Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Power of Reading & Writing

How I Maintain a Positive Mindset After a Devastating Loss

Dear Readers,

The #leadupchat Voxer question really hit home for me this week. Thank you @AmyHeavin for an extremely thought provoking inquiry.

"How have you used adversity as an opportunity to accelerate forward?" 

This is my story......

The Night That Changed My Life

It was an average Wednesday evening when I received a call that my dad had passed away. Not only was he gone, but it was by his own hand. He had taken his own life. Words cannot describe what I felt at that moment. It was like the entire world shifted and I could no longer trust it. In that moment, my life was divided into before and after. I felt like a stranger that was dropped into a foreign place. How to navigate this new reality I was being faced with?

My New Reality

I felt like a member of an exclusive club I did not want to be in. As I tried to make sense of it all, I was thrown back into everyone else's "world". What I found was a lot of people seemed uncomfortable around me. Some seemed to stay away from me as if they could "catch" the tragedy and others looked at me with such pity that I found myself comforting them at times. 

On the other hand, there were those amazing individuals who offered their support, encouragement and strength. People I never would have dreamed of leaning on became my most trusted confidants.

Finding AFSP

It was so difficult to relate to my peers. As an avid reader, I searched high and low for resources on how to cope with such a tremendous, life changing event. Unfortunately, there was not much to be found for those of us left behind. 

Fate stepped in and I found an organization that had a Western New York chapter, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Against all odds, I met someone who had lost a brother exactly two days before I lost my dad. The connection was immediate. It was incredible that we were always in the same place of grieving, we celebrated the same anniversary within days of each other and truly understood what the other was going through. It was through AFSP that I started to use my loss to help others.

Out of the Darkness Walks

I wanted to find a way to support suicide prevention. AFSP hosts Out of the Darkness Walks, including one right here at the University of Rochester. It has helped to be around people who have dealt with a similar loss. 

A feeling I cannot explain, is the quiet sadness that you feel combined with the need to celebrate your loved one's life. The difference between these walks and other fund raising events is the people we miss and are celebrating felt such hopelessness and despair that they thought ending their life was their only way out. Some might think suicide is a choice, but it is such a complicated and "messy" kind of death. Just ask anyone who has lost someone. 

Hung up around the venue are these beautiful memory quilts where people can submit pictures and write messages to those they have lost. In October 2015, I participated in our local walk and walked up to one of the quilts. Believe it or not, I was standing right in front of my friend's brother's picture. Of all the quilts and pictures, it was like having someone who understood, right by my side. The pictures below are from that day.



In addition, there is also an online version of memory quilts and this is the photo I submitted of my dad and I.

Random Acts of Kindness

When you lose someone, holidays can be particularly painful, making new traditions can help us move forward. During the time that I was developing new ways to celebrate, the Newtown tragedy happened and had a profound impact on me. That same Christmas, fire fighters from a local department were lured to a location, resulting in 2 deaths and 2 injuries. 

Consequently, I began performing Random Acts of Kindness in honor of my dad, the victims of Newtown and the Webster Fire Department. These are a few of the gestures I have provided over the past few years:
  • Choosing police departments and fire departments to send anonymous thank you notes for running into danger when we run away from it.
  • Sending thank you notes to public/local libraries for their support in children's literacy development.
  • Sending anonymous thank you notes and "treats" to departments or individuals within my school district.
  • Cleaning off a neighbor's car after it snowed.
  • Leaving a large tip for a waitress/waiter.
  • Picking up a neighbor's newspaper and delivering to door.
  • Bringing coffee and donuts to apartment maintenance department on a snowy day.
  • Allowed a young child, who was extremely excited about his new book, to cut in front of me in line at Barnes and Noble.
  • Gave a coupon to a customer behind me in line at Tim Horton's.
Those are just to name a few.......

The Power of Writing

As I continued on my journey, a few years after my dad's death, I decided it was time to start writing. The resources had been so minimal that I wanted to write something for others to relate to. I knew I wanted my audience to be young adults. 

One summer, I signed up for a fictional writing class and wrote my first draft for strangers to read and give me feedback. I anxiously listened to their suggestions and revised it several times. The next stop was a writing group I coordinated in my school district. Now I was sharing it with people I knew and saw on a regular basis. The feedback was so encouraging, it was suggested that I use it as the beginning of a novel and to continue the story. 

Gaining momentum, I connected with a Texas professor who honored me by asking if she could put it on her syllabus as a required reading. I thought, that is exactly what my hope for my story was, to educate and open eyes and minds to the topic of suicide and it's impact on those left behind. 

My confidence building, I shared it with a few local school districts who used it with their crisis team committees/teams. My goal was always to use it in an educational/academic setting to increase suicide prevention and awareness. I am thrilled to know it has started to find its audience.

Influence On My Instructional Practices

How has this influenced my life as a teacher? It has completely changed my perspective in a variety of ways:

  • There is really no topic that students cannot talk to me about. I am comfortable talking about the "tough" issues others shy away from.
  • It has allowed me to connect with students who have suffered a similar loss in their lives.
  • I have become an advocate for our students in educating adults (if necessary) on the effect their language, stories and comments can leave on a child's mind. We never know what someone else is going through, including our students.
  • People often use phrases like, "I could just.........myself." I have responded to those types of statements and phrases that it is inappropriate. 
  • I teach my students about empathy, bullying and am honored when they choose me to confide in when having difficulties in their lives.
  • We can never know what is truly going on in a student's mind unless we ask and establish trust and communication. If a student says anything negative about themselves or feeling dumb/stupid, etc. I always make it a priority to check in with them. Whether it be before they leave for the weekend or return from a weekend, I always want them to feel cared for and loved. 
  • Emphasize the power of the written word to my students. They never know whose life they may touch.

Future Administrator?

In August 2015, I graduated with my administrative degree. One of my tasks during my program was to present to faculty on a sensitive issue. A friend and I decided to present on losing a student by suicide. Her counseling background and my personal experience made for a powerful combination. 

People were so respectful and candid while asking me questions. It was and is one of my proudest moments. The fact that I was able to present on a topic that has personally and deeply impacted my life to a roomful of future administrators and engage in such a meaningful discussion, was priceless. 

My Life Today

My journey has been difficult, no doubt. I have felt guilt, anger, sadness, joy, any emotion you can possibly think of. However, I would not change a moment. 

I believe I have a purpose and it is to be an educator. Whether it be in the classroom, as an administrator of a building or as an advocate for suicide prevention, I have found my "calling" as one might say. My life has happened the way it is supposed to bringing me to this moment. 

A sincere thank you to all those who supported/continue to support and encouraged/continue to encourage me along the way. You will have no idea what it means to me. 

My wish is for anyone who has had a similar experience to have the courage to talk to people, be sad or angry or happy whenever and wherever you want. 

My wish for my students is to always have a caring adult to turn to when it seems like everything is going wrong.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Please see below for resources I found helpful for myself and/or would recommend to students.


Resources that I Found Helpful:
  • No Time to Say Goodbye (Carla Fine)
  • After Suicide: A Ray of hope for those Left Behind (Eleanora Ross)
  • Before Their Time: Adult Children's Experiences of Parental Suicide (Mary & Maureen Stimming)
  • Why People Die By Suicide (Thomas Joiner)
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) 
Young Adult Literature
  • Thirteen Reasons (Jay Asher)
  • Tears of a Tiger (Sharon Draper)
  • Aimee (Mary Beth Miller)
  • Looking for Alaska (John Green)
  • Dear Bully (Megan Kelly Hall & Carrie Jones)