It was November 26, 1996, I didn’t need healing from trauma. I had a great job, three amazing daughters, and a beautiful wife, Kameo. Life was good.
It was two days before Thanksgiving. I came home early from work to see if I could help Kameo. We had spoken on the phone a couple hours earlier and she mentioned that she was feeling a little better after being sick for a couple days. It would quickly become apparent that was just her wishful thinking. I came home and saw all the symptoms I had seen many times before: very high fever, joint pain, and weakness. This was a serious lupus flare. I knew the plan of action. It was one we had taken many times before during our ten-year marriage. We would go to the hospital, get fluids into her, break her fever, spend a few days recovering, and then come home. She would really hate spending Thanksgiving in the hospital, I thought.
I asked Kameo’s Mother to take her to the hospital while I dropped our girls off at my parent’s home. As I helped her into her Mother’s car, she whispered into my ear, “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.” Little did I know those would be the last words spoken to me by my wife, and Thanksgiving would never be the same.
The doctor asked to sit with me privately for a moment. “We have tried but it is now time to make a decision. We can continue to keep her alive but it is only a matter of time before she passes.” How could this be happening, I asked myself? Her health had been the best it had been in years. She is only thirty-five, we have three young daughters! There were all kinds of reasons why she shouldn’t die.
None of those reasons mattered.
I hugged her, whispered through my tears the love I felt for her…and said good-bye. The breathing tube was removed and she slowly slipped away.
The confusion of this moment will forever haunt me. What do I do now? I mean, right now! Do I stay with the body of my loving wife, or do I hurry home to see my children? You never think of such things. It was 11:20 at night, I had spent many late nights at the hospital, helping my wife recover from Lupus flares. This night was different. She wasn’t coming home. How do I tell the children? They won’t understand, they are only eight, six and two years old. Mom is their world. What about a funeral, am I supposed to plan that? I don’t have a burial plot, a tombstone…Now what? I had so many questions, most of which were simply my way of not feeling the unbearable pain of losing my sweet wife.
I only remember walking down a long hall of the hospital. It had off-white, cream-colored walls with little regard to décor or style. It was unmemorable and sterile. As I drove home, I wondered how to tell the girls that Mom wasn’t coming home. Eight-year-old Allie will understand death. She had been born in a whirlwind of sick days and hospital stays. She knew Mom’s body never quite worked right. We had spoken of heaven and the love of a Heavenly Father her entire life, but we never had done this. We had never talked about her Mother not coming home. Jackie at six years old would struggle to make sense of all of this. While she had sang songs of heaven and God in church classes, the ambiguity of it all would certainly not help her find comfort. Jamie at two years old would only know that the person she relied on for nearly everything in her world would not be there anymore. She wouldn’t know why; she just would know she was gone.
I drove into my parent’s driveway. They had always quickly stepped in to take the girls when we rushed to the hospital. I knew there was peace in their home at that moment because they were unaware of Kameo’s death. Peace that would be shattered very soon. I walked into their home and was greeted with the concerned faces of my parents. “She is gone,” I blurted out harshly. Tears and stunned silenced enveloped the room.
It was only a few minutes until eight-year-old Allie stumbled into to the room, wiping the sleep from her eyes, having just awakened. “Hi Daddy,” she said. “Hi, Angel,” I said, my heart filled with pain. “Come here.” She climbed up on my lap and wrapped her soft, delicate arms around me. We hugged for a moment. “Angel, Mommy was really sick and her body just couldn’t get better.” Following that moment were the tears and sorrow of a newly widowed husband and motherless child.
The grief and sorrow that come when you lose someone you love is truly unbearable, yet somehow, we do survive it. We can’t imagine ever waking up in the morning and not feeling the heaviness, the pain of loss, that always seems to be there, but one day it does happen. You feel a little better, the light shines a little brighter, things you once enjoyed start becoming enjoyable…and you heal. At least as much as one can heal.
For me as a single father I had the health and welfare of my children to consider. It’s a big deal caring for the children whose mother had died. How would I help them in healing from trauma? They all grieved in very different ways, and I had to be sensitive to their separate needs. Allie felt real sadness and I could see her struggle to connect earth and “heaven.” Jackie was just mad. She used to beat the hell out of an inflatable punching bag. Jamie, ah Jamie, she just didn’t know what happened. So sad, so very hard.
For me, I was in so much pain but could ignore it by just focusing on my children and their needs. There was no thought of healing from trauma. It is strange to me that a person can suppress such strong feelings, but I was able to do so. I put them in a box and hid them away, and started the uphill path of raising three beautiful daughters.
Let me be clear, this is the wrong way in healing from trauma. It simply delays the grieving process. Notice I said “delays.” Grief, in all of its iterations cannot be avoided. It can be ignored, suppressed, denied, but never avoided. When you least expect it, it shows up with all of its fire, pain, and anguish. For me, about one year after my wife died, life was feeling a bit overwhelming.
I had started dating again and a woman and I had gotten quite close. For various reasons we decided it wasn’t a good fit and stopped dating. I remember going home and all of a sudden, the tears flowed, and I collapsed on my bed. I was overcome with such depression I simply couldn’t get out of bed for a week. This wasn’t at all appropriate for the loss of this new relationship. It occurred to me that I had never really done that with the loss of my sweet wife. I had not grieved. No, grief doesn’t go away it only gets delayed. I had delayed healing from trauma.
Whenever someone writes about grief they invariably start discussing the five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Can we not talk about them in this discussion? They are so frequently discussed that they almost feel like a formula. Yes, you likely will be required to go through all of them in order to heal. Yes, knowledge of them can be helpful. But for me, there should be a bunch of little steps like, just try and keep breathing today. Or how about, sleeping through the night without my wife’s shirt in bed with me? Why a shirt? Because her clothes still smelled like her and it helped me feel connected to her. There are enumerable moments like these when you are in the throngs of a painful loss. But you can, and will heal. Let me share with you the healing from trauma process for me.
- Choose to Heal
This may seem obvious to most of you, but it is not. When you are suffering through the loss of someone dear to you, the pain is constant and immeasurable, but it is also reasonable. You should feel such pain, anyone would with such a loss, right? When my wife died, I was a 34-year-old father of three daughters. Everywhere I went people recognized me as the “poor widowed” father. It became who I was. I received a lot of attention, which alleviated some of my pain. However, keeping that label also kept me in that place. A place of pain and suffering. There was no healing from trauma until I chose to heal.
You will recognize a time when you are starting to feel a bit better after a tragic loss. At that moment, choose to heal. This does not mean you need to forget the person that is lost. It means you recognize that you are still alive and have much good yet to enjoy. Choose the path of healing from trauma.
- Engage in Your Passions
Passions are placed inside of each of us by divinity. You could say that your passions are the fingerprints of God within you. We understand that passions are those things that bring enthusiasm to your life. The very thought of being involved in the things you are passionate about, immediately brings a sense of joy. Imagine that, simply thinking about what you are passionate about generates happiness. When you actually participate in and develop those passions, you can generate a life that is joyful in every way.
I had suppressed the things I was passionate about for many years. Rather I opted to take the safe road and do the things that were expected of me. By working at a certain type of job, being a certain kind of man, and not recognizing the things inside of me waiting to be explored and developed. When I finally understood the power of passions and what it meant to embrace them, my life changed. Happiness became not only likely, but inevitable. Imagine that, even during times of great loss and suffering, you can feel happy. Sometimes you only feel happy for a few fleeting moments, but that is refuge from a pain that is normally constant.
When assessing your own passions, I want you to enlarge your vision. By that I mean I want you to spend time with your passions considering different ways that you might develop them. Then just start, even if you can’t participate in them physically, participate in them in your mind. Just seeing yourself doing something you love, even if just in your mind, releases the “feel good” chemicals in your brain and you will feel better, if not happy. I’m a musician and I love to play the guitar. If I am sad but no where near my guitar, I can still pick it up in my mind and play it, and shockingly, it makes me feel better. Try it, you will be shocked at how much it can help.
- Find someone to serve
This isn’t as easy at it sounds. I’m not referring to your children or family members. I’m talking about someone who is also in pain or suffering, and putting their needs above yours for a short time. Someone you are not responsible for typically. I have a couple of areas that are my favorites to engage when I need to serve others: the homeless, and animal shelters. Those two areas of need resonate with my soul. That’s what you need to find. It doesn’t take long to find someone who has suffered tragedy even greater than your own. There is much pain and sorrow in the world. Look to alleviate that and you will find moments of joy that heal your soul.
- Eat healthy and be physically active
I know this seems obvious and maybe even a bit trite. However, when we are struggling or suffering, the thing we do first is stop the self-care. We don’t eat right and we crawl into bed and don’t move for hours. I don’t blame you, it’s what we do, after all, we are in pain and we just want to close our eyes and do nothing but escape. Diet? Exercise? Yea, right! I can barely breath right now. I know how you feel. You are in pain. You may not be able to do this, but when you can, start taking real good care of yourself. It will speed up your recovery.
Consider this. Your brain is always on! It is working 24/7 running the place known as your body. It requires a constant flow of fuel. The quality of the fuel directly affects the structure and function of your brain, and ultimately, your mood. When you are in a fragile state, having suffered a tragedy, it is truly important to fuel yourself with the healthiest of foods. Combine eating healthy with exercise and you will find that you are having significant moments when you feel good, when you feel happy. Like diet, exercise has immediate effect on blood sugar, which minimizes energy peaks and valleys and stabilizes your mood throughout the day. Just start doing this along with the other things to heal and you will feel an impact.
For me, meditation is a form of prayer. It is a way to connect with the Divine that is truly helpful in healing from trauma. Let’s not get hung up on the label of what it is, let’s just focus on how it feels, how it heals. When we have suffered tragedy, we tend to live in that tragedy pretty much continuously. It is always there. We start to clutch the pain almost as if it is part of us, a prized possession if you will. We feel we are entitled to the ownership of that pain. We aren’t wrong in that feeling. However, a daily practice of meditation can give us a reprieve from feeling pain, a refuge, if you will. That must be a welcome thought. It may take a little practice, maybe even a little courage, but meditation can help us see and nurture our internal strength, so we can separate ourselves from our trauma.
- Ask for help
Healing from trauma may require help. You are not alone. Let me say that again, you are not alone. It may feel like it, and you may feel lost in that loneliness, but there are those who will help you. They may or may not be friends or family, they may not even be people you know, but there are those who can help. For me, my parents stepped in at some critical times to help me in my moments when I was overwhelmed. Some friends offered to help with groceries and other daily needs. I even had a friend offer to box up Kameo’s clothes, something I couldn’t do for many months. It will require you to ask for help though. Most people are not sure how to help someone who is going through great loss or tragedy. They are scared to bring it up, so you need to. Do it!
The only real thing that can help you in your healing from tragedy is time. I know that is not something that you want to hear, but time truly does heal the wounds. There will always be a scar, but the day will come when you can look back on your loss and not break into tears. The time will show up when you can laugh and feel joy. The time will come when the sun will shine again. You can do some things that will help that time arrive sooner. Some of those things I shared with you in this short article. There are others that you may find yourself that help you heal. Just know that you a strong and will survive. Feel free to email me with questions or support.
Check out the helpguide to help in your healing from trauma. Also, my book Bounce Back: Finding Joy During Time of Adversity my give you some guidance on how to heal from a life filled with adversity.