Angie Cartwright has survived more tragedy and trauma than most. Her grieving began at the age of 5 when she tragically lost her baby sister Erica. Years later her favourite uncle died by suicide, her husband in a car accident, her grandfather by murder (police allege suicide) and her mother to an accidental overdose in 2010. Raised in environment of alcoholism and drug addiction, Angie shares how she turned her life around and how she uses Facebook to help herself and thousands of other bereaved people to heal. In this interview, learn about Angie’s inaugural National Grief Awareness Day which will take place in the US on August 30 — her mother’s birthday.
You say your grieving process began at the age of 5 when your sister Erica died. How much do you remember about that time? Is that when your Mum’s condition deteriorated?
I can remember vividly all of the circumstances leading up to my sisters’ death. She had been sick for a few days and was crying constantly. My mother took her to the emergency room and when she got back she gave her a bath. Erica had been diagnosed with pneumonia but on the third night she finally rested in the bassinet. The next morning I awoke before everyone else and went to check on her but she didn’t look right. I woke my mother up and told her something was wrong with Erica. My mother ran out of our home screaming down to the fire station in our neighborhood. My mother returned quickly but I believe the trauma had already set in for me and in turn produced a gap in my memory. I truly believe my grief started right after my sister died and I had lost my mother to grief. There were many nights and mornings I found my mother crying over Erica. She always seemed intoxicated during these crying spells. I felt so powerless as a child to help my mother. Children internalize grief, unless they have teachers to guide them in expressing their grief and what to do with that pain. Even at that young age, for some reason, I felt it was my job to fix my mother and make her happy. I went on to lose my mother in other ways later on when she would go off to treatment or drop us off with friends.
You have survived more tragedy & trauma than most, what kept you holding onto life & hope?
I guess before we know hope or the want to live, we have to know the opposites. I knew darkness better than anything else. To get to hope each time was different for me. Sometimes it was my children that gave me the will to fight. Other times it was an internal feeling of I’m not done yet! Hope, I believe, is a gift. I never thought I would have it again after losing my mother but you can experience hope in the middle of grief. Hope never found me I had to go look for it. I had to be willing to do certain things for myself to get there.
How has your grief changed with time?
My grief has changed. But time was not really the factor. It wasn’t until seven years after I lost my husband in a car accident that I started making changes in my life, because after all that time I realized I was no better than when it happened. When my mother died in 2010 I decided I wouldn’t let this beast called grief take me down like it did in the past. It’s not that I didn’t grieve, I just started changing my behavior. After a year I started to feel better and confident healing was taking place. There is a “cliché” that is said often: “Time heals all wounds.” This is far from the truth. Time cannot heal a broken heart. The grief may ease up, but I believe it’s because we have learned how to manage it.
You were raised in an environment of alcoholism and drug addiction. To what extent did you rely upon substances to deal with your losses?
Being raised in an alcoholic home I was shown that grief and drinking go hand in hand. Honestly I hated alcohol as a child. I always put my mother, sadness, and drinking all together. When I got older I started my own journey with alcoholism. I don’t blame my mother for that, as I had my own choices in life. I used drinking and other substances to numb the pain. As a grieving widow I was given all sorts of medications and today I know those things could not heal my heart. If anything they increase the pain. It allowed me to stay stuck in that pain and time. Like I said previously, seven years after losing my husband, I was no better. Today I know a better way. I have to face those feelings as they come. Easier said than done but it’s possible. After my mother passed from a drug overdose I knew I couldn’t live that life. I am in recovery today, and I deal with emotions from a sober mind and heart.
At what point did you become committed to healing and reinventing yourself? What prompted this and how what changes did you make in your life?
I have become committed to healing many different times in my life. Sometimes I hit the ground running with all sorts of ways to help myself. When one didn’t work, I would try another. There were those times where I wanted nothing to do with healing. When you have lived a life of loss there can be some resentment that comes up. I got tired of having to be the one to pick up the pieces. Today I don’t feel that way. After my mom died there came a day when I knew no one was going to do this for me. Even if they wanted to It was impossible, I had to want to heal. I never thought the day would come again where I felt that kind of hope again. As I started my healing journey I started reading books lot of books! I found Facebook and started to find other grievers and decided to have a small little grief group. The group was a life changer for me. I had found people who felt like me. They understood me. I think the turning point in re-inventing myself was the day I started to grieve freely. It was necessary. I couldn’t go around “acting” like I was fine. It nearly killed me doing that before. I knew my honesty was going to have to be the largest part of me, anywhere and with anyone.
As part of your healing process you created Facebook groups for the bereaved. You now have 17 which include one specifically for teens and young adults. How do these groups work and differ, and how have they helped you to heal?
Grief The Unspoken is a family. It’s a family no one wants to be a part of. But after a loss it’s the only place for a while that may feel comfortable. Everyone speaks your language. The pressure is off to be a certain way. Our closed groups provide a safe place to let it all out and be yourself. We have guidelines in the groups and basically people post when they feel like it. They don’t have to post. Some are not able to post for a while but they read others feelings and they feel like someone understands. All groups run pretty much the same way. We have a few that are different. We have a diary group. We ask no one to comment on anyone’s post in that group. It’s strictly for writing in a virtual diary. We have one that is for venting, it’s a little more controversial. That group is specifically for intense emotions. Some people cannot handle those kinds of post. I have found the group works really well. They scream and get it out and feel better. I believe the groups help a griever to get to a place where they start wanting help. We are not there to fix them. We are there to support them. We try to let the members know of healers we recommend, and we often share our healing to help them.
From your personal experiences and connecting with others online who have experienced loss, what advice do you have for bereaved youth?
If I was to give any advice to our youth, It would be that it’s okay to grieve. Your feelings are not wrong. I would tell them to educate themselves on grief and ask questions. I believe you’re never too young to learn about grief. Sometimes we don’t have the necessary support needed to make this transition. Like in my youth. So it can be difficult to find support. Many of our youth are on Facebook. The web can be a great tool to aid you along your grief journey. I do have a closed grief group for teens and young adults because they needed a place to go. Another important suggestion is to get help. Being alone in your grief is not good, it will only get worse. Many youth will use alcohol and other substances to cover up pain they have no other way to “deal” with. Sadly some of them will take their lives. Young people need to know feelings are not bad. We need to get them out. I look back in my youth and can see where I chose other things to deal with my grief. At that age “feelings” are not cool. It’s my hope that we get grief education in every school and every grade. We can’t teach them to grieve but we can teach them it’s okay to grieve.
You founded the National Grief Awareness Day which will take place on August 30 – your mother’s birthday. What does this day involve and how can people support your movement?
National Grief Awareness Day is a day to bring grief out of the dark and into the light. On this day we as educators aim to increase awareness surrounding grief. We will talk about the myths and the clichés. We will be “opening a door” for the griever to come out of hiding. The old ways of looking at grief don’t work. Our grieving need help, not fixed, to be allowed in our society to grieve as long as they need to. Our expectations need to change. Many may think that it is changing, but we are a long way from where we need to be. I say we are just beginning. Today I saw a griever post that her sister told her to “get over this, your family needs you!” This kind of thinking has been with us for years. It will take years to repair the damage that has already been done. People don’t always take to change easy. I know I didn’t. At first they may feel like we are attacking people. Or that we are being overly sensitive. These two things are far from the truth. Somewhere along time ago we were taught all these ideas on grief. We took them for being “the truth “myself included. That was until I started grieving intensely and started to apply all the myths and cliches and they didn’t work and they didn’t make sense.
This will be the first NGAD and I’m beyond excited. On this day we ask you to do anything you can to increase, educate, and support grief and the grieving. We will be using different colored butterflies as our symbol this year. The different colors represent that everyone grieves differently. We are asking people to make grief awareness videos which we will post on our website. We are making banners for people to hang in front of their homes. You can also donate to our cause, even $5 goes a long way. Since this is the first NGAD we are limited on what we can do and need all the help we can get. We hope by next year we will be doing a conference, and getting grief into our schools, treatment centers, doctors, and counselors’ offices. The other thing you can do is to think about grieving. Ask yourself do I have anyone in my life that may be grieving? Go and see them. Send them some flowers. We ask you to take the topic of grief into your homes. Maybe at dinner that night ask your family what they know about grief. Share what you have learned. Share posts from all the grieving sites on Facebook and the web. We have a huge community full of so many loving and kind people who are helping those in grief.