Saturday, January 3, 2015

12 Lessons From 12 Months Living in Grief

One year has passed.  In many ways it flew past with such swiftness that it felt like the quickest 365 days of my life.  Yet, in other ways it drug by, as the pain of loss weighed me down like a pile of bricks.  I have aged this year, in more ways than one.  The newly formed frown wrinkles on my face have deepened.  Physically, my autoimmune diseases intensified, as my body retaliated against the unavoidable stress.   Emotionally and spiritually, I was forced to come face to face with life questions I'd been denying, and I was tested in my reaction and resolve to handle them as God would desire.  

As I reflect upon this past year, and the learning that has occurred in my mind and heart, several lessons surface and re-emerge to create a strong theme.  These aren't novel lessons, surely those along this journey have documented them countless times before.   Since I exist as a deeply introspective and sentimental spirit, always seeking to grasp some depth of growth from each situation, I feel I must document them to acknowledge, validate and move forward in my personal process.  And if sharing my lessons aids one hurting soul along the way, then my suffering was not in vain.

A timeline for grief is impossibly irrelevant.  When I received comments encouraging me to move on and giving me a timeline for my grief and returning to "normal" I actually felt more alone, and less inclined to share with others that I was indeed still hurting.   In turn I tried to push the feelings out of my mind and heart.  This caused the grief to rebound, and built up a sort of reverse tolerance effect, as the more I pushed it back, the bigger it surfaced.    I realize most people are trying to find the words to say to help comfort the hurting, but something like "I know this has been a rough year for you.  I'm praying" is so much better.  There should never be an expectation for when someone will be "ok" because grief is such an individual process.

I personally believe that the depth of grief is the direct result of the depth of relationship shared.  At the tender age of eleven I went to my first funeral for a classmate who died from cancer.  I have lost many family members and have attended more funerals than the average gal my age.   The first taste of deep grief I ever experienced was losing both my of grandparents six months apart at the age of 17.  It was a paralyzing grief and I cried for days.  It lessened fairly quickly and I felt relief over not having to worry about their health on a daily basis.  But of all the losses I experienced, none could prepare me for losing my Dad.  Even though we knew it was coming, and cancer was slowly taking him, the resulting grief was unprecedented and unexpected. There is absolutely no right or wrong in the experience of loss, and it is not to say I was closer to my Daddy than someone else who loses theirs and seems to handle grief  "better."  There is simply no hard and fast stage or rule that can be applied as cookie-cutter or one-size-fits-all.  There is only difference and for that we must offer acceptance and support.  

One of the worst parts of grief for me was knowing my children wouldn't get to spend time with their Grampy.  Hearing my 2 year old share her memories (that she was really too young to remember) was heart shattering.  To hear her ask "Where Grampy?" while skyping with Grammy was too much.  There will always be a grieving of what could have been and that will never go away.  But even more so, I learned that part of my personal grief was also mourning the relationship I had anticipated.   My father and I didn't always get along well, in fact through my teenage years things were often strained. However, once we both found Jesus, we became closer.   I was able to actively forgive him for things I blamed him for and realize that he is human and I was looking for someone to blame for the bad choices I had made.  We were on the same page then, we agreed on politics, we supported the same ministries, he encouraged me to travel to Israel when others didn't, he encouraged our adoption. We grew, we loved and the deep love I felt for him grew stronger and I believe actually made up for lost time.   There is no other explanation for that type of healing and love than that God had intervened.  And so, my grief largely stems from the loss of relationship that I so longed for, looked forward to, was excited about, and loved.  And I believe it ultimately was a deep longing for more of the joy and blessings from God that he provided through my relationship with my father, and thus, symbolizing a deeper yearning for a stronger relationship with Him. 

It is true when they say life moves on at a rapid pace after someone is lost.  You find yourself at the grocery store wanting to scream at the checker "MY DAD DIED!  DON'T YOU CARE?" and yet, life progresses.  You feel as though you are riding on a carousel and just want to get off and be still.  Yet you can't and life moves forward as you are somehow stuck frozen and behind trembling, shocked and barely surviving. People overwhelm  you and check in at first, and  by 3 months, the support has all but ended, and that is actually when you need it most.  I don't fault anyone for failing to check in.  It hurt for awhile, until I reminded myself that I am guilty as well.  Don't expect everyone to check in with you regularly because the truth is, they  probably won't.  And it's ok because God will provide you with just who you  need "for such a time as this." (one of my favorite scriptures from the book of Esther.)   For me it was an online support group for Pancreatic Cancer patients and their caregivers that spawned into a support group  for daughters who lost parents to PC. These girls became my lifeline.  Only they truly understood what I was battling on a day to day basis.  I could share how I didn't want to get out of bed, or that I was angry with the oncologists, or that I was angry at God for taking my Daddy a week before Christmas. I could share how something I saw, a song, a smell reminded me of him, ad they could do the same.   It continues to be a real and true support group that only God could have orchestrated!  And in true God-ordained  fashion, I was even able to hug the neck of one of the girls in Phoenix this past Christmas.  She held my hand through the last few days of my Daddy's life ad I did the same for her when it was her turn.  We shared  the pain, horrors, and images together and now, we continue to  grow and heal together.  There just isn't any substitute for those who have walked the same road.  And God WILL provide you with others who will check in with you almost everyday, who will pray for you through and just  BE THERE.  And you will KNOW that without them you would have never made it this far.  

Just about the only thing I could do from this awful experience is to vow to help others.  My greatest lesson for the future is to BE THE PERSON THAT IS THERE in the months and YEARS following the loss. Not to only support someone in the days and weeks following the loss but far into the future.  Make a point to call the person, text, email, message.  Share a memory, a picture and just LOVE THEM.  Grief does not end when the funeral is over or even a year later. 

There is a difference in not forgetting someone and actively remembering them.  Don't be afraid that you will make your loved one cry when you bring up the lost.   You may, but it is not a bad thing.  The tears are just coming from grief that has been there the entire time and has found validation for escape.   The mere acknowledgement of the lost one is so vital.  I cannot tell you the number of people who DO NOT talk about my Dad.  I know they are concerned with upsetting me, but I can't shake the feeling that  they have forgotten him, or that they are choosing to gloss over his existence.  Far better is the validation of his life, that he lived, by simply sharing a memory of him and saying "I miss your dad too."  It may seem awkward to the outsider, but truly, it is profoundly healing and comforting for the grieving.  So go ahead and say something.  Say you love their loved one and miss them.  This speaks volumes to the hurting one and helps to activate healing.   The less you say the more alone we feel.

I remember in the early days, awaking to the breathless feeling and  anxiety of reminding myself my Daddy was truly gone.  Some days I preferred to stay in bed in tears, but life with a toddler forced me out of bed.  Slowly that acute pain lessens, but there are still days where I have to remind myself he is really gone.  Just the other day I was lifting weights at the gym and thought "I won't get to ever go to the gym again with my Daddy.  He's really gone." And the tightening in my chest and loss of breath returned just like the day after the funeral.  And some days you will still want to lay in bed no matter what life demands.  You will attempt to distract from the grief but then it will come at you swinging, and be so intense it will buckle your knees and be too overwhelming to ignore and you will have to succumb.  But that is not to say the acute pain does not become easier, it numbs and lessens and becomes more of an overarching ache.  I read once that grief is likened to phantom-limb pain, it is always there and you don't want it to leave because then you forget the missing body part.  I would agree, allowing the pain to survive in your heart keeps you tied to your lost loved one.   

Don't let anyone tell you how to handle your grief.  Let yourself experience it, allow yourself to be in the MUCK and tell your friends and family you need a day to pray, sleep, read, write, and just be.  Realize there will be days in which you get zero done.  Allow yourself to just be.  Grief comes in waves and you may find that what you thought would affect you doesn't, but other things bring back the brunt of it.  Anniversaries, dates, holidays can be brutal.  Don't fake your way through them, FEEL THEM. 

I remember the day that I finally released the anger that I had towards my Daddy's doctors for missing things.  I felt that they could have done so much better and I was angry.  The truth was that I was actually looking for someone to blame.   In a moment of clarity I realized that on the cross, Jesus Himself cried "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!" and I took a lesson from my Lord and did the same.  Humans are just that, HUMAN.  Once I admitted that my Daddy's death was all in God's timing and  there was nothing ANYONE could do I was free.  As I did, you may have to forgive them multiple times, and surrender the whole process to God over and over again.

Realize that grief takes a great deal of energy.  There were days where my fatigue was so intense emotionally and physically that I was merely surviving.  The first three months I truly felt like a zombie, merely existing to move through the motions.  Soon, I quickly began to beat myself up for not being the wife, mother, daughter and friend I so desired to be.  I no longer cared if my child ate purely organic food and there was a lot more trips through the drive-thru and boxed Mac-n-Cheese.  My usual hard-core runs and workouts were replaced by easy bike rides at the gym.  Support and  encouragement for my friends went by the  wayside.  I lacked the energy to play with my child.  I got really tired of trying to go to social events and act happy.  I just wanted to be sad.  So take it from me, just plan on letting go of high expectations you hold for yourself.  Don't worry that you don't have a list of Pinterest activities and supplies on hand for your child and instead stay in your jammies all day and let your kid watch the same movie an unspeakable number of times.   Let your friends know that you will attend playdates, events, activities if you are up to it and don't feel guilty or make excuses if you decline or cancel.  Tell your spouse that you may need some time off to write, sleep, cry, read, pray and schedule time to process.  See a grief counselor and consider it time for you.  If you need additional help, see your doctor.  Plan respite for yourself or send your littles  to a Mom's Day Out or preschool.  And DO NOT beat yourself up.  Cut yourself some slack.

Many times you may feel that you have regressed back to square one of your grief process.  Guess what?  This is normal and OK.  You will hit your knees and  beg God to take way the heart-ripping pain. You will long for heaven  like you never have before  and wonder how you will continue living without your loved one.  It is during the most broken, painful times that you will have to realize the process is one completely out of human control and you will again reach for God's embrace.  You must surrender and ask for healing.  And repeat.

Don't force yourself to do anything until you are ready and don't compare your grief with others.  When  you are ready, slowly re-emerge from your cocoon.  Return to your social life and experience your hobbies again. Pray about using your grief experience for something constructive.  Pray for opportunities that God may use you to help another hurting heart.  Keep your eyes open for someone looking for support and simply be there.  You now have a story and don't think for a second that God doesn't have someone in mind for you to share it with!   Ask God to show you the good that He planned to bring from the pain and embrace it!

Grief is the most isolating and individualizing experience of humanity and yet, it is the  most unifying all at once.  Everyone will experience it at some point in their lives.  Take comfort in knowing that Jesus grieved for his dear friend Lazarus before He brought him back to life!  
HE KNOWS YOUR PAIN.  When you feel alone rest comfortably in that promise.  Grief is love with no place to go and as long as you live you will love and ache for your lost one.

Thank you for allowing me to be transparent on my personal journey.  It is my hope that by sharing these lessons, God will help to heal another grieving heart.  

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