Ten Years of Lessons from the Heart

It seems impossible that itís been ten years since my two oldest children, twenty-one year old Denis and nineteen year old Peggy were killed in the same car accident! Peggy died instantly and four days later, the day after we buried Peggy, Denis died. In one week, we lovingly planned two funerals, proclaiming to the world how much we loved them and how unique each was! Now, looking at their pictures and reminiscing, I ask myself what the past ten years have taught me, and I must admit that itís been a lot!

My life has changed; my family tapestry has been rewoven. Different routines and traditions have been established, and new celebrations, friendships and interests have been developed. I have discovered the things that ease my heart and allow me to breathe without feeling that excruciating pain from losing someone dearly loved.

In the early days of my grief all I wanted to know was, "How do I survive?" In an effort to learn, I read everything I could get my hands on. I ran to the public library and devoured all six books they had on grieving. Then I haunted the book stores, searching their shelves for words that would soothe my pain, reading the heartfelt prose and poetry of all those bereaved persons before me. That is how I first heard of "The Compassionate Friends," a national organization for bereaved parents, which later became such an integral part of my life. Story after story touched my heart and gave me guidelines for surviving.

On Sundays I reverently took my favorite paperbacks to church and read their comforting phrases, cover to cover, as the priest and congregation worshipped around me. Anything that moved me and gave me a consoling thought, I memorized and shared with my husband, Joe, and my daughter, Annie. Reading was my first step to recovery in those dark, dark beginning days, pulling me out of the depths and filling me with positive thoughts to get through a day.

To conquer the utter exhaustion that assaulted my body (a big component of the grief process), I learned to rearrange my activities and to carefully pick and choose those things that would not be overwhelming and might even bring some enjoyment. Simplifying chores and cutting plans into shortened hours made it possible for me to make a "list" of things I could handle and rescue me from defeat. As I got stronger, I was able to include more activities and to increase the time I spent on them. Being surrounded by people I felt comfortable with also helped my healing. Healing is hastened when in the company and protection of those who do not demand time schedules. The freedom to express needs, fears, and thoughts with a caring person allowed me to relax and be prepared to face those individuals who said or did insensitive things. As I gathered strength and my confidence increased, I found that my support circle expanded too. It all happened very gradually, and I felt better because I was more in control.

Telling the story of my loved ones again and again, sharing my precious memories of them, helped the "death" to become more real to me and let my body get used to the fact. When I told the doctor that my friends thought he should prescribe some medication for me, he smiled and remarked, "Elaine, youíre a talker. Go home and talk and youíll feel better." I never even got an aspirin from him, but he was right! Speaking to everyone, whether in the grocery line, in a department store or on an airplane, lightened my burden as I shared my Peggy and Denis with the world.

Equally helpful was speaking publicly about my children. Fourteen months after my children died, my husband and I founded a chapter of The Compassionate Friends in our hometown. We have shared our "journey through grief" with hundreds of families, and the people tell us they feel they know Peggy and Denis. Making new friends through my Peggy and Denis has been a very rich and rewarding experience for me.

When I write or speak, I tell my audience that surviving is all about "what you tell your head". If I say to myself, "I will never see my children again," my stomach does flip-flops and I feel awful. But if instead I say, "Iím one day closer to seeing my children," my heart rejoices! Thus, by putting things in a "positive" light, I am in more control and able to progress through my grief journey. Putting on my rose-colored glasses helps!

Including my loved ones in my "day-to-day" life helps my heart a lot. Talking to them as I drive, pouring out my heart to them, keeps them close to me. After we say "grace" at festive family occasions, we light a special votive candle at the table in their memory, and though they are not physically present, the glow makes our hearts feel they are!

Keeping busy was a blessing! Establishing a scholarship in their names, announcing it, asking for support, keeping track of donations and writing "thank you" notes gave me a focus. Keeping their memories alive, keeping them from being "erased," while helping other young people attain their goals was a double reward for me. I anesthetized myself by "keeping busy" and it kept me alive and productive.

Planting a "Memorial Garden" got us out in the fresh air, doing some mental and physical exercise which made us feel good. Our bereavement group planted over 400 trees and shrubs, each one dedicated to a child. All this took hours of time. My husband and I could be seen regularly with our wheelbarrow and 500 feet of hose. We can visit and "spruce up" any time, and during the year we proudly hang bows, hearts, tinsel or whatever on our trees that makes our hearts feel good. Our garden has been treasured by the community, and many a prayer has been uttered for the child of the dogwood, the fir and the maple!

Crying helped. Three weeks after my children died, I returned to school to launch my third grade on opening day. My mother used to say, "Do your job and then you can fall down!" And thatís just what I did. Every day at four oíclock, I sat in my recliner (my "thinking chair" as I call it) and cried for an hour. My tears were a blessed healing release that came without my even thinking about them, and my husband was "my blotter". Then I made dinner!

When my children died in 1986, angels werenít trendy, but I associated them with Peggy and Denis, and the angels made me smile. Wherever I went, I could never "pass up" an angel. As I carted home dozens of angels of all types: ceramic, felt, wood, crystal, corn husk, my husband never said, "enough already!" He seemed to know they were healing to me and they still are.

That first Christmas without Peggy and Denis, I didnít go shopping for presents because that was too painful, but with every bit of energy I possessed, I wrapped and mailed my special angels to dear friends, relatives, godparents and college roommates. If I visited a family, I presented them with an angel with my childrenís names and dates etched on its feet or wings. It makes my heart sing to see my angels hanging on my friendsí Christmas trees year after year. Now, ten years later, some trees have ten "Peggy and Denis" angels adorning them! How could our friends ever forget Peggy and Denis as they reminisce and remember the good times while decorating their trees each year with my dear angels? And you should see my tree Ėproudly filled with loving angels sent by everyone we know from everywhere theyíve been!

Although it is hard to lean on a spouse who is already "bent in half," Joe and I were blessed that we could turn to each other for comfort, rather than turning away from each other becoming isolated, resentful and lonely. We had been married only two years when my children died, so I felt Joe got shortchanged because I was no longer the happy "bride" he married. His quiet, gentle ways renewed my spirit and preserved my chatty, extroverted personality. His loving arms wrapped around me each night seemed to infuse his strength into me, protecting me and mending my broken heart. No matter what crazy thing I wanted to do to relieve my pain, he never once made fun of it. In fact, he gave his blessing and stood by my side, smiling. Verbal or non-verbal communication, sharing thoughts, holding hands, or praying together created a new, beautiful "oneness" that transcended what we had before. Being loved and giving love is powerful medicine for the hurting soul and brings a blessed sense of peace.

Although it has not all been smooth sailing, in the past ten years, Iíve built a good life that is meaningful. The special love I have for Peggy and Denis has not been wasted, but has been reinvested in many ways that have come back a hundred-fold.