How Does Anger Help You Heal After Losing a Child? An Interview with Carol Kearns, Part Two

Carol Kearns talks about how she embraced anger after losing her daughter, Kristen

Today in part two of a two-part interview, SevenPonds speaks with Carol Kearns, a retired psychologist who specialized in recent loss issues. Carol lost her own daughter, Kristen, when her daughter was seven years old, and has since dedicated her life to helping others through crisis and sudden loss for the past 30 years. She is the author of Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare – a memoir about loss.

Credit: Carol Kearns

Credit: Carol Kearns

Marissa: You talk about creating meaning from a sudden loss of a child, especially for parents who lost children to drugs or alcohol. Would you say that’s the most important thing for grieving parents to do? 

Carol: Not initially. I would say that’s your goal down the line. Look at your child. Look at what was important to your child. Realize that no matter what, there was a gift. That’s what we grieve about that child. Their uniqueness. What was it? Was it that they cared? Was it that they were really smart? Sometimes you have to dig a little bit, especially if your child has been on the street with drug addiction for a long time. You feel like, “My child has been a bloody nightmare. There wasn’t anything redeeming there.” And yet if you can go back and say, “Wait a minute, I held that little bundle, and that was pretty precious.” Addiction is not a choice. Somewhere in there, there is still a beautiful soul, and you’re gonna have to find it. They may have to work through a lot of pain and anger first.

Marissa: So parents need to deal with their emotions, then find meaning. 

Carol: Right. Take a newborn like Emma (Carol’s granddaughter who died as an infant). What did she give? She gave the greatest gift of all. We will never forget Emma. She gave us unconditional love. That is the highest form of love. Newborns, that is the greatest gift before their little soul leaves. They just flood you with love, and they haven’t even taken a breath. To carry Emma’s love forward is really powerful. Most of us have so many conditions about, “Well I will love you if you clean your room, and I will really love you if you do this for me.” If you’re like Emma, you just say, “Well, I just love you.” It’s so beautiful.

Marissa: What about losing a child is unique compared to all other types of loss? 

Carol and her two young children

Credit: Carol Kearns

Carol: What you lose is not just their past, but it’s their future. We all have dreams for our children. We go to the wedding of a niece, who was the same age as Kristen (Carol’s daughter who died at age seven), and you know if Kristen were here, she would be a bridesmaid. You see their friends graduating from high school and going on to have careers, and you know that’s exactly what she would have done. And she didn’t get to do it. I remember before Krissie died, she was so excited because she had her new Bluebird uniform. She was so excited for her next meeting, and she never made it. She wore the uniform a few times before the meeting, just to try it out. So just seeing a little Bluebird uniform on a little girl, I think, “Wow, Krissie never got to do that.” When Emma died, we were all in the living room, and Michel (Carol’s son) said, “Mom, if Krissie were here, she’d be sitting right here with me right now.” She’s always there, in some future form that didn’t happen.

Marissa: Parents mourn the future then. 

Carol: You wonder what she would have done. Would she have married? Would she have had any children? All of these questions that of course have no answers. That’s what a parent grieves, is that future.

Marissa: How do you overcome that feeling? 

Kristen wearing a hat

Credit: Carol Kearns

Carol: There are several ways you can deal with it. One is initially when this happens, kids sometimes have special clothes, like favorite dresses or whatever. I remember giving Krissie’s best friend her favorite dress. When I first saw the little girl in the dress, it kind of spooked me. At the same time, I had to say to myself, “Look, it’s Krissie’s dress. It was her favorite. She would want Heidi to have it, so get over it.” (laughs) This could not be a better scenario for this dress. I just talk to myself and say, “Really, Carol? Look how happy she is, and imagine how happy Krissie would be knowing she has her favorite dress.”

About 15 years after her death, at a wedding, one of the aunts came up and said, “Krissie’s supposed to be here.” We all cried, but then we just went on. Yes, she’s not here. Yes, she’s supposed to be here, but that wasn’t the plan. God has a different plan. He might be running the show, but it’s OK to get angry at Him. And I did, I was furious. That is a process. It doesn’t just happen. Sometimes when things get painful, I write a letter. I say, “Krissie, sometimes I get so upset when I see dandelions. You used to pick them all the time for me, and those were your favorite flower. Everyone thought they were weeds, but you thought they were beautiful flowers. Every time I see them now it makes me so mad.” I let myself have it. Just say, “I miss having dandelions.” Life goes on. Tides and time stop for no man, and boy, you get lost in the shuffle. You have to choose life, Marissa. You just have to choose it.

Marissa: Would you say it’s important for parents to feel angry when that emotion comes up? To let it through? 

Carol: Absolutely. Elisabeth (Kubler-Ross) taught me how to get angry. I was so afraid of it for three reasons. When you were young and angry, you were punished and sent to your room. It was not a good thing. Also, what good does it do to get angry? I need my energy to go forward. All the anger in the world is not bringing her back. The other thing was, I don’t want to get angry at God. What if He gets mad and takes Michel too? It was weird thinking. Especially women have a hard time with anger. We get into a real depression. That depression is usually sitting on a ton of anger that just shuts you down. 

Carol and her son

Credit: Carol Kearns

Marissa: It seems that women aren’t taught to express anger. We’re taught to take on the role of caretaker, rather than being seen as vulnerable or angry.

Carol: I completely agree. We’re the nice ones. We make everything OK. Sometimes it’s just bloody not OK. I worked with corporations, and would focus on what employees do when they have a sudden loss. What does a company do? They can’t be expected to be back at work in a month or six weeks. A lot of people who I counseled would work with things like, if you don’t want to fall apart in a meeting, and something is coming up about your loved one, we’re very trainable as adults. We can say “I don’t need to do this now. I’m going to take 15 minutes to scream out my anger into a pillow, or tear up yellow pages.” Anger is so physical. We keep packing it on until finally we blow up. We’re humans; we’re not robots. We feel.

Marissa: Thank you for speaking with us!

Carol: Thank you!

Read part one of our two-part interview with Carol Kearns right here

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Our Weekly Tip: Take Refuge in Nature’s Tender Touch

Timeless techniques for navigating grief with natural materials
A nature scene with relaxing lake, green trees, and small rocks.

Credit: therapybysue.com

Our Tip of the Week: Spending time in direct physical contact with the elements offers a chance to slow down our troubled minds to the pace of a flower’s unfolding, to offer up our hearts to a gust of wind and pour our grief into the infinite capacity of the Earth’s waters. When an experience seems too big to contain in your physical or emotional body, the power and beauty of nature offers a safe container to be yourself, when being yourself is “too much” for others. Here are some simple techniques to enter into a therapeutic dialogue with the world around us and within us. These actions hold us up when we can’t carry our grief alone anymore.

How-to Suggestion: Give yourself permission, just for the duration of these practices, to empty your mind and observe the physical sensations in your body. Allow whatever emotions arise to come through you – if you want to sob, then sob until you don’t want to anymore. The completion of emotional responses releases endorphins (feel-good hormones) in your brain and heart, and are necessary to help you move forward while looking back. These practices can be done alone, or with one or two trusted companions.

girl-hand-holding-an-autumn-red-maple-leaf-694x417

Credit: magic4walls.com

Leaf Meditation: Find a tree or shrub with flat, smooth, fresh leaves, like a birch, poplar or aspen. Press the leaves against your face, noticing the temperature and texture. The face has many acupressure points that, when gently stimulated, “wake up” the entire body, helping to dissolve the sluggishness that often accompanies bereavement.

Small rock meditation: Find a smooth natural rock or a favorite crystal. It should be too big to swallow but small enough to place on your tongue and close your lips comfortably. Notice how your whole face wants to relax. Close your eyes and go inward, allowing any tension you notice to dissolve.

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Credit: the boulder psychic.com

Large Rock Meditation: Find a boulder or large rock formation. Lean against it, then lie on it face up or down, and enjoy a passive full-body stretch. Breath deeply against the surface from your belly, feeling your body rise and fall against this solid and reliable friend.

Sand Meditation: Any sand will do. Bury as much of your body under the sand as possible – just your hands are good to start. Cover yourself with just enough sand to feel the weight on your skin. Come to a stillness and breathe naturally for as long as you like. 

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Book Review: Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed by Stephen Levine

Stephen Levine has a conversation about death and dying
Meetings at the Edge: Dialogues with the Grieving and the Dying, the Healing and the Healed

Credit: amazon.com

“Let this book tear your heart open,” Stephen Levine writes in the introduction to his book Meetings At The Edge: Dialogues With the Grieving and Dying, The Healing and The Healed, a compilation of transcribed conversations Levine had with people actively confronting death. Some of the conversations in the collection were with people grieving the loss of loved ones, some with people working closely with the dying, and some with people nearing the end of their own lives. Most of the conversations took place over the phone – he calls it the “dying phone.”

For years, Stephen Levine and his wife Ondrea directed the Hanuman Foundation Dying Project, at the invitation of Ram Dass. During their time as directors, they offered a free consultation phone for “the terminally ill and those working closely with a death.” This was the “dying phone,” and much of the material in the book comes from these sessions.

If we choose to accept the challenge of Stephen’s questions, we have the opportunity to discover the deeper spiritual truths just under the wrapping paper of conventional wisdom, hidden inside the folding carton of easy explanations.

Stephen Levine is a poet, author and meditation teacher who is best known for his work on death and dying. He is part of a cadre of teachers of his generation who have worked for decades to make the teachings of Theravada Buddhism more accessible for an American (and, more broadly, Western) audience. Ondrea and he have spent years counseling people through their grief, and Meetings At The Edge allows us a glimpse into their process. We gain access to startling insights that arise during the course of these conversations, bits of hard-earned wisdom out of the mouths of both the counseled and counselor. Stephen asks challenging questions, questions that encourage his client, and by proxy, the reader, to unpack our cherished analyses of our experiences. If we choose to accept the challenge of Stephen’s questions, we have the opportunity to discover the deeper spiritual truths just under the wrapping paper of conventional wisdom, hidden inside the folding carton of easy explanations.

In the hell of grief, we get to experience the astonishing healing power of empathy.

Stephen Levine

Credit: likesuccess.com

This book offers some very intimate dialogue, and a few pages in, I knew that I was reading one of those books that feel like a sacred gift from the deepest well of the human soul. It’s one of those books that silences the mindless chatter in your head with overwhelming wisdom, and slows the world down until you find yourself still, finally, and gasping at how absolutely heartbreaking, hard, precious and miraculous it is to be a human. We have to contend with so much while we’re here, in our bodies. We suffer so much loss. We receive such deep love. In the hell of grief, we get to experience the astonishing healing power of empathy. When someone sits with us and stays, when someone holds space for our pain and says, “Me too,” and the jig is up and the guard is down. We realize that helping each other through this strange, lovely and often tragic journey is maybe the whole point of being on it. Teachers like Stephen and Ondrea Levine help us bridge the gap between the isolated and collective experience. They open the world up when it’s become too small, and gently help guide us into what Stephen calls “the heart of the mystery,” where we can do our work. They remind us that we are capable of facing death and dying, and that we have companions. We can take it from there.

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“I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”

- Woody Allen
Woody Allen

Credit: www.supercompressor.com

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Preserving the Totem Poles of the Northwest

Clans indigenous to the Northwest Coast saw totem pole carving as a crucial end-of-life tradition
totem pole sunset

Photo credit: flickr.com

Their beautiful, intricate designs have made totem poles an icon of the Northwest Coast. Way before they graced the sides of planes and backs of tourism brochures, however, totem poles played an important role in the region’s indigenous end-of-life tradition.

For hundreds of years, natives of the Northwest Coast honored their dead through the creation of the intricately carved poles. “They were first noticed by European explorers in the 1700s,” says NPR’s Robert Smith, “[but those] totem poles may have been misunderstood. Britain’s Captain James Cook, who encountered totem poles off the coast of British Columbia, called them “truly monstrous figures.” Early missionaries thought the poles were worshipped as gods and encouraged them to be burned.”

“…totem poles may have been misunderstood”

Totem Poles

Photo credit: DennisTsang

In reality, totem poles served as a symbol of unity and family history for a clan, reminding each member of the invaluable link between the living and their “spirit-ancestors.”

The average height of a totem pole is a towering 70 feet (21.3m), but that wasn’t always the case. The mammoth-sized poles we think of today only became possible as a result of indigenous contact with European explorers (hence European tools). It wasn’t until the 18th century that the poles could be made larger than the size of a walking stick – and gradually, to the size of a tree.

“It wasn’t until the 18th century that the poles could be made larger than the size of a walking stick – and gradually, to the size of a tree.”

Unfortunately, the lifespan of a wooden totem pole is limited. So, in an effort to preserve the heritage of indigenous peoples, carvers began making replicas of decomposing poles while the design was still intact.

totem pole mortuary totem pole alaskan art

Haida mortuary pole at Skidegate, 1884.
Photo credit: sfu.ca

Today, a beautiful replica of a Tsimshian memorial pole can be found in northern British Columbia. The replicated pole (the original created in 1800) was carved by Bill Holm in the village of Gitlakhdamks in 1969. The pole is covered with detailed images of a “humanoid bear,” a bird and a sea-bear, all to honor the life of a particular clan chief who has passed on. And, explains the Burke Museum of Natural History, the erection of a pole was also a conspicuous sign that a new chief would soon take over.

“The pole is covered with detailed images of a “humanoid bear,” a bird and a sea-bear, all to honor the life of a particular clan chief who has passed on.”

In many cases, totem poles even contained the actual remains of an important clan member. Known as mortuary totem poles, these monuments “had a cavity in the top which held the burial box inside,” explains Simon Fraser University, “[and the] remains of a chief or high ranking person were placed in the box a year after the death.”

Related Articles:

  • Learn more about totem poles from Simon Fraser Univeristy here.
  • Listen to Robert Smith’s NPR report on totem poles here.
  • Visit the Burke Museum of Natural History’s website here.

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Say Their Names: On Recovering After the Loss of a Child

The Compassionate Friends bring bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings together with one simple message
A man and his son hugging each other

Credit: The Compassionate Friends

If you have experienced the loss of a child, you probably have felt a sense of isolation in the loss. Unlike most other types of loss, the death of a child is something that rarely happens. Most of us know someone who has lost a grandparent, or even a parent, but far fewer of us personally know anyone who has lost a child. Many of us cannot imagine the pain this experience causes. For the bereaved, this means having fewer people to confide in when that pain becomes overwhelming.

Thankfully, The Compassionate Friends are there to pick up the pieces. This UK-based organization is focused on bringing bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings into one room to talk about the thoughts and feelings they have every day. Beyond giving people the space to air out their feelings, the organization teaches others how to speak with those who are bereaved.

Too often, people are at a loss for words when they hear about the death of a child. There’s not exactly an etiquette book out there for how to handle this situation.

The group’s message is simple: Say their name. Too often, people are at a loss for words when they hear about the death of a child. There’s not exactly an etiquette book out there for how to handle this situation. Every family member handles the death differently, so such a book would be ultimately useless anyway.

The Compassionate Friends say the best thing you can do for a grieving parent is to talk about the child. When you speak about children who died, you acknowledge their existence, and affirm their impact (however brief) on the world.

When parents are isolated from their friends and extended family, they have no one to express these sensitive and burning thoughts. The thoughts eat away from the inside out, with no space for relief.

Some parents feel they can’t possibly go on after the death of one of their children. They say they feel guilty about being alive, or express a desire to end their own lives. When parents are isolated from their friends and extended family, they have no one to express these sensitive and burning thoughts. The thoughts eat away from the inside out, with no space for relief.

A man holding a newborn baby's hand

Credit: Aaron Gilson

When you offer your direct support to someone who has lost a child, you push away that feeling of isolation. It’s true that you might never understand how that parent feels, but you can provide an ear for them to tell you how they feel. Sometimes, all it takes is one person to reach out to make the greatest difference in someone’s life.

The Compassionate Friends released a video featuring interviews from bereaved parents and siblings in their network. In it, one woman, Jane, describes the hurt she felt when a close friend avoided her in public after finding out that Jane had recently lost her son. Jane explains that many people have a desire to avoid those who are experiencing grief, not because they are bad people, but because they don’t know what to say. What they might not realize is that this avoidance makes many parents feel like pariahs in their own communities.

Learn how you can reach out to people who have lost children, or how to cope with your own loss if you have lost a child, by watching the video below. Take a look at The Compassionate Friends’ other essential resources right here.

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