Bereaved parents

The Birdhouse Project

The Birdhouse Project was created by Kris Munsch and Jeff Foquet.  It is a step-by-step project to help us identify and find our way back to life after loss or crisis.  By seeing how the blank pieces of a birdhouse represent the pieces of our lives, we can express our weaknesses, strengths and desires as we symbolically rebuild our lives, so we are ready to host new life.  This building process encourages us to spend time exploring our emotions and putting each in its proper place.  Whether we share our feelings or keep them to our selves, the important thing is that we are putting the pieces back together in a meaningful, constructive way.  On each piece, be thoughtful honest, and deliberate; this is your life, and you really can recreate it with effort.

The following presentations were presented by members of our Steering Committee on April 29, 2017, at our Retreat-Refresh-Remember one-day retreat in Lodi. With permission from Kris Munsch, we adapted The Birdhouse Project for our retreat. One of our dads prepared the birdhouse kits for us.

Chris Harder
Zack’s Mom

Good morning!  I’m so glad that all of you have joined us for our Retreat.  Hopefully by the end of the day you will be refreshed and go away with new friends and great memories of what we’re going to do during our time together.

My name is Chris Harder.  I am Zack’s mom.  During the past 11 years since he died, many of the things I’ve done are “Because of Zack!”  If it weren’t for Zack, I would not be part of this group.  But this support group has been my lifeboat. 

Zack was a fun loving young man.  In Kindergarten, his teacher said, “Zack just loves to play!”  And that’s what they said about him when he was a senior in High School!  He was energetic.  He had ADD.  He let his friends know they were important to him by looking out for them and going the extra mile. 

Zack had his own challenges.  He knew what it was like to have his life changed in an instant.  When he was 16 he had his first epileptic seizure.  When he was 18, just before his senior year of high school, he broke his leg so severely that he could no longer play soccer which he had done since he was 5 and looked forward to playing college soccer.  After he broke his leg, he wasn’t able to play soccer again.  But he adapted to the change. 

Remember WISIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get)?   That was Zack!  He told everybody who he was and what had happened to him.  He loved to tell the story of his life and make it funny.  He even gave a report about his CT scan after that epileptic seizure.  Although he was never able to play soccer again, he thought of something else he could do… he could cheer at the game from the sidelines – dressed in costumes like superman, Eyore, Tigger, and any other costume he could get his hands on. 

After he broke his leg, I only heard him ask, “WHY ME?” once.  At his brothers wedding, he entertained everybody as he crutch danced on one leg.

Without ever knowing it, he became my teacher.  He taught me what I should do after he died.

On a hot day in June 2006, Zack was with friends at the South Fork of the Yuba River.  It had been a rainy winter like the one we experienced this year.  The snow in the mountains was melting and the rivers were flowing very swiftly.  Without giving a thought about the potential dangers of the river, Zack took a step into the current, and he was swept away.  In an instant, Zack’s life was gone.  And our lives were changed in a moment. 

I know you can relate.

Throughout these past 11 years, I’ve engaged in many opportunities for healing.  Support groups, reading many books, befriending other bereaved moms, creative projects, attending conferences for bereaved parents, and even some writing.  All of these are things I never dreamed of doing before Zack died.  But all of them have brought healing during my journey.  I still have “a-ha moments” when I realize another loss … or learn something new about grief … or hear something again that didn’t sink in the last time I heard it. But now, my grief doesn’t hurt as much as the joy I feel in my memories of Zack.

So, today I’m really excited that we are able to bring to you The Birdhouse Project.  I’d like to share with you how this project was started.  It was created by a bereaved parent… a grieving dad whose world fell apart after his son died.  This man’s name is Kris Munsch.

Kris is a builder and a teacher.  He likes to do house renovations… makeovers, if you will.  He was also a high school woodshop teacher when his only son Blake died in a car accident.  As sometimes happens, his marriage that was already troubled, completely fell apart and Kris and his wife divorced.  He found himself alone and without a family.  Kris wondered how he was going to survive. And sometimes he didn’t know if he even wanted to survive.  He found himself at his lowest point.  He had lost just about everything.  He lost his son, he lost his marriage, and he had lost his business.  He fell into a heap on the floor, and that’s what he felt like… a big heap of nothing… without any value. 

Kris was working on a project with his high school students – a birdhouse.  He had paired up his high school students with elementary school children to give his older students the experience of teaching this project to the younger kids.  As he reflected on his passion for recreating old broken down houses into structures that were sound, rugged and beautiful, he realized as he worked with the pieces of the birdhouse that there was an amazing correlation between these projects and his life.  He used his past experience of losing everything, and completely falling apart, to build on the future and create this metaphor for grief, loss, hope and healing.

There are 7 pieces to our birdhouse:  the floor, two sides, the back, the front, a roof and a perch.  These pieces are a representation of our life from the moment we learned of the death of our child.  Our life as we knew it before that moment no longer exists.  Our lives were shattered and it needs to be put back together.  As we go through the process of reconstructing, we will discover that our life as it existed before will never be the same.  Like the pieces of this birdhouse, in the end, we will have a new purpose. 

I’m going to repeat that… YOU have 7 pieces to YOUR birdhouse.  These pieces represent YOUR life from the moment YOU learned of the death of YOUR child.  YOUR life as YOU knew it before that moment no longer exists.  YOUR life was shattered and it needs to be put back together.  As YOU go through this process of reconstructing, YOU will discover that YOUR life does have value.  Like the pieces of this birdhouse, in the end, YOU will have a new purpose.

As we go through this Birdhouse Project today, you will hear our speakers share their personal stories, and they will bring a correlation between their life and the piece of the birdhouse that they will be sharing about. 

You’re going to hear seven speakers today.  These ladies all have a couple things in common.  They have experienced the loss of a child, and they are all leaders in our support group.  When they came to our support group, they were just like you… broken and sad.  But look at them now… how brave they are, they are different people than they were 2, 5, 10 or 11 years ago. 

The presentations you will hear today will be posted on our website, so you don’t have to worry about taking any notes.  At the close of each presentation, you will be given time to write your thoughts on the inside of your birdhouse piece. 

You have an illustration, a blue print if you will, of your birdhouse and I’d like you to place the pieces so that the inside is up facing you.  If there’s room to lay them out in front of you like the blueprint shows, please do that at this time.  We want your writing to appear on the inside of the parts of the birdhouse.  So at the end of the day, what once was just pieces on the table, will become a lovely little birdhouse with a new shape and new purpose.   

So today, we are giving you several different avenues for healing … You will be listening to speakers’ stories.  You will hear their pain and how they are dealing with their loss.  You will be given an opportunity to form your own thoughts and write them down.  You’ll also use your hammer to nail together your birdhouse and create your finished product. 

All of the presentations will be posted on our website, so you don’t need to worry about taking notes if you are prone to.  You can sit back and relax.  I hope you can stay “in the moment” as we move through our Birdhouse Project and give yourself fully to this experience.

At the end of the day, you will take home your birdhouse and find a new purpose for it!

So, let’s get started, shall we?  Our first presenter is Heidi Crosbie. She will share her story and guide us through the first step.

Heidi Crosbie
Scott’s Mom

We are in the process of renovating our lives.  We are picking up the pieces of our broken lives and rebuilding them.   This birdhouse is a metaphor for that rebuilding.

When you renovate a house you should make sure your foundation is secure first so the walls don’t collapse.  It is the first thing that needs to be fixed and if not everything will collapse.

 Kris Munsch says this is the same with people.  Knowing who you are and being at home within is the foundation to rebuilding your life.  He says, “Feeling that I can give up everything to get everything because everything I need is within me.”

 In building the birdhouse our foundation should be a strong base upon which our lives will continue to unfold.  We will look at the forces, beliefs and or people that create a strong enough foundation for us to move forward in our lives.  Sometimes deciding what doesn’t belong in our lives is just as important as seeing what needs to stay.

In this project our foundation is basically a personal inventory.  We are going to look at what is actually left after this disaster that has happened to us.  We sift through the rubble and try to identify the things we still possess – our skills, education, our memories, faith, friends – those things that no one or anything can take from us.  We didn’t die when our child died.  It may have felt like we died, but we are still here.  We did not lose all of us.

So basically what you are going to do is answer the question – Who am I right now in this moment?   It is not an easy question to answer. Think about the forces and people that have been there for you.  What sustains you while you start this rebuilding process?  Who am I?  What didn’t I lose?  What do I have left in my life? 

When you write it down, it is permanent; and when you write it on a block of wood, it is even more permanent.   We are going to write on the inside of our foundation, walls and roof because we are working on what is going on inside of us.  We don’t walk around with bereaved mom tattooed on our forehead.  People have to ask us to really know what is going on inside of heads and heart.

I like for you to take about 3 minutes to reflect on what your foundation is and write it on the inside of the bottom of your birdhouse.  Remember, we are writing on the inside of each piece. 

[After 3-4 minutes]  Can one or two of you shout out a word you wrote that is your foundation?

I can tell some of you are still pondering.  I’ll give you another minute to finish.

I had the privilege of attending a workshop with Kris Munsch where we built birdhouses at the Bereaved Parent Conference 7 months after my son died.  This is what I wrote on my foundation –wife, daughter, sister, sister in law, gardener, accountant, docent, sad, angry, full of regrets.  Do you notice what I didn’t write down?  I didn’t write down “mom”.  I thought that because I lost my only child, my mom card was pulled.  While building my birdhouse, I had this huge “ah-ha” moment where I understood I was still my son’s mother, and will be until the day I die. That moment shifted my thinking and helped me take a step forward.

Birdhouse-Small-IRThe Crisis
Lisa Downs
Anthony’s Mom

Everyone’s crisis is different. For some, it may be the loss of a pet. For others, it may be losing your house. For us, it is the loss of our children.

My crisis is the unexpected death of my son at the mercy of someone else’s mistake. I remember the first year I was on this dreadful journey. I cried all the time, replaying the scene in my head over and over again, as if it would make me feel better to suffer … since my son had surely suffered, too.

I struggled to keep my job.  I told my family I was ok, even though I wasn’t. I tried to function so people wouldn’t label me “Grieving Mom,” as if it was written across my forehead. I didn’t want people to misunderstand my crisis thinking I wanted attention or sympathy.  I didn’t want my sadness to appear to be an excuse.

This crisis shattered my world, my heart, my whole being.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about my son, Anthony. He was full of life and laughter. He didn’t waste time stressing over the small stuff. He would call me and share everything!  Even those things that most mothers don’t want to know about their children.

He always said “Maawwhh, life’s too short to not enjoy it!” I always thought that meant my life, not his.

As a young man in his late twenties, he had so much to look forward to.  Wasn’t he supposed to have a family?  Wasn’t he supposed to experience a fulfilling career?  Since he inspired others to live life to the fullest, wasn’t that what he was supposed to do… even into old age? 

My two daughters and I enjoy being together.  They are living life as young women usually do… careers, family, children.  We make memories together every day.  But, I am reminded over and over again that I will not have the chance make more memories with Anthony. My family photos will always be one person short.

It has been 2 years now since Anthony’s life ended suddenly that night on a street in Carlsbad, New Mexico.  He was the only one in that group of 3 friends who was hit by a man who was driving recklessly.

I am still in crisis.

After spending this beautiful day with you, tomorrow I will be flying to New Mexico.  The trial for the man that killed my son starts on Monday. This will be another time of crisis for me.

My crisis has changed me.  I love people and am generally a very happy person. The death of my son has robbed me of happiness as I knew it before.  I have always been a very positive person, and it was my daily goal to see whose face I could put a smile on. Now it’s difficult for me to see through my pain to be positive and happy. 

I always welcomed a challenge.  There wasn’t very much that could bring me down. I definitely did not sweat the small stuff.  But I look at life differently now.  I don’t have the energy to face challenges as I once did.  I’m not as strong as I used to be.

I work in assisted living with seniors, and it seems like I am constantly surrounded by death.  Before Anthony died, I didn’t identify with their loss. I am now walking in their shoes.  Knowing what I know now, I wonder how many times I might have said something inappropriate or stupid? You may have heard your friends say, “They’re in a better place now.” Or “They’re not suffering anymore.”  That’s BS! I wish I would’ve known how far a hug would go. I would’ve given more.

I often think back to a conversation I had with my supervisor one day after Anthony died. He was checking in with me. I shared with him the dark place I was in. He said he was proud of me and supported me. He then told me a story about his childhood friend who had died and his friend’s mom wasn’t able to function, and she took her own life. He asked me how she could be so selfish – she had 2 surviving kids. This is what I told him … “She didn’t do it because she was selfish, she did it because she was in such agony and pain that it clouded her decisions.” I understood what that mom was feeling, because I had been there, too. But … I am still here today!  And I’m working past my crisis.    

The left wall of your birdhouse represents your CRISIS. Your crisis is your tragedy.

Like me, you may be experiencing more than one crisis… because with the death of a child, one crisis seems to lead to another.

Crisis causes change.  There are no magic answers to picking up the pieces and moving forward after a catastrophic change.  A magnanimous change has happened in your life. Fighting it can cause you to stay in that dark place. The goal is to acknowledge it, so that you can get beyond that dark place. We will never be the same person we were before our child died.  We will never experience pure happiness like we may remember.  But we can, and will, be better.    

Our crisis is what is inside of us.  This birdhouse is a picture of us and the rebuilding of our lives, so what you write will be on the inside of your birdhouse when it is put together. It will be there, but just as we will move through this day, we will be able to move beyond our crisis. 

Now, I would like you to pick up the piece of your birdhouse that is the left side. (Hold up your piece and have them hold up theirs.) Think about what your crisis is and write it down on the side of this piece that will end up on the inside of your birdhouse. Your crisis might be more than one specific thing. Maybe it is several.

Now you’ll have 4 or 5 minutes to spend thinking and writing about your crisis.

Marchelle Meyer
Derick’s Mom

Regrets, Remembering and Rebuilding.  The goal of this process is to explore our emotions and to put them into perspective while we express our thoughts, our strengths, our weakness and our desires, by symbolically rebuilding our life.

By writing inside on the pieces of our birdhouse, we are connecting to our foundation, our goals, our safety, our trust and our positive affirmations.  And by identifying with some of our regrets, we may remember events, places or things that could be an aha moment that may be keeping us stuck in our grief.  By honoring our children we write down our most sensitive thoughts and speak into existence the depth of our pain that we are feeling.

During this exercise I am going to imagine my son Derick sitting with me in my birdhouse as I share my most intimate thoughts with you ladies.  Earlier in Lisa’s presentation she spoke about crises and during her share time I wrote on the inside of my wall “the loss of my son.”  The first thought that came to mind was when Derick passed away, I can remember experiencing separation anxiety.  I could no longer talk to him or hear his voice.  

My son often shared his words of wisdom with me and, his opinion about life and this is what I miss most about him.  Derick was a brilliant, vibrant young man, who left us during his prime years.  He embraced life and he was determined to succeed in his endeavors.  I honor my son’s memory and being his mother continues to be a part of my foundation.

If you can take out the right wall of your birdhouse, we will begin by focusing on what this wall represents in our birdhouse, which is “Regret”.  Sometimes we may often hang out with our thoughts far too long with regret, especially when it relates to our children.  I would like to share with you about regret and how it can rob us of our happiness.  Regret is not a choice.  Regret is the frustration that we may feel because we imagine in our mind that we have taken an action of what could have led to be a more desirable outcome based on our decision.  

Let me repeat that for you.  

Regret is not a choice.  Regret is the frustration that we may feel because we imagine in our mind that we have taken an action of what could have led to be a more desirable outcome based on our decision. 

I regret not spending more time with my son while he was growing up to be a teenager.  My priority in life was my career, and I was too busy with work to be at his school activities and, I missed his sports games he played in.  I also found myself relying on others to help him with his studies when he was young.  I depended on his grandma Semone who took care of him while he was in grade school and I relied on others to be there for him.  

With the demands of being a single parent it was difficult for me to balance my personal life while I was working full time.  If only I had made more time to spend with my son is what consumed my thoughts after he died.  I felt that both my son and I missed out on a deeper relationship and, that I could have been a better parent.  

To regret our past actions is part of what makes us human and holding onto to regret can delay us from moving forward and growing from our experience.  Regret is not wallowing in guilt or shame.  The feeling of regret may be a part of our internal dialogue that we struggle with, of which we need to identify what we are holding onto.  

I remember my son Derick always saying to me, “Mom Live Your Life With No Regrets.”  My son had the capacity to live his life to the fullest with determination, focus, and with a wee bit of excitement.  He had high energy all the time and, he was happy as he was living his dream with the woman he loved.  He was planning his wedding the week before he died.  

Derick was very bold, he was always reaching for what was the impossible, and he took chances and risk.  Perhaps enlisting in the Marine Corp. was his answer to living his life with honor.  He wasn’t afraid to live his life and he wasn’t afraid to die.  He was very confident and my son’s character was something to be proud of.

In the end, the regret we so carefully reserve in our mind of the memories and thoughts of our loss, year after year, are not really important in themselves.  It is what they stir in us that makes a difference.  We need to look into what regret we have tied the loss of our child to and see what is holding us back from moving forward in life.  What thoughts are we hanging onto that cause us to grieve more often?  My regret is not spending more time with my son.

I think there is a fine line between dwelling over regret and learning to process it, learn from it, and let it go.  Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where that line is.  But, I think if the regret keeps coming up it’s time to process unfinished business.

So what are you holding onto that you regret about the loss of your child?   Do you have one?   Are you holding onto a thought that keeps you sad or are you angry because you regret something that happened or didn’t happen?

Honor your feelings by writing down at least one of your regrets that you have associated with the loss of your child.   How will you let Regret go? 

We will take 5 minutes to ponder our thoughts and ask yourself what regret am I hanging onto that has been a heavy burden.  Write your regret on the inside of the right wall of your birdhouse.

Jean Johnson
Judena’s Mom

The sudden loss of a child catapults us into a strange new world of darkness and disorientation. We are now confronted with learning new ways of coping with grief’s emotions, so that we are not consumed by them. This is where I want to offer a new tool to help you re-orient a different path. It’s not a quick fix, but a tool to use for the journey.

My presentation is about the back wall of our birdhouse, affirmations. I see it as the backbone of our healing journey; it’s a means to help us rediscover WHO we are going to BE in this new future.

I will give you a brief understanding of how our thoughts create trees of memory in our minds, and how affirmations will help stop automatic negative thoughts from turning into toxins in your body and belief system.

First, I want to share with you a bit of my journey.  Before my daughter, Judena’s murder in 2006, I learned about the power of our thoughts and words and its effects on our emotions and body. The use of affirmations is dear to my heart. Speaking affirmations aloud, and visualizing them, proved to be a powerful source in helping me get through heavy grief, along with lots of constant pain and fatigue, while in 6 ½ years of college with honors, and now into the present.

For those of you who don’t know my daughter’s story, I will give you a brief synopsis.  Judena was 30 and she died 10 years ago. At 13, she was initiated into the Blood’s gang here in Sacramento, due to a naïve choice that she made.  

This wrecked incredible devastation in our family for 17 years. I’ve dealt with many painful things before, but this one ripped my heart to shreds. We had to watch our once beautiful, loving girl, be reduced to ruins of intense emotional pain, wrist cuttings, T-shirt shredding’s, addictions, and fierce acting out behaviors. She became a teen mother and had 2 girls.

For the first two months after her death, I didn’t feel the effects of her loss. I know it was because I had dealt with incredible turmoil and pain for nearly two decades of gang activity in Judena and her daughter’s lives. For me, it felt like a sense of relief that she was no longer terrorized, even though it meant I would lose her.

However… floods of grief hit like a freight train slamming into me, after the second month. My mind was thrust into a black tunnel filled with unbelievable pain and loss. Some days, I could barely breathe. Other days, my tears flowed like a broken water main. I felt numb.

Disoriented,  I threw myself into facilitating a group of women, going through childhood pain, attended this grief group, and a bible study group as well. I did not want to isolate. I see now, it helped me a lot to work through the heavy grief.   

While in this dark place, I took notice of my thoughts and most were negative. I knew I had to change these, and turn them into positive affirmations, so I would not be stuck in heavy grief. I learned to let go of toxic thoughts and Judena’s death.

Not every thought is a truthful thought, many are based on lies that we have NOT challenged.  (Repeat)

Our brains are wired to focus on negative thoughts, so we can avoid things, which hurt us. This can be good or bad, depending on our consistent focus. Emotional perceptions are not reliable. They can misinterpret the truth by mixing facts and emotions with truth.

Our thoughts and memories contain powerful chemicals. They are stored in the cerebrum of our brain. A thought is a real thing. (Repeat) Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuro-brain surgeon for the past 30 years, states this:

Inside of your brain’s cerebrum, every thought looks like a tree with many branches. Each tree is made of cells, call neurons.  (Show picture of a magic tree.)  You have 100 trillion magic trees in your brain, and EACH TREE is capable to growing up to 70,000 branches. Each branch has a memory attached to a thought. IMAGINE THAT!!! I bet you didn’t know you had a forest in your brain!!

A thought forms a tree in your brain within 24-48 hours, IF you have spent time thinking on that thought.  If a thought is NOT pondered on within this period, it burns up as energy. So, if we ponder on a positive thought, our brain chemicals form a heathy GREEN tree within the 1-2 days.  Every new thought related to the positive thought, grows memory branches connected to the original thought. (Show green tree and branches.)

Researchers have discovered that our brains were hardwired for love, so when we choose to think on positive, affirming, and happy thoughts, then feel good chemicals go into our bodies and produces a sense of well-being. Happy and Affirming thoughts are loved based. Example: Though I am sad, I love and care for myself.  There is an area in our brains for free will, which allows us to use our wills to decide our thought choices.

That is good news ladies! We get to choose which thoughts stay and which ones need to go. 

On the other hand, if we choose to ponder on a negative defeating thought or emotion, our brain chemicals forms a tree, but this time the tree is black. These trees grow ugly, black, straggly limbs, with thorns on its branches. (Show black tree.)   Each thorn squirts a poison chemical slowly entering our body. Each time we revisit the negative thought during these 24-48 hours; this poison strengthens our belief in these toxic thoughts. It causes a breakdown in our cells, and creates stress to form. (Fear is the root of stress.)  Repeat..

According to Dr. Daniel Amen, if we continue to think about these toxic thoughts, they become Automatic Negative Thoughts, or ANTS. Picture ANTs in your brain! An A.N.T. is a blocking belief. These are the thoughts that most of us don’t pay attention to, yet they influence everything that we are.

We must learn to be mindful of what we are thinking throughout our days.  When your thoughts turn negative, your emotions rule, according to Dr. Leaf.

It takes 21 days to melt down a black toxic tree in our brain, by consistently speaking and visualizing a positive affirmation in place of an ANT thought. Yet, it can start recovery in as little as 4 days! That is great news!   This means every time you are aware of a negative thought such as, “What if my child is forgotten, now that they are gone?” Listen to the thought, and then tell your mind to “STOP”.  Take the written affirmation, read it aloud, and visualize the words as you speak.

Here’s an example:  Affirmation: I find creative ways to keep my child’s memories alive.  Can you see yourself researching creative ways of remembrance and making them?  Always, write your affirmation in present tense.

In closing, we’ve explored what a healthy thought and a toxic thought looks like. Healthy thoughts and affirmations are love based and they produce brain chemicals, creating lush green trees, with affirming memory branches. Toxic thoughts produce black trees with poisonous thorns, which create stress chemicals in our bodies. We’ve learned to be mindful and aware, and stop the ANTS from setting up black colonies in our brain. Finally, we’ve learned how to use affirmations to retrain our mind, so it can reeducate our brain, then body.

Now we are going to practice:  Here are two ANT thoughts related to grief. Pick one, write it out on the card you’ve been given. Then turn over the card, think about the thought, and write a new affirmation for this toxic one. I will give you 5 minutes to do this.  

Negative thought #1:  I won’t stop envying other “happy intact” families.
Negative thought #2:  I will never get through this heavy pain of grief.

Now that we practiced this exercise, I will give you a handout to help solidify this topic of using affirmations. I am positive that in using these guidelines, this will help you to start the journey of retraining your brain, thus affecting a more positive life.

To wrap it up, I recommend this book for further information, “Who Switched Off my Brain?” By Dr. Caroline Leaf, and  Dr. Daniel Amen’s research on ANTS.   

Have a mindful day!

Crushing those Pesky ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

Pay attention to your thoughts as you go about your day.  This may be hard at first, if you’re not use to doing this. Be patient to practice mindfulness.

When a negative thought pops up, stop for a moment and listen. Do this consistently, so you become more aware of what you are thinking.

What triggered this negative thought?   Is it something you saw, or heard?  What is causing your shift in emotions? Be aware, and feel it.

Pay attention to how your body feels when this thought comes up. Is there tightness in your neck? Are there tensions in your body, racing heart, queasy stomach, aching, drop in energy? Are your hands sweaty? Are you feeling dizzy? Do you feel stressed? (Which is fear based.)

Write down your negative thoughts, one card for each new thought.  Get yourself some colored 3×5 cards. Write down each NEW ANT on the front, and write a positive affirmation (in presence tense) on the back. Write down your body signals related to these thoughts, on the front as well.   Use these cards to re-train your mind. It works best when you speak them aloud each time.

Visualize your affirmation.

Are these thoughts true, or based on the current feelings of grieving?  Example: I will never be happy or the same again. Is this really true? This is an ANT. Ask yourself, is this an ANT formed from contemplated thoughts, as well as long-term losses, not grieved through, and let go of? Are you allowing yourself to process the feelings of grief? Give yourself permission to cry, as you walk through this tunnel of grief.   If you numb yourself by activities such as constant TV or video watching, or excessive busyness, etc. the grief will sit inside eroding your emotions, and healing will be delayed.

Example: When I have “good days,” I worry I am forgetting my child. This is an ANT. Challenge this powerful guilt thought. How could a mother forget her child under any circumstance? Who said that you are not allowed to feel happy times, or have good days, just because your child is no longer with you?  Stop, and in your quiet time, allow the pain of loss and their emotions bubble up to the surface. Acknowledge it.

Grief must be addressed. This grief cannot be avoided, ignored, or put away. You must go through it in order to emerge on the other side. As much as you may not be able to believe it now, your grief will shift and become less all-consuming as time goes by, and you will smile and find joy again. But, right now you must follow your instincts and allow your heart, mind, and body to grieve.


Teresa Welch
Robert’s Mom

Kris Munsch says, “Goals are the whole message of The Birdhouse Project.”  He describes goals as, “measurable steps you take to ensure your actions are in line with the person you hope to become. “Kris also says that “Change starts with you. If you are not willing to set and work towards measurable goals – to make the most of any situation you are presented – your reality will never change.” Additionally he says that we need to have a plan, a good plan, because without one, we are just floating around, waiting to see what happens to us instead of actively working to create the life you envision.

Essentially, without goals, we are just along for the ride. For some of us, that does work or it only works for a while, eventually the journey needs direction. Jim Rohn said “You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight” That’s what we hope to accomplish today, with this project, is to set you in the direction of healing, finding your peace and learning to smile again.

We’ve been told it’s important to set goals, but why:  They work!  They give us direction, something to aim at, a sense of purpose.  They can make a huge insurmountable problem, manageable. Planning small goals makes it easier to work towards a bigger plan.

You can start right away. Hitting small milestones can provide motivation and lift your spirits

If we succeed, our efforts are validated, we build confidence and we can build on that.  If we don’t succeed, we reflect, hopefully learn from the experience, re-evaluate then pick yourself up and start again.

By asking ourselves what we really want and constantly re-assessing our goals, we gain the benefit of introspection and self-reflection. We can figure out what it is we really want in life – and then we can go out and do it.

S.M.A.R.T. is a method for setting goals and it stands for:

  • Specific: Set a specific goal for yourself – Generalized goals, like “to be happy” are difficult to achieve. They are broad and abstract, making it hard to focus on a specific task which actually can lead to sustaining and intensifying our depression. Focusing your energy on one thing is less difficult. For example, say that your goal is “to be happy.” This is too general. Be specific! Maybe try, “I will set aside 3 minutes a day to think of something that lifts my spirits.”
  • Measurable: If you goal is not measurable, how will you know when you have achieved it? Setting a goal that is measurable will help you to gauge your efforts and let you know if you are working hard enough. Sticking with our previous example, saying that you want to set aside 3 minutes a day, this is both specific and measurable. The track to success will be clearer with a measurable goal.
  • Achievable: Dreaming is a wonderful characteristic of us humans. However, when we wish and hope for a goal, it often leads to the creation of goals that are unattainable for the majority of people. An example of this might be that you want to be the President of the US. If you ask yourself the question: “Is this goal likely to be achieved if I stick to my plan of action?” and the answer is “no,” then you’re headed for failure and you should rethink it.
  • Realistic: The goals need to be in line with reality. If you have established a goal to be done grieving in one month’s time, you may want to reconsider your goal. Keep your head on straight!
  • Time frame: Establish a clear amount of time that you are going to dedicate to your goals. Take time to think over how much time it will realistically take to achieve your goal. Very often people become frustrated and give in because they were too impatient. People often fail to reach their goals because they did not work often enough or long enough. Your success is worth the time!

Also consider:

  • Focus on setting positive goals – avoid the negatives like stop, don’t, no…..
  • State a time frame to accomplish your goals – example 3 week, 6 month and 1 year goals
  • Make it actionable – “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”   Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • Remember to make it manageable! The most insurmountable of problems can be overcome if it’s broken down into manageable pieces. You just keep chipping away at the problem and eventually, Viola……. You will smile again

Donna Woodard
Justin’s Mom

 Hi, my name is Donna Woodard.  My only child was Justin Woodard and he was killed in an automobile accident on Thanksgiving Day 2010.  At the time of his death, he was a junior and a psychology major at William Jessup University.  He was a member of the student leadership team, a resident advisor at the dorms, and if that wasn’t enough, he worked security in the cafeteria for extra money. 

Four months before he died, he completed a mission trip to Cambodia to work with children who had been rescued from sex trafficking.  He was doing a wonderful job of life and was at the beginning of an amazing future…a career as a psychologist, marriage and children. 

I was so proud of him!  But, things weren’t always this way.  My ex-husband and Justin’s father died when Justin was 11 years old from a heroin overdose.  Justin didn’t deal with that well.  He got into some trouble as a teenager and experimented with drugs and alcohol.  In his early 20s, he played around with college and even got his AA degree, but continued to use drugs and developed an addiction to meth amphetamines.

 In 2007, he was arrested on drug charges and spent 31 days in jail.  While he was there, he decided to turn his life around and upon his release he entered a rehab program called Teen Challenge.  He blossomed there and applied to William Jessup University where he was accepted and entered as a sophomore after completing the Teen Challenge program.  I felt like God put me on this earth to be the mother of this boy, and it was finally working out!  So, when he was killed in that automobile accident, my world fell apart!

So far, we have talked about our foundation, our feelings and emotions, and our affirmations and goals.  All these things make up our new life…our new normal.  They are all the things we have done to rebuild our lives after the death of our child.  What I’m going to talk to you about is what shelters all that you have rebuilt. 

I have worked really hard at recreating a life that matters.  But what will protect that life if another tragedy comes along?  Is this new life that I have built safe?  Can I protect the ones I love if life gets rough again?  Am I a safe place for them?  Am I just waiting for my life to collapse again?

First, I want you to ask yourself why you’re picking up the pieces.  What do you want for your future?  How do you want your life to look down the road?  As you consider these questions, what I want you to think about is what we are told in the safety instructions when we get on an airplane.  They tell us in case of an emergency to put on your oxygen mask first!  We can’t be a safe place to land or protect and shelter the ones we love if we don’t take care of ourselves first! 

As I said earlier, I have worked hard at recreating a life that matters.  I want to preserve and protect that life, so I have to do things that create strength in me.  I want you to be practical when you think about this.  The things I do to accomplish this strength are:

  • I maintain a relationship with my God.  I talk to Him every day.  I don’t take this for granted.  Its work sometimes, but any relationship is.
  • I keep physically fit.  I go to yoga five days a week.  It helps me stay grounded physically, mentally and emotionally.  This takes work too, but it’s worth it!
  • I stay in contact with my church family.  I don’t take these relationships for granted either.  I am an important member of that family, and I believe that they need me as much as I need them…so I work at it!
  • I volunteer my time and energy.  I work at a small non-profit organization one day a week.  It helps me to feel like I am important to the world around me.  I never want to feel like I could disappear and nobody would notice.
  • Last but not least, I am a part of this family!  As much as I never wanted to belong to this family, it is part of my new life.  I reach out to new moms that are walking this journey.  It keeps me in touch with where I’ve been and where I’m going.  And sometimes I need you guys.  I need a shoulder to cry on or an ear that understands.  I believe with everything in me that we need each other!

These are examples of some of the things I do to shelter what I have rebuilt. 

Please take some time to write what you have done.

Heidi Crosbie
Scott’s Mom

 Now our birdhouse is almost compete.  We need just one more thing– a perch. The perch represents trust.  A bird sits on it, and gains trust, and then goes in. 

 The perch represents learning to trust yourself again and be open to life.  Our hearts can shatter or they can break open to make room for more love to grow. The choice is ours. 

 So our perch gives others a place to stand.  We extend a hand out to people.

I know I have been a little crazy and people may feel nervous, confused by me and what has happened to me. I suspect many of you understand this, too. Some people may be hesitant to be around us bereaved moms, but if they see we are consistent, achieving goals, understanding our emotions, having affirmations, they will start to trust in us again.  And with that trust we then gain trust in ourselves.  The perch gives them an open invitation to come and see the safe space you have created, and let them decide if they trust it enough to stay for a while.  It takes time for others to understand what we have been through, so give them a place to sit while they think about it.

When we allow people back into our life, that is when we come back to life.

 I’d like to give you a minute or two to think of some people that you would like to allow back into your life.  I know the perch is very small, but you may want to write at least one name on your perch.

Chris Harder
Zack’s Mom

When you take your birdhouse home with you, you are the one who will decide what to do with it. You’ll get to decide whether you’re going to put it on a shelf in the closet or display it in your living room.  You get to decide if you’re going to leave it plain brown, stain and shellac it, or decorate it with a pretty picture, like Donna did with hers… The photo on your program is of Donna’s birdhouse that she made in 2013.  She took it home, painted it with this beautiful scene, and put it in the tree in her yard with the anticipation that a little birdie would make it their home… and this one did! 

Like Donna, you get to decide if you’re going to leave it on a shelf on display or if you’ll put it out in your garden for a little critter to enjoy as a refuge.  It’s your choice.

And that’s the choice we have with our lives as we begin to rebuild them.  Some of us are further down the road and we’ve been able to re-engage in life.  But don’t get me wrong… it took time and a lot of work for us to get to the point where our grief no longer consumed us.

Teresa shared about setting goals, having a plan.  I’ll also add that we have to be open to seeing possibilities and opportunities.  If we get up in the morning and say, “This is going to be a bad day,” there’s a 99.9% chance you’ll have a bad day.  If you get up and think, “OK, what opportunity will I have today, and then you look for it, there’s a good possibility you’ll find one!

You get to decide whether or not you will be open to a new purpose.  Often, our new purpose is related to our loss… like the ladies who presented about The Birdhouse Project today.  If you’re still reeling from your loss, be easy on yourself… it takes time to come to a place where you are ready.  But as opportunities come your way, I hope you’ll take them.

So… next year at this time… what story will your birdhouse tell… and what story will you have to tell us about your life?

Chris Harder
Zack’s Mom

So now we are going to put our birdhouse together. This action represents rebuilding our lives.

Remember that the writing goes on the inside of your birdhouse. 

As you pick up the pieces, say to yourself, I’m putting in the effort to rebuild my life.  As you nail your birdhouse together, say to yourself, “I want this to work.”

You may discover that someone near you is having difficulties putting the pieces of their birdhouse together.  Don’t hesitate to reach out to give them a hand.  It’s like our journey, we can’t do it alone.

OK ladies… Let’s start pounding those nails!