Responding to Multiple Losses: ‘Power in the Broken Heart’

The bare bones story of my life is this: I lost two daughters to a vile and nasty genetic disease called Cystic Fibrosis. My older daughter, Heather, was twelve when she died undergoing a bronchial lavage that was meant to prolong her life. My younger daughter, Holly, died twelve days following an unsuccessful bilateral lung transplant that we thought would give her new life. During those twelve long days, Holly was comatose. She was twenty-two when the medical team decided to unplug the equipment that were keeping her vital functions going. Five years later, my husband, the girls’ father, put a .357 magnum handgun to his temple and pulled the trigger. He sat downstairs in his favorite chair in the living room to commit suicide. I was upstairs reading when it happened.

Those events are the bones. The meat of the story is this: my girls led lives as full as possible while they were on this earth. They were in gifted programs for academics and art during their elementary school days. Holly, the only one who lived long enough to go to high school, was accepted into the Governor’s Magnet School, which she attended every afternoon after classes at the high school in the morning. They both rode horses and bicycles. Heather was a gifted visual artist, while Holly was a talented ballet, jazz, and modern dancer. They both had close friendships, and Holly had a steady boyfriend during high school and beyond. Their father and I decided very early in their lives that they would not be treated as hothouse flowers; rather, we encouraged them to participate in as much of life as they were able to do.

The part of the story that I pray will be of help to other sufferers, the part I especially want to share, is that I have lived through searing grief, worked through unfathomable mourning, and gone on to live a productive and new life. I stand as living proof that the human spirit is capable of responding to tragic loss – in my case, multiple tragic losses – with resilience. There is power in the broken heart, I have discovered. The heart broken open has room for new love, greater compassion, and deep empathy. The broken heart can either remain crushed and susceptible to dark depression and suicide, or it can be reconfigured and enhanced into a vessel ready to be recreated, metaphorically speaking.

No magic formula exists. A long, dark tunnel does exist, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel is a gift in a strange way, because the darkness gives you the opportunity to go within, where a spark of the divinity is waiting for you. God is always there, in the good times and the bad.

What is resilience? And how can it be learned? Resilience is a process of adapting in a positive way to significant tragedy or adversity. I emphasize process because I want you to know that it took me a long time to bounce back from the tragedies that life handed me. I’m still bouncing back, and always will be, but each day, I’ve chosen to move farther along the road towards happiness. Resilience was not handed to me on a silver platter. I learned to be resilient. In my next article, I’ll outline some of the specific steps to be taken in the development of psychological resilience.

May I suggest that you start by taking a brief walk? Get out into nature, and calm your soul for a moment. Then stay tuned for practical information.

Share Button

Terry Jones-Brady

More Articles Written by Terry

Terry Jones-Brady was born in Richmond, Virginia, but spent most of her childhood in Honolulu, Hawaii. Her family moved to California when she was fourteen and she went to high school near San Diego, and then to the University of California, Berkeley. A love of acting started in high school where she was an active member of the drama club. At Berkeley, she majored in Dramatic Arts and minored in English Literature. She appeared in several plays on the Berkeley campus and at the same time conformed to the stringent academic requirements of the university. Following graduation she moved to New York City to pursue a career in theater. There, she met and married a director, Tim Jones. Together, the couple had two daughters. Both girls were diagnosed with the life-threatening genetic disease, cystic fibrosis, and Terry’s primary interest was diverted from acting to the care of her beloved daughters. For many years, she was the primary caregiver as well as cheerleader for Heather and Holly. When their older daughter, Heather, died at the age of twelve, and with Tim’s encouragement, Terry enrolled in a graduate program in special education, taking classes offered jointly by the Departments of Education at Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University. She earned a Master’s degree and began teaching students with learning disabilities when her surviving daughter, Holly, was in elementary school. She taught English as a Second Language to the wives of Saudi Arabian Naval personnel stationed at the local naval base for training, and taught in the Education Department of a local psychiatric hospital. She became an instructional support counselor for a regional cooperative educational program for special students sponsored and funded by eight local school systems. Two years following her retirement, she was asked by the organization to return to teach a class of high-functioning autistic middle schoolers, which she did for a year. Terry is a graduate of the Tidewater Writing Project at Old Dominion University. She is also a certified spiritual director, having completed the two-year course required for certification at the Virginia Institute of Spiritual Direction, and is a master gardener affiliated with Western Tidewater Master Gardeners. In addition, she taught drama for Norfolk’s Hurrah Players. Terry is a mosaic artist and her work has been displayed in the Suffolk Art League’s members show at the Suffolk Museum. Her poetry has been published in Seabury in Memoriam, and her non-fiction articles have appeared in The Smithfield Times and Suffolk Happening. Among her writing instructors are Kathleen Brehony, PhD, author of Awakening at Midlife, Ordinary Grace, After the Darkest Hour, and Living a Connected Life; Janine Latus, author of If I am Missing or Dead, and Lisa Hartz, poet and co-director of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Terry was awarded the William Brenner Prize for First Place in Non-Fiction at the 2010 Hampton Roads Writers Conference. She and her husband live in Virginia with an English bulldog and a cockatiel.

6 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • lynne thompson says:

    I lost my husband when I was 27, to suicide, and than my youngest son who was 26 to suicide, this last March 23 2012 I lost my son who was 45 to a heart attack……….how do I cope with all of this? I am just so overwhelmed with sadness…..thank you, Lynne

    • Dear Lynne, you have my heartfelt sympathies. Please get some professional help and please stay in touch on this site. Your latest loss was so recent. It takes time and you must be very, very kind to yourself.
      You and I have similar stories in that we’ve both lost husbands to suicide and we’ve both lost two children. There truly are no easy answers, but life can be good for you again, eventually. Warmly, Terry

  • As someone who coped with multiple losses I can tell you there is no easy answer to your question. I can also tell you that life gets better. Take the time you need to figure out who you are now and the paths you may take in the future. Writing helped me immensely and I think it may help you. Stick to a routine as much as you can and think about ways you could help others. Is there a suicide survivors’ group in your town? Joining this group and sharing your story could help you. I also recommend a book by Rabbi Earl Grollman, Living When a Loved On has Died. It’s an easy read and packed with wisdom.

    • Hi, Harriet – I’m not sure which question you’re responding to at this point, but I do thank you for your comment and agree that there are no easy answers. I also know that peace can come eventually.

  • Amy Engrav says:

    On Jan 30 2012 I lost my husband and only son in a very traumatic accident. Their injuries so brutal so final I knew it was the day they were meant to go. Im stuggeling with using drugs to cover up my feelings and to help me feel numb. My doctor said that i have to go through the grief process but I cant let myself because the pain is so great. If I dont quit using on my own my doctor will put me in treatment, which isnt really my problem, I only use cuz I feel so bad. I need to fix how I’m feeling first and the drugs will go away. Where do I start, How do I grieve for two losses at once, how do I find a new purpose for my life and a desire to keep on living. I will keep on living for I know God has a purpose for all he has allowed to happen to us. I just need to find a way to get there.

    • Oh Amy, you are in so much grief right now. The right drugs have their place during the grieving process. I don’t know what you’re taking but I know having something prescribed by my doctor to soften the edges and help me sleep was invaluable. Do you have a network of supportive friends, a church family, or a grief support group to help you through this acutely hurting time? It’s less than six months since your losses. Be kind to yourself in all possible ways. Your comments show that you have good insight and understanding. Take life a day at a time, an hour at a time, or even a minute at a time. Please stay in touch. God’s peace be with you. Terry