In this episode Alan Smith shares how he was able to take health struggles and the death of a child, and find happiness even after extreme pain.
How Alan Found Perspective and Peace After His Son’s Death.
Alan was born and raised in Utah. He is something of a Renaissance man with his love to read, write, paint, sing, and ballroom dance. He’s a realtor by profession, and has been married for 25 years to Susan who rolls her eyes at his dad jokes, but he’s sure she’s laughing on the inside. As a writer, Alan goes by the name A.D. Sherman.
Alan’s Writing Career
Alan goes by A.D. Sherman because he says he’s still a little shy about his writing, and the name Alan Smith isn’t that exciting. Alan decided to write under a pseudonym. A high school nickname inspired the last name of Sherman, the A is from his name Alan, and the D stands for death, dismemberment, dragons, Dracula and all of those fun, creepy things.
Alan is currently working on a book. It is called the Undertaker’s Apprentice and it’s about a 16 year old boy who on his first awkward day as an undertaker’s apprentice, accidentally becomes a sorcerer.
Alan’s Childhood and Past
Alan is the oldest of four kids, but was very small for his age and got bullied in the neighborhood. He had one close friend but didn’t have lots of other friends. Alan’s mom also had some complications with pregnancy and postpartum, which left Alan to do a lot of the work around the house like laundry and cooking. Alan didn’t really have a traditional childhood because he was busy taking care of things for his siblings. He tried to have a sense of humor and fun, but overall his childhood was busy and full of work.
A Stroke At Age 18
At the age of 18, Alan had something shocking happen to him. He had a significant stroke, which is highly unusual in someone so young. He didn’t expect it at all. Alan and his family didn’t realize what had happened right away. He was working in a book warehouse, and suddenly began feeling really sick. He felt dizzy and nauseous and he couldn’t stand or see. Alan worked at the warehouse with his mom, and she was busy working. So, Alan went up to the bathroom and spent a half hour throwing up and feeling miserable. He finally dragged himself to the break room couch where slept the rest of the day. Within a couple of days he felt enough better that he could go back to work, and he thought nothing else of it.
A little while later Alan went in for a physical. They tested his peripheral vision by holding up fingers, and on one side Alan couldn’t see any fingers at all. This lead to a lot of tests, a misdiagnosis of a heart valve issue, and more tests.
The Cause of the Strokes
Fourteen years later, Alan was having stroke symptoms. He decided to go in and see a doctor who told him he had an opening between the chambers of his heart. This opening allows blood clots to happen, so he was having little strokes. The doctor went in with a catheter to close the opening, which is a relatively successful surgery. It didn’t work for Alan though. He had another surgery 10 months later which fixed the problem.
Alan says that spending so much of his life wondering why he felt tired and sick made him depressed and was extremely hard to deal with. But 14 years later when he finally understood that he’d been having strokes, it made a huge difference in his ability to start moving forward with his life.
Alan says that when he was young MRI’s were relatively new and unreliable. So it was hard for him to get correctly diagnosed. He says that you can watch to find stroke symptoms like drooping in a face, tingling in a face or fingertips, and other things that can help indicate a stroke.
A Shocking Infant Death
Alan met his wife after his first stroke at 18, and has been married for 25 years. But marriage and parenthood didn’t start out smoothly for Alan and his wife Susan. On May 6th, 1996, Alan’s first son Bryse was born. But just a few months later on August 14th, Bryse died. He was at his daycare center, and passed away from SIDS. Alan says that being at work and having the police show up to tell him about his son was absolutely awful.
Alan says he and Susan grieved their son’s death very differently. He felt it was his job was to be the protector and to take care of his family. He grieved by trying to control things, trying to make sure everything was done right. Alan felt he had screwed up and hadn’t done his job. Susan felt an emptiness and guilt that she had been at work.
Alan says that they dealt with lots of “what-if” situations. What if they had gone to pick up their son early? What if they hadn’t taken him to daycare that day? There are a hundred things they thought about and wondered if they should have done differently.
They also thought about all the things they wouldn’t get to see. They wouldn’t see their son go to school or get married. Alan said they had to start to recreate the way their life would look now that their son was gone.
Alan says they had to spend time grieving the life they wouldn’t have. Alan says to cope they threw themselves into helping others. A woman named Jolene came to their house the first day after their son had passed. The police officers had given Alan a hotline number to call, and Jolene showed up out of the blue. She was a peer counselor, someone who had been through this same thing. Jolene held their hands and helped them walk through their grief. She suggested things that they maybe wouldn’t think of to do before the funeral. For example, they had a plaster cast of their son’s hand and foot made for their home.
Alan and Susan would call Jolene when they needed to talk or cry, and she was there. They went to support group meetings to talk with other families who had gone through a similar situation. After a little while, the Utah SIDS Alliance asked if Alan and Susan would be willing to help other people. Susan and Alan became the co-presidents of that organization and were able to run the support meetings, work with the State Health Department, and create the Back To Sleep campaign to remind parents to put babies on their backs to sleep.
Alan is grateful for the work they were able to do, and all the Utah families they were able to help. Alan found a closeness to this community of people and the support they gave each other was indescribable.
Conversations With God
Alan’s conversations with God at that time involved a lot of questions, mostly asking “why?” Alan says he eventually learned that he needed to be in a place where he could benefit others. He says he wasn’t happy to hear that. But he learned what he was supposed to do and how he was supposed to be there for others. “I need to be there to help take care of them. I’ve been there, done that and don’t want to ever do it again,” he says.
Alan’s next daughter Haylee was born a few years later. He says that when Susan was pregnant, she was a train wreck and was so worried about everything. Alan felt calm, and at peace that it would be fine. Once Haylee was born, Alan and Susan switched places. Susan became calm and comfortable, and Alan became a train wreck.
He would go into the kid’s rooms every night to put his hand on them to make sure they were breathing. He jokes that it was great as teenagers because they were too afraid to sneak out, knowing their Dad would come check on them in the night.
Alan says that his feelings of a protector came back out when his children were born, and he wanted to control everything he could. He says now that his children are grown he feels less pressure, and can know that he’s done his best and it’s up to them now.
Lessons Alan Has Learned
1. Empathy and Serving Others
When Alan and his wife were able to serve and help others who had children die unexpectedly, they felt unity, support and healing. Serving others also brought them happiness and joy.
2. Learn Lessons Amid Hardship
Ask God, “What do I need to learn this situation?” Often learning the lesson will benefit your life moving forward.
3. Good Things Can Come from Tragedy
Figure out how to see the positives in any situation. You can’t let the crazy stuff that happens in your life beat you down. For example, Alan says some of his greatest friendships and best points of his life are connected to Bryse dying.
4. Awfulizing: Life isn’t as bad as we think
Alan says that a psychologist worked with him and taught him about awfulizing. For example, you get a hang nail and then you feel like you’re going to have to get your thumb amputated. You’ve created a horrible thing out of something small, and it’s a negative cycle. To break the cycle you have to put everything on a scale of 1 to 10. 10 is the worst, most horrible thing ever. For Alan, his son dying was the 10. Nothing else in his life can compare to how awful that was.
Alan says sometimes something will happen, like the kids put crayons in the dryer and shirts are ruined. We tend to grow that into an 8. But if you really look at it, it’s just a 2 or a 3. Comparing it to the worst thing ever helps you put it into perspective. You can have control over your reactions when you think about your life in this way.
5. There is Power in Forgiveness
Alan remembers one bully from his childhood taking particular care to make his life miserable. At least, that was Alan’s perception. Alan later was in a religious ceremony, and this person from his childhood was there. Alan decided in that moment to let go of his childhood hurt with this person. And 30 years later, he hasn’t harbored any ill-will toward him. He believes that Jesus Christ and God helped him let go of that hurt and anger.
Thirteen years after Alan decided to forgive this person, he got a phone call saying they had died of a heart attack at a young age. Alan says he felt so blessed that he had let go of his anger and could go to the funeral without any upset feelings.
Alan says often the people in our lives that have hurt us probably don’t know that they’ve done something so bad to us. The anger we feel is hurting us more than it’s hurting them. As long as we’re willing to give God our struggles, He can help us overcome the feelings and take them away.
6. The Ability to Choose How to React
Alan says sometimes he’s been put on a path he didn’t want to walk, but learned to figure out what positives he could take from each situation. He says he would never have wanted to be on a path that included having a child pass away. But everyone has things happen to them that they don’t want. And we don’t get to choose them. But we do choose how to deal with the consequences. “The only thing we get to choose really is how we react to any given situation,” Alan concludes.
7. Embrace Your New Normal
Alan has the chance to meet with families and groups and help them get over hardships. He talks about embracing a new normal (one of Tamara’s favorite things as well.)
Alan says, “The day before my son died, I was a dad. The day after my son died, I was still a dad, but I didn’t have my son. Normal had changed for me, normal was never going to be the same as it was before. And so I have to learn how to adapt and how to work within the range of what normal is.”
Alan likens it to going on a vacation to Italy that you’ve planned thoroughly and you’re so excited for. You get to the airport, and they tell you to go to sleep and they will wake you up when you arrive. Now imagine you go to sleep, and you wake up on the ground and they say “Welcome to Holland!” You’d probably think, “Wait a minute, I was planning to go to Italy.” But you’re in Holland and there are great things to do in Holland like windmills and wooden shoes. But it’s not Italy. Being in a different place can be wonderful and great, it’s just not what you were expecting. Finding the good in your new normal. (The original credit for the “Welcome to Holland” story goes to Emily Perl Kingsley).
Advice on How to Support Others
Alan also talks about being on the other side of the table when someone you know is going through a new normal. Other people may not understand what you’re going through, because your new normal doesn’t impact their daily life. At the beginning of a loss people crowd around and try to support and help, but that slowly fades away as they get back to their life.
How to Help a Grieving Friend
Part of what you can do is create a place where you remember that somebody is in a new normal space and finding ways to still support them in that place. This doesn’t have to be crazy hard. It doesn’t have to be a lot of work, it can be sending them a text that you’re thinking about them. Just so that they know that somebody is aware of them. You can put flowers on their loved one’s grave.
Alan says you can also remember significant dates (like the birth or death day or a loved one) and show that you’re there for your friend on those important dates. Being aware of the needs of others is an important key. All it takes is setting a recurring annual reminder on your phone and you can remember and comfort your friend on these critical anniversaries. Doing this means a lot.
Sleepless In Seattle Advice
Alan has some thoughts about this popular movie. In the movie, Tom Hanks is being interviewed on the radio on Christmas Eve. The therapist on the radio asks Tom Hanks how he got through his wife dying. Tom Hanks says “I just remind myself to breathe and hopefully someday I won’t have to remind myself to breathe.” Alan says that this advice is key. You can live moment-to-moment. And pretty soon you’ll be able to take two breaths and be able to manage two breaths.
Alan says it’s important to remember that nobody expects you to be perfect. You can be in a bad place, and that’s OK. It’s just one breath at a time. Inhale, exhale. That’s all it takes.
How God Helped
Alan says God put amazing people in his life as part of this whole experience. They were earthly angels to Alan and Susan and their family. Creating lifelong connections has been such a gift.
God also gave Alan the ability to have perspective and to stop awfulizing things so much. He gave Alan the knowledge that we can choose the opportunities before us, and that we don’t have to let life happen to us. Most of all, Alan says he learned that God won’t leave us alone. There are always people who can help us and support us. And we can always be there for other people by asking them to dinner, to go for a walk, to serve them, send flowers, or more. God has helped Alan take his pain, and turn that into great ways to help others.
Alan loves the following resources:
- Who Moved My Cheese by Dr. Spencer Johnson. Alan says this book helps us realize that things change and we don’t always get a choice in what happens, but that’s ok.
- Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute. This book talks about putting up walls, our thought processes, and our perspective.
You can contact Alan at ADShermanauthor@gmail.com.