Beyond Tears: Living After Losing a Childby Ellen Mitchell
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.
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.
[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.
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.52(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.49(d)
Read an Excerpt
Living After Losing a Child
By Ellen Mitchell
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Ellen Mitchel, Carol Barkin, et al.
All rights reserved.
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.
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Since my son was killed in an auto accident I read every book I could looking for help. I got more help from this book than any other...It was a like a lifeline. After reading it I bought an additional copy which I actually cut up and left parts around my home for reassurance and comfort. When someone asks me what can they do for a friend who has lost a child, I recommend this book. Since it is written by nine mothers (and nine fathers) who each have a different perspective and different way their child died, this is a book for every bereaved parent, but it is also a book that should be read by everyone. This new edition also has a chapter written by siblings. The loss of a child is a loss like no other and this book is a guide for family, friends and professionals offering insight and understanding and an inside unobstructed view into the real world of the bereaved parent.
I thought this was a good book. It was however, a bit depressing. Having lost my son only a few months ago, I was saddened to read how hard of a time I have ahead of me. As a side note which I did not realize when I purchased the book - the children in this book are all teenagers/young adults. It was nice to read the book because I could relate many of my feelings of anger/irritation with people and realize I was not a terrible person and that others thought it was not fair for someone to live to old age when our children were taken away so young. I also would reiterate one comment several of the ladies made in that the best decision they made was to go back to work. I agree 100%. It was very very hard for me to go back to work; however I feel I would be nowhere near the functioning level I am if I had stayed home. Unfortunately you have to live after this happens and that requires going out and being out in public. It is very hard at first, but does get easier. Flipping of the Easter bunny was one of my favorite parts ---- oh how I can relate to that!
Read this book. Send this book to those you care about, those who might be hurting in a similar fashion, or even those who have been touched by others they care about who have undergone the horror of losing a child. Unfolding within these scant 174 pages, nine mothers, with simple eloquence and brave generosity share with us their individual journeys into the unfathomable; a journey all parents often give thought to and quickly push from their minds - 'a parent's worst nightmare.' These are bold warriors who have put into words their common experiences before and after, and their methods of coping with and defying their pain, honoring their children and teaching others how to do the same. It may be hard to believe but I maintain that while the subject matter may be sad, this is not a sad book, but a book filled with love, hope and rememberrance. A book of instructions on how to help yourself and those family and friends who share your life. One would be remiss if they did not give credit to collaborator Ellen mitchell who presents the stories in such a page turning readable fashion that the book is very hard to put down, and last, but not least, to the fathers who get to 'speak' to us, albeit briefly in Chapter Nine, but with just as much of a powerful punch.
This book is a must have for any parent who has lost a child, anyone who knows someone who has lost a child and anyone in the mental health field who may come in contact with bereaved parents. Each of the nine authors gives an open and painfully honest account of her loss and journey through the grieving process. There are also sections in each chapter that explain what a bereaved parent may experience as well as what supports these authors found helpful and therapeutic. I especially liked the parts in each chapter where the women are sharing their feelings with one another because it helps to illustrate the importance of critical supports and how these women helped each other to get through the most painful loss any mother could experience. The poems these mothers wrote for their lost children moved me to tears. There is also a chapter in the book where the fathers openly share their feelings and grief with each other as well. I found this book to be extremely well written and, in spite of the difficult subject matter, I had a hard time putting it down.
This is such a beautiful, heartwarming book and must be read by any parent who has lost a child, as well as anyone who knows someone who has lost one. It is so admirable that these women and their spouses have given so much of themselves to dedicate a book to help others. I have the utmost admiration for these brave individuals who have gone through one of life's most unthinkable experiences - the loss of a child.
As a parent of a child who passed away six years ago at the age of 27 after battling cancer for four years, this book was so relatable. My husband who has never picked up a book regarding the death of child, is actually reading this book after I begged him. He has not put it down. It is helping him to understand me better. My support group moms are my friends for life... just as described by the moms in this book. This book is especially helpful for a grieving parent who's child has passed away several years ago because so many people think that after time you go on with your life as you did before the tragedy. I found this book in the library, but plan on purchasing it so that I can always refer to it.