By Chris Turpyn, LPC
Life is a journey of adventure, reward, and, sometimes, intense challenge. When you least expect it, your life can change forever. I can relate to that feeling all too well. I am here today because therapy helped me through the darkest days following my only child’s unexpected death in 2010. I walked into therapy broken and came out the other side committed to being that person for someone else.
I had attended therapy before 2010, working through anxiety and relationship issues in my past, but had moved and never established a new provider. Then one day, I received a phone call that changed my life forever. Suddenly, I was more vulnerable and broken than I had ever been in my life and needed to find someone to help me survive.
I wanted to find someone I could talk to who would know how I felt or had been through what I was experiencing. I called several therapists at random in my area, and each time I had to describe to someone on the phone what had happened and why I was reaching out. After three calls, I couldn’t do it anymore. Luckily, my neighbor was a therapist and thought I might connect with someone she could recommend.
I was terrified walking into that office. I felt as though the initial meeting was a make-or-break situation for me. I needed that person to be real, present, open, and provide a safe space. She did that day and at every visit for the next three years. Thankfully, she had not experienced what I had gone through, but she was a Mom, and she got it. She walked that painful journey with me, I’m sure confronting her most innate fear as a mother through my grief, and I am here today because she was willing to be there.
Grief work was painful but so necessary for me. How is it that the rest of the world kept going when my entire world stopped? I was so angry, so lost, and incredibly sad. I knew I couldn’t move forward with my life without getting help.
It took time to build trust with my therapist. There were so many sessions when I couldn’t stop crying long enough to talk. I needed to say things out loud that I wasn’t willing to at first; so many regrets, “if onlys,” and “what ifs.” In response to those unspoken words I kept choking on, my therapist asked if I would trust her to close my eyes and follow her prompts. I didn’t want to. I was so guarded. But I let her walk me through a guided imagery scenario in which I met up with my daughter and conversed with her. That was one of the most positive and powerful experiences of my therapy; a true turning point for me.
I have learned so much through my grief work and subsequent studies. First, let me validate that grief work has no end date. There is no set timeframe for someone to be “over it” and “moving on.” Those words are not helpful to a grieving person. As I sit here twelve years later, I am moved to tears just reliving these memories.
When you are unsure what to say to someone grieving, tell them that.
It’s okay not to know what to say or do for them; how could you possibly know what they are going through? Ask them how you can help and what would be helpful for them, even if they don’t know the answer.
Some of my most valuable moments were having friends or family sit in silence with me. So often, people try to fill the silence with words, and in my experience, there were no words for what I felt. Love is palpable; I could feel love and support with no words.
I also found that people often ignore death to make themselves more comfortable. I remember returning to work after one month, and everyone in the office thought it would be easier for me if they acted as if nothing had happened. They also turned the overhead music in the office off so as not to play something that might upset me. It was eerily quiet, and I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone. No one asked me what I might need. They just tried to do what they thought would be helpful–but how could they possibly know that? So many people assumed I didn’t want to talk about my daughter; I wanted to talk about her then and still do.
Working through my grief has changed my life perspective completely. Imagine this scenario: What if you had already lived through the most painful experience you could have in your lifetime? Over time, that perspective shone through for me–what’s the worst that could happen? I already know the answer to that question.
It morphed into an empowering momentum for me, and I started seeing that perspective as a gift. I felt I could challenge myself to do things I wouldn’t have considered before, such as returning to college and switching careers. I was determined to make a difference, and it was crucial to me to honor my daughter’s life by surviving.
In my personal experience, I found a light at the end of the dark tunnel of grief. I found a new perspective and new meaning. Where I once thought there could not possibly be a tomorrow for me, I am now helping others find theirs. It’s important to reiterate that no person’s grief journey is the same. While my grief has impassioned me to help others, it has also informed my work as a therapist that I can’t possibly know what others are going through in their unique experiences. But I can listen. I can be real, present, open, and provide a safe space. And that’s what I’m doing.
I became a licensed therapist to use my life perspective to help others and feel honored every day to walk with clients on their path to healing.
“The only way out is through.” -Robert Frost