Many Kinds Of Grief: Eight Ways To Help Your Heart In Hard Times

Long time readers may have noticed that the past month there have been fewer original posts and more recycled ones.

I’m not sure precisely why, but it’s been a lot harder to put my thoughts and feelings into words than at any other time in this journey.

I’ve started and abandoned post after post. They languish in my “drafts” file and will, hopefully, eventually, be completed.

There’s just something about the rest of the world being forced to live in the no-man’s-land between what we used to take for granted and what we now have to face that makes it harder to talk about my personal experience.

Grief takes many forms and I believe the whole world is grieving now.

I can hear it. I can feel it.

All of us are facing (many for the first time!) the fact that control is largely an illusion. We climb into our vehicles and assume the person coming at us in the other lane will maintain their position but don’t know that he or she is distracted or medically impaired or drunk.

And then-BAM!-all bets are off. What we take for granted can change in an instant.

So I guess my challenge is in translating my particular grief into language others can understand and relate to.

For the first time I feel there’s a wider audience longing for the secret recipe to life after loss.

I know not every heart is suffering from physical loss of a loved one but I think there are some general principles I’ve learned that can help anyone who’s struggling to find a path through this difficult season:

  • Acknowledge what you’ve lost. It often helps to name what’s changed, what you miss, what you’ve had to give up. It may seem obvious but you might be surprised. When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I knew I’d no longer have HIM. But what I didn’t realize at first was that I also lost the family I once knew (we were all changed), the me I used to be and the life I thought I’d have. There are Secondary Losses hidden inside every grieving heart.
  • Face your feelings. Consider journaling your thoughts. Often speaking or writing out a feeling is the first step to dealing with it. Grief isn’t just one feeling-although we tend to think of it that way. It’s A Tangled Ball of Emotions. I had no clue until it was me trying to unravel the strands and understand what to do with them. Emotions will leak out somewhere. Are you short-tempered and cranky? There’s probably something underneath those outward signs.
  • Think about your strengths and coping skills. What has helped you get through tough times in the past? How can you use the same set of skills or tools to tackle this challenge? Child loss is the greatest and most difficult thing I’ve ever faced. If you had asked me in the first five minutes if I’d survive I would have told you, “no way”. But I have. Largely by leaning into my faith in Christ (which I know not everyone shares) and depending on coping skills I learned over the years dealing with chronic illness and other hard things. What have you survived in the past? Use that to get through this.
  • Stay connected to the people who matter most to you. Social distancing is an unfortunate label for what is actually physical distancing. Social media, smartphones, Skype, Zoom meetings and other electronic means of connection are widely available and can help a heart stay in touch with friends and loved ones. When someone feels isolated he or she is much more apt to give up and give in. Humans were made for community. If you can’t be physically next to people, find another way to get close and stay in touch. It might well require more effort but it’s worth it.
  • Make a new routine. It’s not just babies that thrive on schedules. We all need a semblance of control and normalcy. Eat at regular times. Set up a work station/school station if the virus is keeping you at home. If possible, make sure each day includes some physical activity and outdoor air. Exercise, hobbies, family story time or shared movies are all things that could be included. Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time each day. For several months after Dominic left us, I wrote each day’s plan on an index card. When I found myself at loose ends, sitting staring into space and sinking into despair, I consulted my card. I moved on to the next thing and eventually found I’d made it through yet another day.
  • Limit your media diet. Let’s face it-most of us are easily drawn into an “us vs. them” mentality. And once we begin to think in those terms it’s harder and harder to see beauty in the world. It’s one thing to remain informed and it’s another to be absorbed by all the things over which we have no control. Focus on smaller things-friends, family and community. That’s where a heart can make a difference.
  • Practice discernment and draw a line between what is inconvenient and what is truly tragic. Lots of things can FEEL like the end of the world but very few things actually ARE. Life has changed dramatically but it’s still life. Work and school look different. Masks are uncomfortable. Celebrations might be virtual. Shopping without trying on clothes is a hassle. But none of those things equate to death or loss of income or being unable to visit an elder in a nursing home. There are absolutely, positively tragic aspects to this experience and (sadly) one or more of them may visit your family. But unless and until they do, save your energy in fretting over (relatively) minor inconveniences.
  • Remember that there are more chapters to your story. All of us have dark pages in the books of our lives. Some of us have several chapters’ worth. But as long as there is life, there is hope. My family HAS survived child loss/sibling loss. We are different, we are wounded, but we have survived. Some of the things we have learned are truly beautiful (although we wouldn’t have chosen to learn them this way). If you listen and pay attention, you will learn things too.

Truth is, grief can drag you down so low you don’t remember which way is up, much less how to get there. No one knows that better than a bereaved parent.

Still, there are things you can do even there that will help your heart hold onto hope.

Where there is hope there is light.

And light will always, always chase away the shadows.

Hardly The Time For Being Taught

It seems to be the nature of humans to listen with an ear to respond rather than an ear to hear.

I’ve done it myself.

Jumped right in with all kinds of suggestions designed to “fix” someone else’s problem.

Or worse, heaped my own experience with something more or less (often less) similar onto an already overburdened heart.

I hate that tendency in myself and I’m working hard to try to change it.

Image result for listen to respond listen to understand

Those who feel compelled to just say SOMETHING often bombard grievers with platitudes, comparisons to their own grief or just empty, frivolous words that require we either stand there dumbfounded or find a gracious way to exit the conversation.

It’s especially painful for a broken heart when a well-meaning someone decides THIS is the moment for a theology lesson.

“God has something planned for you in this” or “God will use this for good”. (Romans 8:28-29)

“We don’t grieve as those without hope!” ( I Thessalonians 4:13)

“All our days are numbered.” (Psalm 139:16)

I get it-death is a heavy subject and the death of a child isn’t something anyone wants to talk about, contemplate or be forced to wrestle with. So it’s often easier to simply say something-anything-do your duty and walk away.

But it is hardly helpful.

Deep grief as a result of unbearable loss is not a teaching moment.

It’s an opportunity to listen well, think carefully about if or when you need to say anything and simply offer compassionate companionship to a broken heart.

Grieving felt hardly like the time for being taught, at least initially. Early grief was my time for pulling out of my past those truths that I had already learned — out of my ‘basement — so that I could begin to assemble them together into something even more meaningful to me than before. It was the time for understanding that even though I had always believed in heaven, it now looked to my perceptions to be more real than this world. It was the time when, even though I already believed in God’s control of the world, I now felt dependent upon him being sovereign over it for all my hopes. It was the time for realizing that even though I already believed that Christ conquered death, I now longed to see death die.

Lianna Davis, Made for a Different Land

When Help Doesn’t Look Like I Thought it Should (or Hoped it Would)

I suspect I’m not alone in growing up with stories of a handsome prince coming to the rescue on his white charger.

If you hear the tales often enough they burn an image in your mind of exactly what help should look like-brave, bold and unmistakably obvious.

knight1

Trouble is, real life rarely plays out that way.

Oftentimes help doesn’t look like I think it should or even like I hoped it would.

Sometimes, in fact, it’s pretty much opposite of what I had in mind.

And that means that if I’m set on preconceived notions, I might just miss out on precisely the aid my heart is hoping for.  In my prideful arrogance I can overlook the hand that’s reaching out for mine.

This past November, my youngest son thought of a wonderful way to spare my joints while I did the chores around here.  I spend a good part of each day walking, toting buckets (and other assorted stuff) and tending to our animals and our property.  While the walking is great for my health and my bones, the carrying isn’t.  So he suggested I think about getting a golf cart to make things easier.

Can I just be honest here?

My idea of someone who used a golf cart to go a mere half mile or so was that they were L-A-Z-Y.  (No offense to any readers or friends who use one. ❤)

melanie feet crocs and driveway step

I was NOT going to be THAT person.  I was going to carry my big behind and feed buckets up and down the driveway unassisted.  I needed the exercise and, after all, I was plainly capable of doing it.

But after talking it over, and after my husband generously agreed to purchase one, I gave in.

golf cart and roses

I absolutely, positively LOVE it!

It makes all the difference in the world to my hands, ankles, hips and wrists.  I still get plenty of exercise but I’m no longer wearing out my joints doing daily tasks.  I didn’t realize how carrying buckets, wood, limbs and other random things for a distance was impacting the swelling and pain I experienced on a daily basis.

And it made me think of how many times I may be missing out on precisely the help God is sending me because I don’t like the package it comes in or my pride is preventing me from accepting it.

Since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven I have needed so. much. more. help.  

Things that used to be easy are hard and things that used to be hard are harder.  

Sometimes that help has come from people I least expected to offer it.  Sometimes that help has come from people I (frankly) didn’t want to be beholden to.

Sometimes I’ve waved off the very help I need because my pride has reared its ugly head and won the battle for my heart.

What foolishness!  

So I’m going to try to finally let the lesson sink in.  

Every morning as I hop in my cart and go, I remind my heart that pride is folly and proffered help should be received as the gift it is-whatever it looks like,  ❤

melanie in golf cart sunny

Lessons in Grief: Learning to Listen

I admit it:  I’m a fixer.

It’s probably genetic (won’t mention any names!) but it has been reinforced by training and life experience.

When faced with a difficult or messy situation, my mind instantly rolls through an inventory of available resources and possible solutions.

And I tended to cut people off mid-sentence with my brilliant (?) plan to save the day.

But there are things you just can’t fix.

I knew that before Dominic ran ahead to Heaven but I mostly ignored it.

I can’t do that anymore.

heart leaf torn

 

So I’m learning to listen better.  Learning to let others express the hard things that can’t be fixed so that their burden is a bit lighter for the sharing.  I’m learning that silent hand holding or hugging or just looking someone in the eye instead of dodging their gaze is a great gift.

I’m learning that lending courage is possible.  One heart can actually beat in synchrony with another and the duet is musical and magical strength.

I’m learning that there are too many voices shouting “solution!” and too few ears listening to the full expression of a problem.

I’m learning that often my rush to remedy is hurtful, not helpful.

I’m learning that time does not heal all wounds-there are many among us bearing injuries that may be decades old but have never been spoken aloud because no one would listen.

we all need people who will listen to our stories

I’m learning that even the spoken stories need to be repeated often and with just as much emotion each time because the telling has a way of releasing pain all it’s own.  

I’m convinced that if we were a society of listeners who slowed down just long enough to really HEAR other people’s stories we’d be a society with much less pent up anger, bitterness and other dark emotions.

sometimes you can hurt yourself more by keeping feelings hidden

I’m embracing the old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we talk”.  

Sometimes that means literally biting my tongue or placing my hand over my mouth.  

But I’m trying not to waste this hard-bought lesson.  

Need an ear?  

I’m here.  ❤

friends hugging

 

Why I Won’t Forget Death: Lessons in Living

The other day I listened to an NPR interview of Amy Tan, author of the Joy Luck Club among other best-selling titles.

Her brother and father died within an year of one another when she was fifteen.

I was spell-bound as she recounted how that experience shaped her adolescence and still shapes her today.  I identified with things I am observing in my children and things I feel in my own heart.

She said she thinks about death every day.  Not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that she is very aware death is every human’s experience, eventually.

Some of her friends call her paranoid.

Some of my friends call me gloomy.

But she went on to say that thinking about death gave her a precious gift:  It made her constantly evaluate if what she is doing right now matters, if it is truly her passion and if it is something she will be glad she did when her time comes to pass from this life into the next.

I think she’s right.

Solomon said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning Than to go to the house of feasting, For that [day of death] is the end of every man, And the living will take it to heart and solemnly ponder its meaning.”  Ephesians 7:2 AMP

It’s easy to get caught up in everyday details and forget the sweep of life.  It’s tempting to fritter away a day, a month, a year, a decade doing meaningless and unfulfilling things.  But my time is limited-whether I am 20 or 40 or 60.

Burying Dominic has made me zealous to make every day count.  It has made me impatient with foolish pursuits and material measures marking success or failure.

I will not waste the years I have left on things that don’t matter.

And I will measure what matters by the yardstick of death.

“Whatever will matter on our dying day, and then when we stand before the Lord, is what matters most today, right now, at this instant.”
~Ray Ortlund

life in your years