By Carli R. Stewart
It began with the loss of my Grandma at age 7. My family’s silence over the matter was deafening. I was very curious about what ‘death’ meant, so I questioned everything at my Grandma’s funeral. The dimly lit Funeral Home smelt of a musty rose and my mom and dad appeared emotionless, their faces blank and pale. Their forced hugs toward those who attended, seemed heartless even from my 7 year old perspective. In response to my streaming tears and constant questions, my mother offered me a white frosted cookie with hopeful star sprinkles on top. She told me that it would make me feel better, at the same time it shut me up!
I learned quickly to remain silent, while eating to guide myself to a fuller solution. At Age 13, the morning after my best friend Kelly and I had a routine sleepover, I found her dead in her bathtub. She had ingested everything she could get her hands on from her addicted mother’s vault of a medicine cabinet. This was the beginning of an entourage of tragedy that hit me at least once seemingly every year of my life since. Every single time I pictured her lifeless purple body and stringy dirty blonde hair escaping the tub, I turned to the cupboard full of comfort foods to hopefully distract me from this haunting memory invading my mind. Like a bottomless pit, I could never seem to get enough to satisfy this deadly feeling of emptiness from the loss of Kelly. Still, to this day I refer to her as the sister I never had.
Over time, these undeniable pains began to pierce holes in my soul. The subsequent deaths in my family of 2 young cousins throughout my mid-later teens made me the pillar my family would look to for strength. These deaths saw me taking care of the arrangements that all other family members tried to evade. My family members’ inability to function created a pattern where I would stand up and take action, while others simply crumpled.
Because of my love for photography, I began to notice this theme of being the one to call upon when a death occurred within friendships as well. It became all too familiar as loved ones kept dying. I was the one with all the photos of cherished memories for these tragic young deaths that came in waves every year. From my former years, I always had the urge to talk until I was blue in the face over these deaths. These were the instances where I wasn’t silenced for doing so while putting on a Service to celebrate each life. This would all be fine for a few months until others were more-or-less back on their feet and I could no longer hide my feelings behind the work at hand. I started calling this the 3 Month Rule.
From my experience, the 3 Month Rule is a dooming point in time that seems to come after every death. Once this marker in time strikes, the phone calls and condolences stop. No one wishes to speak or hear of your heart aches anymore. They simply feel that you should have already moved on. So the fight response in me disintegrated and I crashed! As my helpfulness is less needed and I am no longer able to bury myself in the service work of the grieving, the support system behind me fades as well. I became reliant on this 3 Month Rule after so many deaths had been established, so that I could collapse into an eating coma after holding it together for what it seemed a lifetime!
By the age of 18 I took on the world as a natural caregiver, which ultimately lead me to a graduate degree and career in such. While helping others, I found momentary relief from my own losses. But this was just the second of many temporary fixes. My mother based the grief of her own parents from her formative years on workaholism as I grew up. So my mother – my mirror of expertise and so called strength – simply taught me to remain busy and I’d hopefully forget about my sorrow.
I found that helping others had certainly been the most socially acceptable outlet I could find while running away from my own grief. But all the while, I continued eating to fill this emptiness inside. Like most people using this outlet to escape oneself, I ran myself dry and obese! This was ongoing to the extent that I no longer had anything remaining to offer myself at each day’s end. My desire to seek outside of self and choose mentally taxing professions was coupled with the learned belief that if I just keep myself busy, ’Time Will Heal’.
I willingly participated in perfection toward exceptional grades and workaholism, as I found that the admiration by my colleagues, family, and friends for my achievements were ever so delightful. Meanwhile, I was dying on the inside. These spurts of recognition and awards only erased the pain growing in me for mere seconds. Yet I continued to chase it, for even minute relief was better than nothing. Meanwhile, my weight grew to be of such an uncomfortable capacity for my 5’2 small boned body!
I was now 22, just before the finals of my senior year of college, when my brother Blaine died. It continued the spiral effect of incurring losses that I didn’t know how to face. I already had too much left unfinished emotionally, and Blaine’s death only compounded the problem. The pain was far too immense to even catch my breath. I’d begun to link his death and all preceding deaths to their common denominator: me. I no longer allowed others into my bubble for fear that their contact with me would cause them to die as well. Every time I blinked my eyes, I saw the picture of my brother huddled on the floor, with the needle still in his arm. I was told he was found on his hands and knees, as if it were to be a praying position. Somehow, this gave me hope even though I didn’t have a God. Maybe there is something he turned to in his last seconds of life?
Once again, I played the pillar. I aced my finals, then drove the six and a half hours to take over as sole proprietor of my brother’s funeral arrangements. The slide show for his Memorial spoke wonders to his early life. But out of the 4 boxes of childhood memories, I couldn’t find one picture of him smiling after the age of seven. My father was increasingly hard on my brother from that age on for reasons I found out much after Blaine’s death. Blaine did everything that was done to him, unto me. This revelation created a whirlwind of hurt and revenge for my father after hearing the intimate details of certain events. Out of haste, upon learning of these truths after the Funeral, my father set everything my brother owned on fire in the bonfire out back.
A decade had passed since Kelly’s passing. And time seemed to encroach more holes in the space I feel is my soul. I was an ever-struggling, hopeless shell of a woman. But I truly felt that there was something missing, I just had no clue what it was! I continued to displace my energy into modes of distraction, which further led to mass destruction of my body, mind, and soul!
I finally had had enough of the discomfort and humiliation of my weight, so I threw myself into working out and partying with the same abandon with which I’d been overeating before. I was treating the symptom instead of the condition, though I didn’t know it at the time. The vain superficiality of it all did do wonders—I slimmed down and surrounded myself with people at all times—but at night I couldn’t sleep. I turned the music up to drown out the noise in my head. You see, the committee in my head reigned over my every move. When all fell silent and I was alone with myself I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that I wanted to scream. I wanted to quite literally tear off my skin, just to show my internal suffering that no one else could see!
The alcohol, I found to be another way to self forget. With this method of escapism, it sure created a false sense of feeling ok. Well, in the beginning that is. When the party stopped, I never did. These behaviors slowly took precedence over hitting the gym while instead choosing hard alcohol as my daily nutritious intake. Mountains of sorrow began to unveil. I was almost relieved to have found a way to unleash my wrath of emotions without the feeling of repercussion or embarrassment by my speaking of it. This became quite the pattern of after work behavior. I would resort to an establishment revolved around drinking to over-dramatize my several losses during bouts of the drink! My reminiscent discussions over people already gone, soon turned to waterfalls of tears and victim-like despair. I still awoke, EMPTY. I was never refueled as I thought I would be after yet another cry spell.
By this time I was 27 years old and lived in a world of anguish, for I could not even open the drapes each morning. I had since released any glimmer of hope to see a light again at the end of the tunnel. Not knowing that the tunnel was the illusion all along. Now unemployed, I channeled my depression to social media and watching consecutive series all in one sitting on Netflix. While mindlessly searching Facebook one night I learned of the death of a young quadriplegic man I use to care for. He’d died months before and not one person thought to call me. I was no longer the pillar people called on for strength—that realization was crushing.
One day shortly thereafter, I was compelled to walk into Half Priced Books. This felt strange to me, as I was always a skimmer throughout college, rather than a reader and would not normally be urged to go into any bookstore. The gift of desperation caused me to look for answers in places that felt outside of my comfort zone. While inside, I turned around and saw a book – plain and cream colored—yet it seemed to jump out at me as though it had colors blasting from it’s every essence! A halo-like appearance surrounded it, summoning “Pick Me!” written as the title!
I picked it up and opened the tattered cover. On the title page was a handwritten inscription. It read, “Dad, this book helped me find peace over Blaine’s Death. I sincerely hope you will someday become willing to find forgiveness in your heart for him. Love, Carleen.” I dropped to my knees in disbelief. My brother’s name, a father unable to forgive his son, a name just a few letters off from my own… Needless to say, I read the whole book in one sitting. I didn’t even notice the cold linoleum floor below me in the aisle of that bookstore. As I was engaged in my reading, the people passing by felt like gusts of wind from angel wings. I could not wait to turn the next page to soak up more of a different way to thinking, acting, and whole-hearted living. I became acutely aware of just how ill prepared I was in dealing with the conflicting emotions revolving around each independent death and how it affected me to such an inner core, that it ruled my every waking existence! Each subsequent death struck deeper and deeper until the clutter of rage and fear ruled my life.
This book, titled the “Grief Recovery Handbook” changed my entire perspective on death in general. I finally faced the facts that I would do anything to run away from my grief, rather than work through it in strides. Up until that point, I had a set of learned beliefs about death, chief among them that “Time Will Heal,” and I could not fathom that there actually be a different way in dealing with loss. I learned to first question what I always believed to be true. My problem all along began with my thinking. In order to polish myself to a clean slate, I had to actually take note of what my automatic thoughts were throughout each day, to acknowledge and replace them. Repetition became new habits. I learned to accept my feelings fully, without judging them as good or bad. Feelings have a stubborn habit of resurfacing, if denied or hidden away. Feeling the pain is an essential part of growing beyond unresolved grief.
Over time, the transformation was so slow, that I did not truly see how incredibly inner-changed I had become until the next catastophy struck me like a ton of bricks! My mother was hit head on by a drunk driver on a cold, rainy January evening as she headed home from work. This was thankfully after I had begun my journey toward healing from loss. The now, 30 year old me took full reigns of the situation at hand in a far different light than ever before! I chose to let go, and let God. The prayer chains that went out for my mother were miraculous! The book speaks nothing of a God if I recall correctly. But it was most certainly a means to a belief system in something far greater than myself. With this concept of belief, I found peace in even the most cataclysmic of situations since.
I found peace with death. I fully believe today that loss is an opportunity for spiritual development. I now get to claim my circumstances, instead of my circumstances claiming me and my happiness! I’ve built an identity that includes these losses, while channeling the enormous amount of energy learnt to now help others. There no longer exists a 3 Month Rule of my understanding. I embrace the only thing constant in a spiritual way of life, which is change. I even found myself grateful for every single day that I get to remain in this life. It brings me comfort to believe that death is only a continuation date, preparing you for your next journey! So don’t count the days, make the days count! It’s important to note that there is no correct way through sorrow. The only correct thing is that one finds their path and embarks on that journey to wellness, whatever that may be for them.
As you see, this book quite literally went on to save my life! It was my journey to wellness. So I write today, not to share a story of hardship. But rather – my embrace to live with a soul so full – that I’m constantly overflowing with the power of healing for others! I challenge you to look inside to your own unresolved grief and seek like-minded individuals to work through any necessary losses. As you can clearly see from my personal experience, One thing is for Certain, Time Does Not Heal. You do! It takes action! For it is what you choose to do within the time, that will make you or break you.
You may also find https://www.griefrecoverymethod.com to be a helpful resource.