A few years ago I spent the weekend with a small group of bereaved moms.
For our last session together, I solicited anonymous questions from the group that I promised to try to answer and discuss further.
There were lots of good ones but one of the most poignant was this:
Is it OK to put some friendships on hold because the interaction is no longer encouraging to me? I leave lunches together sad because their lives are going fine and I’m in such pain.
A Grieving Mom
My heart went out to this mama for so many reasons!
First, even in her grief she was concerned about doing the right thing, about being a good friend and about rightly interpreting the situation. She knew her friend wasn’t actively harming her. In fact, the friend was most likely trying hard to come alongside and encourage her heart.
But it still hurt.
And so she wanted to know if she was obligated to “grin and bear it” or if she could graciously and authentically set a boundary that meant a little (or a lot!) of distance between this friend and herself-hopefully for only a season.
This is one of the hard truths and difficult conundrums that inform the lives of many grievers. It certainly was part of mine for a long time.
I craved compassionate companionship from concerned friends and family while, at the exact same moment, longed for solitude and seclusion from “ordinary” life.
How in the world could the world just go on? How in Heaven’s name did the entire universe not take note of my great and irreplaceable loss?
For months (probably, honestly, for a couple of years!) there was always a subscript to every conversation and face-to-face interaction that read like Subtitles for a foreign film. And some folks lives were just too beautiful, too happy, too much like the one I wished I still had to endure the emotional burden that gap produced for my wounded heart.
So I had to limit my interaction with them (for their sake AND mine).
I unfollowed (NOT unfriended!) people on social media. They were none the wiser that the hap-hap-happy posts they splashed everywhere weren’t appearing in my newsfeed and I wasn’t constantly confronted by my own envy and sorrow.
I sent cards for occasions instead of showing up at certain celebrations. I chose them thoughtfully and wrote meaningful and sincere messages. I didn’t have a single person react badly that their wish was on paper instead of in person.
I withdrew from some of the groups where this kind of “humble bragging” was encouraged and promoted. It was a long, long time before I went to a women’s event that wasn’t focused on child loss.
No one really noticed.
And for those few relationships that were so close I couldn’t graciously or subtly move away, I told my friend that while I valued them, wanted very much to stay in touch and support them and didn’t want everything to be aboutME, I needed to let them know certain topics might make me uncomfortable or sad.
So we tried to get together around activities that lent themselves to “in the moment” conversation. We didn’t linger long over lunch or on the phone. We walked in a park or went to a movie.
In time, as I did the work grief requires and as I grew stronger and better able to carry this burden called “child loss”, I was able to ease some of the boundaries I had put in place to protect my heart.
I never, ever want child loss (or any other hard life event or trauma) to become an excuse for my bad or unkind behavior.
But grief is work and requires so much time, energy and effort!
If I hadn’t made space and given myself the necessary grace to do that work I would not have found the measure of healing I now enjoy.
So, yes, dear heart-it’s OK to set boundaries.
It’s OK to pull back from some relationships to foster healing.
And it’s OK to reach out and let people back in, too, when your heart feels more whole again.
My hardest grief season begins in November and runs to the end of May. Thanksgiving through Dominic’s birthday on (or near) Memorial Day are days full of triggers, memories and stark reminders that one of us is missing.
If I could fall asleep November first and wake up in June I’d do it.
But I can’t so I have to employ all the tricks I’ve learned in the over eight years since Dominic ran ahead to heaven to survive those particularly challenging months.
It would be lovely if life were neatly divided into seasons or sections.
But like so many things, there are no clean lines between now and what used to be.
Who I am today is shaped by who I was the day before.
I think that’s one of the things I enjoy most about fiction-authors are free to wander back and forth among character’s thoughts, past experiences and present reality.
It makes for a more complete story.
Each year about this time (in the waning days of my Season of Sorrow) I usually stop and take stock of how far I’ve come and how grief continues to shape my life.
There are many, many ways I’ve healed and am healing:
I no longer cry every day.
I feel true joy!
The pain of losing Dominic doesn’t dominate me although it plays like Background Music-not always demanding my attention.
I celebrate my family and my family’s milestones with genuine excitement and once again enjoy planning get togethers, birthdays and (most!) holidays.
I function at a higher level and am able to rejoin some groups and participate in some activities I just couldn’t manage in the early years.
I’ve made peace with the questions that won’t be answered this side of eternity.
I’ve incorporated traumatic loss into my understanding of Who God is and how He may work in world while accepting I don’t always like it.
I attend baby showers, weddings and even funerals without bringing all my lost dreams or personal sadness to the event.
I laugh-a lot. It feels good again to belly laugh at family memories or new jokes.
I can extend hospitality once more. That was a core component of my pre-loss life and personality and I missed it.
But there are many ways in which grief and loss continues to inform how I walk in the world:
I absolutely, positively cannot multitask! I have to break daily chores into single actions so I can focus and accomplish one thing at a time. I used to be able to cook, talk on the phone, bend over and motion to a child needing help with school all at once. Not anymore! Just recently I lost an important piece of mail most likely because I was looking at it while chatting to a family member. I put it down and cannot for the life of me remember where it is.
I become anxious when around too many people-especially if they are people I don’t know or the venue is one with which I’m unfamiliar. This even happens in the car driving in new places. I was never an anxious person before. In fact, I was typically the voice of calm in a group of friends panicking over some small detail that went awry. I try not to share my anxiety, but it’s there and it takes a huge amount of energy to corral it and keep it from escaping into wild demonstrations like running from a room. (I do a lot of counting/visualizing/breathing and self-soothing.)
I don’t like noise. To be fair, I never really did but now it’s exacerbated. Shopping can be a real trial when stores insist on blasting music in hopes it makes patrons feel like spending more money. I, for one, just want to get what’s on my list and get the heck out of Dodge! I love children but I can’t tolerate the incessant chatter little ones bring to a Sunday School classroom or a Vacation Bible School craft table. I used to be the first one to volunteer for those posts but I just. can’t. do. it. anymore.
I crave predictability. I know, I know, of all people I should understand control is an illusion. I do. But the tiny details of life-like planning meals, choosing clothes, cleaning routines and evening quiet times- are things I want to be able to count on. Routine is my friend. It helps my mind (such as it is) operate on reliable pathways. I’ve never been a big fan of random, but now it’s something I try to avoid at all costs.
I need solitude. I’m still processing some things. I imagine I’ll be doing that the rest of my life as different experiences from NOW interact with my loss. I cannot do that in the presence of others. I need to think, reflect, write, read and walk it out. That means I have to devote time and space to being alone. If circumstances prevent me from quiet solitude for too long my blood pressure climbs, my patience disappears and little things grow large.
I don’t sweat the small stuff (usually-see above!). If time, effort or money can remedy it then it’s just. not. a. problem. I’ve learned the hard way that life and love are the most important things in life. Everything else might be nice but it’s not essential. I’m not minimizing the stress and strain of broken pipes, wrecked cars or lost jobs. It’s just that eventually those are situations that can be fixed. And lest you think I’ve not experienced any of those, I have. My first thought whenever anything happens I once perceived as “the worst thing that could happen” is, “It’s absolutely, positively NOT the worst thing that can happen”.
I need to observe a careful rhythm of commitment and freedom on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I always kept my big calendars each year and tossed them into a box of “if I ever need to know these things”. When I look back on how busy we were as a young family I’m astounded at the pace we kept, the places we went, the hours I was frantically working to fulfill all our obligations along with the things we just wanted to do. I’m sure some of this is a function of age-I’m no spring chicken any more-but I know in my bones it’s also a function of the ongoing toll grief takes on my body, mind and soul. I can only manage a few days of busyness in a row until I need a complete shut-down for at least twenty-four hours or more. I refuse to schedule any but the most difficult to get appointments in a week where I’ve already inked in other commitments.
Sleep, regular exercise and good food are necessary for me to face life with a good attitude. This is probably true of most folks but just a day or two of fast food, no outdoor walks or interrupted nights and I’m toast. I’m not a whole foods, organic everything kind of gal but I try to eat a variety of fresh and less-processed meals. When I’m home I have an almost two mile path through woods and up gentle inclines that builds muscle, exercises my lungs and body and gives me ample time to drink in the beauty of birds, wildflowers and leafy trees. If you’ve ever been to my home you know that the rest of the crowd can stay up as long as they want to but I’m headed upstairs between eight and nine. Of course I get up before the sun, so my total hours are roughly the same but there’s something about that pre-midnight sleep that restores me like no other.
I could probably list dozens more, less obvious, ways grief still shapes the me of today. But it no longer binds me like it did in the early days. I’m better able to work around the difficult bits and still make a meaningful life with the people I love.
Once the stone was rolled in front of the tomb there was no more denying the fact that whatever the disciples thought Jesus was going to do was not at all what He did.
None of them thought the story was going to end like this and yet here they were having buried their Master and their dreams.
Most of us can relate to a time when we thought our dreams were God’s dreams and we were on the path to victory only to round the next bend and head straight to defeat-or worse.
The eternal weight of the space between Jesus’ death and resurrection will only be known on the other side of this life, for the scriptural references are filled with both majesty and mystery. Though Jesus’ full assignment in those days is beyond comprehension, the disciples’ disillusionment is not.
Alicia Britt Chole
It can be tempting to try to distract our hearts from the pain of failure, dashed dreams, death, rejection or other hard-to-process feelings.
But that’s not how to heal.
If we pay close attention to what the disciples did in the wake of Jesus’ death, we see modeled a better way:
They gave themselves permission to bury the dream. It’s important to acknowledge and commemorate loss. That’s one of the reasons we have societal rituals surrounding death. It’s not about hopelessness, it’s about accepting reality. A heart needs to mark these moments.
They returned home to rest. “Rest is essential-a need, not a luxury” (Chole, 204). So often we seek frantic activity when faced with loss. We move our bodies in hopes it will distract our minds. But it never works. We may be able to push off the pain for a time yet it won’t be ignored forever. It’s so much better to give our bodies and souls the rest they need so we can process pain from a place of relative strength rather than exhaustion.
They didn’t isolate themselves. The disciples remained in community with one another. They intentionally maintained relationships. It is so easy to look for the nearest corner where we can lick our individual wounds. But telling, retelling and sharing our sorrow creates space for mutual healing.
Most of us will not see the resurrection of our dreams within three days. In fact, some of our dreams are sown for future generations to reap. Even then, obedience is never a waste; it is an investment in a future we cannot see. When we dream with God, our dreams-even in burial-are not lost; they are planted. God never forgets the ‘kernel of wheat [that] falls to the ground and dies’ (John 12:24).
What grows from that painful planting is God’s business. But sowing in faith is ours and, like the early disciples, our faithfulness is never sown in vain.
Alicia Britt Chole
When Dominic ran ahead to Heaven, part of me wanted to run away too. There were moments when I thought if I could just get started and keep going I’d reach someplace where the pain couldn’t reach me.
But that simply isn’t true.
I had to face the fact my son wasn’t coming home. I had to face the reality that I’d live the rest of my life in expectant hope, waiting for the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to redeem and restore.
Like that kernel of wheat, I had to choose to plant my dreams in the soil of God’s faithful love, extravagant grace and abundant mercy, trusting Him to make them grow.
I first shared this a few years ago when there was a string of suicides linked to previous school shootings.
It made me think about all the ways violence and trauma (even without overt violence) marks a soul. But it’s hardly limited to school shootings.
Truth is, there are people all around us every. single. day. who have experienced some sort of trauma and we rarely realize it. They are doing the best they can to get on with life, to fit in with society, to fulfill whatever roles they have to play.
And often they do it so well that it’s not until they absolutely can’t take it anymore we realize what a heavy burden they’ve been carrying all along.
We need to normalize asking for help.
Witnessing or experiencing horror scars a heart. And society rarely does a good job making room for the kind of work it takes for that heart to even begin to heal.
Feel-good news stories about activism, heroism and turning tragedy into triumph send a signal that if you can’t “get over it“, “overcome” or “become stronger” in the wake of the most awful day of your life, you aren’t trying hard enough.
But the truth is that most people DO try.
They try and try and try but trying isn’t enough. Tragedy and trauma change a person and no matter how much they may want to go back to the “old” them, they just can’t.
In all fairness, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had no idea her research would be taken out of context and plastered across professional literature and media outlets as a definitive explanation for the grief experience.
But she didn’t mind the notoriety.
And ever since, counselors, pastors, laypersons and the general public have come to expect folks to politely follow the five (sometimes described as six) stages of grief up and out of brokenness like a ladder to success.
It doesn’t work that way.
Sometimes those that walk alongside the bereaved are biding time, waiting for that “final” stage of grief: Acceptance.
And some therapists, counselors and armchair psychiatrists are certain that if the grieving mother or father can simply accept the death of a child, he or she can move on–they can get back to a more “normal” life.
But this notion is as ridiculous as imagining that welcoming a new baby into a household doesn’t change everything.