Grief Almost Killed Me, But I Survived: My Story of Hope and Healing

Grief Almost Killed Me, But I Survived: My Story of Hope and Healing

When I was 18—a freshman in college visiting home one weekend—my dad woke me from sleep to break the news to me. My older sister, Bethany, had been in a car accident. The driver had been drinking. The four words my dad spoke to me that morning shattered me.

“Bethany didn’t make it…”

That life-changing sentence as well as the impact of the crash and those words on my life, on my psyche, was immediate and ongoing. I didn’t realize it then, but the idea that began to overtake my mind upon hearing of my sister’s death was: what happened to my sister was not okay. Nothing would ever make it okay and, therefore, I could never be okay.

The night after her funeral, my parents had to hold me down as I writhed and screamed, begging them to let me go sleep on her freshly covered grave, so she wouldn’t be alone in the dark with the thunderstorm raging outside. I remember waking up the next day realizing it wasn’t all a bad dream. This was the new reality I was going to have to face as life moved on without her.

I thought that, now, I had to take my place as the older sister. I had to be strong. I handled my grief mostly by keeping as busy as possible. I was in college, majoring in psychology and missions, a member of Army ROTC, and many clubs on campus, taking a full load of classes while also working part time as a nanny. Later that same year I got engaged to my first love while serving on a missions’ trip to help orphans suffering from AIDS.

Outwardly, I seemed okay, but I was afraid to process my feelings; they were all so strong, yet so muddled. It seemed like they were a dark edged abyss in the back of my mind. I was afraid that if I let myself explore them, I could lose myself, like I might drown in a deep dark sea, boiling with anger and pain, that I wouldn’t be able to escape.

I didn’t tell anyone I was having trouble falling asleep, keeping disturbing thoughts at bay, only to then have nightmares of my sister dying in some new way, night after night, without me ever being able to save her.

My fiancé suddenly broke up with me in 2006, months before our wedding date. For three days, I literally did not eat or sleep. I cried as I poured over my sister’s photo albums. The floodgates had opened up on my grief. I flipped back and forth between thoughts of my sister and my ex-fiancé. My hormonal 19-year-old brain now had a crazy person at the wheel.

I felt that my pain would always be there. It would always hurt this badly, or worse. The only way for me to end the pain was to end my life.

I grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, and a bottle of my dad’s pain pills from the bathroom cabinet. As I felt myself beginning to fade, I remember thinking about what a horrible thing it would be for all my friends and family to have to go to my funeral less than a year after my sister’s. I remember feeling scared that I couldn’t take it back, but thinking, “I just want to be free of the pain and be with Bethany, wherever she is.”  When my eyes opened, I was in an ER trauma room with bandages on my wrists.

Fast-forward a few years. It’s my senior year of college. I’m folding laundry when suddenly, everything looks blurry and I start having double vision. A mental fog comes over me. My tongue feels swollen and numb. I notice ringing in my ears. My ability to speak, see, and think disappears. I lose consciousness.

Later that night, I find myself in the emergency room. The doctors give me a series of tests, but my results are all normal. They  chalk it up to stress and send me home with anti-anxiety meds and tell me to take it easy.

The same thing happens again the next day, and then two more times that week. My memory and ability to concentrate rapidly declines as mental fog, slurred speech, and fainting spells become a daily occurrence. Attacks of vertigo, panic, and seizures happen without warning. A complete a loss of muscle tone, tingling, and numbness invades my limbs so strongly that I experience sudden falls that leave me in a heap on the floor.

Repeated trips to different doctors, emergency rooms, and neurologists yield no explanations or help. I’m referred to the Mayo Clinic and wait for my case to be considered. My husband and I have no clue what to do in the meantime. We end up going to a Walgreens to buy a seizure helmet and four-pronged cane. I quickly realize there’s no way I can pull this look off. Especially after my husband adds the final touch—an envelope with my emergency contact information pinned to my chest.

I take one look in the mirror and burst into tears. I say, “I can’t take it. I’m dropping out of my classes.”

I now spend my time “taking it easy” as per the doctors’ advice. My symptoms become even worse. Long days of isolation, boredom, and worry take their toll. Seizures begin striking at any moment—day or night—violent fits that come while I’m wide awake or fast asleep. They are triggered by feelings of vertigo that happen when I see things zoom in or out, or even take a few steps backwards. They are resistant to, or become worse with, medication. Scans and tests say nothing’s wrong. With up to 9 attacks per day, I start using a wheelchair to get around for my own safety.

By the summer of 2008, I’m finally taken on as a patient at the Mayo Clinic. Tedious diagnostic testing goes on month after month with no answers or successful treatment. My symptoms escalate while my spirit fades.

In May of 2009, the Mayo Clinic officially diagnoses me with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Major Depressive Disorder, and Conversion Disorder; myprimary symptoms are pseudo seizures. They believe I’m suffering from traumatic grief—my body converting stress into physical symptoms. Due to the frequency, length, and severity of my symptoms, and the fact that I’ve seen six different mental health professionals with no improvement, I’m given a 20% chance of recovery.

There’s one alternative left. The Mayo Clinic recommends hypnotherapy. “Hypnosis with a qualified, experienced professional has been shown to be particularly helpful for this kind of thing,” they say. My dad finds and calls Dr. Jon Connelly, a clinical hypnotherapist. On June 20th 2009, I have one session lasting about two hours. It’s the most life-changing conversation I’ve ever had.

As Dr. Connelly speaks to me, I feel peace occurring for the part of me that’s had nightmares reliving my sister’s death every night, trying to prevent it from happening. My anger, my shock, and the overwhelming pain of traumatic grief seem to wash away.

As I open my eyes, I feel lighter, and notice that I can see and think more clearly. I know I’m okay. As Dr. Connelly opens the door to the waiting room, I lock eyes with my dad and we both start crying. I run backwards around Dr. Connelly’s office and I’m seizure free—to this day!

Life hasn’t been perfect.  I’ve had my moments, but I haven’t had a seizure, anxiety attack, or depressive episode sense that session. I went on to train with Dr. Connelly and other leading, world-renowned hypnotists. I built my own practice where I have been paying my healing forward hypnotizing hundreds of people for better health and well being.

If there is anything I’ve learned from my experience with traumatic grief it would be that it’s important to find a way to healthily process emotions instead of trying to avoid them and that it’s equally important to commit to finding an effective form of treatment. Alternative therapies like hypnosis may not be the best solution for everyone but I’m sure glad I stuck it out and ended up finding what worked for me. I can only wish the same for everyone else dealing with tragedy or challenge in their life.

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Kristin Rivas

Kristin Rivas, C.Ht., is a gifted professional speaker and Certified Hypnotherapist practicing in Seattle. She’s run her own practice since 2010, and in 2013 was honored to speak at TEDxRainier sharing her story and her mission to pay it forward. In this time, she’s worked with over 1300 clients and looks forward to connecting with you—helping you become the strong, powerful, and grounded person you truly are.

16 Responses

  1. Carol says:

    Kristen, I am so happy that you found light at the end of your tunnel of grief and are able to now pay it forward. Paying it forward has become my own life’s purpose and as such am trying to do so through my books, and other writings.

  2. Julian RogerHorsfield says:

    Hi, Kristen I haven’the recovered to the same extent. But mental illness has made me very resilient to issues that would flatten a normal person. But then I would feel very bored being normal. Life and the Almighty present a series of challenges but I’ve never heard of anything so wonderful as your recovery. And, again your openness and honesty. If only more psychiatric practices were encouraged to do likewise. As a Christian I see your work as a calling and your horrible experiences as providing precious insight. I hope you find a way to relate with the liberation I feel in faith. Love, Julian.

  3. lisa makepeace says:

    Thank you for sharing and your heartfelt story and am truly sorry for the loss of your sister. This grief is the worst thing you or anyone also like myself has ever had to face in this world….especially for people like us who[ love so deeply]…my teenage son was shot / killed 5 yrs. ago..this hit me way under the belt also, changed the course of my life as well. Your story seems a lot like mine emotionally. and I have read a lot of personal stories..truely wanted to die and inside I have a little more each day….it never got better..on my page is my teen sons photos..he was so handsome and had so much life ahead of him just like your sister..we both and may people are strong to endure this pain every day…and each day still seems like the first.When you recived that sentence [and she didn’t make it]…so did I,and I hit the floor.God bless you/thankyou for shareing..I needed this story in my life today/amen……..lisa

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your son Lisa. How heartbreaking. I’m sure you miss him every day as I do my sister Bethany. The heavy painful ache has cleared for me after clearing the PTSD around her death and as time has gone by. Now when I’m reminded of her my thoughts are full of gratitude for the time I got with her and all the lessons I’ve learned from her. I think “How can I live life enough for the both of us today?” since she didn’t get the chance. I hope you get to that place more often in your journey with this grief and can honor your son’s memory in this way. Easier said than done, I know. It’s just so fulfilling to put the energy of the grief into something that improves other people’s lives.

  4. Clark Rivas says:

    Kristin, I appreciate you so very much for being honest and transparent and describing your experience! As your father, having witnessed and shared in most all of the experiences you had, it broke my heart. There were many occasions when I felt helpless in knowing what to do, or how to help you further. It was one glorious day when you came out of your therapy session with Dr. Conelly!
    I am absolutely amazed at your recovery process and your new life! What amazes me is not only have you recovered from all of your physical and emotional symptoms, but you have turned it all around in order to help others! It makes me so very proud to see and read about all of the clients that you have helped and provided methods for them to transition from trauma into healing! You have such a bright and promising future and you have only scratched the surface of what is ahead in touching others lives! All I can say is you go girl! I am behind you all the way!

  5. Reba Linker says:

    What a fantastic story – thank you so much for sharing this. I am so glad the the medical folks finally recommended ‘alternative medicine’ and I’m so glad you found the healing you needed. xo

  6. Tae Lynne says:

    This story is fascinating! I am so happy you found a way to heal and have since gone on to share that healing power with others. Stress, grief & depression can wreak so much havoc on our bodies. Thank you for sharing your own ordeal. I’m so sorry for the loss of your sister. xo

  7. I had no idea that this was possible! You are not only helping shed light on an obscured part of human experience, but also shining as a role model of honesty, transformation, and leadership. I love your story and love your voice. Thank you so much, Kristin!

  8. Such a compelling story, Kristin. In many cultures the grieving are supported, loved and nurtured in a way that does not exist in our own culture. We are encouraged to “get back to life.” I imagine that can only exacerbate and prolong the grieving process. I’m so happy you found a caring hynotherapist and now bring that love and care to your own practice. Thank you for bringing Traumatic Grief to light. xo

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