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.
For those of you who follow the blog on a regular basis you’ll know that I managed to disable my laptop keyboard yesterday by spilling my coffee.
Well, I’m up and running again thanks to the marvels of technology and bluetooth.
And while that might be a tiny blip on the radar for some folks, it’s HUGE for me!
Here’s why: when my son was killed in a random, unpredictable, unanticipated accident nearly eight years ago, I was stripped of any illusion of control. My world-which up to that moment had been fairly predictable-was suddenly chaotic and very, very frightening.
I learned early on this journey that if I was going to survive, I’d have to exercise what psychologists call “agency” even if it was in something as simple as choosing for myself what I’d have for breakfastor finding a workaround for a broken keyboard.
Years ago in my undergraduate studies we read about a famous experiment in which fish were placed in tanks with invisible dividers. At first the fish would try to cross over to the other side of the tank.
But hitting the divider over and over, they soon learned to stop trying.
When the researchers removed the barrier they found the fish still stopped where it used to be and didn’t even try to reach the other side any more.
Traumatic loss can make a heart give up on everything-not just the one or two things that are truly outside our control.
It’s why so many of us bereaved parents find ourselves staring off into space, sitting in a chair, unable to move and do even the simplest tasks.
We aren’t crazy.
We are just conditioned to believe that no matter what we do, it won’t make any difference.
But I’m here to tell you-don’t give up and give in!
It’s absolutely true that we have so. much. less. control than we think we have. Seat belts, good health habits, careful living can’t protect against random.
But there are many ways we can still craft a world where love and light reign.
So today I’m celebrating the fact that while I can’t make the sun come up or protect my loved ones from every unpredictable horror I can choose toDO what I can to shape my sphere of influence and exercise control over some parts of my little world.
It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies tohundreds 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.