How Stress Impacts Grief

It would be so helpful if there was an app to track stress like there is to track spending.

Wouldn’t it be marvelous to get an alert that said, “Low Balance”, for mental, physical and psychological reserves like the one you can get for your bank account right before you are heading to overdraft territory?

But there isn’t.

And few of us are very good at gauging just how much is left in our mental wellness accounts which means we often keep giving when the well is more than dry.

I’d be lying if I said I spend the same amount of time crying, lamenting and bent over in agonizing pain that I did in the early days of mourning Dominic. I’ve found a way to keep him close, to trust his soul to Jesus and to (largely) live in the present instead of always longing for the past.

There are days, though…

Some days are easy to anticipate-birthdays, holidays, the awful anniversary of his leaving-and some sneak up on me. I can often trace my overwhelming sadness to a specific trigger or memory dug up in a drawer or found in a pile of photos.

Occasionally, I have a horrible weepy day for no discernable reason.

That’s when I walk my heart back through recent events and always come to the same conclusion-I’ve let myself run dry:

  • I’ve overcommitted.
  • I’ve not planned rest.
  • I’ve had hard pain days.
  • There’s been family drama.
  • Someone I love is sick.
  • I’m sick.
  • A deadline looms large.
  • There’s some major unpredictability going on.
  • I’ve counseled too many people without enough time to regain my own emotional stores.
  • I’m not sleeping well.
  • I’m doing too much and not listening to my body.

What I’ve come to understand is that stress is a HUGE impact on my grief and how I experience it.

I won’t patronize folks reading this with a simplistic (but wholly unhelpful!) suggestion to “reduce or avoid stress”.

For heaven’s sake! If we could do that with a snap of our fingers we would hardly need someone to tell us to take advantage of that solution.

Truth is, stress is often largely outside our control.

But there ARE some things I can make choices about. So I do. I look ahead at the calendar and note upcoming milestone days. I plug in doctor’s appointments, birthdays and holidays. I review every invitation to celebrations or lunch in light of what is already inked in.

I’ve learned to be honest with folks about my limitations and send a card or gift through the mail if I can’t be there in person. I sometimes suggest an alternative date and time if the one a friend offers just doesn’t work for me. I stand firm in my opinion that “no” is a complete sentence and as long as I’m kind and gracious it is not incumbent upon me to offer an explanation for why I’m turning down an invitation.

And if I have an unexpectedly hard day-from grief or activity or because of my RA-I drop back the next day to allow time to recuperate and rest (if at all possible).

The reality is that child loss means there is ALWAYS a certain low-level hum of stress in my life.

Adding to that already higher-than-average stress means it’s easy for me to be tipped into unhealthy territory.

Crying is only the tip of the iceberg.

Health problems, heart problems, relationship issues and other long-term consequences often result.

It’s not only OK for me to set boundaries to protect my health and my heart,

It’s absolutely, positively the right thing to do.

It’s OK-Yell, Scream and Throw Things!! (Just Not at People)

A mom who is also coming up on her season of sorrow this spring wrote that she felt like screaming and throwing things.

I get it.

And because I live in the middle of the woods, far from neighbors or nosy passers-by, I’ve done it.

Read the rest here: Go Ahead-Yell, Scream and Throw Things!

Please Accept My Apologies

I used to be a lot better at answering every single comment on the blog, on Facebook pages and in closed groups.

I’m not keeping up at all these days.

And I am very sorry for that!

A recent private message reminded me that some folks may think a lack of response is disapproval or rejection. That made me very sad so I want to set the record straight.

These past few months have been…different.

And challenging.

And topsy-turvy.

My husband retired-which is a good thing. But for the past several years he was working out of town so not only am I adjusting to his being home every day, I’m adjusting to his being home at all.

We’ve worked out a schedule that accommodates his night owl habits and my farm girl hours so that’s going well.

The pandemic, wintry weather and the holidays have dampened my spirits a bit so motivation is a factor.

My recent hospital stay, wrist pain and realization that my hands are simply not going to get better make typing more difficult.

All that to say this: I’m really sorry for not being more attentive, more timely and more responsive to comments. I read every. single. one.

I’m going to try hard to catch up.

If you feel overlooked or are ever concerned there’s something else going on besides my own preoccupation, lack of diligence or oversight, PLEASE message me!

I never, ever want a single heart to feel sad or abandoned because of something I do or don’t do.

I promise you are important to me.

Grief Brain: Six Years and Counting

When I first became aware that Grief Brain was a real thing, it was a blessed relief!

I had long known that physical, mental or emotional stress could alter thinking and make it hard to remember things but I had never experienced such inability to hold even the most basic information in my head or found it nearly impossible to complete simple daily tasks.

It was truly frightening.

And it made life extremely hard.

I think the really, truly awful period of confusion, memory loss and difficulty lasted a good couple of years-not every day as bad as the next or the one before-but it was fairly consistent. I had to use lists, alarms and strict habits (like where I put my keys, the route I took somewhere, etc.) to make it through.

Now, six years later, it’s not nearly as bad.

That’s partly because I’ve become so good at relying on aids and helps like alarms and calendars and partly because I’ve gotten better at keeping the constant hum of loss compartmentalized in my brain so I can actually think of something else.

But if there is any added stress in the system I regress.

I forget words, names, places, why I’ve walked into a room, where I’m going, what I’m doing and (much to my horror) food in the oven or on the stove.

So if you are in the early days of loss and wonder, wonder, wonder if you are losing your mind, odds are-you aren’t.

It’s just Grief Brain.

It WILL get better.

In the meantime, use whatever helps you do what you have to do.

And be kind to yourself.

Grief’s Physical Toll

I don’t know about you but my face and my body tell the tale.

It’s a story of stress and strife and it’s not pretty.

I look at photos before and after and see grief written all over the pictures taken since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.

There’s an old saying in the South when you see someone who looks exhausted and unwell: “She’s been rode hard and put up wet.” My horse loving friends will get it right away.

For the rest of you this is what it means: When a horse is ridden hard or worked long, it sweats. The kind and appropriate thing to do is to walk the animal until it dries off and then stable it. Doing so means the horse’s muscles have time to recover from the exertion and helps prevent injury or lameness. If a horse is repeatedly “rode hard and put up wet” it begins to show in her performance, resilience and ultimately, in longevity.

Living with child loss is definitely a hard slog through difficult terrain.

While my burden is not nearly as hard to carry TODAY as it was in the beginning (six years ago) it still adds significant resistance and requires more effort when doing everyday tasks or facing new challenges.

And I rarely have the ability or capacity to treat myself to a “cool down” period because my to do list is long and the days seem short. Life just doesn’t let up.

It has taken a physical toll.

I tire more easily-physically, emotionally and mentally. I am less resistant to illness. My chronic disease has progressed more in these six years despite aggressive treatment than the decade previous to Dom’s leaving. I don’t handle change well. I am more prone to call it quits, give up and give in when things get tough instead of powering through. I have a drastically shortened attention span. It’s hard to remember details and words-I write things down so I won’t forget. The lines in my face have deepened and multiplied. Sometimes getting out of bed is the bravest thing I do all day.

I could list at least a dozen more ways grief impacts my body but you get the idea.

Dealing With Physical Grief Symptoms Whats your Grief

Grief isn’t *just* an emotional response to loss.

It’s physical too.

So if you are noticing your body doesn’t act like it used to, you’re not alone.

Bereaved Parents Month 2020: Physical Manifestations of Grief

Grief is not *just* feelings. It is so much more.

I shared this last year around this time in response to many, many comments and questions from bereaved parents about what felt like random or unusual physical manifestations of their own grief.

I hope it helps another heart navigate this life none of us would choose.

It’s a well known fact that stress plays a role in many health conditions.  

And I think most of us would agree that child loss is one of (if not THE) most stressful events a heart might endure.  

So it’s unsurprising that bereaved parents find themselves battling a variety of physical problems in the wake of burying a child.  

Read the rest here: Bereaved Parents Month Post: Physical Manifestations of Grief

Go Ahead-Yell, Scream and Throw Things!

A mom who is also coming up on her season of sorrow this spring wrote that she felt like screaming and throwing things.

I get it.

And because I live in the middle of the woods, far from neighbors or nosy passers-by, I’ve done it.

Sometimes I walk in the woods and just holler out my questions, my pain, my indignation that this is my life.

Image result for yelling images

Other times I cry as loud as I want to, not trying to hold in the sobs.

When I’m really angry that it will soon be seven years since Dominic has crossed the threshold of home, I take old eggs and toss them at trees. I work myself to a frazzle stacking sticks to burn. I use my clippers and chop away at underbrush, releasing pent up feelings with every satisfying snap of a twig.

Image result for throwing eggs image

The longer it is since his leaving, the more I feel I need to have it together in public. Others have long moved on and my tears are inexplicable to those who have forgotten.

And while I have gotten stronger and better able to carry this load called “child loss” this time of year makes it all fresh again.

The pressure builds with no place to go.

It’s going to force its way through the weakest part of my character if I don’t release it on purpose.

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So I do.

If you need me, I’ll be outside for the next few weeks.

If you hear something, don’t worry.

I’m just letting off steam.

Grieving Differently: Growing Apart or Growing Stronger?

It’s no secret that men and women are different.

It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies to hundreds of books.

“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and all that.

So it shouldn’t surprise those of us walking this Valley that our spouse may be grieving very differently than we do. But it often does. Because everything is amplified when it echoes off the high mountains on either side.

And just when we need it most-for ourselves and for extending to others-grace is often in short supply.

So differences become offenses and offenses stack like bricks to build a wall between us and the one person as intimately connected to our missing child as we are.

Image result for image brick wall

Instead of holding each other up, we sometimes tear each other down. Instead of leaning in, we pull away. Instead of talking, we tune out.

Instead of crying together, we cry alone.

Even when we open up and try to address these differences it often ends in disagreement or is met with silence.

That’s discouraging.

I firmly believe that grief doesn’t really change the fundamentals in a relationship but it magnifies them. We all have cracks in our marriages. Two imperfect people do not make a perfect couple regardless of how lovely the photos might be.

Child loss makes the cracks more evident. What might be ignored otherwise, becomes unavoidable. Add gender differences to the load of grief and it’s no wonder many of us struggle.

So how can a marriage survive?

Here are a few pointers:

  • Admit that you and your spouse are different people. Your life experiences, gender and personality affect how each of you grieve. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
  • Purpose to assume the best and not the worst of your spouse. When he or she makes a comment or shoots you a “look” don’t immediately ascribe dark motives. It may be she’s having an especially bad day or he is tired or distracted.
  • Look for common ground. When you are both in a neutral environment and rested, ask your spouse what they need from you. Then listen without being defensive. It could be that seeing you cry upsets him so that’s why he tries to shut you down. She might long to hear him say their child’s name aloud. Even if nothing changes, sometimes being heard makes a difference.
  • Consider couples’ counseling. Having someone outside your immediate grief circle listen to and guide you through feelings, concerns and problems is almost always helpful. It might only take a few sessions to give you both the tools necessary to walk yourselves through the rough patches.
  • Talk TO your spouse instead of ABOUT him or her. This can be a hard one! I think we all need a safe friend or two who will let us vent. That’s healthy. But it’s not healthy to talk about our spouse to others in what amounts to a bid for support of our own opinions and prejudices. Gathering wood for the fire of offense is easy. Putting out the blaze (even if you want to) is hard.
  • Remember that when feelings fluctuate, commitment carries you through. Grief isn’t just one emotion, it’s a tangled ball of emotions. On a given day you might feel sad, disoriented, angry, anxious and despondent. All that emotional weight is added to whatever else you may be feeling about your spouse. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear and running away seems like the most logical answer. But it’s not. We can never run far enough or fast enough to get away.

There’s no magic to marriage before or after child loss.

It’s mostly work.

We can choose to do that work together in spite of our differences.

We can choose to grow stronger instead of growing apart.

****FULL DISCLOSURE****

My husband and I do not do this perfectly or even close to perfectly. But we are still trying. At different points in this long (almost) six years, we’ve been better or worse at all of it. So don’t think if you are struggling it means you can’t hang on. Sometimes it’s by the tips of your fingernails, but if you refuse to let go, you can make it.

❤ Melanie

STILL A Mess Some Days…

This post was originally written three years ago. While the details or occasions change, I still find some days I’m a mess.

It’s not nearly as often as it once was and for that I am oh, so grateful.

But the holidays, in particular, seem to make it extra hard to maintain my composure when stress or fatigue are added to missing Dominic.

The other day a conversation about the upcoming holidays devolved into a confrontation.

What I was trying to communicate came out wrong and one thing led to another until I fled- a crying, trembling mess. 

I am trying so hard to manage this life I have left. 

Read the rest here: Some Days, I’m Just a Mess

Grieving While Working: Handling Grief Waves At Inconvenient Moments

A bereaved mom just a month into this journey shared that she feels bad for not being able to handle grief better at work.

She wants to be professional, do her job well and shield unsuspecting coworkers and clients from her tears.

Her question was (slightly expanded):

Does anyone have practical suggestions for how to handle the unpredictable, overwhelming, undeniable waves of grief that come out of nowhere and demand attention regardless of how convenient it might be at that moment?

Here’s my reply (also expanded):

Don’t waste what limited energy you have in these early, especially hard days on beating yourself up! There’s no such thing as a “standard for grieving” even though there may be someone here or there that tries to impose one. Don’t expect too much from yourself.

In the early days, it took every ounce of energy I had to just make it through each day I couldn’t waste any blaming myself for what I might have “gotten wrong”.

Try to find a quiet spot (if possible) or at least a focal point in the room or rooms you work in most often so you can rest your eyes and focus your breathing/thoughts when the inconvenient waves sweep over you.

Often just making a plan is all a heart needs to regain control. As you shift your mental and physical focus, your body will tend to follow.

The little 5-4-3-2-1 centering exercise for anxiety works for nearly any strong emotion.

I wore a necklace or carried a memento in my pocket every day for years. I still do that when I know I’m going into a stressful place. I could reach in (or up), take hold of that physical object and it helped me breathe, slow my heart rate and lasso my emotional response.

Finally, if a tear falls, let it.

Don’t apologize or make it bigger (you can briefly mention you’ve lost a child-if appropriate and the person doesn’t know), wipe it off (or not) and go on.

I’ve found most people follow my lead.

I am so very sorry you even have to figure this out.

It’s not something any parent should have to do.

However you manage is really OK.

I promise. ❤

***If YOU have hints, tips, wisdom or encouragement for other bereaved parents who work AND grieve, please comment! It is such a blessing to hear that another heart has fought this particular battle and is reaching out. ***