Megan is a mom, a grief coach and school bus renovator. After finding her daughter, Aria, had passed away in her sleep at 15 months Megan experienced PTSD and worked very hard with multiple therapists to overcome it. She now helps other parents who have lost a child to learn how to heal.
In this episode we talk about her experience, how she was diagnosed, what helped her heal and how you can find out if you have trauma that is more severe than just grief on its own. Megan also gives a beautiful message of hope to anyone dealing with trauma now.
You can find out more about Megan at www.meganhillukka.com
Megan mentioned: The Body Keeps the Score
Dr. Peter Levine and somatic experiencing
Emotional Freedom Technique EFT (tapping)
Amy Watson’s links:
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If you have any questions, let me know here:
If you would like to share your baby’s story on the podcast, submit here: https://smoothstonescoaching.com/podcast-submissions
Music provided by ZingDog / Pond5
Photo provided by Megan Hillukka
Welcome. Today we are going to hear from Megan Hilla, an amazing mother and grief coach who has been through an incredibly traumatic experience, but has found ways to heal. And I’m so excited for you guys to learn from her today about trauma and healing from trauma. I will put all of her contact info and everything she mentioned into the show notes below this episode.
So let’s get started. Hey, today we have Megan Ika with us and I’m really excited to talk to her ’cause she’s got an amazing story. And I wanted to just say welcome. Thank you, Amy, for having me on. I’m super excited to chat about, I always think it’s weird to say I’m excited, but I’m excited to talk about trauma and grief and all the things.
Yeah. And just before we start, will you tell us a little bit about. Aria and maybe of like a favorite memory you have or something that you remember about her? Yeah. Aria was my third child. She was, we had two boys and a girl. Um, she was the, like, happiest baby. Everywhere we went. She smiled at everybody.
Everybody just like, I called her my princess, she smiled. Like I didn’t, I didn’t ever have any feelings of like, Like, sometimes you can get frustrated with your kids and she, I never got to that point with her ’cause she was just so happy and smiley all the time. Um, one of my favorite memories or like something I’m really grateful for is she had had surgery when she was one and she was in, in a hip surgery.
She had hip dysplasia. And so for. The weeks and the months before she died, I did therapy with her, like, um, physical therapy. And so I spent so much time with her, like stretching and I felt like I got like extra special time with her where I got to like hold her and talk to her and try to get her to do her stretches and all these things that she needed to do.
And so I’m so grateful I got to spend all the extra time with her because sometimes you don’t, you know, you just get so busy with life and. In the weeks before she died, I spent so much extra time with her and she was just always like, you know, she didn’t just love her exercises, so trying to get her to get distracted so we could do her stretches.
It’s just, yeah. Oh, that’s so awesome. Yeah, and I was gonna say that she, I was looking at some pictures of her and like her smile, it’s like her whole face, you know? Mm-hmm. It’s not just her mouth, it’s her whole face. And I think she gets that from you. You guys have the sweetest eyes and anyway, she’s so cute.
Um, is there like a lesson that Aria taught you? Yeah, I guess I would say she, even through going through hip surgery, even through all of that, she maintained her like happy, like very content. She was so content and. She was easy to like care for when she had to sit in a cast for six weeks that she couldn’t move.
Like she was so easy to entertain and so content, and I think that’s something that I can learn is to, you know, remember to be more content and just allowing myself more happiness in my life and just being okay with whatever’s thrown at me. She was like, even through what she went through, she was so.
Happy all the time and content, so that’s something I would take from her. Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, I had a. I think my son was three when he broke his leg and he was not, he had a hard time staying on the couch for sure. So yeah, I’ve thought often if it was my daughter that I have now too, Glynn, um, she wouldn’t be that way.
It would be a lot more stressful. Yeah. Every that’s, um, you know, her personality and it’s just so I’m grateful that she had. Yeah. Oh, that’s so sweet. Well, will you tell us just briefly, um, what happened with Aria and how she passed away? Yeah. Um, May 27th, 2016, uh, we were going camping and I was getting ready and she was, she was still sleeping and went to check on her, and she had died in the night and, Yeah, I think that’s like the moment my whole life changed.
You know, I think everybody knows who listens to this podcast. All your listeners know that moment that your life changes. She died of sudden unexplained death and childhood. It’s similar to sids, but once they turn a year, ’cause she was 15 months old and once they turn a year, it’s considered S U D C. So, It’s, it’s like there’s no cause, no reason they couldn’t find a cause for her death.
She just died in the night. And I didn’t know if I, you know, wanted a cause, like I wanted to have a reason, or if it is felt better that there wasn’t a reason. I don’t know. It’s been a, I feel like I’m okay with it now, but it’s just been a like, Hey, would you like to have a reason or is it better to not have a reason?
And I don’t think anybody knows. We all have different, Ways that our babies die. And yeah, I don’t know. It was a very traumatic, I guess. Yeah. And will you tell us a little bit about that, if you’re, whatever you’re comfortable with, just kind of what happened when you found her and Yeah. Um, I, I feel like when I found her, I, my, I think of it as like my brain snapped.
My whole, that’s how I felt like I lost it and I wasn’t able to get anything back. And I actually had a baby four weeks after she died. And yeah, that day that she died was, I don’t know, I just, I feel like it’s hard to describe like the, how I was. Um, I’m really. Grateful that I had people so close by me who were able to get there very quickly.
Um, some sister-in-laws and stuff were able to get there pretty fast, but, and my neighbors and the cops and everything. But yeah, just trying to call my husband to tell him is just like, you know, it’s a hard thing to call, but I felt like all I, in the moment that I was calling, I was so like, just calling everybody and just being like, Aria’s dead.
Come here. Like that’s like all I said to people, I’d call ’em and be like, Aria’s dead, can you come here? Aria’s dead. Can you come here? And I’m like, when I think about it now, I’m like, wow, that was really like, uh, obviously there was no way I was gonna be putting it lightly or nicely for them. It was just like I was incomplete shock and I wanted people by me.
Yeah. It was, I don’t know, a. Intense day. And from that I developed P T S D because I found her. All of us can just, I don’t know, my heart goes out to you. ’cause that’s just such a tough situation and such a hard thing you had to go through. So when that kind of trauma does occur, I mean, what was it like for you and what kind of help did you have after.
So the trauma. So, okay, so my daughter was born four weeks after she died, and since my biggest trigger was sleep, that was pretty hard. Um, just not being able to sleep with a newborn and not being able to, like, even with my other kids. I’ll just tell you a little story that I always tell people. It’s like I would, before my other daughter was born, I would, um, feel this need to go check on my kids.
Uh, it was like constantly I’d have my husband check on ’em that night ’cause I was so scared too. But in the morning I had to go check on them and it was terrifying. I’d be walking down the stairs, my heart’s pounding and I’m absolutely certain, and it’s, it doesn’t seem like it makes any sense, but in my mind, Because of the trauma, I was going to find more dead kids.
Like that’s, that was what was real for me. And my body was responding, my heart was pounding. And as I walked down the stairs, like I didn’t wanna go there, I didn’t wanna go down there. And I actually, many times, I, I’m saying with air quotes, found them dead. And I would be like screaming and shaking ’em and like, it’s traumatic for them and traumatic for me.
And then, you know, they’d be like, what in the world is mom doing? And I’d then, I’d just like sit there shaking and bawling because my whole body was full of that adrenaline and, and fight or flight. Like all of that emotion and rush and everything was in my body. And it was so intense. It was a really, it’s a, a really horrific way to live.
It really is with trauma. Um, Because it’s like you’re reliving the worst day of your life again and again and again every single day and many times a day. Like for me, it was like every, you know, 10 minutes, every two minutes. Um, especially with my newborn, I couldn’t, I literally could not almost take my hand off her belly, like her whole first year of life.
I had to make sure she was breathing because. In my mind, I was like, you can die any second. It only takes one breath to stop breathing. So I have to watch her every second of my life. And it just, I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t, I, uh, it was really hard. It was hard on our marriage. It was hard. ’cause then you’re trying to grieve on top of that, um, you have this trauma and then you’re like, but my daughter died and I’m trying to keep everyone alive and.
I need to like, I want to grieve, but I have this trauma and I don’t know how to put them together. I don’t know how to process them both, you know? So I did go to therapy and my therapist mentioned that maybe I have P T S D and for me that was a huge relief because I felt like there was something wrong with me.
I felt like, um, because when, like I was saying that I would go down the stairs to check on my boys. I decided one day that I can’t go down there anymore. It’s too intense, like I can’t handle those feelings. Uh, all that stuff that goes on in my body. And so I sat in my bed and I pretended I was sleeping until my boys came up to me and I pretended I didn’t actually sleep.
I sat there as like anxiety ridden mess until they came. I. Upstairs and I’d be texting my husband, the boys aren’t awake yet and they need them to come upstairs, but I don’t dare go down there. Like things like that. And then they’d come in and I’d feel so relieved. ’cause I know they’re okay and, but then I felt like a bad mom.
I’m like, what kind of mom? When she believes her kids are not okay, downstairs sits in her bed and pretends she’s sleeping. And when I learned that a symptom of P T S D is avoidance for me, that was a huge relief to know that. There’s nothing wrong with me that, um, what I’m doing is how it’s supposed to be or like what trauma does to you.
And I think, I don’t know, it can, sometimes labels and, and diagnoses can be harmful to some people maybe. And for me it was really relieving because I was like, okay, now I know what’s going on. Now I can get the help I need. Now I can take the steps forward in my life to be able to like, okay, I can deal with this.
This isn’t just grief, which is its own thing. You know, a huge thing that this is trauma on top of grief, and now I need to get the help that I need for this trauma so that I can grieve as well. And so I actually kind of did both at therapy. I, I off obviously talked about my grief and I talked about trauma, but I, my therapist then recommended E M D R.
It’s eye movement, desi desensitization and reprocessing. So I spent, I went to a different therapist who ended up being absolutely amazing for me. And, um, we spent, I, I, I don’t even remember how long, maybe eight months going twice a week to him and doing E M D R. And it was absolutely life changing for me.
It really was like, I don’t, I don’t live that way anymore. Like at all. I have very small, like definitely like even this morning my son wasn’t waking up and I can’t, I can’t go in there at around nine. ’cause that’s when I went to check on Aria. So then I have to wait, and for me, I’m like, well, I guess I have to go wake him up because I can’t, he handle not knowing if he’s okay.
So I go in there, but I’m not, I don’t have the heart pounding. I don’t have the, so it’s always in my mind. It’s always a thought. It has been, it’s been over four years and it’s still a thought in my mind that this can happen. Maybe it is happening, but I don’t have that physical bodily response where my heart’s pounding and I’m like certain, and like I don’t live it every single day.
It’s just a thought in my mind, and it’s not, it doesn’t translate into a full body trauma response. So it’s truly. Changed my life to be able to not, I, you know, I didn’t understand how fragile our mental health was until this happened to me. And then it’s like, you are like, wow, our mental health, it, it’s like a string, you know, or like can break and, and then all of a sudden it’s like, hey, well how do you get your mental health back?
Yeah, and for me it was a lot of work. I spent my life in therapy and it was, but it’s so worth it. It was so amazing. I’m so grateful for the tools that I’ve been given that I can be able to function and take care of my kids and really, I don’t live with the trauma. How do you, so P T S D has almost become like a, Common phrase, you know, where people just throw it around for everything.
Maybe how would you define or help someone who’s like, do, is this maybe more than, like you said, just grief or like, like what are some of the signs that people could watch for or notice or things that you learned in therapy that would help people recognize like, Hey, I might really have something more going on here.
Yeah. I think of P T S D and trauma as like we. Like you said, it’s becoming more and more talked about, but I still don’t think it’s understood, like if you were to go to therapy that they. Always would say, Hey, this might be trauma. Should we explore this a little more? And get the tools and the help that you need for it.
And I think it’s important for you to be your own advocate to maybe mention it, to be like, Hey, this feels like something that I might have. Can we explore this? Can we talk about this and see if this might be something I have? Because there are tools, there are help, there is ways that you can process the trauma and finish the trauma response so you don’t have to keep living this way, but.
Symptoms of trauma would be like nightmares, night terrors, not like hypervigilance, really on edge. You’re always waiting for the next shoe to drop. You’re, it’s really a bodily response, like physical heart pounding, um, sweating, seeing visions of what it’s like, a replay of what has happened. So you relive this moment again and again and again.
And like in some memories, you, you file them in the past, like they’re, they’re a memory and this is an ever present, ever happening event that’s happening again and again and again. Trauma can show up, you know, it doesn’t show up for like, or it wouldn’t be considered trauma. I think it’s six weeks or so, because everybody will have these kind of responses for a little while and for most people they go away.
And when you’re traumatized or you have that trauma, It doesn’t go away. And so you’re still living that day again and again. And so it can be for, it cannot. It might not show up for a year, might not show up for many years, might not show up for six months. Other symptoms, like I said, avoidance, that was a huge one for me.
Anger, like not being able to control emotions, not being able to connect with others, because when you’re in a state of. Stress and your body is kind of in survival mode. It’s really hard to feel love and connect to others. So that’s another, um, thing. There’s so many more symptoms I think, than I’m even just saying here, but it’s just really, I think I would wanna encourage anybody who feels that they have.
Something like you feel out of control. That’s how I felt. You feel broken, you feel like there’s something wrong with you. Um, just to see like, just to explore that idea that it, do I have trauma and can I get help for it? Yeah. And what did that look like for you when you did get help? Oh, so I said I did E M D R and E M D R is like a.
You hold buzzers in your hands or I hold buzzers. Some people, um, use like a light, a red light, and you follow that with your eyes, but it’s really just going from one side of your body to the other and like stimulating one side to the other to really, I. I think of it as like connecting the pathways in your brain that can’t communicate with each other.
’cause with trauma, part of your brain shuts off and it can’t communicate. And I, this is my really simple way of thinking of it. It’s not actually like scientific or anything, but I feel like this was just helpful for me to understand kind of what was happening to me was that I have my right side and left side of brain.
And there’s pathways that connect, you know, the right side and left side. And with trauma, those pathways were cut. There’s no connection. They, they can’t communicate with each other. And so with E M D R, you’re just helping rebuild those pathways. You’re helping, you know, connect those pathways again so you can get out of fight or flight state, uh, in your body and come back to like being able to be in.
All sudden, I’m like, is it parasympathetic or sympathetic? I don’t remember. But like being in a calm state, you can get there because you have those connections again in your brain. So it’s really, it’s intense and I think it’s really important to have a therapist that knows what they’re doing. I. Um, I’ve heard of people being re-traumatized because the therapist kind of forces them to go through things that they’re not ready to or they don’t want to.
And what my therapist did was really let me be the leader. He was like the guide and just told me kind of, Kayla, let your mind, your mind, go to whatever it goes to. And so I had more control in what memories I. Thought about and what came up and it was really, I feel like it was more like my body just brought up what was important for me to process, rather than sometimes people’s therapists are like, okay, we’re going through your story again and again and again.
We’re doing the same thing over and over. And they try to tell ’em what to do and I don’t think that’s helpful. It’s, it’s more useful. When you get to be more in the driver’s seat of processing your trauma and then you have this guide as your therapist who’s helping you, you know, walk through it. Yeah.
And I think that’s really important for people to know. ’cause I don’t. I don’t know if it’s women or people, it just, nobody wants to offend anybody and you don’t wanna, you go to a therapist and if you’re feeling like it’s not a good fit, like you can totally try somebody else or try something different.
Or maybe E M D R isn’t the thing for you, but just keep trying until you find something that that helps you. Yeah. Can I offer two other things that can help with trauma? Yes. That I have learned, um, as I’ve studied trauma more as a, you know, learned more about it. Um, somatic experiencing is another thing that, um, is helpful.
It helps to release the trauma energy. So if you think of trauma, energy as being stuck in your body, and it’s really, we never really want to get in our bodies and get really feeling the sensations. But with somatic experiencing, you’re feeling those sensations and allowing them to come out. And if you wanna learn more about it, that Dr.
Peter Levine is the person who has kind of come up with it and he has books, uh, waking the Tiger, and I think the other one is called You Can Heal Your Trauma. And those are good books. The Body Keeps the Score is a really good book. For trauma. Trauma. And then the other thing would be emotional freedom technique that’s tapping.
And that has been super helpful for people as well for processing trauma and being able to kind of work through the trauma. Yeah, and I think that it’s really important too to understand that, you know, when you’re in that trauma state, like you said, it’s in your body and like the adrenaline, all those things are.
Just doing what they’re doing. It’s like really hard to do thought work or to try to talk yourself out of things. It’s like another level that I think is really important, what you’ve told us of, like how to get through that so you can manage your thoughts again in Yeah, I wanna say something about that because I, so my daughter was born, Brelyn was born.
I would try to put her to bed, you know, like next to me. And, um, I would try to say, okay, she’s safe. There’s nothing around her. She’s on her back, she’s as safe as I can be. Now it’s up to God. And I’d put her there, and then I would lay down and five minutes later I would pop up in an absolute panic, terrified, shaking her, you know, believing that she’s gone and.
I am like, that was nothing. Like, we can’t just say, put your trust in God and you can’t just say, you know, like you’re saying, do thought work. It doesn’t work with trauma. Like the trauma has to be dealt with. The trauma has to be worked through because it just doesn’t, it doesn’t just go away and there’s no, that’s, this is my own personal thoughts is like you can’t just.
Believe enough to get rid of the trauma. And the trauma is like a bodily response that you have no control over. You don’t have any control over what happens with it. And so when you can process the trauma, that’s when you can start to dive deeper into the other things, dive into your grief and dive into like if you want to give it to God or anything else like that, you know, it’s the trauma is.
It is really life controlling and like all, like your body controlling, I guess is, so that’s what it felt like to me. So do you have a message of hope for moms who are listening to this and being like, oh my gosh, she’s just describing me and I’m, I’m where you were, you know, a few years ago. What, what’s like a message of hope that you can give to them?
Yeah, I think the biggest thing I would say is you’re not broken. There’s, you’re not like, this isn’t the way you have to live forever. That right now your body responded in the way that it was supposed to. This is the way our bodies respond, and now it is. If you want to get better, it is your job to get that help to process this.
It can be really intense, but I promise you it’s so worth it. It is absolutely worth it. It’s life changing and it really gives you your mental health back and your freedom back in your life, um, from feeling like, I know you feel broken. I know it, but I wanna say that you’re not broken. There’s a, there’s a.
Guy that I love listening to, and he has trauma. He talks a lot about trauma, and he says, you’re stuck not broken. You’re stuck in a spot in your brain right now, but you’re not broken and there’s hope. There’s help. There’s so many tools and I think something people have thought and have, you know, it’s been widely.
I hope that it’s becoming more and more available, that this isn’t just the way that you have to live the rest of your life and that you just have to. Find ways to function with it. Find ways to manage it because you can finish the trauma response and you don’t have to live with it. And I, I hope you hear that and that you will get the help that you need and you will start taking those steps because it is absolutely life changing.
That’s really beautiful. I love that. And it’s so worth it. Like you said, it can be intense, scary. It can be hard to find the right. Therapist or person to help you, but it’s worth doing because then you can see that, that there’s an option and there’s availability to be able to heal and keep moving forward.
Awesome. Well, will you tell people, um, a little bit about what you do and where people can find you? Yeah. I coach grieving moms. Um, I really do a lot of. Helping them process their emotions. Um, I do a lot of guided meditations where we, like I said, we don’t ever really wanna go in our bodies, but I think that’s what we need to do with grief is go into our bodies.
So I kind of think of myself as a guide for moms to realize that emotions aren’t as scary as we think they are. Yeah. And help them process, um, be with them, hear them, and do a lot of. Thought work and noticing all this judgment that we have about grief, about our own grief journey, about other people’s grief journey, and really kind of take that all away so that we can just grieve in the way that we need to and that we know we want to.
So that’s what I do. I do group coaching and one-on-one coaching and like a lot of guided meditations and visualizations and I love it. And it’s so amazing to watch people. Process and to know that for me it’s like knowing that this processing is the way that we get to, being able to learn how to carry our grief, being able to walk with our grief and not suffer with it and not try to minimize it or hide it, but we can really learn to walk side by side with it.
So that’s what I do. And. I have a podcast, um, called Grieving Moms Podcast, and I have a Facebook group group for grieving moms, and it’s called, um, it’s called Grieving Moms Community, but you can go to facebook.com/cultivated/group/cultivated family, and that’s basically where I am. My website is megan hiller.com.
Okay. Awesome. And we’ll put all that in the show notes and definitely those books you recommended. And I really appreciate you talking to us. I know it’s, it’s never easy kind of bringing back up all that stuff, but you’re, you’re amazing and I really appreciate what you’ve shared with us today. I know it’s gonna help a lot of people.
Thank you for having me on, Amy. I appreciate it. And I think, you know, when you, when you, this is your work, sometimes it hits me and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it’s my story I’m telling, it’s a part of my life and sometimes it’s like, it’s like grief, you know, sometimes it really hits you and sometimes it’s just like, yeah, I’m talking about my, my dead baby and it’s fine.
And sometimes it’s not. But I, I mean, I always like talking about Aria and. Yeah, I know that all of this grief and loss and trauma is a part of my story too, and a part of having her in my life.