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.

Carly Marie

Carly

“Here was this beautiful little boy that I was suppose to raise and there I was trying to work out how I could squeeze a lifetime of memories into a few short hours. The grief was so heavy I couldn’t believe it was even possible to be in that much pain and still be alive.”

These are the words of Carly Marie, who at the age of 25, tragically experienced the stillbirth of her son Christian. Six years on, Carly explains why “time heals all wounds” is a myth and that it is what you do in that time that counts. Discover Carly’s profound gift that she uses to help other parents worldwide through their darkness.

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You tragically experienced the stillbirth of your son Christian in 2007. What is your dominant memory of the initial period of grief?

When I think of that time in my life the most dominant memory that I have was the night times and how I yearned for him. Christian was born in the middle of the night and so each night I would relive the time that we had him with us. In that first year of grief, my night times were very ritualistic. I created an altar in memory of him in our home. I would burn candles each evening  for him and I would play music. I was listening to a lot of Ben Harper at the time so hearing any song from his Both Sides Of The Gun album will send me straight back into that time. Even though we only had Christian with us for about 10 hours I have many memories of him. The one memory that is always in the forefront of my mind is when my midwife gave him to me to hold for the first time. The love that I felt at that very moment was indescribable. Here was this beautiful little boy that I was suppose to raise and there I was trying to work out how I could squeeze a lifetime of memories into a few short hours. The grief was so heavy I couldn’t believe it was even possible to be in that much pain and still be alive.

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How has your grief changed over the years?

I guess you could say my grief has changed dramatically. At first I struggled to get out of bed and now, I struggle finding the time to get into bed. I have been through so many stages that I feel I have some sort of partnership with grief now. At first it was heavy and the disbelief that I had a child that had died was very prominent. Some days I still cannot believe that one of my children is not with us. Around the 18 month point the sunlight began to filter back into my life.  Now, I am 6 1/2 years out from losing Christian and my grief is still there. I think it always will be there. If I were to stop grieving him, surely that would mean that I would have stopped loving him and clearly that is never going to happen. My grief has transformed. Time does not heal anything. That is a myth. It is what you do in that time that will change things for you. You have to make a conscious effort to heal. At first all I wanted was crawl under a rock and die but thankfully my first born daughter was there. I needed to heal for her and so I chose healing. But now I want more than that. I want to grow and learn, love and live my life to the fullest. I feel so thankful that I am being given the opportunity to grow a little older and wiser each day. It is a gift that so many of us are denied. My life is more beautiful than ever right now. I am in absolute awe and wonder of life and death now. It is all very magical to me. I feel that death is not an ending, just a transformation. Christian died so very young and for so long I questioned why he had to die before he got a chance to live. After some time of having this question eat away at me, I decided to give up on it because I will never truly understand in this life why he had to go and so wondering why serves me no good purpose at all. Once I let go of that question I believe I was set free from the heaviness of grief.

You have pursued many different paths of healing. What inspired Project Heal and the Seashore of Remembrance, and how have these helped you?

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True healing began for me on August 19th 2008, about 19 months after Christian had been born. I dreamed that I saw him on the beach and that he was writing his name in the sand. In my dream, he was perfectly healthy and whole. The dream lit a fire in my heart and so I began a project called Christian’s Beach. Since that day in 2008 I have written over 17,700 babies and children’s names in the sand under sunsets at Mullaloo Beach in Perth Western Australia. I have received requests from bereaved parents from all over the world. After speaking and sharing my story with so many people from across the globe, I realized that I needed put my experience together into a website for others to read and so Project Heal is now a guide for those who are walking the road of baby loss. It is filled with community projects and events and ways to heal and grow from your experience

I am always exploring new ways of expressing my grief through my art and photography at the beach and so a few years ago I opened my Memorial Art Website called The Seashore of Remembrance. All of my artwork there is to honour the lives of people who have passed away at any age or gestation.

Being able to share my experience, artwork and photography has played a such an important role in my healing. It has helped me connect to my son and learn more about myself and who I am becoming, not only as an artist but as a mother and a woman. It also gives my son a legacy which will mean that his life will touch the hearts of others and that he will never be forgotten and that is all that I could hope for.

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You also write for Still Standing Magazine and are involved in The STILL Project, a documentary film project committed to breaking the silence about pregnancy loss and infant death. Why is it so important to speak out and connect with others in similar situations?

When Christian died, it felt as if somebody had come and abducted us in the middle of the night, taken us out into the desert, pushed us out of their moving car and then tossed a note out of the window that just said “Good Luck”. We were left on our own in the middle of nowhere, with no idea how we would get back home. We were lost and we felt so alone. I later found out that my grandmother had suffered through the loss of multiple children. 3 stillborn babies and 3 babies that she miscarried including twins. My beautiful nan lived a very tragic life and having her husband taken as a prisoner of war in Burma for 4 years, she was left to grieve in silence on her own. She never spoke of them. It broke my heart to think that she never even named her precious children who left too soon. She took her silence to her grave.

Christian dying opened up so many conversations with my friends and family and I could not believe the number of people that I knew who had either suffered the same kind of loss or knew someone who did. I thought my story was rare because nobody speaks about the babies that die before they are born, they are seen as sad circumstances rather than human beings. People don’t have to suffer in silence like this anymore. Why do we have to be quiet on death? Everybody dies. It doesn’t matter what your age is. There is no escaping it. I sometimes wonder if the death of babies is just too tragic to speak about and so people just close up and pretend it doesn’t happen so that they do not have to deal with it. The truth is most people are afraid of upsetting the parents who have suffered the loss. You don’t have to come up with something that will fix the person. There is nothing you can say that will heal this kind of hurt. But what you can do is ask your friend or family member about their baby. You can ask them that if they would like to share about their baby then you are there and ready to LISTEN to them. If you don’t know what to say, tell your friend that. Just let them know that you are here for them. Most of the time people just want someone to listen to them anyway.

Writing for Still Standing Magazine is a complete honour for me. The writers there are so beautifully brave and they along with all the readers are working to break the silence surrounding the death of babies so that people will not suffer in silence anymore. My friend Franchesca is the editor of the magazine and if it wasn’t for her beautiful daughter Jenna Belle, the magazine would not exist. These babies that die leave such incredible legacies, just like Elena’s legacy – The STILL Project. This film will be such a gift to not only to the 1 in 4 people who will experience the loss of a baby but the 3 in 4 who won’t. It will be an honest and raw look at what it is like to suffer such a loss. If people can begin to understand the loss of a baby without having to experience it, this will break down a lot of walls in society and mourning the loss of a baby will be accepted because it will be more understood. It is all about love, compassion, education and acceptance.

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If you could whisper words of comfort to newly bereaved parents of babies, what would you say?

I would say, I am so sorry that this has happened to you, it is so cruel and unfair but know that you are not alone in this. There are so many people out there who understand your pain. It is okay to feel whatever you are feeling. Do whatever helps to comfort your own heart. Don’t be afraid to seek help from others, whether it is professional counselling or friendship from those who truly understand your pain. The Internet is filled with amazing charities and organizations that have groups of people for you to talk to and you do not even have to leave the comfort of your home. My hope for you is that within time you will begin to see the light again and that you will find the many gifts that your child’s life has left for you and will continue to leave for you. Your baby may not be here anymore but just like all the babies that are born healthy and alive your baby is a miracle and a gift to you and this Earth.

And lastly, how has Christian’s brief life shaped the person you are today?

My life is filled with so many crazy wonderful and heartfelt experiences because of my son. Since Christian died, I have met the most beautiful people from all over the world. The path that Christian has opened up for me is so incredibly awe inspiring. I have no idea where it is taking me and I love that. I am eternally grateful for his short life here on Earth. He has and is teaching me so many things. I get asked so often, if I could go back in time would I erase his loss from my past, so that I would not know such heartache. I would never choose to do that. Having him for one day was worth all the pain and heartache that followed and although he is not here physically to grow with me, I am still his mother and I always will be. Nothing can ever change that. He didn’t get to live his life here on Earth, so I am living this life not only for me but for him too.

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For more information, visit carlymarieprojectheal.com

Alex Bannon

Alex2Alex Bannon tragically lost both parents before the age of 16 — her father to a heart attack and her mother to cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. Now aged 18, the Sydney native shares how she manages sudden surges of grief and what we can learn from her aunty.

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What is one memory with your mother & father you will always remember?

I’ll always remember how strong and brave my mum was on the day she told me  she only had two months left to live. I remember her coming into my room after I’d been crying. She saw the tears in my eyes and held my hands and looked me in the eyes and whispered “Alex, it’s okay, I’m going to be okay. I know that my prayers to God weren’t exactly answered but maybe that’s the purpose. Maybe my purpose in life was to give strength to others and die as a legacy and that’s okay. It’s time.”

In regards to my dad, I’ll always remember the countless trips to his work. He was the Marketing Manager at the Powerhouse Museum and I always wanted to go with him because I loved their chocolate pebble machine. I remember running a muck around his work but him being completely fine with it. I’ll also always remember that he was such an involved father. Even though his job kept him busy, he never missed a Father’s Day activity at school.

Your father died suddenly; did having a warning about your mother’s death lessen the pain at all? 

My father passed when I was seven years old from a heart attack. It was my brother who had found him, then me. Our mother was on a holiday in China with her two sisters but flew home immediately. I don’t think there is ever a right age or time to lose someone but with saying that, I was so young when my dad suddenly passed away.

After everything we had been through with my dad I thought nothing could ever happen to my family again. But on the 25th January 2011, my mum was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma- a rare cancer that affects just 2 in 250,000 people. I watched her go through countless chemotherapy, radiation, hallucinations, wake up in ICU. Having a parent with cancer just became part of my life, the idea that one day my mum would be cancer free gave peace to my mind, but somewhere deep down I knew it was long journey to go. We were told she’d have two months on the 22nd March 2012 when my brave mother decided to stop all treatment and spend what quality time she had left at home with her loved ones. She knew in her heart that no matter how many more needles they stick into her that she was terminal and that it was her time. 13 days later, on the 4th of April, my amazing mother sadly passed away at our home surrounded by her family and friends whom she loved.
 
I didn’t have as much time with my dad as I’d had with my mum. When my dad passed I wasn’t subject to thinking about every detail in the future and how his death would affect my life. But with mum it was a totally different thing because I was a teenager. Although I had a warning, I knew it was still going to hurt. I was not only grieving the fact that she was going to die but was also dealing with the loss of our future together — her being there on my wedding day and becoming a grandma. The warning didn’t necessarily lessen the pain of losing our mother-daughter bond and my only parent but being told she’d have two months left really bought everything into perspective and made me appreciate every aspect of life. That’s one thing that I always think about; that it shouldn’t take your mum to tell you she has cancer and two months left to live in order to tell her how much you love and thank her everyday for everything she has done and to appreciate everything around you.
 
How often do you experience surges of grief and how do you manage these? Where do you find peace?

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that grief isn’t a period of time that you pinpoint, experience, and then move on from. I’ve learnt that I’ll always be grieving the death of my parents, but over time can learn how to deal with it in a better way. I can never predict when I’ll experience surges of grief. It’ll catch me at the most random of times, for example, I’ll be driving and suddenly remember a memory and burst out into tears. I’ve learnt that everyone deals with grief in their own way and that if you fight your feelings, you will only make things worse for yourself. So now when I need to cry I will and when I need time alone I’ll have it. I also remind myself often that it’s okay not being strong all the time, that I can breakdown and that it’s normal. After all of this I think of a really happy memory, smile and say to myself, “Okay until next time” and continue with what I was previously doing, which I guess can be kind of weird but that’s just the how I manage my grieving.

I believe that peace is a really hard concept to define. I think that there’s a huge misconception about what it is. I think people believe that peace is something that when you have it, you’re suddenly enlightened and your set for the rest of your life. But in my opinion I believe that peace is a constant struggle. Some days you feel you have it and you feel really great but on other days you don’t and you feel really down. But peace for me means having those moments where you say to yourself “I’m going to be okay, I’m happy right now and that might change tomorrow and that’s okay, but for now I’m happy and I’m going to embrace it”. Peace for me nowadays is in the simplest of things and I believe in living for those simple things in life. Like someone picking up your pen that you dropped to someone unexpectedly making you smile and laugh. That is where I find peace; when I’m happy. And some people may read that and think that’s a really weird way of finding peace and that’s okay, but for me that is what puts a smile on my face and brings me peace. But in a spiritual perception, I know its cliché but I do find peace in natural beauty — sunrises and sunsets, starts and birds flying in the sky. I also really do believe that music has the ability to help anyone go through any situation or stage in life they’re in and that it can help him or her on the road to recovery. I’d recommend the artist Matt Corby to anyone. Music like his really soothes the mind and soul and get generally put you in a better mood and can help with one’s mind finding peace. But I know that finding peace is different for every one; it’s something I believe that you find on your own terms in your own time in life.

I also believe we write our own stories, and each time we think we know something, we don’t. Perhaps peace exists somewhere between the world of learning how to grieve and actually grieving and that in peace comes from knowing that you just can’t know it all. Life is funny that way. Once you let go of the wheel, you might end up where you belong.

Are you able to talk openly to your friends about what you have been through?

I am now at a point in my life where I can talk about what I’ve been through. If anyone, not just my friends, were to ask me I would openly tell them. I never want what has happened to me affect the conversations I have with people. I don’t want them to feel like they need to walk on seashells around me or avoid anything to do with my parents so I try and incorporate memories of my mum and dad into relevant conversations. I believe in finding the light in every situation no matter how dark it is. Just because both my parents have passed doesn’t mean their memories have too. Spirits not only stay alive just by thinking about them; I believe it’s by talking and sharing stories about them. I believe that everyone is born with the ability to change someone’s life for the better so as vulnerable as my past is, if it can help or connect anyone to a similar situation then it’s totally worth opening up about.

You currently live happily with your aunty. What can others learn from how your aunty acts towards you?

It’s really uncanny because living with my aunty was something I originally I never expected or wanted. Two months after my mum passed I made a decision to move out because I could no longer live with my mum’s partner whom she had married 5 months before she passed. I expressed how I was feeling to two of my close family friends on a Sunday in July and the next day I packed my suitcase and hand bag, shoved everything I could into both and without him knowing I moved in with a family friend. I was living with her and her daughter for six weeks and it was so great but I knew I had to figure out my next move. This ended up being my aunty’s house where I am now with two of my cousins. I’ve never looked back after making that decision and have never been happier.

I can’t pinpoint how my Aunty has helped me but I know that she is a major reason for where I am today. She always lets me know that she is there for me no matter what and would support me in any decision I make. My aunty also gave me all the time in the world; to find my own ground and get back up on my own two feet. I think that’s important for others to realise, that people will heal in their own way and time and that it shouldn’t feel forced. Something important as well that I really want to express is that no matter how much advice you have offered to you and no matter how many times someone tries to help you in their own way, that it’s important to remember that advice that has worked for someone else may not necessarily work for you. I believe that in time you find your own way of dealing with things so you should not get frustrated when you’re struggling. Also, at the end of the day no one can heal yourself but you. Advice from others can only go so far,  it’s you that has to make the decision to keep moving. It’s important to remind yourself that you’re your own person and you are finding your place in this world and if that means taking all the time in the world then so be it. I also believe it’s important to recognise that you can’t help what has happened to you in the past, but you decide where to go in future; that you are not the mistakes, the downfalls- you are what you choose to be today and how you treat the people around you. My aunty really helped me come to this understanding and I hope it’s something that more people become conscious of.

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