When I first became aware that Grief Brain was a real thing, it was a blessed relief!
I had long known that physical, mental or emotional stress could alter thinking and make it hard to remember things but I had never experienced such inability to hold even the most basic information in my head or found it nearly impossible to complete simple daily tasks.
It was truly frightening.
And it made life extremely hard.
I think the really, truly awful period of confusion, memory loss and difficulty lasted a good couple of years-not every day as bad as the next or the one before-but it was fairly consistent. I had to use lists, alarms and strict habits (like where I put my keys, the route I took somewhere, etc.) to make it through.
Now, eight years later, it’s not nearly as bad.
That’s partly because I’ve become so good at relying on aids and helps like alarms and calendars and partly because I’ve gotten better at keeping the constant hum of loss compartmentalized in my brain so I can actually think of something else.
But if there is any added stress in the system I regress.
I forget words, names, places, why I’ve walked into a room, where I’m going, what I’m doing and (much to my horror) food in the oven or on the stove.
So if you are in the early days of loss and wonder, wonder, wonder if you are losing your mind, odds are-you aren’t.
Every family is different. Every loss experience is unique.
Some of us have busy households when one of our children leave for Heaven and some of us are long past full tables and messy teen bedrooms.
Wherever we find ourselves when the unthinkable overtakes us, it’s always hard to continue doing daily tasks bearing a burden of sorrow. So often we settle into a pattern of striving and straining through the deep mire of grief without making time for rest.
I know I did.
Goodness! I still experience seasons when grief waves steal what little breath is left from a breathless and busy life and I can barely function.
It’s then I remind my heart that self care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary.
Absolutely, positively necessary.
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’ve thought long and hard about that season of “un-feeling”.
Why did my heart shut down? Why the long silence when no emotion pierced my soul?
I think it was necessary.
I think a body and mind and heart can’t operate for too long at warp speed. I think that just like fainting is a response to the brain needing oxygen, numbness is a response to the soul’s need for respite and time to heal.
So if you are in the season of numb, you’re neither crazy nor alone.
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.
I’ve spent the last two days rearranging our family room.
Since my husband has retired, we no longer use it as we once did and I realized a few weeks ago that it was ridiculous to have it set up the way it’s been for decades when our needs have drastically changed.
So we decided to tackle the job of sorting/moving/dismantling books, videos (yes, we still have a few!), DVDs, CDs and random other bits and pieces of a life long lived in the same place.
For those of you who have moved often you may have been spared the detritus of papers stuck in cracks and crevices on bookcases with the promise to yourself you’ll “put them where they go when I get a chance”.
Me, not so lucky.
I’ve found treasures-scribbles of younger days from my now (very!) grown children-and sad reminders of projects begun and left hanging because we got too busy to see them through.
The one thing I celebrated in taking apart, digging through and tearing down was this: totally destroying and trashing an old, old, old television stand from back in the day when TVs were far too heavy and far too thick to mount on walls or above fireplaces.
I’d always hated that thing.
We bought it as young marrieds when our budget was tight and floor space was precious in our first small home. It did the job but it was just not my style. And at the time, I wasn’t bold enough or strong enough to speak up and advocate for a different choice.
Oh, there are wonderful memories of my two oldest kids putting on shows dressed up in fun costumes and singing along to our cassette tape playlist. We have more than one photo of that delightful era.
But there were years and years of putting up with something that no longer served our needs (because it was here, bought and paid for, and convenient) instead of ditching it and buying something that would both serve and bring delight.
So other than a long march down memory lane, what does this have to do with child loss?
I’ve learned since Dom left us that I’ll no longer stay silent when a habit, a situation, a relationship or a piece of furniture doesn’t serve my current mental, physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual circumstances.
I won’t wait for someone else to notice I’m upset or sad or happy or delighted.
I’ve learned to speak up for myself and ask for things I need. I’m learning (haven’t made the progress I’d like!) to set boundaries and tell others that they may come thus far and no closer. I’m trying harder to rid my life of what is unhelpful and unhealthy.
I’m definitely a work in progress.
And most of the work won’t have such a satisfying and concise conclusion as when I cheerfully watch the pieces of that old TV stand go up in smoke.
But I’m committed to continue dismantling the parts of my past that no longer serve my present.
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.