Grief Coping Strategy: Derailing A Negative Train of Thought

It happens most often when things are very quiet or I’m trying to drift off to sleep.  

My mind will rehearse the moment the doorbell rang, or the phone calls I had to make, or-worse yet-imagining what, exactly, Dominic experienced when he left the road and plowed through bushes until he was thrown from his motorcycle and died.

Once my thoughts begin to follow that track, it’s so hard to derail them.

It used to be absolutely impossible.

But now (at five years into this journey) I have some default visualizations that help me break unfruitful mental cycles.

I might imagine details from my childhood-recreating a room or an experience-or recite Scripture, hymns or poems.  Sometimes I force myself to delineate my next day’s tasks precisely and in order.

I am always very careful what I watch, read or meditate on before bedtime because if I plant a seed of fear or dystopia it flowers in my dreams.

And then there are the days when responsibilities lead me down memory lane-going through photos for my daughter’s wedding, consolidating boxes to make room for my husband’s retirement, hunting a particular item for the holidays or another family celebration-and I have a hard time not sinking into despair because Dom’s just not here.

But at five years those are no longer utterly uncontrollable feelings.

I’ve learned ways of diffusing, distracting and redirecting my thoughts to help me deal with them in the moment: 

  • If possible, I stop the activity that triggered the feelings or thoughts and switch to something else.  Sometimes just turning my back makes all the difference.
  • I focus on a non-triggering detail.  Shifting my eyes often shifts my thoughts.
  • If in a group of people, I force myself to listen to the conversations around me and ignore my own thoughts.
  • If alone, I speak the feeling/thought aloud.  Breaking the silence can break the cycle.

Then, (often) I’ll have a meltdown later, but at a time when I can afford it better.

I’ve said over and over that the absolute weight of this burden has not changed but my ability to carry it has grown through practice and doing the work grief requires.

Sorrow is no longer all I feel and my son’s absence is no longer all I see.

Every time I overcome my fear, I redirect my thoughts, I face my feelings and refuse to let them paralyze me, I’m stronger.

weights-dumbbells

 

 

 

Thoughts Matter

So much of this battle has been fought in my mind.

Really, even more than in my heart.

Because you can’t argue with sad or shock or missing or disappointment.

But you can absolutely argue with hopelessness (there is nothing to live for), apathy (there is nothing to do) and distrust (there is no one who can help me).

So I spend a lot of time filling my mind with truth and doing the best I can to empty it of lies.  Some days I’m more successful than others, but I battle on regardless.

dont let anyone rent space in your head toby mac

When hopelessness tries to take up residence I say:

Remember the word to Your servant upon which you have caused me to hope.

~Psalm 119:49

AND

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

~Hebrews 12:1-3 MSG

Apathy sits heavy on my chest and makes me want to give up and give in.  Why try if life is random and chaos is rampant? 

I push it off with:

28 We are confident that God is able to orchestrate everything to work toward something good and beautiful when we love Him and accept His invitation to live according to His plan. 29-30 From the distant past, His eternal love reached into the future. You see, He knew those who would be His one day, and He chose them beforehand to be conformed to the image of His Son so that Jesus would be the firstborn of a new family of believers, all brothers and sisters. As for those He chose beforehand, He called them to a different destiny so that they would experience what it means to be made right with God and share in His glory.

~Romans 8:28-30 VOICE

I remember that I still have work to do:  

“For we are His workmanship [His own master work, a work of art], created in Christ Jesus [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, ready to be used] for good works, which God prepared [for us] beforehand [taking paths which He set], so that we would walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us]. “

~Ephesians 2:10 AMP

The enemy of my soul whispers the same lie he told Eve in the garden, “God really doesn’t have your best interest at heart.  He’s holding out on you.  You can’t trust Him.”

I shout him down and declare:

all the promises of god are yes in christ

The God Who sent His only Son to save me will not let me go.  He will uphold me with His Righteous Right Hand.  Even in the flood of grief, the fire of trial and the darkness of despair, He is with me.  

carry you old age

I have verses and quotes and hymn choruses posted all over my house so that everywhere I turn, my eyes can land on encouragement.

I won’t win any awards with my decorating scheme, but I don’t care.

All of this will be dust one day. 

I’m building an eternal future that won’t rot, rust or decay.  

“3 Blessed is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One! Because He has raised Jesus the Anointed from death, through His great mercy we have been reborn into a living hope— reborn for an eternal inheritance, held in reserve in heaven, that will never fade or fail. Through faith, God’s power is standing watch, protecting you for a salvation that you will see completely at the end of things.”

~ 1 Peter 1: 3-5 VOICE

Hallelujah!  Amen.

 

 

 

Feedback Loops and Grief

I wasn’t there when Dominic left the road but I’ve imagined it in detail hundreds of times since that night nearly five years ago.

I can’t help it.

I wonder what he thought, what he felt, whether he knew…

It’s not the only tape that plays over and over in my head.

I think about his childhood and the times I probably overlooked my third of four children as I hurried to get this or that done.  I think about the arguments we had, the laughter we shared, the disappointments and challenges we faced together.

I replay birthdays and holidays and ordinary days.

Sometimes I get in a cycle that makes me smile:  Dominic playing drums in church and subtly shaking his head and sharing an eye roll with me as the congregation claps in awkward rhythm to a song-dozens of different beats, none of which were the right one.

dominic at gray haven

Sometimes I get in a cycle that draws sobs from a place I thought I had sealed off after the first two years of his absence. 

My thoughts fall into an emotional feedback loop that, like the sound wave counterpart, is all screeching, mind-numbing and painful noise.

Like a microphone too close to a speaker, the only way out of the loop is to back away and keep backing away until the cycle is broken.

Most days I can shepherd my thoughts down safe paths.  Those are the ones I share with others when they ask me to tell them about my son.

But when I’m alone and everything is quiet and my mind is left to its own devices or cued up by a random sight, sound or smell I can find my thoughts running places I’d rather they not go.

And the loop begins again.  

 

Busy

My empty nest means I’m rarely crazy busy even around the holidays.  

I no longer have to fit in shopping whenever I can manage it because little eyes might be watching or Christmas choir performances and church programs fill the calendar.  

No.  

Most of my shopping is online and I don’t even have to worry about whisking gifts off the porch before anyone sees them.

I’m a different kind of busy now.  

I’m busy making sure I’m not overexposed to Christmas commercials, Christmas movies or Christmas carols because they are likely to open the floodgates of tears I keep behind a dam of determination.

I’m busy drawing deep breaths when I pick up the phone and it’s a relative that never calls but needs an address for a Christmas card and, since I’m apparently the Keeper of the Addresses, always calls me.

I’m busy looking away from the childhood photos lining my upstairs hallway so I can stay focused on the vacuuming that needs doing.

I’m busy pinning down fruitless thoughts of “what if” or “if only” or “I wish”.

I’m busy getting things ready for the brief time my remaining family will be gathered around the dining room table.  I’m trying hard to accommodate schedules and preferences and favorite foods and treasured traditions.

I’m busy pushing back sadness that threatens to overwhelm me in the dark of the year when clouds and rain make it even darker, even earlier.  I’m lighting candles, plugging in lights and adding cheerful touches here and there to drive out the shadows that come creeping.

From the outside looking in, I’m awash in free time and easy choices.  

And some folks wonder why I don’t answer the phone or join in the party.  

But I am very, very busy.  

I was busy

Gold Medal in Wrestling [Thoughts]

I’m driving down the highway listening to the morning news brief.  A quick mention that Paris is likely to get the bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics draws my attention.

I begin to do the math-when are the next Olympics? Oh, yes-2020.  Three years away.

Double the time I’ve been without Dominic.

How old will I be in 2024?  Sixty-one!  How many years will it be THEN since I last held my son’s hand, hugged his neck, heard his voice?

This happens in a flash. My heart goes from “just fine” to “I can’t believe this is my life” in sixty seconds.

But I can’t stay here.  If I do the day will be shot.  I won’t accomplish a thing because despair will drag me under and only a good night’s sleep will have hope of restoring me.

So I don’t.  I grab those thoughts and wrestle them to the ground.  I pin them with the truth that no matter how many years it is between when I last saw Dominic and when I join him in Heaven they will be short and swift in light of eternity.

I take comfort in accepting that my vantage point is limited to my handful of experiences in this life and to what I can see with my own eyes. But God sees the whole sweep of eternity, from beginning to end. I have found Him to be a relentlessly good and loving God. Because of my confidence in His character, I can rest in knowing that someday, someday, Katie’s [Dominic’s] short life and premature death will make sense to me. Someday God will scoop me, too, into His arms, and I will step into a world that until that moment I could only sense and never see. I will finally get it. And I will see Him face to face.

And you know who else I will see face-to-face on that day?

I will see Katie [Dominic].

Yes, God is merciful.

~September Vaudrey, Colors of Goodbye

I resist the pressure to give up and push back with the strength that comes from knowing that my opponent is no match for the Champion that fights for me.

the lord will fight for you