With her chipper demeanor and a voice as soothing as the calm before the storm, you would never know what Deborah Derman has been through.
Derman earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Temple University, and she’s been helping people cope with extreme grief and loss for the past 20 years, but she’s also overcome a lot of her own personal tragedies.
“When I was 27, I had my first real brush with grief and loss,” she explained. Her ex-boyfriend committed suicide on his second attempt — the first was beneath her bedroom window.
“I was really young, and I had never experienced any-thing like that. It was just very traumatic.”
Later, when she was living in Blue Bell, her parents were flying into an airport to babysit her 16-month-old son.
“While I was waiting at Wings Field, their plane crashed in front of me. Their engine choked, and all four people aboard died. So I lost both of my parents at once.”
A few years later, her husband died of a sudden heart attack during the middle of a rugby match.
She had two little boys at the time, ages 4 and 2, with a girl on the way.
After many years of trying to stabilize her life, she was struck again — this time with breast cancer.
“When I got breast cancer, that brought me right into the rabbi,” she said of Rabbi Gregory Marx at Congregation Beth Or. “That’s when I really felt that I had a target on my back.”
But he lifted her spirits, and it’s now been 11 years since beating cancer. Through all of her anguish, she’s found the good that life can offer after devastation — and helped others do the same.
She changed career paths when her third child was about a year old. Instead of being a special education teacher, she joined a doctoral program to understand how people heal from loss and move forward.
“Because I was so alone through all of these tragedies, I really made a decision to never let anyone that I knew go through that kind of isolation by themselves. I really decided to commit my whole professional life to helping others who were going through something similar.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing what I’m doing now, but I realized that it was just very important for me to help other people who were undergoing the same things.”
She helps people cope with loss in a variety of forms: divorce, and the loss of a family structure that comes with that, the loss of parents or support systems, and young widows or widowers.
She even helped in New York City shortly after 9/11 working with families — primarily of firefighters — widows, children and parents who lost people in the towers.
“That was…” she sighed, “my gosh, that was really an incredible experience for me. And I am still in touch with a lot of people that I knew back almost 15 years ago. I’ve seen them heal and recover and make new marriages and have new children, and I’ve been to weddings and all kinds of wonderful events.”
Through all her healing guidance, she discovered a new method last year.
But on top of all the tragedy she’s experienced, she also has “the worst birthday you could ever have”: Christmas Day.
“You get one thing for Chanukah and one thing for your birthday. I’ve never in my entire life gotten two presents, ever,” she joked.
To digress, one of Derman’s friends gave her a birthday present this past year, an adult coloring book.
“I had not colored since I was a really little girl,” she recalled.
The book she received had “a million little spaces” to fill.
“I thought, ‘Who could ever even figure out how to start?’ or, ‘Who could even finish this?’ But I picked up a pencil and I started to color. I filled in a space, and I filled in another, and I filled in another, and I had a lightbulb moment. ‘This is exactly how I have gotten through all the things that happened to me. One small thing at a time.’ Don’t worry about finishing the whole page or the whole book, just one thing at a time, and before you know it, you’ve made progress.”
And from that eureka moment came her own adult coloring book, which came out April 1, called Colors of Loss and Healing, available on Amazon.
“I looked at things I thought were part of healing. I condensed those elements into single words or phrases, and then I embedded them in illustrations.”
In it are images of Derman’s own life that she found meaningful.
“This to me was the most creative part about putting this project together. I went through all the images within my own home and within my own life and used those to generate the illustrations.”
A big inspiration, for example, was the word cherish.
She and her late husband had a tradition: Whenever they walked on the beach, they chose a shell for one another and gave it to each other as a surprise at the end of the stroll.
“I still have all those shells. I’ve had them for 24 years.”
Derman brought those shells to the illustrator and said, “this is what I cherish.”
There’s another page called memory, which reflects on Derman’s old garden back in Blue Bell where she grew perennials with her late husband.
When she remarried and moved to Dresher, she brought all those flowers with her, and they’re depicted in the book.
Other images like teapots, rocking chairs or hamsas, are dispersed throughout, and it has been well received worldwide.
“I am hearing from people from all over the world,” she said. “I’ve been in touch with people from Nairobi, the other day I spoke to someone from Scotland, someone from Brazil — and also Brazil, Indiana. I have people flying down to see me from Toronto, someone coming up from Boca, and most importantly, I heard from a woman who lost her husband in the Brussels bombings back in March, and I’ve been corresponding with her.”
The book has helped them overcome — or just start trying to cope — and that’s inspirational to Derman.
She found solace herself in the gifted coloring book, relating it to her own grieving process.
“In many instances I just made up my mind that I was not going to be bitter and that I was going to find a way through,” she recalled. “I learned how to do things in small steps so that I could at least feel like I accomplished something little.”
Eight months into widowhood, “I cried all the time,” she remembered. “At one point, I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘You just have to stop. It’s not good for you. It’s not good for the children. Just make a deal: You can still cry, but cry after you go to bed.’ So that’s what I did.”
She had more talks like this with herself, and friends often told her to take it one day at a time.
“But that was too long,” she argued. “I couldn’t go a day at a time. I didn’t think I’d survive a day at a time.”
So she broke it down: At 10 a.m., she told herself to live until 11 a.m. Then noon. Then another hour. Just like the coloring book.
“You just have to try everything. You don’t know what’s going to work. But if this gives you five minutes of peace and quiet in a day, that’s five minutes more than you had before. So now from a place of calm and a place of destressing, you can now focus on things I think are positive, and I think everybody needs that.”
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