Julie’s life changed one day when two of her children died in a car accident. She shares heartfelt tips on how to recover from & help others through grief.
Julie Cluff is a full-time entrepreneur, Build a Life After Loss podcaster, hope giver, life coach, grief recovery specialist, and artist but not always in that order. She is a wife to a wonderful husband who brings the fun, the mother to 6 beautiful children including 2 angels and a spectacularly young and vibrant grandma. Julie shares her story of the loss and grief after her two youngest children died in a car accident on Mother’s Day and her transformation to bring hope to others who are grieving. She believes powerfully in the human spirit and the ability for all to rise from the ashes and create beauty.
An interesting thing about Julie is she decided to become an artist a few years ago. She used the time she was recovering from surgery to watch and learn all she could online so she could become a painter. This is now one of her passions. She loves painting large abstract paintings
On Mother’s Day 2007 Julie loaded her three youngest children in the car and took off from the Houston area to make the drive to North Carolina to visit her in-laws. As they approached the Mississippi/Alabama border Julie remembers “waking up” (even though she doesn’t remember being sleepy) driving down the median of the highway. As she tried to pull the car back on the highway it started to roll. Her suburban rolled several times and they ended up upright on the opposite side of the freeway on the grass.
Due to hitting her head during the accident, Julie temporarily lost her vision. She could hear her 12-year-old crying in pain in the seat beside her but she couldn’t hear Carrie and David who had been in the back seat. She started calling for them, but there was no answer.
As her eyesight gradually began to come back, Julie noticed all the windows on their car were shattered and there were people congregating 20-30 feet away. That is when she realized Carrie and David had been thrown from the car. A gentleman approached her car and she asked to borrow his phone. She then made the call to her husband and told him they had been in an accident and she didn’t know what was going on with Carrie and David because they had been thrown from the car.
The ambulances came and Julie and her son James were placed on striker boards and taken to one hospital while Carrie and David were taken to another hospital.
Once they arrived at the hospital, Julie kept asking the nurses if they had heard anything about her other two children.
Julie had an aunt and uncle who lived in Mississippi who drove up to be with her when they found out about the accident. When they arrived they put her husband on the phone who told her Carrie and David didn’t make it.
Five minutes after this call, the doctors informed her that her son James had to have emergency surgery on his leg. So, they wheeled her back to talk to him. She didn’t tell him about Carrie and David, but she did comfort him and explained what the doctors were going to do and he would be alright.
After that Julie describes how her body just couldn’t seem to process everything—the grief, the shock. It was too much for her to comprehend.
After James got out of surgery, they put them together in a room which had a lobby. This was a blessing because they had so much family and friends who came and held vigil with them for the next week while they were recovering in the hospital.
Powerful Actions Which Helped Julie Heal
1. Recognizing Miracles
The doctor who operated on James had developed the very surgery which he needed to fix his leg. Another miracle was as the car rolled Julie heard a voice in her head say, “Bring in your arm” which she did and didn’t lose her arm.
Over time, Julie realized the very miracles which happened to save her arm and to save James’ leg could have happened for Carrie and David. It was clear to Julie from the very beginning that it was their time to go. It wasn’t easy to process this grief, but as Julie told a friend that first night, “[Carrie and David] are eternally safe.” They didn’t have to deal with the difficulties of this life any more, and they would “be there when it was her time to move on.”
2. Remembering God’s Merciful Preparation
The month before the accident Julie attended the funeral of a friend and during the funeral she had a revelation of how much God loved this husband who had lost his wife.
During a trip she heard the story in 2 Kings where Elisha was surrounded by earthly armies and prayed God would open the eyes of his servant to see “They that be with us are more than they that be with them” (2 Kings 6:16). They were surrounded by chariots of fire and the army of the Lord. This story taught Julie God was powerful and sent angels to surround us here on the earth.
Julie learned God wants to help us as we have hard things pass into our lives. We just have to have eyes to see how He is trying to prepare us.
A few months before the accident, a friend had walked her through a Christ-centered meditation. Her friend taught her to visualize meeting Christ in a meadow and giving Him her burdens. And so, as she sat there in shock she went back and forth between crying and visualizing meeting Christ in a meadow and giving Him her burden. That brought her comfort.
3. Going to Therapy
After the funerals Julie still had to physically and emotionally recover from the accident. She ended up with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and went through therapy for two and a half years.
Julie was grateful she was able to reach out to counselors and give herself patience and permission to grieve. Do whatever it takes to heal!
4. Emotional Recovery
Close to the year mark of the accident, Julie did start getting impatient with herself thinking, “I should be better.” Then she wondered why she wasn’t choosing to be happy. Julie then started to beat herself up because she couldn’t figure out how to be happy. She began to wonder if there was something wrong with her. This line of thinking only made it worse.
“We think that by being unkind to ourselves it will help us and propel us forward, but it doesn’t.”
Julie had a hard time forgiving herself for being the driver of the car. She had almost a hatred for herself and wished she could get out of her skin and get away from it all, but that wasn’t possible. “It was horribly painful, and horribly lonely and dark and depressing. But there was always hope in the background because of my faith in God.”
Physical recovery when we are sitting in a hospital it is easier to be patient with ourselves. But emotional recovery is more challenging because we often think if we had enough faith the pain would just go away. “Our Heavenly Father loves us so much that he is not just going to make everything okay for us. He is going to allow us to grow and learn.”
Julie has counseled Christian women in the past who thought just having faith was enough. But she believes God expects us to use all the resources available to us: neighborhood tennis, counseling, support groups or whatever it is, “we need to be seekers for healing.”
“It’s been said that time heals all wounds, but in reality It is what we do with the time that helps us heal.”
5. Remembering & Having Hope
Having survived a brother committing suicide, and a divorce, Julie knew God had helped her through those difficulties and He would help her again.
Julie knew “The way things look today is not the way things look later. Things can improve.”
Julie continues, “The belief, the hope that there is recovery, that there is healing is huge. Because if we don’t believe we can heal, we won’t.”
6. Staying Involved
Julie explains if you have suffered a loss it is really important to get out and be involved in activities. For example, she played tennis and did things with her friends–even when she didn’t feel like it. It helped her to get out and be involved.
It helped her to rub shoulders with friends and feel loved, and a chance to think about something other than grief.
7. Permission to Be Happy
Grief is one of the lowest emotions. We don’t like how it feels, but then when we feel happy, we feel guilty. Julie explains that especially the first few months that if something made her happy and she laughed she would think, “If I loved my children I wouldn’t be happy right now.” Often mothers who have lost children feel this way.
But she believes the opposite is true. “It is honoring our children to find a way to heal and be happy again.” If her kids were in the room with her she know they would want her to be happy again.
8. Having the Right Focus
Sometimes after someone dies, we focus on the last words we said to them or what we wish we would have said to them. Julie said instead we should focus on the good lives they lived. Don’t discount the rest of the relationship for the final few hours.
The last exchange Julie remembers with Carrie was when he daughter told her David was driving her crazy and then she moved to the seat behind Julie and buckled up. Carrie then told her “Happy Mother’s Day mom!” Julie then reprimanded David and reminded him to mind and be good. Julie can’t hyper-focus on the last thing she said to David being a reprimand. She loves him and she knows he loves her.
She loves to remember that her David was busy and they have so many David stories—like water dripping off of the chandelier, or David ripping up the “No, David” book and having to tape it back together. Those are the very types of fun memories you need to reflect on and remember.
9. Continuing Faith Practices
Julie explains it isn’t always easy to keep up with your faith practices when your faith has been shaken, but it is the best thing to do. Rely on scriptures. Rely on prayer. Do the things which helped you in the past.
One of the reasons Julie thinks spiritual things are hard when we are grieving is because we are emotional already. Julie elaborates by saying, “Spiritual things are emotional things, and pull at our emotions.”
When Julie couldn’t hold her big scriptures due to her injuries, she got a little tiny set of scriptures. Then she would lay in bed and read that. And sometimes nothing would penetrate into understanding, but she kept going because she knew there was power in reading the scriptures.
Going to Church
Going to church every week was challenging at first for Julie. She explains by saying,“All of the sudden my identity was I was the mother who had lost two children in a car accident.”
Julie felt like a fish in a bowl being watched by everyone. “Your emotions are right there on the edge but you don’t want to fall apart—so you’re holding it all in. You worry if you cry that everyone is going to think that I’m falling apart. If I laugh is everyone going to think I didn’t love my children. You don’t even know how to act.”
But she acknowledges that by simply going to church the first Sunday after the accident and every Sunday after that helped her keep her connection with God who ultimately helped her heal.
10. Allowing Space and Time to Process Grief
As you recover from loss things change. Not only are the people you loved and lost not going to be there but other things fall away too because as Julie explains, “You need to allow space for grief.”
Julie explains this as visualizing your mind as a big rectangle. She then explains, “Early in your grief that whole space is just the darkness of grief.” Then slowly you move through the grief you can regain some of the “brain space for other things.”
Julie goes on to further explain as you are grieving you create a safety bubble around yourself and you eliminate all the non-essentials in your life. Then give yourself time to grieve.
One of the things that breaks Julie’s heart is when mothers who have lost children have to go back to work 2 days after losing a child. That simply doesn’t give them time to grieve and heal. Julie suggests, “Just do the best you can. Do what is necessary that day and then allow yourself time to grieve.”
For example, when Julie went through a divorce earlier in her life she was busy working and taking care of young children. But once she got home and got them to bed, she would lay on her living room floor in between two speakers and play sad music and cry. She gave herself time and permission to grieve—but at the times she thought, “This is so pathetic.” But now she realizes that was the best thing for her because it gave her time to get the emotions up and out. “You have to keep those emotions moving—if not they get stuck.”
11. Everyone Grieves Differently–Don’t Give Up on Family!
Julie and her husband struggled with their relationship for a while. Some people think tragedies automatically bring spouses together, and they can, especially initially, but over time people process things differently. “Each individual has a different grieving process.” The tricky thing with spouses is that each person has that dark rectangle in their brain and there is no room or very little room for your spouse.
The only reason Julie and her spouse are still together is because her husband never blamed her and never pointed the finger at her.
Julie also had her children go to therapy so they could all talk and process their grief.
“Worry does no good. It solves nothing. So, we do what we can. We live the best life we can and then we give it all up to God.”
More Joy Now
Now Julie is on the other side of grief and is a grief recovery specialist, she has come to realize the worst thing that could have ever happened to her has already happened.
Even though it sounds like a paradox, Julie says she has more joy in her life now than before the accident. She explains when you go through a tragedy or loss and you do it in a way which, “builds your faith, and you do it in a way that honors you and your kids,” you eventually come around to joy.
Julie’s entire perspective has changed since the accident. She doesn’t worry about money as much and she has a proper perspective on how she looks at things and judges things. This change didn’t happen all at once, but gradually.
“We talk about losing people, but we haven’t lost them as much as they have moved on before us.”
Julie learned the great lesson of not sweating the small stuff, giving the rest to God and now she is happier.
How to Help Someone Who is Grieving
It is hard to know how to help someone who is grieving. It is a little bit like walking on eggshells for a while. Here are some of the things Julie’s friends did for her which helped her while she was grieving:
- Be there—be patient and show love.
- If you notice a need—just act: Clean the kitchen, bring meals, offer space to sleep for family coming in for the funeral, answer the door, refinish a door, plant flowers, bring over a card with donations to help with funeral expenses, etc.
- Help them know they are loved and not alone.
- Be willing to listen and be there without judgment. In an effort to heal, people going through grief talk and talk and talk to process the event. Sometimes all the talking wears people out, but those who understand the grieving process get it. It is important to get all the emotions out.
Julie realized it wasn’t just her tragedy. Others were grieving too, and they showed up to help. Often when we have a loved one who is grieving we want them to “feel better” because if they feel better it will help us feel better. Be patient and kind.
What Not to Do or Say
- “They’re in a better place.”
- “You had them for 10 years.”
- Don’t do or say things that remind them there is an eternity–they know that.
- “You just need to get over it and move on.”
- Don’t think the person grieving just needs their space and needs to be left alone. They often need people and need to know they are not alone.
Favorite Bible Verse
Matthew 11:28 “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
Julie loved visualizing giving the Savior her load, because she knew He understood and she knew He could give her rest.
Julie also loves the story of Job in the Bible. After he lost so much he still had faith and believed in God.
Julie loved reading near-death experience books like Return from Tomorrow by George Richie.
The Message by Lance Richardson. Lance talks about how angels help us once they have passed on. Reading this really helped Julie. She also likes the book Lance’s wife and children added to the Message after he died called, From Our Side. You can get both books together now and it is fantastic!
Create a Playlist of inspirational music to play when you need help. This will help you be able to move through your emotions more quickly because you can dump the hard emotions and fill yourself with inspirational music and thoughts.
Some people find support on Facebook, but Julie cautions sometimes the messages they share are not correct because so many people are still in the very raw stages of grief. For example, on one popular Facebook page a popular blogger wrote that if you have lost your children you will grieve them with every heartbeat for the rest of your life. Julie counters that by saying, “It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Julie looks at her children’s death this way: If God gave her a choice to have her children for 8 and 10 years or to not have them at all, she would choose the time she had with them every time–regardless of the pain of losing them.
So, to Julie the choice is to focus on being thankful for the time she had with her children, what she gained by having them in her life, instead of focusing on the loss.
Give yourself permission to feel the joys and the sorrows so you can heal.
The most important things to remember are to have hope that how you feel today isn’t how tomorrows will be. The second thing is to be patient with yourself and love yourself as you process grief. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
Website: Build a Life After Loss
Her mission is to help others who are struggling with grief.
Podcast: Build a Life After Loss
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