Autumn Toelle-Jackson is a wife, widow, mother, survivor, and author who has lived a life filled with great love and titanic losses. The loss of a husband, a beloved cousin who was her mentor, and her infant daughter and miscarriages have left scars on her soul and memorial tattoos on her body. Yet, Autumn has grown through it all, finding love and motivation to get up each day until those days strung into weeks, months, then years.
In her award-winning book Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief and Holding onto Happiness, Autumn, who is a remarkable role model for healing and Rebirth, shares her incredible story about her miscarriages, the deaths of her daughter, cousin, and husband, her memorial tattoos, organ donation, and how she coped with her profound grief and found the strength to heal.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- The trip Autumn took to be alone with her grief, where she felt her deceased husband Joe’s presence.
- How an acquaintance named Kyle became Autumn’s “Grief Person” and the ways that special relationship led to so much more.
- The heart wrenching loss of Autumn and Kyle’s precious infant daughter Rylee, and how organ donation helped them to heal.
- The admirable ways Autumn and Kyle incorporated all those they lost into their lives.
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS AUTUMN:
- How have your memorial tattoos helped you with your grief?
- In what ways did your experience with a transformative coach teach you to be introspective, and how did that help you with your grief?
- What are some of the lessons and outcomes of your life story that you share in your award-winning book, which is a remarkable portrait of healing and Rebirth?
Listen to the podcast here
Autumn Toelle-Jackson: Will You Let The Loss Overpower Your Memories Of The Past And Choke Out Any Happiness For The Future? Or Will You Embrace Your Sadness – And Then Introduce It To Happiness?
I hope this finds each of you so very well. I’m in my studio in West Orange, New Jersey. I’m happy to welcome wife, widow, mother, survivor, and author Autumn Toelle-Jackson. She will be speaking to us from Burns, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, Kyle, and their two sons. Autumn has lived a life filled with great love and titanic losses.
The loss of a husband, a beloved cousin who was her mentor, her infant daughter, and miscarriages have left scars on her soul and memorial tattoos on her body. Yet Autumn has grown through it all, finding love and motivation to get up each day until those days strung into weeks, months, then years. She has an award-winning book, Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief and Holding onto Happiness.
Autumn, who is a remarkable role model for healing and rebirth, shares her incredible story. I’m looking forward to talking with her about her miscarriages, the deaths of her daughter, cousin, and husband, her memorial tattoos, organ donation, how she coped with her profound grief and found the strength to heal, and more for what is surely going to be a poignant and unforgettable interview. Autumn, a very warm welcome to the show. It’s so good to have you here.
Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be here.
I loved your book. I need to tell everyone, it is so worth reading. Even though Autumn went through so much, it is uplifting and it’ll help you if you’re processing grief or some sad thing or event going on in your life. Let’s start with a question so everybody can get to know you. Would you like to tell us about what you call your simple, ordinary, happy childhood and your loving, happy marriage to your husband, Joe?
I grew up in Central Oregon in Bend, and I was born and raised there into a middle-class family. I went to what I considered good schools. I had friends and I had lots of relatives around all the time. We were a big extended family and nothing went wrong. The first losses I had to deal with were pet losses, dogs, cats, and horses. They were sad, but that was pretty much the extent of it up until I had a few grandparents that passed away. That was normal. They also weren’t a daily part of my life. While I grieved them, it was not as hard for me to handle as a child as some of my other losses have been.
I love how you described how you fell in love with Joe right away and how you met him. Do you want to share that with everyone? How old were you guys when you got married?
We were in our mid-twenties when we got married, I believe. I’d have to do the math on that. We met when we were in our early twenties. We were new in college. We were trying to find our way in the world. We met at a friend’s wedding. He had dated the bride at one point. I had dated the groom at one point.
Eventually, we got thrown together. We were told to dance with each other. Pretty much from the moment we started dancing with each other, we didn’t pay attention to anybody else. It was one of those things where you can call it whatever you want or fate. For the first time in my life, I made a move, offered him my phone number, and said, “Would you call me if I gave this to you?” He did, and that was history.
In five short years, you had two miscarriages resulting in the loss of three babies. Now, things are starting to happen in your life. You then lost Joe. He was 30 years old when your second son was only two weeks old. Would you like to describe those traumatic losses to us?
We were happily married for 3 or 4 years. Nothing went wrong. It seemed perfect. We always used to joke about how our marriage and our life and everything was too perfect and something was going to happen. Of course, we never thought something was going to happen. In between our first child and our second child, we had a miscarriage, and then we had another miscarriage. I remember how we used to talk about, “Nobody can have a perfect life. Everybody has to have some bad to counter the good. These miscarriages are ours.”
At that point, I had him. Looking back, I know I was grieving, but at the time, I didn’t understand it at all. I was sad, but nobody talks about miscarriages and so many people have them. The story I took from that was, “I shouldn’t be sad about it because if nobody else is talking about it, nobody else is sad about it when they have their miscarriages, then something’s wrong with me.” I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t eating great. I also wasn’t talking to Joe about it because, in my mind, I was messed up and I didn’t want to bring him down.
Was one of those miscarriages twins?
Yes. Our second one was twins.
What happened with Joe? That is also so hard.
Joe was a wildland firefighter. He was an avid hunter and an outdoorsman. He was playing basketball with our parks and recs league. He had come home one night. Wade, our youngest son, was two weeks old and he was trying to get in shape. He had a big hunting trip up in Alaska. After he came home from basketball, he wanted to go for a jog. He didn’t come in and I knew he wasn’t going to because he didn’t want to disturb us or wake up Wade if Wade was sleeping. He didn’t show up. I started feeling that something must be wrong.
In my mind, something being wrong meant he had probably hurt himself, broken ankle or who knew what. What I found was a lot different. I made sure everybody was taken care of and I knew Joe had just gone jogging down our road. I jumped in the car really quick and went to find him and I found him on the side of the road unresponsive. I didn’t know at that point, but he was already gone.
There was something that was like a mystery, but something happened in his body.
Yeah. They didn’t know at first because it was dark and we lived in a rural area. There aren’t any streetlights. They thought it was a hit-and-run because why does a 30-year-old man just die? They were, of course, able to rule that out pretty quickly. Full autopsy, DNA analysis, they never were able to find any actual cause. They just said, “Unknown natural causes. His heart stopped.” They don’t know what caused it.
There you are with a two-week-old child. After Joe died, I know you felt your life was over and that you couldn’t survive. Would you like to tell us please about the trip you took to be alone with your grief, where you felt Joe’s presence and the grief group you joined called Soaring Spirits?
After Joe died, I was struggling to even breathe. I was trying to nurse a baby. I was trying to take care of a three-year-old and get through the services. Once we got those services done, he wasn’t there, so there was this big hole. At the same time, so much else was going on because there was still a lot of family around and I couldn’t breathe. I knew I needed to get away. Luckily, my mom was amazingly supportive. When I told her that and I told her where I wanted to go, she made all the arrangements. I had a friend of mine who previously had a child and had been storing milk to donate to a bank. She gave all that to us so Wade would still be able to get all the nutrition he needed and I was able to go to Bend in Oregon.
The place I went, I’d never gone with Joe, but I’d always felt a sense of peace there, it’s called Shore Acres State Park. It’s an old house. The house isn’t there anymore, but the gardens are. This was in mid to late February in Oregon. There weren’t flowers, but it was still pretty green. The ocean hits the rocks. We’re up on a cliff looking down. Just walking around in this place of nature, I was able to feel, to see so much, and to relate with the nature of things. How things die and things are reborn and how there can both be beauty and anger in the ocean. There’s peace and turmoil.
That’s when I first started realizing that your emotions don’t have to be singular a lot of times. Your emotions are in conflict with each other at the same point in time. I’ve always been very logical and very organized, so I always want to put things in boxes. That trip was when I started realizing there’s not always a nice clean box for things. Grief isn’t going to have a nice clean box.
You started looking outside the box. What did that grief group, Soaring Spirits, do to help you outside that box?
I finally found Soaring Spirits, which was the first good grief resource I’d found. It took me a few months because Google doesn’t work when you’re grieving and I wasn’t able to find it. What they did for me was find their Camp Widow, they put on a retreat focused on widows, and I went. It was totally out of character for me because I’m a big introvert, I didn’t like sharing, and I didn’t want to talk about myself, but I knew I couldn’t survive the way I was going. I reached out. I was able to get to camp. All of a sudden, for this one weekend, I was surrounded by 200 to 300 other men and women who hadn’t experienced my loss but had experienced their own losses.
What it did for me was all of a sudden, I didn’t have to have this wall where, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m fine. We’re managing. I’m doing what I need to do.” I was able to go and drop that wall down and be like, “It’s hard. I’m struggling. There are nights when I can’t do what I’m supposed to do. I don’t feel like I’m taking care of my kids. I cry in the shower because I don’t want anybody to see or feel bad.”
I didn’t have to try to make other people feel better about my loss. I don’t know if that makes sense. At home, I’d see somebody in the store and they’d start crying just looking at me. All of a sudden, I felt like I needed to try to make them feel better about it. Being in Camp Widow was freeing and allowed me to feel those emotions that I’d been trying not to feel.
It sounds to me like you’re a lot like a lot of other people who are so concerned about giving out love to other people and you don’t get about self-love and taking it in when it’s coming towards you. It is something I learned too when I was grieving because I was very independent and used to helping everyone. All of a sudden, I was in need. That was a big step for me to let other people in to help me. It sounds like you were starting that path for yourself. You then endured yet another shock when you suddenly lost your beloved 34-year-old cousin, Brittany. She was like a sister to you and your mentor. How did she die? How much after you lost Joe did you lose Brittany?
Joe passed away in February. Brittany passed away in September. Just when I was starting to feel like I had some idea of how to manage my grief, all of a sudden, I got a call that Brittany was in the hospital. Her heart rate had skyrocketed. They didn’t know what was going on. What ended up happening was Brittany struggled with some depression. She’d struggled with some health things. It wasn’t diagnosed properly. It was diagnosed as anxiety and depression. In fact, she had a tumor on her adrenal gland called a pheochromocytoma. At the hospital where she was at, after the doctors had diagnosed it, they said it was the largest one they’d seen. It had probably been growing for ten years.
The symptoms of it, because it throws those hormones that your adrenal gland produces out of characteristic, were increased heart rate, increased signs of depression, and increased anxiety. They were all tied to this type of tumor. When she first went into the hospital, they gave her beta blockers, which is a standard protocol, but with her tumor being what it was, it interacted inappropriately. Her body started to get better and her brain, unfortunately, did not.
How did you cope with that when you lost her?
At first, I wanted to help take care of things for my aunt and uncle as much as possible. She ended up going from Eugene, Oregon, where they lived to Portland, Oregon, where the hospital was. While I knew I didn’t need to be in the hospital because a bunch of my other family was already there, I knew she’d want somebody to be there to take care of her dog and her horses because those were the things that she cared about.
I was able to load up the car and I got the kids. I knew I might need somebody to watch the kids if I did end up having to go to the hospital. Kyle came with me and I took care of the stuff I knew was important to her. That helped me deal with that immediate grief of having somebody in the hospital who’s not doing good.
I did end up going to the hospital when they took her off of life support. After that, you asked how I dealt with that grief afterward. I went back to feeling lost, but I was able to reach out to some of the people who had supported me, who were other widows because they understood the grief. I was able to talk about it.
Now, you had a little bit of a tribe, which is the beginning of getting some help. Did you feel Joe’s presence when you took that trip? What was that like for you? He had just died and you took that trip alone. I remember you said that you felt his presence with you.
I felt his presence in the sense that he was always very supportive of me. I have always been very independent. I’ve been able to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t need help from anybody. He always understood that about me and supported me in any way he could. Before I had gone to the coast, I felt very alone. “Who was going to help me? Who was going to tell me I was making the right decisions?” I hadn’t felt that.
When I was sitting there at the coast, the presence and knowledge that there was somebody out there who believed in me and that I could take whatever had happened to me and still live my life and still have a good life all of a sudden came back to me. The only way that makes sense to me is to believe that that was Joe providing me some of that comfort.
I totally believe that. After you lost Jo, you mentioned the name Kyle. He was an acquaintance of yours and he became your grief person. Would you like to tell us about this blessed person, Kyle, how he became your grief person, and how that relationship led to much more for you?
Kyle, Joe, and I all worked for the same company. We all knew each other. I worked in the same field as Kyle, so we’d had some interactions, but we were pretty much acquaintances. Joe and Kyle used to talk about hunting and some other things, so they’d connected on a little bit more of a personal level. When Joe passed away, living in a rural community, I’m sure it’s similar in other areas, but we had people dropping by, bringing food and gifts. I don’t remember a lot of it. I sat pretty still and blacked out for the most part while people did this. My family took care of it.
I remember Kyle coming in because he didn’t go to anybody else. He came directly to me. He wasn’t scared to see the emotions I was feeling. He said, “I came with some other people from work, but they’re in the car because they didn’t know what to say. I wanted to come in and say that it’s horrible and it’s hard. By the way, I brought you paper towels, paper plates, garbage bags, and a toy for Cody,” who was three at the time. Those are the things people forget.
They forget that you’re going to, all of a sudden, be feeding all these people that have also come. If you don’t have to do dishes or whoever’s taking care of things doesn’t have to do that. That stood out for a long time. I got to a point where I wanted to go to a band. I wanted to go see a band about three hours away in Boise. Even though I was 31 at the time, I knew that my mom would not be supportive of me going three hours while I was still very much in my acute grief to see this band.
I remembered that Kyle and another person we’d worked with also liked that type of music. I reached out and said, “I want to go to this. I need somebody to babysit me. Would you be willing to go?” He agreed, and my other friend agreed. He ended up not being able to go because his mom had a medical emergency.
I reached out a few days later to see how his mom was doing and everything was fine, but that opened up that communication between us. He was very open about how hard grief is. He wasn’t trying to say, “You’ll be okay. You’re strong. You’re tough. You can handle it.” He was saying, “It’s going to be hard, it’s going to hurt, and it’s never going to go away, but you’re going to learn how to deal with it for you.”
Had he had his own losses that he was coming from?
He had lost his dad a few years before. He acknowledged that it wasn’t the same loss, but it was still a very big loss. At one point in time, he goes, “You’re probably not going to be able to sleep. I tended to have those 3:00 in the morning. I think a lot of people do. I’m a bachelor. I’m up late all the time. I put my phone on silent when I go to sleep, so feel free to send me a message.” I took him up on that because if his phone’s on silent, I won’t be bothering him. Little did I know, at that point, he’d stopped putting his phone on silent the next night because he wanted to be there to talk to me at 3:00 in the morning. It grew from there.
Most of our conversations in those first few months were very much about Joe. He was one of the few people who wanted to hear the stories and wanted to talk about Joe. He wasn’t scared of making me remember that Joe had died. He acknowledged that we don’t forget the people we love. We talked a lot about Joe and I was able to talk very openly about my grief. When people said things that frustrated me, I had somebody I could vent to. When I was being unreasonable, he also called me out on that. It was nice to have somebody to talk to and try to figure out how to navigate this grief I all of a sudden had.
He’s such a positive person. I enjoyed reading about him in your book and about your whole relationship. You two get married. You shared this heart-wrenching loss of your precious infant daughter, Riley. I’m reading your book, I’m reading about Riley and it drew me to tears. You then had an experience with organ donation, how that work and donation helped you and Kyle heal from losing Riley. I’m sure this is tough to share with all of us, but would you tell us about that, please?
We had Riley in three months and everything was perfect. Our family was amazing. She was healthy. All of a sudden, we seemed to all get colds. Riley, who was nursing, stopped nursing a little bit and seemed to be getting dehydrated. Thinking she was just dehydrated, we still went into the doctor’s office to check it out. They couldn’t get an IV into her because she had the pudgiest little arms and legs. Her veins were so tiny, but they went ahead and admitted us so we could do a nasogastric tube and get formula directly into her stomach.
The next morning, she seemed to be doing better. She was still a little bit weak, but she wasn’t dehydrated. The doctor wanted to cover his bases because she was a little bit weak and he wanted to test her for meningitis. We stepped out of the room to do that and he rolled her onto her side. At that point, she went into cardiac arrest. They hadn’t even started anything.
They worked on her for 40 minutes. Right when we were sitting on the floor with Riley’s doctor and the doctor who had been with her when she’d first coded, they were saying they’d keep working on her until we told them to stop. We were trying to figure out, “How the heck do you tell somebody to stop trying to save your daughter’s life?”
At that point, you could feel the atmosphere in the room behind us change, and they had gotten her heart going again. They were able to get her stabilized. We went to another hospital and we had hopes that maybe the damage wasn’t that bad and we could figure things out. Unfortunately, after a few days, it became very clear that while her heart was functioning better, her brain had stopped functioning.
You eventually found out that what killed her was botulism.
About two weeks after we left the hospital, we got a call from the doctor there and he said she had tested positive for infant botulism. It’s very rare. It’s the reason why they say not to feed babies honey anymore. It’s something that started about in the ‘80s. That’s because botulism is complicated. It’s a bacteria that produces a spore, the spore produces a toxin, and the toxin relaxes muscles to the point that they don’t function properly.
Typically, there are more signs. I think there are about 250 or so cases in the US annually. Riley was the fourth documented death from it in the last twenty years. Usually, a lot of hospital says that it’s treatable and it’s survivable. For some unknown reason, she was extra susceptible and she didn’t show typical symptoms.
I have to say I admire and resonate with the many ways you and Kyle incorporated everyone you lost, including Joe, Riley, and everyone into your lives. Could you share that with us? I thought it was so healing when I was reading in your book about how you worked through your grief and you embraced everyone that you lost.
We first started doing that. I debated a lot when Kyle and I got married. Joe was very much a part of the kids’ life. We live where his family is. They know him, and we wanted to make sure they still recognize that they had a dad that loved him. At the wedding, we had a memorial table that not only had Kyle’s dad on there and Brittany but also had a picture of Joe on there.
As much as people don’t want to admit it, I wouldn’t have been marrying Kyle if it hadn’t been for Joe. Joe was very much a part of my life and there was no going back on that, nor would I want to. We had a memorial table. We had the pastor say something because I chose to wear my wedding band from Joe, and then I had a widow ring made for my own personal benefit. I then got a wedding band from Kyle. I wear them all on my left-hand ring finger because it’s all part of my story.
Tell us about the widow ring. I never heard of that before. What’s a widow ring?
It’s something somebody made up at one point to make you feel better about having some physical piece to document you’re a widow. Mine is a simple band that has five stones on it. I decided to go with black diamonds to represent the loss and two blue sapphires, which is his birthstone. It’s a physical symbol for me that helped show that I was married to him and I lost him, but he’s still a part of my life.
Even in your book, the way you list all the people who are still part of your life even though you lost them. You also acknowledged those who are in the flesh physically here with you. It’s wonderful. As you and Kyle learned how to live with each loss, you grew stronger while grieving. You were able to hold on to happiness despite this incredibly deep grief. Could you share with all of us how you were able to find light in such intense darkness?
Going back a little bit to Riley and the organ donation part, when we were in the hospital, we knew how horrible it was to lose a child because she’d been declared brain-dead. We were still doing the final tests, but at that point, we knew that it was very unlikely that she was going to come back to us. We didn’t want other parents to feel that way if we could help it, so we chose to look into organ donation.
At that point, we were in the hospital for three extra days. We had a lot of time to talk to each other. We weren’t separated at all, even going to the bathroom because we needed that connection. We needed each other’s presence to help support us through this. We laid in the room and we talked about it. We said, “How do you grieve? How are you going to act? What are the things that are going to happen?” We talked to each other about what we knew about our own grief and what we did so we could be prepared to help the other person when those signs were showing up. Sometimes when you’re grieving and you are reacting, you don’t necessarily put 2 and 2 together right away.
We had that conversation and we also said, “No crying in the shower.” He knew I had done that a lot with Joe, trying to hide my pain from everybody else. “None of that. If we’re going to grieve, we’re going to grieve together.” That was one of the biggest things. Just to make sure we put that grief out there in the open, we agreed to feel our feelings and talk about it as much as we could and having that support.
You kept processing. Tell us about the organ. You donated Riley’s organs and you helped some people, which has helped you with this loss. Would you like to share that with us?
The organ donation was one of those things that surprised us. As I mentioned, we wanted to do it to save other people from the pain.
Did the doctors offer you this option?
No, we approached them about it. It wasn’t even a conversation. As you had mentioned, sometimes feelings just come over you. It was one of those where we both looked at each other and said, “Should we ask him about organ donation?” We didn’t need to have a conversation. We were both on the same page and we’re drawn to it. I think it caught them off guard because Riley was so small that they didn’t even know if organ donation would be possible. They called in the organ procurement organization. She passed the size requirements and she was able to donate her heart, her liver, and her kidneys.
At one point in time, while we were in the hospital, it seemed like the coroner wasn’t going to sign off on her donating because we found out what caused it two weeks later. While we were in the hospital, it was completely unknown as to what had gone wrong with her. The coroner wanted to make sure that donating her organs wouldn’t spread these other diseases around. There were a few in particular he was worried about. Our doctor at the hospital went to bat for us and sat down with the coroner and said, “Let’s figure out if we can find a compromise.” They were able to test for those diseases and she was negative.
We hadn’t realized until it was almost taken away how much being able to donate her organs was helping us. We just thought we wanted to help other people, but it was helpful because we lost her no matter what. She was gone. She was not coming home. That’s never going to be okay and nothing’s going to make that better. At the same time, if somebody else could get something good out of it, that took a little bit of the edge off of our grief.
You have a couple of inspiring stories about how you helped people with her organ donation. Do you want to share 1 or 2 of them?
We have been writing letters. We don’t want to push people, but you can write anonymous letters as either a recipient or a donor. We want to let them know how much being a donor family had helped us with our grief. We reached out and it took a while, but the first letter we got was from her kidney recipient, which was an older diabetic woman who needed new kidneys. She had kids and grandkids. They wrote us this letter around Christmas saying how basically they didn’t think they’d have another Christmas with her and they were able to have this. It wasn’t her that we touched. We all of a sudden realized that it was this growing effect that all of her kids, grandkids, and friends benefited.
I think it was 2022, we never got a letter, but the heart recipient is a beautiful little boy that was an infant when he received her heart. All of a sudden, he is a toddler or a preschooler and he’s on a playground playing and eating snacks. They sent a video of an echocardiogram of her heart so we could both see her heart functioning and hear it. That was pretty amazing to know that her heart is still helping to keep somebody alive even though she passed away multiple years ago.
I’d like you to please describe your memorial tattoos and how they helped you with your grief.
The first memorial tattoo I got was for our miscarriages. I’d had a few tattoos and I knew I liked them, but I struggled with the miscarriages. I didn’t know I was grieving. I just wanted something to recognize that these three babies existed. Joe, who was totally against tattoos, but very supportive of me and much more artistic helped me design some. On my ankle, while Joe was still alive, I got three half hearts, kind of three broken hearts, each with a little flower. I got that on my ankle.
It was amazing once I decided to do that and put this scar. As beautiful as it was, basically, it was a scar on my body for that physical pain I was feeling and that emotional pain that really is physical. I started feeling better. It wasn’t so hard to bear and I was able to sleep better. When Joe died, I knew I wanted to get a tattoo for him also because I like having that physical reminder. I got a design he had drawn for me. I took it to a tattoo shop and I said, “I want to make this into a tattoo to put across my back.” It spreads out across my back. A little bit like wings, but it helps me feel like he’s always with me.
Of course, I kept it up. When Riley died, Kyle and I had decided when we were in the hospital because she’s three months, so she had some personality, but it was very limited. We all decided that she liked butterflies and her favorite color was purple. There was no discussion on it. You’d think there’d be an argument about it, but it seemed so right that that’s what she would’ve liked.
We basically went to a tattoo artist again and said, “We lost our daughter. We want memorial tattoos. We want butterflies and flowers. We want them to be purple.” He designed two different ones. Mine goes up my arm and is near Jod’s. I also got one on my forearm that says “Courageous Miracle.” When we were in the hospital, one of the nurses told us that Riley, one of its meanings is courage and courageous. We started talking about how she was our courageous miracle because any baby is a miracle. She was amazing in our family, even though we only had her for three months. She was also a miracle for three other families.
That is such a wonderful story.
Do you also have a tattoo for Brittany?
I haven’t gotten one for Brittany, partly because I can’t decide what would be best. Also, with a different relationship, for whatever reason, I haven’t been drawn to as much. I think about it and I bring it up, but I don’t want to force myself into something. When I know and when I have an idea that I know is right, I’m sure I’ll get one for her. I’ve been trying to be careful with my grief as it’s grown to not force things that either I’m not feeling or to force things that other people tell me I should do. I’m trying to be pretty introspective with it.
By the way, you worked with a transformative coach. When did you work with this transformative coach and how did that help you?
After Brittany died, my sister reached out to me and said, “You should go talk to this lady.” I went to see her and she was amazing. I was hesitant because I had one experience with a therapist right after Joe died. I sat down on the couch and she said, “How are you feeling?” I pretty much shut down at that point because I was a week or two away from my husband dying. I was feeling bad. If you couldn’t see that, I don’t need to talk to you. As I said before, I’m not big on sharing, I don’t like talking a whole lot. That completely turned me off of any sort of therapy type of help. My sister kept mentioning it and pushed.
I ended up going and the woman I ended up seeing was very straightforward. She was very blunt and she asked hard questions that made me think. She didn’t put up with any BS. If I gave the answer that seemed to be the expected answer because I didn’t want to look deeper, she called me on it. That helped me to look at what was important to me. She’s the one who helped me decide to move forward with Kyle because we did enter into a relationship pretty early on. I was upset about people judging it and thinking maybe I didn’t like Joe or love him or I was being disrespectful to his memory. They think that Kyle was taking advantage of me.
I had a lot of struggles as to what other people would think about my grief and how I was doing it. She helped walk me through the fact that I can grieve in whatever way works best for me. If I’m being careful to think about my choices and make sure they’re the choices I need to make and I’m okay with them, then nobody else’s opinion matters.
I have to say, she really helped you because I remember reading your book about how even accepting Joe’s parents were and how you brought everybody into that. Now that we’ve worked our way up to it, tell us about your wonderful award-winning book, Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding on to Happiness. You certainly did all of the above. What would you like everybody to know?
I would like everybody to know that I wrote my story as detailed as I could. I wrote it a few months after Riley had passed away because I felt that I had a story to share. All these things that have happened to me, as horrible as they have been, I could give them a reason. I could bring hope to the people that may be experiencing something similar. That became important to me because if I didn’t choose to make something good come out of my losses, then they would just all be bad. With Riley, they are horrible and it’s not okay that it happened, but it still happened.
I wanted to share, and I’d known from talking to a few people after Riley because I tried to be open after Riley had passed away. People started coming back to me and saying, “Thanks for talking to me. Thanks for letting me know that. I’ve been feeling these feelings and I thought I was alone.” Really putting that down and trying to talk about my losses.
You can tell I’m talking about it from a perspective in the future because I can look back and be like, “I was grieving those miscarriages.” I also tried to be open and honest about not knowing what to do with his deodorant because it was a part of him, I didn’t want to throw it away, and I didn’t want to be wasteful. I wanted people to know that whatever their grief is and whatever they’re doing, it’s okay. There’s somebody out there that can hopefully understand even if they haven’t gone through the same losses.
What I loved about your book is you examined all the lessons and outcomes of your life story. I think that you leave people with the understanding that they have choices and you kept making all these healthy choices. You were in so much pain, but instead of sitting in your swamp, you kept moving forward as best that you could. You chose healthy ways and real positive ways to go about it. It’s so uplifting when you read the book about your choices. You also talk about that how finding a purpose for loss can lighten the loss of grief, which I know you did with Riley with the organ donation. Do you want to speak a little more to that?
For me, at least, once I started talking about my loss and realizing that even just that could help people, it still hurt, but it hurt a little bit less. I was able to talk about it easier instead of crying every time I mentioned her name. I was able to share her story better. I found that I was able to embrace the lives of the people I loved more by talking about it. I guess that’s what I mean by helping to lighten the load. What it worked into first was the website I put together, which is GrowingWithGrief.com, where I provide research. I do the research for people, and it’s a work-in-progress website because I have other priorities.
Google didn’t work when Joe died. It was hard for me to find resources. I’ve put books, podcasts, organizations, and any other information I can find that might be helpful to somebody in one spot. I find that every time I can help somebody, even if they just send me an email and say, “This is my loss, what do you recommend?” I can do the research for them and take that little bit of weight off their grief and that little bit of pressure while encouraging them to find the support they need. I know from when I was grieving, if I couldn’t find an answer in about two minutes, that’s all the energy I had. Maybe if I had somebody to help me, I would’ve found my life coach sooner.
It’s wonderful that you’re doing that.
It’s one of the little ways I can give back. People always say, “It’s so nice. It’s so great.” I guess it is. I’m not being selfish about it because it helps me feel better about the losses I’ve done. The organ donation thing, I’m continuing. I’m trying to bring Riley to be honored on the Donate Life Float at the Rose Parade because I feel that her story can help others.
Who knew that a three-month-old infant could be an organ donor? The hospital wasn’t even going to bring up organ donation to us. If I can share her story, then other parents who find themselves in such an unfortunate situation might be able to donate organs and get the healing we got while also providing miracles for other families. Every little bit I can do makes me accept the grief and feelings a little better and provide a purpose. They’re not there to hurt me. They’re there to help other people as well.
It’s so wonderful because I found that too with this show. Every time you help someone, it helps you. It bounces to you. I know you also have workshops on different aspects of grief. Are they online? Would you like to tell us about that?
At this point, I don’t have any online. I could do some online if somebody was interested, they could reach out to me. I’ve been trying to do them mostly with free grief conferences because the free ones are easier for people to get to. Also, wherever I can speak out, whether it’s a workshop at a library or a workshop locally within the community, I’m pretty much open to whatever people need to help them or to help in their communities.
Why is it important for a person to heal, in your opinion? How does being resilient help with that process?
The resiliency thing helps because it’s understanding that we’re made to deal with grief. Everything that’s living is going to die at some point. We live in a culture that wants to shove that under the rug until it happens. Even then, it barely peeks out. Trying to recognize that we are made to grieve. We just have to let ourselves do it.
In my opinion, it comes down to being able to feel your feelings, to sit and boldly go into the darkness, which is where I got the title for the book from. You have to stop, look at those feelings, and allow yourself to feel the anger, the hurt, and the pain. If you’re not embracing and feeling those feelings, you’re also not feeling the good ones that might come from seeing your child laugh or seeing some wildlife, a rainbow, or whatever comforts you. You have to be able to let all of your emotions in.
When you’re trying to suppress them so much and you’re trying not to heal, you don’t know that you’re trying not to heal, you’re just trying to survive. It’s so easy to suppress those. “I’ll deal with it later. I’ll cry later.” When you start to embrace them, you can fully open yourself up to the bad emotions. More importantly, you can open yourself to the good emotions and the good things that come. You’ll understand that you can be sad and happy at the same time.
Is that what you call being resilient, making it important to reach out to find what works for you to heal?
Yeah. I didn’t learn any of that by myself. I had a tribe, Soaring Spirits, and a life coach. It took a while for me to get to this point where I do understand that. Knowing you’re resilient is knowing that you can survive, but you do have to make the choices to do it in a way that’s going to give you the best life possible.
Now that everybody loves you and I want to buy your book, would you like to tell us all the best ways for the members of our show audience to connect with you?
My book is called Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding on to Happiness. It is a memoir that is available as a paperback, an eBook, or an audiobook wherever you purchase those. Support your independent bookstore, but you can also get it on Amazon if it’s easier.
If they want to connect with you on the website, it’s GrowingWithGrief.com, right?
Correct. Send me an email. If you aren’t sure what grief resources you need or what might be available, I’m happy to do that research for you.
What is the Autumn enlightened important tip for finding joy in life?
Don’t be scared to embrace the good feelings. If you see something and know it in the past before the trauma and before whatever you’re dealing with it, it would’ve made you smile and smile at it. At least recognize that you would’ve smiled at it before. Recognize that there’s still good in the world. There are still things that can make you happy and can make you smile. Eventually, you come to start feeling those feelings again.
It can be hard because the bad feelings and the negative feelings around grief are so strong. Just recognizing that you see something that’s pretty, and then maybe the next time, you can recognize it and might enjoy it a little bit. You might smile and laugh. Giving yourself permission to feel those things is the biggest thing. Once you can feel those, then you have the motivation to continue making those choices that can heal you through your grief.
You can be both sad and feel joy at the same time. One does not exclude the other. That’s wonderful. Autumn, as we both well know, our souls grieve deeply for those we love. Grief and Rebirth show seeks to enlighten, educate, and inspire its audience with helpful healing options as they journey through grief. This mission sinks with both your book, which is so inspiring and uplifting Boldly into the Darkness, and your website GrowingWithGrief.com. Through each, you provide those who are grieving with resources, community, inspiration, and help. Lightening the weight of the grief, they’re caring and providing hope. What a true blessing. Thank you for so courageously sharing your amazing story with all of us. I thank you from my heart for this poignant, unforgettable interview.
Make sure to follow us and like us on social at @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and especially on YouTube. Like, subscribe, and hit notify to make sure you’ll get inspiring new interviews like this one with Autumn coming your way. Thank you so much. As I like to say, to be continued, many blessings, and bye for now.
- Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s book: Boldly into the Darkness: Living with Loss, Growing with Grief & Holding on to Happiness
- Autumn Toelle-Jackson’s Website
- Soaring Spirits
- Irene Weinberg on Instagram
- Irene Weinberg on Facebook
- Irene Weinberg on Twitter
- Irene Weinberg – Grief, Rebirth + Healing Podcast on YouTube