"After loss, one of the most common responses is “There are no words.” But often times, words are what people who are grieving need the most. When silence is replaced with empathy and support, we help others heal. In his new book Finding the Words, Colin Campbell provides powerful advice for processing pain and being there for those who are. By bravely sharing his journey through the unimaginable, Colin will bring hope to so many."
—Sheryl Sandberg, Founder, LeanIn.org and OptionB.org
When Colin Campbell’s two teenage children were killed by a drunk driver, Campbell was thrown headlong into a grief so deep he felt he might lose his mind. He found much of the common wisdom about coping with loss—including the ideas that grieving is a private and mysterious process and that the pain is so great that “there are no words”—to be unhelpful. Drawing on what he learned from his own journey, Campbell offers an alternative path for processing pain that is active and vocal and truly honors loved ones lost.
Full of practical advice on how to survive in the aftermath of loss, Finding the Words teaches readers how to actively reach out to their community, perform mourning rituals, and find ways to express their grief, so they can live more fully while also holding their loved ones close. Campbell shines a light on a path forward through the darkness of grief.
|Penguin Publishing Group
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The Terrors of Early Grief
After we kissed Hart goodbye for the last time in the PICU, the hospital put us in a cab and sent us home. It was an hour-long taxi ride of horror. Gail and I barely said a word, we were so overwhelmed with agony, confusion, and shock. Had we really just said goodbye forever to our two teenage children who were so brilliant and joyful and alive just a few hours ago? Our heads and our hearts could not process it. We were wrapped in denial. And then the cab pulled up to our home and suddenly we felt a new, terrible emotion: fear.
We were terrified to be home. At first, this feeling seemed to make no sense. Why would we be scared of our own house? The night before we had walked out of our picturesque front gate, framed by bright red and orange bougainvillea, full of excitement at the prospect of a spontaneous family trip out to our new desert home. And now, mere hours later, the prospect of walking back through that same gate was terrifying. We were filled with dread at the prospect of entering an empty, hollow home. A home that would forever be without Ruby and Hart.
Those first few days after the crash we had Gail's older sisters, Betsy and Nina, take turns staying with us because we were too scared to be alone. When night fell, we became scared of the dark, scared to fall asleep, scared of the nightmares that would inevitably come. In my very first nightmare after the crash, I stood outside a Chinese restaurant, struggling in vain to find a dish on the menu that Ruby or Hart would like. I slowly realized the restaurant was empty and abandoned. As I stepped inside, I spotted Hart huddled beneath a table, terrified and alone. He couldn't see me. And at that moment I suddenly remembered that he and Ruby were dead. The image of him clutching the leg of the table, so scared to be dead, haunts me. I've had many dreams of Ruby and Hart over the past three years. Some of them are sweet; I've even gotten hugs and heard their laughter. But right in the middle of most of the dreams I suddenly remember, "Oh wait, no, you're both dead"-and my heart breaks anew.
Perpetual Panic and Desperate Searching
In those early days of grief at least a third of my mind was working on overdrive at all times, desperately trying to figure out a way to somehow rescue Ruby and Hart from death. It was as if, in my mind, I was stuck back in the car, replaying the moments before the crash, searching for some way to change the past and save them. As a result, I was perpetually on the cusp of full-blown panic, my mind and heart both racing. Every parental instinct was on high alert and in crisis, screaming, "You have got to save Ruby and Hart!" And yet there was nothing to be done.
A desperate need to "find" Ruby and Hart seized me. I scanned their computers for any shred of them in the form of essays or short stories. I desperately searched through all of Ruby's dozens of sketchbooks, devouring every drawing she ever made, trying to find her. I pored over all of Hart's text message threads, all of the videos his friends had made of him goofing around, trying to find him in the mix. It was almost as if I might be able to piece them back together if I only looked hard enough. And every moment I squandered meant that they were drifting further and further away, out of my grasp forever. That feeling of panic, and the desperate searching, both slowly faded as I chipped away at my denial.
Loneliness, Madness, and Meaninglessness
Novelist C. S. Lewis wrote, on the death of his wife, "No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear." Most people, when confronted with the death of someone close to them, are surprised to learn how terrifying early grief can be. We expect sadness and tears, but no one prepares us for just how frightening it can be. I think we mourners endure three essential fears: loneliness, madness, and meaninglessness.
Losing a loved one means that we endure a heartache that on some level will never end. We will always long for them, and the world will forever feel incomplete. The thought of living the rest of my life without ever seeing Ruby and Hart again feels terrifyingly lonely. There are moments every day in which I feel abandoned without them.
In the early days after the crash, Gail and I would fall into bouts of weeping that were terrifying in their intensity. Once I started, I wasn't sure I would ever stop crying. I felt out of control, with no hope of any consolation. My friend Eric captures the feeling well. After his daughter Ellie died of an overdose of fentanyl, "it was completely debilitating. It was like a dream, like a terrible hallucination. It was the biggest calamity, it was as if the earth had swallowed us up, it was as if my limbs had been torn from my body." Early grief feels timeless and bottomless. I thought it might drive me mad. Neurologist Dr. Lisa Shulman describes the disassociation that follows the severe emotional trauma of loss as being "a detachment from reality" and a "sense of incoherence" that makes us feel as if "we're going crazy."
This sense of being unhinged is exacerbated by a crisis of identity. If a significant portion of our own sense of self is built around our relationship to the person we have lost, then their death plunges us into a terrifying state of not knowing who we are anymore. Not only do we feel unmoored from reality and disconnected from our identity, but our very existence can seem meaningless after such a profound loss. All of my hopes and dreams were, in one way or another, connected to Ruby and Hart. They were my future. And now, without them, I felt I had no real purpose. It felt as though I had no reason to live.
The combination of loneliness, madness, and meaninglessness can be terrifying. It's no wonder I had the powerful urge to hide from my grief. Perhaps what makes grief even more frightening is the fact that grieving is the necessary but cruel process by which we banish our denial and come to accept the terrifying reality of our loss. There is such a strong urge to avoid engaging with our grief, and to instead foster our denial. It takes an incredible amount of bravery to willingly face our terrible new reality. It takes courage to grieve.
When Will This Get Better?
The thought that the rest of our lives would be this terrifying seemed literally unendurable. Gail and I would frequently ask our therapists and other mourners, "When will it stop being so awful? When will it ever get better?" They were all hard-pressed to answer, because in some sense, it never does. We will always ache and pine for the people we've lost. I wouldn't want it any other way. I don't imagine I will ever be done grieving. But the state of being in crisis, the acute fear and pain of early grief, does slowly pass. The constant panic and terror subside as we gradually process the reality of our loss. Remarkably, we slowly gain the ability to hold joy and happiness alongside our grief. Actively grieving allows us to move past helplessness and toward a place of reengagement with life.
Refusing to Be Afraid of Grief
Two days after the burial, I was in my living room looking up at four oversized photos of Ruby and Hart. These were the thirty-six-inch-by-twenty-four-inch prints mounted on foam core that our friend Yamara had made for the funeral service. We brought them home afterward and I taped them to our living room walls so that it would feel as though Ruby and Hart were still in our house. It was comforting to be able to look up into their smiling faces. Except this morning it wasn't. It was scary. I was seized by all the terrors of grief, and I looked away from their photos.
And in that moment, I had a powerful epiphany about grief. I realized that my fears had the potential to drive me away from my own children. I was in danger of running away from everything I had left of Ruby and Hart: my memories and thoughts of our lives together. Looking back up at the photos, I shouted out loud through tears, "I am not afraid of you!" I wanted Ruby and Hart's spirits to know that my love was strong enough to handle the pain. I would fight for our love to be felt in my heart, no matter how scary it was. My terror was not going to get in the way of loving my own children. In that moment I knew, in my bones, that I had to lean into my grief if I wanted to access every memory, every thought, every last ounce of my children's spirits.
The idea that I would not let my fear of grief hold me back from entering fully into the grieving process proved to be an essential realization. It colored almost all my decisions as I mourned Ruby and Hart. It also gave me strength. In my mind, it was the love we shared with each other that gave me my fortitude. So now, when I face down those same fears, it feels as if I am facing them down with Ruby and Hart by my side. Gail, Ruby, Hart, and I are doing it together. The four of us are grieving as a family. At least that's how it feels on the good days.
A Cautionary Tale
I had another reason for not letting my fears dictate my grieving process. Sadly, my mother-in-law served as a cautionary tale. Five years before Gail was born, her mother, Roz, lost a two-year-old child, Barbara, to pneumonia. In response to this terrifying, devastating loss, Roz decided that she needed to shield her two older daughters, Betsy and Nina, from her grief. While she and her husband and Betsy and Nina were out of the house, she had her brother go through their home and remove any and all evidence of Barbara's life. He got rid of her baby clothes, her pictures, her toys, and her crib. Afterward, no one in the family ever mentioned Barbara's name. It was as if the baby girl had never been. Roz believed it was the right way to deal with loss. It was partly a function of the times and partly, Gail believes, the way in which Roz tried to suppress her own grief.
When Gail was born five years later, she joined a family that was hiding a terrible, tragic secret. Gail didn't understand why her mom sometimes seemed so remote and depressed. It wasn't until Gail was seven that she first heard about Barbara, when her father explained why Roz periodically slipped off to the cemetery without a word.
When Ruby and Hart were still alive, Gail and I had talked about Roz's denial of Barbara's life and death. It seemed to us incomprehensible that she would attempt to erase all traces of her own daughter rather than publicly acknowledge her grief. Only now, I understood Roz in a whole new light. Her behavior made sense to me. I, too, wanted to flee from my grief. Part of me wanted to box away all of Ruby and Hart's photos, clothes, and toys, because it was agonizing to gaze at them now. But, of course, no one can escape from their own grief. Roz never for a moment forgot about Barbara. She undoubtedly felt the ache and pain of her loss every day. It was a burden she sadly chose to bear alone. By hiding Barbara's death, Roz also hid Barbara's life from the world. Gail and I knew we couldn't take that path. Having such a cautionary tale so close to home clarified how important it was for us to keep Ruby and Hart present in our lives.
A few days after I shouted "I am not afraid of you" in my living room, we called up Yamara and asked her to make four more foam- core prints of Ruby and Hart. We had those eight larger-than-life photos in our living room for the entire first year of our grieving. We had many more terrifying milestones ahead of us, but at least now we had a determination to face them, one at a time.
Saying Yes to Help (Saying Yes to Everything)
In the early days of my grief, my fears urged me to say no to everything. I didn't think I had the strength to see friends, or to go out into the world. I didn't want to face other people or do anything but cry. I wanted to hide away with Gail in our house of sadness and block out the rest of the world. But I knew that the urge to say no came from a place of fear, and I was determined not to be afraid of my grief. So in order to confront my terror, I overcompensated and said yes to everything. I made it a policy to accept any offer of help that came to me. This response was perhaps a little extreme, and not something everyone would want to try. And yet the clarity of saying yes to literally everything helped me in my early grief. I didn't have to think about it. If a friend suggested a walk, I said yes. If a friend offered a grief book, I read it. If someone offered to bring over food, I ate it. Gail and I together started seeing Ruby's OCD therapist. I started seeing my own therapist. I went skeet shooting. I tried out a fancy tea bar. I did grief yoga. I tried grief meditation. I started a grief journal. I went to a firing range and shot at targets with a Glock pistol. I met friends at the beach. I went to parks I had never been to before. I tried something new every week. I went to four different grief groups.
Every time I said yes, I really wanted to say no. No one wants to step out into the world and try new things after suffering a terrible loss. And I certainly didn't want to go to a grief group and share my pain. But I understood instinctually that I needed help. I didn't know how to grieve. No one had taught me anything about grief. I was lost and scared. And the stakes seemed incredibly high. It felt as though I were walking on the edge of a terrifying abyss, and I was willing to try anything to keep me from falling in.