Life Lessons from a Grieving Mother
What's your greatest fear? Does this question give you pause? Chances are you have a few responses but they feel like a faint possibility in the faraway future. I have a definitive answer to that all-powerful question because I met it head on. And it almost killed me.
On June 10, 2007, Hunter, my only son and firstborn, was killed in a car crash at age 16. I wanted to die. And I pretty much did. That's what happens. I was forever changed, mentally and physically. When you lose a child, there are immediate and severe psychological and physical effects -- some that I still carry, some that were more temporary.
While my heart remains broken, I want to share what I've learned from the front lines of the greatest battle of my life. These lessons haven't healed me completely, but they have helped. And I hope they help other people who, God forbid, have to fight through tragic loss. My hope is that my firsthand experience will help others cope and help their friends provide the support they need to lighten their load and lift their spirit along the way.
For those living out their worst fear in real time:
Don't listen when people tell you it was God's will. Some people will tell you that. God had nothing to do with Hunter's death. Or any person or child who dies due to an accident, illness, or some circumstance of human error. Regardless of your spiritual belief, I don't think God ever takes a child's life.
Call a time out. You need time to grieve; take some time before you get back into any normal schedule or routine. You will need a period to mourn and process. I went back to work way too early -- swallowing my sorrow and living in a state of denial. I'm still in denial in many aspects -- I kind of buried my heartache in order to survive. Some of that is probably necessary in many situations. I think I refused to face reality and suffered in the long run because of that.
Expect to go through physical changes. It's not surprising -- our thoughts and emotions have a huge impact on our health and well-being. For me, the impact was striking; I experienced premature menopause immediately following Hunter's death. It was like my body shut down. I had been a runner, averaging 20 miles a week for almost 30 years. I found I could no longer do it, partly because I had guilt for being alive when Hunter was not and partly because I suffered from permanent exhaustion. I did finally take up Pilates and yoga; the latter was a lifesaver. I found myself experiencing profound emotion during yoga practice -- when I couldn't express emotion otherwise. Bottom line, find some sort of outlet. Get some physical activity.
Turn the corner from horrific to heroic. Finding a way to turn the negative into a positive...I know it sounds cliché, but this tactic really propped me up. It was critical for me to do something in Hunter's memory. We set up a film competition scholarship in his name, which invites students to warn their peers of the dangers of distracted driving. It was and is a lifesaver. It is a place to put my energy and my love and to keep a little bit of his spirit alive. Because it's a passion project, and because it's an important cause, Hunter's scholarship has grown and it plays a huge role in my life. I know I can't bring Hunter back, but I can prevent other young people from meeting an untimely death.
Give back to the greater good. You might want to find a special way to remember your loved one. Whether it's planting a tree, starting a project, or something else. Consider doing something for the greater good -- give of yourself to help yourself. You never know what you're capable of until you give it a shot. You become fearless when the need is great and you step outside of yourself (some primal knowledge deep inside takes over; makes us intrepid). Not even a week went by after Hunter's death before we started ProjectYellowLight/Hunter Garner Scholarship. It's grown exponentially with amazing partners including the Ad Council, Clear Channel Outdoor, Mazda Motorsports, NHTSA, NOYS and U-Haul, and we even have an arm in South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Something gained. Nothing is the same after losing a child. However, there is something gained. A clear purpose in life, an ability to know and focus on what's truly important -- the superficial goes by the wayside. A huge empathy and understanding for others, especially those suffering. There is a certain growth and strength in character, and an ability to survive against all odds. I have faced my worst fear; everything else will be OK because having survived this -- I can overcome any other obstacle.
For those trying to support someone grieving through great loss:
Do something immediately after the loss. The friends, neighbors and co-workers who reached out to me saved my life. If you know someone who has experienced a loss, no matter how profound, and no matter how awkward you feel, just be there. Write a note. Send an email, give a hug. And repeat. I saved every note, card, letter that anyone and everyone ever sent. I treasure them all -- it almost doesn't matter what you say or do -- it's the gesture that will be remembered.
Do something again a few months down the road. That's when it's really tough. People naturally go on with their lives and the attention fades. But the person with a loss is still floundering; suffering. I recall the weeks and months following Hunter's death feeling like I had a huge hole in my abdomen. Literally and figuratively. I felt like a freak and that everyone I encountered was appalled. Likewise, I was amazed if people acted as if nothing had happened -- I wanted to shout out, "Can't you see this huge hole?" Yes, life goes on, but it's an act of kindness to ask a grieving person how that dramatic process is going for them.
Don't be shy about bringing up their child's name. Please know that it's not a taboo subject. Personally, I love to be asked about Hunter and love to talk about him. In fact, I wear a necklace of shells that I've collected from oceans, seas and rivers. Because Hunter loved the water, I drop some of his ashes in significant places, and pick up a shell to add to my collection. I wear my necklace every day. People frequently admire and ask me about it -- which leads to talking about my boy. Which I love.
Don't assume to know how they feel. Speaking for myself here - but I suspect others who have endured the loss of a child may feel the same way... show support, be loving, be empathetic, but don't say "I know how you feel." Because no one really knows how another feels after such a loss; even those who have also lost a child. Oddly, despite the seeming commonality of loss; each parent goes through their own unique hell. I know people mean well, but each loss is different, and losing a child is beyond comprehension. It's an unnatural order. It's totally debilitating. It will be with you until you meet your child again. Bottom line, please be compassionate, but don't draw comparisons.
Never underestimate your impact. In addition to my family, my co-workers saved my life. I don't know what I would have done without their support. The love, kindness and caring we share with one another connects us all universally. Something as simple as a smile, a kind word, can make all the difference. Reach out to those in need. We may all be different on the surface, but underlying, we all have one heart. One soul.
It's been more than eight years since Hunter's death and it marks a significant milestone. Hunter has been gone half the time he was on this planet. With time, the pain has eased and life goes on. While I will never be the same and will always suffer an incredible loss, I am able to live my life again with some sense of normalcy. There is hope and a future.
With love and kindness,
Julie Garner is Vice President, Executive Manager to the CEO at The Martin Agency, an advertising firm headquartered in Richmond, VA. Along with her husband Lowell and daughter Alexandra, Julie established a non-profit foundation in her son's memory, dedicated to saving youth from traffic related death. Project Yellow Light/Hunter Garner Scholarship is a short film competition where high school and college students create videos to warn their peers of the dangers of distracted driving. Project Yellow Light handed out its first scholarship in 2008 and since then has provided more than $63,000 in scholarships and attracted partners from The Ad Council, Clear Channel Outdoor, Mazda, Motorsports NHTSA, NOYS and U-Haul. Check us out at www.projectyellowlight.com.