It was odd that my brother was calling me. I hadn’t even unpacked after just returning home from visiting my family in Indiana for the Christmas holiday. Quickly, I learned the reason for the call. He said, “Erin, Wendel and the kids were killed in a car accident on their way back home.” In that sentence, my world stopped spinning. I had just learned that my Uncle Wendel, cousins Loren (19), Bryant (16) and Kaylee (3) had died. It was as if my brain had short-circuited and was shutting down; this couldn’t be real. I don’t recall what either of us said after that. I just felt an urgency to get back to my family. The only part of the two-hour drive I remember is the Justin Timberlake CD that was playing—to this day those songs strike an emotional chord in me, purely because they are joined with my grief.
Upon arriving at my brother’s house, I was laser-focused on making flight arrangements for myself, my brother, and my mom to fly to Louisiana to be with my Aunt Melissa, the only surviving member of her family. Aunt Melissa, whom we call Aunt Miss, had flown to Indiana ahead of the holiday to spend some extra time with my aging grandparents, while Uncle Wendel and the kids opted to drive north instead. They were returning home when the accident occurred. It is believed that they may have pulled off to the side of the interstate in Vaughn, Mississippi, possibly after hitting a deer. When they attempted to merge back onto the busy highway, they were hit by a semi. All four were pronounced dead at the scene. Aunt Miss learned about their deaths as she exited her flight at the New Orleans airport.
The next day, we were reunited with Aunt Miss. She was walking outside on the street with multiple friends and family holding her up as she repeatedly wailed, cried, and screamed “Why? Why did God take my Wendel, my Loren, my Bryant, my Kaylee? Why?” The primal sounds made by a woman who has just lost those most dear to her, and someone I have always loved and admired, rang in my head; and when I think about it today, there is a certain amount of re-experiencing that is still present.
The couple of weeks spent with her are mostly a blur, except the funeral. I will never forget the image—walking into the funeral home and seeing three caskets: one for Wendel, one for Bryant, and one for Loren & Kaylee, who were buried together. THREE CASKETS! There was something so wrong about three caskets filling the front of the funeral home. All I could think is “That’s not how it’s supposed to be.” It was as if there were an unspoken rule that when death occurs, it takes the life of one person, when they are old, and you have time to deal with it (at least a little) before you must digest the next loss. This rule had been broken. When death occurs with such tragedy and magnitude, when there are processes such as these at play that significantly impede our bereavement, we face a process of complicated grief.
On 29 December 2005, the date of the accident, my journey through complicated grief began and continues to this day. According to Petry et al. (2020), complicated grief may be defined as a “prolonged grief experience, lasting 6 months or more, often following losses that are not considered a typical life course event.” Last month was the 15-year anniversary of the deaths of my family members. In light of this, I have spent a lot of time reflecting and continuing to process my personal losses. However, doing this grief work while we all are in the middle of a pandemic that has led to over 350,000 deaths in the United States alone (CDC, 2021) has left me feeling deep empathy for those who have lost multiple loved ones due to the pandemic, who have been unable to comfort a loved one in their last moments, or who were not allowed to remember their loved one with a funeral.
Just as my grief process continues, I expect there are many who have been thrown into grief and will be attempting to find their way through this journey, especially due to the pandemic. I wish I had all the answers, yet I do not. But as a devoted helper, I will share a few things that have guided me in my journey…
1. Acceptance of the loss is critical. It was normal for me to be in shock and denial upon learning of the horrific tragedy that led to the deaths of my family members. However, over time as the facts of the event were disclosed and I came to terms with the reality that there was nothing that I could do to change their deaths, I accepted grief as a natural response. Each time I think about them, write about them, look at pictures or videos of them, and especially when I share these experiences with others, I am allowing my grief space for healing.
2. Share your personal story. During grief, our minds may play tricks on us saying, “It’s been so long. Nobody wants to hear about your loss now” or “Everyone is so overwhelmed by what is happening. Don’t burden them with your pain.” When we buy into these mind tricks, we close ourselves off from critical support and love that help us to heal. By talking about Wendel, Loren, Bryant, Kaylee and my Aunt Miss, I activate support systems in many different areas of my life and continue healing.
3. Approach anniversaries, birthdays, and other reminders with great compassion. In addition to the anniversary of the accident, we have several birthdays (Uncle Wendel, Aunt Miss, & Loren), Christmas, and the New Year in just one month’s time. I go into this season with eyes and heart fully open and willing to embrace the thoughts and feelings this season brings. I am much gentler with and forgiving of myself, as I know I am processing a lot in these days.
I hope that sharing my personal story of grief and a couple of tips for what has helped me in dealing with this grief is helpful. I’ve cried and remembered so much as I worked my way through writing this piece, so thank you for allowing me to continue my healing. To those of you who are amid your own grief—you’re not alone. I also want to encourage you to consider seeking out the support of a licensed mental health provider as an important step in the grief process. If you’re noticing that you’re stuck in your grief and struggling to integrate it into your life, that is a sign that getting professional help might be needed.
Three caskets at the front of the funeral home is the image that is forever with me in my story of tragic loss, yet I remember so much more about my family members who died. I write this in remembrance of Uncle Wendel (the raw-egg-eating bodybuilder, the man who didn’t know a stranger), Loren (“Penny;” a sassy, smart, and determined young woman), Bryant (“Lovebug;” the most kind and good-hearted young man), and little Kaylee (“Tuna;” a spirited toddler, who was equal parts smart and funny).
If you would like to learn more about complicated grief and Complicated Grief Therapy, I highly recommend the following webinar, CDP Presents: Beyond PTSD- Grief-informed Treatment After Trauma
For additional information about how COVID-19 is a complicating factor within grief processes, you might want to check out the following article:
Petry, S. E., Hughes, D., & Galanos, A. (2020). Grief: The Epidemic Within an Epidemic. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049909120978796
To find out more about COVID-19 rates, go to the CDC COVID Data Tracker: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Erin Frick, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Senior Military Behavioral Health Psychologist at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.