Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point. Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss.
Adjusting to loss seems to be a core issue in life. Whether it is the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket or a child relinquishing their position as baby of the family to a new addition, loss requires confrontation. Every one of us will experience the emotional hurt from grief caused by the loss or death of someone or something they are close to. How do you cope?
My experiences with loss may seem like an unusual amount to some people. However, I’m reminded of the story about the man who was the sole survivor of the Johnstown Flood. During his life he bragged a lot about that distinction. Upon arriving in heaven he began his boasting until someone said, “So, there is someone here you need to meet. His name is Noah.” Yes, there will always be someone who has gone through more. So, I don’t waste time with pity parties.
As you will read, my first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, administrator and teacher at a college and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all so new to me and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
My experience of going through grief did more than temporarily affect my life. I became a student of what was going on in (not easy for this man) and around me. I observed how those around me reacted to the same event and how they responded to me. Few seemed to have any better grasp of grief than I had. The knowledge I gained from my research soon began to drive me to reach out and help others experiencing loss in ways no one did for me.
One of the dominant methods of dealing with grief and loss of others is avoidance. Our default ways of coping with grief tend to be to change the subject, stuff it down, explain it away, prevent grief’s symptoms or try to get over it or away quickly. Since grief feels so uncomfortable, sidestepping is our first reaction.
My studies of the grieving process showed me that grief was not only normal, but required. This also applies to those who make up a support circle around the griever. Grief is as natural as bleeding when you cut your arm and time and attention is needed to heal. Ignoring the cut can lead to infection, just like thwarted grief can cause issues in one’s life, whether evident immediately or later. Some cuts require the aid of others to properly deal with and often, grief is best processed with the help of friends or relatives.
I wanted to be that better friend to people in my life who go through the grieving process.
Then came the death of my second wife twenty-two years later. The lessons I had gathered from my first wife’s death were unavoidably refreshed. My notes and observations took on a deeper, more refined form.
More than one friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say.” When we’d talk and I explained to them what it was like in the grieving process and how I could have been helped, their responses were so positive. I sensed a deep compulsion inside me, “Don’t hoard your lessons.” Requests for written versions of my story and lessons mounted. I began to see that most people, whether friends or family or in professional capacities, really did want to connect with a person in grief, but fear, ignorance or verbal clumsiness held them back. And just like First-Aid 101, there were things that could be learned.
My professional background includes that of being a teacher. You will find that showing through in the following pages as I share practical suggestions for dealing with varying kinds of loss. For the hurried reader, there are even lists that should be helpful. All this springs from the lessons learned through my experiences. It is true that those who are in the throes of grieving will find help in the revealing portrayal of my own personal grieving experiences. However, my dominant objective for writing my story is to help the rest of us be a better friend to those who are grieving.