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They Died, I 'Crawled Back'

They Died, I 'Crawled Back'

A happy and secure childhood contributed to my resiliency. A few evenings ago, I told my story to a group of Masters of Thanatology students at a university in the Toronto area. A couple of times a year I become a focus of study. There’s always dead silence and intense focus while the class listens to my recollection of the days, months, and years following my parents’ deaths after a catastrophic car crash many years ago. It’s no reflection of my verbal eloquence, trust me, it’s just such an unusual and ‘worst nightmare’ story. I swear I can almost hear their thoughts as all the details of the story build on top of one another. A week before her 15th birthday? There were four kids? The youngest was seven?! Her dad went into a coma after her mom died? She was in a car accident the day after her parents’ accident? She picked out their coffins? Can you see the students’ concerned and thoughtful faces? I always feel like I want to stop speaking to reassure them that I’m ok. Now. Now I’m ok. The focus of tonight’s class is family resilience and I’ve been asked to pick up on that topic in relation to what my siblings and I went through all those years ago. To be resilient is to be able to ‘bounce back’ after a hardship (‘crawl back’ is likely more accurate). Family resiliency, as described by Dr. Froma Walsh, a leading expert on this topic, is the family’s ability to “withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges, strengthened and more resourceful” ( Resilience and Mental Health , 2011, p 149). Many of the examples in my (limited) research on family resilience describe the coming together of close relatives to weather and eventually grow from the particular storm a family finds themselves navigating. A parent helping his/her kids through the loss of the other parent or how each parent might help their kids transition through divorce. The way these transitions happen, the ability to safely communicate feelings, and the family dynamic up until the point of trauma all contribute to how resilient a family will be. But what if your family, post-trauma, has been whittled down to four scared kids between 7 and 16 years of age? Kids who get bounced around among different relatives for the next several years — sometimes together but in the end, separated? What if the ‘other parent’ who is supposed to be there to help you through is also buried underground? What if you’d moved across the country just a couple of months before the accident and had no close family or friends to be resilient with? How our little souls dealt with the tumultuous inconsistencies in those years following my parents’ accident leaves me in wonder. How did we bounce back? How did we get the strength to move forward? The four of us weren’t together enough to clasp hands and forge our way through. The more years that go by, the more I look back on this time analytically, without sadness. Wounds are mostly closed though scars remain. Enough time has passed that I don‘t get emotional while retelling the most harrowing of days. We were even resilient? Is ‘forced resiliency’ a thing? Because that’s how I’d describe our experience. We all made it through. We were forced to. Today we are all able to hold jobs, each of us is happily married and we love our kids. But how did we make it through those early years? Maybe there was a resiliency in our family pre-trauma. Our dad got transferred between jobs quite often. We’d moved eight times through three provinces in my 14 years of having parents. I’d been the ‘new girl’ at six schools by then. I was adaptable and used to breaking the ice and I got good at fitting into my surroundings as quickly as possible. We were a tight family because we were each other’s only friends in every new town that we landed. I remember playing Euchre and Rumoli and Rummy with my mom and dad. If I was fourteen when they died, then we must have been playing cards together since I was eleven or twelve. Did laughing around a card table with my family make me resilient? We’d been brought up to believe in a Creator. Most Sundays, if whatever church we’d nestled into after a move had two church services, we’d most definitely be at both of them. Although I do not doubt that faith must play a massive role in the ability to be resilient, I can’t say I was reaching out to God very often throughout that time. I was blank. My insides were empty. There was simply nothing there. This is not meant to downplay the countless relatives and the church community who gathered around us to help with our survival. To remind us to eat. To get out of bed. To walk with us through excruciating situations and life-altering decisions. It would have been so much worse if we’d still been in Manitoba. Thank God we’d moved so much closer to relatives on both sides of the family two months before the crash. Could the years that our family of six spent together — not perfect but happy, each other’s first friends, feeling secure and sure and safe — be what got us through the most unimaginable of circumstances? Did fourteen years of being well-loved by my mother and father create resiliency in me/us? Having their intentional time? I think so. I believe it played a major part in our ‘bounce back’. Resiliency must begin in the most normal of days with the closest of loved ones. It isn’t fabricated after a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness or after a job loss in a single-income family. It starts building up inside someone from the time they’re itty-bitty. Perhaps a person’s ability to thrive post-trauma is embedded pre-trauma. Before the divorce. Before the accident. The home environment must shape a person’s ability to be resilient. Surely parents who love unconditionally, communicate consistently, and guide with hands wide open — even though they‘re imperfect, messy, and feel parentally unsure so much of the time (me…that’s totally me) — are the world’s most undervalued people group. And most definitely, parenting this way does not guarantee the outcome. Kids make choices that can take them severely off course. But build the foundation anyway and always. I find it hard to decipher if there was any family resiliency for me and my siblings after the car accident. When I think about it I feel confused. Without realizing it, I guess my husband and I have been building up resiliency in our home with our kids. I’ve never thought of it that way before today. Card games around the table. High fives for the big wins. Standing side-by-side through the crushing losses. Allowing our kids’ hard questions and differences of opinion about faith/sex/politics spur conversation instead of confrontation. Not doing any of it perfectly. But we’re present. Doing it.  Please, Lord, let my kids not have to go through anything close to what I went through. If an unexpected life change does come along, I hope the foundation we’ve built under their feet has been solid enough to have built up their resilience. To move forward, to bounce/crawl back.  Spend time together. Doing nothing and doing everything. Our kids’ futures depend on it.

The Only Gift I Remember Is the Last One I Received

The Only Gift I Remember Is the Last One I Received

Our final family Christmas Enraptured with the gift I’d asked for, I held the doll close.  Do I remember her because she was the most desired Christmas gift I’d received in my childhood? Or is it seared into my memory banks because it was the last time my family celebrated anything together ever again? At fourteen years old, you’d think I’d have asked for something more ‘grown-up’. Make-up maybe? Or a neon yellow turtleneck with matching scrunchy socks that were all the rage in 1986. I’d first laid eyes on this porcelain doll in the Sears catalog and although I don’t remember playing with dolls at this age, this golden-ringletted one endeared herself to me somehow. I circled her photo with a thick red marker and scrawled ‘Julie’ below as if my mom would mistake which of her four kids would want that delicate doll wrapped under the tree. No other presents come to mind when I recollect my childhood Christmases. Not one. We never had a lot but my parents always made sure there were a few special presents under the tree for each of us.  Christmas Eve was gift-opening time at our house, Christmas morning was for opening stockings and going to church. We were usually a part of the play or the choir or whatever the kid's ministry had prepared for that year. This holiday was different though. We’d only just moved to a new city a few weeks ago. New school, no friends, and certainly no part in the church play. But wherever my mom and dad, older sister and younger brother and sister were, was home. We were used to this moving thing. This was move number seven and school number six for me.  I felt safe and happy and had an understanding that things would work out.  They always did.  The continuous change had made me adaptable and it was becoming second nature to put myself out there in new situations. All that moving prepared me for things I would have never wanted it to prepare me for.  That Christmas, lights twinkling from our beloved fake tree (the kind with the color-coded branches. We all took turns sticking them into the wooden ‘trunk’ of the tree), I opened my gift.  She was perfect. Golden locks and rosy cheeks. Her creamy silk dress, all poofed out thanks to the three-layered crinoline underneath. She was so very elegant. Surely I desired her because she was a sophisticated treasure, one I could hand down to a daughter of my own one day. Thanks, Mom, I love her! Of course, I hugged both my mom and dad but, just like in my household now, most of our kids’ gifts are surprises to my husband as they get unwrapped on Christmas morning.  That doll was a gift from my two biggest gifts. My parents filled our childhoods with love and laughter. We were safe and secure.  Until we weren’t. None of us could have foreseen that less than two months later, we’d have buried my mom and been making regular visits to my dad who lay comatose in a hospital, the result of a treacherous car accident. He died soon after she did. That doll sat on my bed or a shelf in my bedroom for years. The four of us kids were shuffled around from house to house, from this relative to that, and ended up in a completely different city. At each new ‘stop’ I brought her out as a constant.  A reminder of a happier time. I don’t know if I ever named her. Girls name their dolls. All of her porcelain features are clear to me, but her name? It’s vanished from my brain’s files.  Sadly, I don’t even know if I still have her, my connection to that last true family Christmas.  I’m sorry, dear doll, if I gave you away thinking I no longer needed you. That I was too old to hold you.  Perhaps to look at you pained me. She could be packed away in a storage box somewhere. What a treat it would be if I found her in a box in a dark corner of our house. I’ll look as soon as I get home. Thank you, Mom and Dad. I loved your gift.

True Love: An Ode to My Hubby

True Love: An Ode to My Hubby

After Losing Everything, I Never Thought I Could Lose It All Again

After Losing Everything, I Never Thought I Could Lose It All Again

Don’t Chop Down the Tree Before It Blossoms

Don’t Chop Down the Tree Before It Blossoms

Love Can Last Decades After Your Death

Love Can Last Decades After Your Death

Listen To Your Gut: Don’t Get Your Kid a Phone

Listen To Your Gut: Don’t Get Your Kid a Phone

My Dad Squeezed My Hand While He Was in a Coma

My Dad Squeezed My Hand While He Was in a Coma

Goodbye Breast, Hello Half-flat Chest

Goodbye Breast, Hello Half-flat Chest

Many People Don't Do This After Someone Dies, but They Should

Many People Don't Do This After Someone Dies, but They Should

Meeting Strangers in a Parking Lot After I Posted on Facebook

Meeting Strangers in a Parking Lot After I Posted on Facebook

I Lost My Mom A Second Time When I Tossed Her Sweater

I Lost My Mom A Second Time When I Tossed Her Sweater

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