Angie Cartwright

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.

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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.

Kate Fitzsimons

Although 4 years apart in age, Kate and Nicole Fitzsimons shared everything from clothes to secrets, dreams and birthdays. But in October last year, Kate lost her older sister in a tragic road accident while holidaying in Thailand. The 21-year-old has since established the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation which aims to raise awareness of travel safety overseas and offers financial assistance to gifted performing artists and sportspeople. Based in Sydney, she responds to the common belief that siblings are “forgotten mourners” and shares how those around her can help her to heal.

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NicKateTell us about the special bond you shared with Nic.

Nicole never, ever let me down. It didn’t matter if she was half way around the world, or just sleeping in her room down the hall, or even in my own bed for that matter, she was always there for me. Nicole was my words of wisdom and advice; the one I could turn to no matter what and know that I would be greeted with a larger than life voice that would bounce off the walls and give me an uplifting speech about always following your passion, and don’t be scared if it takes you along the path less travelled. Nicole’s incredible words of inspiration have shaped the way I live my life, and made me the person I am today. Many people thought we were twins not only because of our similar appearances, but because of this incredible bond & how we shared everything – our clothes, our bathroom, our bedrooms, our beds, our secrets, our values, our dreams even our birthdays.

What’s one memory with her you will always cherish?

It sounds strange, but my fondest memories with my sister were actually shared in the bathroom where we’d get ready together before the day ahead or a big night out. As she was such a busy butterfly, our ‘bathroom time’ getting ready together was ‘our time’ for just the two of us where we could talk openly and honestly like only sisters can. These conversations are something I will forever cherish and miss terribly and as strange as it sounds, our bathroom will always be a very special place for me now.

Another  special memory of Nic is when she went through a stage of being ‘scared of the dark’ when she was about 21 years old (haha yes, our Nickers was definitely one of a kind!), and she used to wake up in the middle of the night scared and crawl into my bed next to me to try to get back to sleep. I would give anything to go back to that moment in time in having her sleeping peacefully next to me. That’s truly how close our bond was – no matter what time of day or night, we were always there for one another.

Nic’s life was tragically cut short last year in Thailand. What happened?

After working tirelessly all year on The Footy Show, whilst balancing dance teaching and side-line eye commentating for ‘Hawkesbury Radio’, Nic was so excited to be taking a well-deserved holiday to Thailand with her partner Jamie in October last year. We were all following  her holiday in ‘paradise’ on Instagram — they were  having the most amazing time and even secured their plans to get married the following year. But on the 20th October 2012 at 3:37am I was awoken by a phone call that literally shattered our lives.

Nic and Jamie were turning into the driveway of their hotel in Koh Samui when they were blindsided by a local motorbike rider speeding on the wrong side of the road at 80km/hour. Nearly all impact was to her head and she was rushed into surgery but lost her brave fight for life three hours later.

Have you since been able to talk openly about the accident and your feelings with those around you?

Talking about the accident itself always hurts but I have learned how to cope with speaking about it. Video footage of my sister’s accident was aired on television, and as much as it hurts to watch, I now include it in my Travel Safety Presentations to help students understand that the ‘unthinkable’ does happen and you don’t have to be doing anything ‘wrong’ to find yourself in serious trouble. Because I know that by talking about Nic’s accident I am helping to save lives, I actually feel empowered rather than overwhelmed by it now.

As for how I am coping, I am very open and honest with others about my feelings of grief. Instead of writing my emotions into a private journal, I openly post Facebook updates on my page, as well as my sister’s ‘In Loving Memory’ page. Why? Well firstly I know that so many of my sister’s friends are hurting as well and we find comfort in each others words and knowing we are travelling along this unpredictable emotional roller coaster together. But secondly, ‘loss’ is universal. Every single one of us will experience it at some stage in our life, and I hope that by sharing my emotions and how I am coping with others I can help them along their own journey of grief and inspire them to rise above it along with me.

I believe if you suppress your feelings, they will bottle up inside and completely tear you apart. Nine months on and I still have those days where I literally sit at home feeling lost, confused, and aching for my sister. But I have learned it is all about finding the balance between grieving for the life I once lived, and embracing the life I now have – so I smile and laugh as often as I can, and cry and reflect whenever I need to.

What helps you to heal?

Through establishing a Foundation in honour of Nicole’s legacy and the amazing community that has formed around it, my heart is filled with strength and courage to rebuild my life in a way that will make my sister proud. So in March this year, I walked away from my corporate career to dedicate myself full-time to the Foundation and my goal to present our Travel Safety campaign to as many high schools around Australia as I can. This has been the most important part of the healing process for me because saving lives through sharing Nicole’s story is now a passion that runs deep within me and gives me a sense of fulfilment I cannot find else where.

Getting up on stage & speaking about Nicole & her incredibly legacy, and seeing the inspiring impact it has on people is priceless. Reading the amazing messages of support makes my heart glow like nothing else on this earth. Being able to witness the incredible difference Nicole’s presence makes in people’s life is the reason I look forward to tomorrow.

More simple things I have found helpful include reading inspiring quotes from people who have also endured tough times, and making sure I still allow time for ‘me’ by working out daily in the gym which is a huge passion of mine & helps me to feel better no matter what is going on in my day. In the early days of losing Nic I also invested myself into learning more about the spiritual world through reading books by reputable ‘mediums’, such as Allison Dubois & Ezio De Angelis, to help secure my faith that my sister’s spirit lives on outside the hands of time and learn how to open my heart to her presence that continues to surround me.

I also heal by enjoying the tranquility of sunrises and the promise of a brand new day they bring. For my family,  sunrises fill our hearts with hope, and allow us to feel an intimate connection with Nicole as it was her favourite time of the day. Looking back the sunrise I captured on the morning we lost Nic, I know it was her beautiful spirit shining through and reminding me that even the darkest nights end and the sun will rise. This gives me gives me the strength to make the most out of every single day – that is how she lived life, and would want me to live life, even without her by my side.

How can those around you assist you on this journey?

I think the number one thing friends need to remember is that my road to recovery is a long one, so please be patient with me. I have found that tidal waves of grief can hit you off your feet at any moment, so by having a good support network around you that understands this is really important. They need to help you embrace and celebrate the good times when you can, and be there to hold you and listen when you need to cry. The thing that hurts me the most is when I try and talk about my sister or how I am feeling, and friends change the topic because they don’t know what to do or say. But by now I know the friends who are really good at dealing with these conversations and emotions so I know who I can turn to when I need someone to help me cope with how I am feeling. I also think people need to be aware of what they are saying around those who have lost loved ones – it hurts to hear others sit there and complain about the small things in ‘wrong’ life and taking things for granted, instead of realising how blessed they are for all they have been given in life and making the most of it.

Also, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help from those around you.  I had several sessions with a spiritual healer, Katrina, whose care, compassion & ability to delve into the depths’ of my soul was a truly uplifting experience. Through Reiki and many deep discussions, Katrina taught me how to stay in the light of my sister’s love through keeping the connection we shared alive in my heart. By allowing me to get in touch with my soul’s essence, Katrina helped to expand my self-awareness and develop my own spiritual path to healing. I would not be where I am today without her guidance and she will continue to play a vital role in my journey to recovery and self-discovery.

Siblings are often known as the “forgotten mourners.” Does this apply to you?

Not at all. My Mum, Dad, Brother, Sister-in-law and myself have been a united circle of love, strength and support for one another. I am closer to my mum and dad more than ever as we learn how to live in our home that is far too quiet without Nic. My parents are really supportive of my decision to give up my corporate career and have given me an important role in managing the Foundation and becoming the ‘face’ of the Travel Safety Campaign in schools around Australia. They still make a huge effort to ensure we catch up as a family once a week for lunch or dinner, and I have a handful of close friends who are amazing at doing special little things to show that they are thinking of me and always here for me.

Most importantly, my family still recognises me as an ‘individual’ in my own right and not just in my sister’s ‘shadow’. Last month my parents organised a huge 21st birthday party for me at home which meant so much to me as they chose to rise above the ache of missing Nic to celebrate all I had achieved and overcome in my life so far. This was particularly special as Nicole’s birthday is only 5 days before mine, so for my parents to be able to deal with the overwhelming emotions of Nicole’s first birthday without her, whilst organizing a big birthday event for me is testament to the fact that I am loved, remembered and celebrated just as much as Nicole will always be.

You and your family have set up a Foundation in Nic’s memory. What was the inspiration behind the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation and what does it aim to achieve?

The Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation has been established to continue Nic’s legacy of helping others to fulfil their life aspirations. In honour of Nic’s love for dance and football, we offer financial assistance to passionate and gifted performing artists and sportspeople who need assistance in reaching their full potential. The Foundation also aims to raise awareness of travel safety overseas.

My passion to educate other Australians on travel safety ignited when I started researching into accidents overseas just after losing Nicole and discovering just how many hundreds of Australians meet the same tragic fate as my sister. Through sharing Nicole’s story & some alarming statistics I open students eyes to the fact that the ‘unthinkable’ does happen, but I also offer them some really practical tips to help prevent it from happening to them, or to prepare them if it does happen to them, by highlighting the importance of travel insurance. I am dedicated to doing everything within my power to save as many families as I can from suffering this heart ache.

It is very overwhelming to look back on how far my family has travelled in just nine short months that have also felt like a lifetime. The Foundation has given our lives a whole new purpose, and taken us along a journey that is beyond what words can describe. There are some people who say ‘I wouldn’t be able to do what you’re doing with the Foundation’ but most people do not have Nicole as a sister, and now as a guardian angel, who’s given our family so, so much to live for. There was every possibility after losing the love of our life we could have just dwelled on the pain & huge hole that now weighs heavy in our hearts. But that would mean turning our backs on Nicole & everything she lived for, everything she taught & everything she left behind as a gift for us to grow & share to help make a difference in the lives of others. Nicole’s Foundation has really helped our family and has enabled us to help others. Growing from great tragedy is possible if you allow it into your life. I now focus my energy on being grateful of having the honour of being the sister of such an inspirational young woman who has shaped the person I am today & how I can continue to carry her forward with me through the Foundation to shape the lives of thousands more.

Nicole’s friend Lyndell Harradine has recently released her debut album “Everywhere” in memory of Nicole – check out her angelic voice and heartfelt lyrics here.

For more information on the Foundation, visit nicolefitzsimons.com

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