The Good Grief Project – Michelle Ellsworth

I learned to love Michelle after hearing about her from a neighbor of mine who had her photograph his children. She took such beautiful and authentic pictures that I just craved to know more about this lady! My heart keeps growing for the things that she has overcome, for all the ways she serves others and for the great attitude she has had through all of her trials. Here is her story. . .

In 2006 I was living my happily ever after. I was like any other young mother, spending her days at the park, baking cookies and playing peek a boo with my babes. On April 18th I finally started my photography business. Eighteen hours later, my sweet baby James breathed his last breath and graduated from this earth. When this moment had passed, I hadn’t just lost my son to a tragic accident–I had lost myself and my reasons for living. My lows reached the valleys of Hell. Raging with hatred, anger, resentment, guilt and shame. Fighting for a reason to live with every breath I breathed for five years solid. It was pure hell on earth. But I fought. I fought the good fight. I faced down my demons. I owned my pain. I embraced my imperfections. I learned to love all of me. The good, the bad the happy and the sad. And I lived on other people’s joy, until I found my own.

When I was going through this moment in time, my family did not talk much about it with me. They did not understand what I was going through, so they didn’t say anything. The reality is this a very common response. Loved ones don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything. It leaves the bereaved feeling isolated and alone. Many in grief don’t want to talk about it, but the open invite is always appreciated if and when a grieving parents wants to explore their emotions.

Because of my experiences, I want to teach people what grief really looks like. I want to teach families how to help loved ones who are grieving. I also want to help the ones in grief know how to help themselves. People don’t like to talk about it, because it is wildly uncomfortable, but I want to make it real and raw and honest.


So if someone in grief came to me, I would first make sure that they were actually wanting my advice/insight or if they needed to talk and vent.

Does this person need to just be loved and heard? OR do they need help to move to the next step?
If they call and are just complaining, then I know that I still need to build the foundation of trust before I can  help them take the next step in their life. The foundation of trust has already been established if they come to me asking for advice.

Some people, their step is just feeling all of the feelings. You cannot push them out of that step until they are ready. If someone is needing to complain or vent, there is only one thing to say:

“I am so sorry you have to go through this. It is really crappy. If you need me to listen, I am here.”

And then you shut up and listen.

When there are unchangeable circumstances, there are no solutions. DO NOT offer solutions to an unchangeable circumstance.

My parents are the best example of eternal optimists- they have the best outlook in the worst circumstances. Growing up in the foundation of being an optimist, I never stopped looking for the positive in all of the situations. . . In ALL of them. It took 9 or 10 years to be able to find the good in my son dying, but I neverstopped looking for the good. I was definitely not optimistic for the first 5 years.

It is important that you know that you cannot address grief until trauma has been addressed and processed. You would never tell someone whose child just died, to get over it. You would never say that! And when someone is in trauma, it is like it happened just 5 minutes ago, because for them, it is still in the forefront of their brain.

Grief is so much easier to deal with than trauma. But what comes first is living with trauma, before you can live with the grief. The trauma of betrayal, the trauma of seeing your child fall to their death from a second story window. That is a totally separate category of things to address and heal. Once you can address the trauma and heal, you can file it away. On its own, time does not heal all trauma. The trauma will stay there until you process it. After you process it, then time can give you space from the emotions. It can give you distance.

EMDR  helped me to process my trauma — it stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – and it helps you take your memories from the frontal lobe to another part of your brain, I don’t remember which, so that every time you think about it, it isn’t triggering you right now. It can become a memory where you think about it and you think, oh that was sad, and that was hard.

What is in your toolbox that has helped you cope with these trials?

I have several tools in my toolbox.

1. Having a commitment to figure out how to be happy again. Commitment is a tool.
2. Becoming teachable – realizing I was not going to be able to teach myself what I needed to learn, and that I needed to look to God and other people in my life to help.
3. Taking action – whether you know where you are going or not, take action so you can figure out which way is the right way to go.
4. Intuition. really relying on your gut. It is important that you really develop this skill.
5. Developing courage. Being willing to go where you haven’t gone, doing things you haven’t done. facing things you are afraid of.
6. Assigning purpose to your pain by blessing the lives of others through your experiences.
7. Staying in a state of service and always having a service mentality to keep you outside of yourself. When you hear other people’s problems you don’t have time for your own.
9. Gratitude. Always being grateful for the experiences you have been given, knowing thateach experience gives you the opportunity to learn. There is no adversity in your live if you learn from it. Education is a positive thing. It shifts things from a negative to a positive.
10. Have someone who believes in you. Your greatest resource is having someone who believes in you: God, your spouse, your mom, or even just yourself. Yourself is the best.

Ultimately, if you feel broken, just know–you are not broken at all–you are becoming. You are becoming who God wants you to be. Keep on keeping on. Learn all He wants you to learn and you will end up where he wants you to go. I promise.


Visit Michelle’s website to learn more about The Good Grief Project and her photography.


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