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Story: Living Through Loss

Dec 1, 2010 7:00:00 AM / by Tim McCarthy

Written by Carol Silver Elliott
Published: Created for Vistage Online.
Copyright 2002, Vistage Worldwide, Inc.

Editor's Note: Carol's article, and another I'll share later, is all about living with what happens. Here she shares her actual experience of losing her parents and brother early in their lives. I've had a relatively very easy life but as the youngest of ten, I've lost many who are close to me already, including a brother and a sister. A good coach, she uses her experience to learn lessons that I must remember too. [more]

Living Through Loss
By Carol Silver Elliott

One of the realities we all face is that life is fragile and that the ones we love, regardless of how much we love them or how much we need them, are not always with us. How we cope with those losses, the choices we make, determine a great deal about who we are and what shape the rest of our lives take.

My Story

My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50, in the fall of my freshman year in high school. She fought the good fight for a long time, but lost it when she was 62 and my brother and I were 24 and 26. Dad went to sleep one warm July night, nine years later, and didn't wake up again -- so we faced the loss of both of our parents far too early.

My brother and I were a team. One of my favorite stories is about his tonsillectomy, at age 3. The night before his surgery, he was speeding around the playroom on a trike, stopped abruptly, walked over to the television and gave the screen a kiss.

His explanation? The show was "Howdy Doody," and he knew I'd be watching, so he sent me a kiss. That's the essence of the relationship that my brother and I had. We were best friends, we were confidantes, we were co-conspirators. Norm and I were a tightly linked pair. We shared activities, friends and secrets, through our growing up years -- and beyond.

We shared the births of five incredible kids and we held each other's hand through personal crisis, emotional upheaval, business failure and more. But, the most recent crisis of my life, the one where I need my brother most, is the one where he can't help me. For, he is the one, whose life has ended, two months shy of his 47th birthday, in an accident at home that shouldn't have, but did, happen.


Loss is inherent in everything we do. From the moment we leave the silent comfort of the womb, we are facing loss. For things are never the same as they were before and each moment, once it is over, is gone forever. What matters is how we choose to live our lives.

Many of us know people who have lived through terrible pain. The loss of a loved one, the trauma of a serious accident or illness, personal setbacks and professional failures, all throw our lives into upheaval for which we are unprepared. We all know people who have let these losses become the definition of their lives -- falling into the black hole of bitterness.

But, we have another choice. And that choice is to choose life, to choose to live lives that are full and meaningful. The first step? To make that conscious choice. Walk away from blame and anger, from asking the "why" and "how" and accept that this is, for whatever reason, the current reality. Just accept it and stop fighting that truth. Once you do that, it helps to clear the haze and let you focus on what comes next.

Use Your Creativity

Find ways to express your emotions. Write, keep a journal, put your thoughts on paper. When you do this, it gives you a chance to purge some of those feelings and to look at them in a different light. Keep a journal with you, scribble thoughts when you have them and re-read, or not, when you are ready.

Help family members to explore their own emotions in this way. Children can write, draw, work with clay -- anything that helps them express their feelings. When we use our creative ability in this way, it helps us to heal. It gives us something we can control, that we can see a beginning and end to, in a world that is unsettled and shaky.

Let Others Help

Your family, your close friends don't know what to do or say to you. Help them to help you by sharing your feelings with those you feel comfortable with -- or letting them do things to make your life easier. Want to bring over a meal? Feel free. Want to just come by and give me a hug? That helps too. People want to express their concern, stop saying no and let them help.

Professional help can also be a critical factor as well. We all need a safe place to let go as well as a sounding board to help us know if what we are feeling is "normal" and "okay" as well as what might happen next. Find someone whose chemistry is right with yours -- who gets it -- and take advantage of those resources.

Give Yourself Time

Grieving is not a short term process. It doesn't just go away. Sure, time helps to scar over the open wounds but that scar tissue is slow to grow and, at best, pretty fragile. Be understanding with yourself, be kind to yourself and don't be afraid not to be cheerful 24/7. But, that having been said, keep moving. Be active physically, be active mentally and keep moving forward in your life.

Create a Legacy

My brother leaves behind two great kids, 11 and 12, and it is important for me to help them know their dad. The stories of our childhood, that have all come flooding back to me at unexpected times in recent weeks, are ones that I need to jot down and share with both my niece and nephew and my own sons. The same goes for stories of my parents -- if we neglect that history, it is gone.

It is strange for me to realize that I am the last one left of what I defined as my family. It is also my obligation, and a tribute to my brother's memory, if I can carry that forward.

Tags: Case Studies

Tim McCarthy

Written by Tim McCarthy

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