How I Survived the Deaths of Twelve Family Members
by Joanne K. Hill
THRIVEnet Featured Story - Winter 2002
Within a four-year period, twelve of my family members died, beginning with my husband and ending with my son. During that time, I was frequently asked, "How do you get through it?" As I pondered the question, I discovered that the rough times I'd been through in the past had given me seven remedies for surviving the stormy times and finding the rainbows.
From my youngest years I loved the adventure stories of heroes. Not just any hero, but the ones who overcame evil, found wisdom and were miraculously changed. I believe that identifying strongly with these characters ignited a truth within me that no matter what we encounter in life, we can use it for good. However, I didn't reckon on a monster called depression.
The sadness inside me was always "justified" with what was happening in my life. Things I couldn't help, like my parents' divorce and the separation from siblings into foster homes. Later on it was a troubled marriage of my own, a house full of children to care for, tight budgets and a "sickly" body. So I turned to the doctors for help. "Well of course you're tired, who wouldn't be chasing after babies all day? Here, take these pills. The yellow ones will calm you down, the red ones will pep you up, the pink ones will settle your stomach. Oh, and the white ones are for your headaches. Take as needed, they won't hurt you."
I became addicted to the drugs, went deeper into the sadness and stumbled my way through my beautiful children's young lives until one day I caused an accident. Fortunately no one was hurt, but I knew that I could no longer go through life stoned. I threw out all the medications, spent a week in bed with the worst case of "flu" I ever had and went on a quest for something better.
Once again, I found it in books like The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. That's when the magic began to happen. My first pot of gold came in the realization that I have a choice. I didn't have to pretend to be happy. I could choose happiness by changing my attitude about my life. Instead of giving myself pity parties about how bad things were in my life, I looked for the positive and good. I gave thanks for what I found. The more I gave thanks and praise, the more good came into my life. What's more, I soon learned that I could also choose good health.
On a beautiful spring day I had been lying in bed with another case of bronchitis. Once again I had overextended myself attempting to be all things to all people. Now, flat on my back on the verge of pneumonia, I couldn't do anything. As I lay there, I prayed, asking for insight. Initially, I resisted the nagging thought, "It's all in your head." Finally, in frustration, I took out pad and paper and wrote an angry, argumentative letter to God.
"I don't see how a disease in my body comes from my head. I don't go around saying, 'I want to be sick'." After venting my anger, I fell into a deep restful sleep. As I awakened, a thought penetrated my mind. "I just want some rest." Sitting bolt upright in bed, the truth poured into me. Only through an illness that restricted my breathing, did I find "breathing space" for myself. I realized I didn't have to get sick to get my needs met. Now, I frequently stop to look, listen and learn about myself. It's great preventive medicine.
When I had a relapse in both mental and physical conditions, I once again looked for a hero to help me find my way. This time I found it in Catherine Marshall's book called, "Something More," with its chapter on forgiveness. I began using Marshall's processes for forgiveness along with others that came my way (what we seek is seeking us as well). Forgiveness not only helped me to heal in mind and spirit, but restored my troubled marriage.
But the biggest turning point came during a lull between the stormy times. All was going well in the family when my husband decided we should move to another state and buy a business. I was willing as it would mean a move from the freezing north to the sunny south. But I wasn't as happy about the business aspect which was projected to be a tavern. While my husband searched for the right place, I took an extended time-out to focus on maintaining my positive attitude, giving thanks and praise for the right answer that I was sure would come.
The answer surprised both of us. For my husband, Ken, it meant a new business, selling auto parts, in our hometown. This choice led to a series of fascinating God-incidences that helped me start a hotline telephone crisis intervention program. Through this experience, I learned how to help people help themselves without draining myself. And I discovered a variety of positive, uplifting support systems.
Through these turning points I began to look at life more like the journeys of my childhood heroes, filled with both bright sunny places and dark stormy times. Within each I looked for the golden nuggets of wisdom and truth that helped me grow stronger, happier and healthier. Events and findings were recorded in my journal. That journal became a handy reference for there came the time when heartaches descended upon me like the locusts of Biblical times.
It began with the sudden death of my husband and continued for four years. First I lost my husband Ken, then my brother Richard, followed by Dad (my dear stepfather), Mom, Aunt Becky (my second Mom), Uncles Richard and Merrill, Cousin Tom, Henry (foster-son), Hector (Henry's partner), Jonnie (beloved stepmother) and finally, my son, Kenny, Jr. died of a heart attack.
Multiple family crises plagued us through those four years as well: Mom's Alzheimer's and her two years in a nursing home, her breast cancer operation, and two broken hips (separate falls); brother Richard's six-month bout with lung cancer; Aunt Becky's struggle with liver cancer; deteriorating health of my beloved mother-in-law, Gladys; the frequent intensive care hospitalizations for my sister's husband, Julius.
All my children faced their own crises: Laura's thyroid cancer; Cindy's mysterious disease that took her to the Cleveland Clinic (discovered to be chronic dehydration); Brenda's injuries and challenges as a UPS driver; Debbie's prolonged bout with chronic fatigue and bipolar-depression; Ken Jr.'s struggles with ever-increasing pressure from his sales job; Henry's and Hector's AIDS. Everyone I loved seemed to need help.
Concerned friends often asked, "How do you do it? How do you deal with all the troubles, the sorrow, the uncertainty?" When I delved into that question through journaling, meditation and prayer, I discovered the seven rainbow remedies:
Stop, Look, Listen, and Learn is the remedy through which we take refuge from the storm, prepare for the renewal and grow from the experience.
Praise and Thanksgiving is a powerful treatment to ease fear and anxiety.
Accentuate the Positive brings sunshine back into our lives, bringing us optimal emotional well-being.
Power of Choice is an empowering remedy that truly makes the difference whether we survive and thrive, or wither and die.
Forgiveness is a potent formula to heal loss and painful relationships.
Helping Others Help Themselves is the prescription that lets you reach out to others while maintaining self-preservation.
Support Systems are supportive remedies that keep us afloat when the floods and winds of stormy times seem impossible to withstand alone.
The greatest part of this journey has been in the discovery that there are rainbows in every stormy time. I call them "God-incidences." They are the golden nuggets that come when you least expect them, like the hummingbird that came to visit me every day the summer of my husband's death.
In journeying through this life, I've found the I learn best from other people's stories, which is why I decided to share mine through speaking and writing. That is not always easy. Sometimes it's scary and demanding. But in the doing I grow stronger. I stay on track. And I find more to be grateful for as others share their stories with me. As Al says, in the sharing we are set free.
Joanne K. Hill is author of Rainbow Remedies for Life's Stormy Times
Copies can be purchased from:
P.O. Box 4114
South Bend, IN 46634-4114