Here, There and Everywhere

Posts tagged ‘death’

One by One They Died

Life of Nane Alejandrez. Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

In photo: Nane holding photos of brother Tavo and Leo’s headstones.

naneOne by one they died . . . from drugs . . . from violence . . . from pain, hate and revenge. Nane’s oldest brother got wiped out when he was intentionally hit from behind on his motorcycle; his younger brother died from a heroin overdose; his uncle Pancheo was stabbed to death; numerous cousins succumbed to drugs or were murdered; and his father died from an accumulation of life-long exposure to pesticides, alcoholism and a blow to the head with a baseball bat during a gang fight. That Nane survived to tell his story is a miracle in and of it’s self. 

Mr. Alejandrez is now director of Barrios Unidos (Communities United), was instrumental in convening a national gang summit for peace and has received countless awards and recognition for his work in teaching and living non-violence. Barrios Unidos is a multi-cultural program whose mission is to prevent and curtail violence among youth, by providing alternatives such as the Cesar E. Chavez School For Social Change; outreach to youth clubs, parent groups, juvenile hall and kids on the street; and community economic development by operating a full service, custom silk screening business called BU Productions, where youth learn production, sales, marketing, design and administration skills.

NANE:

I’ve seen so many families get torn apart and so many men, especially men, go into hate and revenge and take somebody else’s life. Not thinking about what it’s going to do to the rest of the family. All the violence and anger . . . and a lot of us being brought up to not show any pain . . . to not let people know . . . so we act out, even at times when we don’t want to.

When I acted out I didn’t really want to, but I did it to show that I was looking out for the neighborhood; for the honor of my family. It felt like I wasn’t punking out. If you didn’t do nothing then someone else would think, “Oh well, kill one of those family members and nobody will do anything about it.” So the family would look at each other and say, “Who’s going to do something about it?” – That whole system of payback; trying to keep an image that causes a lot of pain. It’s easier to do that then to deal with your pain.

One thing I’ve learned throughout the years, is I wish somebody would have talked to me about pain and how to deal with it; how to not inflict pain. I learned how to numb it by using drugs and violence, which removed me from feeling it and kept my feelings busy on something else. That worked for a while, but what began to happen was the addiction started taking over. No longer was it about feelings; it was just being well. Surviving and the excitement of breaking the law and running with the home boys . . . you know . . . rebelling, not conforming. I didn’t know anybody that was dealing with it.

People would say, “It’s OK, everything’s going to be all right.” I’d say, “How do you know everything’s going to be all right, when I’m feeling like shit?! You tell me everything’s going to be all right, but that guy over there’s laughing at what he did to my family. Why shouldn’t I go do it to his family?” And then other people would just say, “Go out and take care of it.” They think, “Why isn’t he doing anything? Why doesn’t he take one of their people out?”

There’s that whole thing of not believing in a higher power. I said, “How can this God take my loved ones away? How can He allow it to happen . . . to take my heroes?” The heroes in my life were taken away in a short period of time. The heroes to me were my father, my Uncle Frank and my oldest brother.

After losing all these relatives I was still using drugs a lot of the time. When my father had his operation I was strung out and unemployed. Here I was having graduated from the university with honors and I was really down. When I went to see him in the hospital I was loaded. I went into intensive care. My aunt was there and we went into see him. There were five individuals in intensive care and you know a lot of people that go in there don’t come out. They told me he was all bandaged up and swollen and it would be hard to recognize him. I go in there and start to talk to my father and tell him how much I love him, how much I care about him, my aunts at the end of the bed rubbing his feet. I’m saying, “You’re going to be OK. I love you Dad.” Then my other aunt comes in and says, “Alejandrez is over here.” I look and say, “Wow man!” I was talking to the wrong man. (laughs) I was talking to another man two beds down from my father. My aunt let go of his feet and yelled! I could hear the rest of my family laughing, even in a situation like that, they were laughing. They were going, “Nane’s over there talking to another man.” I swear to God I felt like disappearing. If my father could talk he would have said, “I’m over here stupid!” or “Pendejo en estoy!” So I had to move from that bed to my Dad’s bed and repeat everything. That’s how fucked up I was. That’s an example of the madness. It took me about a year after my father died to really let go of that.

After all these deaths, when I really wanted to clean myself up, I was able to see a friend of mine who was clean. He’s now one of my best friends. We had used together in the past, so when I saw him clean I saw the possibility. He was looking good. I’d gotten busted and was going to court and he would show up in the courts. Every time I had a court date he’d be there supporting me.

Finally I just couldn’t do it no more. My family . . . my children . . . I wasn’t doing anymore talks. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I’d gotten so deep I couldn’t maintain. And I didn’t want to be doing stuff when I was loaded. I hid my addiction a lot. When it got to the point were I couldn’t do that anymore I asked for help. When I asked him for support he was there. Once I got clean and got the drugs out of my system I started to feel a lot of the pain.

I think I was always a spiritual person but I got side tracked. I got more involved in my traditional ways . . . my indigenous background . . . knowing that it was OK to pray. I’d go around with a lot of Native American teachers and prayer was always there. So I started to pray and go to NA (narcotics anonymous) and they always ended the meeting with a prayer. I began to feel different. My work started coming out again and I was really happy. I was seeing the faces of children and I told myself, “If I’m going to do this I need to do it right.” I need to be clean and I can’t be backsliding. I got more involved in my work and my self. It took a long time to do that again.

I’ve been gifted, you know, in certain situations where things were going to happen . . . by me being there . . . and the respect they have for me. Because I have been through a lot and they could sense it, it stopped it from happening again. People know that this is what I’ve been talking about for the last twenty years. “Stop the violence! Stop the violence!” Even through my madness I’ve stuck with it. People my age always tell me that that’s what they admire about me . . . that I’ve always stuck with it. It’s been hard. There’s been a lot of pain. People ask, “Why would you want to stay in a situation where you’re dealing with so much pain?” But at the same time there’s so much hope . . . the smiles on the kids. They’ve got this place, they’ve got a job, people that look like themselves running it. They got inspiration that maybe someday they’ll be doing it.

More of Nane’s story, and others, at: Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

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My Son Ryan

Profile of Jeanne White and her son Ryan. From Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

jeannewhiteIn 1984, one week before Christmas, Jeanne White was told that her son Ryan had contracted AIDS from a blood product he’d used to control his hemophilia. The doctors gave him six months to live. Struggling to make life as normal as possible for her thirteen-year-old son, she attempted to have him return to school as soon as possible.

She did not realize the amount of fear and prejudice that would result when the school heard of his illness and refused to allow his return. After numerous court battles, which brought he and his mother to national and international attention, Ryan was allowed back in school, only to be inundated with hate, ignorance and abuse. As a result of their struggles Ryan was befriended by numerous celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson and Phil Donahue and began to educate children and parents about AIDS by speaking at schools, appearing on numerous talk shows and news programs and having a movie about his life broadcast on national television. On April 11, 1990, five and a half years after his six-month prognosis, Ryan died. His funeral was one of the most publicized services of that decade.

Shortly after Ryan’s death his mother Jeanne, who had always been behind the scenes publicly, was asked by several senators to speak about Ryan to Congress in order to pass national legislation for AIDS education. She reluctantly agreed and was instantly thrown into the media spotlight. The bill, THE RYAN WHITE CARE ACT, was subsequently passed and Jeanne White became one of the most sought after speakers in the country. She founded the Ryan White Foundation and continues advocating for AIDS education and prevention with children, teenagers and their peers.

JEANNE WHITE:

A lot of times it takes a little push. Everybody likes feeling sorry for them selves over the death of a loved one. That’s kind of normal. With me it was Senator Kennedy and Senator Hatch who got me going and I fought it every step of the way. Ryan was always the public speaker not me.I was just following Ryan around. Senator Kennedy and Hatch had just named a bill after Ryan called the Ryan White Care Act and they wanted me to come to Washington DC. It was too soon. We had just buried Ryan two days before and they asked me to come anyway. They knew it was going to be hard, but they said, “You know, this is the first chance that we have of getting something done for people with AIDS.” They said, “Ryan’s death is so fresh on everybody’s mind, his illness and funeral was carried by every network for the last week and a half. This is the first chance of someone being in the public eye that takes the focus off the disease and puts it on to the fact that ‘anybody can get it.’”

I said, “Yes”. I said, “No”. I said, “I can’t, I really can’t. Ryan used to do that, not me.” On the second day people from Senator Kennedy’s staff called me again. They said, “Terry’s going to be there.” Terry and others had helped me through a lot of bad times. During all the years that Ryan fought AIDS the more people I knew that died of AIDS. And I had seen so many families just like me. Even though I didn’t want to get involved, so many people helped me that I kind of felt like I owed it to them. Then Senator Hatch called me and said, “You know, we’re not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. I have twenty-three senators lined up for you. All we want you to do is tell what it’s like to watch your son live and die with this disease.”

So I went to Washington and I’m so glad I did. It made me feel good. I didn’t feel I did great, not like I wanted to. I could have done better but I knew I was sincere in what I felt and said. After that, people wouldn’t let me stop.

Phil Donahue, who was a pallbearer at Ryan’s funeral, has become a very good friend of the family. When he was in the hospital visiting Ryan he noticed all the mail and could not believe how much was pouring in. He took a bunch of the letters back to New York with him and called saying, “Do you realize these letters are all from kids?!” I said, “Well yeah, that’s who generally wrote Ryan.” He said, “Jeannie, you’ve got to continue this work. You’ve got to answer this mail.” Phil said, “I’ll hire you an assistant.” There were over sixty thousand letters! Phil kept his word and with the help of Marlo Thomas and the St. Jude volunteers, they were able to find a lady that lived close by.

I was so impressed with Ryan, so proud of him. Sometimes I’d think, “Golly, is he really my son?” To me he was just my little kid, but to the nation, he was this celebrity and hero. I hated to even think that I could follow him, his impact was so great and people listened. When I speak I’m always a nervous wreck, even though I’ve been doing it now for years. I’ve messed up a lot, but I’m me. When I introduce myself I say, “I’m just a mom. I’m a mom just like your mom and because of this misunderstood disease called AIDS, my life changed overnight.” I say a prayer every time I go out. I say, “Lord, please help me to get through this. Help me educate these young people. Help me make a difference in their lives with my story.” Then I say, “Ryan, please be there with me.” Then I have this kind of surge that goes through me and I feel like its Ryan saying, “OK, Mom, I’m with you.”

I think we’ve made a lot of progress. By “we” I mean everybody who has committed so hard to fighting this disease with education and through therapy and drugs and medical treatment. I think we’ve come a long way. The people who have to be commended the most are the people that are not here. Their lives had to be lost for us to get where we are today, to show compassion. Even though I’m tired I’m still doing it because of the Terry Burns, the Mike Callums and the family members that I’ve seen.

One day we were riding in the van and Ryan reached over and grabbed my hand and started swinging it. I looked over and said, “OK, what do you want?” He said, “I don’t want anything.” “Come on Ryan, what do you want?” I continued. He replied, “Can’t a son hold his mother’s hand? ” I said, “Come on, you really don’t want anything?” “Mom, I just want to say thank you for standing by me, for always being there for me.”

I remember that moment when I speak to teenagers. You know, we always think everybody’s going to be here tomorrow, but one day you’re going to wake up and somebody’s not going to be there. I say, “You might think this stupid old lady up here doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but I do. The next time you go home from school, even if you think it’s the corniest thing you’ve ever done, write a letter to your parents. If you think you’re real cool and you can’t go up and hug them around their neck and say, ‘Mom. Dad. Thank you. I love you.’ Then write a note and put it on their pillow. Do something so that you’ll never be sorry.”

It would have been easy to be mad all the time at the people who ridiculed us, who discriminated against us, but we had to put our lives in perspective and look at what was really important and what wasn’t. Everybody saw on the news that it was this fight for Ryan to go to school, but the number one priority in our life was keeping him healthy. Second, was keeping my job at General Motors, because we had great insurance and it paid for all his medical bills. And the third part was my daughter Andrea, keeping us together as a family.

At first, it’s like, “Why?” Everybody wants to know why. Why wasn’t he given a miracle? All my life I was taught if you pray hard enough, if you believed hard enough, that you would get a miracle and you could never doubt that or you wouldn’t get one. I never thought Ryan was going to die. I just couldn’t quite understand that. I thought nobody had more people praying over them than Ryan did. I prayed, “Lord, wouldn’t it be nice to show this kid a miracle in front of the whole nation.” Everybody knew he’s lived with AIDS for five and half years. He’d been in and out of hospitals. He’s been blind twice. I mean, this kid had a heck of a life, why couldn’t he be given a miracle? When he died, it was like, “Why? What more could we have done?”

When he died I was really taken aback. I started questioning my faith. I think that’s normal. I mean, I started wondering if there really is a god? How does God let things like this happen? I see people around me all the time asking that question. “Why do young kids have to die?” I mean, anybody really, lots of other good people have died too. So then I started trying to find reasons.

After awhile it started to get clearer. “Look at all the things he’s done in his short life. He’s educated so many people. Wouldn’t we all like to say we had accomplished as much as this kid did in only 18 years?!”

I tell the kids that when I get to heaven I’m going to be angry. I hope the Lord forgives me for being angry, but I’m going to say, “Why did you have to take Ryan?” Then I say, “You know what I think he’s going to say? He’s going to say, ‘You know what, he was only supposed to live three to six months. I gave you five and a half years and you’re still not happy.’” Maybe I got a miracle. We had quite a few Christmases that we never thought we were going to have.

I didn’t want to lose my faith. I was mad at my faith. I was mad at my church. I was mad at my religion. I was mad at God. But I wanted to find a reason. I eventually started seeing things around me like the Ryan White Care Act and Elton John go through rehabilitation and get off of drugs and alcohol and I thought, “My goodness, Ryan touched more lives than I ever knew. Perhaps those people got miracles and they don’t know it.”

Michael (Jackson) was a real good friend of Ryan’s. When Michael called Ryan in the hospital once, Elton said, “With all the money that’s in this room, we can’t bring this boy back to life.” That was a real big realization to Elton . . . that he had all the money in the world, he had everything he could ever buy, but he could not buy his health. That’s why he entered rehab. When Michael called me after Ryan died, just to see how I was doing, I said, “I’m doing OK but what made you and Ryan so close?” When Michael would call, they would have long phone conversations. He said, “You know, most people can’t get over the awe of who I am, so nobody can ever act normal around me. Ryan knew how I wanted to be treated, because that’s how he wanted to be treated. I can’t trust anyone because everybody always wants something from me.” He could tell Ryan anything and Ryan wasn’t going to go blab it or tell it, you know. “I promised Ryan he could be in my next video and now that he’s gone I want to do a video for him.” He made a video called Going Too Soon, which was about Ryan.

It’s hard to talk about death. I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t really think he was going to die. I can remember him saying what he wanted to be buried in. I told him I really didn’t want to talk about it but he went on anyway, “I know you like me in a tux but I don’t want to buried in one.” I said, “OK, Ryan, what do you want?” I mean, it’s like, I’d say anything to get this conversation over with. He says, “I want to be buried in my Guess jeans, my red T&C (Town and Country) shirt, my Air Jordan’s and my Jean jacket.” He pauses, as I’m fading out, then says, “You know how people are when they’re lying in a casket and everybody is watching their eyes to see if their eyes move? I want my sunglasses on and I want to be buried in my boxer shorts.” “Your boxer shorts?” I exclaimed. He’d just switched from wearing briefs to boxer shorts and really liked them. “Why your boxer shorts?” I deadpanned. “You know that hernia I got? I want to make sure I . . .” He had a hernia that they couldn’t operate on because he had no platelets. “I want to make sure I’m comfortable.” And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re dead, I mean . . .’ “OK, just talk,” Ryan said. “You know, as a mom.”

One of the best things after Ryan died was when people talked about him. I think it was also good for me to get involved in something I truly believed in, doing something, instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. That’s the easy way to go . . . feeling sorry for yourself. People didn’t let me, although that’s what I probably would have done if not pushed. But people were always talking about Ryan and people still do and that kind of keeps him alive within me.

More inspiring people at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

From Under Her Feet

An excerpt from the book Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. An interview with Sybil Anderson-Adams.

Adams-AndersonHer life was the picture of success. Her husband was an attorney, they were drawing up plans for their dream home, and she recently quit her teaching job, to spend more time with their three children. Suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under her feet. What started out as a headache in court, turned out to be a leaking aneurysm. In spite of the doctors’ assurances to the contrary, within three weeks Sybil Anderson-Adams husband was dead. Without comprehension or time to have said good-bye, she struggled to survive and make sense of the incomprehensible.

As a result of her desperation and need to find answers, Sybil reached out to her friends, neighbors, doctor and church, and formed a support group for young adults who’s partners had died. The first meeting brought together twenty-five people who’d previously thought they were alone. With her need, and ability to communicate her process and grief to others, she continues to open the door of life for those who thought it had been slammed in their face and locked shut forever.

SYBIL ANDERSON-ADAMS: “When I arrived at the hospital the doctor said, ‘I have some bad news. Your husband stopped breathing.’ I’ll never forget those words. ‘He stopped breathing.’ He finally said, ‘I’m sorry . . . he’s passed away.’ It was then that it hit me . . . like a wosh.  I doubled over . . . just like you see in the movies.

After the shock had subsided, I realized I didn’t know who I was anymore. It was the loss of identity. I was the type of person who always had my entire life planned out. Before Neal died, I’d never really had a traumatic event. I had things all figured and scheduled . . . which, as you know, gives you a sense of control. But I had no control over this one and that was my undoing. I had to decide where I was going; who I was. There was an urgency. I remember going to a counselor and saying, ‘When will I not feel this way? When, when, when?!’ The reality was so strong that I wanted it to be over. I didn’t want to cry anymore.

Then one day, I remember making a decision. it was something one of my kids said. You know, ‘Out of the mouths of babes!’ One of my sons says, ‘If you hadn’t stopped and talked to Dad that one day long ago, you might never had known him or gotten married.’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ And I had this vision where I decided that whatever came up I’d say, ‘Yes!’ That I would do things no matter how hard it was. When my kids had stuff they needed to do . . . cub scouts, swimming . . . I made a decision that no matter what, I wasn’t going to hide at home anymore, I was going to go. And what I found was that doing that made me stronger, even though a lot of the events I attended were absolute disasters! Taking some kind of action made me feel brave. it gave me confidence.

I remember sitting with another friend who was at that same juncture. She said, ‘I hate this. I want to be out of here.’ I felt the same at the time and replied, ‘Yeah, just get me out.’ And that’s one of the reasons I started a support group, and keep it going to this day. I needed those people so bad. They were my reality. If somebody else could make it, so could I.

For awhile I could only live for the day. The future was nonexistent. I’ve met many people throughout the years that say the same thing. They said, ‘Good-bye” in the morning and their spouse was dead by the afternoon. It changed my whole concept of how I look at things. I laugh more often now. We’ve got three teenagers and one in early adolescence. They can make you laugh or cry. If I wasn’t able to laugh once in a while our life would be one miserable hell.

I think all survivors make that decision at some point. You have to decide to live. My kids forced me into it. I’d be in bed with the covers pulled over my head, not wanting to get out, and one of them would come in and say, ‘What’s for breakfast?’ What are you going to do; I couldn’t stay in bed? I had to get up. I was the only one they had left.

We had a saying in our house, ‘Life sucks.’ It was kind of our motto for awhile. The kids would say, ‘Life sucks!’ and I’d look at them and say, ‘Yeah, then what?’ They’d answer, ‘Then you die.’ I’d continue, ‘So, then what are you going to do about it?’ They’d look at me, roll their eyes and say, ‘Come on Mom.’ It’s made them real. They see a different reality then most kids.

Life has become a really interesting place. Neal’s death and where my life has gone since, has added another dimension. God knows I wish it hadn’t happened, but without it I could have lived until I was eighty-five and never discovered this! Life is such a gift, though I’m not thrilled with the way I had to really find this out. I love being in this state of mind. I’m doing things that I never knew I could or would do. There was a point two years after he died when I realized, ‘My God, I can do anything!’ I survived something that at first glance seemed like an endless hole of despair. I didn’t think I’d ever climb out . . . but I did.

More inspiring stories at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call

She Changed American Culture

An excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

On May 3rd, 1980, Candace Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter Cari was hit and killed by a drunk driver as she walked to a school carnival. The man who committed the crime had two previous arrests for driving under the influence. When Ms. Lightner was told about her daughter’s death she remembers collapsing, being carried into the house and “screaming all the way”. Her screams were soon to be heard across the nation.

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After Cari’s death Ms. Lightner’s reactions where not that of passive suffering or resignation, she was outraged! Her anger became the spark that ignited Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and literally changed the climate of American culture by making driving under the influence intolerable. Since leaving MADD Candace has worked with victims of violent crime and, as a woman of Lebanese heritage, with organizations that are trying to stop stereotyping of Arab-Americans.

“It’s funny, because people will say to me in chatting about death, “Oh you are so lucky because your daughter went instantly.” I don’t think there is any lucky or unlucky situation. I mean, you are sort of dealt the hand you’re dealt and do whatever you do with it. I wish I had had the opportunity to have seen her, been with her and had some time together before she died, but that is not what happened. I can’t tell you that one loss is less painful than another. I haven’t had two children die, one slowly and the other suddenly. So, I am always amazed at how people can make judgments, you know, about how fortunate you are.

I remember being on TV once doing a call-in show. Of course you could see my face and expressions. I’m used to doing a lot on radio but not on TV. Someone called in and said, “I just know that God meant for your child to die so you could do this.” I was floored. I didn’t cuss, which I normally did, because I was on TV, but I think I was so stunned that in looking at the tape you can see my eyes get real big. I said, “I don’t think anyone planned for my child to die.” I used to get letters like that too. Like God chose you. Well, why didn’t he choose somebody else? I wouldn’t mind.

If I wouldn’t have gotten mad after Cari’s death I don’t know if I would have made sense of it or not. I think it was the fact that it didn’t make sense, there was no rhyme or reason, no excuse; there was no illness. In this particular case it was a crime that was the most often committed crime in the country and it had been completely and totally ignored. So it kind of doubled my anger, because it was treated so lightly. It wasn’t as if she were murdered, where everyone would have gone, “That’s horrible!” I even had friends of mine who said that. I wasn’t angry with them because I knew that was true. It makes me realize that it was so acceptable that people weren’t shocked and horrified by the fact that she was killed by a drunk driver.

It was like, “How dare they feel that way about my child!” She was very, very special. Everybody should be horrified by it and they weren’t. So I think part of what I did was to make everybody horrified by it. I also think I had far more anger then most people I know. I am a very passionate person and I was literally enraged. I had never been so angry in my life and I hope never to be that angry again.

I don’t know what I would have been like if I hadn’t started MADD. It’s so hard to say because I don’t have anything to compare it too. This is not something I had a choice about, I had to do it. I didn’t think about it, I just did it.

Anger is very focusing, very directing and progressive. It is much easier to focus on anger then it is on grief. That is probably one of the reasons I did it. I was in such horrible pain. I tend to do whatever I can to avoid pain, avoid feeling things. Getting angry was a good way to avoid dealing with the pain and the hurt and it was much easier to focus on the cause or blame. In some ways I was fortunate because I did have someone to blame. I had an individual to blame and I could do something about it. I could hope to have him incarcerated, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t started MADD. I have always tried to get something positive out of anything negative, either through humor, life lessons or whatever.

The full impact of Cari’s loss finally hit me after I left MADD. There were several things I began to notice. The last year I was at MADD I found myself getting very weepy. I was very burned out and wanted to leave. I no longer had the anger, the passion; the things I thought someone needed to do a good job. It just wasn’t there. Then Clarence Busch (the man who killed her daughter) was re-arrested. The similarities were so numerous. He hit a girl the same age my daughter would have been if she had lived. The girl had the same name. Luckily, she didn’t die. When the press showed up in mass I did not want to deal with it. I found myself crying and going through the turmoil again. It forced me to make a decision.

After I left MADD I really started grieving, for leaving MADD and for Cari. Some said, “Five and a half years after she died? You should be over your grief by now. There is something wrong.” So I went to see a psychologist. told her I needed to grieve for my daughter. I said, “I want you to know I tend to postpone and hide from pain and I need you to help me face this.” I spent six months grieving and crying and grieving and crying and couldn’t stop. I felt like I was going to grieve for the rest of my life.

I don’t deal with the fact that Cari was killed by a drunk driver anymore. When I grieve I grieve for who she was, the loss and love I still feel for her, the missing her, wondering what her life would be like. I look at Serena (Cari’s identical twin) a lot. On Serena’s birthday I always get a little weepy thinking it should be Cari’s too. Serena and I talk every once in a while about what we think Cari would be doing if she was still alive, what our lives would be like. I don’t think, “Oh, she was killed by a drunk driver.”

I was fortunate to be able to see her after she died. I think that the biggest thing the parent goes through with a child is wanting to know that they’re OK. I know that she is. In the first week there were a lot of occurrences that happened, we all sort of felt her. I know she’s fine . . . probably better then the rest of us.

My pain or grieving is more about missing her presence. There is an inside ache. It’s hard to explain . . . just the loving and holding, the touching, the physical. I’ll dream about her. I’ll dream I’m holding her, loving her or something physical, even sleeping in bed with her and holding her. I don’t dream about her often but when I do that is the kind of dreams I’ll have. I will wake up momentarily thinking or feeling that she is alive. That comes from the joy. It’s a good experience. If there is a need in me to hold her and hug her and love her again, I’m assuming that there is, the dream will satisfy that for a period of time.

I didn’t look at it as a life lesson when I started MADD; it was just how I was feeling. People think I’m very altruistic, I’m not. Starting MADD helped assuage my anger and deal with my pain by avoiding it. There was also a fear that it would happen again to my other children, because it had happened once before. It wasn’t because I wanted to save the world. When they interviewed me for the movie about Cari and MADD, the producer said, “Why do you do this?” I said, “You don’t understand. I don’t have a choice.” It was my nature. I never believed you had to accept things as they were.”

Candace Lightner is now the president of We Save Lives.

More profiles and interviews at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call.

It’s No Big Deal

GoodGrief_180WFrom Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

“What are you so upset about? It was only your ex-husband.”

“Come on, get over it. You can always get another cat.”

“Hey, you hadn’t seen your friend in years anyway.”

“They were drunk half the time. Who cares?”

“It’s not the same as being married. You just lived together.”

“You only knew them for two months!”

“Weren’t they old? They lived a long life.”

“No, you can’t come to the funeral. You aren’t part of the family.”

These are just some of the comments that people hear, and a small sampling of how their grief is disregarded, after they’ve had a friend, acquaintance or family member die. The losses they have experienced don’t match the images of who and what is acceptable to grieve in our society. And it’s not just others that cause such pain. We are often our harshest critics. We internalize the conscious and unconscious messages we are fed daily and are often confused with the intensity of our emotions and reactions after a death, when our head is telling us we should not be feeling much at all.

Our response to any kind of loss, especially from death, is our bodies natural reaction to the human condition, even though we analyze it, distrust it and, at times, find it hard to believe.

“Why am I getting so upset over my ex-husband’s death? We never got along and I’ve been better off without him.”

No matter what the relationship was like, it was a relationship. There were attachments, habits and shared time that will always effect one’s life. For some, the never-ending hope of reconciliation will have died as well.

“It was only a cat. I know it’s not the same as a person.”

Your cat or pet was a living creature. We can grow just as accustomed and fond of an animal as we can with a human. The same kind of attachments and memories occur.

“We were best friends during high school, but that was ages ago.”

Some friends stay with us forever, whether we see them often or rarely at all. The time we spend together can leave us with lasting imprints, influences and memories, as well as regrets, bitterness or pain.

“This is crazy. His drinking ruined our family and our lives. He was mean and abusive. Why is his death so hard? I thought I’d be relieved.”

Even abusive, negative relationships can cause unexpected mixtures of emotion. Though we may have separated ourselves from the individual, and learned how to fend for ourselves or are still in contact, there is usually some deep feelings of loss over the years that they were not the parent or partner we had wished for. The realization that they have died can also awaken the fact that the opportunity for them to change or be different has died as well.

“We were only housemates. It wasn’t like we were married or anything.”

Whether as a friend, lover, roommate or relative, living in the same household is one of the most intense experiences in our lives. It’s where we learn how to interact with others and provides daily reminders of our differences and similarities. Whether two people living in the same household have their arrangement sanctioned or accepted by others does nothing to diminish the powerful lessons and connections that develop. We are intimately shaped, both good and bad, by those with whom we live.

“I just met them two months ago, but I can’t stop thinking about them.”

The length or duration of a relationship doesn’t necessarily mean that it is of greater or lesser importance or impact. Some people we’ve known for years, yet have little connection, do not effect us deeply upon their passing, whereas others we’ve just met leave lasting footprints. The grief and mourning that result from the loss of a recent or longtime acquaintance is VERY individual and unique to that person, as are our needs in grieving their loss.

“Grandma was eighty-five years old. I knew she wouldn’t last forever, but it feels so sudden. I loved her so much.”

The longer someone you know lives, the harder it can be to accept the reality of their death. Even though you may have had time to prepare and say, and do what you needed or wanted to, it can still seem like it came too soon. There are times when no matter the person’s age, you want them to stay forever and their death is devastating.

“They never accepted me. I should have known this would happen.”

You have a right and a human need to attend the funeral and/or memorial of your partner. Your relationship with the deceased was between you and them, not their family or friends. How your relationship was seen or accepted by others is important in your adjusting to the loss, but not dependent upon it.

There are times when those you expect to be of help are not always able or willing to do so. For some, it is too painful. Others find it impossible to stop judging long enough to listen. When you can’t attend the funeral or memorial, due to the deceased’s family, distance or other circumstances, create your own ritual or ceremony of leave-taking. Invite those who will be present with you and share your loss.

Relationships with people and other living creatures are what make us human. It is normal to question, criticize and judge our selves after someone in our life has died. It is also normal to feel pain, frustration, anger, sadness, relief and confusion.

If you don’t get the kind of support and acknowledgment you need from family, friends or colleagues, then find it elsewhere. Don’t minimize, trivialize or try to forget your loss. Find ways to acknowledge, respect, honor and validate your experience and the reactions that have resulted.

Further reading and support at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

The Dead Aren’t Dead

imagesAn excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

Death always seems to come to soon or when we don’t expect it. No matter how long someone has lived or how they’ve died, it is impossible to fully prepare for the moment and the days that follow.

Our relationships don’t end with death; they change. We are always connected. Death changes the way in which we can communicate, but our feelings, thoughts, memories and experiences live on.

We can say goodbye to a loved one, as we knew them, but we don’t have to say goodbye forever. We can choose to say “hello” to them, as the days pass, how we want them to be. We can stay connected to the love and potential that existed, or was possible, when they lived and let go of the rest.

Grieve it all. Don’t leave out anything; the good, the bad, the confusion, pain, joy and compassion. Then, as time goes on, decide what you want to hold on to and what you don’t need any more. What parts of the relationship do you still cherish? How do you want to stay connected? Let them go and hold them close.

Further reading and support at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

Losing A Pet

They say cats have nine lives. I wish that were true, but the facts contradict such myths. Everything dies, including the felines, dogs and other creatures we choose to care for and have in our lives. Most animals tend to have a shorter life span than humans, thereby increasing the chances that our beloved friend will stop breathing long before we leave our mortal bodies behind.

images

An excerpt from Good Grief: Love, Loss & Laughter.

To add insult to injury; is the often callous or dismissive attitude and comments of others when we’ve lost a non-human friend. People don’t always understand the emotional impact losing a pet can have. They disregard our pain when we try to talk about the cat or dog we’ve had for fifteen years getting sick and needing constant attention. They scoff at our tears, when our affectionate tabby is lost or killed by a car. They belittle our sense of shock and disbelief when the dog we loved and cared for tenderly for the last eight years suddenly dies.

Yet, for some, pets, animals, and companions (which ever you prefer to use as a label for non-human creatures) are some of the closest and endearing connections we experience in life. Being responsible for any of the varied creatures placed in our care takes time, attention and devotion. And, just like people, such continued time and attention creates attachment, bonding and lasting imprints.

The love and commitment we give and receive from our animal friends, in some respects, are quite unique from that of other relationships. Sometimes, they are the only living beings that love us unconditionally and don’t argue, judge or hurt us in any way. They also provide forms of communication beyond words. There desire to be touched, patted, combed, and talked to, provide warmth, softness, connection, meaning and continual reminders of enjoying the present moment.

A lady I recently met was shocked when told by her veterinarian that their beloved kitten had cancer and should be euthanized. She refused and is currently seeking a vet that will give Hospice-type services for her cat, and provide whatever is needed to make sure her family friend dies comfortably at home enjoying as many precious moments that remain. Like human beings, there should be an alternative for animals beyond that of further treatments or mercy killing.

Losing a pet also awakens other losses we’ve experienced; whether recent or long ago. When a cat of ours, named Sushi, was killed by a dog a couple of years ago, I unexpectedly found myself remembering my childhood collie, named Pinky and the grandmother I used to visit when Pinky was still alive.

The loss of your animal friend should be treated the same as that of a human. Talk about the loss; share your pictures, memories, tears and grief. Walk, run, swim, workout, hike, bicycle, dance, play or listen to music a couple of times s a week by yourself or with a friend.

Breathing exercises, visualizations, relaxation, stretching, meditation, affirmations and yoga have all been shown to relieve stress, anxiety and positive endorphins to help the body heal.

Relax in a hot tub, hot bath, shower, sauna or sweat lodge and let the emotions seep from your pores and evaporate with the steam.

Put together a collage, altar, memory book, picture frame, treasure box, video or CD of your cat, dog, bird, horse or rabbit.

Have a service or gathering. Memorials and/or funerals; provide validation of your relationship with that being; acknowledgment that their life was of value; and societal affirmation that all living creatures are to be honored and respected.

If you’ve lost an animal friend, at any time in your life and would like some additional support (outside your circle of family and friends) contact the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Animals), an empathetic therapist or your local grief-counseling center.

Further reading at: Good Grief: Love, Loss and Laughter.

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