Dealing with the death of my child

n January of 2003, Mary’s firstborn child, Joseph, was senselessly murdered in a carjacking.

Crawling back from the darkness that descended upon her wasn’t easy, but with three other children and a husband still needing her, she found the strength to live in the face of death.

“They needed me there; they didn’t need me in bed, they didn’t need me drugged up, they didn’t need me drunken. I can guarantee you that those are places I wanted to go,” Mary said.

Joseph was 18, and his most prized possession was his car, a ’71 Lincoln Mark-3. He spent all of his money restoring this car, and he finally got down to the last thing that he wanted – a set of rims for his tires.
Mary remembers that when Joseph said wanted the rims for Christmas, she asked, “Son, why do you want rims? People get killed for their rims.” Still, she gave him money to go toward rims, and Joseph eventually bought a set.

Things went well until one night in 2003, when Joseph went out on a date.

The assailants shot Joseph three times, twice in the head and once in the back. It is still unknown today whether Mary’s son put up a struggle or if the attackers, in an act of thoughtless violence, shot him just for the sake of shooting him. They took his car and left him on the ground. Joseph’s blood work came back clean; there were no drugs or alcohol in his system.

“It happened less than eight minutes from the house, and what a nightmare that night was,” Mary said. She credits her faith, family and friends with helping her make it through the hardest times.

“There was a time where my husband didn’t think that I wanted to be with him because I would lay on the couch and watch TV until five in the morning,” she said. “It had nothing to do with him. I just could not lay my head down without starting to cry.”
Mary’s neighbor brought her homemade lunch and dinner, and she says if not for this act of kindness, she wouldn’t have eaten during that time.

“It is interesting because when you eat it brings comfort, but when you are going through a death like that, you don’t want to be comforted. You want to wallow,” said Mary. “I can understand how people can go into a depression so deep that you can not get out of it. If I didn’t have to be there for my family and my friends, I would have gone there.”
Mary belonged to a few support groups to help her get through, but said it still felt like a nightmare at times, until finally the killers were brought to justice.

“It was such an emotional relief that they were going to catch them,” she said. “In some of the organizations that I have been involved with, there are people who never get to that point of finding the people who murdered their loved ones.”

The support group showed Mary that as bad as things were for her, there were many others who had it worse. She met some parents who had lost more than one child, or who’d lost their child before they even had a fair shot at life. Being around others helped her feel supported and understood and gave her a perspective that turned her grief into gratitude.

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Interactive Hope
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Support System
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A Shoulder to Lean on
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Trigger Happy
The Mayo Clinic’s resource/informational sheet about what triggers grief and the best way to face those triggers.

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When breast cancer becomes a family affair

Jean had been planning the trip of a lifetime for more than a year.

Ever since her husband had passed away, she and her three daughters had been daydreaming about their vacation in Hawaii. They wanted a chance to create new memories and to solidify their family bond. They planned for months, and in the midst of all the excitement, Jean was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was the first person in my family to have breast cancer, and it was devastating,” said Jean. “I found out from having a mammogram, and from there it was really fast. I had surgery and then I went through chemo for about 8 months.”

Not wanting to let her girls down, Jean decided to go ahead with the trip. She hadn’t even finished treatment yet.

“I never saw her get sick,” said Jean’s daughter Tina. “She would never tell me. I would say, ‘How are you feeling?’ and she’d say, ‘A little tired.'”

After completing her treatment and getting a clean bill of health, Jean felt like breast cancer was out of her life for good. But 5 years later, on the anniversary of her last treatment, her daughter Tina got the same fateful call.

“That was even worse for me,” Jean said. “When something happens to your kids, you’re going to blame yourself. That is just being a mother.”

Since both Jean and Tina knew exactly what breast cancer was like, since their family had felt so deeply its impact, Tina admits that she was afraid it might be genetic.

She put off testing for a while, afraid that if it was genetic she’d have to admit it wasn’t over. Her sister, who was concerned for all the women in their family, eventually convinced her to get it done.

“It took me awhile to get the results because they test something like 16,000 different points in your blood,” said Tina. “Finally my doctor called and she said it was all negative. There is an 85% chance that I will not have a reoccurrence and 75% chance that no other female in my family will get it. I didn’t think that I was that worried about it, but after she told me everything was negative I was really relieved. I could tell all the girls it isn’t going to be our fault.”

Getting a clean bill of health made Tina realize just how important it is to find a cure. She decided to take the positive outlook she depended on through her treatment and put it toward throwing a benefit to raise money for breast cancer research.

Using her sense of humor and enlisting the help of the women in her life, Tina set out to get donations and plan a silent auction.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “Basically, I learned how to beg!”

Friends and Families for a Cure has become an annual event, and Tina makes sure that the benefit celebrates all the survivors it benefits.

“We have a DVD that shows survivors pictures playing during the event, and we have a memory board shaped like a ribbon for people who didn’t make it through,” she said. “I can’t believe that there isn’t someone out there who hasn’t been touched by breast cancer. Either they know someone, or they’re related to somebody. I think if you put a name and a face with it, it makes it a lot more real for people.”

Fighting hunger, one family at a time

Pam found herself drawn to an article about hunger in America. Accompanying the article was a photograph of a young girl, lying on a tattered mattress with a torn up plywood wall behind her, sucking on chicken bones.

“I looked at this and I knew I had to do something,” Pam remembered. “I spent the next 24 hours tracking down the writer from the Times and tracking down the pastor who was featured in the story. I made contact with the pastor and I said, ‘I want to help, what can I do?’ And, I’ll never forget this, he said: “I prayed for a miracle.”

“I said, ‘I’m not a miracle. I’m just an ordinary mom and I want to help.’”

Pam’s organization, Family-to-Family, allows families who have more to adopt families who have profoundly less. The [impoverished] families receive a monthly food allotment that arrives at the end of the month when their food stamps run out.

Once the group got set up, Pam had to figure out how to get the food from Hastings-on-Hudson, to Pembrook, Ill., which was 1800 miles away. So, she started sending emails to FedEx, UPS and DHL. The emails read simply, “Hi, I’m Pam Koner. I’m a mom. Here’s what I’m trying to do.”

“FedEx sent me an email, which I almost deleted because I thought that it was junk mail, and it said, “Hi Pam Koner, we’d love to help you, Lisa Daniel.” Pam recalls. “I jumped up with joy. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Family-to-Family shipped 17 boxes in November of 2002 and has slowly, but surely grown into a national hunger relief organization. But perhaps even more satisfying for Pam than this growth was the opportunity to meet her adopted family. She was especially excited to meet the mom, Lily.

“Lily’s son was sitting in front of a space heater, wrapped up in clothes playing a Game Boy, and there were the boxes I had sent over the last two months,” Pam said. “Her little daughter came out wearing my daughter’s red L.L. Bean jacket. And there was the vacuum cleaner and an old microwave I’d sent. “

For a moment Lily and Pam just looked at each other. Then they both walked out, hugged again, and cried.

Maybe Pam’s story has inspired you to make a difference; if so, here are some words of advice and encouragement to help you along the way.

1. “Believe in yourself.”

If you are interested in doing anything that involves creating something from nothing, which is basically what Pam did, you have to believe that you can make a difference. Believe that you can crash up against barriers and that you can crash through.

2. We, as women, know in our guts when things are valid. Trust your gut.

If someone out there feels they have a cause or an interest, or something that they want to affect, Pam has some unconventional advice to offer.

“Most people would tell you to go out and research it. I say, Go with your guts,” Pam declared. “We as women know in our hearts and in our guts when things are going right. Find something that’s really powerful for you to focus on, then start with baby steps, set achievable short term goals and talk to everyone you know.”

3. Stay focused on the possibilities not the limitations.

When struggling with something, whether it’s work, family or friends, Pam turns to this personal mantra: Stay conscious of the possibilities, not the limitations.

“When you feel the limitations of something, break through,” Pam said. “And if you can’t feel the possibilities, get out of the situation.”

Creating a community that helps other communities, she said, has made Pam feel less significant, but in a good way.

“When you do this work, you realize how your own self isn’t nearly as significant as the work you do,” she said. “This experience has changed how I perceive everything.”

Learn more about giving back from these helpful sites.

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Families Unite
A nationwide nonprofit founded by Pam that’s committed to connecting families with more to families with less.

One Child At a Time
The Children’s Hunger Relief Fund works to provide safe drinking water and meals to impoverished children all over the world.

Donate, Advocate, Volunteer
America’s Second Harvest – the nation’s largest charitable hunger relief organization – distributes more than 2 billions of donated groceries a year. Get involved!

Find Your Purpose
Volunteer Match can pair you with causes that are close to your heart and close to your home.

Walking the Walk
Known, loved and feared for its ability to move the masses through grassroots efforts, MoveOn.org is committed to uniting people for political change, whether to elect a president or stop a proposed strip mall from stealing land from a public park.

Keeping the lines of communication open

Julie had a bad case of empty nest syndrome. Her son had left four years earlier, they had since moved to a new town, and she was unemployed. After she dropped her daughter Karen off at college, the first moth was really difficult.

“When my parents dropped me off at college, my mom was crying uncontrollably.”

It wasn’t that Julie was worried about Karen and her capabilities to live on her own… She was sad because she was going to be gone.

Check out Julie and Karen’s tips for staying in touch.

1. Write down your feelings.

All relations have ebbs and flows. That’s why writing an email or even in a mother-daughter journal really helps keep the lines of communication open. The advantage of email is that it provides time to think, so that we don’t say something rash that we might end up regretting.

2. Start a tradition.

Julie and Karen run races and travel together, try and find things in common that you can make into an annual event.

3. Keep in touch.

Karen and Julie say they try to make each other a part of their everyday lives. They exchange emails every single morning, and even if it’s mundane stuff, they still let each other know what is in store for their day.

Karen’s parents stayed involved in her life during college, coming to all of her home basketball games and a lot of her away games.

According to the Ageless Project, Millie Garfield is one of the internet’s oldest bloggers. Enjoy as she and her daughter compile life memories, review books and even foray into the world of YouTube.

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Thoroughly Modern Millie
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My daughter the hairstylist: Keeping me current

From the time she was ten years old, Alyssa’s mom gave her full creative license with her hair. She experimented with everything from Sun-In to streaks of turquoise and pink.

When Alyssa was about 15, her mom helped her get a job as a receptionist at a salon. It was a kids’ salon called Hair Depot. “I loved it, and one of the girls here encouraged me to start beauty school.” She ended up getting her high school diploma at the same time she got her beauty school license.

Alyssa worked at Vidal Sassoon and a few other places for a couple of years. And even though she was still very young, her mom knew she was a creative and talented hairstyling powerhouse.

Mary, her mother, however, wasn’t as creative as her daughter. But she’s always been a good businessperson, so when Hair Depot went out of business, Alyssa and Mary saw it as the perfect opportunity to open their own hair joint.

“We called it The Cut. We wanted to create a neighborhood atmosphere, a really comfortable salon where people could come in their sweats and bring their children,” Mary explained. “Our goal was to provide the same quality of service, but in a more comfortable setting and at a better price.”

Alyssa gets a lot of enjoyment out of being a stylist, but says a lot of clients can be resistant to change. Mary admits she used to be one of those clients but says working with her daughter has opened up her eyes.

“After opening this salon and working with young, cutting-edge stylists like my daughter, I’ve learned that there are a lot of styles for older women that can make them look much younger and more contemporary, and beautiful and free. A lot of women get stuck in a permed style that makes them look older.”

Mary and Alyssa both agree that it’s really important for women to be able to try something new. After all, it’s just hair, and it will always grow back.

“When I cut my mom’s hair, I don’t listen to her at all. If you don’t pay me to do your hair, you’re just my canvas and I’m going to do whatever I want to. My mom’s got conservative ideas about her hair, and I push her to make changes that I know will look good—but the changes are still pretty conservative.”

Mary responds, “If I didn’t have Alyssa as a daughter, my hair would probably still be one long fuzz ball.”

Mary has loved every style that Alyssa has given her—especially when she does something that she didn’t want her to do.

“In those cases, I usually end up loving it more,” she says. “At this point, I trust her to do anything with my hair.”

For herself, Alyssa can’t stay with the same hairstyle for very long. She is constantly updating her look. “I can’t understand why someone would want to stick with the same thing for years and years.”

“It can be scary to get a new look,” Mary says, “Hair is like a security blanket, especially if you’ve had one style for a long time. I think a lot of women have a hard time changing with the times.” For older people, they are used to the same style—they’re afraid they won’t know what to do with something new.

Alyssa has a very professional take on how to work with different types of hair, “Style has more to do with the hair texture than the face shape or your age. If you have really thick hair and you cut it short, it’s going to look poofy, and if you have thin hair and you try to grow it long, it’s just going to be flat and stringy.”

Everyone has something different about their hair, that’s why it’s important to communicate with your stylist about what you want. Mary and Alyssa both think you should be able to really trust your hairstylist, no matter who it is. Mary’s just happens to be her daughter!

If you live in the LA area, visit Mary and Alyssa at their cute, cozy salon, The Cut.

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She Bangs
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Coping with loss: Artwork helped me heal

Liz’s younger sister was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that forms inside the body cavities and around the vital organs–she was not yet 30.

“By the time they found it, the cancer was touching all of her organs,” Liz recalls. “She went through major surgery, which gave her four to five years.”

Liz knew that her entire family would have to help her sister Rebecca through her illness, but she wasn’t sure she would know what to do. But as is the case when caring for somone you love, crisis forced Liz to discover things about herself that she had never explored, including her limitations. Because her sister she was always incredibly hopeful, she did not want people crying around her. “She was very much, ‘if you are going to cry, I can not talk to you,’ and she would not talk to me for a month until I could gain my composure.”

Liz learned to restrict her emtions through helping her sister. Becoming the person that her sister needed, fulfilled her own needs. Although she had recently completed graduate school to figure out who she was, it was the time she spent with her sister that taught her true confidence in her capabilities.

“I think that is what is so amazing about the experience is that I walked away, obviously really grief stricken and really upset that I had lost this person. But I had this experience that tested who I was.”

After her sister’s death, LIz went back to work. Althogh this seemed impossible, she reminded herself, “All I have to do is make sure these kids are safe and that I am teaching them, but my 100% may be different today.” She got to a certain point where getting up in the morning, going to work, and going through the motions became part of the healing process. Eventually motions become beacons of stregth.

The instant she found out her sister was sick, Liz’s idenity as an artist undrewent a transformation. “I was still making art because it’s something I have to do, but all of the critique talk that went on in graduate school went out the window. I found myself making work and taking that time to reflect and quite myself down.”

Her artwork became a physical form of how she was dealing with the pain. It also became a way to integrate part of her sister into her own life. “My sister decided what she wanted to do and she made it happen. Now with my own life, when I sit back at the end of the day and I say, ‘What have I done and where do I want to be,’ it comes down to the fact I want to make art and I want to teach.”

Like many of us who have lost loved ones, Liz kept seeing her sister in all sorts of things and people after she died. Liz and her sisters would believe that Rebecca was giving them a sign if the lights flickered in the room.

The arch continues to change–she’s now at a point where doesn’t need that shape anymore. “The shape I am seeing now is a circle or an oval, and I guess you could say it is completeness.”

Liz just sold her first big piece and it is of an arch. The woman she sold it to asked her to explain what it was. Although she typically leaves interpretation to the viewer, Liz felt like she had to tell her. After explaining the story, the women explained that her husband had passed away from cancer several years ago, it was a beautiful and intimate moment.

Liz’s advice to other people who are helping someone with cancer is, “You really just need to give this person what they need. She told us what she needed and we did it to the best of our abilities. All you have to do is make it through the day, that’s all you have to do.”

There is no easy way to get through traumatic events, but there are some things to keep in mind while time heals the wounds. Understand symptoms, how to care for yourself, and how to recover, check out these tips at the University of Iowa.

Young & Restless
As bewildering as death is for adults, it’s even worse for children and teens, whose life concepts aren’t as secure. Learn how to help the young grieve and cope with loss at DirectGov.

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Staying Informed
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Coping with brain drain after having a baby

Marin graduated from law school seven months pregnant and gave birth to her first child in July. She expected the shift from student to stay-at-home mom to be a transition, but she didn’t expect the mental adjustment it would require.

“I went from constantly being intellectually stimulated and busy in law school – definitely setting my own time and pace – to being not really intellectually stimulated and just physically so tired all the time,” she said. “I had no idea what kind of a strain it would be on me.”

After years building confidence through educational accomplishment, Marin found her self-esteem crumbling as she struggled with things that seemed to be a breeze for other women. How much she knew about law was completely irrelevant when it came to breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding was so hard for me for about three months,” she said. “I put a big black X on our calendar. I was like, ‘If it still hurts by this day, that’s the day I’m stopping.’ But it got easier and easier — or maybe I got tougher and tougher.”

Marin describes motherhood by saying it “rocked my world.” The lifestyle change was so immediate and so dramatic, she had no choice but to hang on for the ride and build a new life for herself.

Marin decided to apply the problem-solving and multitasking skills she used in her education into her new role as a mother. Rather than accept loneliness and feeling drained, she began to gather information and do a little bit of research.

Here are some other tricks Marin tried to ease her way into motherhood:

  • Get some perspective.

“My mom has seen all of her kids from babyhood to adulthood,” Marin said. “When I would complain about it all, about how I was so tired, like, ‘He had to sleep with us all night long and I couldn’t even put him back in his crib,’ she would say, ‘Oh, I miss the days when I could sleep with my baby in the bed.’ Having a new baby was a golden time for her, and being able to have that perspective really did help me think.”

  • Share your experiences.

Marin said she wasn’t shy about picking up the phone and calling family whenever she needed help.

“Advice from other women was always really important to me, not because I couldn’t have gotten by without it, but just because a lot of experiences are the same, and it’s just nice to share common things,” she said. “It’s definitely reassuring.

  • Find your rhythm.

By sleeping when her son slept and giving up keeping a day planner Marin was able to more easily adjust to life with a new baby.

“Not scheduling out my time was unsual for me, but it works,” she said.

  • Seek out stimulation.

One of the most difficult aspects of switching from student to mother was the lack of mental engagement Marin could get. In school, she was used to being fed new information all the time, but at home, she had to be proactive about getting it. She joined a book club, started taking trips to the library, became a volunteer teacher at an elementary school and began blogging to keep her mind busy.

“I realized I’m in charge of feeding my brain,” she said. “It doesn’t come to you anymore. You have to reach out and look for it, but there’s so much out there that once I changed my outlook, it wasn’t bad at all.”

Although the transition from law school to motherhood was a very difficult period of adjustment, Marin has found that seeing everything through the experience of her son, Charlie, has made her life richer.

“Last Christmas felt like my first Christmas as well as his, just realizing it’s his first time seeing snow,” she said. “This summer is the first time he’s played in the sprinklers. You see things that are normal or predictable for you with a fresh set of eyes.”

If you’re feeling the need for something a little more enthralling than the latest Baby Einstein, try joining Good Reads, on online book club where you can chat, track and discover books.

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