Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Visited Planet

The holiday season is a time of heavy hearts for those that grieve.  To lift your spirits, I
offer you my very favorite Christmas story.  Could my Aly be the small but curious angel?  I would like to think so.  Merry Christmas and happy holidays to us all.  -Lynda Cheldelin Fell

The Visited Planet
By J.B. Phillips

Once upon a time a very young angel was being shown round the splendours and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel.  To tell the truth, the little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored.  He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all.  Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part.  As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis.  It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.  "Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel.  "What's special about that one?"

"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."

"Visited?" said the little one. "you don't mean visited by…..?

"Indeed I do.  That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory."  And at these words he bowed his head reverently.

"But how?" queried the younger one.  "Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendours of His Creation, and millions more that I'm sure I haven't seen yet, went down in person to this fifth-rate little ball?  Why should He do a thing like that?"

"It isn't for us," said his senior a little stiffly, "to question His 'why's', except that I must point out to you that He is not impressed by size and numbers, as you seem to be.  But that He really went I know, and all of us in Heaven who know anything know that.  As to why He became one of them - how else do you suppose could He visit them?"

The little angels face wrinkled in disgust.  "Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that He stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?"

"I do, and I don't think He would like you to call them 'creeping, crawling creatures' in that tone of voice.  For, strange as it may seem to us, He loves them.  He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like Him."

The little angel looked blank.  Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
"Close your eyes for a moment," said the senior angel, "and we will go back in what they call Time."

While the little angels eyes were closed and the two of them moved nearer to the spinning ball, it stopped its spinning, spun backwards quite fast for a while, and then slowly resumed its usual rotation.

"Now look!"  And as the little angel did as he was told, there appeared here and there on the dull surface of the globe little flashes of light, some merely momentary and some persisting for quite a time.

"Well, what am I seeing now?" queried the little angel.

"You are watching this little world as it was some thousands of years ago," returned his companion.  "Every flash and glow of light that you see is something of the Father's knowledge and wisdom breaking into the minds and hearts of people who live upon the earth.  Not many people, you see, can hear His Voice or understand what He says, even though He is speaking gently and quietly to them all the time."

"Why are they so blind and deaf and stupid?" asked the junior angel rather crossly.
"It is not for us to judge them.  We who live in the Splendour have no idea what it is like to live in the dark.  We hear the music and the His voice like the sound of many waters every day of over lives, but to them - well, there is much darkness and much noise and much distraction upon the earth.  Only a few who are quiet and humble and wise hear His voice.  But watch, for in a moment you will see something truly wonderful."

The Earth went on turning and circling round the sun, and then quite suddenly, in the upper half of the globe, there appeared a light, tiny but so bright in its intensity that both the angels hid their eyes.

"I think I can guess," said the little angel in a low voice. "That was the Visit, wasn't it?"

"Yes, that was the Visit.  The Light Himself went down there and lived among them; but in a moment, and you will be able to tell that even with your eyes closed, the light will go out."

"But why?  Could He not bear their darkness and stupidity?  Did He have to return here?"

"No, it wasn't that" returned the senior angel.  His voice was stern and sad.  "They failed to recognize Him for Who He was - or at least only a handful knew Him.  For the most part they preferred their darkness to His Light, and in the end they killed Him."

"The fools, the crazy fools! They don't deserve ----"

"Neither you nor I, nor any other angel, knows why they were so foolish and so wicked.  Nor can we say what they deserve or don't deserve.  But the fact remains, they killed our Prince of Glory while He was Man amongst them."

"And that I suppose was the end?  I see the whole Earth has gone black and dark.  All right, I won't judge them, but surely that is all they could expect?"

"Wait, we are still far from the end of the story of the Visited Planet.  Watch now, but be ready to cover your eyes again."

In utter blackness the earth turned round three times, and then there blazed with unbearable radiance a point of light.  "What now?" asked the little angel, shielding his eyes.

"They killed Him all right, but He conquered death.  The thing most of them dread and fear all their lives He broke and conquered.  He rose again, and a few of them saw Him and from then on became His utterly devoted slaves."

"Thank God for that," said the little angel.

"Amen.  Open your eyes now, the dazzling light has gone.  The Prince has returned to His Home of Light.  But watch the Earth now."

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated.  And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out.  A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel.  "The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."

"Yes, yes," said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end?  Will the little lights join up with each other?  Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"

His senior shook his head.  "We simply do not know," he replied.  "It is in the Father's hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable.  The end is not yet.  But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important.  He has visited it;  He is working out His Plan upon it."

"Yes, I see, though I don't understand.  I shall never forget that this is the Visited Planet."

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Gift of Hope

No one ever says I want to grow up to write a book about grief.  But life has a way of throwing us a curve ball, and then handing us a mitt.  A few months ago I was invited to co-author a book featuring women from around the world who have all faced and endured a traumatic challenge.  Our task was to write about our difficulty and then offer a lesson to help others who are facing the same challenge.  It is touching for me to share with you that our book, The Missing Piece:  A Transformational Journey, was released in print today on Amazon.

It truly is an honor to be part of such a collection of tender stories.  One chapter is written by a woman who found herself completely bald by age nine, resulting in relentless bullying.  Others wrote about enduring physical abuse, verbal abuse, addiction, and loss.  But what makes this book so unique is that the authors share not only their personal struggles, but also how that struggle resulted in an unexpected blessing.

Jazzy is home from the NICU!
While being a published author is one of my own silver linings, this book means much more to me than seeing my name in print.  You see, one of the chapters in the book is authored by my little sister, Stacy Roorda.  Seven years ago, she was a happy, healthy wife and mother of two adorable little girls when, at age 37, she visited her doctor for aching in her arm.  The resulting diagnosis was shocking:  stage four breast cancer with metastases to the bone.  

An aggressive treatment plan was immediately established but quickly halted when lab
Jazzy, a happy healthy infant.
work yielded another surprise:  she was pregnant with her third child.  The panel of doctors stood firm, and the ultimatum was cruel.  My sister was unanimously advised to abort the baby immediately to save her own life.  Despite pressure from family, friends, and the best oncologists in the state, my sister couldn’t bring herself to do it.  

Her chapter, called “Pregnant with Cancer,” is a naked and honest portrayal of finding courage and holding steadfast in one’s faith while challenging medical advice meant to save her life. 

Despite all the pretty lights and glittery packages, the holidays can be a time of struggle
for so many.  But my sister’s story, along with all the others in The Missing Piece, encourage us to never give up despite the harshest of circumstances.  And no matter how you package it, the gift of hope is the most precious of them all. 

The Missing Piece:  A Transformational Journey, compiled by Kate Gardner and co-authored by 27 remarkable women from around the world.  Now available at  Happy holidays to us all.

Lynda Cheldelin Fell


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Grief & the Holidays

For most, the holiday season is a cherished time of year when families and friends come together to honor their faith, enjoy a formal dinner, or simply spend precious time together.  But if someone in the gathering is in the midst of profound grief, it can turn the merriment into a tense and stressful time.  Why is the treasured holiday season so difficult for grievers?  Not only are they grieving the loss of someone close to them, but they are also grieving the loss of future holiday memories with their loved one.

Grief is one of the most profound of all injuries, yet the absence of physical wounds can make it difficult to manage.  To help you understand what the griever is facing, it can be helpful to consider the griever as not only gravely injured, but also facing a lengthy recovery that has no end in sight.  With this frame of mind, the following tips can help you support the griever as they work hard to survive an emotionally overwhelming time of year.

1.  Allow the griever to set the tone for how they wish to cope with the holidays, and honor their choices.  Whether they wish to maintain their normal holiday routine, desire to leave town, or ignore the holidays entirely, resist the urge to pressure the griever to handle the holidays “your” way.  They know what’s best for them, even if you don’t agree.  

2.  Recognize that you simply cannot lessen a griever’s pain.  Trying to do so will only exhaust you and, simply put, you cannot do or say anything that will ease the gaping wound of sorrow that follows in the wake of profound loss.  Instead, replace your words with a hug as often as necessary. 

3.  Do not feel guilty when you forget tip #2 above, it happens to all of us.  Remind yourself that the griever is coping with a significant wound that cannot be healed any faster than life itself.  If a simple statement or gesture could fix it, they would have done it.  

4.  Do not avoid the griever.  Your absence will be noticed more than you think.  If the griever asks to be left alone, honor their wishes if it is safe to do so.  Otherwise, include them in the festivities and treat them as you would any other significantly injured guest:  with kindness, compassion, and gentleness.

5.  Resist the urge to try to fill the griever’s calendar with festivities as a way to cheer them.  Just like all healing, grieving is physically and emotionally exhausting and the griever may not have the energy to keep up with all the celebrations.

6.  When around the griever, do not pretend nothing has happened.  That only creates the elephant in the room.  But don’t coddle them either.  Remember, treat them with kindness, compassion, and gentleness.

7.  Do not feel guilty for enjoying your own festivities.  And give yourself permission to take time out for yourself.  The holiday celebrations are a wonderful way to recharge your own batteries, and depriving yourself serves no purpose.  If the griever is present most of the time, then carve out ways that allow you to celebrate in private.  Even small ways can recharge your batteries, like indulging in whipped cream on your favorite hot holiday drink or enjoying a night out with other friends.  

8.  Expect the griever to have cranky moments.  From lashing out in anger to having a meltdown like a small child, pain can easily overload our emotions.  Recognize that the emotions of grief are far too powerful for us to control every second.  If you are having difficulty finding compassion during one of these moments, go outside for a breath of fresh air and take a moment to remember that pain makes us all cranky.  It’s human nature.

9.  If possible, help the griever find a way to honor their loved one’s memory during the holidays.  Treat them to coffee, then “pay it forward” to the person in line behind you in the loved one’s memory.  Or buy a small bouquet of balloons in the loved one’s favorite color and leave it in a public spot for a stranger to find while you both watch discretely.  Or help the griever donate to a cause that was close to their loved one’s heart.

10.  Should the griever find themselves caught up in the moment and enjoying the merriment, celebrate with them.  But be patient if the moment doesn’t last long.  Over time, those precious moments of joy will grow as the rawness softens.

You need not understand the complexity of grief in order to have compassion and sensitivity toward the griever’s discomfort and sadness during the holiday season.  Past memories of merrier times and traditions magnify the loss and sorrow that those times and traditions are no longer, abruptly replaced by a new, often unwanted future.  

Remember that the griever is working hard to cope with a profound injury:  a genuinely broken heart.  Honor the griever’s sorrow by allowing their tears when the emotions become too raw to keep inside.  Tears offers a release from the emotion, and your warm hug and dry shoulder offers the most precious holiday gift of all.              

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ten Tips to Surviving the Holiday Kaleidoscope

Pumpkin spice lattes. Steaming hot cocoa. Storefronts dressed in holiday style.

The holiday season is a time of gaiety filled with Hallmark moments. But for those with a heart full of sorrow, the first pumpkin spice ad can herald a trickle of nostalgia and a torrent of tears with nowhere to escape.

I remember our first year without Aly, our holiday-loving 15-year-old daughter who died in a car accident one summer's end. On top of indescribable grief, the approaching holidays suddenly added a new layer of dread.

Aly and I had always loved the holiday season with unbridled enthusiasm. Unpacking yuletide decorations in October was common. It was simply a passion we shared. Now facing the holidays without her teenage exuberance over Home Alone 2 and Andy Williams, how would our family manage? How would we survive such pain?

I didn't want to face the holidays to find out. I wanted to hit the pause button and skip over the entire next decade. But one look into my young grandson's eyes told me I couldn't. As much as nothing felt normal, normalcy felt like the right thing to do. I had to carry on.

Making the decision to muster forward, I allowed tradition to carry me through. I was in a fog of grief anyway, so allowed autopilot to become my new best friend. When the landscape of landmines elicited visceral reactions, familiarity gave me comfort and guided me through.

With 8 years now under my belt, I can honestly say I no longer dread what was once—and continues to be—my favorite time of year. With the holidays now around the corner, it's important to hold on to the idea that hope is possible. But until that happens, the following tips will help the newly bereaved navigate through the festivities with some assurance that if I can survive, they can too.

1. Maintain your routine. A familiar routine offers a sense of reassurance that at least one thing in life hasn't changed, and the familiarity can help ground us through the holiday hustle. But if the idea of sticking to routine is more than you can bear, then honor your need to break tradition. In short, do what feels most soothing.

2.  Protect your time. Give yourself lots of breathing room, and avoid packing the schedule too full. Grieving is emotionally exhausting; plenty of rest will help minimize raw nerves through the flurry of shopping, school performances, and parties.

3.  Cut some slack and buy store-bought. Since grieving is naturally distracting and the ER isn't a great place to dine, let someone else operate the carving knife. Even the smallest kitchen disaster can quickly deplete coping skills. So if the family expects your legendary dinner rolls, then cheat with gourmet mashed potatoes and gravy from the deli.

4. Treat yourself to TLC, and lots of it. Tenderly soothing individual body parts is an attentive way to honor your emotional pain. Wear an especially soft pair of socks. Ask for whipped cream on your drive-thru mocha. Indulge in aromatherapy soap in the shower. While small gestures do nothing to erase the emotional heartache, they do offer your physical body a reminder that not all pleasure is lost.

5.  Skip the chaos. Take time to create peaceful surroundings. Turn off the computer, light a fragrant candle, grab a soft blanket, and binge-watch a good show.

6.  Feel joy. Without guilt. Go ahead, give yourself permission. If you find yourself humming to holiday music, don’t stop. The heart can feel joy the same time as sorrow, and it helps to balance the sadness. Allow yourself to experience moments of joy without guilt.

7.  Honor the past. Find a way to include your loved one’s memory in the festivities. Hang their stocking and fill it with cat toys or dog treats to share with the family pet on Christmas morning. Visit your loved one’s favorite coffee stand and pay it forward. Buy a small bouquet of balloons in your loved one’s favorite color and leave it in a public spot for a stranger to find on Christmas Eve.

8.  Heal others. Do something in the community that lifts your spirits. It's gratifying to help others, and is a good reminder that we aren’t alone in our struggles. It helps us keep perspective that the holidays can be challenging for many.

9. Hibernate. If you need to hide from the world to recharge your battery, take comfort knowing that many need to hibernate this time of year, and apologize to no one.

10. Cry. Give in to the tears. There is no shortage of raw emotions over the holidays, and crying is how we release intense feelings. Tears are healing—no matter what anyone says.

Even though it comes around like clockwork, the holidays can remain one of the most dreaded times of the year for those with a heart full of sorrow. Allow yourself to try a handful of the suggestions above as you navigate the emotional kaleidoscope that begins with those first pumpkin spice ads. Because if I can survive, then it's survivable.

Just don’t forget the whipped cream.

Friday, August 30, 2013

By the Light of the Full Moon

August 5, 2009, dawned like any other lazy summer morning. The sunrise was quiet and serene, and created little rainbow prisms in the morning dew. Even though it was summer, our 15-year-old daughter Aly rarely slept in. Instead, she rose like clockwork at 5 a.m. for early morning swim practice. Wrapping her favorite fuzzy blue blanket around her small 5’2” frame, she grabbed her bulky swim bag and crept downstairs to wait for her daddy.

The drive into town every morning was a treasured father-daughter time. Classic rock from the truck radio played softly in the background while Aly rested her sleepy head on Lammy, her favorite stuffed animal. On this morning, the 17-minute trip to the pool was nothing out of ordinary. 

“Bye-bye, Daddy. Love you,” Aly murmured softly as she and her bulky swim bag slid out the truck door, leaving Lammy and the fuzzy blue blanket behind. 

"Bye-bye, Lovey. Love you. Have a good day,” my husband tenderly replied. He watched fondly as his youngest daughter made her way through the aquatic center's door. 

My husband, Jamie, usually enjoyed their morning drive to the pool, but as he drove away on this particular morning, a bad feeling swept over him. He couldn't put his finger on it, so he said nothing.

Excitement was in the air. After morning practice, Aly and a handful of senior swimmers planned to carpool to Seattle to watch the U.S. Open, a championship long course meet. Home of the 1990 Goodwill Games, Aly had competed in this pool many times herself. But today, she and her teammates would be spectators watching the nation’s top swimmers compete for a spot in the Olympics, one of Aly’s own goals.

Following practice, the small group stopped for breakfast and then divided into two cars driven by parents before continuing on. It was an exciting day for the kids and I heard from Aly several times, her voice always full of giddy teenage excitement. Although glad the kids enjoyed the field trip, by day's end I was anxious for their return.

As day gave way to evening, and evening to dusk, a brilliant full moon eased its way over the horizon. It hung high and bright in the dark summer sky. Our other kids were out that evening, offering my husband and I rare quiet time. 

With her beloved cousin Jasmine
At 10:20 p.m., Aly called home one final time saying they had just dropped off two swimmers. Aly and two boys, Donovan and Patrick, would continue the final leg home on their own with 18-year-old Donovan at the wheel.

Aly had deep respect for Donovan, a quiet yet popular swimmer with a strong work ethic. Like Aly, he was greatly admired as a powerful athlete. Just weeks away from starting his senior year in high school, he was a solid team leader and respected by all.

Patrick was just a hair younger than Aly, and one of her favorite teammates, both in the pool and out. He and Aly enjoyed a spirited friendship and rather than sitting “shotgun” next to Donovan on that fateful night, Patrick chose to sit next to Aly in the back seat, a move that would save his life. 

In that final phone call, Aly said they were 30 minutes away, and would meet me at the local aquatic center. I told her I loved her and would see her shortly. I hung up the phone, kissed my husband goodbye, and headed out alone into the night. 

Because of the late hour, the drive to the pool was quiet and peaceful. Arriving in the deserted parking lot, I sat in my husband’s truck playing on my cellphone to pass the short time until the swimmers arrived.

As 11 p.m. drew near, the day’s fatigue was setting in and I began to wonder where the kids were. I texted Aly but she didn't reply. I waited a few minutes and then called her phone. She didn’t answer. I waited a few more minutes and then tried again, twice, three times. Still no answer. Assuming her cell battery had died from overuse during the long day, I had no choice but to sit and wait.

Suddenly my phone rang, startling me in the dark. It was from an unknown number.

"Hello?” I answered, wondering who would be calling at that hour. 

“Lynda, this is Sean….Donovan’s dad. There’s been an accident. We are on our way now, 911 is guiding us.” 

I was positive it was nothing more than a minor fender-bender. I didn’t panic as I told Donovan’s dad that I too would make my way to the kids. I drove out of the parking lot and was soon heading south on the freeway towards Burlington, a 30-minute drive away. 

I called my husband, “Honey, the kids have been in an accident. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’m heading that way now.” Panicked, my husband pleaded with me to come pick him up, but since that was in the opposite direction, it meant a delay of at least 45 minutes. I told him that would take too long and I wanted to get to Aly as soon as possible, but promised to call him as soon as I was by her side. He pleaded again, but not wanting to waste precious time, I held firm and kept driving south.
Playing in the home pool

I tried to call Donovan’s parents to let them know I wasn’t far behind, hoping they could tell me exactly where the accident was, but this time I received no answer. I tried again, and again no answer. I then remembered they had called 911 for directions. I decided to try the same. 

I dialed the number and calmly explained who I was and why I was calling. The dispatcher was hesitant but agreed to give me directions. I asked if she knew which hospital the kids had been transported to, but she offered no further information. 

I reassured myself that the accident was minor, and hospital transport probably wasn’t warranted. The dispatcher then shared that support staff was on the scene. Support staff? How strange. They were called only for fatalities. Why in the world would they be dispatched to a fender-bender? My brain simply didn’t comprehend the possibility of anything worse. 

Despite the bright full moon, I soon got lost on the dark and unfamiliar roads, and once again called 911 for directions. I finally saw the lights of multiple emergency vehicles off in the distance. But this accident was far more serious and didn’t even remotely fit the scenario I envisioned. I assumed I had come upon the wrong accident. Feeling confused and having nowhere to turn my husband's truck around, I approached the scene. 

As I drove slowly up to the emergency roadblock, law enforcement stepped into the road to greet me. From this moment forward I recall the events as if in a dream, like little snapshots of time floating around in a snow globe. 

I rolled down my window but my voice left me as the officer approached the truck. For an awkward moment we just stared at each other. Finally, I manage to utter two tiny words: “My daughter.” 

The words came out in a flat statement, not a question. 

The officer stared at me, hesitant, as his eyes searched mine. 

He then quietly asked, “15?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. 

“Alyssa Fell?” he continued in our hesitant exchange.  

“Yes,” I mumbled. I stared at him as if pleading to tell me this wasn't really happening.

The officer continued standing outside my window, his eyes piercing mine. He was unsure what to do with me. 

Others approached my window. In that moment—with all those faces gazing at me—I knew. 

My world had suddenly shattered into every parent’s worst nightmare. 

The gathering group grew larger as I quietly mumbled my final query, “She’s here….isn’t she?” 

It was more of a declaration than a question. All those faces continued to stare at me. The night became very quiet, still no one replied. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I softly commanded. 

Not one person moved. They were all frozen in place as they watched my face for signs of hysteria. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I repeated. 

Not waiting for a reply, I opened the truck door, climbed out, and began making my way toward the two crumpled vehicles in the nearby field. I was vaguely aware the group was following me though no one dared stopped me. 

Instinctively, like a wild animal searching for her young, I knew where I would find my youngest daughter.

On the ground next to a rear passenger door, my precious baby girl with the smooth tan skin and long blonde hair, the strong swim shoulders and tiny waist, my stellar student with fierce determination and dedication with eyes on the Olympics, was strapped to a backboard and draped by a stark white sheet.

I knelt beside her as my eyes surveyed the car’s blood-spattered interior. Reaching across her covered body, I searched for her hand under the sheet’s edge. Finding it, I held it as I sat next to my beloved Lovey, too shocked to cry. Her soft skin was still warm and I could feel the random muscle twitches of dying nerve cells. I fought the urge to lift the white sheet from her sweet face for fear of seeing disfigurement I would never forget. 

Behind me stood a growing group of officers and responders, hushed respectfully as they took in the scene. As I held Aly’s small hand in mine, I could feel the powerful and raw compassion from those standing behind me. 

And then, for no particular reason, I looked up into the dark field that stretched before us, and that is when I saw her: my beloved deceased grandmother had an arm around Aly and was gently leading her away. Aly was looking over her shoulder at me as she walked beside the great-grandmother she never knew. Walking away from me, forever.

The intrusion of my cellphone's ring suddenly pierced the stillness. In shock, my body automatically answered. It was Jamie. He was impatient, wondering why in the world I hadn’t yet called him. In a robotic monotone voice I remember telling him Aly hadn’t made it, that I was with her now, in the field next to the crumpled cars. I don’t remember his reply or the rest of the conversation.

That point forward is a blur, and would remain so for many months. From among the many snapshots floating inside the snow globe, I recall only fragments.

Being led to the hospital by support personnel. 

Jamie arriving at the hospital, driven down by our brother-in-law. 

Sitting together in a small private hospital room, discussing Aly’s organ donations with the coroner. 

Kissing Donovan and Patrick on their foreheads as they lay strapped to ER gurneys, crying.

Telling them both that it will be alright, hoping I could convince myself of the same. 

Of walking out the hospital door at 4 a.m. with an ER full of people watching, my legs threatening to give way as we exited into the night. 

Leaving for home. 


Without our precious daughter. 

As the bright full moon gave way to dawn. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Aly's memorial bench

National Grief Awareness Day 2013

As we approach National Grief Awareness Day on August 30, please share Angie's story, a 12-minute video on YouTube, to help others better understand our journey.  Thank you.  - Momma Felly

Angie Cartwright's story.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Grief & Public Awkwardness

"Why is your name so familiar?  Where do I know you from?”  I cringe every time I am asked these questions.  My mouth automatically mumbles a rehearsed, “oh, I don’t know.”   Even though I know the probable answer, I play dumb yet again.

Why do I avoid confessing why I seem so familiar to you?  To shield us both from the inevitable awkwardness that accompanies the moment of truth.  Once, I made the mistake of assuming I was being asked that question because of Aly's accident.  After all, the accident made headlines across the state.  One media photo showed our 13 year-old son and myself sobbing into Aly's favorite stuffed animal.  Who wouldn't remember that?  But this one time, to my horror and that of my acquaintance, my incorrect assumption resulted in a really uncomfortable situation for us both.

It is also uncomfortable waiting for one's friendly smile turn to utter pity as my name is suddenly recognized.  Yes, I am THAT mom, the one who lost her swimmer daughter in that tragic car accident.  Oh yes, they remember.  And while I am enormously grateful they haven't forgotten my daughter, I desperately wish, even muse on occasion, that I could be recognized inside our community for having done something notable, honorable.  Something not associated with a tragedy involving my child.

Losing a child thrusts us headfirst into an association with tragedy from which we cannot escape, and we will forever be publically associated with it.  Our pain and loss naturally create a great deal of discomfort not just in ourselves, but in those around us and some even find it so unpleasant they avoid us altogether.  Knowing this stark reality can compound our selfconsciousness when out in public.  But aside from isolating ourself at home for the rest of our life, the only alternative is to go about our public routine and accept having to witness the pronounced pity and compassion reflected on the faces of others when that inevitable “ah-ha” moment of recognition happens.

You see, it takes an enormous amount of courage and effort to reintegrate back into society after losing a child and when we do, it can be extremely awkward.  Coupled with our natural tendency like all wounded animals to seek seclusion, the eventual return to our public routine can be filled with anxiety and dread.

So next time you encounter a grieving parent, resist the urge to avoid them and instead extend an encouraging smile and gentle embrace.  These simple actions encourage us and helps ease our transition as we move from isolation back into society.  Eventually as we find our footing, we may be able to return a genuine hug and smile when you are in need yourself, offering healing to us both.
Much love,
Momma Felly

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grief & Divorce

"Many couples divorce after losing a child," offered one well-meaning friend after another in the months following Aly's accident. I can't help but wonder why people feel compelled to share this with newly grieving parents. Meant to be comforting, it is anything but. Yet hear it, we do. And repeatedly.

So why is it that two people who love each other until-death-do-us-part might find themselves, in the aftermath of a tragedy, in divorce court?

In the immediate days and months after losing a child, both parents are in "the fog" of shock. They cling to each other as terror fills their days and nights like a never ending nightmare. The only way to cope with the fog of grief is through autopilot. Our brain no longer functions, but our body continues to instinctively go through the daily motions of making dinner, doing laundry, washing dishes. We have “to go on" for the sake of the family. Although our body seems to automatically manage everyday tasks, our heart and spirit are in the Intensive Care Unit. Our lungs keep breathing, our muscles keep working, but our mind and spirit are frozen in shock.

In the early days of the aftermath, family, friends, and neighbors help care for the bereaved. But, as those of us grieving know all too well, intense pain lasts long after the meals stop coming. Furthermore, whether physical or emotional, intense pain is incredibly distracting, consuming, and exhausting. Our entire focus remains on getting through the worst until the next wave hits. Now imagine living like this day in and day out for months and months. Just getting through the day is exhausting, leaving very little reserves for anything else, including our marriage.

Add to this the biological fact that men and women are just wired different. As young girls, women learn from older female relatives to talk, share, and discuss. In contrast, boys are often taught to hold feelings in, to "toughen up.” So the coping mechanisms we use during great hardship are vastly different. Grieving mothers often seek comfort under the wings of other communicatively nurturing females. Grieving men tend to shut down, preferring instead to find comfort in solitary activities such as working alone in the garage or spending longer hours at work.

These conflicting styles can cause a couple to separate from what started out as parallel paths, sometimes leading to a complete and permanent disconnect. And when grief shatters both of us into unrecognizable versions of our former selves, it can be a challenge to find mutually familiar ground again, if ever.

But grieving parents can find satisfaction, even happiness, in a marriage given time and the right tools. Consider resisting the urge to share baseless divorce statistics and, instead, support the parents as they walk the journey as husband and wife, and encourage them to hang tightly to one another as they ride the waves of pain together.

Mark Twain once said, "Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable." In the face of tragedy, ignore public perception and allow patience, compassion, and tenderness to fill your marriage until solid footing once again takes hold.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Anniversary

Here it is again.....August 5. That dreaded date on the calendar. As the hot days and warm summer nights of July lazily march forward, August 5 continues to advance on our family with as much foreboding as always. A date when, no matter how busy we force our bodies to be, our minds replay the painful events from that night over and over. Why is August 5 different from all the other painful dates we navigate through each year such as her birthday, Christmas, Mother’s day? For every person in our family, August 5 will forever be a permanent life marker of “before the accident” and “after the accident.” It also serves as a milestone, an unspoken anniversary of our own personal healing. Do I cry less? Smile more? Function better than this time last year? 

On this particular day, in addition to my own pain, I'm fraught with worry over how our remaining three children will cope through the day. I know DJ will seek solace in fishing, Natalie will focus on work and her young son Caleb, and Shaun, I pray, will focus on his next drum corps performance. But what if he falls apart and forgets the choreography in front of a stadium full of fans? What if DJ, too distracted by the grief, falls into the river and drowns? What if Natalie has a meltdown at work, or worse, in front of her young son? These are the additional worries my mind juggles on this day. 

The single most popular piece of advice we hear is that we must move forward, get on with our lives. But those very words grate on our exquisitely sensitive nerves like nails on a chalkboard. For you see, each and every day I work hard to help our family move on by attempting to put the pieces back together. But gluing it back together isn’t as easy, neat or tidy as repairing your favorite mug. Some days the glue is set hard as stone, the mug seemingly appearing whole and good-as-new to the outside world. On the inside however, the glue might inexplicably be wet in spots, soft to the touch, ever threatening to spring a leak without a moment's notice. Even if the glue carefully holds all the pieces in exact position, it will never truly again be a whole vessel, free of blemish or fracture scars, forevermore announcing to the world it once had shattered. 

So you see, August 5 will always remain the one glaring date every year when our family's smooth, colorful, comfortable mug suddenly and violently fractured beyond recognition in 2009. August 5 is, and always will be, our personal day of "before" and "after." 

Yes, I will always hate August 5. But I’m grateful that tomorrow is always just around the corner, bringing promise of a new day full of healing, another day of hope. And for that, I am thankful.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Life of a Grieving Mother

The warm summer day started out just like any other. I was busy organizing the kids, planning dinner, making a mental note to fill the car with gas and pick up a gallon of milk on my way home. Suddenly without warning, I was engulfed by a raging fire. I suffered third degree burns over my entire body—not an inch of me was spared.

People rushed to my side to help but there was nothing they could do to ease the excruciating pain. Medical resources were limited in the face of such devastation. Even their best medications did little to ease the agony. I wasn't sure I could survive such intense suffering. Worse, nobody could tell me how long the agony would last.

The medical community gently advised me that although my physical self would heal, the disfigurement would remain for life. My family, friends, and coworkers no longer recognized me. I no longer recognized myself. Mirrors were to be avoided at all costs.

At first doing little things like sitting up in bed or standing were so excruciating,  they took my breath away. The mere thought of eating, bathing, and dressing left me feeling nauseated, helpless and hopeless.

Pity and sadness were apparent in the eyes of everyone who came to visit. I understood the sadness, but I hated the pity. Why on God's green earth was I spared the peace of death?

Learning to live with complete disfigurement and extreme pain is overwhelming. It is excruciating, slow, and exhausting. Years of great effort is spent trying to master even basic activities. Some days I hurt too bad to even try.

Other days, when out in public, I pretend to be normal so as to ease the discomfort readily apparent in the eyes of those who are brave enough to glance my direction. Some avoid me altogether, adding further angst to my broken spirit. Pretending to be normal is exhausting, and quickly depletes all my reserves. By the time I finish errands and return home, I'm utterly spent.

Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing that I—nor anyone else—can do about it.

For you see, that complete disfigurement and intolerable pain described above is on the inside of my body. The pain is unchanged, the disfigurement is still complete and the scars are permanent. The new life that was thrust upon me that day when my child died caused a firestorm that engulfed every part of my life. The only differences between me and the patient who suffered third degree burns over her entire body is that I lived. And my pain is invisible to the world.

Welcome to the life of a grieving mother.