If I could go back in time

Written by Liz Dreibelbis, MA, ATR-BC, LPC.  Liz is the Clinical Director of A Haven. 

Written by Liz Dreibelbis, MA, ATR-BC, LPC.  Liz is the Clinical Director of A Haven. 

I am often asked, "why do you do this work?" Through the next few months Michelle Noble and I will write snippets of why we do this work.  Today I wanted to focus on High School.

You see, in high school I always found myself very in tune with other's feelings and felt very affected by other's pain, losses and challenges.  I was in high school when 9/11 happened.  This rocked me-so much fear, death and sorrow. Even though we were states away, there were parents who worked in the world trade center.  In addition to our national tragedy,  the year of 2001 was also traumatic for our class; we had 4 students die. One death involved a boy being hit by a car and one hit by a train, one was suicide, and one was related to drug use.  My heart ached and I was so lost.  To add to the grief and confusion, my favorite teacher died by suicide in that same time frame.  I had just seen her the day before walking through the gymnasium. I had wanted to ask her to write my college recommendation letter, but I didn't.  I can still picture this moment like it was yesterday, seared forever in my memory.

And just like that, my idolized teacher was gone.  

How did I not know she was hurting so deeply?  What could I have done to help this classmate?

The ground that I had known had disappeared. I had so many questions.  I had so much guilt. What if I could have done something differently?  Could I have done something to help them? 

I didn't know then, but I felt alone and was grieving deeply.  I didn't know who to talk to.  I felt embarrassed because I felt profoundly changed by all of these losses.  I thought I was depressed.  I see now, I was grieving with no space for an outlet. 

Even now that we are in our 30's these memories still are strong.  We can recall our sophomore year with great detail.  We remember what an adult said to us at one of the funerals, "wearing sandals is disrespectful at a funeral."  We remember the teacher that offered the little extra support, allowing 3 of us just sit with her after school to talk.  We remember what support we received and did not receive.  We wished that we were given space to talk about all of it with a little guidance. 

In high school I was not the student to stand up and say "I need help with this." I just quietly and deeply grieved alone.  I was so confused with no direction.  I desired someone to help me navigate this grief and to give me the vocabulary to express it.  There was nothing facilitated for us in school, except one class period to openly talk about our teacher who died. I see now that the teacher who facilitated this discussion was very brave.  Thank you Mrs. Druckenmiller. I will never forget your openness, for you were there for us when it felt like no one else was.

The problem was that even during the discussion in class-I had no words.  

I look back at my teenage self and I wish someone could  have told her these things:

Liz, what you are feeling is normal. It is confusing!  All the adults in your life are also affected by these tragedies and they are at a loss for words too.  You are not the only one that feels this way!  

I am with you. It is normal to question all of this. No, none of this makes sense and you may never find the answers you are looking for. 

You may feel, numb, sadness, anger, and a whole lot of different waves of emotion, sometimes all at once.  These feelings may last a long time.  This is normal.

What your feeling is called grief. It is not depression, though it can feel similar. You can't control the emotions that come, but it is important to let it out.   Find some way to express these feelings and get them out.  Otherwise, they build up and come out sideways and not always in a healthy way.  It doesn't even have to be expressed with words: go for a run, draw how you feel, write a letter. Find someone you trust and talk to them.  I am happy to help you try some ideas out!

Don't focus on how you should or shouldn't feel a certain way right now or the length of time. Grief does not have a timeline, you will know when your begin to heal when the pain becomes less. 

Find a way to honor their life and remember them, get a group together to do it with you. 

And always know, Liz, I am here with you in this.  You can never talk too much about this.  I am going to ask you every once and awhile how you are doing that day, just to check in.  You are welcome to answer or not. Know I am here.