At some point in our lives, we will all experience stressful times. The unexpected strikes, and you’re left feeling shattered, scared, and unsure what to do or how to do it. Life-changing events never come with a playbook. The last few months have been a time of reflection for many. With the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve all likely seen changes in the workplace, sickness, and, unfortunately, death.
So, what now? Where do we go from here?
Recently, I had an opportunity to reflect how I’ve dealt with personal stress, pain, and grief in the last four years. Below, you will find a glimpse into my journey through the loss of my son, Hunter Nelmes. I found that writing letters was a therapeutic outlet for me, and so I often would write letters to myself—letters much like the one you see here.
I bet you never thought you would make it here. For you, time stopped ticking on November 10, 2016. For many, November 10th is just a day in November. For you, it’s the day your one and only son Hunter passed away. The woman you’d been just moments ago ceased to exist. In its place was a mother without a child, a woman who did not know what to do or where to go.
In the first year, you simply survived. Nothing looked the same, nothing felt the same, and you honestly did not know if you could carry on. You’d heard others speak of the physical pain of loss, but never truly understood it until you experienced it. Your heart and your body were in agony every second of every day. At times, you thought the searing pain might kill you. One day, while lying on the floor sobbing, you realized that you could not live your life that way. You had a decision to make, and you chose not only to survive, but to thrive. You kept thinking of Hunter and how he would never want to see his mom struggling so badly. You got up and began your journey to healing.
Today, almost four years into your journey, it’s heartening to see the progress you have made and all the people you have helped with your story. You have learned a lot in the last four years—that even in the darkest of times, you will feel joy again. You’ve also learned some pretty big lessons:
- Give yourself grace. There are days when the best you can do is just breathe. Give yourself permission to have a bad day, and don’t judge yourself if you do. Don’t forget that your grace should extend to yourself as well as those around you. It’s okay not to be okay.
- Difficult times are like waves. There are some that are rough, but you can easily swim. There are others that are made from stormy seas. They will take you down and threaten to keep you under. The key is to keep your head above the surface. Take a moment to breathe before reacting. Always remember that you’ve been through many rough seas, but you’re still here. You can conquer this one, too.
- Feel it, but don’t feed it. There are times when painful situations will require most of your attention. Cry, scream, or whatever it takes to honor that pain and feel it. The only way out is through, but don’t sit in it. When we experience loss, we tend to feel guilty if we aren’t sitting in that pain. I can remember hearing myself laugh for the first time after Hunter’s accident and seriously feeling as if I was betraying him somehow. The opposite is true: living in constant turmoil doesn’t honor anyone. It’s during the hardest times that you must find a way out and take steps to move toward It. Everything is temporary, and that includes hard times.
- Reach out. Let those closest to you know what you need. When you go through difficult times, it’s easy to assume that those closest to you should know what we need. The truth is, when they aren’t sure how to help, they will normally give you space for fear of offending you or bringing more pain. Those that care for you want you to let them know how to help. Please don’t suffer in silence. You will be surprised how much support you will get if you just reach out.
- It won’t always be this bad. While time may not heal your wounds, your grief does change. You have found a hard-fought balance of joy and pain. Believe it or not, you can find beauty just about anywhere, even in the pain. Not all the changes in you were terrible. Some of the changes have been incredible. You now know that you can handle anything that life throws your way. Your perspective has changed. Those things that used to ruin your whole day now just put a little wrinkle in it. Those things that used to make you angry now make you laugh at yourself. Those things that used to be mundane are precious. With the pain, you will make a purpose. You started a nonprofit that helps other families who experience child loss and funds a scholarship in your precious Hunter’s name. One day, you will look back and be amazed that you did it. You made it through. Now, you have the passion, strength, and resources to help others navigate through their grief. Helping others will be what makes you truly live again.
- Seek help without shame. You and your friend started an online support group. You’ve met so many moms and dads who are barely hanging on. Many are afraid of what others may think if they seek counseling, if they need to take medication prescribed by their doctor, or if they share their pain. You have become an effective advocate for others processing and coping with their grief using methods best suited to them. None of us gets through this life unscathed, and we sometimes need more than our family, friends, or even ourselves can provide. Don’t ever feel that the need for support makes you weak. It requires strength to take the steps necessary for healing. Reach out to your doctor, your employee assistance program (EAP), or a helpline. Look for groups online or in-person that share what you are going through. Those connections led you to some of the most cherished relationships in your life, and they have guided you through some very rough trials.
These last four years have not been easy. You’ve seen the highest highs and the lowest lows. You have been through the depths of pain and suffering. When happiness comes your way, you soak it all in and feel every little bit. In your grief and loss, you have found gifts—many you could have never imagined. You have many miles to go, but your chin is up and your head is held high. Hunter would be proud.
Because I have been through the depths of pain and suffering, when happiness comes my way – in any shape or form—I soak it all in and feel every little bit of it in every pore. In grief and loss of any form you will find gifts in ways you may have never imagined. Despite it all, you would go through it all again even knowing what you know now because having 20 years with Hunter will always be the best gift ever.
If you or a loved one is wrestling with mental health issues, help is available.