Meet Your Instructor

When someone asks me for help in coping with a personal tragedy in their life or attends one of my support groups for the first time, I usually begin by asking them to share their story. The best way to learn about someone’s grief, and the impact it has made on their life, is to ask them. Who knows better about what they are feeling than they do.

So… I will take this time to share my personal story with you. I want you to know that I, too, have walked many journeys through grief over the years. Some have not taken long to heal and others still bring me to tears and a longing for happier times.

Peggy Sweeney large

Peggy Sweeney

Grief is most often associated with the death of someone loved. Actually, grief occurs when we experience many different types of loss. Grief forces us to make decisions that transform our lives and our relationships with our family and friends. At times, grief will shake the foundation of our very existence and make us question our spiritual beliefs. Grief can reach in and attack our inner soul. It can rip out a large portion of our being, leaving us with a large, gaping hole. Grief brings with it many emotions we would rather not feel, but they remain nonetheless. Grief, at times, is deep pain, sadness, sorrow, a feeling of emptiness. We may feel guilt, anger, or a sense of failure. Grief can hurl us into a deep depression. Grief has a profound influence on how we view life. We may question whether life is worth living. Grief is about feelings and learning to cope with these feelings.

My personal experiences with grief have helped to create the person I am today. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination; however, I am a person committed to life, and living it to the fullest. I use my experiences from my grief journeys to help people who are struggling with their grief and the impact it has on their lives.

The first lesson I learned about grief came in the fall of 1958. My grandfather died following a very long, painful bout with cancer. As a child of eleven, it was very difficult for me to watch him wither in pain and waste away physically. It was too agonizing for me to endure. I often prayed that God would end his suffering. When the news came that he had died, I felt very guilty. I thought, in my child’s mind, that I had somehow caused his death. I wished that I had never pleaded with God. Having my grandpa alive and sick was better than having him dead, and feeling what I was feeling. I was afraid to talk to anyone about anything: the emotional pain, the sadness, and the feelings of guilt and emptiness I felt inside. I sensed that my parents, my grandmother, aunts, and uncles shared some of these same feelings, but no one talked about them. His wake and funeral were new experiences for me as well. I didn’t like it, but I was given no choice but to participate. I buried my feelings and questions and did as I was told.

In 1960, my mother was pregnant with my third sibling. The baby was born prematurely. My little brother, Timmy, died less than 24 hours after birth. I was thirteen at the time. I remember feeling concerned for my mother’s well-being, yet very sad because I had wanted to be a big sis again. We had no funeral for Timmy. No visitation. I never saw him. Although I came from a very loving family, my parents did what most parents did back then. They wanted to protect me from the pain of grief and the unpleasant events of life.

The day my mother came home from the hospital, I expected her to say something about Timmy. Neither she nor my dad discussed the event very much. I would see her crying, but never talked with her about how she, or I, were feeling. Grief wasn’t a topic of conversation discussed in the 60’s. As a young teenager, I once again hid my feelings and hoped they would just disappear. They did. At least I thought they did.

April 1975. I experienced yet another loss. One that no amount of hiding behind or ignoring would lessen the pain I was feeling. My daddy died as the result of a massive heart attack. No warning. No good-byes. A very sudden, unexpected death. I remember barely functioning as I walked around in a cloud of numbed pain. I went through the day as if I was on automatic pilot. As the eldest child, I was thrust–unwillingly–into the role of caregiver and decision-maker. My once strong and organized mother changed dramatically before my eyes. She could not make simple decisions.

I had to make all the funeral arrangements, notify family and friends of his death, and coordinate the needs of out-of-town company. I had to walk among the many rows of caskets at the funeral home and choose one for my dad. I had to stand for hours at the head of his casket and answer everyone’s questions concerning the details of his death. I wanted to scream. I wanted to wave a magic wand and make everything and everyone go away. I wanted to be cured of my pain. Instead, I smiled and thanked our friends and his business associates for coming and told them that everything would be all right in our lives. It was a bold-faced lie!

The weeks and months following daddy’s death are forever etched in my memory. I focused my attention on the needs of my bereaved mother and siblings and put my grief on hold once again. On the surface, I functioned quite well as a wife and mother, daughter and sister, but no one bothered to look deep into my eyes and see the pain I was feeling. No one came to my rescue. I survived, but I did it alone.

I thought that my dad’s death brought with it every dreadful and painful emotion one person could have. However, on December 22, 1983, there were no words to describe the gut-wrenching emotions I felt. As I awoke from the anesthesia, I pleaded with the nurse to tell me that my baby was alive; that my body had not killed this child of mine. She stroked my face and as we both cried she explained that my tiny baby had died due to an ectopic pregnancy. I knew it was my fault. I knew I had done something wrong and God was punishing me.

I tried to withdraw into my protective shell once again but I couldn’t. I sobbed uncontrollably. I screamed, cursed, and rejected the comfort of loving arms. I wanted to die. When I returned home from the hospital, my family and friends calmly ignored the fact that this child had existed. They stressed that it was Christmas, it was imperative that I be happy and joyful and feel blessed in spite of this tragedy for the sake of my surviving three children. I faked it. I pretended that they were right, and went about my life as if nothing was wrong. Nevertheless, deep inside my heart a tiny flame burned with a passion.

A major turning point in my life came in February of 1985. I chose life that day!

Our family had moved to Tennessee the previous November from metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio. My husband, three kids, and I were anticipating a new life in a small, rural town. We were all very excited and happy and looking forward to meeting new people and basking in the warmth of southern hospitality. It didn’t take long for me to realize that things were not going to be as wonderful as I thought they would be. Although they had nothing to do with the death of a loved one, the events that took place in Tennessee soon after our arrival would evoke so many similar feelings of grief—anger, sadness, guilt, and loneliness. I would again revert into my shell and before long I would be in the throes of a very severe depression. Once again, everyone overlooked my behavior and encouraged me to be happy.

When I was a child, I had been raised in a very loving home. My parents had taught me to judge people not by their skin color, ethnic background, or religious beliefs, but rather to look inside their hearts and accept them just as they were. You can imagine my shock and horror when people in this Christian, bible-belt community shunned our family for our religious beliefs, we were Roman Catholic. Moreover, I had to comfort my two oldest children when they were laughed at and ridiculed by their classmates for their skin color and the shape of their eyes. My two oldest were ten and eight years old and had been adopted from Korea as infants. This behavior by these so-called Christians was unconscionable to me! It was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

I felt as though I had failed to protect the ones I loved once again. I became an introvert. I escaped to my bedroom and sat at the window for hours on end and pondered how to avoid the deep emotional pain I was feeling. It seemed that everyone in my family was having trouble coping with our new life and I blamed myself. I decided it was best for all of us if I simply gave up on living. I laid out a plan in my mind and waited for the right time to complete my task. I was tired of fighting the demons of grief. It didn’t appear that I had the power to solve my problems or those of anyone else. Life seemed hopeless. I felt helpless. I HATED my life. Suicide was my choice.

After several painful weeks, I awoke to a bright, new day. I suppressed my suicide plans and emphatically decided to take control of my life. No longer would I allow grief and its pain to subject me to being less of a person than I could be. I vowed that day to make a difference in my life. I would take all my experiences, both good and bad, and use them to help others. I would be their guide through grief. I never wanted anyone to hurt as bad as I had and not have someone to help them. I promised to listen to their fears and hold them when they needed comforting. I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish this task, but I knew I could. This, at last, was my reason for living.

My decision that day led me eventually to enter the world of funeral service. As a mortician, I learned the many duties of my profession, but the greatest rewards came from helping the bereaved families. Realizing the need to provide additional help for our families in rural Tennessee, I began offering seminars on coping with grief. Apprehensive at first, I soon recognized the positive results these programs had on my audiences. Using what I had learned from my personal experiences with grief, I taught them why they felt the way they did and offered solutions to resolving many of their own grief issues. By talking with them openly and honestly, each one of us was able to begin healing our grief.

As people shared their stories, it became apparent to me that the death of their loved ones was not the only issue in their life that caused grief and pain. I began to understand that grief, and the many feelings that accompany it, happen as the result of other traumas or losses. People experience grief following a divorce, a fire that destroys their valuable and priceless possessions, a broken friendship, a long-term illness, or a disabling injury. Many adults grieve following an abusive relationship, abandonment, financial problems, or loss of a job as well as during and following recovery from chemical dependency or other addictive behaviors. Life has also taught me that grief comes in the form of prejudice, ridicule, name-calling, and shunning.

Over the years, the stories people have shared with me, combined with my own life experiences, have given me valuable knowledge and resources to help many adults and children. To that end, in 1992 I established a support group (Halo of Love) for bereaved parents. In 1994, I began a learning program (Children Healing After Trauma [CHAT]) for coping with loss and trauma for children, educators, counselors, and school resource officers. I continued working at the funeral home while developing other workshops for professionals in the medical and mental health fields. I volunteered at a local hospital to provide group sessions on coping with grief for adults and children in rehabilitation for emotional illness and chemical dependency. I developed and facilitated specialized workshops and a support group for widowed persons (Comfort and Conversation) and a program for people coping with grief during the holidays. I have authored many award-winning articles on healing grief so that help and advice can be made available for the public in general. Realizing that I wanted to devout all my time to grief education, I resigned from my position at the funeral home in 1996. I soon began the Sweeney Alliance, a non-profit company that provided educational programs and resources for families and professionals coping with an array of grief and trauma issues.

Since 1992, I have found much reward in helping emergency response and public safety personnel. These professionals experience a grief and pain that is not understood by most civilians. The men and women who serve their communities as firefighters, pre-hospital caregivers, emergency dispatchers, and law enforcement and correctional officers are committed to making a difference in the lives of others. However, for many of them, their endeavors come with a very high price: grief and post-traumatic stress. They are involved in situations that can, and often do, put their lives in jeopardy. They routinely witness the suffering and death of fellow human beings and must cope with the raw grief of their victim or patient’s family members. They must live with their grief following the death of one of their own comrades. In addition, they must balance their professional grief issues with those of their personal lives. It is no wonder that these professions have the highest suicide, divorce, and substance abuse rates. In 1997, I wrote and began teaching the Grieving Behind the Badge program throughout North America. I was dedicated to helping them cope with PTSD and reducing the escalating suicide rate within the fire service community.

I have come to know that grief pain does not only accompany the death of a loved one. It can be seen through the eyes of a child who has been abused or abandoned by a parent. Grief can be felt in a person’s heart as they watch a family member or friend succumb to the ravages of substance abuse. I have heard grief in the voice of the paramedic who told me his story of fighting to breathe life into a stillborn baby, but instead, having to cope with the fact that the best he could do was to cradle this child in his loving arms. I have listened to stories of veterans who struggle with the aftermath of war and nurses and doctors who question whether they have done all they could do to save a patient’s life. I have read the pain-filled letter of a firefighter who grieves the death of a fellow firefighter in the line of duty. I have cared for the dead body of a child and cried knowing that soon I would have to comfort his parents as they made his funeral arrangements.

The lessons that grief has taught me are many. One of the most important of these lessons is that grief is a part of life. Grief is a choice. We can take grief and bury it or we can take it, digest it, feel it, and let it make a positive change in us. We can use our experiences with grief to make a profound difference in the lives of others. I have allowed grief to be my mentor on many occasions and I continue to learn all that I can. Grief has taught me that emotional pain can bore a hole into our inner being and, if we allow it to fester, it can slowly devour our existence. I have learned not to take anything for granted. I must be willing to listen to people’s stories and openly share mine with them no matter how painful it may be. I have learned how to ask deep and penetrating questions that cut through the façade of a person’s existence and get to the depths and meaning of their grief. I am committed to making a significant difference in people’s lives. I greet each day with a positive attitude and realize that I, and I alone, am responsible for my actions. I am aggressive in the pursuit of my dreams and goals. I now understand that certain things in life are not under my control and I must surrender them to allow myself to continue growing as a person. The best lesson that grief has taught me is that no matter how traumatic the event, life IS worth living.

Copyright 2014 Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.