Life did not prepare me for August 15, 2001. In one moment on a very ordinary day, the world as I knew it inexplicably changed. I answered the phone to the panicked voice of a friend telling me that my 18-year-old and only daughter Ashley had been killed in an automobile accident. Little did I know that this one single moment in time would become the demarcation point in my life. Time just stopped, I felt frozen and in disbelief, I was paralyzed and in shock.
Somehow I stumbled through the fog and within a few days of Ashley’s death, we gathered together family, friends, music, and food for what we were calling a celebration of Ashley’s life. I spoke with calm and clarity at Ashley’s service and spent hours hugging and comforting those who attended. Shock is an amazing anesthetic when you are in deep and early grief as it allows you to function. People commented on how strong I was that day. Little did they know that just a few months later, I would become nearly incapacitated by the trauma of my grief.
My Mind, My Heart, My Spirit, My Body Were Broken
Shock kept me from fully feeling the magnitude of my loss, but in time shock gave way to the reality of all that I was facing. Grief wore me down until I became a shell of the man I once was. My mind was broken, leaving it scattered and unable to focus. My heart was broken because it hurt so badly I could barely breathe. Grief broke my spirit because it made me question God and anything good in this life. Grief broke my body by zapping it of its energy and leaving me with aches and pains.
Well-meaning family and friends were of little help as I spiraled deeper into the darkest days of my grief. I began to choose isolation over confrontation with those who would marginalize my struggle by suggesting that I take comfort in the fact that God has another angel or that Ashley is in a better place. I began to wonder if I was crazy.
Like most people, I had very little understanding at that time about what grief is, and the real and devastating impact it can have on those of us who are thrust into its path. Many of us do not know what we can do to help ourselves or others when a loved one dies or when we face the grief that comes from a divorce or other losses, such as a job, mobility, health, or our independence. My inability to cope caused me to reach out and seek support.
Living My Life, Honoring My Love for Ashley
I first reached out to my local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a peer-to-peer support group for parents, grandparents, and siblings after a child in their family has died. The first monthly meeting I attended helped so much. I met others walking this same journey who validated my feelings and who understood my pain. It was there when I learned that I did not have to walk this journey alone and where I found the hope to believe that I could survive. My group of new compassionate friends became my trusted family who were willing to walk with me and hurt with me for as long as I would need.
I also sought support from a 12-week grief education program. It was here that I learned what grief really is, what it does to our lives, and how it affects us mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Ashley’s death has left me with much unfinished emotional business, and this program helped me to process my pain in constructive ways.
My grief work was hard work, but it began paying off as I was able to emerge from the darkness a stronger person with a clear focus on helping others. Grief has been a transformational teacher. Grief taught me to live in the moment, to value each friendship and relationship, to cherish the gift I am given each day to love and to be loved. Grief taught me to honor the love I will always have for Ashley (pictured at right) by living my life.
Today I am proud to serve as the executive director of The Compassionate Friends/USA. With nearly 700 chapters and a highly visible Web site and online presence, we are able to offer support and hope to nearly 750,000 grieving individuals who access one of our services each year.
What Grieving People Need to Know
I asked my good friend Dr. Heidi Horsley, a licensed psychologist and social worker who is executive director of the Open to Hope Foundation and assistant professor at Columbia University School of Social Work in New York City, to give a professional perspective on some of the most common questions I am asked by those who are grieving a loss.
How long should grief last?
Dr. Horsley: Everyone is on their own personal grief journey. I don’t believe in putting a time frame around grief. The journey of a hundred miles starts with a single step. If you take that next step, you will eventually find your way out of the darkness and back into the light.
Can you give some examples of healthy ways to process grief?
Dr. Horsley: It is important to have support when you are grieving and to look towards others who are further along in their journey. Take care of yourself, by getting enough water, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Be kind to yourself and love yourself, you’ve been through a lot. Don’t beat yourself up mentally if you have a day where you don’t feel like or are unable to get out of bed.
What benefit can be achieved by seeking professional support?
Dr. Horsley: Losing a loved one is extremely difficult, and often society tends to minimize the impact of losing a family member. As a grief therapist, and as someone who has lost a brother, I normalize what my clients who have suffered a loss are going through. I offer support and guidance, and give clients tools that may help them eventually find hope again. I don’t expect my clients to get over the person who died; instead, I help them to incorporate their loved one into their lives in new and different ways. As a professional, I can also let the client know if I am concerned about something they are doing, particularly if they are engaging in dangerous or harmful behavior.
What is the most important thing a grieving person can do to help themselves?
Dr. Horsley: According to the research, gratitude is the fastest way to feel better. Easier said than done, since after suffering a great loss it is often difficult to find anything to be grateful for. Find gratitude in the little things in life, such as the sun, friends, and memories. You are who you are today because you knew them, they changed your life in profound ways and left you a better person. The best way to honor your loved one is to pay tribute to them by living your life to the fullest with gratitude.
Alan Pedersen is executive director of The Compassionate Friends, a bereaved Dad, singer/songwriter, recording artist, producer of educational DVDs, and an inspirational speaker on grief and loss living in Roseville, Calif. He is a highly sought after speaker and has performed for over 800 audiences across the United States.