One of the most devastating aspects of child loss is the overwhelming feeling that NOTHING makes sense anymore and that I have absolutely NO control.
Choosing helpful habits and actions gives me a way to regain dominion over a tiny corner of my world.
And that little bit of action strengthens my spirit and helps my heart hold on.
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.
When days become months and months become years it’s hard to explain to others how grief is both always present but not always in focus.
I’ve struggled to help those outside the loss community understand that the absolute weight of the burden is precisely the same as when it fell on me without warning that dark morning.
Dominic’s absence, if anything, has seeped into more places, changed more relationships and influences more choices than it did seven years ago when I was only just beginning to comprehend what a world without him would look like.
But I, and my family, have continued to live.
We’ve added family members through marriage and birth. We’ve gone places, made memories and made career moves. We’ve gotten older. My husband retired. Children moved away.
All these things and more mean that life is simply bigger than it was when Dom left us.
It’s a slow, gradual process.And for some hearts who are forced to endure multiple losses in a short time the jar may never get very large because the grief is so great.
I remember when I realized that sorrow was not ALL I felt nor Dominic’s absenceALLI saw.It was a bit frightening to be honest.
Did that mean my love for him was waning or that his importance in our family was forgotten? Was I a bad mother because I no longer cried every day for the child not here? Had my heart grown cold?
But then I realized none of those things were true. What allowed me to feel joy again, to participate fully in family outings or gatherings, to plan holidays and birthdays once more was instead that my heart had found a way to hold both sorrow and gladness at the same time.
There are still days when grief looms large and my world seems too small to contain it. But those don’t come as often as they once did.
Life will march on, regardless of how hard we might wishit wouldn’t.
And, in large measure, life after loss is what we choose to make of it.
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 not planned rest.
I’ve had hard pain days.
There’s been family drama.
Someone I love is 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 ALWAYSa 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.