Step out the Dark, Step Into the Light; Proactive Grieving

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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.

 

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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.”

 

The Grievers Holiday Prayer

The Griever’s Holiday Prayer

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It is Thanksgiving Day…

And again it gives me pause

How did I get this far

Without breaking any laws?

When my child died

The holidays died as well

Her spirit took to flight

While my stayed in hell

A shattered heart cannot decorate

Or go shopping at the mall

Christmas songs and tinsel

Have a lot a gall

How can they say happy holiday

With zest and soul felt cheer

It is an insult to my child

Who isn’t here to hear

How can I say peace on earth?

When there is no peace in my heart

How do I celebrate thanksgiving?

When I don’t know how to start

It is hard to be thankful

Sitting next to an empty chair

It is hard to be grateful

When our child is not sitting there.

But the holidays have a way

Of creeping back into our soul

We learn to live and love again

Only in a different role

Joy seeks a wounded heart

As does the lovers’ kiss

And we realize the love is not gone

It’s their presence that we miss

My child was never lost

She did not run away from home

It was I who wandered on it seems

So desolate and alone

The sun sank slowly every night

Giving birth to another day of pain

 Groundhog’s Day starting all over again

And another day insane

So I stopped looking up, and stopped looking down

And started looking deep within

It was there that I found my lost child

And brought her back home again

Now my child walks beside me

This has redesigned my soul

There is no longer an empty chair

I no longer play a role

A griever on the mend

We keep it real, this is who we are

We bring our child with us

She is not sitting on some star

I will always bring my child

When gathering with family and friends

It’s a gift for everyone

A love that never ends.

On Thanksgiving Day this year

Please say this prayer with me:

I give thanks for what I have

 And the gift of living free

-But more importantly, above all else

I am thankful for what I can give

And for what you have given me”.

 

Gentle Blessings on Thanksgiving Day 2014

         jessica M                  Mitch Carmody

Dedicated to Deb and Len in legacy to their daughter Jessica Mysiewicz

Can a Bereaved Dad Smile on Father’s Day?

Can a Bereaved Dad Smile on Father’s Day?

Real Men Grieve
Real Men Grieve  Illustration by Mitch Carmody

The dogs were barking strangely one early morning in July of 1970; I was 15 years old. I knew someone had probably driven up our driveway and were taking their time to come to the door which was driving the dogs crazy. I was up early to get ready to bring my dog to the County fair as a 4-H project and was eager for the day.  I went to the window and peered out to see who could be there this early in the morning. I then spy my Mom walking up with two neighbors close by her side, arms around her, covering her in an obvious shawl of compassion and they were whispering. The dogs’ barking was a harbinger of despair. My dad had died

A few days prior to this my dad had gone in to hospital for a relatively new operation for clogged arteries to the heart and although in this century is now done routinely it was then a very risky operation.  My father had complications following surgery and later died.  Our neighbors brought my mother home to support her in breaking the news to myself and my sisters. My mother reached out to me and embracing each shoulder with her shaking hands she said: “you are the man of the family now son, you need to take care of yours sisters, and the farm…your father has died.”

I hugged her without a tear, without fear and just said…Okay… I love you Mom.  I never really did grieve or publicly lament my fathers passing.  I was the kid whose old man kicked the bucket over summer break. I was embarrassed by the quiet looks of consternation and thusly became the clown, to laugh it off preemptively and avoid the glares. I put away the grief, the pain, and did not lament, or mourn my loss.   It seemed almost too easy to pack away.  My mother soon remarried, then feeling somewhat abandoned, compounded with the strong feelings to stretch my own wings, I moved away from home at 18 years old.

Now years pass by, I get married and have a child, our firstborn, our only son. Soon we were blessed with the birth of his darling sister, life seemed again be joyful and the fulfillment of a dream.  Soon the dark clouds returned with death of my only son, nothing could have ever prepared me for the depth of pain that one experiences in losing a child. Nothing!  The world stopped and everything I ever knew had now changed forever. I was lost in hopeless pain for many years.  Father’s Day mocked my existence, for fate had slapped me in the face. Both my past and my future in fatal swoops were whisked away and I was left here in the present alone in so much pain. Why me?

I lost my father, then my son, it felt so violated, so cheated, earmarked by God for misfortune, It felt like I was playing a role in some Thomas Hardy tragedy where I played the main character whose life was built on misfortune.  I soon cracked under its weight, it broke my spirit, and I felt hapless, hopeless, innocuous and miserable, I wanted to die.  I had my daughter to care for and my wife who spoons my soul, but I had no zest for life, no passion, no feeling, no goal.  I struggled hard to free myself from the web of self pity, and I dug deep into my inner soul; from attic to basement I looked within myself to find a way out.

In my head with angels help, I went back to the day my father died. I literally went back and relived the moment, I screamed and I cried. I finally lamented for my father and let out the buried angst hidden for so long.  When that dam burst I could then make room for the lamenting of my son.  Only then did my road to acceptance begin.  Acceptance is not selling out, or letting go of their love, it is just accepting the challenge to survive and giving our selves permission to rebuild our lives the best that we can.

I finally grieved for my father and I am still grieving for my son. Accepting their death is not forgetting them, it is merely accepting the reality of life.  You cannot have one without achieving the other. Accepting their death is not the end of the bereavement journey it’s only the beginning.  We shall continue to grieve for associated losses from their deaths the rest of our life.  Father and son banquets, hunting trips with the boys, working on cars together, sharing a beer or two, having a pair of strong shoulders to hug, so many potential moments  that we shall grieve forever. No grandchildren, or great grandchildren, no retirement party, birthday parties or graduation celebration, no parties of any sort.  We are always reminded that their lives were cut short and we grieve anew for what should have been.

Through the loss of my son and many family members I have learned much on the journey.  I found that I love deeper, I smell flowers longer, and I savor the sunsets more.  I feel the best when helping others and I thank God for my every breath.  These are all good things to have come to me in the midst and aftermath of horrific pain. How sad it would be if we were not compensated in some way for our tragic loss, for life would then truly seem meaningless.

Through the loss of my father and my son I discovered the randomness of death. That death can hit anyone, anytime regardless of genes, the environment, or the best of efforts to stave off the sting of its reality. There is nothing we can do that can adequately prepare us for a loss of our loved one; nothing.

Do I feel sad on Father’s day?  You bet I do?  Do I celebrate it?  Yes I do. I am proud to have been a son for 15 years and proud to have been a father to my son for 9 years. I am proud to be a Father for my surviving daughter Meagan. I am proud to be a grandfather. Everyday is Father’s day when you find yourself surrounded in love from this world and from the next.

Feel the sadness of your Father’s day; real men grieve. Feel the pain, but also feel, the joy, feel the love that alone makes it possible to feel the pain. If we have children that still live or  children that have died we still have the same pride… that makes me smile on Father’s day.

Love and light     Mitch Carmody  June 2014

Storm Damage to The Garden

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You may have heard the expression “God picks the prettiest flowers from His garden”.  Most people who find themselves in the pangs of grief are not comforted by this trite and archaic expression.  I do not believe in a God that “picks flowers”. I believe that God loves to watch them grow, bloom and nourish our planet.  I do not believe in a God who takes our loved ones or sends lightening bolts into our lives. I believe in a God that receives our spirit and comforts us in our sorrow.

 We are the flowers, we are the weeds, the earth is our garden, that provides for our needs; God is the sun, the wind and the rain, God doesn’t pick anything and doesn’t cause pain; He doesn’t snatch up flowers or remove unwanted weeds; our Creator only tends our garden with love, it is we who plant the seeds; we are the flowers, we are the weeds; all a part of God’s plan, all with different needs.

Using a garden as a metaphor for life can also describe our grief; it inherently implies that we shall grow from the experience.  Should we not be compensated somehow for our devastating loss?  Growth in spirit, growth in understanding can only be a good thing.  Growth provides for others and adds color to the world and to our life.  We would never in our “right” minds ask for the experience of losing a loved one to death to grow spiritually in our life, but we do have a choice in how we react to that reality should it indeed occur. 

The world is a dangerous place to live in; No one is safe. No one is immune to death. It is the cycle of life; we are the garden, we are the gardener.  We accept its seasons; we accept its harsh conditions.  Winter will come but so will the spring. We do the best with what we are given. To live is to  just breathe, to breathe is to grow, to grow is to survive, if we survive, we can thrive.

We can do everything right in tending to our garden, adding the right nutrients to the soil, watering just enough and removing every weed.  We can plot very carefully, allowing the right amount of sun, providing support for its vines and shade for tender shoots. We can protect it from varmints and spray for bugs, dust for the aphids and pick off the slugs.   We can do everything possible to nourish and protect our garden, and one storm, can take it all away.  Do we start all over again or let it go fallow?  We have choices. 

When our beloved dies, it’s like the straight line winds that flatten a garden.  The whole garden is affected. Some parts may never recover, some plants stand alone outwardly unscathed by the powerful winds. Some plants, after a few days, are seemingly pulled up right by the powerful rays of the sun. Some varieties come back from the root; some are taken with the wind and will set roots in new ground.  Some plants may grow bigger with no competition for the sun. Some plants without the shade of others will find themselves withering in the bright unyielding sun.  The whole landscape of the garden changes following a storm.  The garden will never be the same as it was, but it can bloom again and those plants that survived will be stronger in the weak places.

As a garden grows in size it must become a cooperative garden, with many gardeners that contribute to a bountiful crop.  This means accepting help from resources outside our self.  We soon find that we are not alone, we are many and we are connected.  There is an African saying, “it takes a village to raise a child”; I believe it also takes a village to grieve a child or grieve someone that we love.  We have choices in our grief. There is help.

Following the storm, following our loss, we have every right to run blindly screaming for help.  We find that we need to reach out to our village and global community to help tend and repair our damaged garden.

In accepting the compassion of others a natural bond is formed; a silent partnership of sorts.  We find that we need to depend on others for those times when we cannot function. Each one of us discovers that we are on a unique journey; a journey that we did not choose but that chose us.  Sometimes in the struggle to survive our journey we may miss or even dismiss the grief journey of others who are holding us up.  In our great pain we could not see their pain; when our cup is not full we cannot fill the cups of others. Forgive us for we are in survival mode.

When we are in transition from survival mode to coping mode, we may find we are a bit stronger. We can assess the collateral damage around us and ask ourselves:  Who else incurred damage from the storm? Which of my siblings have I not really “talked to“ in while?  Who should I call and thank for their support?  How is my loved one’s best friend doing who looked so damaged from the loss?  If the loss is your child, call the Auntie who almost claimed your child as her own; call the boss who always plopped your child on their knee and pulled a magic coin from their ear. Not only do others feel your sorrow and your loss, they grieve as well.

 After the storm many gardens are damaged; we are not alone in our loss.  Take time to reach out – in reaching out to others our hearts become connected.  A bond, a nexus of compassion takes place and we are fortified as are they. They too, want to talk of the loss and the grief that together you share. They need to heal as well and plant seeds of hope for better days ahead. It takes a village to survive a storm; you need not do it alone.