‘She pointed to the TV to distract us. We looked back, and she was gone.’ That was the moment I became an adult orphan.’: Woman earns college degree in honor of late mother, jumpstarts grief support groups

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“On August 3, 2011, before 9:00 a.m., my sister called to tell me our mom’s battle with cancer had finally ended. ‘She pointed to the television, I think to distract us. We looked back at her and she was gone.’

I was at work, my job of three years, in the midst of a project. I sat down, I told my sister I would call her back after I tell my supervisor I was leaving for the week. We hung up and I don’t even remember breathing. I was hugged many times by coworkers before I left. I made a few calls on my cell phone before I even got to the car. I knew I was going to be away for a while, so in my overloaded head of chaos and emotions, I was trying to think of everything I had to do before I left town.

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

I lost my mother three years after my father’s unexpected death. My mother called me the evening of April 1, 2008. In her strained voice, she broke the news to me that she found my dad hunched over in the chair. He was gone, despite the paramedic’s efforts.

On August 3, I became an adult orphan. I felt very abandoned. I had gone home every weekend to Cleveland to see my mom. Now, those visits were over and so was my reason to go to home. So much was going to change, even the ownership of the only home I knew my whole childhood. The ones who surrounded me with love in such a beautiful home, including my grandmother, were all reunited…without me.

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time of my mom’s passing and drove to my sister’s home in Sheffield, Ohio, a suburb outside of Cleveland. I arrived there before dark, with hopefully everything I needed for my extended stay. I had no idea how I got there, the drive was a blur to me. I remember, as I was driving, how the sunset had caught my peripheral vision. I managed at one time to snap a picture of it quickly. The sunset passing me by, and as beautiful as it was, reminded me of my mom’s quick battle with cancer and her beautiful soul crossing over. The blurry vision, of course, was caused by my tearful drive.

My sister and I pulled it all together to have her visiting hours and memorial service soon after. It was odd doing this all for her when she always was the one in the family who did what was needed for everyone. There was a day, after all was said and done, this feeling of relief overcame me. My sister was driving, the sun was warm in her van, and I discovered my chest wasn’t feeling heavy anymore. Inner warmth just filled me. To me, I could only explain it was my mother letting me know she was OK and she wanted me to be, too. I haven’t experienced that again since that day. It was an undeniably memorable experience which I will never forget.

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

In 2012, a year later, I took on the milestone of entering an online Master’s program in Humanities. I recalled a conversation with my mother and how she encouraged me to go back to school, but this time for writing. The concentration for my program was creating writing. During my schooling, I dealt with the deepest dark moments of grief.

My courses were almost as therapeutic and almost acted as grief group sessions. In the final capstone course, I completed a 101-page research paper on how using art expression through my grief journey saved me. It was backed by known results, including my own. Poems I wrote, the photographs I took, watercolor paintings, and even a short screenplay I created, graced the pages of this final mammoth project required to complete the program.

On May 3, 2014, I graduated. My husband at the time, my daughter, and stepson joined me. I knew my mother and father were there in spirit. I beamed that day.

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan
Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

From that moment on, I was driven to share what I learned with others. A year later, I launched a Facebook closed grief group titled ‘Deep Grief Great Love Gallery of Healing.’ It started small, on Mother’s Day, to honor both my parents. My group members are encouraged to share about their great loves, with no criticism, no comparing to face. Just validation and care. Today, there are 1,960 plus members, which is more than a handful I consider like family. They respond to a daily prompt I post every morning before I get on with my day, or they just post independently what is on their minds, with comments of support to flood their afterthoughts.

I also added an open group to Facebook, which now has over 257K followers, where I share more pictured quotes on grief and where an open forum of followers can share and comment. Many members come from the open group to the closed group, for they appreciate the private sharing. In the open group, I share my published blog, which contains more details of my grief journey. My inbox fills daily with random messages of praise for finding a group they have discovered comfort in. It is overwhelming some days to keep up with my groups and the members. Not because of the number of members, but because of the variety of deep emotions revealed. The testimonials of loss, from murder to stillborn deaths, are powerful. If I hadn’t founded my groups, I would have never known the spectrum of losses and their impact on others’ lives. I now realize all losses are important and incomparable. The foundation of every deep grief journey is a great love. People die, but dealing with the love lost lives on. Grief support is out there and no one needs to be on their journey alone. I was once alone, but by now reaching out, I am surrounded by many, helping them heal as they help me.

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

I receive proof daily from many members, thanking me for creating my groups which have helped them…..

‘I am new here and this group is such a help in my grief journey. It’s so great to have found a place where other people understand. Thank you so very much for creating it.’

– Annette Kolakowski Rittenberry

‘Love you Jenn…. Thank you for giving me a safe place…and making me feel validated through everything… My internet family.’

-Jennifer Blatt

‘Thank you for founding this group. Selfless act to help others despite feeling the pain yourself. The highest level of generosity. I sure appreciate it. I was alone with my pain. This group helped me so much and so many times! I just want you to know that. The concept is working! I am ok now, but I wasn’t 2 years ago.’

-Danuta Gamza

‘This absolutely amazing group means so so much to me. I wouldn’t have gotten through some of my roughest days without all the wonderful, caring, thoughtful and supportive friends/members that are always here when you need them. I am so so appreciative and thankful to you for creating such a safe place for us and I know her parents are looking down on her so so proud..’

-Tracy Jade Dawson

When I first started my grief journey, I never thought my losses would help me or others. I am reminded every day, when a member shares their own journey with us in the group, they are healing too. Every day, I am humbled I had something to do with their healing along their grief journey.”

Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer Sullivan of Cincinnati, Ohio. You can follow her journey on Facebook and her blog. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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