Step out of the Dark, Step into the Light, Step into the Sun
Proactive Grief Processing
In 2017 Face book CEO Sheryl Sandberg released “OPTION B” a book on the NY Times best seller list for 16 weeks. She had heard me speak and inspired by my words included a statement regarding proactive grieving in her book. In 2016 a book was released by Rita Silverman with forward by Katie Couric called “Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script” which also contained a chapter on proactive grieving that I had penned. The paradigm shift on healing from loss and trauma is in full swing, and our country is embracing it; not putting grief behind you, but right beside you.
I am humbled and excited to be a part of this paradigm shift in grief consciousness with the many workshops, conferences, and grief organizations that I speak for and attend across this country. Most recently I have taken part in several Bereavement Cruises that offer healing in a very unique and powerful way. With the rhythm of the waves something works on body, mind, soul and spirit simultaneously that catalyzes healing by just being present. An extraordinary discovery and something I am anxious to explore some more. My thoughts and explorations into grief started at an early age, only now am I piecing it all together.
“Oz never gave nothing to the Tin Man that he did not already have”
– Dewey Bunnel (America)
I was the youngest of seven children growing up in the 50’s. In my quiet thoughts at times I felt that I was a replacement child and not even knowing the term. I had three older sisters, a twin sister and two older brothers. One older brother, John died at birth. I never knew him, no photos, or his name ever mentioned; like some dark secret that John had died with the cord wrapped around his neck. Brother David was born a few years later; it was a late delivery and he was born severely mentally challenged with cerebral palsy and was institutionalized until his death in 1977.
I was born in 1955. My mom and dad finally had a viable, healthy boy, with the bonus of another girl, my twin sister. I did not have to fight for attention; I only had to choose who adored me. Mom wanted me as her only son, dad wanted me as his only son, and Grandma now had her only grandson (she never had a son). I felt bad for my twin sister who was left in the shadow of a celebrity twin and the only boy. We never spoke of it but I felt it up to the day she died in an accident in 1984 at age twenty-eight with her two young sons.
Early on I felt guilty for my twin sister’s lack of parental attention as well as the pressure on me to be the boy in the family and fill some nebulous shoes that were never worn. John was a mystery and David a prisoner of his own body. I could not replace them but felt the pressure of Dad wanting a man’s son and mom wanting a momma’s boy. Mom won. Dad was a war hero, football hero, a typical 1950’s male, a truck driver and a cop; in my eyes he had struck out. He died at forty-nine when I was fifteen years old and never really having had that relationship he wanted so badly. My mom’s first words after Dad died were, “You are the man of the family now.” I secreted away my grief and stood tall; big boys don’t cry.
Fast forward to 1987 when my nine year old son Kelly dies of a brain tumor after a two year battle with the disease, leaving behind two worn out and shell-shocked parents with a surviving sibling Meagan, only six years old. If it were not for Meagan, my wife and I had discussed doing a “Thelma and Louise” off of a cliff. We did not, so we discussed getting pregnant again.
My wife Barb had a tubal ligation after our daughter was born and we soon found out it was not reversible—she was crushed. We discussed adoption, but soon fell into deep despair and in the apathy of broken dreams, we resigned to the fact we could barely take care of our surviving daughter much less another child in our lives. We accepted defeat on many levels and we functioned at a base level of survival sans joy.
When a child is terminally ill they become the center of the universe and the healthy sibling is always on the bench. When Kelly died I believe Meagan felt it was “her turn” finally to be the center of our universe and found that her parents could not let go and her brother became deified; it’s impossible to compete with a God. She lost her parents and her brother in the deal.
In an odd way, I believe she wanted to be that “replacement child” who was showered with gifts, attention, and travel. Instead, she found herself living with two broken parents who worshipped a dead brother she was soon forgetting; again getting the short straw in life.
When Meagan became pregnant eight years ago, my wife was ecstatic that she could have a boy and she could start all over again loving a little boy and watching him grow up as he should—beyond the age of nine years old. Meg had a girl and although excited, I know my wife was disappointed it was not a boy.
That year Meg came to a bereaved parent conference to hear me speak and became involved with the sibling program. Now as a mother she said, “Dad, now I get it”; she understood why her parents were screwed up for so long and as a new mother she could not comprehend that kind of pain and forgave me. It was huge for both of us. She grieved as an adult for the loss of her brother she experienced at age six.
Four years ago, out of the blue, I received a call from a psychic with a news flash she had apparently received with her gift and had to let me know. She went on to say that Kelly was coming back into our family as a new grandbaby. Low and behold, my daughter was indeed pregnant (although did not know it at the time). She eventually gave birth to our second granddaughter who was born on Kelly’s 23rd angelversary date. They named her Olivia Kelly.
In our minds, my wife and I were already replacing Kelly with this new child coming into our lives. It is probably a good thing she was not a boy as we would have treated him with so many expectations. I even thought about taking Kelly’s old Predator bicycle out of the back shed, cleaning it up and getting some new tires. We are still bereaved parents and we would accept any miracle that would bring our son back into our lives.
We are still, almost thirty years later, processing the death of our son. We have learned much in that time and we have reached the most blessed realization that dead is not gone. We do not have to bury our child with their body; we can maintain a new relationship on a non-physical level. You do not have to replace what is not gone. Both of my granddaughters talk of Uncle Kelly in the present tense as we keep him present in conversation and they see his image often on the cover of my book and on the wall of their own home. When our granddaughter’s cat died, she drew a picture of Kelly holding her cat on the rainbow bridge.
As my daughter was growing up was she jealous of our continued bond with Kelly? Was she pressured to compete with her dead brother? Was she scarred for life by our actions or lack of action? Did we treat her as a replacement child for Kelly? By her response here to that question, I think not.”
From Meagan Carmody:
“At age six and a half on the night Kelly died I remember feeling confused and sad, not only for myself but for seeing the pain on my parents’ face. I remember locking myself in the bathroom and sitting in the bathtub where I started to cry. I had this overwhelming feeling that I had to be strong and did not want to appear sad as there was enough sadness surrounding me.
Those first few months after Kelly died I can remember being surrounded by a blanket of love from family and friends; the same friends who loved me during those long years of Kelly’s illness. I always felt loved.
I didn’t want my parents to be sad anymore, but there were always dark clouds appearing and hovering over my family since the cancer came into our lives. Now that the cancer was gone maybe the clouds could finally start to break away and my parents could once again feel the sun on their face.
We never forgot about Kelly; we always did something special on the anniversary day of his death. We would do something as a family together. Sometimes we would make “I miss you” cards and throw them in the fireplace where the ashes would ascend into the sky with hopes that our love would reach him. Over the years my dad made a video of Kelly and my parents would watch and share with others. We had a trunk of all of his things; we would make a yearly ritual to watch this video and look through his trunk of things. As my dad likes to say, we would swim in the grief. I think as a child that this was a way for me to keep his memory alive and felt that it was okay to cry for him; this was a very healing time for me.
The hardest part of my journey, I believe, was to watch my brother slowly dying, and being a young child, to not totally grasp what was happening to him, other than that he was really sick. In a weird way I felt a huge sense of relief after he died, like the storm was over and he did not have to suffer anymore. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when the house abruptly landed and all was quiet… and then she opened the door slowly to a new colorful world and heard soft singing in the background, “Step out of the dark, step into the light, step into the sun” and my new life began from pieces of the old. I will never forget about my brother and the memories we had together. Both of my children know of their Uncle Kelly. We have a huge picture of him in our house hanging on the wall. Kelly lives on and so do we. I have no regrets.”
From Mitch Carmody:
“There is life after death on both sides of the equation after a significant loss; not only can we survive, we can thrive. We need not replace our loved one who died in our family, but we can embrace their spirit by living with the loss as a part of our daily life. This is what I call “Proactive Grieving ®” a philosophy for surviving loss. We can and will find joy again—it is our birthright.”