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Bereavement Support Services
Feeling Out of Control

I Wasn’t Going Crazy…..I Was Grieving

On August 21, 1977 my husband and I were sleeping peacefully at our camp. We were awakened by the ringing of the phone at 2:00 a.m. I could tell by my husband’s responses that something was wrong. He turned from the phone and told me that our daughter, Mary, had been in an accident and was in Community Hospital. We threw on our clothes.  As we were rushing out of camp I grabbed a book to read. I envisioned that she would have to stay in the hospital so I brought the book to read as I sat by her bed.

When we arrived at the hospital they ushered us into a room. My heart sank. I knew the news was going to be bad when they didn’t bring us to her. Then the nurse told us Mary had been killed in a car accident—her neck was broken when the car hit a telephone pole.  The nurse asked if we wanted to see her. I went in first.  It was so hard to believe.  She only had a little bandage on her head. It just looked as if she was asleep.  She had on a plaid shirt, jeans and her favorite boots. I kissed her and told her that we loved her and I knew she would go to God. My interest in life after death plus my faith helped me as I stood in that hospital room. I reasoned that Mary might still hear me, as our hearing is the last to go, or she was in heaven; and either way she would hear me.

That fateful night began one of the most painful journeys of my life. I was not prepared for the strong feelings that slammed into me. At first I didn’t believe it. I thought that it was a bad dream and I would wake up any minute. Much of the days surrounding the wake and funeral are a blur. Many people came to the wake but I only remember what two of them said.  In each instance they said, “I know just how you feel.”  I screamed inside—“Oh no you don’t!”  Then they told me that they had a child die. I had worked with the first man for five years.  His son had died six years before. The other couple’s son had died ten years ago but we had only known them through church for five years. I remember thinking—they eat, go to work, look normal—somehow we will too—it was my first glimmer of HOPE.

I tried to be strong. With hindsight I now realize that such strength is not realistic and not helpful to you or your family. I would sob in the shower so my family wouldn’t hear me. I started to swim a lot because I could cry in the lake and no one would know. Food no longer appealed to me. At first I lived on tea and Italian cookies. A week later I returned to work because I wanted to be busy—I didn’t want time to think. Yet there were times that I would stop right in the middle of a sentence. I would forget what I was talking about. I would leave my desk and then forget what I was getting. It was difficult to concentrate.

In early October we went to a meeting in Denver. I slept, ate and felt so much better; I realized that I was removed from the reality of Mary’s death. I wasn’t expecting her to call or some through the door as I did when I was home. After we returned the reality hit.  It scared me as I thought that I was getting worse—going backwards. I didn’t think that I could feel any worse, but I did.  When I really hit the pits I finally talked to two friends. It helped so much. I would be handling things fairly well for about three weeks and then I would start “sliding” down into the pits. After three weeks of “sliding” I would reach out for help. Talking about my feelings helped me to understand what aspect of grief was giving me trouble. This became a pattern that developed and was more acute at holidays and special family events. I hurt so much when I was in the pits that when I started to feel that I was going “down” again I would panic. Looking back it would seem that I should have realized that the “bad days” always passed and that I did feel better again. But grief wears you out. You don’t think clearly. I figure out my anxious feelings and the pure panic of feeling se devastated. I remember thinking that not only had Mary died, but now I was going crazy. My family didn’t need that too.

I couldn’t believe the physical symptoms of grief. I lost my appetite and eventually lost 20 pounds. I had shaky legs, a knot in my stomach, sleeplessness and my throat felt like it had a carrot going sideways. I felt like the ad on television where the gorilla slams the suitcase all over his cage. It seemed that the feelings of grief were slamming me from wall to wall. I would drop exhausted until the next onslaught—the next feeling slammed into me. No matter what I was doing—working, driving, cleaning—Mary seemed to “sit over my left eye.”  I could think or work on other things but I also thought about Mary and her death. I eventually shared with my sister-in-law Carol and faithful friends Peggy that I didn’t like the person I had become. I couldn’t understand. I wasn’t being a witch to my family and friends; if anything I was being nicer because I had become more aware of how important my family and friends were to me.  Later, when I learned that a low self-esteem goes with the territory of grief, I felt my self-esteem rise.

In the years since Mary’s death I have learned so much about grief and about life. I now know that I wasn’t going crazy. I was experiencing the range of strong emotions that accompany the death of a loved one. I learned to “lean into my pain.”  I hated that advice because I didn’t like to hurt, but I realized I had no choice. If I didn’t lean into my pain I would become better and cold. It is called grief work and the term is so true. It was the hardest work that I have ever done.

After Mary’s death I wanted so much to talk with others who had survived the death of their child. I would have gone hundreds of miles to be with people who had a similar experience. I hoped that maybe they had a magic formula to take the pain away or at least some ideas for coping. Our first Thanksgiving and Christmas had been so painful, even though as a family we had many caring people in our lives. Fifteen months after Mary’s death, as Christmas was approaching, I suggested to my boss and friend, Fr. Joe Philips, Director of Family Life Education, that I thought it would be helpful to hold a meeting for bereaved parents to talk about ways of coping with the holidays. During the meeting someone asked if we could meet the next month. That was the beginning of our HOPE FOR THR BEREAVED PARENT(S) monthly support group meetings. I was fortunate to work at Family life Education (a department of the Diocese of Syracuse) and therefore was able to use the meeting rooms, office equipment and mailing permit.

I held the first meeting in order to help other bereaved parents. I never realized how much it would help me. Since I was one of the coordinators I had to be prepared to speak on a different topic each month. In order to do this I had to face my own feelings about anger, depression, expectations, etc.  I also read a lot to gain more understanding. In talking and listening to other parents I learned that so many of my feelings were normal.  It is really true that in helping others we ourselves are helped.

I never envisioned all the various support groups that would be formed or the many services that we would be able to offer. We would never be able to accomplish all this without our beautiful, dedicated volunteers. About four months after our first meeting, Donna Kalb offered to help. Her son had died four years before. Seeing how well she was doing gave me great hope that someday I would do as well. Donna’s volunteering set a tone for the encouragement of other bereaved people to join us and for the shared decision making that holds true today. Currently over 200 volunteers help in so many ways: completing monthly mailings; typing; processing labels; coordinating groups; writing articles; coordinating publicity; collating; recording; wrapping and mailing handbooks; providing telephone help; providing hospitality; sending condolence notes; doing fund-raising; providing community education, etc. Due to the greatly expanded requests for our services, in May, 1985 Christine Beattie became coordinator.  The Rosamond Gifford Charitable Corporation funded this much-needed position.   

HOPE FOR THE BEREAVED, INC. 4500 Onondaga Blvd., Syracuse, N.Y. 13219.  This article and others are available through above address for $16.00 plus $3.00 postage and handling.  Phone:  315-475-9675, website: