Vocabulary Lesson: Learning the Language of Grief and Loss

How do you speak of the unspeakable?

How do you constrain the earth-shattering reality of child loss to a few syllables?

How do you SAY what must be said?

I remember the first hour after the news.  I had to make phone calls.  Had to confirm my son’s identity and let family know what had happened.

I used the only words I had at the time, “I have to tell you something terrible. Dominic is dead.”

Over, and over, and over.

Until others could pick up the chant and spread it to the ends of the earth.

And then silence.

Such a deep wound requires silence.  Because there are no words for the ache inside a mother’s heart, the pain that burrows into her bones, the sorrow that sucks the breath from her body.

It was some months before I found a community of bereaved parents who began to give me a vocabulary for my experience.

And it was more than helpful, it was liberating!

break-the-chains

As I began to speak aloud what was hidden inside, it broke chains I didn’t realize held me hostage.

As long as my feelings are secret, they trap my heart and mind in an endless cycle of regret, fear, sorrow, pain and anxiety.  When I speak them aloud, I can recognize them and fight them and overpower them.  And when I share them,  I find that I am not alone.

Others come alongside and say, “Me too!”  Validation makes me stronger. Understanding makes me brave.

me too sharing the path

I hate the fact that my son is dead.

I hate the pain that his death has inflicted on me and on my family.

There are days I wish I could run away and hide, that I could pretend this never happened, that I could undo the broken that permeates my life.

But I can’t.

There’s no way through but through.  I have to face the awful truth, I have to consider the ways it is changing me and remaking who I am.

I need words to process the pain because that’s how I can disarm its power over me.

It’s tempting to try to ignore the hard parts of our stories thinking that we are getting away from them.

But we aren’t.

The harder the season, the more profound the wound or bitter the struggle the more time it takes to process.

The first step is learning the words and finding community in which to speak them.

healthy-heart

Here are links to three online communities for bereaved parents:

While We’re Waiting-Support for Bereaved Parents

Heartache and Hope: Life After Losing a Child

TCF-Loss of a Child (The Compassionate Friends)

If you have lost a child and are looking for a place to learn the language of grief and loss, a safe space to share your pain with others who understand it, see if one of these groups might be the place for you.

 

 

Which Weighs More?

Remember the childhood riddle, “Which is heavier, a ton of bricks or a ton of feathers?”

feathers

It was great fun to catch someone giving the wrong answer.

Because, of course, a ton is a ton is a ton.  Weight is an absolute measure.

But it takes fewer bricks to reach that quota although it takes just as much strength to lift the burden.

weights-dumbbells

One thing I’m learning in my grief journey is that there are so many people carrying a load.

I find my compassion radar has been fine-tuned to hear even the faintest whisper of hurt in someone’s voice, to see the tiniest gleam of a tear, to notice the smallest stoop of shoulders or the beginning of a frown.

And while some of us have had our ton of pain and sorrow delivered via bricks-suddenly, forcefully and overwhelmingly dumped-others have acquired their ton over a lifetime of disappointment, struggle and testing.

They both weigh a ton.  

And they both require great strength to carry.

It’s a challenge to resist the urge to rank my experience on a continuum of pain.

Although I bridle when people compare their loss of a pet or job to my loss of a child (as I wrote about here), I do try to extend grace when others expose their own wounds.

I want to comfort other people with the comfort I have received.  Not only the comfort from Christ-which is the ultimate comfort-but also the comfort I’ve received from wise friends and caring sisters-in-loss.

I want to be a listening ear, a compassionate heart and an outstretched hand.

Reaching Out to Help Someone in Despair

I want to be a witness, a fellow traveler on the journey, an encourager.

Grief

is grief

is grief.

A ton is a ton is a ton.

Daily Battle: Tempted to Give Up

So many things raced through my mind in the first five minutes of hearing the news:

Oh, God!  Is it true? (I have to authenticate his identity);

How do I tell everyone? (I have to make phone calls);

What do you do when your child dies? (I have no idea how to plan a funeral);

and on

and on

and on.

Of course, that doesn’t touch the FEELINGS flooding my heart.

I don’t really have words for that, even now.

But as the days of crazy activity and people everywhere gave way to the weeks and months of silent sorrow, all I wanted to do was to give up and give in.

What was the point of carrying on if it meant carrying this weight of sadness until I was also in the grave?

At first, my motivation was to help my husband and children through these crisis moments.  My training gave me tools to give them words and ways to frame the pain. Hours of home “therapy” drained me but also gave me a sense of purpose and  direction.

It was a couple of months into this journey when  I faced my first test:  I suffer from a gastrointestinal condition that predisposes me to catastrophic GI bleeds.  Combined with the medications I take for RA, I woke one morning to find I was losing large amounts of blood.

It was nearly welcome news.

As weakness overtook my body, I could feel the lure of simply drifting away into eternity.  I was tempted to lie down on the bed and allow my heart rate to decrease, my blood pressure to dive and my soul to break free from this body of death.

But I didn’t-because I could not knowingly add to my family’s heartache.

No one was home so I drove myself to the emergency room and was admitted to the ICU. Several days and units of blood later I came home, restored to life but not unburdened of grief.

And so it goes.   Each day brings its own temptations.

I will be honest:  I am still motivated more strongly by love of my family than a sense of mission or purpose this side of burying Dominic.

Perhaps that is sin.  I don’t know.

But for right now, that’s enough.

Every day, even almost three years later, I wake up and must choose to go on.

I’m not suicidal!

I’m willing to stick around.  But I am no longer afraid to die.

I can say, like Paul,  “To live is Christ, to die is gain”.

doesnt-get-better-gets-different

 

 

 

 

Grief Brain: It’s a Real Thing! PART TWO: Coping Strategies

So now that you know you aren’t going crazy, what to do?

Give yourself grace-understand that the old you is not the new you.

griefbrain

You will not be able to overcome these very real changes by sheer force of will. No matter how talented or together you used to be, it’s unlikely you can operate on that high plane right now. If you try, you will only exhaust the resources you have left.  

So slow down and make room for how grief has impacted your mind.

talk-to-yourself-as-someone-you-love-brene-brown

There are some basic self-care techniques that bear fruit in every area, not only mental acuity:

  • Eat balanced meals or snacks-It doesn’t matter if you WANT to eat.  Consider that you are fueling your body so that it can feed your mind.  Find a protein bar you like or eat easy-to-make salads or sandwiches.  When blood sugar levels are stable, your mind works better.
  • Get as much quality sleep/rest as possible-This is very hard, I know, when the setting sun brings memories and thoughts that make sleep almost impossible.  But research “sleep hygiene” and apply the techniques that might work for you.  Herbal supplements and teas can help as well as prescription medications.
  • Drink enough water-hydration is so very important and easy to ignore.
  • Limit alcohol and/or other stimulants/depressants -any of which can interfere with your ability to think and remember. (Do NOT stop medication unless you do so in concert with your doctor)
  • Exercise-There’s no need to run a 5K. Just a walk around the block or even around your house can get your blood pumping and providing more oxygen to your brain.
  • Get a physical exam to rule out hypothyrodism, diabetes, heart disease, or any other physical cause for your symptoms.  If prescribed treatment, follow the protocol.

brain-cogs-and-light-bulb

Develop work arounds:

  • I simply admit to people I’m meeting for the first time that I will not remember their name unless and until I use it multiple times, and even then I might forget.  It takes the pressure off so I don’t have to pretend when I see them again.
  • I write down EVERYTHING.  If I put something “someplace safe” I jot down the location in my calendar.  If I make an appointment or need to make a phone call, I write it where I can see it.  If I commit to bring something to a potluck meal, I put down what I promised and when it needs to be there.
  • I ask for help.  Like I said before, if I make lunch plans with friends, I ask that they text me the day before to remind me.  If I need extra time to fill out a form, I speak out-I’ve never had anyone refuse.  If I can’t remember something important, I admit it and look it up.  I have given my family permission to tell me when I’m repeating myself.
  • I maintain routines and habits.  Keys-same place,always. I have a carabiner on my purse to attach them when I leave my truck.  Glasses-same place, always.  Medicines in those little seven-day sorted containers.
  • I use the Internet, mail and telephone calls to expedite things and minimize stressful interactions with people.  If I am going out to a restaurant, I look up the menu online so I’m not forced to make a decision on the spot.  I look up and print directions even though my phone can navigate on the fly.  I call ahead to learn how long a repair will take, if items are available and if my prescriptions are actually ready.  I send letters and cards instead of visiting when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

take-control-of-your-life

Lifestyle choices:

  • I aim for balance:  Harder tasks with easier ones; stressful outings with quiet moments; reading with sewing; outside and inside; work and play.  Switching up seems to help keep me sharper somehow.
  • I don’t overcommit.  When someone asks me to do something, unless it is truly an emergency requiring an immediate answer, I consult my calendar.  If I already have a couple commitments for a week, I beg off or reschedule for another time.  I realize that those working outside the home have far less control over these things but perhaps you might ask your boss for some leeway.
  • I group similar tasks and do one thing at a time.  I find that doing things that require the same skillset on a single day increases my ability to do them well.  Shopping, writing notes, cleaning house are things I schedule for one day at a time.  I am absolutely NO GOOD at multitasking anymore.
  • I’m realistic about what I can and can’t do.  It is humbling to admit that I’m no longer tolerant of small children and large crowds.  I used to be able to handle both.  But I just can’t do it, so I limit my exposure.  I won’t serve in the nursery at church and I don’t attend concerts.  That’s just the way it is now.
  • I plan for laughter.  If it doesn’t happen organically, I seek something uplifting and funny to tickle me into laughing out loud at least once a day.  Laughter helps me cope and releases all kinds of feel-good hormones.  With the world of memes at your fingertips, this is an easy thing to do.
  • I refuse to apologize.  Yes, I might say, “I’m sorry” when I forget someone’s name, but I don’t make it a habit to make excuses for my inability to live up to others’ expectations.  I learned early on that anyone who has not walked this Valley can’t really understand anyway.  It frustrates me, adds to stress and does no good.  So I let my “yes” be “yes” and my “no” be “no”.  I’m beyond being embarrassed.

I do the best I can as long as I can.

And when I reach my limit, I admit it without being shamed.

 

shame-is-the-intensely-painful-feeling-we-are-unloveable-brene-brown

 

 

 

 

 

What To Do With All These Feelings???

Feelings, feelings and more feelings!

I’m overwhelmed with them. All. The. Time.

brene-brown-on-empathy-image

Sadness.  Longing.  Regret.  Hopelessness.

But also happiness, excitement and joy.

They bounce around in my head and heart doing battle like caged animals.

What to do? How do I keep my life in some sort of forward motion when if I give in to each and every feeling I’d be going in circles and heading nowhere?

One thing I can’t do is ignore them.

I’ve tried.

Stuffing pain down deep where I think it’ll never escape doesn’t work.

hungry

It just sneaks through whatever crack I haven’t managed to seal tight and shows up at the most inopportune moments.  And the release is often explosive-hurting me and those around me.

Journaling is the best method I’ve found to let my feelings out in a more controlled fashion.

I can say whatever I want to on paper without worrying it will harm another’s heart.  I can write things I would never be brave enough to speak aloud.  I can mark my page with anything I want to-it’s for my eyes only.

I find that letting go of the feelings I’ve been holding in for so long often results in great freedom and release even when my circumstances haven’t changed at all.

This pouring thoughts out on paper has relieved me. I feel better and full of confidence and resolution.

~Diet Eman, Things We Couldn’t Say

And writing them down, I am often better able to discern the reason behind the feelings, better able to think of what I might do to help myselfeven if no one else can help me. Seeing it in black and white I can find patterns and pinpoint unhealthy habits that are leading me down deadend alleys.

Successful journals break the deadlock of introspective obsession

~Alexandra Johnson, Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal

I might start a journal entry with a thought bouncing around in  my mind, or a quote or a Scripture verse.  I may ask a question-of myself or of God-write a memory or whisper a fear.

However it begins the page soon fills with things I wasn’t even aware were inside me.  And almost always ends in a better place than where it started.  

Not one outward circumstance altered.

Not one problem “solved”.

Not a single aspect of life “fixed”.

Journal writing is a voyage to the interior. ~Christina Baldwin

But my ability to understand my own heart and to respond to the unchanging circumstances around me has been enlarged and strengthened.

My journal is the safest space to explore the nooks and crannies of how grief is changing me from the inside out.

Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.

~ Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

i-write-because-i-dont-know

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exhausted

Exhausted

Worn out

Bone-tired

Ready to drop

Drained

Fatigued

War-weary.

I wasn’t created to carry this burden.   I cannot do it.

Jesus invites me to lay it down:

Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Put My yoke upon your shoulders—it might appear heavy at first, but it is perfectly fitted to your curves. Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. When you are yoked to Me, your weary souls will find rest. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 VOICE

yoke-of-oxen

 

 

 

Just Tears

No great wisdom today.  No wonderful insight.

Just tears.

woman-looking-through-rainiy-window

A day that was going pretty well ended in a conversation with someone who should have known better stomping all over my heart.

Someone who is very much aware of my loss acted like it hadn’t happened.

It really hurt.  

After all this time I was surprised by how very much it hurt.

So I cried.

IMG_2410

 

I cried because I miss Dominic.

I cried because a day that had felt victorious ended in defeat.  I cried because it feels selfish to hold people to the standard of caring about my broken heart when they are so busy with their own lives.

I cried because it feels like even those who shouldn’t forget ARE forgettingthe son that walked beside me for almost 24 years has been set aside in less than three.

My heart hurts and I don’t think I can just suck this up.  I’m not even sure that I should.

Where do I draw the line between extending grace and asking for it?

I just don’t know.

heart and wood