Nearly 22 years ago, on a beautiful, sunny Memorial Day Sunday, our daughter Annette was in a car accident. On our way to the hospital my husband Elmer and I talked little, numb with worry. Images of a funeral with us seated in the front row flashed through my mind, clashing with thoughts that we should be planning for her high school graduation. Quiet by nature, we didn’t even know if we should call others to the hospital to sit with us. Though the doctors didn’t give false hope, I prayed this could be one of those miracles we read about in the Reader’s Digest. But it was not to be. God called Annette home a few hours after the accident.
A New Identity
So much happened right after she died. Looking back, I wonder how we coped. One son broke his foot and some days later went to emergency with a high fever. My coworkers saw me and asked why I was there. Through visiting, they learned I had also just suffered a miscarriage. Our cat was delivering her first kittens and we found one dead, undelivered. It seemed that every morning I would ask: what will happen today? And then, we had to endure the graduation ceremony.
This graduation was special for the community, since the school had only opened for classes five months prior. Local news coverage of this notable day said, “The ceremony started on a somber note when the principal presented a diploma to the parents of Annette Hillukka, who died in a car accident 12 days ago.” This resulted in Annette’s death becoming public and for a long time whenever I was in town, it felt like I had a huge sign above my head: This is the mother whose daughter died. I felt like that was my identity; her death was with me all the time.
Peaks and Valleys
I was a busy mother of 11, now left with ten children. Our youngest was four, and I was employed part-time. I made new friends with others who had lost a child, both within God’s kingdom and in our community. These friends were invaluable, with their immediate understanding and comfort. I thought I was doing quite well with my grief, picking up the pieces and continuing on. But there was always another anniversary, a wedding of a special friend of Annette’s or something else that triggered grief. Why did seeing a 15-month-old walking around remind me of Annette and reduce me to tears?
Perhaps I didn’t grieve enough those early years. I was busy, and we did have happy moments: our children started getting married, our 12th child arrived and brought joy to our entire family, precious grandchildren came into our lives. Leading up to these joyous events I experienced a roller-coaster of emotions, many times in the same day. But the emotional peaks and valleys grew farther apart, and the height and depth of them lessened.
At the 10-year anniversary mark, things seemed to change. I didn’t dread as much the coming anniversary of her death, her birthday or other special events when her presence was so missed. My birthday, three days before her death anniversary, could again be a happy birthday.
It was when our nephew died 17 years later, however, that I finally really grieved for Annette. Once again a tragic car accident took from us a young person—our relative. The similarities to our own loss were too much to bear. Finally I had the time, or I took the time, or maybe God just allowed it to happen; I shed so many tears, and it was emotionally exhausting.
Grief Is Individual
Grief has no timetable. It is not a neat step-by-step process where you complete one phase and move on to the next. Everyone’s grief experience is different. Personalities and natures are different, circumstances are different, but everyone who experiences a loss needs to grieve. I am a different person, forever changed by my experience. I have often thought that grief is like a huge mountain. You can walk around it and you will always be walking around it. But when you finally do the difficult work of plowing through it, then you start to get relief.
I reached a day not long ago when I realized only that morning it was the anniversary of Annette’s death. I was amazed, and I was so happy! I wasn’t dreading the arrival of this day, finally! I have reached a new place in this grief journey. Yet, as I write this, tears flow easily as I recall those dark days. I am a person who cries easily now.
Time for Sorrow, Time for Joy
With grief so raw in the beginning, it was difficult to think of the good part of Annette’s death, even though I knew in my heart that she had gained the victory. As the years have passed, it has become easier to understand and even be glad for her. Knowing I have one child awaiting me in heaven has brought me peace and comfort when I’ve faced times of great trial.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die…A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn” (Eccl. 3:1–4). This Scripture portion was used at the time of Annette’s death, and I have always remembered it. We need to grieve the death of our loved one; sorrow and grief are natural, healthy emotions.
Her Last Happy Week
As I recall it, Annette’s last week was filled with sunshine. She was a girl who showed her feelings. Earlier in the month I had been worried about her, and with a trip to my sister’s wedding coming, I decided I needed to talk to her. It seemed I had a long list of complaints, and so did she. As I was talking, she countered with her own concerns. Suddenly it was clear to me: as the adult I needed to show her an example of how believers address their grievances with one another. I asked her for forgiveness for my own part, and she was immediately ready to do the same. The sun of grace shone, and Annette’s disposition shone along with it.
I left the next day for Evie’s wedding. Elmer told me how happy Annette was throughout the week. She openly shared her plans for the future, career options and dreams. She was a sunshiny girl. In my sorrow I can still see joy: the joy Annette shared with her father that week and the joy and peace I feel knowing she left a good testimony.
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy” (John 16:19).
God Helped Me Step by Step
On March 3, 2014, my husband of 39 years passed away. Three of our children, ages 16, 15 and 12, were still at home.
For the first year, normal chores like cooking, cleaning and laundry were not possible; I couldn’t function or focus enough to follow through. While I was visiting believers in Africa later that year, they helped me start living again by taking me shopping, visiting and sightseeing. They had me do a little sewing, food preparation and light housekeeping. They were patient with me and my inability to focus. That was the beginning of my healing.
Anger and Grief
For a period of time it was difficult to see elders at services with their spouses. I fought anger so much I wondered if I was even believing anymore. A counselor suggested I go to a different church for a while. I knew that wasn’t the answer. God showed me to turn to the believers.
At church, however, I still sensed when some people would go out of the bench a different way to avoid me or move aside for me to pass. Greeting me or putting a hand on my shoulder would have helped me feel I belong. Some avoided saying his name or sharing memories of him, thinking it would make me cry. I wanted him to be remembered and wanted to hear their stories and memories, even if it made me cry.
When my children lost their dad, they also lost their mom for the first year. I knew Kevin would be so disappointed if I “stayed in the waiting room, waiting to die” or was among the “living dead.” He wanted me to pick up and go on.
Things that helped were when family or friends encouraged me to go with them to the grocery store, shopping, hiking, etc. Sometimes I didn’t want to go but they stopped by to pick me up. It felt good to get away from home for a bit. When they invited me to go to their place, or told me they were coming over, it was comforting. Sometimes someone picked me up to go to events, since going by myself was difficult. Many times, though, I drove myself because I wanted to leave if it was too hard to stay. At times I turned around on the way there.
One Step at a Time
I needed to try change my negative thoughts to positive ones: I will never be happy again to I will be happy again, etc. Listing a few good things that happened that day helped. At first it was that I got out of bed or got dressed or the coffee tasted good. This gradually turned to other things. I planned one thing I was going to do the next day and one thing on the weekend. Making short-term and long-term goals and lists of what needed to be done to do them was beneficial, from getting a haircut or getting a massage to taking classes. Volunteering, including visiting elders from church, helped me too.
When I lost my husband, I also lost my future, my hopes and dreams. We think we are weaving our own lives, but I learned God is the one that is weaving from above. As I look back in my life I find this has been so all along. God blessed me with my husband before taking my sister that I was close to. After moving to Arizona in 2004, our youngest child became close friends with two boys from families who had lost their fathers. Both of their mothers had remarried. A year after my husband died two of my daughters moved to Washington to help a sister when she had twins. During that time, they became close friends with a girl who had also lost her father. God gave escorts, someone who understands.
I Can Trust in God
When God blessed me with another wonderful husband in September, 2017, my youngest son confided with his friends who lost their dads. They encouraged him, “It’s awkward at first, but it gets easier.” God has a plan, a perfect plan. He does not make mistakes. I must remember to trust Him.
How to Help Yourself in Grief; How to Speak to and Help Those Who Are Grieving
How to help yourself in grief and recovery from grief:
- Be patient with yourself. Take a break to rest and get energy to continue. It takes courage to grieve and is exhausting work, but DON’T QUIT!
- Pray. You will go on when you are ready. Your way of grieving is the right way for you. There is no wrong way to grieve.
- In the evening think of 3 to 5 good things that happened that day, even if it’s as small as “The coffee tasted good” Think of them again in the morning
before you start your day. This can also be done as a family
- Set short term goals for yourself, things you can do in 1-2 weeks and long-term goals, things to do in a month, again in a year, e.g. haircut, massage,
taking a trip, taking a class.
- Volunteer somewhere of interest to you. E.g. elders from church love to be remembered. If you can’t do that, hold a door open for someone behind you
or let a person merge into traffic.
- Make a plan what you are going to do the next day, even if only one thing.
- Learn something new: piano, painting, yoga, gardening, golf, whittling, etc.
- Attend events. Bring someone with you if you do not wish to arrive or leave alone.
- Try changing negative thoughts into positive ones. E.g. “I will never be happy again” to “I will be happy again”. Don’t let your mind get stuck in
those negative thoughts. Over time, how you feel can become who you are.
How to help one who is grieving:
- Be a good listener. In the beginning, the grieving one is not looking for answers. They are processing what happened. Telling their story allows grief
to come out. Suppressed grief can become depression.
- Pity is necessary in the beginning. Later, compassion is needed. Everyone benefits from one person’s compassion. Compassion can help motivate or activate
one who is suffering. Prepare meals together, shop, visit, hike, walk, coffee or golf. Do things you know they enjoyed before or think they may
- Encourage the grieving one to get outside of the home. Provide a babysitter, if needed.
- Help write a list of things that need to be done. Post the list so visitors and helpers become aware and can do what they are able to do or have time
How to Speak to One Who Grieves
We may inadvertently make comments that are meant to be helpful but which can actually be hurtful, especially during a period of fresh grief. Later in the process, the grieving one may understand that others mean well but cannot fully understand something they haven’t lived through.
In general there are about 150 comments one tends to hear in the first two weeks after a loss. Only about ten of these are comforting. The brain comprehends things, but the heart does not. Until grief is processed and the brain and heart come together, many comments can hurt.
Comments that may hurt:
- He’s in a better place. (My heart feels a better place for him is right here by me)
- At least he’s not suffering anymore. (At least he was still here)
- You are a strong person. (No, I’m not)
- Keep busy (Put off grieving)
- You can remarry, or you can have more children or, at least you have your/other children.. (They don’t take his place)
- Time will heal (Time alone does not make anything heal. It’s what you do during that time that can help heal)
- Be strong for your children, parents, etc. (Push your grief down to help others)
- You need to start smiling again.
Comforting things to say or do:
- My thoughts are with you
- Praying for you, remembering you, thinking of you
- I can only imagine what you’re going through
- May God give you strength
- Give a hug
- If you have a special memory of someone’s loved one, tell it to them, even if it makes them cry. A grieving one wants their loved one’s memory to live
on and wants to hear stories that other people have about them.