Letter to Parents from Susan Whitmore

My name is Susan Whitmore, and, most importantly, I am Erika Whitmore Godwin's mother. I am also the founder and CEO of griefHaven. Your request for this Packet of Hope was sent directly to me, and whatever you wrote about your child I read, as I do with every request. Though griefHaven continues to grow, one thing I will always do is read every word every parent writes about his or her child. It is an honor and privilege to be invited into your life at such a difficult time. So thank you for trusting and sharing with us.

For the first six years after I started griefHaven, I included a personal letter with every Packet of Hope. I loved having the time to do that. I thought I would be able to do that forever. I had no idea, then, that griefHaven would end up supporting the hundreds of thousands of people that it does today. When it became impossible to write each parent individually, I realized that, though I can’t write a personal letter to each parent, I can write something that is meaningful and, hopefully, will provide a better understanding of this grief journey we are all on together. So that is what this letter is—a letter from me about my own journey of rebuilding my life without Erika, as well as information from my years of research and education about the death of a child.

First, I want you to know that I am so saddened and sorry to learn about your beloved child. I find myself thinking, "I wish there were some way for me to string together just the right words to express my sorrow and offer my comfort.” Yet, no words could ever be adequate to describe a tragedy such as this. In fact, Mark Twain, a master at painting pictures with words, was left utterly speechless when he attempted to express how he felt after the death of his daughter. He wrote, “To do so would bankrupt the vocabulary of all the languages.”

Another writer, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “We read to know that we are not alone.” So I hope as you continue to read these words you will know that you are not alone and will take to heart those things within this letter that can help you. Parents tell us that they read this letter over and over throughout the years and find different things within it that help them as time goes by. Some of what you read you will relate to now, some you will relate to later, and some may not be a part of your journey at all, as we are each unique in the ways we grieve. And yet we share many similarities. Though some of what I write is my personal experience, most likely you will see that often you could replace my name with yours, for you will see yourself within these words. These are the universal threads of truth that weave us together and unite us, heart to heart.

GriefHaven is here today because of my beautiful daughter, Erika Whitmore Godwin, and because of your beautiful child. Erika died in 2002, when she was 32, had just married, and was about to turn the page to a new chapter of her life which would have included being a wife, teacher, and, one day, a mother. Erika had never been so happy or fulfilled as she began her new life in Canada with her husband, Sandy Godwin. Yet, those plans did not come to fruition. An extremely rare sinus cancer ended her life.

Erika was my best friend. My love for her and my journey of rebuilding my life without her became the springboard to start this foundation. When the gut-wrenching pain of Erika’s death came flooding in, I just knew I had to do something to help others who were suffering this same pain. Erika, a bright light who helped show me the way in life, now guides me in a different way. I have brought her with me into my new life, making sure she is a part of my everyday life. I know you will do the same with your child.

When Erika died, I felt utterly lost and alone. “How can I possibly survive this pain?” I would wonder. I questioned whether anyone else could possibly have had the unique and special bond Erika and I shared. I quickly learned that every parent shares a unique bond with their child, regardless of their age or circumstance. I learned that when a child dies, so too do the many unique aspects of that relationship. For instance, some of those for me were Erika’s sweet, raspy voice; the way she always said, “Hi, Mommy!” with such enthusiasm; the special way she always hugged me under my arms; fun-filled shopping trips together; our mutual love for iced tea; and, of course, the way she totally “got” me. I miss all of those things and many more. I know you also have your list. I always used to think, “No matter what happens in life, at least Erika will be there.” We parents understandably feel alone in the throes of grief, since we have been left behind by someone as dear to us as anyone or anything ever could be: our child. And though the grieving process may often feel like a lonely one, that doesn’t mean we actually are alone. Thousands of parents who are years ahead of you on this journey stand as pillars of hope, a precious reservoir of wisdom, support, compassion, and understanding. They are the only ones who can legitimately say, “I know.”

What is this grief that has become a part of our lives? Most likely, when it came flooding in, it shocked you with its intensity and tenacity. Of the many definitions of grief, I like this one from author Ron Marasco best: grief is what happens when the service is over, when the doorbell and phone don’t keep ringing, when the initial shock and adrenalin reactions have diminished, when family members have returned to their homes, when food stops being delivered to the doorstep, when all the I’m sorry for your loss notes have been read—and then you stand there wondering, “Now what?” Typically, this is when the real grief journey begins.

Grief is exhausting, scary, and painful. It affects us on every level: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. So part of the grief process is gaining a greater understanding of grief, which will then help us learn what to expect and how better to deal with it.

Why do we have to grieve? It feels so terrible, depletes us of hope and energy, changes our colorful world to gray, and turns everything we knew upside-down and inside-out. The answer is simple: because grief is a normal, healthy, and natural response to loss. It is what our bodies naturally do. I often say to people learning to support parents who are grieving, “If your friend were coughing because something was caught in her throat, you wouldn’t say to her, ‘Oh, don’t cough.’ Instead you would show concern, see if you could help, and encourage her to get it out.” Yet, when people grieve, well-meaning friends and family often say, “Oh, don’t cry.” That is not helpful, nor a healthy approach to grief.

No two people grieve alike. There is no wrong way to grieve except not to grieve at all. Everyone finds his or her own way. The goal of grief is to “get out” what is inside of us. How we get it out is up to us and determined by what helps us release the intensity of the feelings and thoughts, even if just for a brief period of time. In many cases, we find the parents of the same child grieving in opposite ways. For instance, I sobbed, screamed, and sometimes wailed uncontrollably, at times calling out Erika’s name as I yearned for her. I talked constantly and openly with perfect strangers about Erika dying. I cried every day for the first year, sometimes all day. I wanted to be with people. My husband, Wendell, was the opposite. He never told a stranger his daughter had died. He generally cried softly, as his eyes filled with tears and those tears ran down his face. He found comfort in his work, and it was a good distraction for him every day. He wanted to be alone when he wasn’t working and often got lost in a book. Those are examples of how very differently we grieved. But both were healthy, and both were appropriate for our personalities. AND both worked.

New fMRI (functional MRI) studies validate the importance of grieving freely. Through these studies, we know that grieving actually creates new neural pathways in the brain. Yes, grieving changes our brains, helping us learn to live with our loss. Through fMRIs, we are learning much more about grief and what goes on in our brains. These studies are extremely exciting to me and something in which griefHaven will continue to participate. We will keep you informed of new findings through our newsletters, website, Facebook, and groups.

The death of our child brings with it great depths of pain and sorrow. And what have we been taught to do when anything is causing us pain? To find out what is causing the pain so we can “get rid of it.” We live our lives generally equating pain with something bad. Most often, our bodies send pain messages to us as a way of telling us that something is wrong. So when something as painful as grief suddenly hits us like a two-ton truck, our understandable reaction is to want to get rid of it, push it down, or fight it. Seldom does anyone think of embracing the pain and sorrow of grief.

Embrace the pain. Sit down in it. Try not to fight it. Let it wash through you. I used to pretend the grief was a big, overstuffed chair, and I would envision myself snuggling down into it. It was difficult at first, but soon it worked. You can picture it in whatever way gives you the image of it coming, helping, and then passing as it moves on through.

Where do you feel your grief? I felt it in my stomach. Some people feel it across their chest or heart area. Others feel it in other places. I could feel a build-up of the grief as a “pit” in my stomach; others describe it as a heaviness around their heart—an “elephant sitting on my chest.” I learned that the “pit” in my stomach would go away when I would cry. Then it would start to build again, and the cycle continued until one day I realized the grief was softer and didn’t come as often. Then it came less and less and was easier to manage. Eventually I started to enjoy things that before were not even on my radar: I laughed, I appreciated simple things, I enjoyed food again, and I began to look forward to those things in which I had lost interest.

The novelist, Arnold Bennett, once said, "There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have actually felt its force, it is not ours." When our child dies, we are blindsided by the force that hits us. No amount of knowledge or life experience has prepared us for this. Grief is one of the most enduring emotions we can experience, and grief after the death of a child is the most intense and challenging of all. So find your way with your grief, which, after all, comes from the depth of love you have for your child. Allow yourself to grieve and seek out the support available as you take this journey. Consider being open to trying anything at least once that might help you. Your commitment to yourself will bring you the gift of living and loving life again.

Let’s talk more about what we are going through and what we can do. As I began facing the days without Erika, the shear force of the grief often frightened me. I had no idea what was happening to me. I wanted to die, and though I knew I would never, ever end my life, I often wished for death to happen naturally. I realize now that it wasn’t that I actually wanted to die; I just wanted the pain to end. What helped at those lowest periods was reminding myself that others ahead of me on the grief path were doing well. I would remember their words of wisdom and hope: I promise that you won’t always feel the way you do now, that you will know happiness and joy again. They were right. I held onto their words with every tear that fell from my eyes, and I encourage you to let those words of truth ring through you at your lowest periods.

Do you find yourself apologizing to people when you cry? Do you find yourself staying away from people or events because you feel like your presence will only upset them—as if, perhaps, it is your responsibility to protect them? Many parents and siblings have such feelings. Richard Riordan, former Mayor of Los Angeles, has something to say about that. Riordan and his wife, Genie Riordan Mulé, lost two children only 24 months apart. During an interview with him for our DVD, “Portraits of Hope: the Parent’s Journey,” Riordan shared this: “I would be sitting in an important city Board Meeting with prominent executives and members of political committees and feel that wave of grief coming. I got to the point where I would just sit there and cry.” He said he would take out a tissue and “let it out” until the grief naturally subsided. He added, “I got to the point where I never apologized for my tears, and I never felt that I was responsible for making anyone else feel better.” I learned a lot from him, and I hope you will too. You have nothing to apologize for, and it certainly is not your job to soothe others who might be uncomfortable with your emotions. Let them figure out how and why they feel uncomfortable. That often leads to their becoming more compassionate. Riordan also gave this tidbit of wisdom, “Once the crying ends, you can get up and do other things. You don’t have to grieve 24/7.” Yes, once you have expressed your grief, feel free to get up and do something, even if just watching television, writing in your journal, or reading a magazine.

If you have other children, please share your grief in age-appropriate ways. For instance, if your children are very young, screaming and wailing around them would only frighten them. For more information about appropriate grieving around your children, check out the short book, Children Grieve Too, by Lauren Schneider, available on our website. It is a great resource and very easy to read and use.

Specialists across the board agree that the death of a child is the worst loss anyone will ever have to endure. In fact, the Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stated that “ … the death of a child is considered a catastrophic stressor unlike any other.” So, a child’s death is not something a parent “gets over.” People “get over” a cold. Nor do you go “through” grief, which implies that grief has a definite beginning and end. You go “through” a tunnel. Dealing with our child’s death is a lifelong process that continues to change, becoming easier and softer as we start doing all that we can do to re-gain our footing. The support and encouragement of others will help sustain you on this long journey. When a child dies, the grief milestones that parents attain take much longer than most people realize. So everyone, including yourself, needs to be patient and let go of all expectations of what time should bring.

Regarding timelines or stages of grief, we know that grief has no predictable timelines or stages. Many people are surprised when they discover that their pain continues for a longer period of time than they expected. Parents often think their grief will be over—that they will be back to normal in a few months—but the loss of a child invariably follows a longer grief path. And the journey is not a linear process, like having the flu and seeing yourself getting better each day. It is more like a rollercoaster ride, up and down, up and down. The notion of “grief stages” comes from confusion over Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work with those preparing to die. In her attempt to explain what the dying person goes through to prepare for and accept death, she came with up with the now famous “five stages.” Those stages are tied to a dying person, not a person who is grieving. Wouldn’t it be neat and handy if grieving parents started with stage 1, finished that and moved to stage 2, finished that, and so forth? We know that is not grief’s way.

Included with this letter, you will find a list of normal and healthy reactions to the death of your child. Some people have all of them, others have a few of them, and still others have some in the first year and others in future years. For instance, you might cry all of the time. The famous comedian, Carol Burnett, talking about the death of her beloved daughter, Carrie, said she cried every day for the first year. At times, you may be unable to sleep or eat. You might feel as if nothing matters and you are unable to experience joy or happiness—that there is no meaning left in life. You might gain weight because you find some semblance of comfort in food. Or, you might lose weight because you simply have no appetite. You might find yourself constantly trying to make some sort of sense out of your child’s death. I regularly asked, "Why Erika? She was such a good and loving person." I was baffled! Some parents eventually come up with an answer that works for them, and some accept that there simply is no answer to the why question, or, at least, no answer that is satisfactory.

Your mind is the greatest video camera of all time, so it might have recorded traumatic experiences you had with your child or even experiences you imagined which you actually didn’t witness. Either way, those recorded moments can keep playing back over and over, like an endless loop. It would be great if we could just hit the “stop” or “delete” button, but our minds don’t work that way. At griefHaven, we devised a very basic, simple exercise that, used regularly, helps stop those painful, looping thoughts. We use it with all our grief support groups. You can watch a video of me explaining this technique right on our website.

Many parents find themselves easily annoyed with others who appear shallow, such as those who shower them with unhelpful platitudes such as: “He’s in a better place,” “It was God’s will,” “It must have been her time,” “He wouldn’t want you to be unhappy,” “Be strong," and, "I know how you feel.” Most often comments like those are not helpful or comforting. It can also be difficult to be around another parent who is complaining about something their child did or did not do. Of course, you would give anything to just have your child here. I used to want to say, "Do you have any idea how fortunate you are to be in a position to voice that complaint?" No, they don't. In fact, Dr. Jack Jordan, grief and suicide specialist, educator, and author, said during my interview with him:

Grieving parents and siblings, and grieving individuals in general, have a right and need to learn how to protect themselves from hurtful people. Most people say the wrong things because they are unaware of their impact on the grieving person, but there are also those who either think they know what is best for someone who is grieving or who deliberately say and do hurtful things. Unfortunately, grieving people need to learn how to manage those situations, which is a learned skill that people can acquire with good support. They learn them by educating themselves about grief, by receiving support from others, and through a process of trial and error. This is easier for some and harder for others. In the beginning, both children and adult grievers are so fragile and vulnerable that they are caught off guard and end up letting inappropriate comments slide, walking away feeling even more hurt. Others are able to let people know that what was said or done was either hurtful or not comforting. Once the griever becomes more confident, they can begin to choose to either avoid people who continually hurt them, or, if they stay engaged with that person, let the person know that their comment was hurtful. I suggest that people who hear judgmental and hurtful comments respond by saying, “How do you think that makes me feel when you say that? Do you think that it is helpful when you say that?” Parents and siblings need to give themselves permission to avoid others or protect themselves from people who may be well-meaning, but who actually make the person feel worse, not better.

A response I use successfully is, “I know you want to help me, which is why I want to let you know that, for me, that comment just isn’t helpful or comforting.” We would encourage you to prepare yourself with responses for those who make unhelpful comments from their lack of awareness and understanding. Most of the time, these people mean well and simply don’t know what to say or do. Let them know what you want and need (if you know), and guide them to our website so they may educate themselves. You can also forward our instructive online newsletters to whomever you like.

A child dying can have a profound impact on relationships, especially the relationship between parents. I want to dispel a long-running myth that has plagued the world of parents far too long, the myth that most marriages or partnerships end in divorce or separation after the death of a child. That is untrue. Studies show that most relationships continue on, becoming deeper and stronger than before. And parents who have other children most often report that they are better parents than before. As for extended family members, too often grieving parents tell us that their relatives think they “know best” regarding their grief. As I said above, it is at times like these when your input is helpful in guiding them to accept the grief path that works for you.

I am not one to stereotype, yet professionals agree—and I have personally experienced it both in my own relationship and in my grief counseling work—that most often significant differences exist in the way men and women express their grief. Much of that is due to physiological differences in the way men and women are wired, differences in the ways they are raised and impacted by societal values regarding emotions, and disparate ways they are taught to deal with pain. As for Wendell and me, I was very upset in the beginning that Wendell wasn’t emoting the way I was. I couldn’t figure out how he could love Erika so much and not be sobbing. I quickly discovered that Wendell not crying a lot didn’t mean he didn’t love Erika, nor that he wasn’t experiencing tremendous pain. Lack of tears doesn’t always equal lack of grief. And, for his part, Wendell learned that my loud, verbal, emotional grieving was the only way I could release my pain. He soon discovered that he could do nothing to make my pain go away or “fix” things, but that he could let me know I wasn’t alone, that I was loved, and that we were on this journey together.

I recommend to both parents that you show your partner you care and make sure not to judge the way the other is grieving. Also, please do not try to force your partner to do something just because you feel it would be best or because it worked for you. This is a time when you need to be taking care of yourself, while assuring each other that you will continue to ride the massive tsunami together. This is not easy, yet it is essential for each of you to know you are not alone and that, despite your differences, you are together through the love you have for your child.

Couples often find they need to turn to another person outside the relationship with whom they can share their grief. Though couples are used to turning to one another for support, when both are in the depths of pain and despair, it only makes sense that they may need to seek out another for support. This is a very normal and healthy thing to do, especially if you find someone who relates to what you are experiencing. At this time, grief support groups for parents, grief specialists, spiritual advisors, or other grieving parents further along on this journey can be extremely helpful. We need others who we can reach out to in times of crisis, others who won’t abandon us as time moves on.

About siblings: a surviving sibling is anyone whose brother or sister dies when they are any age. So a man who is 50 years old when his 45-year-old sister dies is a surviving sibling, just as a six-year-old is. An old Vietnamese proverb says: Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet. We call siblings whose brothers or sisters have died "the forgotten ones,” since they are often overlooked by those who are comforting the parents. Specialists agree that losing a sibling gives rise to a lifelong journey requiring long-term support similar to parents. Of course, that support needs to be age-appropriate. People tend to forget that siblings grieve and sometimes assume they are more resilient and will “get over it” on their own. Too often, we see adults rushing to comfort the parents, brushing past unnoticed siblings. And, worse, adults sometimes will tell siblings that it is now their job to be the man or woman of the house and that they need to be strong for their parents. Please make sure others know to support your children and stay away from advice that only creates more stress for your child. They are grieving, too.

I am regularly asked certain questions. Here are some of those questions and my responses:

When will this pain end? The pain will begin to get softer, more manageable, come less often, stay less time when it does come, and not be as overwhelming. Major turning points in this regard are so individual that I cannot be more specific. For me, I turned a major corner in my second year. I rarely experienced my most intense grief after the first year.

I heard that the second year is worse than the first. Is that true?It concerns me that others say this to those who are newly grieving. That only makes them think, “What? It’s going to be worse than this?” It robs them of all hope. So here it is: various things will change for you as the months move onward. One of those changes is that the reality and enormity of your child not continuing on with you in life may sink in more toward the end of the first year, especially if the death was sudden and unexpected. The awareness of your child’s death, combined with an entire year of experiences lived without your child, now moves with you into your second year. I usually say that it is your heart and your brain coming into sync with each other. Even with such changes, most find their grief is less intense and more manageable in their second year.

Will I ever get over this? We don’t really “get over” losing a child, but we do learn to live with it. This doesn't just happen magically. It takes you being a partner in this process, the same as you would if you were dealing with a serious disease that you had to treat on a daily basis. As you go on in life, you create a new relationship with your child, incorporating him or her into your life in the way that works best for you. One thing we encourage you to do is to make sure you and those around you keep your relationship with your child alive and well. After all, your child is still an important part of your life and a member of your family. Death has the power to end your child’s physical life, but it can never, ever end your relationship. That is forever.

I’m afraid I will always feel the way I do now. You won’t. Please take our word as parents who have walked in your shoes. Again, it takes a commitment to your own, personal grief process—to your own wellbeing and health. Unfortunately, no one else can do this grief work for you or take it from you.

Will the joy, love, and happiness in life ever return? Yes. It will, and it does. Be patient with yourself, and let your grief express itself as it may. Allowing your free expression of grief will help lead to embracing life again.

How will I go on without my child? There isn’t a formula or cookie-cutter approach I can give you. You will do this by making that commitment I have talked about, being open to trying everything out there, and doing what works for you. Just know that you will find your way and that you don’t have to do it alone, for within the stories other parents share are many truths and pearls of wisdom that will help guide you along the way—common threads that bind us together.

For easy reference, here is a concise listing of grief strategies many parents have found helpful, some of which I have already discussed:

  • Be open to trying everything at least once—you won’t know for sure what might be helpful until you try it.
  • Reach out to those who care for you and won’t abandon you on this grief journey.
  • Connect with other parents who have lost their child and know how to support you.
  • Let others know what you want and need, what works and what doesn’t.
  • Allow yourself to cry freely as often as you need, then continue with daily activities.
  • Let yourself go at your own pace, following your intuition as to whether or not you can handle something.
  • Be willing to say “no” when you feel you simply can’t do something.
  • Confide in a friend or spiritual advisor you trust who won’t judge you.
  • Attend grief support groups, especially those for parents who have lost a child, if available.
  • Consult with a therapist or grief specialist experienced in dealing with the loss of a child.
  • Use grief resources, such as those provided by griefHaven and other support organizations.
  • Be willing to tell people when their comments or actions are unhelpful or hurtful.
  • Accept that some of your current relationships with friends or extended family may change—you may decide that some no longer work, while, on the other hand, you will gain new friendships.
  • Regularly write a “no-holds-barred” private journal.
  • Do your best to get adequate nutrition and sleep—see a specialist if either of these areas becomes especially difficult.
  • Do your best to get some exercise, even if it is an easy, brief walk every few days.
  • Read material that may interest you, perhaps even writings about grief.
  • Difficult as it may be, make yourself, at times, leave your house to more fully experience everyday life.
  • Plan something ahead that you are committed to doing, such as lunch with a friend.

Your entire “being” is going through this loss, you are heartbroken, and it is impacting you on deep levels you may not even have known were within you. You could say that this path of grief leaves "no stone unturned.” One mother once said to me, "Losing my son has gone as deep as my DNA . . . and probably even changed that." And though waves of grief do recur, you will see that they come less often and are often smaller. So as each week, month, and year passes, you are closer and closer to that joy, love, and happiness you so long to experience again. And you will. I promise. Please hang onto that promise during the times when you want to give up and all seems so hopeless. It isn’t hopeless. Everything you are doing now is laying new ground for later. We parents are here to attest to that. Later, when you are ready, rebuilding a life of joy and happiness will become more realistic. Please read The Parent Journey and The Sibling Voice newsletters posted on griefHaven.org—they include lovingly crafted pieces of wisdom from parents, siblings, and professionals who want to support you.

Rebuilding our lives with new meaning and purpose takes a strong commitment. You and your loved ones are worth it. You will embrace life’s beauty and joy again and experience the fullness life has to offer. Within that, then, you will have found your new life. A good life.

You are and always will be your beloved child's parent.

From my heart to yours,

Susan Whitmore, Erika’s Mom
Founder and CEO
Grief Specialist

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