In 2003, Sandra Maddox got the knock at the door that no parent wants. A police officer informed her that her only child Tiffany—a vibrant 24-year-old who loved to dance and write—had been killed in a car accident. In an instant, Sandra’s life was turned upside down and forever changed.
You may wonder how you can go on after the loss of a child… or the loss of a spouse, best friend, or other loved one. When grief seems all-consuming, can you ever find joy again?
Sandra found a way to turn her pain into purpose, which has helped her learn to live with the gaping hole in her heart and find some happiness. The interior designer (The ART of Domesticity) became a ministry leader at church and wrote a children’s book called Tiffany and the Talking Frog that draws on her daughter’s love of frogs.
I met this remarkable woman through church, and she’s become a spiritual mentor of mine. I wanted to find out more about how she managed to recover from unspeakable grief and how you can learn from her experience to overcome grief and loss in your own life.
Here are 10 strategies we talked about that may be helpful for you.
1. Celebrate the person you’ve lost. Sandra says her family still has birthday parties for Tiffany and that it helps to remember her in positive ways. “It’s part of the healing process,” she says.
2. Encourage others to ask or talk about your loved one. “For anyone who’s lost a child, people can be afraid to say their name around you,” says Sandra. People often feel like if they talk about their own children or say the name of the deceased child that it will cause an upswell of grief. In Sandra’s case, she relishes the moments when someone asks about her daughter. “It feels warm and loving,” she says. If you feel the same way, let people know that you appreciate it when they share a memory or ask about your loved one.
3. Don’t take it personally when people say unhelpful things. When you lose a child or other loved one, people can be at a loss for words. And in some cases, they may inadvertently say things that are hurtful or unkind. Sandra recalls that after Tiffany died, people would say things like, “I understand, I lost my dog or my cat.” Sandra says that those who try to equate your loss with something in their own life usually isn’t helpful. “Unless you’ve lost a child, you don’t know,” she says.
4. Take time for yourself when you need it. Some days, such as anniversaries of the death or holidays, will be harder than others, and you deserve to have time to yourself on those days. “I shut down on January 20th, the day of her accident,” says Sandra. “It’s been 17 years, but there are still difficult days.”
5. Try prayer (or meditation). From a brain perspective, prayer (or meditation) can actually change the chemistry of your brain in positive ways. Taking some time every day to immerse yourself in prayer (or meditation) can help.
6. Understand that people grieve differently. You may wake up one morning feeling a wave of grief while your spouse or others in your family are feeling good. Or vice versa, you may wake up feeling alive and energetic, but others are experiencing heavy emotions. Try not to drag others down with your grief, and respect others by giving them their space when they need it.
7. Turn your pain into purpose. In my own life I grew up with a lot of chaos and trauma, which I write about in my book The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child. In it I share how I made a transformation by turning my pain into purpose by becoming a leader in our Brain Warrior movement. Sandra did something similar. For nearly 2 years after Tiffany’s death, she felt like she was in quicksand that was pulling her under. Then she was asked to run a Bible study group at church for moms. At first, she thought it seemed ironic—a woman who had lost her only child running a group for moms? She decided to push past her reservations and give it a try. She says, “I think it was God’s way of saying, ‘You’ve been a mom, you can do this.’” It’s become a blessing in her life, and all these moms’ babies call her grandma. It’s brought her joy she didn’t know if she would ever feel again.
8. Journal your story. When I wrote my memoir, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, I didn’t anticipate how healing it would be for me. Journaling your own story can be very cathartic. Or if you prefer another creative outlet, try painting or writing songs—anything that helps you get the story out of your head can be helpful in the healing process.
9. Don’t wait to get treatment for grief. As a nurse, I always say if you broke your arm, when would you want to start healing? Right away! It’s the same with grief. Start the healing process immediately. For Sandra, that meant grief counseling through church. If your grief is prolonged, seek professional help. “Grief is like a huge tsunami, and it can drag everything down if you don’t process it properly with some type of counselor,” says Sandra.
10. Seek natural solutions to help. Some people are afraid to seek professional help because they don’t want to be put on medication. Be aware there are natural ways to help you deal with grief and loss. For example, nutritional supplements, such as GABA, can help calm the emotional brain without drugging it. And fixing sleep with nutraceuticals is very important in processing grief.