Stuck or Unstuck in Grief? Who Gets to Decide?

“Stuck in grief”-it’s a theme of blog posts, psychology papers and magazine articles.  The author usually lists either a variety of “symptoms” or relates anecdotes of people who do truly odd things after a loved one dies.  “Complicated grief” is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis.

But who gets to decide?  

What objective criteria can be applied to every situation, every person, every death to determine whether someone is truly stuck in grief?  How do you take into account the circumstances of a death, the relationship of the bereaved to the deceased, trauma surrounding the event or any of a dozen other things that influence how long and how deeply one grieves a loss?

Obviously there are certain signs that someone needs professional help, medication or intervention.  If a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, acting out in ways that harm or threaten harm to themselves or others, or is experiencing depression or uncontrollable anxiety then please, please, PLEASE get them to a doctor who can diagnose and treat them.

But for the rest of us, “normal” grief covers a wide variety of behaviors, feelings, attitudes and timelines:

Posting photos or videos of our missing child is normal.  It’s the last visual link we have to someone we can no longer see.

Mentioning my son in conversation is normal.  I mention my other children and his life is still intertwined with ours.

Crying-even years or decades after the loss-is NORMAL  Grief waves can hit with tsunami force from out of nowhere and slam me to the ground. The only thing I can do then is let them wash over and around me until they pass.

Keeping space for my son in my home, at my table, in my heart and on holidays is normal.  Some parents do this with a special candle, photo or ritual. Some do it with a stuffed animal or other item that represents their child. Some do it with words or deeds of kindness done in honor of the missing one.  No one has sat in Dominic’s space at my table in these three years.  It’s my silent witness to his ongoing influence and irreplaceable presence in our family circle.

Keeping a room exactly as it was is normal.  Boxing everything up is also normal.  Every heart is different and every heart has to decide what helps it heal.

Sleeplessness is normal.  Some parents never return to pre-loss sleep patterns.  I wake every morning at about the time the deputy came to our door.  Every now and then, if I am extremely tired, I may fall back asleep for an hour or two.  Sleeping the day away is normal, too.  Sleep may be a welcome relief to a weary heart and some parents find that when they can, they sleep a lot.  (Note:  if this continues for days or weeks, please check with your doctor about the possibility of depression.)

Anxiety is, sadly, VERY normal.  The worst has actually happened and that makes the possibility that it could happen again oh, so real.  Anxiety may well spread to things that seem to have no relationship to loss.  It’s also normal to have a “devil may care” attitude. The worst has actually happened, so what could be worse?  Might as well live life to the full.

Withdrawal is normal.  So is over-scheduling and staying busy.  Both are ways someone may try to deal with heartbreak.

You don’t have to be “stuck” in grief to still feel the pain and have it continue to affect your life.

I am and have been highly functional since the morning the deputy arrived with the news of my son’s fatal motorcycle accident.

But I am a very different “me” than I was before that doorbell rang.

Some things I can’t do anymore. Some things I do differently and some things are brand new and I have only done them since he left us.

Labels are rarely helpful when applied to people.

Every person is unique, every relationship unique and every situation unique.

And every grief journey will be unique as well.

roller coaster 2 better image

 

 

 

The Best Way To Help A Struggling Heart

The best way to help a struggling heart is to simply be available.

Anyone can choose to be a safe space for others to share their hearts.

Anyone can make room for honest conversation, welcoming another soul to unburden itself of whatever heaviness is weighing it down.

All it takes is a listening ear and time.

best way you can help me

Repost: Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent

It’s oh, so hard to know what to do when you are watching a heart break.

You want to reach out and make it better, make the pain go away, make a difference.  But it seems like nothing you can do will matter much in the face of such a huge loss.

While it’s true that you cannot “fix”  the brokenness in a bereaved parent’s life, there are some very important and practical ways you can support them in their grief-especially as the weeks turn into months and then to years.

Read the rest here:  Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent

Note To Self: Forward is Forward

I’m pretty sure the first time I wrote a note to myself was in second grade.

I had discovered a book of quotes and decided that some were worth remembering so I copied them down and taped them to my bedroom wall

Now I have notes all over the house-on kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator door, my bathroom mirror, above my bed-anywhere my eyes might land when my heart needs encouragement.

Here are the ones I have posted now:

[Be present.]

I don’t want to miss a single moment with the ones I love because I know too well that more moments are not promised.

[Choose to listen.]

It’s so easy to babble on and not HEAR the other person in front of me or on the phone.  I already know what I’M thinking and feeling, listening is the only way to know what THEY’RE thinking and feeling.

[Escape ruts.]

Habits are helpful when they remind me to brush my teeth.  Not so much when they lead me down paths of fruitless relationship patterns and knee-jerk responses.  I’m not a thoughtless amoeba.  I can change.

[Forward is forward.]

If I am ONE INCH closer to my goal then I have made progress.  I refuse to be discouraged, no matter how slowly I am walking, crawling or limping ahead.

[Laugh!]

Laughter makes life lighter.  There is already too much heaviness in this journey.  Never miss a chance to laugh and lighten the load.

[Do small things with great love.]

I will never take a national stage or be able to address giant problems, but I can bend down to kiss a skinned knee, open a door for an old lady and bake cookies for my neighbor.  I won’t neglect or despise the small things waiting for the big ones that will never come along.

[The best is yet to come.]

The life I see is not all the life there is.  In fact, it’s not even the best life there is.  The best is yet to come when all this pain and sorrow and hurt will be redeemed.  My heart and my family will be restored.  My tears will be wiped away and I will stand in the glorious Presence of God and Christ forever.

[Love wins.]

I have a choice of what I allow to fill my broken heart.  I will not choose bitterness. Bitterness is buried with the heart that carries it.  But love lasts forever.  Its impact ripples through eternity.  It cannot be silenced or stopped.

 

love God love others rocks

Help! I Need Somebody!

So, almost twenty years on a farm and I can NOT back a trailer.  Nope.  Can’t do it.

One day I spent hours trying to teach myself how to do it.  Never was able to do anything other than manage to jackknife the trailer, go unhook it and start over.

So when I go somewhere with a trailer I do one of two things:  (1) I find a space where I can drive in and be able to just make a loop or (2) I find the nearest person who CAN back a trailer, hand them my keys and ask them to do it.

I feel NO shame.

But that’s not the case with other things I can’t do.  So many times I try to avoid admitting that I am unable to meet certain people’s expectations or do certain things that I either used to be able to do or feel I SHOULD be able to do.

I think the reason I don’t mind outing myself on trailers is because that confession usually gets a laugh or a knowing look from the person who helps me or an admission from someone standing near at the feed store that they also have trouble backing up a trailer.

But when I say, “I just don’t think I’m up to teaching VBS” or “I’d love to come to that event but I’ve reached my social quota this week” or “I’m still struggling with driving by that spot or eating at that restaurant” it’s often met with (at best) a quizzical look or (at worst) a comment about how I should be “better” by now.

And then I DO feel shamed.  I feel like I don’t measure up, like I’m not as valuable as the next person or that I have failed some cosmic test.

shame-is-the-intensely-painful-feeling-we-are-unloveable-brene-brown

You know what though?  That’s a reflection on other people’s lack of compassion and experience or their personal insecurity NOT a reflection of my worth.

It is really just fine for me to admit my limitations because EVERYONE has limitations.

I can’t lift a 250 lb barbell.  But I can whip up dinner for fifty people.  I can’t read Chinese but I can read Dr. Seuss with an accent and hit all the rhymes on cue.  I can’t run a marathon but I can work all day without complaining (most of the time).

I’m human (surprise!).    So are you.

brene brown vulnerablity sounds like truth

I have some limitations as a result of burying a child. You may have limitations because of age or disease or something else I don’t know about or can’t see.

That’s OK.

Let’s make a pact:  I’ll take you as you are and you can take me as I am.  I’ll help you when you need help and you can help me when I need help.

We will extend grace and receive grace as needed to make life work.

Isn’t that really the essence of human community?

brene brown we dont have to do it alone

Thankful for Support

My grandmother had two sisters who didn’t have any children.  

They were often tapped as babysitters when someone in the family needed to leave their kids home for an extended period of time.  And while my aunts meant well, and certainly were never hateful or cruel, there was a giant gap between what they THOUGHT they knew about children and what they ACTUALLY knew.

So many sentences began with, “If you were my child….”  But I wasn’t.  And the boundaries set between me and my parents had been hashed out through trial and error in real time in real life-not some hypothetical perfect world.

It’s like that in my grief journey as well.  

There have been many well-meaning but woefully uninformed people who offered advice.  Some of it was helpful but most of it was predicated on misinformation and lack of real-life experience.

The MOST helpful advice has come from fellow bereaved parents.

They share their hearts and their hopes, their failures and their victories, their fears and their faith.  They don’t have to-they could simply focus on their own pain and refuse to offer aid.  

But moms and dads a few steps ahead of me in the Valley turn back and hold out a hand and say, “This way.  I’m right here with you.  You can make it!”

And for that I am oh. so. thankful.

 

buckets to put out flames

Learning Limits

An exchange with a Facebook friend got me thinking.

How much of my struggle in life is a result of ignoring my own limits?

How much pain do I inflict on myself because I won’t admit I need help?  Why do I insist on living to the edge of endurance and emotional capacity?

Why, why, why do I try so hard to keep up a front of invincibility?

Pride.

Pride goads me like a whip.

Pride makes me say, “yes” when I should say, “no”.  Pride whispers the lie to my heart that I can be everything to everyone because I am “all that”.   Pride makes me believe I am the focus of others’ attention and conversation when they probably haven’t even noticed.

Foolish woman!

When I try to do too much, I am unable to do anything well.  When I spread myself too thin, I guarantee that I’ll crack under the pressure of keeping up appearances.

Truth is, I’m not fooling anyone.  And I’m not serving myself or others well.

you are never strong enough that you dont need help

I’m learning some lessons in this Valley and one of them is to try to accept my limits.  I need to be honest about how much I can and cannot do, what I can and cannot carry alone.

Admitting I am human is hardly a unique confession-it’s the plight of all who walk the earth.  When I do, I invite others to walk alongside and assist me in carrying the load.

Asking for help isn’t weakness, it’s strength.

cannot judge yourself for needing help