Surviving and Thriving After Multiple Losses by Wendy Smith

We are delighted to bring you this moving and inspiring Guest Blog by Wendy Smith, about her journey through grief to a place of peace, happiness and strength.

I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember the date that my brother Anthony died.   He was 17 years old.  The dates of the 3 other major bereavements in my life are seared into my heart, like bullet wounds that have healed on the outside but leave lasting scars within.

By the time I was 39, my brother, mother and father were dead. 

I was almost 15 when my brother went to bed one night at home and never woke up.  He had had an epileptic fit.  My mother found him in his bed the following morning and screamed at me to call an ambulance even though it was clearly too late.  In the days and weeks that followed, all I remember is feeling numb, cold, confused, disconnected and very afraid – of dead people, dead bodies, of death itself.  My parents were there but not present.  My mother shrank physically and emotionally; she cried every day for a year and buried herself in memories of my brother.  My father drank a little more, said a little less, worked harder, and travelled more.

As a teenager I was desperate not to be marked out by this tragedy and just wanted life to be as it had been before. So I got on with it, pretending everything was normal and seemingly I did well.  I got good grades, I had lots of friends. I used the 3 D’s, as a friend calls them: Distraction, Denial and Drink.  I drank as many a British teenager does – ie too much, but in a social setting only and at the weekends.  Within 2 years, I had a serious relationship with a man I would go on to marry and I had got a place at Cambridge university. All was good, or so it seemed.

The problems started a few years later when I was at university and suffered terrible anxiety.  So bad, I would physically shake and not know what to do with myself.  Finally, I plucked up the courage to see a counsellor at the university, but after one session, during which I fell apart when I told the story of my brother, I decided I couldn’t handle that level of pain and put the lid right back on my feelings.

The anxiety receded – or at least became manageable – and I carried on.  One of my coping mechanisms back then was to run; not just physically which was a huge support in itself but to run mentally, and I ran all the time.  I rushed at everything, was always busy, constantly on the move, and spent as much time with friends as possible.  I ran so I couldn’t feel and it sort of worked. I graduated, was in a relationship, got a great job and went on running.  I was Forest Gump, without the road miles, and it was the perfect distraction.  Life was ok because I was too busy to feel the sadness. 

9 years after the death of my brother, my world changed forever again.   I was 24, fresh out of university and in a new job. I took a week’s holiday with a girlfriend and my mum kindly drove me to the airport.  We were very close and chatted often.  I remember that car journey so vividly.  It was 1992. The conversation was about Margaret Thatcher.  Mum was having a bit of a rant and I was slightly bored by what she was saying.  All I really wanted to do was get on that plane and enjoy some late summer sun.  I had no idea it would be our last conversation.  

When I flew home a week later, I saw my uncle and aunt standing in the arrivals hall at Gatwick which surprised me.  ‘How lovely I thought’, assuming my cousin was flying in at the same time.  They hugged me gently.  And then they told me that my mother had been fatally injured in a car accident the previous night at our family home.  My father had been at the wheel.

I will never forget that walk to the car, trying and failing to take in what I had just been told. It was the longest, slowest walk of my life – but not the hardest.   They drove me home to my father, who was waiting for me, destroyed by grief.   The hardest walk came later that day, as I was led along a hospital corridor to see my mum, who had been kept alive on a life support machine for me to be able to say goodbye. 

On the morning of her funeral, I asked my father, who had had triple bypass heart surgery, if he could please not die for a very long time.   He lived for another 17 years although he was very unwell for the last 4 of those.  I was told by the nurses who cared for him at the end, that given the level of disease he had, it was a miracle he had lived for as long as he did. 

Of all the platitudes offered on the death of someone close, the healing nature of time is the truest of them all, although it is not comforting in those early days when all you want to do is either ‘stop all the clocks’ or fast forward to when you hope to feel less broken.

Over the years, I have alternately run from my pain and tried to engage with it to let it go.

The 5 accepted stages of grief are well known but how that plays out is intensely personal. What has become clear to me, and it has taken years to understand, is that beyond the mental running, my main response to my grief was to shut down – in many aspects of my life. 

I got divorced. I was unable to form relationships with anyone significant, the fear of loss being simply too all-consuming.  I was also unable to handle stress, which meant my career didn’t go in the direction I had wanted either.  I felt a constant low-level sadness and fatigue but I thought it was normal considering what had happened.  Many times, I lost confidence in life and in myself and I was totally stuck in terms of knowing what I wanted to do with my work.  I wonder now why I couldn’t see what was happening to me but on many levels my life was great.  I had and still have a loving extended family, incredible friends and a fantastic life by most measures.  I have also wondered if I should have had more counselling earlier on.

When my brother died all those years ago, counselling was not much talked about and my parents couldn’t engage with it.  Nor did they offer it to me, which I know my mother deeply regretted in the years that followed.

After the death of my mother, my then employer strongly recommended I have therapy so I duly signed up, this time with a highly recommended grief counsellor. My first task was to write a goodbye letter to my mother. This was within a few weeks of her death and it was simply too hard for me to contemplate.  It nearly finished me off.  The counsellor then suggested I might like to stay at his residential site. That idea was also too difficult; there was simply no way I was going to take myself away from my family and everyone that made up my support system at such a desperate time.  At other times over the years, I have had counselling and it has helped but I have found other forms of therapy including energy healing, coaching and EFT to be more helpful.

It was the sudden death of my ex-husband Roger, in 2017 that finally forced me to deal properly with all my grief.  He had become a very close friend despite our divorce.  He was the most vital, engaged, healthy and dynamic person I knew and the last person I expected to die.  He had always been there for me.  We had navigated a profoundly painful separation with kindness and he felt like family.  When he phoned me to tell me he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour of the aggressive kind – a glioblastoma, I was utterly speechless as the tears poured down my face. I had seen him 2 weeks before and he seemed his usual cheerful self, showing me photos of his beautiful baby daughter.  This was just impossible to believe.  Six weeks later he was dead.

I knew I now had to talk and signed up to 12 sessions with a grief counsellor. In the 1st session, I was asked to talk about all my experiences of death which took the full 50 minutes – and was then shown the door. With no time to decompress, I found myself on the street practically unable to function, completely overwhelmed with grief. I almost gave up again but something told me I needed to go back. The counsellor acknowledged she had mis-timed the first session and so we carried on. Part of my pain over this death was feeling like an imposter; guilty for being so sad about someone who was no longer my husband, but had been such a huge part of my life.  Ultimately talking it through and having my feelings validated was very freeing and enabled me to move forward.

I now understand it can take years to be able to process certain aspects of loss and for some, it is never possible to look at it and let it go.  As I have recounted, grief counselling was a very mixed experience for me although I do believe it is an important part of overcoming loss, combined with other types of support. 

My healing sent me down a spiritual path which has been of huge comfort to me and has ultimately helped me to thrive.  Working with healers, coaches, and training to be a yoga teacher 10 years ago were when things started to change for me.  I then wrote a year-long blog about how to find more joy in life, studied the science of well-being, read positive psychology books and spent a lot more time in nature.  I also reached for my running shoes, time and time again, and running (physically not mentally) has been a life saver for me.

My own struggles with confidence, happiness and feeling stuck led me to retrain as a Coach and EFT practitioner, helping women to live happier lives by overcoming whatever obstacles they are facing – from grief, to a lack of confidence, anxiety or overwhelm.  Tapping is a form of emotional acupuncture and can help to shift emotions at a deep level, along with physical pain.  I have found purpose and direction and I love what I do.  With EFT, I have been able to let go of the remaining grief that had been stuck for so long and have rebuilt my foundations on firm footings, enabling me to live the life I had wanted but always seemed just out of reach.

We can all only grieve and accept our loss in the way we are able to, at the time we are able to and we will all find different ways to deal with our pain. I accept my family is gone with all the brutal finality that brings – and I also believe my family and loved ones live on, in another dimension that I am unable to see but am able to feel when we connect.  They are nowhere and everywhere, they are silent, yet they speak to me, and this is another reason that I could never write that letter of goodbye to my mother all those years ago.

We can’t choose what life throws at us and I would clearly never have chosen the path I have been given.  But I have come to love the sense of connection I have developed to something greater than us and the comfort I have drawn from it.  

My grief has felt like a mountain but the view at the top has been worth the climb.  I can honestly say that now I have real joy in my life, consider myself to be very fortunate and if my story helps just one person to know that it’s possible to survive and thrive after deep loss, it will mean so much to me and to my family.

Thank you Wendy for sharing your story and for being so open and honest.

Wendy is a coach and EFT practitioner and helps women who are stuck for whatever reason, including grief. If you would like further information, please go to Wendy Smith Coaching.

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