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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.
Here are five practical ways to support grieving parents:
- Remember anniversaries and birthdays. Take note of the date our child left this life, his or her birthday, the day of the funeral-trust me, you aren’t reminding us of anything-we cannot forget! When someone else shares that they remember too it is so, so encouraging. It means my child is not forgotten, that he still matters to another heart and that someone else recognizes that the world lost a treasure.
- Keep showing up. Keep inviting me to lunch. I may have turned you down a dozen times in the first few months, but that was because I just. couldn’t. do. it. As my heart begins to comprehend my loss, compassionate companionship sounds more inviting. I need to talk, but it may take me awhile before I am able to do it. Please don’t give up-keep trying.
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Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent
Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent
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My father died suddenly while on vacation three years ago. The event rattled the bedrock of my life in ways that are difficult to describe, and taught me lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.
One of the truths I discovered, is that when you lose someone you love—people show up.
Almost immediately they surround you with social media condolences and texts and visits and meals and flowers. They come with good hearts, with genuine compassion, and they truly want to support you in those moments. The problem, is that you’re neither prepared nor particularly helped by the volume then.
The early days of grief are a hazy, dizzying, moment by moment response to a trauma that your mind simply can’t wrap itself around. You are, what I like to call a Grief Zombie; outwardly moving but barely there. You aren’t really functioning normally by any reasonable measurement, and so that huge crush of people is like diverting thousands of cars into a one lane back road—it all overwhelms the system. You can’t absorb it all. Often it actually hurts.
This usually happens until the day of the funeral, when almost immediately the flood of support begins to subside. Over the coming days the calls and visits gradually become less frequent as people begin to return to their normal lives already in progress—right about the time the bottom drops out for you.
Just as the shock begins to wear off and the haze is lifted and you start to feel the full gravity of the loss; just as you get a clear look at the massive crater in your heart—you find yourself alone.
People don’t leave you because they’re callous or unconcerned, they’re just unaware. Most people understand grief as an event, not as the permanent alteration to life that it is, and so they stay up until the funeral and imagine that when the service ends, that somehow you too can move ahead; that there is some finishing to your mourning.
That’s the thing about grief that you learn as you grieve: that it has no shelf life; that you will grieve as long as you breathe, which is far after the memorial service and long after most people are prepared to stay. Again, they still love you dearly, they just have their own roads to walk.
Sometimes people leave because they suddenly feel estranged by the death. They may have been used to knowing you as part of a couple or as a family, and they aren’t able to navigate the new dynamic the loss has created. They simply don’t know how to relate to you the way they once did, and so they withdraw.
Or sometimes people see you from a distance and mistake your visible stability for the absence of need, as if the fact that you’re functioning in public doesn’t mean you don’t fall apart all the time when you’re alone—and you do. We all carry the grief as bravely and competently as we can in public, but none of us are strong enough to shoulder it alone. People often say of a grieving person, “They’re so strong”, but they’re not. They’re doing what they have to in order to survive. They need you to come alongside them.
Other times people avoid you because they believe that they will say the wrong thing; that somehow they will remind you of your loved one and cause you unnecessary pain. Trust me, the grieving don’t lack for reminders. They are intimately aware of the absence in their lives, and you acknowledging it actually makes them feel better. It gives them consent to live with the grief, and to know that they can be both wounded and normal.
Friends, what I’m saying is that it’s wonderful to be present for people when tragedy occurs. It’s a beautiful thing to express your love and support for those you love in any way you feel is right in those first few days. It does matter. No compassion is ever wasted.
But if there’s anything I would tell you, as someone who’s walked through the Grief Valley, is that the time your presence is most needed and most powerful, is in those days and weeks and months and years after the funeral; when most people have withdrawn and the road is most isolating. It is in the countless ordinary moments that follow, when grief sucker punches you and you again feel it all fully.
It’s three years since I lost my father, and on many days the pain is as present and profound as that first day.
Remind yourself to reach out to people long after the services and memorials have concluded.
Death is a date in the calendar, but grief is the calendar.
“Till death does us part…” I repeated. Those words seemed to echo throughout the huge college chapel following my promise and then my bride’s commitment. The witnesses, family and friends, of our wedding stood by smiling. Our parents sat with proud looks on their faces. In all honestly, however, I only viewed those words as a symbol of commitment. I did not really think I would experience that part of those important words, let alone do it twice.
Ruth and I had never been happier than we were that delightful day in July.
Our wedding crowned three years of getting acquainted through writing letters and occasional long distance phone calls. Looking back this strengthened our relationship because it forced both of us to express our hearts, feelings and beliefs on paper without the distraction of the physical area. That was great for my growth both emotionally with her and spiritually with the Lord.
The proof of the depth of our relationship revealed itself in the ensuing years of life. We were not only committed to each other but we understood each other. We did, indeed, marry our best friend. To keep our growth together on a “roll” we spent every one of our wedding anniversaries—alone—discussing the “state of our union.”
But the day would come when I dreaded our tradition. It was the summer following Ruth’s cancer diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and our loss of “normal.” Those events proved to be the biggest challenge to our relationship to date. Up to this point our love had been a mutual give and receive. Now Ruth was so drained physically and emotionally that she literally had nothing left to give—either to me or our four young children. Thirty-three is a young age to be facing a life threatening disease.
Finally, for the first time, I sensed our relationship changing and it hurt me in that realization. Ruth was no longer able to contribute to our relationship as before. And, in brutal honesty, I found myself questioning my love for her…simply because things seemed to be one-sided for the first time.
I was preparing for my first experience teaching the book of I John at the school. Opening up 1 John 4:10-11, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” God spoke to my spirit, “See, I loved those who did not love back and I acted on their behalf. You are doing that for Ruth and it is okay!” I dropped to the floor sobbing.
Soon after my dreaded “state of our union” meeting came. Sure enough, Ruth asked how I had been during the throes of the hardest days that winter. I hesitantly, yet openly shared with her how I had struggled and how God met me. She simply said, “I thought so. It’s okay.”
The following six years were filled with days and weeks of hope and disappointment. We faced treatments and then recurrences, over and over.
The most memorable time happened again during our “state of our union” talk that next July. Following a special day on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan, we sat talking. During a warm embrace, Ruth softly said, “I have never felt so at one with you.”
Three short months later, I watched her take her last breath. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Within days I became aware of this hole in my soul that seemed permanent.
Losing a spouse has many aspects to it that are not always understood by many. Indeed, there is the death and physical loss of that person leaving a void in your life. Theirs is also a loss of intimacy in communication. I had no one to tell even small things to that Ruth would appreciate hearing. My biggest loss, however, was the loss of the relationship. It seemed that in addition to grief due to the death of a friend, I had lost the close relationship we had. Love songs were next to impossible for me to listen to.
A year later, God brought along a godly widow lady to the school where I was who absolutely swept me off my feet. What a beautiful lady!
The next year Judith and I found ourselves in a large church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with six sons on one side and two daughters and Judith’s sister on the other. Again, the room echoed our vows, “Till death do us part.”
These words had much deeper meaning to both of us. We had both experienced this hard truth to the fullest. However, even with that, we idealistically viewed the reality of it happening again as being a lifetime away.
Now, the process of blending eight teenagers became twice the task either of us had imagined. Yes, the volume was an issue. When you bring two families together they bring their baggage along. That meant twice as many problems. The growth and mistakes of our kids only drove us to the Lord and to each other. We learned early on to talk about everything, no matter how hard the subject. We reviewed the development of each of our kids every three to six months.
The joys and challenges we experienced in our successful blending of families from two different countries and cultures will have to be addressed at a different time. I need to fast forward sixteen years from Judith and my wedding.
Judith’s health began to be of concern. We spent five years chasing symptoms from doctor to doctor. We intentionally worked hard on her health, even though we did not know what we were fighting. Once again we faced this issue together.
She had to have an emergency surgery. During which the doctor called me in the waiting room. He said, “Mr. Knapp, I am sorry. I am seldom surprised … I found a very mean looking cancer tumor in Judith that came from somewhere else.” I immediately knew she was going to die. I sat down and sobbed uncontrollably for nearly an hour. That continued daily from that day in August ‘till Christmas day.
The next day a full body scan exposed cancerous spots on her lungs and a large, stage-four tumor on her pancreas. With that news Judith asked, “Does that mean I am going to die?” I teared up and nodded “yes” as I leaned over for a long sobbing embrace.
Judith and I talked about everything. This was no different. The next four days in the hospital were full of time we spent mourning her impending death together.
Gradually we communicated with our eight children and their families that they needed to do whatever it took to come see Mom/Grandma soon before pain medication made it hard for her to be alert. I watched, monitored and participated in each one’s mourning. Some of our grandchildren wept the deepest in my arms.
About a week before she left for heaven, I was talking to her quietly at her bedside and a tear trickled down the side of her face. Through her medicated fog she whispered, “I’m sorry I have to die.” Now the tears were running down my cheeks. I assured her it was okay and that I would be fine. I gave her permission to go on without me and that I would be along soon.
Early Sunday morning late in October, Judith leaped into the arms of Jesus.
I was alone again. The loneliness was deafening.
A classic question was posed to me by a pastor friend and his wife. How can we as a couple prepare for such a tragic event as one of us dying “before our time”?
First, be committed to developing the deepest, most open relationship possible. Keeping your emotional distance to possibly reduce unknown future pain is not a good idea.
Next, I would encourage you to have a policy of open communication, even when things are great. That way, it won’t be a new event to add to the struggle of tragedy. Also, it should be a given practice of walking with God closely when things are normal or “easy.” That way you won’t have to learn how to trust Him AND go through tough times at the same time.
Have conversations about “if I go first” at some time or another… better sooner than later. This could help your spouse greatly with hard decisions should you go to heaven first. Live each day with the appreciation for your spouse like you could lose them tomorrow. Keep all relationships current. To this day, I have no relationship regrets with either Ruth or Judith because we lived out our relationships with short, current accounts.
I also recommend couples be willing to take the message of 1 Corinthians 7:4 further than the bedroom. Help each other take care of their temple (physical body).
Finally, don’t be afraid to educate yourself about the grieving process. “Till death do us part” is no joke. It is for real and should be considered seriously.
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