Saying Farewell to 2016

Thanks to social media, 2016 will be a year that we talk about for many years to come. That being said, I believe that this mindset is worth examining, too! 2016 is the year that I lost my brother. If I were to tally up sad, stressful, or traumatic events for every year, 2016 would in fact, be the “worst” year in my life also. But, is this a fair assessment?? Many friends of mine are approaching or even surpassing 30, when life changes are common. We bought a new home towards the end of 2015, and the needed repairs still drowned us in 2016. We are older, and so are the people that we love. With an average life expectancy of less than 80 years, I believe that loss is expected now. Does that make it easier to accept? Absolutely not. Did I ever think at 29 years old I would be coping with the traumatic loss of my younger brother? Absolutely not. But, is 2016 to blame for all of the bad that we have recently experienced? Absolutely not!

Yes, 2016 is the year I lost my brother.2016 is the year that my debt rose above what I ever wanted it to be. It’s the year my favorite car died. It’s the year I watched my extended family slowly crumble apart while trying so hard to hold it together after losing Erik. But, 2016 is also the year that I finally found my path, my voice, and my purpose. 2016 is the year that I re-enrolled in college (and maintained a straight-A streak, too)! 2016 is the year that my now two-year-old learned to run, dance, jump, and hold conversations. 2016 is the year that I learned who my real friends and family are, for better or worse. 2016 is the year I got back in the saddle and rode a horse again. 2016 is the year I got off my ass, met an amazing nutrition counselor, and lost 25 lbs (and counting!). If I leave all of the bad things that happened in 2016 out of the equation, 2016 was -dare I even say it?- one of the best years of my life, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, love the idea of a New Year. The path that I have been set on this year is setting me up for a great 2017. A New Year brings hope that you can change and start over. You can leave behind the bad and the hurt, and carry on with just the good. You can chose resolutions to carry with you throughout the New Year that will hopefully lead to a better life for you.

The ONLY problem I have with this notion is, why are you waiting? Why not let things go sooner? Why not set new goals sooner? If losing my brother has taught me anything, it is that the time we have on Earth is limited. Why wait to live a better and happier life? Why wait to seize the day? Why not live every day like it is New Year’s Day? It is, after all, a new day. Every day is a new opportunity to turn it all around. While I acknowledge that my whole life has been about progress, not perfection, that is what I will set out to do. Seize every day that I can. Let go of what I can, when I can. Do better, when I can. Really, I think that’s all that any of us can do. If you’re unsure of what to do with yourself in the upcoming year, then I would just encourage you to grow. Grow when things are easy. Grow when things are hard. Grow so that when you reflect upon your day, you can hold your head high. Here’s wishing you all the best in the coming year!

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Facing Unexpected Triggers

You may have heard the term “trigger”, or “trigger warning”, especially if you spend a lot of time on social media. It may even seem silly or childish or even weak to see that a few words or images can “trigger” someone into a bad emotional space. I don’t think that anyone really understands triggers until they go through something traumatic and in turn, experience triggers for themselves. Obviously, trauma is not something I would wish on anyone, but unfortunately it is something that most will experience in their lives. The loss of a child, having a medically fragile child, or a traumatic death (like suicide) or traumatic experience are common traumas that would result in an individual being triggered. When you open Facebook, you can almost expect to be triggered, especially depending on the groups you may follow. Even better, some posts come with “trigger warnings” at the top, and if you’re having a rough day, you know to keep scrolling. Unfortunately, life does not come with trigger warnings.

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The most common natural trigger I experience is music. Sometimes, a song takes me to a place where I have a memory of my brother. Sometimes, the lyrics speak to me, or him, or my life since losing him. This weekend, I listened to music for 3 hours straight doing yard work, with a plethora of songs from my teenage years coming up on the playlist- let’s just say I was ready to cry. I did not have a single moment of sadness or grief until the last song came on. “I Wish You Were Here”, by Incubus started to play and I was a sobbing mess.

Then, I sit down to watch one of my favorite holiday movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I am not sure how it did not occur to me that the entire movie was about a wonderful man who was deciding whether he should his life or not when suddenly an angel intervened and talked him down from the ledge. Now, I know I will have to be in the right frame of mind to watch that movie again.

There is no real tried and true way to face these triggers, at least not for me, at least not yet. One of the most important pieces of advice that I have received on my grief journey was from a social worker I was seeing. She told me, “When you need to cry, cry. Don’t hold it in. Let it out. Just, cry.” So, I do. Sometimes, I cry in the car. Sometimes, I cry in the shower. Sometimes, I encounter triggers, and I don’t need to cry at all. The point is, you can avoid some things. You can avoid walking down certain streets. You can skip certain songs when it is not a good time to face your emotions. But, sometimes, no matter how much you protect yourself, you will encounter triggers. I think that is why it has been helpful to face triggers when I feel like I can. If I am in a safe place physically, or in a good mindset emotionally, I like to face my triggers. I like to try when I can. I like to listen to James Taylor sing Fire and Rain and scream it at the top of my lungs. It is clear that I cannot run from everything, and I cannot run forever. So, if I feel like I can face it today, I face it. If I don’t, I avoid it as much as I can until I am left to encounter it again.

the Guilt of Post-Traumatic Growth

I had not heard of the term “Post-Traumatic Growth” until I attended a Suicide Loss Survivor Support Group (a little more on the subject can be found here:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201402/posttraumatic-growth). But, once I heard it, I immediately wanted to achieve it. At that point, though, I was already on my way. Before losing my brother to suicide, I was pretty content with my life, but for the most part I had plateaued. By 28, I had just about everything I could want. I had a great little family, with a wonderful husband and amazing daughter. My dream of having horses in my back yard had come true a few months before I lost my brother. I was on a path to living a content, mediocre life.post-traumatic-growth

After the traumatic loss of my brother, though, would that life be enough? Within weeks, maybe even days, I knew it would not be enough. How could I sit back and let life happen instead of taking charge and really living my best life? In a way, I felt like I had to live for two people now. Myself, and my brother. And, I knew that this life would not have been enough for him. I quickly decided to go back to school, which is something Erik and I had always talked about. At the age of 29, I started work to get my Associate’s degree, and eventually I hope to become a social worker. By the time I am 30, I will have my Associate’s and will go on to a University. I have started practicing mindfulness and working on my character flaws. I am exercising, seeing a nutritionist, and losing weight. I am a work in progress, but I am working diligently to get better every single day.

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Unfortunately, with this growth comes other struggles. There are feelings of guilt, sadness, stress, and so much more. Where would I be today without suffering the traumatic loss of my brother? Could I say, then, that I am thankful for the trauma because of how much personal growth I have experienced? Could I be thankful for what I have personally gained from his loss at the expense of his life? I do not think that that could be my resounding emotion, but sometimes I feel it slipping through and it turns my whole life and purpose into a conundrum. Could anything good come from suicide? If it could, how could I, as someone who has become a huge advocate for suicide prevention, admit it? I would like to think that eventually I would have grown on my own with a different catalyst or no catalyst at all, but I will never know what could have happened.

What about everyone else? I see the people around me who were also affected by this trauma struggling to move forward or even stay afloat. Was it fair for me to excel? Should I step back and drown with them? Should I grab their hands and keep as many afloat as I could? How could I leave them behind? Then I realized that they all know how to swim. Everyone struggling was capable of swimming and growing their life as well.

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Eventually, I learned to support people who asked for it, and offer support when I could. As far as the guilt goes, I am still working on it. I know that if given the opportunity, I will help anyone that I can in any struggles that they want to share with me. I know that if I drown, I cannot help anyone. I hope that if anyone is feeling conflicted about growing in the wake of a trauma or tragedy that they take a moment to realize just how important self-care if. It may feel selfish at times. But, you cannot give if you are empty. You can be successful and grow and realize that everyone on this earth is walking their own path. Those paths may cross and you may help one another, but ultimately you only have control over your path.