Unsettling Dreams: Grieving In My Sleep

I’ve always had vivid dreams.

That was a problem as a young child because often I couldn’t tell where the dream ended and real life began when I woke.

Many, many nights I’d cry out from my bed, begging my parents to come save me from whatever monster followed me from my dream.

I pretty much grew out of that as I got older and learned to be very careful what I fed my mind-especially right before I fall asleep. I don’t watch horror movies, dark so-called comedies, violent dramas or anything that my brain might twist into scary or disturbing shapes in the dark.

After Dominic left for Heaven, I once again experienced a season of uncomfortable dreaming. Only one or two of my dreams were actually awful, but I would often wake feeling out of sorts, a bit “off” or vaguely aware of something just outside my consciousness that was sure to frighten me if I could see it clearly.

That season passed and only very rarely was I troubled with those kinds of dreams these past few years.

But since my mama joined Dominic, I’ve had at least one disturbing dream every single night.

I can remember some of them-like the one that woke me at two this morning-but not all of them. Even when I can’t recall the exact sequence of events, they all have a similar theme: Someone I love is in peril and I can’t save them or something I hold dear is lost and I can’t find it.

And that awful feeling of helplessness follows me when I open my eyes.

It doesn’t take a PhD to interpret these dreams.

Grief is leaking out in my sleep.

All the feelings I’ve become so good at pushing down during waking hours since Dominic left us are growing stronger again in the wake of my mother’s death.

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The lid my conscious mind keeps screwed on tight is no match for the power of the unconscious.

Off it pops and all the sad, scared, anxious, helpless, longing, fearful emotions stirred up by losing one more soul my heart loves come flying out and swirl around until they create a perfect storm of awful to parade across my mind’s eye while my body tries to rest.

I think I’ve only had one night of more than three hours uninterrupted sleep since the week Mama was hospitalized.

I’m trying all the old tricks of carefully tending what goes into my brain each day. I’m feeding myself healthy and wholesome images and words. I’m ending each day with prayer and asking God to give me sweet dreams or no dreams at all.

I may have to revisit some of those old feelings.

I would rather face my fears in the daylight.

I don’t want them to leak out at night.

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Book Review: Remember to Breathe

I’m a member of several online bereaved parents groups.

They are safe spaces to share my heart and be assured the ones who read what I write understand my pain.

Over the years, I’ve been blessed to develop friendships with some of the women who, like me, have experienced child loss and who have made a choice to seek God in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Evelyn Fannell is one such friend.

I was drawn immediately to her honest but grace-filled posts and comments in our groups. I recognized a heart that was full of Scripture but was, like me, dissatisfied with pat answers to the difficult questions a mother has when her child is taken suddenly, unexpectedly and tragically.

When life throws you a curve, even if you hurt so much you feel like giving up or giving in, remember to breathe. Deeply. Hold on to that breath as though it were your last, and it will get you through the next moment. And you’ll get through the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that…until that when you see your beloved again.

Just remember to breathe.

Evelyn Fannell, Remember to Breathe, page 169

She has written a memoir that is honest, helpful and hope-filled.

Her son, Joseph, was killed by a distracted driver just a short distance from his destination.

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No mama’s heart is prepared to get THAT phone call. It knocks the wind right out of you. But from the beginning, Evelyn knew if she was to survive this, she had to remember to breathe.

In Remember to Breathe, Evelyn draws on her experience walking the road of child loss and her relationship with her Savior and weaves them together in a way that grieving parents will find authentic and encouraging.

Even in my dreams, God reminded me to live and to breathe.

There aren’t words to describe how devastating it has been to lose my youngest child. But I have learned and grown through the experience of grief, and one of the lessons I’ve learned is something I think applies in a lot of different situations.

It is okay NOT to be okay.

Evelyn Fannell, Remember to Breathe, page 43

I’ve said here before that we have to exhale in order to inhale.

Remember to Breathe is one woman’s account of doing just that-letting go of the things and thoughts that weigh us down on this journey and inhaling the grace, mercy and courage of our Shepherd.

If your heart is longing for an authentic example to follow, I highly recommend this book.

A Little Getaway Is Good For A Heart

My birthday is in a couple of weeks and my daughter has arranged for us to have a little getaway together this week.

She had no way to know when she made the reservations four months ago how badly we both would need it.

But God knew.

Nothing takes Him by surprise even when it blindsides me.

I often have to remind my heart of that truth.

Especially when blow after blow lands hard and knocks me off my feet. Especially when I feel that I might be crushed under the load. Especially when my mind is so full of fear and anxiety there’s no room for much else.

I’m thankful for a daughter who thinks ahead and a God who knows.

Some quiet time is precisely what our hearts are longing for this November. We will sleep and talk and walk and wander. We won’t have to answer to a clock or a phone.

It will be glorious.

So This Is What I Looked Like: It’s Hard Watching Another Heart Grieve

Watching my father grieve my mother is the second hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Grieving my own son, watching my husband and children grieve him too, is the hardest.

I observe Papa’s expression, hear the weariness in his voice, note the far off stare when conversation drifts to mundane and unimportant things and realize that was exactly how I looked and sounded in the first months after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

I love my mama.

And I spent a lot of time with her these past two years since the fall and heart attack that changed everything in August, 2017.

But I was not her daily caregiver. My schedule didn’t revolve around whether or not someone could stay with her so I could go somewhere else-even if it was just down the road-for more than an hour.

One of the last photos we took with Mama. She was so proud of her great-grandson.

I called each day and talked to Papa, checking on them both, but then I was free to do or not do whatever I wanted to without considering her need to be attached to oxygen and her limited endurance to do anything even then.

I tried to be supportive. I made multiple trips down to the farm and tried to give Papa some space and freedom.

That’s just not the same as 24/7 care.

His grief for the wife with whom he spent 58 years is deeper and wider than my heart can understand.

Mama and Papa in the early days.

Just as my grief for the child I had carried, birthed, raised and cared for was impossible for him to fully comprehend.

Dominic is his grandson. And as grandparents go, my parents were extremely involved in my kids’ lives-showing up to not only the important events and occasions but also to many mundane and everyday moments.

But the gap between even frequent visits and daily living is huge.

So while I cannot feel precisely what Papa is feeling about Mama-his wife-I can absolutely understand how very devastating his loss is.

Our losses are different in kind but not in quality.

When I look at him, I’m looking in a mirror.

Grief etched everywhere.

Pain across his forehead.

Heartache painted on his lips.

I am so sad that I am no more able to touch that deep wound and render healing than anyone was able to touch mine and do the same.

No one can do the work he has to do but himself-not even someone who has done the same work in her own life.

All I can offer is to walk with him, no matter how hard it gets, for as long as it takes just like he did (does!) for me. ❤

It Gets Heavier Before We Grow Stronger

Oh, the weight of missing the son I love!

I thought I understood just how heavy it was the moment the deputy’s words sank deep inside and crushed my heart.

But I didn’t know the half of it.

You really can’t know how large a person’s absence is until you’ve explored the edges of the world without him or her.

When folks started coming up our long and winding drive, even though I knew full well he would not be among them, my eyes strained to see inside every car. When his friends gathered in our front yard, I couldn’t help looking through the picture window trying to make out his face among the crowd. When we walked into his now-empty apartment I thought surely he was in his bedroom, around the corner, just out out of sight.

But he was nowhere to be found. And the hole in my heart where he should be but wasn’t got bigger.

Those were just the early days.

In the weeks, months and years to follow I found everywhere I set my foot that followed a path we’d walked together, I missed him. When the next movie in a series was released, he wasn’t there to watch it with me. Family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, graduations all went on without him and my heart counted his absence.

From sunrise to sunset my heart marks all the Dominic-sized spaces in a day.

At night, dark stillness invites me to recite them.

But after more than five years, most people no longer see any tale-tell sign of this mama’s heart longing desperately for one more minute, one more hug, one more quick exchange of “I love you!”

I have grown stronger and better able to carry this load of missing.

Daily exercise will do that.

And it IS a daily exercise-lifting the missing up on my shoulders or carrying it in a basket on my head like women hauling water from a well far away has taught me to bear it well.

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I still miss him.

I will always miss him.

Greater strength means I can shift the missing to make room for living. I can carry that weight and still find room to carry joy.

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Hey Fellow Griever-Being Honest Is NOT Being Rude

I never ask anyone to adjust the thermostat in a car or at home unless I’m suffocating or shivering.

It’s a point of personal pride that I can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than most people.

And for awhile, I carried that same prideful disdain for “weaker folks” into my grief journey.

I was determined to endure whatever blows might come my way via comments, behavior, subtle and not-so-subtle attempts by others to circumscribe, dictate or otherwise influence my loss experience. I didn’t want to abandon pride in my own strength by admitting I wasn’t as strong as I wished I could be.

Then one day I realized that being honest was not the same as being rude. Telling the truth was not the same as acting selfishly.

Nothing is gained by remaining silent in the face of ignorance or arrogance or just plain inattention. The person who crosses a boundary of compassion or grace or love or empathy and goes unchallenged is set free to do it again-to me or someone else.

So I started telling people the truth:

  • “I’m sorry, I just can’t talk about this right now.”
  • “I appreciate your need to fill this vacancy but I’m not emotionally prepared to take on any new responsibilities.”
  • “Today is a hard grief day, can we discuss this later?”
  • “I don’t think I will be able to come, it’s too hard to be around a crowd these days.”
  • “I know you mean well, but your comments hurt my heart. You can’t understand precisely what I’m going through and I know that. I would appreciate it if you respected that fact and didn’t try to ‘help’ me by sending articles, etc.”
  • “I’m tired today. I’m taking a break from everyone but family.”
  • “The holidays are hard on my heart. I’m thankful you find joy in them. I won’t be attending the party (family gathering, etc.) this year. Maybe next year will be easier.”
  • “I’m getting anxious, I need to go.”

Guess what?

Except for a lone individual, every time I chose honesty, it was not only accepted, it was applauded.

People got it! Not that they truly understood in the deepest sense what I was going through, but they respected that I was, in fact, GOING THROUGH something hard, heartbreaking and life changing.

Like I’ve said before, my emotions will leak out somewhere. I can’t keep them bottled inside forever.

When I choose to be honest AT THE TIME it’s so much better.

When I let folks know that what they say, do, expect from and thrust upon me is unhelpful or overwhelming or even painful, they usually respond with gratitude. They almost always accept my boundaries.

Those of us walking the Valley often say that those who aren’t just can’t understand. They don’t know what they don’t know.

That’s true.

But they can be educated about some of what we know.

They can learn that some things hurt and most of them would be glad to know it because they don’t wish more pain on our already broken hearts.

It’s OK to ask someone to make adjustments to make the journey less difficult.

Being honest is not being rude.

All Grief Is Unique: Same Person, Different Relationship

I think it’s almost always offensive when someone says, “I know just how you feel” to a grieving heart.

Even two biological parents of the same child have a slightly different relationship with him or her because their experience is filtered through the lens of distinct personalities, shared adventures, struggles, joys and secrets.

We are a family of six-four kids and two parents.

Each one of us has experienced Dominic’s death differently because he was uniquely woven into the fabric of our separate stories as well as our corporate story.

Parts of me reflected back from him are gone forever. The unique give and take we shared is my loss alone.

Sibling memories, inside jokes, sneaky “don’t tell mom” pranks and antics belong to his sister and brothers and are part of their loss I can neither understand nor access.

Yes, we share corporately the loss of a son and brother, but none of us can really say, “I know just how you feel”.

Because we don’t.

And that’s one of the things that makes grief a very lonely journey.

All these feelings wrapped inside of experiences bound up in memories stored in two hearts. Only now one of them is inaccessible and the other is trying to find a way to carry both halves of the relationship.

Part of the work grief requires is gathering up the fragments of memory and tucking them safely away.

It will be different for each heart.

Even hearts that mourn the loss of the same person.