Grief, Loss & Heartbreak

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Readers,

One known way to help healing is telling the story that has pained or injured you to a compassionate and caring listener. That is one reason therapy is so effective. Since my son Benjamin’s death, I have found it nourishing to talk about his life and to tell our story – below you will find part of it. Also, if you come to my office, you will see a section of my waiting area is now dedicated to this story and the love I feel for him. I urge you to join me in telling your stories.

Thanks for listening,

Doctor Becky

 

Unfortunately, Doctor Becky Knows Grief

Doctor Becky and her late son, Benjamin

Doctor Becky and her late son, Benjamin

Benjamin Whetstone Schmidt – Doctor Becky’s son,
killed in Musa Qal’eh District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan October 6, 2011

 

by Becky Whetstone

The day my son was killed was one of the worst days of my life. I was flying from San Antonio to Little Rock to visit my boyfriend (now husband) for his birthday, and to interview with the Arkansas Board of Counselors in order to get an Arkansas license in Marriage & Family Therapy. While changing planes in Dallas my phone rang: “Mom,” my daughter said, “There are two Marines at the front door.” My knees buckled. I dropped my bags and fell against the wall of the jet way. I felt weak and dizzy, and only made it on to the plane with the help of flight attendants. My 24-year-old son was a Marine sniper fighting in Afghanistan, and it didn’t seem possible that something could happen to him.

I begged my daughter to put the Marines on the phone to tell me what was going on, but they wouldn’t. A few torturous hours later they met me at my destination in Little Rock and told me face-to-face that he had been killed instantly that same day while in combat –– from a bullet to the head. I already knew, however, because after hours of waiting I couldn’t stand it anymore, and phoned Benjamin’s dad in San Antonio (we’ve been divorced since 1993) several times to plead with him to not make me wait for the Marines, and so he told me.

Devastated, gutted and heartbroken, our family embarked on several weeks of some of the most agonizing and soul-wrenching experiences anyone could have: we met Benjamin’s body in a flag-draped coffin when it arrived in Dover, Delaware from Afghanistan; made plans for his military funeral, dealt with the extensive media coverage of his death, greeted grieving friends and family, met his body once again in San Antonio in a dramatic military “coming home” ceremony, said a final good-bye to him laying in his coffin in his dress blues, attended a graveside and memorial service attended by 600 people, and tried to find out more about what had happened to our son.

One of mom's saddest moments: Some of Benjamin's family members greeting his flag-draped coffin on its return to San Antonio.

One of mom’s saddest moments: Some of Benjamin’s family members greeting his flag-draped coffin on its return to San Antonio.

Almost three weeks following the news of his death, we unexpectedly learned through an outside source that he had been killed by friendly fire, which began a whole new set of media stories and Marine misinformation and misunderstandings. Not knowing what happened and feeling that the truth was not being told stops the healing process and keeps a family stuck in a “what will happen next?” mode. Instead of waiting for people to come to us, we have spent much time digging for information about what really happened in Musa Qal’eh. We have talked to Benjamin’s Marine buddies deployed with him, his good Marine friends who were not in Afghanistan at the time but who have information, journalists who were there, and we have pressed the Marines organization for more information, and it comes in small bits and pieces. Throughout it all we have been navigating the grief process … the shock and denial, anger, depression, and bargaining that every person who loses someone or something important will encounter. The final stage is acceptance, and I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet, because in many ways my son’s loss still doesn’t seem real, or even possible – even though we have moments of tears and sadness where we know it’s true, God’s numbing solution usually soon blankets us, and we are able to continue our lives for a while.

Throughout this time people have told us they do not know what is the “right” thing to say to us – our son’s death in war is such a tragedy, and they know words will not take our pain away. What I have learned is that of course no one can say something that will fix the pain or loss, but knowing that a person cares, is concerned, and feels for us – or any military family who loses a loved one in war – is very powerful and helpful. Expressions of sympathy DO help. To know that my son was cared about, that his loss is noticed … this warms my heart so much. Of course he was special to his mom, but I love knowing that he was special to others. I never tire of hearing stories about him, or talking about him. These tales keep him alive in my heart, and they help me feel better.

I hope that I can use this tragic experience – from the pain of loss to the advocating for truth and information regarding how my son died – to help others who may face similar losses and tragedies in their lives. People tell me I seem strong, but what I know is that my son would not want his death to ruin my life. He wants me to have the happy life he can’t have, and I want to use this experience to help others in whatever ways that I am able. All the ways I will do this are still unfolding, but I want to thank friends, family, the community and clients for all the love and support during this time. Your caring and warmth helps so much.

Benjamin and his sister Casey Marie when the family came to San Diego for his Marines Boot Camp graduation in 2008.

Benjamin and his sister Casey Marie when the family came to San Diego for his Marines Boot Camp graduation in 2008.

Benjamin on leave, poses in a rare photo with his mom, dad, and sister.

Benjamin on leave, poses in a rare photo with his mom, dad, and sister.

As usual, the three of us.

As usual, the three of us.

 

 

 
 

What’s the Difference Between Heartache and Heartbreak?

There is a significant difference in how long you’ll feel pain …

There is an important difference between heartache and heart break.

There is an important difference between heartache and heart break.

by Becky Whetstone

Heartache hurts, but not for very long, and usually occurs following the loss of an acquaintance or short term friendship or romantic relationship. For example, John and Sue dated for six months. When John dumped Sue, she was devastated. Yes, it hurt, but about six weeks later Sue barely even thought of John. THAT, is heartache — pain that lasts a few weeks to a few months. The good news is it will soon be a distant memory.

Heartbreak is very real, and it can be devastating to a person’s soul, psyche, physical and mental health. When a person experiences it, he or she often describes it as “the bottom falling out of my world,” or “being on my knees.”

Heartbreak is what happens when a person experiences a loss of someone meaningful, and was a presence in the person’s life for an extended period of time, through breakup, death, divorce, end of a friendship … or any circumstance that brings about the end of a relationship.

When a person feels heartbreak, he or she will experience the stages of grief long ago described by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book, “On Death and Dying.” It is important to understand that a person does not have to die for a loved one to feel grief. People grieve not only over death, but also over separation or loss of any valued relationship.

The stages of grief are: 1. Shock/Denial 2. Bargaining 3. Depression 4. Anger 5. Acceptance.

A person going through the stages may not experience these emotions in any certain order. He or she may feel them all in one day, over a period of time, and may pivot back and forth through two or three of them before finally making it to the final level of acceptance. Even after reaching acceptance a person can revert and re-experience any of the stages when suddenly reminded of the loss.

The worst thing about heartbreak and grief is that there is no quick path through it, and every person experiences it differently, and for different lengths of time. In fact, the pain must be felt and not stored away as if it didn’t happen.

It is dangerous for anyone to compare their pain and suffering to another person’s pain and suffering … an individual will usually begin to heal when the time is right.

In the meantime, friends and family are often sympathetic in the beginning of a person’s grief experience, but after awhile they will tire of the tears, anger, venting, and sadness. That is why counseling and a support group are positive and healthy ways to work out these feelings that need to be expressed.

In addition, a counselor can watch for signs of depression, and can recommend when a physical check up or anti-depressants might be in order. Depression and sadness have been proven to lower the immune system and cause people to be more vulnerable to illness.

One of the most frequently asked questions is, “How long will I feel heartbroken?” And although there is no solid answer, some experts say one year for every five years of the relationship is a fairly accurate rule of thumb.

Still, many more will tell you that a person never totally recovers from such a devastating experience, and that while some aspect of the pain will always be present, over time people think about it less. The important thing is that as hard as it is to imagine, experiencing such pain WILL be a growth experience, and the day probably will come when you will be able to see good things that did come from it.

Dr. Becky recommends the book, “Rebuilding,” by Dr. Bruce Fisher and Dr. Robert Alberti. It breaks down the process in an easy-to-understand way, and is immensely reassuring for those going through it. You can order that book from Amazon on Dr. Becky’s Recommended Reading page.

The Stages of Grief

an unavoidable path we must walk on our way to healing …

by Becky Whetstone, Ph.D.

Most of us are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous 5 stages of grief: Shock and denial, Bargaining, Depression, Anger, and Acceptance. What most of us don’t know is that the stages will be experienced in no certain order and for no designated length of time. For example, Maria may be in shock for a week, angry and sad for years, then hit acceptance, and then go back to anger again a few months later. When I think of the final stage and the word acceptance, I think it’s important to note that Ross never said we would “get over” the loss –– she just said we would just learn to accept it.

When people experience a major loss like death of a loved one or loss of a serious relationship, it is highly likely that a part of of that person’s heart will hurt forever. The pain may be more intense in the beginning and turn to a dull ache and then a sad memory over time, but a serious loss is something that probably never completely goes away. To that end, telling someone to, “get over it,” is unrealistic, lacks understanding and compassion, and should never be done – so don’t do it.

The only good news about grief is that it always creates wisdom and compassion – show me a person wo is compassionate and caring and I’ll show you on who has suffered.

“I’m just calling to say hullo …”

Re-membering teacher and friend, Michael White…

“Thanks for the memories, Michael. You are missed.” – Becky

by Becky Whetstone

The way counselors do therapy is often deeply influenced by men and women who have developed new thoughts and ideas about how to help people. As co-creator of Narrative Therapy, along with David Epston, Australian Michael White is one of the most influential voices of counseling theory in the last three decades. His idea that people tell stories about their lives, and that these stories can be retold with new and positive meanings has changed and affected the lives of thousands throughout the world. Sadly, this soft-spoken and humble giant in the world of counseling and family therapy collapsed from a heart attack while at a conference in San Diego on Monday, March 31, 2008. and died on April 4. He was 59. This followed his teaching Texas Marriage and Family Therapists at their annual conference in Galveston March 27-29.

I was fortunate to spend time with Michael in Galveston, and we spent many hours talking – not about counseling theory – but about life, transitions, relationships, our families, dreams and hopes for the future. We ate fish, watched the waves roll in, and bonded as friends. He left Galveston on Sunday March 30, bound for his next teaching adventure, a conference in San Diego set to begin Monday, March 31. He taught that day, and called me afterwards, but since I was working and wasn’t available, he left a message in his Australian accent that said, “Oh hi Becky, this is MIchael White, I’m just calling to say hullo …” Later that night he called again and we spent about half an hour visiting – he said he felt great, was happy, and thanked me for the friendship, conversation, smiles and laughter – it was a special gesture by a special man. He promised to visit San Antonio in the coming months (apparently flying 9000 miles to visit a friend was no big deal to this international traveler!), and said he was looking forward to trying our Mexican food and margaritas, but sadly, he collapsed just hours after our telephone visit.

As those who knew him and knew of his work search for understanding and a way to process the shock and grief of a brilliant life gone-too-soon, many of us will turn to Michael’s own writings about ways in which to deal with loss – I know I have.

Michael wrote in his book, “Maps of Narrative Practice,” (2007; Norton) about a ritual he named the “Saying Hullo Again,” metaphor. Instead of writing a person to say good-bye, he says, write the person a letter to say hello, and have your lost loved one or friend “write” you a letter as well. Michael said that some therapists suggest writing a lost loved one a “good-bye” letter, but he had found it more helpful to do the opposite. The idea is that a good-bye letter might suggest that a person must accept the loss and move on, which may create and encourage a detachment from the loved one – a throwing away. Michael said the hello letter allowed people to reclaim, not get rid of, the lost relationship. He suggested that the person grieving might explore not only the difference and effect the lost person had on his or her life, but also explore the contribution and effect you had on that person’s life and that person’s sense of identity. This idea is typical of the amazing and positive work of Michael White.

After some development of the “Say Hullo” letter, Michael expanded the concept to having conversations about the lost relationship, and came to call it “Re-membering Conversations.” In Re-Membering conversations a person is asked to:
•Recount what the lost loved one contributed to your life.
•Look at what you contributed to your lost loved one’s life through that person’s eyes, and ask how that connection may have shaped that person’s life or sense of identity.
•Now ask: what did you contribute to the life of this lost loved one?
•Describe how this connection helped to shape, or has the potential to shape, your sense of who you are and what your life is about.
Michael White always looked for ways to help people find a sincere – not forced – positive outcome to whatever issue they were confronted with, and he was able to imagine the most creative and thoughtful ways in which to do that – always ensuring that each person incorporated his or her own unique beliefs and values to the new story. Those of us who knew Michael, and those who are influenced by his work and philosophy, will know that he would want us to process the loss of his life in the most positive way – but in a way that fits for each of us. Part of that, for me, is writing about him here.

In writing a “Say hullo” letter about Michael White, it would be a simple task to list the many ways he influenced and contributed to my life, and, I’m sure, to many therapist’s lives. In return, we can rest assured that we contributed to his. Michael White’s work and ideas continue to live and thrive, and will for a very long time. And as for me, I can’t help but take comfort in knowing that in his final hours, Michael called to “say hullo,” himself.

Thanks, friend.

Michael and Becky share a happy moment at the Texas Assn of Marriage & Family Therapy Conference on March 29, 2008.

Michael and Becky share a happy moment at the Texas Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Conference in Galveston on March 29, 2008.

Michael White's photo from his Web site.

Michael White’s photo from his Web site at Adelaidenarrativetherapycentre.com.au.

Michael "The Teacher" at the Texas Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Conference.

Michael “The Teacher” at the Texas Association of Marriage and Family Therapy Conference.

To learn more about Michael, visit his two Web sites at: http://www.adelaidenarrativetherapycentre.com.au/ and http://www.dulwichcentre.com.au/