How I got through the death of my son with Donna Kennedy | POP 748

A photo of Donna Kennedy is captured. Donna Kennedy is a Licenced Clinical Social Worker. Donna Kennedy is featured on Practice of the Practice, a therapist podcast.

What does it take for a family to recover from the death of their child? Why is it important to allow yourself to feel the emotions without suppressing them? Can a family turn grief into a celebration?

In the thirteenth episode of the How I Got Through It series, Joe Sanok speaks with Donna Kennedy about how she got through the death of her son.

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Meet Donna Kennedy

A photo of Donna Kennedy is captured. She is a Licenced Clinical Social Worker and the owner of re: therapy, a synergistic health and wellness center. Donna is featured on the Practice of the Practice, a therapist podcast.

Donna Kennedy is a Licenced Clinical Social Worker and the owner of re: therapy, a synergistic health and wellness center, supporting and emphasizing the inseparable mind-body connection. Donna incorporates lifestyle medicine principles to prioritize and support the overall health and wellness goals of her clients.

She works with individuals, couples and families, with a specialty in addictions, and has professional and personal experience with grief.

Visit re: therapy and connect with Donna on Facebook, LinkedIn, Psychology Today, and Youtube.

See also, Your 1 Degree Shift

In this Podcast:

  • Donna’s son
  • Allow yourself to feel
  • Getting through the grief
  • Donna’s advice to her past self

Donna’s son

Six years ago, Donna and her family went on vacation.

Her son went on a short hiking trip with cousins and friends there and had a tragic fall, not making it back home.

The next few weeks and months that passed after his death went by in a haze. Donna and her partner knew that they wanted to celebrate his life, and organized an ultimate frisbee event with all those who knew and loved him.

We really wanted to celebrate his life so we went into the planning, and that God, with a lot of awesome friends and support [we were] able to put together a beautiful celebration of life. (Donna Kennedy)

Donna’s celebration with friends and loved ones set the tone of gratitude and appreciation for her son in honor of his memory.

Allow yourself to feel

There will be times when the sadness suddenly rises and feels overwhelming. It may last for days or a moment, but when it comes, allow yourself to feel it.

Make space for yourself to feel it until it passes.

Whatever the feeling is, I don’t resist it, because I think the resistance – and the acceptance part of this is what is – when I resist, it will come out some other way. (Donna Kennedy)

When you resist strong emotions, they will find another way out. This could look like:

  • Being short-tempered or snappy
  • Having little patience
  • Becoming frustrated by the small things

Do not be afraid to feel them because it is through feeling them that they are then released.

I always tell people … the waves [of emotion] don’t last forever. They’re going to come in but then they’re going to go back out. (Donna Kennedy)

Getting through the grief

  • Saying his name

For Donna and her family, hearing her son’s name never brought more pain than his death. Instead, it warmed her heart to hear him being spoken about and remembered.

  • Faith

Donna spent time with God in worship and praise.

  • Constant learning

She spent a lot of time learning from people who have gone through similar situations, desiring to learn how to move through the grief in the best way possible.

I make sure that I’m always nourishing my mind with something that is going to help me realize something that I didn’t realize before. (Donna Kennedy)

Donna’s advice to her past self

Take more intentional time for yourself during your work day to check in with yourself. Refill and renew your energy by meditating in the middle of the day, and don’t negotiate with yourself on that.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Useful Links mentioned in this episode:

Check out these additional resources:

Meet Joe Sanok

A photo of Joe Sanok is displayed. Joe, private practice consultant, offers helpful advice for group practice owners to grow their private practice. His therapist podcast, Practice of the Practice, offers this advice.

Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.

Thanks For Listening!

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Podcast Transcription

[JOE SANOK] Just a trigger warning before we dive into today’s episode; in this episode, we talk about the death of a son. Just want to make sure that you are sensitive to that and know that before we dive into today’s episode. This is the Practice of the Practice Podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 748. I’m Joe Sanok, your host, and welcome to the Practice of the Practice Podcast. I am so glad that you are here with us today. We have been covering quite the series this summer of how I got through it or how I’m getting through might be a more accurate way of talking about the stuff people have been through. We’ve covered quite a bit of ground since late June and we’re continuing moving forward and really excited to have Donna Kennedy with us today. Donna Kennedy is someone that’s been in my world for a number of years and I’ve heard little bits of her story. Today I’m really excited to hear Donna’s story and how she has got through some really rough things in her life. Donna, welcome to the Practice of the Practice Podcast. [DONNA KENNEDY] Thank you so much, Joe. It is really an honor to be on your podcast from having found you on a podcast and connecting with you with Practice of the Practice and Killin’It Camp. You’re one of my mentors, so it’s really a thrill to be here with you. [JOE] I mean, you’re someone that consistently shows up for yourself and to see you, whether it’s in our What’s Working in Next Level Practice or leveling up with Group Practice Launch and Boss and all that. I mean, you show up for yourself and it’s been so awesome to see your growth over the years. Well, tell people a little bit about your professional life and your personal life, just to introduce yourself. [DONNA] Sure. My name is Donna Kennedy. I live in New Jersey and I am a mom of two fabulous boys and a very appreciative and grateful wife of a wonderful husband. I have a private practice here in Westfield, New Jersey. I’m a psychotherapist, I’ve been doing this for about 13 years, and I am Gottman trained, so I love working with couples. I am also an LCADC, so I like working with addictions as well. That’s the population that I really like to work with. One of the things that I’m branching into that I think Joe will ask me about later is a very special step that I’m taking into a bigger project, which is working with joining with bereaved parents on their journey from heartbreak to abundance. That has really been taking a lot of my time recently, and it’s my heart and I think that’s where I’ve been called to be. [JOE] Well, where does it make sense to start the story? Where does it make sense to start the story? [DONNA] Sure. So July 27th, 2016, my family and I were on a vacation with the rest of the big Kennedy clan. We usually do that every year, and my son, 17 years old at the time, had gone on a little hiking trip to a beautiful place called Kaaterskill Falls with a couple of cousins and a couple of friends. Unfortunately, he had an accident and fell from the tier and didn’t make it back home. So as we all know, there is a before and after when this heartbreaking loss happens. Getting through that the past six years has not been easy. It’s been through a lot of struggles, but one of the reasons that I really want to work with be parents is I feel that I have something to give, something to offer. I want to build a beautiful community to help support that. So it’s grown from the seed of that. Not that I know everything, nobody does, everybody’s story is different but I feel like it’s a place that I’ve learned, that I’ve been prepared for a while for it even before it happened. If you look back, God just works like that. So I’m really excited to get into this next part of life. [JOE] Well, before we get into the how you got through it tell us a little bit more about maybe the month after your son passed, what was that like for your family, for the people around you? I mean, I just can’t imagine what it would be like, how surreal that would be to lose your child. [DONNA] Surreal is. Yes, it still isn’t real a lot of the times. We’re very blessed that we get a lot of signs from him. I really feel like if you open yourself up to signs, I feel them all over. But in the beginning, yes, it’s a fog, it’s a reality. We talk about this stages of grief and that shock. We very much believe that the best way to have some event around his passing wasn’t going to be a funeral. We really wanted to celebrate his life. So we went into the planning and thank God with a lot of awesome friends and support, put together a beautiful celebration of life, which included obviously, anybody that ever knew him and family and friends. He played Ultimate Frisbee. If anyone knows anything about the Ultimate Frisbee community, it’s just a beautiful community of wonderful young men and women that really come together and help each other up, support each other. So it was really fun that what we decided to do was say, this is not a dress-up event. This is not a formal event. If you have Ultimate gear, wear your jerseys, wear your shorts, whatever it is, just come like that. So I think that was really something that Ezra was probably looking at and saying, this is pretty cool. But his humble self was probably like, no, not for me. So I think it was more of that setting the tone to be appreciative of the time that we did spend together and the gift that you always be. Luckily, in the time after, because we know there’s so much adrenaline that happens and that gets you through the event part of it. But then every 90 days your energy level drops and drops but I think the most important thing, and I was very, very blessed to have people in my life that helped me with this, that was able, that were able to teach me, so important to just be vulnerable and lean in, really lean into whatever feelings you have. Because your feelings weren’t right. They aren’t wrong. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Everybody does it differently. Some people might jump into working and that works for them. For me, I just really took the time to just be, just whatever I was feeling. I also had some accountability where people were making sure that I did things that I needed to do, I was getting up and I was showering and I was doing those kinds of self-care things. But not resisting what is I think is so important. That goes to the acceptance part of if you go through the stages of grief, this is grace. This is having the gratitude and really being in the blessing that you have. So I really feel like that’s one of the most important things is wherever you are, honor where you are. It’s fine. There’s a great book by Megan Divine, which a lot of people probably know, It’s OK That You’re Not OK. And just take advantage of anyone who wants to support you. That was something that was not so easy for us in the beginning because so many people come out and they want to do things and you just want to be alone, but, it was really a lesson and accepting help and being so grateful for help. So all of those things in the beginning months I think were super important. Of course, God and faith, I don’t know what I would do without having a strong connection to God. [JOE] Now you mentioned that adrenaline in 90 days. Was there a time where it really felt like it shifted from a lot of people just supporting you, surrounding you to just, it being quiet and the adrenaline’s done and like the rest of your life starting? Tell me more about that shift. [DONNA] Yes, there was definitely a shift, but I think it was so gradual because of honoring where I was. My husband went right back to work and I took the time that I had and I eased into it. But I think probably yes, because I’m a therapist when you return to work you have to be in the moment with everyone that you are serving. So that started to, it’s interesting now that I think about it, that shift also really shifted me into going into private practice full-time because I wasn’t doing that at that time. So it was like that feeling like I had to step into something else even then. It had to be something that just gave me more. So I actually went from one position to a different position in another agency and even with that, there was still something pulling at me. So I think that’s where the momentum came, something that I just really, I wanted to do private practice and I just have to give another shout out to you as well, because doing Practice of the Practice helped me believe that I can rock this out. Like I can do my private practice, I can have a group practice. I’ve had people working with me and it’s been wonderful, but it was more like taking back my life, it felt like, so not working for other people was so freeing. It’s like, I get to do this. I get to design this and make it the way I want to. That was a really important shift. But talking about shifts is something that’s so important because what you said earlier, there are small shifts that we go through. We don’t get through it. It’s always going to be there, but it’s these little shifts that are going to be the catalyst to really start getting you to appreciate more of what could come, what have I learned from this? We don’t get the privilege of repeating moments. So I think we live fuller. I think we live more vibrantly. That’s a choice. Some people, it takes them longer and believe me, I have my moment. The shifts are within the waves. The waves can come and go and I allow myself to go into those waves. So if I see, and sometimes I can anticipate and sometimes I don’t, I’m not able to but sometimes you get a rogue wave and it’s like, and it could be for a couple days, just blah. But I allow myself to do that and I feel like — [JOE] When you say you allow yourself to do that, what does that look like? [DONNA] Whatever the feeling is, I don’t resist it because I think the resistance and the acceptance part of this is what is, when I resist it’ll come out some other way. I might be, and sometimes I’m not saying this doesn’t happen, sometimes my patients will be really short or I feel like I’m more in resentment if I don’t just allow myself to just feel it, go with the waves. I always tell people that I’m working with, the waves don’t last forever, they’re going to come in, but then they’re going to go back out. It’s like, if we stand at the edge of an ocean and a huge wave is coming at us and we stand and do this and we try to fight it, what’s going to happen? We’re going to be knocked down into the sand. So we have choices to lean into it and either just we could go under it. We could go over it but know that it’s not going to last forever. Sometimes it feels like, it feels like you could cry for three days straight. I’ve almost done it three days straight. But there are breaks. I think that knowing that it’s not that intense pain is not going to last forever. It’s really hard when you’re in it but if you learn how to just go with it, lean into it, honor where you are, it’s okay that you’re not okay then I feel like on the other side of that, when you get to catch your breath again and come up for air, that it’s just, it expresses, first of all, we know tears express stress out of our body, toxins out of our body. So it’s good to do that, but find yourself in a place that you feel safe doing that. That’ll really be the trigger that will get you back into momentum. [JOE] You’d use the term vibrance regarding life. Tell me more about that. What do you mean that maybe there was like a different vibrance or appreciation for life? [DONNA] Yes, I think that somehow there was a, a shift from not as much color in the world to when you really appreciate having so much love in your life and that’s why we grieve so deeply because when we have so much, we miss it so much. But when we can that, that vibrancy things just, you can feel things more deeply, more intensely. You just, all your senses can come alive in a way that didn’t before in a good way. Sometimes when the pain is there, it’s not such a great way, but if we learn to shift our focus and what we’re looking at and how we’re looking at it that’s how I think I get opened up to signs also because he’s really, really good at giving signs. If you just look out, he was number 41, that was his Ultimate Frisbee number. I cannot tell you the amazing ways that 41 has shown up. It’s really unbelievable. I could tell stories for days, but in ways that — [JOE] Tell us a couple. [DONNA] When I was putting together this group room here, I went to get a desk and when I saw it and I wanted to get it before somebody else bought it because it was the last one, I had to call my husband to come with the pickup truck because I couldn’t fit it in my SUV. He came, we put it in and I sat down and those little round stickers that have numbers on it with respect a buyer or whatever? I sit down and I see this little red or this little white sticker and I look at it and it said, not just 41, I.M.41. What? Things like that. Another time we went to a concert and we got into our seat and not realized, I don’t know how, we didn’t realize what our seat numbers were, but all of a sudden we sit down and we’re getting ready to enjoy the concert and my husband turns around and he looks and he’s like, it’s seat 41. However, there’s no, there are no odd numbers in that section at all. The whole PNC Art Center, it’s all this section is even, all this section is odd. I went to look and he was in seat 41. How did that little metal tag get there? Out of the thousands of people that were there, we got that seat. Unexplainable kinds of things. Unless you explain it by just, that’s God. 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This isn’t one of those opt-ins where you then have to give a whole bunch of email information and you get upsold and all those different things. It’s genuinely just free stuff from my friends over BiOptimizers. If you head an over to masszymes, that’s, again, that’s, there’s no strings attached here. There’s no automatic subscriptions or renewal, so there’s nothing to cancel. Just head on over to to get this totally free bundle. [JOE SANOK] Wow. So when you think about you and your family getting through this what were mindsets or habits or routines that you did that helped you get through it? It could be when you were in the thick of it, or even now when there’s a little bit more distance. I imagine there’s never going to be a, like we got through it and now we’re finished. Of course, it’s always going to be a loss. What are things or routines or habits or mindsets that have helped you get through such a significant loss? [DONNA] We, like I say counting the blessings. When you can have people around you or maybe you can even help them to understand, like, say my son’s name. I love hearing his name. If somebody says, “I was thinking about Ezra” or they say a 41 and like, even texting his name was just phenomenal. Because you can tell people, because people are like, I don’t want to say anything because I don’t want it to be any worse, well, it can’t get worse. So it’s an honor for us to hear his name and and hear that people are thinking about him. So being open about that. I think just when I talk about faith and spending time with God, spending time in praise, with worship and I’m very much into always learning, constantly, constantly learning, so I look for different people that have gotten through different things. I mean, who doesn’t love an underdog story? There’s so many great underdog stories out there. So it’s one thing that, I make sure that I’m always nourishing my mind with something that is going to help me realize something that I didn’t realize before or take a tool or an idea or some even mindset shift. I think I’ve done a lot of Tony Robbins in the last year and a half and so being in that peak state, really getting into your energy I think is one of the most important things we can do. We know that walking and exercise help for depression and anxiety and all kinds of mental health issues. So making sure that I am in this state because motions are emotion and we know that if just changing our physical state can change, our mindset can change how we look at things. So it’s energy, it’s focus and being really intentional with that. I think that’s where these little shifts, and I say they’re one-degree shifts. When I first heard that I thought wow, because one degree when I heard someone talking about it, one degree is the difference between boiling water and steam. Just that really, really tiny shift and it changes, it changes the state of that matter. So when we can be very intentional, and I can’t, I’m not a hundred percent, I’m not perfect. I do my best, but I try to make sure that all the time I am nourishing my brain, nourishing my heart, nourishing my soul with something. Those shifts compound on one another. They start to accumulate. Also just sharing with people that these things can work. That’s one of the joys of therapy. When you see someone that really thinks about what they can do with these little shifts and go from here to here and then seeing that actually happen. I know all of us therapists out there, we know it’s like walking on a cloud and we just want to share that with people. So, yes, I think it’s being very intentional because if you think that this is the end of your world, and I get it, because sometimes it does and people don’t, unless you’ve been through this particular grief and this is the one I know other people have other griefs that I can’t imagine. But if you recognize and believe that this is the end of your world, then it’s going to be the end of your world but if you think about it differently, then your world has a very different meaning. So that’s where I get to say to myself, I get to do this, I get to do that, I get to be grateful. So my world has a very different meaning when I have that focus and mindset. [JOE] When you have memories or when a client says something that triggers you or things pop up unexpectedly, how do you handle that? [DONNA] Regarding grief, if someone brings up something that triggers my memory of my son? [JOE] Yes. Whether it’s a session or it could be a memory that’s just when you’re out in the world or like what do you do in those situations? [DONNA] Well, first I’ll say I don’t always share my story with clients. I share it with them when I think it’s going to be very useful. Sometimes if they look me up, they might see a story, some of the stories that were out there at the time about the celebration of life that we had, for example, because it was in the news. I don’t shy away from it. If people say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I don’t want…,” I’m like, “I’m with you in this moment. I am totally with you. I can be in this place with you.” I actually thought that at one time it would be really hard for me to respond to that in a session. I thought about it when I go to work, if that comes up, how’s it going to be? But I actually, I invite it in as a place to, is there anything that I have learned that can help you with the pain that you’re dealing with? Lots of times people say, “Oh, it doesn’t compare to your grief.” That’s not the same. Everybody’s is different, but I can be there with you and I feel honored to be able to be there with you and help in whatever way that I can. [JOE] If you were to look back and be able to give yourself some advice earlier on in this journey and you can pick whatever age or phase you want to go back to talk to, what message or advice would you give your yourself? [DONNA] A long, well, since that time, I think that the only advice that I would tell myself is to take more time for myself, I guess more intentional time during my workday. I think I would take more break during my workday because there are times where when I keep going from one to another to another to another, whatever work that I’m doing and I don’t take the break in between to refill and renew. I would meditate more in the middle of the day. Meditating is really great and I would tell myself make sure that you don’t negotiate with yourself on that. Make sure you take time to do that because grief takes so much out of our physical body that we need to replenish, we need to renew. So I think probably once I got into working and all the things I got excited about, I think I probably needed a little bit more time to be still during my work. I would say that would be the advice. [JOE] Wow. Well, Donna, you’re also working on a book. Tell us a little bit about the things that you’re working on that’s coming out soon. [DONNA] Sure. I am super excited. I have been working on a mastermind coaching that is going to be hopefully launching in September. Along with that I wanted to write a book because I feel like it’s a way for people to get to know me and get to know my story and see if there’s any way that working together might be helpful to them. So the book actually has gone through a couple of different directions, but it’s going to start with the day that it happened. So it’s going to walk through that day and then to where I am now. This mission of mine to continue this journey to help grieving parents is about helping other people joining with other people, other angel moms and dads through their heartbreak and learning how to rediscover and create a purpose filled meaning filled life. So it’s really something that has started out as a little seed and it’s grown and I really would love to have a community of a lot of people. It’s going to be a community that I’m really hoping to go out and speak to people and have other angel moms and dads support each other and really talk about their children. The book is going to be called One More Light and it’s a Lincoln Park reference because Ezra and I loved Lincoln Park, used to go to concerts. But it talks about the significance of a light meaning who, the lyrics are, who cares if one more light goes out in a sky of a million stars. It’s just a beautiful song and it’s what, well I do. It’s about honoring their children, leaving a legacy. I always say that as long as I’m alive, my light can shine through him, through me. His light can shine through me. So I’m really excited about meeting other angel moms and dads sharing their stories and things that might have worked for them and how they’ve gotten through it or how they continue to get through it. So that’s really exciting. I have a podcast on the way, I have the coaching on the way, I have the book on the way and for me it just feels like this is where I’m supposed to be. I think I mentioned it before, these little seeds, it’s funny how you learn things earlier in life and you don’t know why you had this experience or met that person. Then it’s like, oh, okay, God was preparing me for that even now. So I think it’s important to not keep that inside and share with other people. I’m really excited to get the course launched and meet so many other incredible angel moms and dads out there to share their stories, build communities and learning about their children as well. [JOE] Well, Donna, if people want to follow your work or connect with you, what’s the best way for them to do that? [DONNA] Sure. It’s your 1, number one, and I will be posting information on there that will tell you how to get to the course, how to get the book. One of the things I really like about the book that I was able to incorporate, and Joe, you might know this little thing about me I have a 68 Pontiac Firebird that I drag-race and I race quarter mile and it’s a lot of fun. [JOE] I didn’t know that. That’s awesome. [DONNA] Yes, it’s really cool. It’s a lot of fun. I didn’t do it after, a few years after as we’re passed, but I’m back into it and faster than ever. What I do with the books, because there are so many driving references because we accelerate, we downshift, we got to look out for turns or we’re going to spin out. I have a little bit of fun with that part of it because it’s like that’s what we do in life. Driving is how we we get through life so that’s in the fun part of writing the book, so, yes. [JOE] Well, thank you so much for the work that you’re doing, and thank you for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast today. [DONNA] Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s really, truly been an honor. Thank you so much. It’s following you for so long. You inspire me, with everything that you put together, it’s stellar and I know that you are just growing so many therapists and group practices to be their best and you just give them so much that gives them a springboard for making their dreams come true too. So I really appreciate you so much. [JOE] Aw, thank you so much. Have an awesome day. [DONNA] You too, Joe. [JOE] That idea of things prepping you for something later on that you don’t have any clue, the puzzle pieces are going to work together, it’s such a strong point. It’s something I’ve been thinking through. Actually tonight at the time of this recording, I’m doing this talk at our local opera house. There’s this event called Fulfillment that’s all about finding fulfillment in your work. There’s four of us each doing 15-minute talks and one of the things in my talk I’ve been thinking about is how throughout my life I’ve been the one that didn’t quite fit in, whether that was at the high school that was all footbally or being in punk rock bands. So I think thinking through the things Donna just said it’s so important to just sit with it and keep yourself that time and to have so many people coming into this series it’s been just so fulfilling and a great masterclass for myself. Thank you all for listening. Also, we could not do this show without our amazing sponsors. That’s why my friends over at BiOptimizers, I’m so excited that they’ve put together an awesome offer for you that’s totally free. You’re going to get a free bottle of their best selling enzyme supplement called MassZymes. You also get a copy of their book, Sick to Superhuman, another copy of a book, Ultimate Carnivore Cookbook and you’re going to get a free copy of their Plant Based Super Food delights. I mean, this is just a bunch of free stuff that they are sending to you that usually cost $81. Would just love for you to check it out. You just have to pay shipping for this stuff. That’s it. Just head on over to to get this totally free bundle. Thank you so much for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have a great day. I’ll talk to you soon. Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for your intro music. This podcast is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. This is given with the understanding that neither the host, the producers, the publisher, or the guests are rendering legal, accounting, clinical, or other professional information. If you want a professional, you should find one.

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