I began a journey of grief recovery after my daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 2000. Many lessons were learned during the highs and lows of that roller coaster journey. I didn’t see the lessons as gifts. Four years later when my cousin Marilynn’s husband died unexpectedly I saw that I could help by sharing the lessons I had learned. The Holy Spirit made the words fall out of my fingers onto the keyboard and thus those lessons became gifts to share and this is that story.
Sharing the Gifts
In June of 2000 I was given a gift of a journal and a letter. My daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. The letter passed on the personal story from a friend and how the journal helped her dad recover from the death of her mother. The letter encouraged me to pour my frustrations and emotions into that journal as part of my grieving. The journal was very helpful. I decided I would share the gift if a situation presented itself. I shared the journal gift with a neighbor when her husband died at an early age. Now, four years after my daughter was killed, an event in my extended family was a chance for me to again share this gift.
Maxine and I were returning home from a 4th of July weekend in Topeka. We had enjoyed time with our kids and grandkids. Neighborhoods in Topeka celebrate the 4th with magnificent fireworks displays. We had enjoyed the neighborhood and city fire- works.
We stopped in Altoona for a bite to eat and a short break before the final leg of the trip home. Just as we were preparing to leave my brother called. He asked if anyone from Wisconsin had called me. I said no. He told me to call him back as soon was we got home. We knew it couldn’t be good news. My first guess was that my uncle had passed away. He was suffering with Alzheimer’s and wasn’t in the best of health.
When we arrived home, I called. Gale told me Phil had taken his own life. Phil was the husband of my cousin Marilynn. Maxine and I were shocked. We had been slowly recovering from Kim’s death and were beginning to feel good about life. Now that feeling had been taken away from us. Phil had committed suicide by starting lawn mower engines and shutting all the doors in the work shop. Maxine and I had just returned from a trip to Alaska and a trip to Topeka. I wasn’t in my usual organized situation. I needed to get myself collected together. There would be two funerals. One in DePere and one in Burlington. How were we going to handle that?
Maxine and I agreed that I should go Wisconsin to be with Marilynn. Maxine would come to Burlington with my brother and his wife. I would meet her there for the second funeral. She would return to Iowa with my brother and his wife. I would stay with Marilynn for a few days.
The journal had been such a big help to me that I decided to share the gift with Marilyn and her children. I wrote a letter to Marilynn explaining the purpose of the journal. I also explained what a great help the journal had been in the recovery of Kim’s death. I told her she was the best judge of if or when her children, all grown, were to be given the journal gift.
I met Marilynn in her kitchen. There were big hugs and big tears. I took her and her sisters aside. I told them of things I had learned from Kim’s death, funeral, and recovery. A key message was that the funeral was going to be a blur. Your grief is so great that you will not remember details. Marilynn and I are a lot alike. We are detail oriented people. It un-nerves us when we can’t recall details we think we should know. Eileen had shared that piece of wisdom with me. She recalled it from her mother’s funeral. I was so glad to hear that wisdom. I was really worried because I couldn’t recall details of my daughters funeral. Those bits of wisdom are gifts all of us need to share with others.
Pastor Lori presided at the funeral in DePere. Pastor Lori is one of the finest pastors I know. She did not sweep the suicide under the rug. She addressed the issue directly. She reminded us the decision was Phil’s and not ours. We should not blame our selves or second guess ourselves. As a firefighter and EMT I had learned not to dwell on the downward spiral of the coulda, shoulda, woulda syndrome. Pastor Lori’s straight forward manner helped Marilynn’s family and our extended family more than she knows.
The next day the Burlington funeral was conducted. Burlington was the home town of Marilynn and Phil. Adam and Erica drove Marilynn and I to Burlington. We sat in the back seat and had deep discussions about life and death. We also had some light moments. As we turned off I-94, Marilynn began to tell me the history of every farm we passed. Not only the history of the farm, but the history of the parents, kids, and grandkids associated with each farm. I told her she should become the state historian for Wisconsin. We teased her that she and Phil had lived in every town in WI, and that she knew everyone in Wisconsin. Not quite the truth but not too far from it.
The funeral in Burlington was at the same funeral home as Phil’s mother’s funeral.
The internment was at the Spring Prairie cemetery next to his mother. The luncheon at the church in Spring Prairie gave us time to ease our grief and visit with friends and family. It was no secret that Marilynn was the most likely person to be the last to leave the church. Adam and Erica asked me if I would be willing to wait for Marilynn and drive her back to DePere. I accepted the offer. A couple of hours later as the church doors were being locked, Marilynn came out and was ready to go home.
I drove her car and we headed north from Spring Prairie. About two miles north, there was a big bang in the left front wheel of the car. I slowed and tried to turn off the road. The steering was not responding appropriately. I stopped and got out to look. The coil spring on the front wheel had broken and interfered with the steering. We were a short distance from an intersection. I told Marilynn we needed to try to drive to the corner and get the car off the main highway and the narrow shoulder. The steering responded enough we were able to do that. Now what do we do?
Marilynn had a cell phone. She called her sister-in-law Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen lived on the home farm where Phil was raised. We could see the farm across the country side. There was no answer. Marilynn suspected Mary Ellen was not home from the church yet.
As we looked down the road a car was approaching. The couple stopped to help us. The woman had helped serve lunch at the church and recognized us. Marilynn and I just looked at each other. Without saying a word, we knew the Holy Spirit was looking out for us. The couple gave us a ride to Mary Ellen’s house. Mary Ellen arranged for a tow truck to pick up the car. She gave us her van to drive to DePere. So, two kindred souls, surrounded by the Holy Spirit, accepted her van and began the drive back to DePere.
On previous trips to DePere I had promised Marilynn that I would buy her a steak supper. However, this night we would settle for a whopper at Burger King. We took time to eat and to tell her sisters the status of things. So onward we went. Two very tired cousins, very glad to be with each other, continued the journey to DePere. We arrived late and went to bed, sleeping the best we could under the circumstances.
I stayed another day or two and helped Marilynn with whatever I could. I pondered things I had learned after Kim’s death and from my life’s experiences. I told Marilyn that after I got home, I’d write some stuff and send it to her and her sisters. I had ideas and thoughts but really didn’t know how I was going to get it all said. However, the Holy Spirit would take care of the details.
After I got home I sat down at the computer. I just started writing. It was just like the e-mail Maxine and I got from Lisa after Kim was killed. The words just rolled off my fin- ger tips. The Holy Spirit was guiding me. So I call it Ramblings from Gary. I just typed as the Holy Spirit guided me. Not fancy, not organized, but with true feelings.
The unexpected events of life allowed me to share Eileen’s gift and the gift of my experience from Kim’s death. Sharing the experiences of life is one of the great gifts we can give and can receive. Let the Holy Spirit guide you in sharing your experiences with others.
The following is the Ramblings from Gary.
Ramblings from Gary to Marilynn
The roller coaster ride of the grief and healing process, with love and hugs
The time comes when you think you have the grief handled. You bask in the light that you are once again in control. You feel pretty good. Then all of the sudden something happens and you feel really bad again. You may get flashbacks to the time of Phil’s death, the funeral, or whatever. The roller coaster just went from a peak to a valley. As time goes on the valleys get shallower and occur less often. The time varies with each individual person. After four years, some car accidents I go on still trigger valleys and bad feelings. The valleys aren’t deep and the bad feelings don’t last long, but they are still there.
The most common triggers for a trip to the valley are sight, sound, and smell. Also, kind or unkind words spoken by well intentioned people can trigger a ride into a valley.
The roller coaster ride is a natural part of the grieving and healing process. Please understand that this is going to happen to you and that it is normal.
The key word is process:
Grieving and healing is a process. The process takes time. All of us heal at different rates. Don’t believe any book or person who tells you the grieving process takes X amount of time.
When we were all kids we got cuts and scrapes. We all healed but there was not a specific healing time for a finger cut, or a toe cut, or a knee scrape. Our wounds healed over time with the aid of a Band-Aid and some TLC. Grief and healing is the same way, it takes time and TLC helps. TLC is taking good care of yourself (eat, sleep, laugh, cry, don’t be a workaholic, take time off, make time for yourself, read books on grief, utilize support groups).
“God on a Harley”
Through circumstances I cannot recall the details of, it was made known to us that Kim, and some of her friends, had read the book titled “God on a Harley”. We were told that it had a positive impact on her life. I decided to read the book. The book is focused toward young women but even an old man like me got a lot of useful information out of it. The one item that stuck with me was “Take care of yourself first and foremost.” Being a card carrying workaholic, I had not been doing a good job of that. Since a 1993 trip to Yosemite, I have been in a “13 step program” of recovery and was taking better care of myself. After the loss of Kim, I recognized how important it was for me to focus on taking care of myself if I was to heal and recover. The book lists 6 major points.
1. Do not build walls, for they are dangerous. Learn to transcend them.
2. Live in the moment for each one is precious and not to be squandered.
3. Take care of yourself first and foremost.
4. Drop the ego. Be real and watch what happens.
5. All things are possible all of the time.
6. Maintain Universal Flow. When someone gives, it is an act of generosity to receive. For in the giving, there is something gained.
I also took notice of the last one. I have learned to say thank you for gifts that are given. I have abandoned the old Stratton and Jensen philosophy of saying, “You shouldn’t have done that” and then expecting to repay every gift two fold. People feel good to give and help. Say thank you and enjoy the gift. Don’t feel guilty to get a gift or help. At some time in the future, God will put you in a position to give a gift. It might be a kind word, a smile, a hand on the shoulder. The recipient will appreciate the gift and say thank you. I enjoyed this book. You might also enjoy it.
Prose and Philosophy:
Kim and I both enjoyed a hobby of collecting prose and one line philosophy. I didn’t really know she had also taken up this hobby until I was going through her Franklin Planner after she was killed. There was one that especially touched us and it is below. The last paragraph is on her headstone.
May today there be peace within
May you trust your highest power that you are exactly where you are meant to be
May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been give to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let his presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, and to bask in the sun. It is there for each and every one of you.
In hind sight, I believe God intended for us to find this. It brought us great strength and continues to strengthen us. I carry a copy in my Franklin Planner and periodically read it. I am still in awe of the power and healing contain in this message.
I found two other things on Kim’s desk that have been powerful in the healing process. The first was the Robert Frost quote I told you about.
“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”
The second was from Huxley: “Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be.” I was awe struck when I compared this to the second paragraph of the prose above. I summed this up in my mind as “God’s plan is working”. On many days, I may not understand the plan but I trust in God.
Time for Yourself
Making time for yourself is important. As I worked on recovering from being a workaholic, I found a powerful quotation that I kept on my desk at Deere and now keep in my Franklin planner.
“The hours which I have spent alone with Mr. Edison have brought me the real big returns of my life: To it I attribute all I have accomplished.
Thomas Edison, American Inventor
Don’t stare at the closed door
When one door closes, another opens, but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, we don’t see the ones which open for us.
Alexander Graham Bell
Pastor Albertson reminded us on many occasions not to lock our self in a room with open doors.
There are many places in the Bible to find comfort and healing. Ecclesiastes was comforting for us; “a time for everything”. Ecclesiastes 5: 19-20 (NIV) “To accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”
I combine this with the thoughts that I am where God wants me to be.
I cling to another thing from the Bible. Some where in the chain of events around Kim’s death, someone reminded me that God did not promise us an easy life on earth or a life without tragedy and sorrow. What God did promise was to save our soul. I believe he has saved Kim’s soul and Phil’s soul, and He will save our soul. Sometimes you just gotta look at the big picture.
Lutheran Book of Worship
I have always been amazed at how Lutheran’s can take beautiful words and annihilate them with music. I keep a copy of Hymn 453 in my Franklin Planner. The words bring me comfort in times of need. (Since I don’t read music, a plus for most Lutheran hymns, the notes don’t mean anything to me anyway)
Years ago, St. Tim’s used the Compline Service each evening during Lent (Page 154 of Lutheran Book of Worship). I came to love this service, especially the prayers. You might find it comforting and relaxing to read through this Service and the prayers.
One of the prayers is Romans 8: 38-39. With the losses we have experienced, we sometimes wonder if there is a God. On August 9, 1987 Maxine and I went on a rescue call where a 19 month old girl ending up being pronounced dead in the ER. We were devastated. I told our pastor, now our Bishop, that I hated God for letting that happen. He said that was all right, God would understand. I use these verses from Romans as a constant reminder that God will not abandon me even in those times where life’s circumstances make me want to abandon him.
Dr. Everley’s Burnout Club
Dr. Everley works with the Critical Incident Stress Foundation. They help emergency service workers manage stress. Emergency Service workers are noted for being workaholic over achievers. Here is his list of requirements to achieve burnout.
- Be a “perfectionist”; never accept anything less than perfection
2. Work at least ten hours a day; work as many holidays as possible.
3. Adhere to a diet of “fast food” and candy bars.
4. Adhere to inflexible idealism.
5. Assume the responsibility for solving the problems of all your friends, family, and coworkers.
6. Never delegate any responsibility.
7. Never say “No”, try to please all the people all of the time.
8. Never waste time relaxing.
9. Never exercise.
10. Never take any time off for yourself; if you are ever forced to do so, feel as guilty as possible about it.
11. You must remember that everyone else comes first – your needs come last.
12. Above ALL, get emotionally involved in everything you do. Learn to empathize in all aspects of your life.
Firefighter’s and EMT’s recognize this list. Learn from this list and don’t burn out !!!!!!
Reading the sympathy cards is good therapy. I called it emotional therapy. I was struck by how many cards contained a personal note and how meaningful the notes were to us. Since then, I have tried to write a note in sympathy cards. I did not write in the card to you because I just couldn’t find the words, hugs would be required. We saved all of the cards from Kim’s funeral. They are in a box upstairs. I haven’t re-read any for a long time. Just the thought of all those kind notes brings a warm feeling to me.
Forgot some details of the funeral?
It is a common, and normal, perplexion at about this time to feel guilty about not remembering every detail of the funeral. This is a common, and normal, occurrence. We are so heavy with grief that our memory doesn’t absorb the detail that it would in “normal” times. Accept it. There is nothing wrong with you.
Am I normal?
You are a normal person, having normal reactions, to an abnormal situation. This is lock, stock, and barrel of stress management for firefighters and for people who have experienced the losses that we have experienced. Remind yourself every once in a while that “I am normal”
Grief takes 2 years and then you’ll get back to normal
Often spoken by well intentioned but naive people, including clergy. There is no schedule for grieving. We all grieve on a different schedule and therefore have different emotions on any given day. The comment we heard most often was that grieving for a spouse takes 2 years and a child 3 years. The real message here is: IT TAKES A LONG TIME. Being a Stratton, I don’t have a lot of patience. When I lost patience or the roller coaster was in a valley, I had to look back on this and remind myself of how long it takes. I got to the point that I asked myself, “Have I made any progress since last month.” If I had, I was pleased. If I had not, I spent some time with my journal, spent some time by myself, and cut myself some slack.
Normal has been changed for you. Your life has been changed forever. I now look at life very differently and I suspect you will too. At some point in the future, you will look in the mirror, look at a sunset, look at the beauty of the earth, look at a new grandchild, and say, “Life is good.” As bad as I felt after Kim was killed, I never thought I would ever enjoy life again. God’s care, time, and compassionate family and friends help the healing. 4 years ago I could not imagine feeling as good as I do.
The first year anniversaries
There is no getting around this. The dates of all the special occasions are going to occur and they are going to be difficult. Some will be very difficult. After the first year, they are less difficult. I would recommend you talk with the kids about what dates you want to be alone and what dates you want to be surrounded by family / friends. Expect that all of you will be emotional on these dates. For me, two weeks to a month preceding the date was sometimes worse than the actual date. Sometimes my journal was the only outlet available so I used it to vent.
I have subscribed to Guideposts for a long time. I always read “His Mysterious Ways” and “What Prayer Can Do”. Sometimes I read some of the stories. You may already subscribe to this booklet. If you don’t let me know and I will get you a subscription. I find that a little “non-denominational religion” is good for the soul.
Support groups are out there and are helpful. We got a tremendous amount of counseling from Polk County Victims Services. The biggest mistake I made was not going to the Compassionate Friends support group for people who have lost children. One person in the family went to counseling outside of the Polk County group and it was helpful. Joining a support group is a personal choice and each of you will have to make that choice individually.
Take care of yourself
You and I have shared the babbling brook. Our souls are soothed by the sound. When we are around water, we can restore our souls. When I started traveling after Kim’s death it was hard. I had never been home sick in my life but on the first long trip for Deere, I got a bad bad case of home sick. However, I had discovered this little place in the mountains of Arizona called Granite Basin Lake. It was a small pond by most standards. It was quiet water that reflected Granite Mountain. On quiet Sunday afternoons you could hear the wind in the pines. I found a spot where I could sit and read and then just look out at the water and the mountain. I could shut out the sound of the world and reflect. Sometimes the warm sun of winter was on my back. You told me you have places near by where the water can help restore your soul. Don’t forget to use these places during this time of grief and healing.
Don’t forget where you came from
The older I get the more I appreciate having a farm background. You and I did some reminiscing on the way from DePere to Burlington. I have collected some ink prints with farm backgrounds. One that is dear to me shows a family at the supper table. The saying is this:
You left the land
and worked to be a winner
But you forget your roots
when you call supper ……dinner.
Today I take time to reflect and appreciate the past and worry a lot less about the future. Sometimes I reflect on our parents and grandparents living through the depression and then World War II. From the stories we have been told, I still can’t imagine how hard a struggle it was to survive. The one that sticks with me the most is during the depression they burned corn for heat because there was no money for fuel oil. I can’t describe what a profound effect your Dad’s faith in God has had on me. I am in awe how he could see the things he did in the War and still maintain a strong faith in God. I reflect on that and am reminded that if he could maintain a faith in God after all that, I surely can maintain a faith after the things that have happened to me. We come from a long line of survivors that have a strong faith in God. In the difficult days ahead don’t forget to reflect on where we came from.
Music and Poetry
I put some music on my computer and it is usually playing while I am working at the computer. They are songs that I enjoy and sooth me, kind of like the babbling brook. If you don’t know how to put songs on the computer, your kids can show you. Mine had to help me. From my kids I learned to turn the volume up high. Maxine doesn’t like it but when I am home alone, I sometimes turn it way up and “feel” the music. I also have some “relaxation” CD’s that I use when I need to. Glenda got me started on Windham Hill and I now have several. Maxine has her own collection of “relaxation” CD’s. I also read more poetry than I used to. I have a variety but I like Baxter Black. I also like his stories. He is a cowboy poet and story teller who used to be a large animal vet out west. These are true stories; you can’t make stories this funny. These interludes can take you to a place of comfort and joy. Although the interludes are brief, they sure help on the tough days or weeks.
Life Insurance, Wills, Guardianships
After these tragic losses, it is good to review these items but it can be emotionally difficult. When I retired I thought about dropping some life insurance but our financial planner convinced me that was a hasty decision. We have had some life insurance on our kids for just such tragedies as occurred to Kim. You should really encourage Brent and Trixie to get some life insurance on the kids. It is really cheap at their young age. The premium for Karmin’s insurance is $7 per month. All of your kids should get some life insurance on themselves that would at least cover funeral expenses. I think I mentioned to you that now you really need to have a will. Anyone that is married needs a will. I remember how comfortable I was when you and Phil agreed to be guardians for Garrett and Karmin should something happen to us while they were under 18. Tragedy can strike at any moment. All of us need to encourage our kids to think about making provisions for guardianship. Wills can be very simple. In essence our will is that the kids take the personal things they want, sell the rest, and divide the money equally. We have also made living wills and the kids know our desire is not to be kept alive via machines.
How did you do it?
Well meaning people will make statements like: “That was such a tragic loss, how did you ever get through it?”. The answer is “I don’t know”. My hind sight shows that God put people around me to help and sometimes do for me. I didn’t get through it by my own effort. I will never really know “how I did it.” My hind sight also tells me that all of the events in our lives were according to God’s plan and that plan prepares us, and those around us, to deal with what tomorrow brings.
Ask for help if you need it
Sometime in the future you may need help. Plan for it. Ask for it!! Car accidents involving drivers and alcohol can still be difficult for me. I have told a fellow firefighter that if he sees me walking toward a drunk driver he is to grab my coat and drag me away. Other firefighters look out for me because they watch to see how I am going to react. If I lose my poise, I am confident they will take action to help me.
Learn to say no
You have to learn to say no. Nurses and firefighters can’t quite get that word out of their mouth when asked to help. I was so overwhelmed by the loss of Kim that saying no was a necessity. I learned to pick and chose my situations. Again, take care of yourself!!! I couldn’t go on every ambulance call or car wreck for a long time. I still try to not get directly involved with a car accident victim. I couldn’t do a critical incident stress debriefing for over a year. On the other side of the coin, dealing with Kim’s loss has made me a much better debriefer and I am called often. I still need to say no on occasion. I can’t be all things to all people all the time. I think learning to say no is a key step in the healing process.
Hugs are just the best thing. Don’t be bashful about asking for one. I know that in the time after Kim’s funeral, I would meet good friends and we would look at each other like “I don’t know what to say”. Just a simple, “I need a hug” works every time. A good hug makes everyone feel better. Remember how good a “March Hug” feels?
Hudson, IA July 26, 2004
My dearest Marilynn,
Here are my ramblings about grief and healing. As I told you, I don’t have answers but I do have experience.
After the first night at the computer I knew this would be interesting because I found I could type at the keyboard almost as long as you can talk on the phone!
These ramblings are ramblings. They are in no specific order of importance. Before Kim’s death I would have never considered sharing the things that are in this letter. After Kim was killed, so many people shared personal experiences with Maxine and me. That sharing helped us more than I could have ever imagined. Since then I have become more open and sharing of my personal experiences. I hope that something in these ramblings will be of help to you.
As we discussed, I have included enough copies for your kids. You can use your discretion about giving a copy to them. It is ok with me but you are the best judge if the timing is right for them.
At your house I told you I would send a copy to all your sisters and I am doing that.
I am on a critical incident stress debriefing team with other emergency service people. Our objective is to mend broken hearts and get people back to doing what they do. That is what this is all about. We are going to mend our broken hearts and get back to doing what we do. Will it be hard, sometimes; how long will it take?, a while. How will we do it?, by sharing and caring.
For you I will share my experience, care for you in thought and prayer, offer my shoulder to cry on, my ear to listen, and my arms to hug you.
Until the next hug,
Once again, the Holy Spirit guided me. The Holy Spirit helped me share my experiences with death, grief, and recovery. A simple gift of a journal and a letter that have been give to me was passed on. An example of how simple gifts, given with Christian love, can have a huge impact on someone’s life. Then the gift can be passed on as we try to help each other on this journey of life.