Learning to Live Fully After Loss
Just four little words said it all, “she didn’t make it!”
“Who didn’t make it?I shouted in horror. The telephone caller stammered, “Kandy has-s just p-p-passed away-y. I am so-o-o- very sorry!” Stunned, I fell back in my chair, covering my mouth to muffle my screams! My officemate began hugging me tightly. An earlier call had informed us that a front loader (construction equipment) had struck my daughter’s little Toyota Corolla. At that point, she had lost a lot of blood and had been rushed to the nearest hospital.
In a flash, my mind reverted back to Memorial Day, 1975, when my first-born, my only daughter, moved into our home and our hearts. During her twenty-one years she not only surpassed my hopes and dreams for her life, but she went on to touch the world. She was an energetic and precocious child who grew into a beautiful young woman. Her mega-watt smile and her contagious laughter filled our home. There was never a dull moment when she was around. She not only loved to travel but had already made three trips to Europe. Now, she had been leaving home for another trip that would last a year. With a hug and kiss goodbye, she had set off on a short drive to the airport to a new adventure. Her happiness and excitement were contagious. Little did I know that I would never see her alive again.
Less than three months later, I was forced to address a question she had asked of me several months earlier, “Mom, how would you deal with my death?”
“How could you say something so terrible or even think that?” I shrieked. This puzzling, yet unexplained, conversation ended abruptly. Could she have had a premonition? A few months later, I was face-to-face with the gruesome reality of how to cope with her tragic death and how to put my shattered life back together.
At first, I was conflicted, but I forced myself to visit the scene of the accident. While we were in Santiago, where she had been living, we visited many places she had enjoyed. We toured her new apartment, drove past the hospital where she had received care and the street where the accident occurred. We met her surrogate family and new friends and attended a memorial service for her. She really had touched many lives. All of these meaningful connections began the healing process.
Then it was home again to plan a funeral for my daughter, instead of the wedding I had hoped to plan one day. In the service, I tried my best to celebrate her short but rich life. I invited three of her friends to provide reflections, and our minister delivered the eulogy, which was a combination of some of Kandy’s personal writings with scriptures from the Apostle Paul. The healing that had begun at the scene of the accident continued through the funeral. However, it did nothing to prepare me for the long and painful road where tears and heartache were constant companions. I was helpless to do anything except cry and muddle through dark days that had no meaning; living was no longer of interest to me. Soon enough, I rationalized, that while my husband could eventually find a new wife, my son needed his mom! That inspired me to go on living.
Another way I learned to live again was through reading and learning about grief. Even though concentration was nearly impossible, reading was a tremendous source of comfort during those early days of pain and despair. It taught me two important lessons: one, that my overwhelming feelings were both normal and temporary, and two, that I’d eventually get better.
Just as learning about grief was therapeutic for me, so was talking about it. I talked to anyone who would listen. I also had a chance to talk about Kandy in my support group. First I talked about the accident that took her wonderful life. I talked about the awesome daughter she was in life, and how much it hurt that she was gone forever. I continue to talk about her, so none of us will ever forget her.
Writing became another outlet for my pain. My trembling hands often scribbled feelings on a piece of paper that revealed anger, frustration, helplessness and longing. Later my writing became more orderly, and I could see changes over time. Many years later, I wrote a book about her life, also aimed at keeping her memory alive.
I feel connected to her through The Candice M. Ruff Memorial Scholarship that my husband and I established at her alma mater. We select each of the eleven Candice Ruff scholars on the basis of a life story that closely paralleled our daughter’s life. The major themes of her life were Christian living, academic excellence, attention to spiritual, physical and emotional development, clear personal and career goals, and outstanding service to others. Her double major in Psychology and Spanish, along with a keen interest in religion, led to her career objective of missionary service. Regarding her upcoming trip to the Dominican Republic she said, “I choose to go on a mission where I can continue doing work that has eternal significance.” Her desire was to use her Spanish-language skills to share Christ with the ever-increasing number of Spanish-speaking people in the United States.
Additionally, by attending a support group, I learned to live again. This group called, The Compassionate Friends was truly a lifesaver. Meeting other bereaved parents was both inspirational and educational. We learn so much from each other. In this safe place, I have found unconditional acceptance, love, support and shoulders to cry on.
As my healing journey continued, my life took an unexpected twist. I answered the call to reach out to others. To this end, I established a new chapter of The Compassionate Friends. Listening to other bereaved parents, while walking with them along their journey, not only lightened my own grief, but also gave my life new meaning.
It is possible to live fully after carrying the heavy burden of grief. It occurs gradually after a lot of hard work, but it can happen. It has been more than fourteen years since my beloved daughter, Kandy, died, and not one day passes that I don’t think of her. I still miss her and long to have her here, but it no longer hurts as badly. My life has been forever changed to a new normal.
Your life without your loved one can also get better. You, too, can learn to live fully by reading and learning about grief and facing the pain head on. This requires giving voice to your grief by talking and/or writing about it; remaining connected through memories of your loved one and, finally, through reaching out to help others.
Coralease Ruff, PhD, RN, is a bereaved parent, Bereavement Facilitator, educator and a nursing Professor Emeritus. She and her husband, Willie, became bereaved parents in 1997, following the death of their twenty-one-year old daughter in an automobile accident in the Dominican Republic. Since then, Coralease has been involved in The Compassionate Friends with many roles, including founder and chapter leader, chapter treasurer, chair of professional day, workshop presenter and member of the national Board of Directors. She is the recipient of The Compassionate Friends 2010 Recognition Award.
As a bereavement educator, Coralease developed and currently teaches a university course on grief and loss to graduate and undergraduate health-profession students. She is also a frequent workshop presenter on grief topics both locally and nationally, especially TCF national conferences and local universities and churches.
She has published widely in professional nursing literature and the lay press. Her grief articles include Grieving through the Years, When the Nurse is Grieving, and Finding Help and Hope in the Aftermath of the Virginia Tech Tragedy.
Her most recent book is entitled:Her Light Still Shines, published by iUniverse.
Coralease and husband, Willie, have a surviving son, Andre. She enjoys writing, yoga and line dancing.