Yes, you can die of a broken heart

When Carrie Fisher died this week, followed shortly by her mother, Debbie Reynolds, many people wrote about Debbie Reynolds dying of a broken heart. One headline I read proclaimed, “Debbie Reynolds Last Words…’I Want to be with Carrie’.” She was at her son’s house, planning her daughter’s funeral when she supposedly spoke these words and then died fifteen minutes later. Another article quoted Debbie Reynolds’ book, Unsinkable: “It’s not natural to outlive your child…This has always been my greatest fear. Too many mothers have lost their children, for thousands of different reasons. I don’t know if I could survive that.”

I could almost see a collective nodding in agreement from every person who has had a child die – understanding what it’s like to want to join your child following his or her death, and knowing that it’s not natural to outlive your child. In her column in the Washington Post, On Parenting, about Debbie Reynolds dying of a broken heart, Lexi Berndt writes, “Within the community of bereaved parents, there was a profound sense of understanding.” I understood.

One of the things that’s not talked much about following the death of a child is how difficult it is to go on living. Some experience physical difficulties. Some experience psychological difficulties. Some have a crisis of faith. Some parents have suicidal thoughts and want to die, even though they have never had a suicidal thought in their lives before. I don’t think many follow through, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cross their minds.

For me, early on, a thought would cross my mind once in a while, especially when I drove by the crash site (which all of us had to do nearly every day), how much I wished I could just drive in front of a big semi truck and die so I wouldn’t have to feel the overwhelming, crushing pain and grief of Jason’s death. It shocked me that I would even think such a thing! I had never had anything close to such a thought before in my life. Also, my doctor had prescribed sleeping pills for me and I very intentionally made sure i took one at night and put the bottle away so I wouldn’t take too many. I can’t lie – it was tempting at times to take the whole bottle so I wouldn’t feel such crushing pain any more. But, I intentionally chose to live.

Another article headline declared, “Broken heart syndrome is a real condition.” The article states: ” ‘It is a real disease,’ said Dr. David Winter, with Baylor Scott & White Health. ‘And we see this in tragic cases such as the Debbie Reynolds’ case…With a huge emotional outburst, stress hormones can go out in massive quantities to the blood…And in some people, more common in women, that can affect the heart…A sudden major stress to the body can cause a heart to stop, slow down, not pump effectively or even stop completely with a fatal irregular rhythm.’ ”

I believe it. I truly believe someone can die of a broken heart. My neighbor had a stroke following the death of her son. She didn’t die, but she’s never fully recovered from the stroke.

I know for sure that health can be impacted by deep grief following the death of a child. Research supports this fact. In his article, “Healing Your Body: Physical Practices for Mourners,” Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. writes:

When you are in mourning, you usually feel under-rested and overwhelmed. Your body is probably letting you know it feels distress. You may feel you have no strength left for your own basic needs, let alone the needs of others. Actually, one literal definition of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.” Yes, right now your body is telling you it has, just like your heart, been “torn apart” and has some special needs!

Your body is so very wise. It will try to slow you down and invite you to authentically mourn the losses that touch your life. The emotions of grief are often experienced as bodily-felt energies. We mourn life losses from the inside out. In our experience as a physician and grief counselor, it is only when we care for ourselves physically that we can integrate our losses emotionally and spiritually. Allow us to introduce you to how your body attempts to slow you down and prepare you to mourn your life losses.

Among the most common physical responses to loss are trouble sleeping and low energy. It is so common we even have a fancy term for it-the “lethargy of grief.” You are probably finding that your normal sleep patterns have been thrown off. Perhaps you are having difficulty getting to sleep, but even more commonly, you may wake up early in the morning and have trouble getting back to sleep. During your grief journey your body needs more rest than usual. You may also find yourself getting tired more quickly-sometimes even at the start of the day.

Sleeping normally after a loss would be unusual. If you think about it, sleep is the primary way in which we release control. When you experience a life loss, you feel a great loss of control. At a subconscious level, you may notwant to lose any more control by sleeping. So sleep problems are very natural in the face of life losses.

Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergy symptoms, changes in appetite, weight loss or gain, agitation, and generalized tension-these are all ways your body may react to losses that you encounter in life.

The stress of grief can suppress your immune system and make you more vulnerable to physical problems. If you have a chronic existing health challenge, it may become worse. Right now you may not feel in control of how your body is responding. Your body is communicating with you about the special needsit has right now. Befriending and mindfully giving attention to your physical symptoms will allow you to discover your body’s native intelligence.

After Jason died, I felt like I had either a huge weight on my chest or a tight band around my chest, and this made it difficult for me to breathe. I started taking small, shallow breaths. It wasn’t until many months later that I realized that I was breathing shallowly and that my grief was affecting how I breathed, and I took steps to breathe more deeply so I could get adequate oxygen.

One thing I will say about the article that quotes Dr. Winter. At the end of the article, it quotes him as saying, “”To sit there and grieve and get very emotionally upset can be deleterious to you and can even cause sudden death.” When I read this, I pictured a person just sitting there and allowing (encouraging) herself to get overwrought and overworked with grief, beyond what she should have. I’m sure this happens, but it also, in my opinion, makes it sound like we have full control over grief and that we should not grieve or we should control our grief or not become “very emotionally upset.” This quote hit me as very condescending. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t feel like I had a lot of control over my grief for a long time, and I find this intimation that grief is controllable offensive. We need to make sure we allow people to grieve in a healthy manner and not encourage them to stuff it down.

Grief not only affects us emotionally. It affects us physically. To say that the death of a child breaks our hearts is more than just a trite saying. Jason’s death nearly killed me. Sometimes, as in the case of Debbie Reynolds, we can actually die of a broken heart.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

 

Articles quoted and additional reading:

http://www.tmz.com/2016/12/28/debbie-reynolds-tmz-000/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/29/debbie-reynolds-said-outliving-daughter-carrie-fisher-greatest/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/12/30/debbie-reynolds-and-parent-grief-a-narrative-of-love/?utm_term=.cb25d66214e6

http://www.king5.com/news/health/yes-you-can-die-of-a-broken-heart/380451938

http://psychcentral.com/lib/your-health-and-grief/

http://griefwords.com/index.cgi?action=page&page=articles%2Fhealing_body.html&site_id=2

 

 

My Life in Boxes

Last fall, we went to Oklahoma to get the last of our things out of storage and to move them to North Carolina where we now live. They’ve been in storage for seven years since we moved from Oklahoma. We spent two days repacking things into smaller, uniform moving boxes and and once again whittling down our earthly possessions. Again. Deciding what’s important to keep and what’s replaceable. Again. Taking boxes and boxes and boxes of household goods, kitchen items and clothes to Goodwill. Again. I’ve done this process too many times and it’s hard on me every time. If I never again hear the words “we need to get rid of” or the phrase “Are you really keeping that???,” it will be too soon. It seems I always feel pushed into giving away something that really was important to me or that I later wished I had kept.

The last remaining things of our life in Seattle. The last remaining physical items I have that connect me to Jason. The history of our lives. Photographs. Scrapbooks. Christmas ornaments. Momentos of our lives when the kids were little. Jason’s chess set. A few books. A couple of my dad’s Bibles. Tax records. Important papers.

Less than 50 12″ x 12″ x 18″ boxes. Less than 50 boxes is all we moved. That’s all we have left. Seriously, that’s all we have left that we can call our own (since moving from Oklahoma seven years ago, we have lived in rented, fully-furnished one bedroom apartments in both Florida and North Carolina, so we don’t have any furniture, etc.). Less than 50 boxes. It seems like such a small amount of things that reflect the busy, fun, full life we had before Jason died and the big house and home that was so filled with love and activity. Sometimes it feels like my life has shrunk so small since then.

But, those items in those boxes also are a reminder that physical things are just that – things. They are just things. I lived without seeing or physically touching those things for seven years. Although those things may remind us of Jason and the time he was alive, there is no way those flat, one-dimensional items can truly reflect the real Jason – the awesome person he was, his intelligence and humor, his beautiful blue eyes, the many facets of his wonderful and Godly character, and his truly kind and loving nature. Those are things that can only be held closely and fully in our hearts and memories.

Holding you close in my heart and in my memories today, my precious boy. I miss you and I love you more than words can say. I look forward to the day I can see you and hug the real you once again.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

Article Referral – “Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong”

I’d like to share an article I found recently entitled “Stifled Grief: How the West Has it wrong.” In the article, the author states some of the common expectations by others of someone who has suffered a deep loss and is walking through deep grief. She then contrasts those expectations with the reality that those who have “walked the walk” have actually experienced. In her opening paragraphs, the author states:

Western society has created a neat little “grief box” where we place the grieving and wait for them to emerge fixed and whole again. The grief box is small and compact, and it comes full of expectations…that range from time frames to physical appearance. Everyone who has been pushed into the grief box understands it’s confining limitations, but all of our collective voices together can’t seem to change the intense indignation of a society too emotionally stifled to speak the truth. It’s become easier to hide our emotional depth than to reveal our vulnerability and risk harsh judgment. When asked if we are alright, it’s simpler to say yes and fake a smile…(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-e-steinke/stifled-grief-how-the-wes_b_10243026.html)

If you’re a grammar person, you may have to overlook some of the obvious errors. Please don’t let the need of a good proofreader cause you to miss the excellent content. You can find the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-e-steinke/stifled-grief-how-the-wes_b_10243026.html.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

 

 

I miss my life

I don’t know what’s going on with me lately. I’ve just really been struggling. You’d think after nearly fourteen and a half years, I’d have this whole grief thing down and be on a smoother, less rocky path.

I think I just get weary of the journey at times. Unless you’ve been there, I don’t think people realize how much effort it takes day after day, year after year to get up every day and face this reality, this life without our child, this life that is so much different than we had hoped for, planned for, expected. Some seasons or holidays take more energy than others. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries – sometimes they’re hard-to-face, emotional times that require more energy and effort than other times.

I just celebrated my 61st birthday. I was 46 when Jason died. How can I still struggle so much at times after all these years? When Jason died, I remember writing in my diary, pleading with God for something good to come out of all this loss. I prayed that the positive impact of Jason’s life and his beautiful, loving spirit would radiate out like ripples from a stone being thrown into a pond and impact the people he knew for good. I prayed that something meaningful would come out of such a senseless death, out of so much loss. Joe and I always felt, from the moment of Jason’s birth, that God had a special purpose for his life. And then he died at age 19. My beautiful, wonderful boy. After all these years, I still don’t see the “greater good” or the reason for so much pain.

Sometimes the loss overwhelms me, especially around birthdays and holidays. They seem to be times of introspect and reflection. I look at my life and wonder what it’s all about. I see a woman who still deeply grieves the death of her son. I see a woman who is lonely and unsettled. After all these years, we still haven’t found a place to be “at home.” We sold most everything in our nearly 3000 square foot home when we left Washington, and, believe me, I mean most everything! We bought a 1700 square foot house and some furnishings when we moved to Oklahoma, but then sold it all again when we left there three years later. We rented a furnished one-bedroom condo when we lived in Florida and now rent a furnished one-bedroom apartment in North Carolina. Most of what we own is packed and stored in less than 25 boxes. We don’t own the couch we sit on, the bed we sleep in, vacuum cleaner we use, or most of the dishes we eat on.

It’s not like we haven’t tried to find a house to rent or buy or a place to “anchor.” We have.   Housing is expensive where we live, and we just haven’t found anything we can afford that we really like enough to move. I’m not sure this is the right place for us, anyway. We just don’t know where we fit. I feel adrift and have felt that way since we left Washington. And now, it looks like our daughter and her husband may be moving away from here. I don’t know what I’ll do without her. I know she needs to live her own life and I want her to be happy. She’s been through so much and deserves to be happy. It’s just that I’ll just miss her so much.

I miss feeling connected and confident, knowing the direction I was headed, knowing my family was safe and happy. I miss imagining a future that looks bright and full of possibilities. Sometimes I look at my life and can’t believe this is my life now. Things just haven’t worked out the way I thought they would. We are so unsettled, disconnected in so many ways. We struggle to make friends, to fit in. We work, but to what end? We do this and that, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to have any meaning or dispel our restlessness. Our grandchildren live on the other side of the United States and we hardly know them. I expected to be one of those grandmothers who was involved in her grandkids’ lives, taking them places, doing fun things together, making crafts, baking. I expected to be wanted, needed, loved, hugged. Our relationship has never been easy with our daughter-in-law, so that makes it difficult as she does not encourage or foster our connections with our grandkids much, if at all, even when we visit them. It makes me so sad.

I was looking forward to Jason getting married and having kids. I could just imagine little Jason’s running around our house, along with our other grandkids. Joe has told me that he, too, expected us to stay in our Washington house for the rest of our lives, having a place for everyone to come home to visit, playing with our grandkids there. I’ve never known anyone so involved with his kids as Joe, someone who gets so much enjoyment spending time with his family. He’s a wonderful man with an amazing heart for kids, both his own and others. How do we put broken dreams to rest? I don’t know. What could have or should have been – it trips me up sometimes. The losses of what we no longer have trip me up sometimes, too.

My sister is coming to visit in a couple of weeks. As I was doing some cleaning this morning in preparation for her arrival, I got so frustrated with the less-than-adequate vacuum cleaner that is part of our furnished rental that I just yelled, “I miss my vacuum cleaner!! I miss my own stuff!! I miss my home!!  I miss my life!!!”

Silly to miss a vacuum cleaner, I know. It was just the symbol of the frustration, loneliness and sadness I’ve felt lately. I keep on trying. God knows, I keep on trying. Each new day, I keep on trying to find a purpose, trying to find meaning in the day, trying to do the best I can, trying to find the positive and good, trying to be thankful, trying to find a reason to go on. Sometimes it takes a lot of energy to keep on trying, and I simply run out of the energy reserves I have and get weary. I guess I’m just weary right now, needing something to go right.

Tomorrow is another day, and I will rise to try again.

~Becky

 

Out of sight; out of mind

A Facebook friend recently posted a note about being stuck in traffic because of an accident. “Westbound I-90 is closed due to a fatality accident. I’m stuck in the backup. At least we’re moving a little bit… at a snail’s pace.” She went on to say how thankful she was for her Starbucks ice tea and scone she had with her, that she was thankful she had Sirius XM radio to listen to while she was stuck in traffic, happy that she might get a day off if she could get off the freeway and turn around, and most of all thankful she was safe.

As a person who sees both sides of the coin in nearly every situation, my reaction was two-fold. My first reaction, of course, was that I was glad she was safe. My second reaction was astonishment that there was absolutely no mention or apparent concern about the family of the person who died, other people involved, or those who witnessed the accident. I know I’m sensitive when it comes to reports of a child dying or someone who dies in a car accident, but it all seemed just a bit unfeeling to me. Other friends made comments about how they loved her thankful attitude (“So many reasons to be thankful every day”), how they appreciated the heads-up so they could choose a different route to drive to their destinations so as not to be late to appointments, wanted to know if she was going to stop by since she might have the day off. It was only after someone posted concern for those involved in the accident that the tone changed to “so sad” and “praying for those involved” and any mention that it was a  71 year old woman who had died.

Yeah, that was me; I was the one who mentioned the accident victim. How could they appear not care that someone had died and that the family of the accident was going to have to walk down the rocky path of grieving the death of their loved one? I guess I felt like I needed to validate her existence and and the loss of her life. I wrote a very kind note saying I was so glad my friend was okay, but then mentioned that my heart went out to the family of the person who died. That’s when the tone of the comments changed to sentiments regarding the victim and how sad it was that she had died. I noticed this morning that the original post and thread have been deleted entirely.

As I’ve mentioned before, I know that I react to traffic accidents differently than most people do, simply because Jason died in a traffic accident. The sound of sirens  and the sight of emergency vehicles surrounding an accident don’t go unnoticed; it touches a place in me that can take me back to that day and stir up worries about the safety of my family. I’m not just a curious rubbernecker, gawking as I drive by to see what might have happened. The realization that I am not immune to the death of a loved one is now a very real part of who I am. I know what it’s like to drive up to the scene of an accident and see the bright, flashing lights of patrol cars and emergency vehicles that surround the car where my son just died. I recognize the strategic placement of fire trucks and emergency vehicles as they try to hide the horror from anyone who might pass by and gawk. I know what it’s like to read in the newspaper about the accident that killed my child and his best friend.

I also recognize the “I’m so glad it wasn’t me” attitude (as one gal said, “So many reasons to be thankful every day.”) and the effort to turn the focus away from something so awful as the death of a person who I’m sure was dearly loved by her family to something more mundane and everyday. Out of sight, out of mind. The sad thing is that I’m sure I used to respond exactly the same way before Jason died.

On the tenth anniversary of Jason’s death, I wrote a a couple of posts about some of the things I’d learned in those past ten years. In six months, we will be confronted with the fifteenth anniversary of Jason’s death. Fifteen years next March 3rd. I can’t believe it. I’ve been contemplating writing an updated version of my “what I’ve learned” post to include my observations of the last five years. The “out of sight, out of mind” thing is one topic I would include.

There are some things in the “out of sight, out of mind” area that I’ve noticed over the years in talking about Jason – not only about his death, but also about his life.

Although death is as much a part of life as birth, death is an uncomfortable subject and most people would rather avoid talking about it altogether. When working for an estate planning attorney who prepared wills and trusts for people and handled probates, I experienced this first-hand. People avoid getting their affairs in order in the eventuality of their own death because it’s uncomfortable. When it comes to discussing the death of someone’s child, it’s even more uncomfortable and people would rather not talk about it at all. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even after all these years, when I mention that we have a son who died, people get extremely uncomfortable and sometimes the dynamics of our relationship change. This happened to me recently. It makes some people so awkward to think about the death of a child that they pull away, and the typical development of a friendship may even stall. I think people are so glad it didn’t happen to them. Then they feel guilty about feeling that way and don’t know what to do next. And so they back off a bit. I understand that it’s more about them than about me, but it’s sad. As with many things concerning the death of a child, my head understands, but my heart doesn’t.

I also choose who I tell that Jason died in a car accident, and when or if I talk about it. I don’t bring it up with people I meet just casually or in passing. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about Jason. It just hurts when people ignore Jason’s life and pretend that I haven’t even mentioned his name. I’ve had conversations that awkwardly and immediately turn to something more mundane like the weather or the person will turn and begin to talk to someone else when I tell them our son died. It’s no fun to have people uncomfortable and awkward around me.

Even with people I know fairly well and who know about Jason’s death, when I talk about my children and include Jason’s life in whatever I’m talking about, people have a tendency to ask about my other two children and what they’re doing, but just sort of skip over talking about Jason at all. It’s like I hadn’t even mentioned his name. People act like he never lived. Some people we were really close to “before” don’t respond at all on Facebook when I post pictures on Jason’s birthday or the anniversary of his death. Some people do, and I’m very thankful they take the time to remember Jason. But some would rather skip over the reminder of Jason’s life and his death altogether. It’s hard not to feel like they’d rather keep his life and subsequent death out of sight, out of mind so they don’t have to think about what it’s like to lose a child or about the fact that a terrific guy like Jason died.

Some people tend to think that, because it’s been almost fifteen years, I should be all done this grief stuff and that it shouldn’t affect me any more. It’s so far in the past. Shouldn’t I be over it by now? I read an article in the Huffington Post recently entitled “Stifled Grief: How the West Has It Wrong.” It’s a very good article about some of the unrealistic expectations that we have in our society concerning grief, and I would suggest you take time to read it.

One blogger I follow, Kathleen Moulton, also recently wrote about this recently in her blog entitled, “no earthly thing.” She writes, “There is no earthly thing that can take the pain away of your child’s death…only heavenly.” So true. I will miss Jason for the rest of my life. I deal every day, on varying levels, with the grief and pain of his death. He is never “out of sight, out of mind” for me. I know in my heart that he lived and that his life mattered, and that he was the most wonderful son I ever could have imagined. I hold him close in my heart every day and am so thankful he was born in our family. But, I miss him and I grieve that he is gone. The pain and the grief of his death will permanently end only when we see Jason again in that place where there is no death or sorrow or suffering. And then God, Himself, will wipe away my tears. We will see Jason again and it will be a glorious day. Of that I am sure.

~Becky

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

A Momentous Year

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Birthday letter to Jason July 29, 2001. The pastor read this letter at Jason’s memorial service.

The morning of July 29, 2001, I woke up really early, and I knew the instant I woke up that I wanted to write Jason a special note for his 19th birthday. I just had to let him know how special he was to me and how much I appreciated him for who he was.

We tend to think of milestone birthdays as those  more momentous than others and seem to carry more “weight” or reason to celebrate than others. It’s not that the other years aren’t celebrated, it seems that bit more emphasis tends to be placed on those birthdays than others. What those birthdays represent have a stronger meaning. Turning sixteen tends to represent being able to get a driver’s license. Eighteen represents becoming an adult and going off to college or some other type of independent step. For some, twenty-one represents being able to purchase alcohol. Latin cultures have a huge quinceañera celebrations when a girl turns fifteen. Jewish communities celebrate the milestone of a boy turning thirteen with a bar mitzvah. In my mind, as I wrote in the note, I thought it wasn’t one of the ones we typically think of as momentous.

IMG_2558Little did I know, at the time, how momentous that birthday would be. It was the last one we would ever celebrate here on this earth with him.

That year, we celebrated on Jason’s actual birthday with our family and some of his closest friends, and then we had a large joint birthday party at a local park for Jason and his good friend, Justin. Just looking at those pictures, I can tell he was happy and that he knew he was loved. He loved being with family and friends. He loved to have fun.

On July 29th this year, we would have celebrated Jason’s 34th birthday. I can only imagine what his life would have been like and what he would have accomplished by now. What would he be doing? Who would he have married? Would he have children? We’ll never know the answers to those questions.

I am so glad Jason was born into our family. He was 9 pounds, 10 1/2 ounces of pure joy. Kind, loving, thoughtful, empathetic, intelligent, funny. There aren’t enough words in my vocabulary to describe what a special guy he was and how much I love him. And no matter how many years go by, I will always love and miss my precious boy. Happy birthday, Jason.

 

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney

A Better World

I dream of a better world

But how can there be a “better world” when you are not in it?

You made this world better and brighter

And it is so much less so now that you are gone.

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I miss you, my precious boy.

© 2016 Rebecca R. Carney