all were able to achieve some small measure of release. Surprisingly, we took to the car and to the shower for refuge. Both were hideaways where we could scream out loud.

Rita: "In my car, I screamed at the top of my lungs with hair-raising shrieks. At the end of the school day, I looked forward to that moment. People would look at me and think I was singing to my car radio."

Lorenza: "It was like an explosion, that moment, that privacy."

Phyllis: "My tears made me drive blind."

Ariella: "I screamed in agony in the shower and in the car. I couldn't comprehend that Michael was really gone. I kept crying out, 'This can't be happening.'"

Barbara G.: "I felt free to stand in the shower and say whatever I wanted. The water would drown me out."

Some of us drove recklessly. We raced red lights. We felt no fear; why should we — we had already experienced the worst that could happen. We drove as if on autopilot, not cognizant of where we were going or how we got there. We were never fully aware of the moment. As we drove, our minds raced to thoughts of our children and our pain. Sometimes our imaginations took over completely, and we thought we saw our children driving by. We saw them everywhere, but found them nowhere.

Ariella: "I remember sitting in the car and seeing someone who looked exactly like Michael, his hair, his hand movements. I didn't want the light to change. I just kept staring at him. In my head it was Michael. I followed him for a while thinking if I could just stop him and convince him to go to a diner and talk to me I would have some connection to Michael. And then I thought to myself, 'You're crazy. Let it go.'"

Searching for our children, or for some indication of their existence, consumed much of our time in those early days and months. We heard their voices in our heads. We wanted to be able to reach out and touch them. We ached to feel their physical presence.

Lorenza: "I needed to hear Marc say Ma just the way he always did. I'd go to sleep at night hearing him say that."

Rita: "I needed to touch my son. It was a universal feeling. We all constantly looked for our children, as if they were misplaced somewhere."

Audrey: "We looked for signs. If a light flickered, it meant Jess was there. She was always there. She followed me."

Ariella: "We all still believe they exist. I have to have a place where my child is. They don't cease to exist. We need to know our kids are okay."

Maddy: "One evening, my husband and I saw a young man who resembled Neill. He sat like Neill. He moved like Neill. I couldn't take my eyes off him."

We sought help in places we would never even have considered in our previous lives.

Lorenza: "I had never heard of a psychic before. But in the first year we all went to psychics."

Audrey: "I think there is always the hope that the psychic will connect you to your child."

Ariella: "I didn't focus on what the psychic got wrong. I focused on what she got right. And some of it was quite amazing. I was able to cry, and had a feeling I was really talking to Michael. It was cathartic, like a telephone call."

Rita: "Whether it was true or not, it helped."

Laughter was gone from our world. Now, years later, we laugh ... mostly when we are with each other. The fact that we are able to laugh at all can oftentimes shock "the civilian world" — those who are not bereaved parents.

Listening to music was unbearable.

Lorenza: "In the car I would listen to talk radio. Talk radio saved me. To this day, at home I fall asleep with my talk radio. Never any music."

Maddy: "Music became an emotional trigger. In that first year, most love songs and songs about breakups and broken hearts seemed to fit our lives and the loss of our children, and they still do."

Ariella: "The words will get you and cut you to pieces. You'll hear your child's favorite song, or the words take you to a place that is just too painful. You don't want the joy of music. You deny yourself."

Euphemisms that we once took with a grain of salt became watchwords during those early months. We'd all heard the expression "your skin crawls"; ours did. We'd all used the phrase "with a heavy heart" or "a hole in the heart." These things became all too true.

Rita: "I could not deal with the fact that my son was under the ground. It made my skin crawl."

Audrey: "My body would crawl. I'd pull off my clothes, my shoes."

Lorenza: "The heavy heart was like a heavy coat. It was always there. It never lifted."

The pain we felt was actual physical pain, made all the worse by the mental anguish and oppressive and constant exhaustion. We were subject to panic attacks, headaches, bouts of piercing stomach pain and changed eating habits.

Carol: "I had difficulty breathing. I was constantly sighing out loud. There's no refuge from the pain. You crave peace and there is none. It's an awful place to be. The pain is unrelenting."

Phyllis: "I was so exhausted; it was an effort to live."

Barbara E.: "For the first few months, my husband and I didn't leave the house. It was difficult to even sit up. We spent our days and nights sleeping on the family room couches. When I returned to work after three months, I didn't have the energy or concentration to finish the day. At lunchtime, I would race home and collapse on the sofa. After sleeping awhile, I would return to work and count the minutes until I could return to the sofa."

Audrey: "I forced myself to go to work. Then I would leave abruptly in midday and go home. I would read and fall asleep on the sofa. Then I'd wake up and go back to work, forcing myself to finish out the day." Rita: "I'd fall asleep and wake up with a jolt. I'd wake up five or six times, and each time it kept coming back to me as a brand-new shock. It would always be new."

Barbara G.: "One of the things that made me so tired was just going through the motions of living out the day. I felt so tired. But the nights were even worse."

Audrey: "I'd lie there and relive what happened ... like a tape in my mind."

Barbara G.: "The tape would play over and over. We were always waiting for a different ending."

Lorenza: "It was like wearing a heavy mask all day, knowing I had to pretend. I think just carrying around that mask made me tired."

Rita: "I'd have panic attacks at the supermarket whenever something triggered a thought of Michael when I wasn't expecting it. We all thought we were going crazy. We were bombarded with feelings we couldn't even name. We couldn't get our right foot in front of our left."

Barbara G.: "It was difficult to swallow food and I lost much too much weight. It seemed as though my muscles had collapsed. My acute vision suffered. The shock to the physical body is very real. I was told that whenever I see a new doctor, I should tell him or her that I am a bereaved mother. It is a part of my medical history."

Indeed, the ground beneath our feet took on new meaning, especially the hallowed ground in which we had just buried our children. Some of us were obsessed with going to the cemetery, others were obsessed with staying away. One of us still has not been able to visit her child's grave. Snow and rain falling on our children's graves was almost too much to bear.

Barbara G. : "Oh God, the first time it rained, Bruce had to pull me into the house. I said, 'I can't be here. I have to go and hold an umbrella over Howie. It's raining outside and my son is in the ground.'"

Phyllis: "I couldn't walk on the grass for that same reason."

Lorenza: "When there was no stone at the cemetery, I could almost deal with it, but when the stone was put up and his name was engraved there, then it was written in stone."

Phyllis: "I had just the opposite reaction. When Andrea's gravestone was set in place, I felt as though I was visiting her there at her place."

Barbara E.: "Cemeteries close to the public at night. We broke in. One night our need was so great that my husband climbed a ten-foot fence to water the flowers on Brian's gravesite."

Ariella: "I have never been to the cemetery. I do not believe Michael is there. I believe his soul is free and his body is not there. If I really thought Michael was there, I could not live."

The seasons changed and we resented it. Our surroundings and our lives, which had always existed in living color, became drab and gray.

Carol: "I didn't care about anything. All the things that once seemed so important were no longer important."

We neglected ourselves, we wore no makeup and lost all concern for personal appearance. We refused to pose for photographs. We wore the same clothing day after day. The only clothing that mattered to us was that of our dead children. We could not bring ourselves to clean the dirty laundry we found in their bedrooms. We needed to keep some vestige of their smells, their looks, their existence.

Barbara E.: "I slept with the pillow Brian died on for a short while and then put it on the chair in my bedroom. I was afraid to get it dirty and have to wash away his smell."

Rita: "I could not wash Michael's smell out of my life. I hugged his bed, his clothes. I kept his worn clothes in the hamper and refused to empty it."

Maddy: "I have the pajamas Neill slept in the night before he died." Barbara G.: "I never wear happy colors ... no reds, no yellows, no more. How did the sun come up the next day?"

Lorenza: "How dare the tulips grow?"

Ariella: "Spring hurt that first year and it still hurts, but not as much. Now I love the winter when it's rainy and dreary."

While we ignored most of our surroundings in that first year, we became obsessive about certain routines. Of course, family rituals we had cherished in the past that marked birthdays, anniversaries and holidays were completely torn apart and discarded. In that first year, we could not bring ourselves to even think about celebrating anything. Eventually, we found new and extremely different ways to commemorate special days, holidays and family occasions. Meanwhile, we obsessed over daily routines as a way of getting through each day.

Rita: "We ate too much. We ate too little. We spent hours trying to get order back in our lives."

Phyllis: "We obsessed about everything. I obsessed about photographs. I told the cleaning lady not to touch any one of them."

Rita: "I went crazy looking everywhere for pictures of Michael."

Barbara G.: "I went around cleaning and then cleaning again. I think it was an attempt to bring some degree of control to my environment. I couldn't control what happened to my child, but I could control my surroundings."

A number of us felt hostility to people who grew old. It is embarrassing to admit that one of us was actually embittered that her own parents were alive and well and in their eighties. We all experienced anguish about people who we felt were less deserving of life than our children.

Rita: "When somebody elderly died, we not only didn't care about them, we resented them. They had so much more time than my son had."

Ariella: "I saw an old couple walking to the movies. My twenty-year-old son should have been able to go the movies."

We grew resentful not only of the seasons, the elderly and the colors of the rainbow, but also of our religious beliefs. We are Jews and Christians, and each of us has questioned our God and asked why we have been punished in this way. In the first year, we turned to our religious leaders and, unfortunately, a number of us found them lacking in insight, with little to offer in the way of solace. While some of us were comforted by a positive response from our religious leaders, more of us were not. We asked our clerics if they had lost a child, feeling that unless they had experienced such a loss themselves, they could not fully understand the depths of our grief.


Excerpted from Beyond Tears by Ellen Mitchell. Copyright © 2009 Ellen Mitchel, Carol Barkin, et al.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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