“I couldn’t have ever imagined life seeming ‘normal’ again”
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“I couldn’t have ever imagined life seeming ‘normal’ again”

Meet Susan Angel Miller, a community volunteer, organ donation advocate and proud author of the book, Permission To Thrive: My Journey from Grief to Growth.

She’s lived through every parent’s worst nightmare – the loss of a child – and then her own terrifying medical crisis.  Together with her resilient husband and their other two daughters, they have gone on to rebuild a most meaningful and vibrant life, honoring the life of their beloved child, Laura.

HC:  Briefly tell us about your major challenge(s). 

SM:  In 2009, my husband and I lost our 14-year old daughter Laura to a rare childhood brain tumor.  Less than four years later I was diagnosed with my own benign brain tumor — a meningioma — and underwent emergency brain surgery.

HC:  What personal qualities/strengths have helped you to carry on?

SM:  I believe that I’m both self-aware and practical, and these traits gave me a foundation necessary to confront my emotions surrounding Laura’s death and then figure out a path forward. I was also stubborn enough not to give up on the life I had loved–the life I had built with my husband over the previous two decades.

HC:  What did you hold onto when you wanted to give up?  What was keeping you going through your horrific loss and intense grief?

SM:  I cherished the life I’d been living prior to Laura dying, and I didn’t want my grief or fear to dictate the remaining decades of our lives. My husband Ron and I chose to continue parenting our two younger daughters, who were nine and twelve at the time; we refused to sacrifice their futures. Sara and Rachel had just lost their oldest sister and didn’t deserve to lose their parents’ attention and love as well.

HC:  Was there any specific moment, thought or epiphany that helped bring you to a better place psychologically/mentally, or did it evolve over time?

SM:  One distinct epiphany occurred about two months after Laura’s death and during a period of relentless sadness and hopelessness. I remember looking up at the gray sky and realizing how small each of us are within a vast universe, and how I needed to change my expectations of what life was all about. Instead of feeling as if something had been stolen, I needed to flip my expectations of what life “owed” me and instead focus on what I still had: a loving husband, two healthy daughters, and a network of friends and family ready and willing to support us.

Parents for thousands of years have grieved over their children. Why did I think I was immune from that fate, and who says that parents are supposed to outlive their children? We would all like to live our lives under the illusion that life is predictable, that one ordinary day follows the next, but this assumption of predictability, unfortunately, is not the reality of the human condition. I didn’t have a choice. I would have to figure out how to navigate my new unwanted reality.

In the immediate aftermath of Laura’s death and my own health crisis, I couldn’t have ever imagined life seeming “normal” again, but with the passage of time and appreciation for my increasing number of “good” days, that is what happened. I can never go back to who I was, but that is what life is about — adapting to, rather than resisting, the inevitable adversities we all face.

HC:  What were/are your daily coping skills and strategies that keep you afloat?

SM:  In the first few days and weeks following Laura’s death, and then my own brain tumor diagnosis and surgery, I talked constantly to friends, family, and acquaintances — to whomever would listen to my story. I would recount the details of the events in order for my brain to process the circumstances and integrate them into my new identity. I also intentionally brought up Laura’s name during our conversations, to not only give others permission to talk about her but also to decrease the awkwardness surrounding the grief.

In my therapy appointments, I was encouraged to trust my gut when making decisions and allow my husband and daughters the time and space to grieve in whatever way worked for them. I tried remembering the acronym H.A.L.T. — to never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired: I took naps when I was tired, ate when hungry, called a friend when lonely, and ran on the treadmill when angry. These strategies, however, didn’t always work, and many times I just had to accept the agony of the heartbreak and my anxiety about the future.

HC:  What meaning has come out/have you created out of your suffering?

SM:  I’m now on a mission to tell my story so we can all “do grief better” — for those grieving as well as those of us who want to be there for the people we care about.

I also want Laura’s gift of life story to inspire others to register and potentially save or improve the life of someone else. For more information about Laura’s organ donation story, please go to: https://susanangelmiller.com/gift-of-life/

HC:  What did you learn about how to truly support a friend through grief?

SM:  Even though we want to fix “the problem” — whether it’s an illness or a death — we can’t. Instead, we need to be present and available for the person who is grieving, regardless of how difficult that may be for us. We need to be with them in their pain, listen to what they need, and avoid judging their emotions or behavior.

Rather than asking the generic “how are you,” consider asking “how are you doing this morning” or “how have you been doing lately?”. Asking these more specific questions allows for a more honest and nuanced response and tells the person you truly want to hear about their well-being.

Assisting a grieving or ill friend can become part of your daily activities. When you’re at the grocery store, for example, text the friend and ask what you can pick up for them. Make it sound like it’s not out of your way to drop off the items. I list many more helpful ways to offer assistance in my book Permission to Thrive, but my overall advice is simple: take the initiative and do something, anything.

HC:  Post traumatic growth is a relatively new concept that you certainly exemplify.  How does your growth show itself in terms of how you live your life today?

SM:  At happy occasions such as birthdays and graduations, I try my best to feel joy while also embracing the sadness and worry. Instead of canceling each other out, I’ve found these emotions can actually complement and intensify each other.

When I discovered the positive psychology concept of post-traumatic growth (PTG), I became more determined than ever to write my memoir, Permission to Thrive. Post-traumatic growth continues to provide me with an evidence-based dose of hope and universal message: after trauma or significant loss, we all have the capacity to experience increased gratitude, compassion, deeper friendships, and a renewed sense of spirituality and purpose.

I now understand that my grief for Laura, as well as my love for her, will always be embedded in me, and I’m determined not to allow that sorrow to detract from a life filled with purpose and hope.

Susan Miller book cover and family

Miller Family Recent Photo

Miller Family Recent Photo

 

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