Never in my wildest nightmare could I have imagined that my child, my only daughter, would die. Nor could I imagine living through it. The unthinkable did happen! My 21-year daughter was killed in a car accident in which some construction equipment ran into her car. This tragedy occurred in the Dominican Republic where my daughter had gone to serve as a missionary.

How I survived is still a mystery.  However, I am here to tell you about it and about the cues that indicated I was getting better.

When I first told my story at a local Compassionate Friends meeting, I was sobbing so much that I was incoherent.  After repeatedly telling my story, I gradually told it without sobs and with few tears. The nature of my story also changed over time.  Initially it was about my daughter’s car accident — how she died.  Later it evolved into a story of where and what she was doing in her life. This was an indication to me that I was beginning to relate to her a new way.

Holidays were extremely painful for me for a long time. The first Easter (three months after her death), I was in such extreme distress that my only comfort came from going to the cemetery and sitting there and crying. I seemed to feel close to her there. The first Christmas was equally agonizing. The sight of the first Christmas decorations tore at my heart.  I could not bear the thought of spending Christmas at home without Kandy, so I arranged for my family to leave town and we spent Christmas in a nearby resort.  Christmas was still unbelievably sad.

After trying unsuccessfully to cancel the second and third Christmases, I invited some friends to join us for Christmas dinner. This gave me a reason to prepare for the holiday and made the season more bearable — another signal to me that I was healing.  Now I know I have made progress because I only cringe at the first glimpse of Christmas decorations.

Likewise, the first few spring seasons were excruciating.  I hated to see a sunny day. I knew I was getting better when several years later, I smiled as I greeted spring with the bright sunny days.

The first anniversary of her death, or “wings day,” as we now affectionately call it, was one of impending doom. Just thinking about the approaching day was worse than the day itself.  I knew I was getting better when I survived to see the end of the first year without her, and was able to plan a remembrance time to celebrate her life. I not only enjoyed the afternoon remembering her life, but the experience was positive and uplifting for all who attended. An opportunity to remember that she lived, even though she was no longer with us physically, became a turning point for me.

The second year following Kandy’s death, I continued crying with an insatiable need to talk about her. It seemed to be non-stop. I learned later that the second year might be worse than the first. For me, it was all bad.  Everywhere I turned, I saw reminders of her absence.  First, there was the grocery store where her favorite cereal—low-fat Granola — or her favorite fat-free chocolate chip cookies, caught my eye. Frequently, I would run to the checkout counter, without the bread and milk that I went to buy. Sometimes I succeeded in making it out of the store before the tears came and other times, I did not.

Another reminder was seeing small groups of teenagers and young adults, laughing and having fun.  Additionally, I saw women with their daughters and/or grandchildren almost everywhere I went. I could not bear the thought that I would not see or spend time with my daughter again. This was a stark reminder that she was gone and not coming back. I knew I had crossed into healing territory when the once painful memories were replaced with joyous memories that made me smile when I thought of her.

Going to church was painful and I cried there on a regular basis. Youth Sunday, Children’s Sunday, special days or just a random song or prayer would trigger the tears every time. I finally decided to take a temporary leave of absence from church. I knew I was improving when I returned to church attendance and experienced fewer and shorter crying spells.

I knew I was getting better after about three years when I could comfortably talk to another grieving mother and heard her say how much talking to me made her feel better. What! I thought to myself.  You are feeling better after talking to me. I felt I was getting better when I routinely talked to grieving parents to help them along the journey. I was certain that I had gotten better when I could facilitate small sharing group at our local Compassionate Friends meetings.

I knew I had integrated my daughter’s spirit into my life and had achieved considerable healing when sometime early in the fourth year, a “new me” began to emerge and the excruciating pain had become a dull ache. The memories of my daughter, which once were all painful, had become pleasant memories. I do not know how nor when it happened, but it had happened. It was actually the first spring that I began to feel alive again. That year, I actually planned a memorial birthday party to celebrate my daughter’s 25th birthday.

Year five was a continuation of my reawakening. I felt some of the “old me “continuing to emerge and I felt more in control of my thought processes and cognition. I took on some new writing tasks and had a renewed interest in my professional life.

After my daughter’s death, I was a different person. It took some time to realize that I could avoid some painful events. For example, weddings reinforced the fact that I would never have the opportunity to participate in my daughter’s wedding. Therefore, I stayed away initially. I thought I was getting better when I attended a family friend’s wedding. However, I ended up crying the entire reception. On the other hand, I knew I had finally gotten better when a few years later, I attended the wedding of my daughter’s girl friend and only cried briefly at the beginning of the ceremony. I still try to stay away if possible.

My grief journey has been like a roller coaster. There were times when feeling good, I would think I was progressing well, and then something would happen to set me back. It was at these times that it was hard to see any progress. I could only see change/progress when I looked back and compared the present to the past.

Although it has been nearly 13 years since my daughter left us suddenly, I still miss her and think of her daily. In some ways, it feels like yesterday.  I know that I have healed because it doesn’t hurt nearly as badly as in the early months and years. Eventually, the bad days do give way to good days and we slowly begin to heal. Even when you feel as if you are making no progress, it will happen.  Just look back and observe from whence you have come. It is subtle but it will be there. It will happen with a lot of hard work of falling down and getting up again.

In summary, I knew I was getting better when I did not cry all of the time, when I could greet the sunny days with a smile, could look forward to Christmas again and when once painful memories of my daughter began to bring a smile to my face.

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Coralease Ruff

Dr. Coralease Ruff is a Bereavement Facilitator, A Registered Nurse, a University Professor and an International Nursing Consultant. She and her husband became bereaved parents in 1997, following the death of their 21-year old daughter in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. Since then, she has been involved in the Compassionate Friends Inc. in many roles. Coralease is a frequent presenter on grief topics locally and nationally including The Compassionate Friends (TCF) National Conferences, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association and The Society of Childhood Emergencies as well as local universities, churches and community centers. She has held faculty positions at Catholic University, University of Washington, The Catholic University and is currently Professor Emeritus at Howard University. She is an end of life nursing educator and developed and currently teaches a university course on Grief and Loss to graduate and undergraduate nursing students. She has published widely in professional nursing literature and the lay press. Her grief articles include Grieving through the Years; When the Nurse is Grieving and Finding Help and Hope in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. She combined a biography of her daughter with a grief handbook entitled; Her Light Still Shines which is published by iUniverse and will be available in bookstores soon. Dr. Coralease Ruff appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss, Grief and Your Health: Taking Care of Yourself. To hear this interview, click on the following link: Dr. Coralease Ruff appeared on the radio show “Healing the Grieving Heart” with Dr. Gloria & Dr. Heidi Horsley to discuss, Coping with the Sudden Death of a Child in a Foreign Country. To hear this interview, go to the following link:

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