Alex, my son

It’s been a terrible fall. We lost our son, Alex.

I’ve written about this on my Facebook page, shared a lot of the detail there. But I can’t go back to blogging without sharing the story here, as well.

Our world changed on Oct 4. Really it changed on Oct 3, but we didn’t know that until the night of the 4th.

That was when we learned we’d lost Alex to suicide. It happened the day before, but it took several hours after he was found in his apartment in Denver to get word to us through official channels, in Alaska.

That knock on our door changed so much.

It plunged us into a surreal world of sadness, loss, questions, statistics, and community.

The initial shock, disbelief, and the follow-up trip to Denver passed in a blur of unreality, mixed with the stark practicality of death. No matter how devastating, death demands decisions, and actions.

We left Alaska on Thursday, stopped in Seattle to connect with our daughter and son-in-law, and landed in Denver on Friday afternoon. Although we knew from the note Alex left that he requested cremation, we had to sign the paperwork to allow for that, and begin the process of procuring a death certificate.

The death certificate was the key to having authority to address Alex’s estate issues…deal directly with his bank, his apartment lease, his vehicle. Though he was single, and a minimalist, there were still multiple tasks required to close out his physical life, and see to the responsibilities of legal and financial requirements.

Working through everything in a short time-span, we hardly had time for his loss to sink in. Looking back, that was a blessing. I don’t know if I could have made it through that week if I hadn’t been largely numb, still in shock. Faced with the necessity to empty his apartment, decide what to do with his car, and make arrangements for cremation, we literally worked for the next week, almost without stopping, except to visit with friends…some mutual, and some new acquaintances, who were friends of Alex.

That was priceless time, allowing us to connect to people he knew and loved, people he worked with, friends from his past, people we’d known as a family during the years we lived there. It was a precious gift of shared sorrow, but also of shared joy, celebrating the man he was, and the man we lost.

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You hear yourself talking about things you never imagined you’d discuss.  What to do with his ashes. Deciding what to keep of his personal belongings, what to donate. Each possession becomes a question to debate…first, because it was his, and the smallest of his things are suddenly sacred. And second, because…how do you decide, in the emotional whirlwind of unbelievable loss, what will be significant in the future? The obvious things are easy…but so much is not obvious, standing in the apartment of the son you loved, trying to realize what this really means…that he has no more use for these things…that he’s done with them, and yet they’re suddenly your tangible link to his life.

Although humans live with the idea of death,  and the possibility of it taking anyone, at any time, for any reason…you never think it will be your child. Your son. And we never feared suicide for Alex. I worried for him when he was deployed in Iraq with the army. I used to mark each call and email on my calendar, so I could see, at a glance, when we last heard from him during that 13 months. I worried for his safety when he was working security, and when he was driving for Waste Management. I worried about him being in an accident on the road. As a driver, he was out in all weathers. I worried about him working with heavy equipment.

But I never worried that he would take his life.

Even though he fit the profile of someone at higher risk for suicide…young, male, a veteran without a stable relationship in his life…we didn’t see him as someone at risk. We knew he was seeing a counselor through the VA, but he dismissed those sessions when I asked him about them. He made the counseling sound like more of a formality…just something he had to do, as his honorable discharge from the army came with a PTSD rating.

He always seemed so strong, so sure, so determined. He was well-connected to friends, to a job he enjoyed, to his routine of working out, going out, taking care of himself. He was in a good place, for the most part. Most of all, he was intensely, vibrantly alive. He had energy, humor, drive, and plans for himself, with friends, and with us.

He was also lonely at times. We knew that. He and his long-term girlfriend had been through some on/off cycles, and he was struggling with that. Ultimately, from his note, that was the trigger, though we believe the PTSD was a contributing factor as well. Ironically, he had gotten rid of his gun collection, because she didn’t like them. He obviously kept the one he used. Now, I wonder if he kept it with this in mind, or if he kept it for target shooting, or as a weapon for self-defense? We don’t know, will never know. How I wish he had disposed of it, along with the rest!

Rob and I talk a lot about Alex…what happened, what we might have missed that would have allowed us to intervene…we talk about him, the boy and the man, the son we love and miss so much. He’s never far from our thoughts.

This is what I’ve learned, these past few months, living with a grief unlike any other I’ve experienced:

This grief is like clothing. Sometimes it’s the outer clothing I wear. That’s when the tears come so easily, triggered by the smallest of memories or links. Sometimes grief is the layer underneath the face I show to the world. But whether it’s visible to anyone else or not, I’m conscious that grief is there. Ever present. Palpable.

Grief can be triggered by anything, however insignificant, or even seemingly disconnected…because suddenly, there is significance between the one grieving, and the one lost. A scent, a word, a photo, a food, or something random that triggers a memory…a favorite color, music, a place, a line from a movie, a joke…anything that takes you to that person, in a flash of remembrance. There may be a flood of tears, a laugh, a sweet longing. There’s not one possibility for response, but many.

I realize that Alex was a grown man, and he had friends and connections who are strangers to us. I’m grateful he had many people in his life, that he was well-loved, by others as well as us. We didn’t own the man, we just had a piece of him. I’m thankful for our relationship with him, thankful that we’ve had so many of his friends share stories of his kindness, his humor, his integrity, his place in their lives. I’m thankful for the man he was. I’m thankful for the memories we have, of calls and texts, trips to see him, and for him to come to us. I’m so thankful for our last family vacation in April.

Grief has a positive side. Feeling the intensity of Alex’s loss, I’m even more conscious of other family and friends…how important they are to me, how much I want to spend my time with them in ways that are memorable.

Grief makes me appreciate so much. I appreciate that my son and I had a loving relationship, that the last words we ever said to each other were “I love you.” And the best part is, that was our usual way to say goodbye. We didn’t speak those words out of some sense of healing a wound or mending fences. No bridge building or fence mending was needed.

I appreciate the connection he had with each of his family…for the ties that bind, and continue, even now. I’m thankful for the messages we read, the photos we have, that remind of us the good times, the funny exchanges, the humor and joy he brought to our lives.

I’m so thankful for the years we had with Alex. I’m so thankful that he was with us 30 years, that we saw him grow up, and we knew him as a man.

Mourning my son has freed me from fearing death. I used to be fearful of what was beyond. But since my son is on the other side, I’m not afraid to go there now.

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We’ll do a celebration of life event for him, when the time is right. For now, I’m not ready or able to spread his ashes. But the time will come, and when it does, he’ll be in Colorado, the home where he grew up, and the place he chose to be his home as an adult.

For now, each day is a new experience of learning the depths of this loss, and how to keep living, when a part of us is gone…how to make sense of this, as best we can. We talk, cry, go through our days, look at photos, connect to him in a hundred small ways, and get up the next day to do it again.

We look for ways to honor him. He was a dedicated blood donor, so that’s a new focus for me. I hope to arrange digital blood drives, and plan to donate myself, as often as possible. Others who knew him have joined me in this.

We’ve used Alex’s choice to connect to others who might benefit from some part of his story. We’ve been given an opportunity to reach out, through Alex’s death, and we take that responsibility seriously. It’s not a community I expected to join, but once you’re a survivor of a suicide victim, you become more aware of others’ circumstances, and ways you can help in the fight for life. We speak respectfully, but seriously, to say…don’t do this…please don’t consider this option. Please choose life.

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We have a few pieces of Alex’s affairs still to work through. Next month we’ll turn in his phone. We kept it to help with managing his accounts, and to be honest, because we couldn’t face disconnecting his phone number just yet. His Facebook page is still up, though we should probably transition it to a memorial page. We plan to request his records, to find out if he had a diagnosis of depression…if there was a clinical condition that contributed to his choice. And we have a series of significant dates to get through…holidays, his birthday, the first anniversary of his death.

I don’t expect to get over this. We’ll be the rest of our lives absorbing his loss. How could it be any different? There are many definitions of grief: “grief is love with no place to go;”  “grief is the last act of love;” “grief is the price we pay for love.” It’s all true. And the realest definition of all: grief is our new normal.

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Alex Gibson, Apri 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 ways to soothe when you need relief

I know a bit about needing relief. I’ve felt that many days, from different sources of stress: relationships, health, financial pressures, uncertainty over a looming decision, all difficult in different ways. Depending on the weight of the issue, sometimes it feels like I can barely function, other times the worry is like an overlay…or maybe an underlay… on top of everything else going on.

When I’m struggling with something heavy on my heart, I need to cocoon and hide myself. In the hardest moments, I want to sleep. I know that’s a sign of depression, and though I’ve never been clinically depressed, I know sleep is a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotional issues.

I also find it hard to stay focused and be productive. I’ve learned that action is a good antidote to feeling sad, but it can be hard to jump-start myself.

My automatic response to distress is to mask what’s bothering me…not sure if somehow I think that will make the situation go away, or if it’s a retreat from confronting what’s painful…if I ignore it, I won’t have to deal with it.

My way of describing this is “putting on the face.” You know, when you act like life is normal, you greet co-workers, go through the motions, even manage to smile and do whatever is on your agenda.

But all the time, inside you’re dying. You’re dying to hear from someone, or about something, or afraid of an approaching deadline.

You’re afraid.

Fear and I are old friends. I can tell the extent of my stress by the persistence of the “engine” of fear I feel running in my stomach. You know when you hear references to the feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yes, that’s the one I mean…fear that is so real you can feel it.

It wakes me up at night, this fear. It rouses me from sound sleep to course through me, my mind moving back to familiar grooves as I think about whatever the issue is, once again.

So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not one.

Some fears do come true, and there’s no changing that. Tests come back with scary results. People die. Bad things happen.

Some situations are not about circumstances that are beyond our control, but about people who are beyond control. Wouldn’t life be easy if everyone did what I want them to do? Well, that’s not happening either. Or at least, not in a predictable way.

So, how can you find relief, some measure of peace, some way to cope that’s healthy and sustainable?

Because let’s face it, there are all sorts of answers that are not healthy, not sustainable, not realistic.

I can’t sleep my troubles away, don’t want to medicate to handle life, and living in denial doesn’t help either.

So this is what I do…my top ten ways to comfort and soothe when I’m in the valley:

  1. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I imagine the worst. I just go ahead and get it over with. What if my worst fears come true? What will happen then? Of course I can’t foresee exactly what variables could come into play. But by going to my imagined worst-case scenario, I create a vision of what I would do, what I could do. By facing the worst, I can have at least a minimum plan of response. Maybe I’d need to travel, or consider how a situation would impact financially. I try to think through options in advance. Instead of seeing this as dwelling on the negative, I view this as confronting and planning ahead so I’m prepared, as well as I can be.

  2. Once I’ve imagined the worst and think of how I would address it, I imagine the best. What if the best possible outcome happens? What then? I imagine how that result would impact me…even good outcomes can create change, and I want to be aware so I can be prepared for the good as well as the bad. At least this step is positive and more hopeful than the first, so it’s an easier exercise.

  3. I think about things that I can do to soothe in the moment. Sometimes that means doing something physical, like a work out, or just getting out and going for a drive. Other ideas: clean something, paint something, cook something. Do anything that is a positive physical act that gets me moving and helps me feel productive. Stay on top of day-to-day chores. Nothing is more paralyzing than letting go of your physical environment when you’re mentally stressed…if you’re already fragile, living in chaos will only make it worse. Put your mind on auto-pilot and force yourself to keep a routine going. On the other hand, if you can’t do something active, try being still. Meditate and just breathe.

  4. I have a number of “go to” authors that I read when I need encouragement or comfort, or even a challenge to hold on and breathe and be strong. Knowing whose voices will speak to my heart and mind is a good tool to have in my arsenal to ward off sadness and depression.

  5. I think about who among family and friends I can reach to, not necessarily to talk about what’s troubling me, but just for the connection. When I can have a “normal” conversation about the day-to-day, it reminds me that there are a lot of wonderful people and good things in life beyond the concern of the moment, and it helps to distract me for a while, at least on a surface level.

  6. I talk out loud to myself, usually while I pace, or drive. This one may seem strange, and I don’t do it when I’m with anyone else, but it really helps me to work through my plans, fears, hopes, etc., to hear the words out loud. It’s almost like I can move outside myself and get a little perspective.

  7. I try to get out and meet a friend, have dinner with someone, do something to break my day or evening, change the conversation going on in my mind. That can’t happen every day, but having something on my calendar helps me to look forward to a change of pace, and something that is uplifting. This also includes things like doing something helpful for someone else…anything that gets me out and connecting with other people is a mood lifter, and a distraction, and that’s healthy. I try to do this even if I’m not in the mood to do it at the beginning. Acting my way to feeling better is a positive way to improve my mindset.

  8. I write. I’m a writer, so that’s therapeutic for me. If I can put what bothers me into words, I can get a better grip on the whole thing. I can vent, rant, be sad, talk it all out on paper, and oddly, writing through an issue gives me a different perspective than talking it through out loud or with someone else. It also gives me a record to review down the road. It’s a good check to see if I’ve sorted myself out and resolved what’s troubling me. I don’t try to keep a daily journal when I’m stressed, I write as I feel the need. But I do keep what I write, sometimes just until I have an answer, and sometimes longer if the issue is deeper, and something I may need to visit again.

  9. I talk it out with a trusted soul. Depending on the issue, everyone in my life may know what’s going on, or only a select few. I don’t like to air my issues casually, but being able to open up to the right person or group can do a world of good.

  10. I pray, if possible, out loud, or I sometimes write my prayers. If you’re not a praying person, this one won’t help. For me, there’s relief in taking my heart to God, and believing that he hears and cares about what hurts in my life.

So that’s it. I hope, next time you feel your fear, some of these ideas will help. And if you have a great strategy for dragon-slaying, please share…I can always use another weapon in my arsenal!  ~ Sheila

Spirit of gratitude

“Gratitude precedes the miracle.”

The first time I read that I thought the words implied some sort of magic formula: if you live a life of gratitude, more good things will come your way. And while I agree with that interpretation on one level…living with a spirit of gratitude does open my heart to more good things, to seeing more good in life…there’s another, deeper meaning.

Living with gratitude precedes the miracle that occurs within me. Maybe “miracle” is too strong a word, on some days. On others, it’s the perfect term to describe what happens to a spirit filled with thankfulness.

Did you know, I’ve learned when you’re filled with gratitude for whatever is happening in your life, you literally can’t feel anger?

There are things that deserve anger…injustices and wrongs that need to be addressed. And I’m not addressing those here.

I’m talking about life on a very personal level, and I’ll acknowledge that I haven’t experienced tragedy to the degree that some people live with. But gratitude doesn’t erase the negatives from my life. Instead it helps me see beyond those, to focus on what I want to emphasize.

No one is unscarred, unscathed by the hurts of living, growing, suffering, dying, and waking up each day to start all over again.

I’ve loved and lost. I find the best way to acknowledge those I’ve lost is to remember the best of them, all the good. I celebrate that.

I’ve been amazed and I’ve been disappointed. I’ve lost some battles and I’ve had success.

I’ve learned when I have setbacks, low points, it helps to reframe. And that brings me back to gratitude. What can I pull out of each situation that feeds a spirit of thankfulness?

Let me tell you, it’s not always easy. I’m the optimistic sort, and more likely to be up than down. But even so, some days are hard. Some days grace and gratitude are not my default settings. That just means I’m human, normal, susceptible to the blows of life. Who isn’t?

I’ll admit: I wonder if I could rise to this challenge if I faced the burdens some people face? I hope I could. And though the externals of my life look good, it is far from perfect, far from easy.

Sometimes I have to stomp around and talk out loud, pace and rant a bit before I can right myself. That’s healthy and even necessary. You have to acknowledge the hole you’re in before you can begin to climb out. When you’re wounded, you have to stop the bleeding before you can begin to heal.

But after…after…I can reflect, and look for the rays of light.

And when I can see, even on the most basic level, that I’m blessed, I’m fortunate, how can I be anything but thankful?

And thankfulness brings me to joy.

Did you know, I’ve learned when you’re filled with joy for the blessings in your life, you literally can’t feel fear?

Joy quiets the fear that comes from the question. “What if…?” It’s so easy to find the negatives, when I’m afraid of the outcome.

And joy leads me outside myself, inspires me to reach out, be generous, look for ways to share with others.

At the deepest level, a spirit of gratitude doesn’t lead me to compare myself with others and feel smug when my situation seems better. A spirit of gratitude leads me to help in a literal way, to have a gracious and humble attitude toward those who struggle with greater challenges than any I face.

It’s a full circle miracle. When life gets me down, I’m moody, easily hurt, feel sorry for myself.

But then, gratitude creeps in, soothes my heart, eases my hurt, shines a light on my complaints. It’s a life cycle that I see on a regular basis.

The spirit of gratitude…it really does precede the miracle. And that has made all the difference.

“If anyone would tell you the shortest, surest way to all happiness and all perfection,
he must tell you to
make a rule to yourself to thank and praise God for everything
that happens to you.

It is certain that whatever seeming calamity happens to you, if you thank and praise God for it,
you turn it into a blessing.

If you could work miracles,
therefore, you could not do more for yourself
than by this thankful spirit.

It heals and turns all that it touches into happiness.”

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

When life knocks you flat…

It’s been a week. Short weeks always work out to be long in the end. I don’t know why or how, I only know it’s true. And this one has been no exception.

I knew it was a long shot. Usually I’m built to be positive. But this house offer…just didn’t feel right from the beginning. On Wednesday the buyers decided to walk away. It was disappointing. And it was a relief, oddly enough. I didn’t feel good about the offer, and the whole thing felt too rushed. Well, I may have time to regret that one if I sit with a house on Water Street for a long time to come. But when it’s right, it will be right…no forcing it. That’s never a good feeling.

So, in the spirit of cheering myself up and putting myself back on track I thought about the steps forward. What do I need to do to right myself? That’s the image I always see in my mind…my body upside down, somehow needing to find the way back up, back to hope, back to future.

It would be a lot easier if I wasn’t sitting surrounded by empty shelves and dreading unpacking a house I just rushed to pack.

When has my efficiency ever backfired so spectacularly?!

But there are silver linings. I got a free inspection and a free appraisal out of the process, thanks to the would-be buyers. And though the appraisal cost me the sale in the end, at least it helps to price more in line with the current market value. I tell myself things work out in the end. Isn’t that what you tell yourself when you’re disappointed?

I am disappointed, but there’s nowhere to go with that. The best cure for disappointment is action. And since I love the word “grace,” for all it’s meanings to my life, I created a little acronym to help me get going:

Grace

Happy weekend! I’ll be unpacking a bit, staging the house for future showings, and finding grace. And if you’re feeling in need of that gift, I hope you’ll find it too.

~ Sheila

Hole in the soul

A few years ago I was struggling. I was going through a difficult time, feeling depressed, sad, empty, not myself at all. For a time I was miserable, but over a period of months I came to terms with some of the issues I’d been struggling with. And eventually life was better again; not perfect, but so much better.

Sometimes I remember those months, and what I learned from the experience.

Depression steals your energy. I remember feeling like I just wanted to sleep, to escape. Simple chores were overwhelming. The only thing that kept me somewhat normal was work. Work helped me put on the façade, gave me a reason to get up and get moving. Because I didn’t want to bring drama to my work place, I tried to minimize what I was going through, tried to hold myself together so I wouldn’t feel embarrassed with my co-workers.

Depression steals your appetite. At least that was what happened to me. I lost interest in cooking. I was alone a lot during those months, and it was easy to ignore meals when I wasn’t hungry, and too disinterested to cook. I lost 20 pounds in a few months. Best and worst diet experience I’ve ever had, the only “diet” that was effortless. In the past I’d put on pants or a favorite skirt and realized it was time to lose a few pounds. I’ve never before had to look through my closet for something to wear that wouldn’t fall off me.

Depression steals your interests. I would try to read to take my mind off the things that were bothering me. I couldn’t read. I would try to watch TV. I couldn’t stay engaged. I couldn’t settle myself long enough to accomplish much. I was restless and yet exhausted.

Depression steals your rest. I slept a lot when I wasn’t working. But often in the middle of the night I would wake up and my mind would race, going over and over the things that were troubling me. I was sleeping all the time, but not resting. My sleep cycle was broken by stress and worry, and somehow, the more I slept, the less I rested.

Once I was in the grocery store, walking around like a ghost, feeling the physical impact of depression. I felt like there was a hole in the middle of my body where my stomach should have been. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself with a gap between chest and hips…a hole that only allowed for the churning engine of stress that took the place of my belly…and even though I knew there was no hole, I remember thinking that the gaping emptiness seemed so real, I was surprised other shoppers weren’t staring at me, stopping to ask if I was alright. Because I had a hole in my middle. It was a surreal experience, and I wasn’t even on any medication. I was just feeling the drowning grip of sadness.

I walked around the store, filling my cart, looking normal on the outside, feeling lost and empty on the inside, and so aware of the gaping hole. As I walked around, I began to wonder who else was walking through the store with their own holes, invisible to me, but so real to them. Holes in souls.

That question took the focus off myself and allowed me to stand back and recognize that I probably pass people all the time who walk around with holes. I just don’t see what’s in front of my eyes. I try always to be kind, to be thoughtful. But even so, there are days that I’m wrapped up in my world. I pass people on automatic pilot: kind but remote, polite but disinterested, because I’m busy, and on the run, and don’t really look close enough to see the hole that’s devouring the person in front of me.

Living for a time with a hole in myself helped me realize, in a way I hadn’t before, that a lot of people walk around like that. Walking wounded. They put on the face, just like I did. They go through the motions of living, just like I did. Some get help, and some get relief from a change in the situation that’s causing the pain. That’s what happened to me. Circumstances changed, the skies cleared, my smile came back.

It wasn’t without some effort on my part. I did a lot of soul-searching, made some changes that were within my power to make.

It was a humbling experience. When you’ve always been hopeful, mostly happy, mostly sunny side up, it’s hard to recognize a self who’s drowning, who can’t snap out of it. You begin to look at people who struggle with depression and other forms of mental illness through a different lens. You find more compassion, more appreciation for the struggles that are invisible to the eye, but so real to the heart.

When I remember that time, now I can feel grateful. It taught me a lot about myself and helped me find strength I didn’t know I had. I learned the value of “wait and see.” I learned that the phrase “trust the process” isn’t just something you hear in corporate settings. I learned that life will often right itself, if you work with it.

I don’t want to tempt fate by thinking I’m invincible. I’m not, and the truth is, no one is. If there is a next time, I think I’ll manage my hole a little better. I think I’ll know to trust, I’ll find my smile a little faster, a little easier. The reward for weathering the hard times is being better prepared to face whatever comes, and knowing, knowing, that you’ll survive, and thrive, and grow above. Eventually, assuredly.

Once you’ve worked through a hole in your life, you’re never quite the same. You’re scarred, but you’re wiser.

I no longer have an engine of stress running in my stomach, or feel like there’s a hole in my body. But I can empathize with those who do. I don’t talk a lot about this experience…just doesn’t come up in normal conversation. But now and then I see an opportunity to speak up, to share, to encourage, to say, “I’ve been there.” It’s a powerful thing to look back at a challenge and know you’ve overcome. And it’s a powerful encouragement to someone else to hear a first-person story, to know someone else really gets it.

I don’t claim to have it all figured out now. I’m not even sure why I’m sharing this, except that I suddenly wanted to.

I’m not sharing to get sympathy. I’m sharing to give hope.

I started my blog during those months, started it to stake a claim to the positive person I knew was somewhere inside. I was determined to find my way to that self again. And I did. I had help from a few significant people who knew what was going on, and some of the conflict in my life subsided.

After the worst of it was behind me, I noticed I was singing again. I noticed I was interested in food again. I noticed I had a renewed sense of grace, of redemption, found a new sweetness to life that stays with me. I sometimes have small setbacks, and I sometimes feel discouraged. But I’ve never gone to the depths again. I’ve learned the signs to watch for, and the steps toward healing.

I think I’m a better person than I was, in part because of what I went through. It changed me, grew me. And though the details are not important now, I can share this much: to anyone reading this who is lost and despairing, don’t give up hope.

Do something to get yourself moving, literally. Get off the couch, do the smallest thing, and let that lead you to the next thing, and the next. Action inspires hope, and hope is the lifeline to healing. Reach out; there are probably more people than you could guess who understand at least some of what you’re experiencing. And give yourself time. Time can be your ally, and in time, you can look back and see that you’ve come a long way from your lowest point.

You’ll find your smile again. You’ll hear yourself singing again. You’ll sleep through the night again. And you’ll know you’re healed.

 

Wounds