The first time it happened I was only fifteen. My sister, Carmella, died at the young age of thirteen. I went into a state of shock followed by deep, unrelenting grief. Back then people didn’t openly talk about grief so I was scared out of my mind. I didn’t know what I was feeling, much less what I was experiencing. My mother and father were struggling daily with their own grief. I didn’t know what to do, who to talk to, or when this terrible fear and heaviness would leave.
That’s when I began the cycle of self-punishment. I was afraid to smile, so I didn’t. I was afraid to laugh, so I didn’t. I was afraid to leave the house, so I didn’t. When friends asked me to go out with them for pizza and a soda I lied. I said I wasn’t allowed to go out. I said I had to babysit my younger sister who was six years old. I lied because I was so afraid that if I smiled or enjoyed any part of life I would somehow be disrespectful to my sister, for lack of a better word.
I suffered for three years like this until I finally began having terrible panic attacks. When that started I went to a doctor and he was the first one to finally talk to me and tell me it was okay to smile. If I felt joy, I wasn’t in any way lessening the fact that my sister died. I wasn’t being disrespectful. And, I certainly wouldn’t love her any less.
The climb back to a bit of “normalcy” was hard. How much I wish I had given myself permission from the very beginning to feel life again!
Fast forward to two years ago when my firstborn son Mike died. Once again, I went into shell shock. I felt the trauma of his death a thousand times harder than the blow I felt when my sister died. I’m convinced there is no love that compares to that of a mother. I knew from years ago what happened when I shut myself off to life, but I fell into such a deep hole of despair that I began doing it again.
I stopped eating out on Friday nights with my friends. I lied. I said I had to babysit grandkids. I stopped going bike riding — something I loved to do. I lied again saying I had to work extra hours on the weekend.
I was punishing myself again because I was too afraid to smile. I was too afraid to feel joy. I was too afraid to feel anything. If I began to feel, then I could be hurt all over again, and I didn’t want that.
This cycle of self-punishment is real. Many, many people do it. Some use food as their means of self-punishment. Anorexia and bulimia are words we hear often. Others use cutting. Some pull out their hair. Still others do as I did, and withdraw from those we love, sit in a shell of emptiness wrapped in our pain and grief and become too afraid to feel any joy in life because we’re too afraid of being disrespectful to our child who has died, we’re too afraid that if we smile or laugh in some way we are dishonoring our child’s life, or we feel unworthy to smile.
I’m happy to say that I’m back to eating with my friends. I’ve been swimming (no bike riding just yet), and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my grandchildren and taking early morning walks. Yes, I can say I’m back to enjoying the beauty found in this life again.
I’m not “healed” of my grief by any means. I will always and forever grieve the fact that my son died. My heart has a hole in it that will remain forever. That space was reserved for one person — Mike — and he is no longer here. Nothing will ever come close to filling that space again.
But, I have given myself permission to smile. I’ve given myself permission to laugh. I’ve given myself permission to grieve, while still being able to enjoy the beauty found in this life.
Best of all, I know Mike would love knowing that his mom is able to smile again.
I know many of you struggle with this same issue. If you’ve been struggling and need some further insight into finding joy and hope in your life once again, I encourage you to seek extra support, and please get a copy of the books I wrote after the death of Mike. I spent months writing, pouring out my heart, so that other parents won’t have to suffer the way I did. The book that will help you understand your grief and the complexity of grief is Child Loss – the Heartbreak and the Hope. This book will be one you keep near you and you’ll think of this book as your friend.
If you’re seeking to find purpose in your life after the death of your child, and you need hope, then Hope 365: Daily Meditations for the Grieving Heart will help you. There are 365 short, daily meditations that will be like taking a spoonful of new hope each day.
Please don’t punish yourself by locking joy out of your life. Your grief is a heavy burden to carry. The joy you allow in will help to lighten the load!
I’d love to hear from you. Tell me about your struggles with giving yourself permission to smile, and let me know what has helped you. I’d love to hear from you!
With love and prayers,