Looking back I’m shocked at how much I allowed societal norms and expectations to determine how I grieved Dominic’s death.
I withheld grace from myself that I would have gladly and freely given to another heart who just buried a child. Somehow I thought I had to soldier on in spite of the unbearable sorrow, pain, horror and worldview shattering loss I was enduring.
And the further I got from the date of his accident, the more I expected from myself.
I wrote lists of things I needed to do and surprisingly often I actually got them done.
But I crawled into bed each night exhausted, physically and emotionally drained and often unable to sleep for all the pent up feelings I still needed to process.
It was a dangerous cycle.
Eventually, through contact with other bereaved parents I learned that I absolutely, positively HAD to take care of myself. If I didn’t, there wouldn’t be a me to take care of.
And my family would be plunged beneath a new tsunami of loss.
I wasn’t going to do that to them if I could help it. So I committed to practicing better self-care on this grief journey.
I’m still not always good at it, but I’m better at it than I was.
If you are sucking it up, pushing it down, soldiering on, refusing to admit that grief takes a toll no one can ignore or deny, may I suggest you consider taking a step back and thinking about the ultimate outcome of ignoring your own needs?
Here’s a graphic to get you started.
It’s not an exhaustive list and the examples given may not suit your personality or circumstances but they should give you some ideas to find the activities and habits that will help strengthen you to do the work grief requires.
I think it was second grade when I started a notebook dedicated to them-carefully copying out the words of others that spoke the truths of my own heart. Although the topics which draw me are different now, I’m still collecting them.
So here are fifteen quotes on grief that I hope will help another heart:
I once read the sentence ‘I lay awake all night with a toothache, thinking about the toothache and about lying awake.’
That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.
I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Rather often I am asked whether the grief remains as intense as when I wrote. The answer is, No. The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.
Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it… Every lament is a love-song.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son
You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.
They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite
Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Prince
What an awful thing then, being there in our house together with our daughter gone, trying to be equal to so many sudden orders of sorrow, any one of which alone would have wrenched us from our fragile orbits around each other.
Paul Harding, Enon
This was how to help a family who has just lost their child. Wash the clothes, make soup. Don’t ask them what they need, bring them what they need. Keep them warm. Listen to them rant, and cry, and tell their story over and over.
Ann Hood, The Obituary Writer
I guess I always thought it would be bigger, when a terrible thing happened. Didn’t you think so? Doesn’t it seem like houses ought to be caving in, and lightning and thunder, and people tearing their hair in the street? I never – I never thought it would be this small, did you?
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake
There are no words, not in English, Spanish, Arabic, or Hebrew, that have been invented to explain what it’s like to lose a child. The nightmarish heartache of it. The unexplainable trepidation that follows. No mother loses a child without believing she failed as a parent. No father loses a child without believing he failed to protect his family from pain. The child may be gone, but the years the child were meant to live remain behind, solid in the mind like an aging ghost. The birthdays, the holidays, the last days of school—they all remain, circled in red lipstick on a calendar nailed to the wall. A constant shadow that grows, even in the dark. As I was saying…there are no words.
I started writing because of Dominic and my family. I keep writing because of Dominic and my family and all the beautiful souls I’ve met along this journey-many who have never lost a child but whose hearts grieve for someone or something else.
I thought I’d share what I read at my sweet mama’s funeral yesterday-it was made easier and richer by all those who have walked with me so far in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Your comments, your messages, your thoughts and insights helped me express the most important lesson I’m learning in grief: Love Lives Forever.
When we walk through the graveyard or read an obituary, we almost always look for those two dates that bookend a life-for Mama it is September 23, 1938 and September 27, 2019.
Lots of sermons have been preached about that dash in between-about that what we do or don’t do, who we love or don’t love, how we use the years we are given as either a blessing or something else.
And that is very, very true.
We tend to think that the last date-the date when breath leaves the body and the soul escapes the trials of this world to enter the glory of Heaven-as the end. We can hardly help it because our relationship to the one we love changes so dramatically.
I can’t hug Mama anymore, I can’t hear her laugh, I can’t call her up and tell her, “I love you” or greet her in the morning with a “Hi Girlie!”.
It creates a giant void for me and an unfathomably huge void for Papa. We are going to have to find a way to live with that empty space in our hearts and in our lives.
It takes lots and lots of work, lots and lots of tears and lots and lots of time. There’s no shortcut through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
My Mama lost HER mother suddenly, to a stroke, when she was just ten years old. So she lived with that giant hole in her heart for over 71 years. She could have allowed the pain to make her cold and bitter, closed off and unavailable. It certainly would have been an understandable response to a traumatic loss.
But she didn’t.
Without exception, every person who has called, written or come by to pay respects to Patty Hart describes her as gracious, lovely, kind, generous, welcoming, cheerful and bright.
Mama chose love.
In just the past few weeks, before this last hospitalization, I got to see Mama begin to pour that love into a new generation. She had two visits from her great-grandson. One due to Hurricane Dorian (they had to evacuate) and one that was scheduled to give her the chance to meet him.
I won’t fib and say that having overnight visitors in the house was easy for her or Papa with all her medical conditions, but you’d never know it by the grin on her face when I put that chubby little stinker in her lap.
For a few minutes, she was Nanny again-singing, cooing, laughing and making eyes at him. She even got to be the first one to see him turn over. That tickled her!
Truth is, that last date isn’t the end. There’s no period after Patricia Ann Landrum Hart’s life. Of course she lives on in Heaven with Jesus, her mama and my Dominic.
But even here, on earth, love lives forever.
It lives in the lives she touched and will continue to touch through her friends and family as they honor her legacy of love.
Our circle is broken today. Death is awful and it’s hard. It’s a reminder the world is not as God intended it to be and we walk a broken road toward the promises of redemption and restoration.
But the chains of love forged in our hearts are never severed.
I have learned so much since that day when Dominic left us suddenly for Heaven.
Some of the things I know now are things I wish I didn’t know at all.
I’ve learned some things that serve me well-not only in how I respond to my own pain and loss-but also how I respond to the pain and loss in the lives of those I love.
I’ve had to practice them this week since my mama was desperately ill and then joined Dominic and Jesus.
It reminded me how hard it is for those who have not walked this Valley of the Shadow of Death to really comprehend how their words and actions either truly support or subtly (or not so subtly!) wound already hurting hearts.
So here’s a short list of things things to say and do that actually HELP grieving friends and family:
Not everyone leaves earth quickly. Some are ill for a long time. It’s natural for friends to want to stop by home or hospital to see a sick loved one and show support for the family. Please call ahead to see if it’s convenient. If it’s not, then don’t come. Respect that while it may feel like a reunion to you and others gathered in the living room or the waiting room it’s a very sober and frightening and stress-filled time for the family. Loud laughing and back-slapping are unwelcome reminders that the person in the bed can do neither.
Please don’t impose your desire to help on the family’s unwillingness to accept it. Offer-that’s wonderful and appreciated-but there may be circumstances you don’t know about that just make it hard or impossible for them to let you do what you would like to do. It’s really, really hard to use the limited energy available to politely turn down an offer.
When you stop by to pay respects, don’t overstay your welcome. You’ll probably never notice that the family is working hard to extend hospitality and make small talk. It’s exhausting. You are not the only people “stopping by for a minute” while the family is trying to take care of funeral details. They are deciding on what clothes their loved one will be buried in, what photos to include in a memorial slide show, what will be served at dinner after the service, who will sing or speak or play a piano solo. There’s just no energy left for small talk. Express condolences, leave the dessert or congealed salad and leave them to the little bit of quiet they may enjoy before the next few days of crazy.
Take time to write notes of remembrance if you can. Facebook comments, text messages, emails, written notes or cards are wonderful! These can be gathered together, printed and saved as a beautiful tribute.
If you haven’t played an active role in the deceased’s life or the life of their family recently, don’t show up and insist on “inner circle” privileges now that they are gone. This is not the time to force reconciliation or expect a family reunion type celebration. While that may be the ultimate outcome of this traumatic and life-altering event, respect those that have maintained relationship over the years.
Instead of asking, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do”, instead say, “How may I serve you in the weeks and months to come?”. Grievers may not have an immediate answer, but ask again in a week or so after others have drifted away. Also consider asking if specific things may be helpful.
Don’t wander around the house. Respect the family’s privacy.
Don’t ask personal questions such as “How did he die?” or “What happened?”. If the bereaved want you to know, they will tell you.
Be attentive to body language.
Allow grievers to lead.
Don’t ignore comments that indicate it’s time to go.
Accept that what you may want to do and what is truly helpful may be two different things.
Fewer words are almost always better than idle chatter.