I’ve been wanting to write Sandy’s story for a long time. But her story is so powerful, so unimaginable, so tragic, and in a strange way uplifting, that I struggled to find exactly the right words to convey what she’s experienced.  

Sandy’s spirit is unbelievably contagious and I hoped she’d share how she managed to reignite the spark in her life.  She graciously talked to me about what she’s learned in the hope that her experience might help someone else one day.

This story is one of tremendous loss and sadness.  But it’s also a story of one young woman’s resolve to accept her circumstances and invite happiness back into her life.

Within the short span of 6 years, Sandy lost three of the dearest and most important people in her life:  her mother, her sister, and her infant child.

How does anyone survive that kind of loss? Perhaps survive is not an accurate description.  People survive loss . . . but how do they continue to function?

Is it possible to somehow get beyond the overwhelming sadness to find joy in living again?

Shining Through the Darkness

Sandy is light when I would expect dark. She lovingly talks about her son, thrilled when she spots one of the signs she knows he sends her from whatever place his spirit resides. She keeps the memory of her sister very much alive by sharing as many stories as she can remember with her sister’s only child, Harper. She remembers her mother and every day misses the conversations they shared.

Sandy is not someone I would describe as tough . . . or bitter . . . or shut down . . . or any number of things you’d expect after going through so much loss.

She smiles. Readily laughs.  Jokes and dances and swears and gets crazy just like the rest of us.  She also admits to having rough days when she doesn’t smile much at all. Anniversary days. Birthdays. Days when an object or a picture or a thought creeps into her routine and she wonders what her life would be like if all those people she loved were still with her in this world.

Sandy is like a sister to my daughter Julie. They met in Jackson, Wyoming, and struck up an immediate friendship that’s grown deeper over the past 13 years they’ve known each other.

Through Julie, I knew when Sandy’s mom passed away. A few years later, Julie told me of the tragic and fatal accident when a drunk driver struck the car driven by Sandy’s sister, Kristen.  What followed were challenging months as Sandy’s family struggled with their losses.

I remember losing my sister suddenly and a few years later being at my mother’s side when she died.  I understood when Sandy described how much she missed her mom and sister.  How alone she felt.  The depression.  The realization of never being able to buy a Mother’s Day card again.  Missing the laughs that only sisters share.

Sandy was just so young to lose the two most important women in her life.

Then . . . miraculously . . . some happy news.

Sandy and her husband Brian learned they were expecting a baby. The news sent them over the moon since doctors had advised it probably wasn’t going to happen for them.  And yet it did.  Surely this was some kind of miracle.

John Dotch Cousins was born on February 24, a beautiful and healthy baby boy. And yet in two short months, his life would end in the emergency room of a hospital.

So now I know you are wondering the same thing I did.  How does someone survive so much loss? How do you manage the depression? The numbness? The empty feeling?

 

Where Do You Start When The Loss is So Great?

When grief has you in its clutches it’s as if there’s a vice around your entire being.  And sometimes you feel it so tightly that you’re helpless to know how to begin to escape the valley you find yourself in.  Grief counselors, pastors, and support groups are there to help people begin the climb out of despair.

This is how Sandy described it:

“I kept thinking, “How am I going to do this?”  I struggled. I was angry. I didn’t know what  I needed but I was feeling such a complete state of loss.  Luckily I found a woman named Diana who was a therapist and spiritual advisor. For me, it was a turning point.”

Spiritual advisors are a different kind of grief counselor.  They help people go beyond traditional religious beliefs to consider a new realm of conscious thinking.  To explore the possibilities of what else is out there.  Diana was a source of knowledge and encouragement for Sandy who felt the healing process begin once she allowed her curiosity to discover where this might lead.

“After losing my mom, I started to believe that even though she was physically absent, she was very present in a different world. I did a lot of reading about the signs from loved ones who have passed, some of which can only be described as miraculous. Kristen and I both found a tremendous source of comfort when we realized our mom “visited” us in alternative ways. I know it sounds crazy but whenever I see a bluebird, I believe it’s a little nudge from my mom.”

 

A Constant Reminder from The Signs

“In the spiritual world, eleven means “opening the door to a higher level”.  Kristen and I initially thought it was coincidental when those numbers started appearing to us on grocery receipts, or bank balances, or loose change found… but pretty soon it seemed to be more than coincidental. We began paying attention and called each other every time we had an “eleven” experience.

“After Kristen’s accident, I was at her side when she passed. I’ll never forget looking up at the clock and seeing the time.  It was 11:29 a.m. The eleventh hour is obvious, and two plus nine is eleven.  As sad as I was, I knew immediately it was Kristen’s way of assuring me everything we’d wondered about before was actually very real. 

“I was willing to be open for signs and I continued to see more and more of them from my mom and Kristen. It’s positive reinforcement. But if someone is close-minded and refuses to connect the dots, then it’s not going to happen for them. But I believe if you pay attention, it’s there.”

And then there was the miracle of Dotch.

“I remember looking at him . . . at this perfect little baby boy . . .  and his eyes were this beautiful bottomless black.  Thinking back it was almost as if he still had one foot in the spirit world. He stared at me, memorizing my face because I think he knew he’d only be here for a short time and he had to get going.

“When Dotch died, I wasn’t suicidal but I had something I called “soul homesickness”. Half of my family was in this other universe and I wanted to be with them. Can you understand that? It’s not that I wanted to leave this world but I wanted to somehow be near all of them.

“I know they’re waiting for me and I live a full and happy life in the meantime. I’m simply not afraid of dying anymore because, eventually, I’ll see them again.”

I asked Sandy if she’d shared her experience with other people who’ve gone through the loss of a child or loved one.  She said that for many people, these ideas are too “out there” for them.

“Many people are just not open to these ideas. But in order to survive. I was willing to try almost anything.  I truly believe my son, Kristen and my mom are still in my life; just in a different way.

“It’s like this: my dad lives on the East Coast and I can talk to him over the phone for a brief visit. It’s not the same as being in the same room with him but it’s the best we can do because we live so far apart. Dotch and Kristen and my mom are very much alive to me in another world and yet I feel somehow we stay in touch. When I see a heart-shaped rock, or a heart-shaped cloud, or a knot of wood shaped exactly like a heart, I know it’s my little son assuring me that he’s with me and waiting for me whenever I get there.”

Sandy had just thought to herself, “I so wish Dotch was here. With me.” And as she looked up in a cloudless blue sky, he sent her this sign to let her know he was.

Focus on Going with The Flow

I look at Sandy and tell her, point blank,  “I don’t know how you do it.  I think you’re remarkable.”  And she answers me honestly.

Some days I can’t reconcile it. There are hard days. Tough days.  His birthday. How was I robbed of that?  And those days hurt so badly.  Yet I don’t want to live the rest of my life like that.

My sadness is also my selfishness in wanting him here with me. And the flip side is that he is somewhere in a beautiful life where he’s not experiencing any pain or any of the shitty parts of this world. He will live a perfect life within Brian and me. How could I not want that for him?

 I am thankful to know someone like Sandy.  Thankful she is able to articulate what it’s been like and what’s been helpful.

There really is nothing people can say to take away the pain of loss, but people need to know it never goes away.  I appreciate people remembering Dotch’s birthday and acknowledging me on Mother’s Day.

But here’s what people need to understand.  Grief is so isolating. Everyone will lose a parent. Some will lose a sibling. You’ll lose a dog. But not everyone will lose a child. It’s a club you never want to belong to.

Brian and I understand that people withdraw because they don’t know what to say or do. It gets too heavy for them.  It’s beyond their realm of comprehension.  But if we allow that separation, then there’s another kind of loss for us. So we’ve had to make an effort to not let this define our lives.

Sandy is quiet for a moment, lost in her own thoughts and memories.  And then she says the most remarkable thing.

I often think I needed to go through losing my mom and my sister to get me ready for losing Dotch.  

There were moments of total despair. Times when I had nothing left. All I could do was sit with my grief and not force anything. But eventually I gained the knowledge and the intent to be open and aware. It ebbs and flows but I had to be willing to keep taking steps forward.

I just had to keep going.

If there’s a Life Lesson to be learned through all of this, I wondered what it would be.  Sandy did not think twice before giving me an answer.

“Acceptance. It’s the most important lesson I’ve learned. It should be everyone’s goal . . . regardless of the situation . . . or else you’ll just be swimming upstream.

“Life is like a river. Sometimes you get in an eddy and spin out. Sometimes you’re in that rush of rapids and things are going by so fast you wonder what’s going on.

“But most of the time it’s important to just go with the flow.  Otherwise you’ll drown.  Or you’ll get out and then you’ll miss it all.

“That’s my Life Lesson.  Acceptance. It’s a lot of work. It’s my number one priority. Because it works for me.

“Every day. It works for me.”

 

Do you have your own story of loss?  Was there something or someone that helped you through your grieving process?  

Most of us cannot comprehend so much grief and we make the mistake of pulling away, fearful of saying the wrong thing.  Uncomfortable with the tears that are shed. 

Remember that our fears and discomfort are minuscule compared to the isolation and sorrow of someone who experiences the death of a child.

More than ever we need to reach out to individuals and families who are struggling through their own personal nightmare.