Grieving and World View

Posted by on Jul 29, 2016 in Blog, Comfort, Grieving

13173874_10209184837609204_6152588449008940622_nHow I found strength and wisdom to survive loss and do it well:

    “I don’t know how you do it. You have lost two wives and you seem to be doing so well,” came the familiar statements. Following Judith’s death many people made similar comments to me. Some remarks came as simple observations while other people were genuinely seeking answers.

In this chapter I will be taking the liberty to lay out the thinking process and worldview I have developed in the course of my life and freely explain how that all affected my grieving process. My family background, personal experiences, logic, religious beliefs and the message of the Bible all come into play to determine how I approached and responded to tragedy. It has been my observation that most people default to these things when they hurt.

My earnest prayer is that the truths laid out will be a help to you as you face your own losses, and as you help those who come across your path who are hurting from loss.

THE BIBLE

It was a blessing from God and huge privilege to be born into a strong family who had a deep belief in God based on His Word, the Bible. I didn’t do anything special to be born where I was. However, the mindset, beliefs and teachings of my family and church were fundamental in establishing my worldview of life and death. The family heritage I acquired held to an established belief in the God of the Bible that went back several generations on both sides of my family. I not only heard the message of the Bible from my parents but from my grandparents and aunts and uncles as well.

CHOICES

So, if family and the geographical location in which one is born are vital in how one processes grief, why is it that not everyone who has these benefits processes grief well? Because included in the mix are the personal choices of each individual. Simply being exposed to a belief system, whether through family or by culture, is only the beginning. Your personal choices and convictions are what activate those teachings and messages.

THE NEED

The core truth of the Bible that my mom taught me revolved around God creating man to have a close relationship with Him. As the Creator of the universe, God chose to only have this personal relationship with mankind. Since God represents and is everything just and good, a relationship with Him had to revolve around what He is like. The first man created, Adam, broke that bond by doing something contrary to God. He disobeyed a command, consequently breaking the created relationship between God and mankind. Since He is everything just and good, God set forth a plan to fix the broken relationship. He promised this plan and then executed it by sending Jesus, His Son, to live a perfect life among men and women and then die, making the restoration of that relationship with God the Father possible. He decided it would be a gift to be received by faith. Anyone who rejected God’s plan through Jesus would spend eternity after they died separated from God.

My mom showed me places in the Bible that clearly explained this. Thankfully, she also made it clear that I was required to make a choice about God’s gift through Jesus for myself. She pointed out that my core relationship with God wasn’t broken just because I was a bad boy once in a while, but that I needed to respond to God’s message because I was born needing it. She read to me from the Bible, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation…” (Romans 5.18). Adam’s “offense” was passed on to every human born thereafter, making a personal response by each individual a requirement. Not believing in God’s plan for restoration seals the judgment. “He who believes in Him [Jesus] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3.18).

THE PROVISION

As a child, I enjoyed Christmas as much as any other kid. We were humble economically and I remember times when there was only a single gift for each of us. However, Mom and my church teamed up to help me see a bigger picture. Christmas was the celebration of the coming of Jesus to earth in order to accomplish God’s plan to restore mankind to a right relationship with Him. I enjoyed hearing the stories of Jesus’ life in my Sunday school classes at church. They explained that the purpose for Jesus becoming a man was for Him to die for the wrongs things performed by all mankind. “… that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen of Cephas, then by the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15.3-5). We can know that God, in turn, accepted the work of Jesus’ death as payment for all our violations of God’s nature because He raised Him from the dead. “… God … promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, … and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1.1-4).

MY FIRST RESPONSE

My mom read the Bible to my brother and me every night she could before we went to bed. When I was seven years old, she told us one night that the Billy Graham Crusade was on TV and that if we were good while she read the Bible we could stay up a little longer and listen to the music part. Well, I wasn’t so good and was sent to bed. While my brother watched the music, I was in bed alone, thinking. Mom came in and found me crying. “I don’t want to go to hell when I die,” I blurted out through my tears. Mom reviewed again that all I needed to do was believe on Jesus for myself and God would restore my relationship with Him and that Jesus’ death and resurrection would pay for all my wrongs against Him. I did that. I knew from that time on that upon my physical death, I would spend all of eternity in the presence of God the Father. I would go to heaven.

THE EVIL

The problem with the evil in my heart had been resolved before God, to be sure. It didn’t mean that I didn’t still blow it from time to time. Mom knew that for sure! However, she was faithful to continue to expand my knowledge about evil in the world we live in. She told me the story about Satan and how he rebelled against God. He was then confined to earth and now takes his vengeance out against God on mankind. He uses evil to resist God and God’s people. Teachers at church taught me that because I was one of God’s children, Satan would target me for harm and evil intentions. However, I don’t have to be defeated by him but be aware that sometimes when bad things happen it may be coming from him. I can win over his intentions with Jesus. “You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (I John 4.4). “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4.7,8).

My instruction about evil continued. Because of Satan’s rebellion against God and the disobedience of Adam to God’s commands, evil has a strong influence on the earth and the world as we know it. This evil curse affects all of God’s creation, including mankind. The negative things caused by evil include such things as weeds in my garden, weather that is destructive, immorality, murders, mistreatment of people, bad intentions and responses to one another, and disease. Until the day Jesus returns and corrects all of that, we can expect evil to continue. Evil, therefore, can happen to us simply because we are humans living in this world at this time. Bad things can happen to good people for no fault of their own.

MY EXAMPLE

My seven-year-old mind had a lot of questions about what it is really like to live one’s life and have a personal relationship with God. This is where my family and church friends came in again. I watched how they did it. The two people closest to me who demonstrated evidences of having a personal relationship with Jesus were my mom and her mother, my grandmother. Regardless of any character or personality flaws in them that I may have observed over the years as I grew up, those ladies proved to me that it was possible for Jesus to be a personal friend. When they talked about Jesus, I could tell He was not an abstract concept or a theory of religion. He was a real person to whom they talked and listened often.

My mom’s connection to God was consistent. She would go to Him during times of hurt, such as when my dad died or we had severe financial difficulties. She would sing to Him when she was happy in good times. Her example showed me that I could do that too. And I did.

MORE CHOICES

My high school years were times of change for our family. Mom remarried and three more sisters were added to our family. The family blending process was not always an easy one for me, being the oldest child. We also moved, I went through puberty, and attended a high school in another town. I chose to remain consistent in following the Biblical mindset of God as the sovereign of the universe and Lord of my life through all these changes. Church was a core part of my life. I enjoyed hearing teaching from the Bible, singing songs and hymns about God, following Him, and looking forward to being with Him in heaven someday.

The summer between my junior and senior year presented me with another life-changing choice. I had been offered a scholarship to a leading agricultural university in Iowa. I knew I needed to pray about it, so after church one evening I stopped at a pasture near our farm buildings where I prayed often. God spoke back to me saying, “Follow Me.” He indicated that I was to prepare to officially be in a position to do things that would promote His message in the world. I said, “Yes.” The following week I received a catalog in the mail from a Bible college in Kansas City, Missouri. I chose to turn down the scholarship and applied to the Bible college instead. I knew that my life was being directed personally by God and I trusted Him.

My choices were made based on my friendship with Christ. I believed what He said in the Bible. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15.13-15).

FAITH CHALLENGED

My years studying at the Bible college were very formidable. As I increased in knowing what the Bible says and what it means, I developed a desire to know my Friend better. Trusting Jesus more and walking by faith became major personal goals. I aspired to the definition of faith in God that the Apostle Paul spoke about. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world” (Romans 1.8).

Soon, I began to realize that to “walk by faith” included more than just major choices. It involved how I went about my day-to-day living. Simple statements began having a deep impact on my approach to daily living. A quote of unknown origin I have never forgotten is, “If you were arrested for being a follower of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Jesus said, “And why do you call me, Lord, Lord, and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6.46)

Based on my personal relationship with Jesus, faith and faithfulness became daily goals in my life. Though much of my daily life was laid out for me — class and work schedules, job responsibilities, class requirements and sleeping — I began to realize that I chose much of how I lived my life. I chose my responses to situations, my attitude towards people and circumstances; I chose how I spent my money, what social functions I attended and how well I used my discretionary time during waking hours. I began to see that my proper or improper response to errors and mistakes I made was based on whether I was responding out of faith in God or my selfish desires. Even though my learning curve seemed huge, I willingly climbed it towards a closer relationship with God.

LIFE GOES ON

Following my college years, life progressed somewhat “normally” (whatever that is). I got married, received a job assignment, had children, developed friendships, increased in responsibility both at work and home, and so on. My wife, Ruth, and I were on a “normal” course in life, building a career and raising a family of four. We practiced the lessons learned in trusting God and living in close relationship with Him in all areas of our life as best we could. We trusted Him in our finances, parenting, free time, friendships, job roles and church attendance. He was always faithful. We took to heart, “… whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10.31).

My reference to life being “normal” includes ups and downs in life that happen to all of us. It includes mistakes by each of us in our family. Disappointments that come financially, professionally and socially are all integral to our human experience.

IN CRISIS

Cancer is not what is usually considered normal. I have heard it said that “anyone can trust God when things are going good.” But do we really trust Him when it doesn’t seem like we need Him that much?

We had no clue to what depths the downward spiral would lead us when Ruth announced that she had found a lump and should make an appointment with an oncologist. The following weeks and months were full of challenges, hurts, disappointments and even low-level mourning.

The lump was an aggressive form of cancer. Treatments included surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and constant testing.

Yet, our hope continued to be secure, based on our relationship with God. Though we desired the security of pain-free life, we trusted Him more. Believing that pain was a part of human experience and that we were not exempt from it helped us overcome the bouts of “why me?” and unfounded feelings of “being punished.”

Our friend Jesus never left us during our down times. We knew that because He said so. “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13.5,6).

It was true that going through a crisis like cancer was a new thing for us. We had never experienced such a hard thing before. However, trusting Jesus in our lives was nothing new and so we kept doing that. We simply needed to learn how to go through this hard thing. Our pain and tears were always met with the comfort of our personal relationship with Jesus Himself.

THE REALIZATION

Trusting God during our hard times did not keep us from sometimes struggling with our questions.

One afternoon following severe chemotherapy treatments, Ruth was on the phone with her mother. Ruth asked the “Why me?” question to her mom. Louise’s response was classic. “Well, Ruthie, why not you? Up to now your life has been pretty simple and pain free. Why do you think you should be exempt from hard situations and others not?” This, of course, agreed with what Jesus Himself said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).

Ruth was a nurse. She had seen many, many people in the hospitals she worked in going through all kinds of physical pain and sufferings. She knew that her mom was right about many other people experiencing physical crisis, of all ages and walks of life. It is all a part of living in this world that has so much influence from evil. Pain and suffering does seem to be a normal part of human experience. Each of us somehow hopes it won’t happen to us.

DEATH

I had never seen anyone die before. Watching Ruth take her last breath was shocking. All I could think about was that she actually died! She was gone. My heart immediately began to hurt in ways I had never experienced before. Grief encompassed me, suffocating me.

My first response to God was again based on my relationship with Him up to that time. I called out to Him as a friend for help with my hurt. I did not lash out at Him as a distant tyrant in the sky who “did this to me.” He had helped me learn how to handle so many things in my life so far, I knew He would help me with this grief. And He did.

I would go to the Bible for words of assurance and comfort in times of hurt. Over the years, since I received so many encouraging messages from God’s Word, I knew I could count on my Friend to have words of comfort and purpose as well. I was not disappointed. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1.3,4).

Ruth’s cancer and death were not a result of her sin, but a “normal” result of living in a world that is affected by the influence of sin. Just because we had a relationship with God on a spiritual level did not exempt us from the regular operation of nature and genetics. God simply has promised to help us through experiences in life. We trusted Him for a bigger picture.

BIGGER PICTURE

We remembered the account in the Bible where Jesus was asked who had sinned, causing a man to be blind from birth. He replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (John 9.3). Jesus went on to heal that man that day.

Ruth’s death was not a defeat. She actually won. You see, she had the privilege of going to heaven into the very presence of God without the hassle of living here in a world influenced by evil for the next forty or so years. Even though I was left with the hole in my soul grieving, I had the privilege of seeing God use my loss to show others how He comforts in uncommon ways. A bigger purpose was realized. Many people have been helped in their journey through life in this evil world because of our story.

I remember one such example of this. A local pastor stopped me in a public elevator. He said, “I hope you didn’t mind me using you as an illustration in my sermon on Sunday.” I looked surprised but indicated that I was sure it was okay. He went on to explain. “I read your recent letter about your wife’s illness. I liked your perspective. My point to the congregation was to show how a follower of Jesus should handle pain and suffering based on a relationship with Christ. You have shown us how it’s done.” I was humbled.

NEW BEGINNING

Judith and I shared the same Biblical worldview. During our courtship time we spent hours reviewing our common experiences of going through the process of suffering and the death of our spouses. We both had learned how to deal with pain and death from God’s Word and our personal relationship with Jesus. We were on the same page.

Having a common worldview and relationship with Jesus was paramount in the development of our unity in dealing with the challenges of life we faced together in the twenty years that followed. Blending and finishing raising eight teenagers did indeed have challenges. Many times we had no place to turn to other than each other and God when times got tough.

Judith’s physical concerns during the last five years of her life left many questions in our minds, but none of them shook our trust in God’s leading and care. God had been so consistent in giving inner peace and direction to us in so many areas over the years, that we had no reason to question Him now. We were faithful to walk in the truth we came across whether it had to do with nutrition or spiritual dependency on God.

DEATH AGAIN

That day in the hospital when I told Judith she was going to die soon is etched in my memory. We held each other and sobbed deeply for a long time. We mourned her death together for several days. Our assurance of God’s leading, care and closeness did not eliminate our pain of impending loss. But it did provide a basis for how we faced the months ahead.

The weeks before Judith’s death provided many opportunities to talk to family and friends about her “home going” and how God factors in. Anyone talking to her during those weeks needed to be comfortable with the topic of life after death because she talked about it freely. Many people were helped with their viewpoint on Christians going to heaven and how to view that event by Judith’s conversations. I found a statement in Judith’s notes that reflected her attitude. “God can get just as much glory from a sick body as He can from a well one.”

Relief, instead of shock, crossed my mind at Judith’s death. She had suffered with a lot of pain at the end – and now her pain was over. But then an overwhelming grief hit me, producing uncontrollable sobbing. I hurt.

PRAYER

Prayer can play a huge part in the grieving process. Telling the bereaved that you are praying for them can be of great comfort. It was for me. My heart ached so bad at times that I found even praying difficult if not impossible. Comfort crept in as I remembered all the people who I knew were praying for me. God gave me added assurance that not only were these people praying for me, but they were praying on my behalf or literally in my place. This news increased my peace and freedom to embrace grief fully.

LONELINESS

Following Ruth’s death I still had four kids at home to care for and I was still teaching at the college. My struggle with loneliness had to take a back seat many days, oftentimes showing up at night. However, after Judith’s memorial service I went home to an empty bed and an empty house. The phone stopped ringing because everyone knew she was gone. Visitors to the door dwindled to maybe a couple a week. I found myself wandering around the house only to find another empty room. The loneliness and silence was deafening. I had never experienced such aloneness before in my life.

Per my personal practice, I turned to God and His Word for some help and guidance. I begged God to show me how to cope with the stifling void.

His answer came to me from the Gospel of John in the Bible which I had also read following Ruth’s death. This record reveals points about the last weeks of Jesus’ time and teaching on earth before He went back to His Father in heaven. I began to see a pattern in the things He said to the Apostles. “Little children, I shall be with you a little longer” (13:33). “Where I am going you cannot follow Me now, but you shall follow Me afterward” (13:36). “I go to prepare a place for you” (14:2). “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you” (14:25). “But now I go away to Him who sent Me…” (16:5). Jesus was talking about His departure to heaven and leaving the disciples alone on earth. Everything He said in between these statements was instructions on how to deal with the loneliness.

LONELINESS INTO GODLINESS

I found a series of guidelines from Jesus Himself concerning things I could do to deal with and even take advantage of my loneliness. I noticed that Jesus did not instruct to simply sit around and “suck it up.” He proceeded with guidelines and commands that increased my relationship with God and literally helped me be more like Him.

His directives in the Gospel of John were basic but clear:

  1. Depend on one another (13:34)
  2. Stick with your core beliefs (14:1)
  3. Remember what you know about heaven (14:2)
  4. Don’t forget about My return (14:3)
  5. I am the Way to true life (14:4-6) Remember My words (14:10-12)
  6. You can have success (14:12)
  7. Pray (14:13-14)
  8. Obey My commands (14:15,21,23)
  9. The Holy Spirit will help you (14:16-18)
  10. Loneliness can help you (14:19,26)
  11. Embrace My peace (14:27)
  12. Give God glory (14:13; 16:14; 17:1,4)
  13. Keep close to Me (15:1-8)

Each of these items was significant to me. Some helped my thinking clear up. Others eased the torment of my emotions. I would need to write a chapter per item to explain all of them clearly. That will be left to be covered in another book and another time.

To illustrate, however, I will review number three: heaven. Jesus talked about it as if it was a real place He was going to and promised I could be there too someday. That reality reduced some of my fear of the unknown about where my loved ones were after death. It also gave me peace about my future since my death, someday, was as sure as their death. My mental worries about the “after-life” relaxed and my emotional concerns regarding my loved ones were soothed. Hence, my grief was processed more calmly.

YOU

To put my conclusion very bluntly, I know my worldview works because of my lifetime of experience based on God and His Word. It is with great confidence I can offer this information to you.   

The fact that you have read all this till now indicates an interest on your part in the message I am communicating. I sincerely hope and pray that something I have said here can be a help to you. Also, if you do not currently have the right relationship with God I have referred to above, I would like to invite you to begin that now. “For God so loved the world [you] that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever [you] believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world though Him might be saved” (John 3:16,17).

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When It is Your Turn to Grieve

Posted by on Jul 23, 2016 in Blog, Grieving

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Tips for those who are experiencing loss:

I didn’t know a human could hurt that much.

The hole in my soul was huge and indescribable after Ruth died. No one had ever taught me how to mourn or even what to expect. Of course, mourning was not high on my ‘things to learn’ list. Like many, I avoided it as some sort of weakness I didn’t want anything to do with. The various “stages” I went through were surprises to me which often caught me off guard. I eventually had the presence of mind to seek out others who had gone through similar loss to talk about my experiences and pain. It really helped me understand and process my journey.

UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS

Although many authors have tried to categorize the grieving process, it really can’t be done to perfection. I notice that any list of “stages” or experiences in print may not all apply to every person. Each person mourns a bit differently. However, just because one comes across something that does not apply to their situation they should not discount being made aware of the many options one may experience.

In an article published in Tabletalk Magazine entitled “Mourning with Those Who Mourn” Dr. Archie Parrish explains mourning:

Mourning is one of life’s universal experiences. To mourn means to feel deep grief, sorrow, heartache, anguish, angst, pain, misery, unhappiness, and woe. It is the opposite of joy. Mourning comes from loss that is perceived as irreversible, such as death, terminal illness, and devastating accidents. It is not expressed in the same way in every culture, but no matter where you live on the planet, sooner or later you will face ‘a time to mourn.’ In spite of the fact that all human beings mourn, each person’s experience of grief is always unique. (2007)

HOW IT FEELS

If you feel like you are losing your grip on reality, you might be a perfectly sane person enduring the confusion of grief. Perhaps you suffer irrational fear, dread or even paranoia. You may feel empty or numb like you are in shock. Grief even causes some people to experience trembling, nausea, breathing difficulty, muscle weakness, loss of appetite or insomnia. Feelings of anger can also surface, even if there is nothing in particular to be angry about. Almost everyone tortures themselves with guilt by asking what they did wrong, how they might have prevented the loss, or some other form of self-condemnation. In short, grief makes us feel like our emotions have gone haywire because, in many ways, they have. Over time, however, you will regain a measure of equilibrium.

DIFFERENCES

Having twice mourned the loss of a spouse, I have noticed that I even went through the process differently each time. There were similarities, of course, but the order and severity of some of my experiences differed.

Changes that affected my mourning journeys included the following:

  • My level of maturity. I was 41 the first time and 63 the second.
  • My knowledge of the mourning process. I was inexperienced the first time.
  • The definition of the relationship lost. Ruth and I came from similar backgrounds and grew up together as adults. Judith and I came from different backgrounds and brought years of adulthood into the relationship.
  • The level of my life-demands. The first time I still had children at home. The second time I came home to an empty house.
  • The amount of mental and emotional preparation for the impending death. Ruth and I never really talked about her death. Judith and I mourned her death together and openly.
  • The support group available to me. The first time I only had friends and coworkers near, whereas the second time I had 15 adult kids and spouses to hug me along the way.
  • The depth of my faith. I surely had grown in my faith over the years.
  • My willingness to embrace the pain. The first time I tended to try to avoid it in the early days.
  • My willingness to talk about it. This became a key in both instances to my healing process.

A PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT

My personality tends to be a “fixer.” Consequently, I found it difficult to accept the fact that grieving is a process and not an event. I wanted to do something and get it over with. That is no more possible than it is to put a cast on a broken leg one day and have it completely healed the next. Both take time. Time and pain became my constant companions. Grieving has no quick fix.

I also felt obligated to be strong and right at all times. It was a challenge for me to realize that my deep, erroneous opinion that mourning was a weakness or even a sin, needed to change. It would have been better for me early in my journey had I believed that grieving is normal and necessary for emotional and physical health. Through searching for relief of my inner pain, I did find others who helped me know that for the deepest, long-term healing I needed to “embrace” the pain fully. I liken it to a festering sore that needs continuous draining till complete healing has occurred.

PHYSICAL ASPECTS

One of the people in my support group circle was a nurse. Early on she gave me counsel on points to help my sleeping. At first I didn’t know why she even suggested that, but soon I realized why. This was a bigger issue for me after Judith’s death. It took me months to return to somewhat of a normal sleeping pattern. Being intentional about taking care of my health had been overshadowed by taking care of my wife. I needed to change that and begin considering my own health. Research has proven the grieving process to be a physical condition as well as an emotional one. To ignore this would be jeopardizing one’s health. Stories abound of grievers who themselves experienced a physical decline in their health within two years of the loss of someone close to them such as a spouse.

I intentionally made goals to develop a regular time to go to bed, schedule in deliberate exercise, and to pay attention to eating balanced, regular meals. There were benefits to these and the results gave me sparks of hope for the future when grief tried to steal it. Slowly I began to feel the renewing of energy, which mourning had robbed from me. My weight began to return to a safer level. Others noticed, which encouraged me. After experiencing death so closely, it was uplifting to feel so alive again.

One of the wise things I did was to schedule a doctor’s visit shortly after my wife’s funeral for a checkup and advice. This was helpful to me in as much as I openly acknowledged the physical part of grieving and received some good pointers from the doctor as well.

DESPAIR VS. PURPOSE

The feeling of despair during grief could easily drag my thinking and feelings down. To combat this, I found it necessary to intentionally, and daily find and cling to purposes for my life. It was easy to let the grieving process define and totally control me. After Ruth’s death I still had four teens in the house to care for and guide. My job at the college soon continued and speaking engagements began to come in. However, I still had to choose to see those events as meaningful purposes for my life in order to overshadow the periods of despair when blindsided by grief.

Many grievers have shared with me that they found diversion from their own despair when they reached out to help others. I also found that to be true. During Judith’s decline and after her death, I found my concern for how my children and grandchildren were processing their own sorrow as a helpful release from my own despair in bouts of grief. Others have orchestrated grief relief groups, while still others volunteer at the hospital or retirement centers.

NORMAL QUESTIONS

“Am I going crazy?” “Why am I so tired all the time?” “Who really cares about me now?” “Why can’t I think clearly anymore?” “Why is it so hard to make decisions?” “Will this ever end?” “Why am I the one that is still alive?” “Why has everyone forgotten my loved one?” “Why has everyone pulled away from me?” “What if I had handled things differently?”

If you find yourself asking any of the above questions you are going through a normal experience in the grieving process. Grieving requires a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. It is draining. You are the focal person who is experiencing grief in a concerted way. Your friends and relatives have gone back to their lives; that dominates their attention. It does not mean they have forgotten you or your loved one. In fact, often times they will mourn longer than you because they are so distracted with life that they only mourn in short remembrances and therefore spread out their mourning process over a longer period of time.

RELEASE THROUGH EXPRESSION

Many of my friends have said they were hesitant to bring up the subject of my grief and my wife because “they didn’t want to make me feel bad or cry.” Of course, what many don’t realize is that talking about things can’t make my grief worse. It helps to release it. So, in essence they were thinking about their own comfort. You can, therefore, help them and yourself by bringing up your journey and memories of your loved one. A friend who had gone through the loss of his wife while in a leadership position like me offered some wise advice. He said, “You need to embrace the process of grief. Don’t avoid or stuff it. Your objective is to be healed and whole on the other side.”

ABANDONMENT

The sense of abandonment crept over me as I experienced the loneliness that swelled up on every side. Without realizing it, I began to associate my feelings of abandonment from my wife’s death to my friends and coworkers. Soon, thoughts that no one really cared about me any more opened up doubts about my social associations. This gave way to ideas of having to find new friends and even coworkers. It is true that a couple of friends pulled away from me because our relationship was primarily through my wife. However, transferring my sense of abandonment to my friends and coworkers was unfounded and misdirected. It became important to me to realize that my feelings of abandonment came from the loss of the intimate relationship I had with my wife. It left a big hole.

THE FIRSTS

As soon as my wife died, I began the process of experiencing all the “firsts” in life for me. The first time I talked to someone after she died. The first time I showed up in a familiar public place as a widower. The first time I went out with friends as a single. The first time I broke down emotionally in public. The first time I talked to someone who didn’t know my wife died though her passing had been weeks or months before. The first time of going through each major holiday without her. The first time any anniversary came around. The first season change without her to enjoy it with. The first family gathering other than her funeral and she was not there. The first time I got news of a friend or event and she was not there to tell it to.

There is no best way to experience these “firsts” in life. I handled them in different ways. Some of them I literally “leaned” into by making a point to “get it over with.” One of those “firsts” was the family gatherings without Judith. I purposely made it a point to go see my relatives even though I knew it would be difficult. Some of the holidays, however, I tended to avoid a bit by doing something totally different the first time after my wife died. The Christmas after Ruth died I accepted an invitation to join a friend for a special holiday out of the country. However, for the Christmas day after Judith died, I stayed home alone in the morning and cried most of that time. Then, in the afternoon, I joined in a community potluck and enjoyed it.

As I said before, a very important first for me was the first time I had a conversation with a stranger and did not feel like I had to make sure they knew I was recently widowed. That helped show me the grieving process does not always have to define who I am. So not all “firsts” are negative and hard. Some of the firsts can be steps in the direction of healing and freedom from deep pain.

You may find it helpful to identify your firsts. Please keep in mind that often these firsts are difficult for your friends and relatives as well as for you. Getting past them can be points in your journey of grief that will lead to victory.

HEAD-BASED VS. HEART-BASED

One of the potential grieving methods I found could be called “head-based vs. heart-based” grieving. The head-based part would be during times when I would use simple logic to deal with my loss. “She’s in a better place.” “I am strong and can get through this.” “I know things will get better for me.” The use of head knowledge and reason has its place. In fact, studies show that many men often use this style of mourning quite successfully. They tend to act or do something in memory of their loved one that “makes sense” in their grieving days. If you find this style helpful, don’t feel guilty about it.

The heart-based part of the grieving process is often what folks tend to expect. Studies again, show that this method is common among many women; however, many men include this in their mourning process as well. Guilt can creep in when sessions of “heart-based” grieving seem either excessive or totally lacking. These are times when your emotions seem out of control and all-consuming. The only thing that really matters to you is your own emotions and grieving. Your pain grips your very soul and swells up on the inside. It feels inconsolable at times.

I have examples during my mourning months where I was misunderstood because I demonstrated one or the other of these methods. During my first wife’s loss I tended to only use the head-based style in public and kept my emotional outburst sessions to myself. Her father later told me that he thought I did not cry at all for her loss. He was relieved to learn differently.

In contrast, after Judith’s death I had the freedom to weep openly at church social gatherings. A couple weeks later, one of the people of the church told a pastor that I was not handling the mourning process well and that I needed counseling.

I say all that to give you freedom to apply whichever method of grieving suits you and your personality — It is okay.

WAVES OF EMOTIONS

The emotional waves during my grieving periods did not always follow logic but were real nonetheless. I could be thinking about circumstances or people, when guilt, anger, relief, regret, stress and jealousy and the like would pop up in my heart in ways that did not necessarily make sense. Because emotions don’t always follow reason, it can be disconcerting to deal with. Time, talking and identification are often aids in dealing with these feelings. Again, not everyone experiences all these emotions the same way. I am just admitting that I had at least short struggles with these.

Learning to cope with my emotions was a new experience for me. Not being known for open expression of feelings, I was suddenly thrust into a reality I had only observed in others. Writing down lessons I was learning through my pain helped me. Finding a safe place to express my emotions was another benefit I learned to seek after. Acceptance, expression and time can be some of your best approaches to dealing with your out-of-control emotions.

IDENTITY CRISIS

Connecting the grieving process to the adjustment of life without my wife helped me understand some of my aches. The day-to-day chores and role responsibilities changed. Suddenly I was doing EVERYTHING by myself, whereas before my wife and I shared what needed to be done. I had to not only do all I had been doing in our daily life routine, but now I had to do hers as well, which included regular communication with our large family. Developing a new routine I could cope with took time. I found it helpful to not make any other major decisions for a while, until I got used to her simply being gone.

Part of this adjustment was relearning who I was. I was no longer Ruth’s or Judith’s husband. I was now single; a different person but still me. So, in addition to the grief and loneliness, I was going through an identity crisis. This adjustment included simple things such as the style of music I had playing in the house, what type of movies I watched, how often I went out in the evenings and what social events I chose to attend. I took advantage of this time to sort some of our things in storage and reassess their value and relevance in my life with her gone.

BEING SINGLE AGAIN

Being single again and the struggle with loneliness became bigger hurdles than the deep mourning. The deep mourning and grief is understandable, and there’s the hope it will subside. Being single again and lonely looked endless.

Much of our society revolves around couples. The majority of our friends were couples. The challenge for both those couples and me was to reach beyond viewing me as half of a couple, to seeing me as a whole single. It was quite the process before I was able to think of myself that way. For me to even have a conversation with someone and not be constantly referring to something about my wife was a battle.

LONELINESS

Loneliness was harder to cope with than grieving. At first I was lonely for Judith. I wanted HER back. I missed HER. As I worked through that sense of loss, a deeper empty feeling began to haunt me. I remembered this phase from my grief for Ruth (at about the six month point) and remembered thinking I was going crazy or something. I had come to grips with losing Ruth (and Judith) and wondered if that was okay, but at the same time I felt even deeper emptiness.

This general loneliness is hollow. There was no one who really noticed — or really cared if I came home at six or seven at night. If something unique happened in my day, I had no one to share it with. No one would call me after an important meeting to see how it went. I always came home to a silent house. I had no one close to validate my life or share it with and so on. It was this phase that drove me back to the Lord for answers. Missing Judith was logical and made sense. THIS felt hopeless.

SUPPORT GROUPS

A few weeks after Judith’s death I was invited by a friend to go with him to a grief support group. At first I was resistant, thinking I had enough pain of my own without going to hear about other people’s hurts. However, since the topic was on losing a spouse, I decided to go. The safety of being with others who were very understanding of my mourning process brought a sense of security to me. It helped me release some of the tension I was feeling. So, I recommend that you seek one out in your area and attend some of the sessions. A very reputable one I have found is called Grief Share.

THE LEGAL STUFF

Especially in the case of losing a spouse, the grieving process can be compounded by all the physical and legal matters that need to be tended to. It seems never-ending. Legal matters such as getting jointly-held property into my name only added to such things as changing names on jointly-held bank accounts. I had to change the beneficiary on my life insurance. Business and individual-held credit card accounts had to be adjusted. Auto and home insurance ownership had to be changed. Dentists’ offices and other doctors’ offices had to be notified so they would stop sending reminders of future appointments for my wife. I even had to make a new will for myself. If these matters are overwhelming, seek out a trusted family member or friend to help you with a list of to-dos in this regard.

One of the ways I “plowed” through the mourning process is by watching for signs of improvement from my deep despair. It took over two months of near-hopeless loss, pain and loneliness before I saw signs of relief. First, I was able to watch the slide show of Judith’s life all the way through without sobbing. Then I found myself able to remember her outside the eulogy mode (only saying positive and glowing things about her). I was able to remember some of her weaknesses without feeling guilty about it. Then on the Sunday before Christmas I felt myself feeling frustrated with the “selfishness of mourning.” Now, that is not a negative because mourning IS all about you and your loss AND it is RIGHT. But for me to feel that way, I realized that in order for me to see that perspective I had to be at least a step outside the bubble of mourning I was trapped in. It became a moment of self-encouragement.

LEAN ON OTHERS

After the third month of my grieving process I felt like I was getting life back together. I even resented people who implied or even outright said that I still had a ways to go before full emotional healing. Looking back now I can see that they were right.

Pastor Rick Warren of California gives wise counsel in his article, “In a Season of Loss, You Need God’s People:”

 

When you’re going through a season of loss, you need not only the support of other people; you also need the perspective of other people. When you’re in a season of loss, you don’t see the whole picture, your pain narrows your focus, and you need other people who can help you see the big picture. We need each other desperately in the season of loss.

After you release your grief, it’s time to let other people minister to you. Let them help. Let them comfort. Let them offer suggestions. Let them sit with you and grieve with you. And don’t be embarrassed about it! That is one of the reasons God created the Church. We are a family, and we are to care for each other.

PROFESSIONAL HELP

So, how do you know if all you’re going through is the “normal” process or that you need professional help? Friends, relatives and other professionals can often give insight to that. Theresa Karn (April 27, 2013) provides some helpful signs to watch for. Signs that grief has become complicated and that someone needs professional help are:

  • hyper-sensitivity to loss experiences
  • restlessness, agitation and over-sensitivity
  • intrusive anxiety about death regarding yourself or others
  • rigid, ritualistic and compulsive behavior
  • flattened feelings – no emotional expression
  • fear of intimacy or impulsive relationships or a lack of basic self-care.

She goes on to recommend the book Treatment of Complicated Mourning by Therese A. Rando.

IT WILL HAPPEN

In the throes of deep grieving, there are times it seems like there is no bottom to the despair. Be encouraged that it will not always be so bad. Life will renew and you will laugh again.

Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to grief. A week after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Then in May of 2015, his son died from brain cancer. MSN news reporter Ezra Klein reflected on Biden’s losses and a speech he gave to the parents of fallen soldiers on May 25, 2012:

In that 2012 speech, Biden talks about the constant weight of grief. “Just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.

Biden doesn’t end the speech easy. He doesn’t say the grief ever goes away. He just says, eventually, it makes room for other things, too.

“There will come a day – I promise you; and your parents as well – when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” Biden says. “It will happen.”

So, it will happen for you too.

 

 

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WHEN CULTURE SHADES GRIEVING

Posted by on Jul 15, 2016 in Blog, Grieving

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Cross-culture difference tips for helpers:

In today’s world many of us are multi-cultural in a number of ways. You may find yourself interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds through work, church, clubs, your kids’ schools or even where you live. It would be presumptuous to conclude that all people grieve the same. All humans grieve, but how they do it can be based on teaching, religion, worldview or their own observations. Even if you disagree with their methods of grieving, the early mourning process is not the time to criticize them or to educate them to what you consider a better way. Your best plan would be to simply help them grieve well and then be open to help them if they have questions about their own perspective versus yours at a later, less emotional time.

KARAJA TRIBESMEN

I traveled to a very remote part of central Brazil visiting missionary outposts. While there, I witnessed two different approaches to grieving. The first one happened in the semi-civilized tribal village of the Karaja. One of the tribal elders had crossed the river in his six-foot, standup canoe to drink beer in the town bar. Late at night, on his return attempt to home, he fell in the river and drowned. I arrived on the village side of the river shortly after they pulled his body from the muddy water. I observed that no one was weeping. Many were whispering, but there was no deep emotional expression. They just did not do that there. The only emotion revealed seemed to be a worried look on the faces of a few women as they held a clinched fist to their mouths.

A few days later, back across the river in the small Brazilian town, I witnessed another death scene. There in the sun-drenched town a processional of kids dressed in white were accompanying a small coffin. I asked the missionaries to explain what I was seeing. They informed me that a child under the age of two had died and was being buried that day. No adults walked with the coffin. In fact, the child probably had no name. The town’s people believed that a baby did not have a “soul” till about age two so the baby was not considered a real person until then, when it was given a name. Since, in their minds, this infant was not a real person, no adults bothered to mourn for its loss, not even the parents.

DIVERSITY

The concept of grieving a loss due to death often can be affected by the cultural perception about death itself. This varies from country to country as well as from sub-cultures within those countries. Finlo Rohrer published an article in the BBC News Magazine (2010) entitled, “How Much Can You Mourn a Pet?” In it, he admits, “The UK has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death.” Other European countries tend to have reputations for emphasizing death (i.e. the vampire stories).

THE GROUP EFFECT

Grief in a culture grows from a society and belief system that prizes and cultivates individual experience. Some languages have no equivalent to the term grief. In parts of Japan, the concept of emotions that are solely expressed on the part of an individual are not common. In those societies, individual identity is a function of social and communal harmony. A harmonized atmosphere as part of a family or community is sensed among the members. Personal grief is therefore more of a shared event.

In some traditional Chinese cultures, death presents the problem of pollution as understood in terms of their religious world view. One of the purposes of funeral rituals is to protect the men from that pollution, while on the other hand the women take the pollution on themselves. In turn, this practice results in purifying the deceased for the next life. Other than mourning, any other practices revolving around death would seem to be culture-specific. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss and sometimes trauma in the modern West.

THE INDIVIDUAL EFFECT

Western individuals, on the other hand, who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death, may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. As our world changes and becomes more of a worldwide community, so views on death evolve. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.

When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures throughout human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death and influence over the survivors’ lives. Understanding these concepts can give direction in how to talk to the bereaved. Conversations about the definition of the relationship lost can validate the lost life and aid the mourner in processing their own pain of loss.

One cross-cultural project sought to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.

Asking a grieving friend from another culture what their traditional methods are can be one way to show concern and empathy. This gives you a chance to at least acknowledge their hurts whether they are the same as yours or not.

PRACTICES

The traditional Jewish culture found in the Old Testament of the Bible had many practices continued in many places today. Even though their existence revolved around their God, the expression of grief in the time of severe loss revealed their human experience. Weeping, a primary indication of grief, was referred to a great deal. Time (30-70 days) was set aside to mourn deeply. The physical appearance of the mourners was altered to indicate their condition. Ashes or outer garments often symbolized a grieving heart. The realization of the gift of the presence of friends and family regularly induced comfort. (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991)

Judaism today calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

LIVING IN ANOTHER CULTURE

Cross-cultural effects on how one mourns also come in other packages besides historical traditions. Families living abroad, outside of their home country and culture can be very confused about the mourning process. Jonathan Trotter addresses this confusion in his article “Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised” (December 22, 2013):

Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned. You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.

But then it got heavy. Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away. Far away. Like other continents away. And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.

Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye. Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.

Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad.

WORLDVIEW

   Facing the subject of death and life beyond often brings out the definition of one’s “worldview.” Some individuals and cultures see death as final with no existence beyond. Others think that following death one is simply in a spirit world quite different than our own, which interacts with ours. Still others view life after death as a paradise existence that is very similar to our own, but unimaginablys better. Many hold to the concept that a judgment or evaluation of one’s life follows death and that either reward or condemnation awaits each person who dies. A large number of the world’s cultures and religions hold that a person immediately faces God in some way upon their death.

I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the bereaved to default to what their worldview is only to have questions about it. If they request it at this point, you can take the opportunity to help them answer and adjust their worldview where they have confusion. However, unless asked, you will be the most help to them by addressing their pain of loss.

But being aware of one’s worldview can help you choose what to say. If they believe that death is the end of existence comments like, “Your loved one is in a better place.” will be of no comfort. However, a comment such as, “Your loved one has no more pain.” may help more.

RELIGION

Worldview is often influenced by religion. Understanding a griever’s religious views can be a big help in your knowing what to say, or not. The beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, for example, hold that the state or even future of a departed soul can be affected by intercessory prayers. Comforting folks who cling to this hope for their lost friend or relative can be more effective by you emphasizing the bereaved person’s current pain and not saying things about the state of the departed.

Other religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, view the state of the deceased to be in a form of unconsciousness until some future resurrection. Many Judeo-Christians believe the departed is instantly transported to the presence of God in a “heavenly” state of paradise. In making comments to these folks about their one lost, you should be politely aware of these beliefs. Again, remember that your role is to aid them in processing their grief and not to change their religious beliefs unless they specifically ask for your opinions on the subject of life after death.

Members of Islam believe that any form of suffering, including grieving, is a result of the griever’s sins in some way. Their Prophet Muhammad declared: “By the One in whose hand is my soul (i.e. God), no believer is stricken with fatigue, exhaustion, worry, or grief, but God will forgive him for some of his sins thereby — even a thorn which pricks him.” (Musnad Ahmad, You-Tube) So, you may aid such a person with words of assurance that will help them deal with guilt that may be unjustified. Physically showing grief with the bereaved would be in order, however, Islam discourages very loud crying and wailing at funerals. During the mourning time after a death, mourners expect to have visitors. Be sure to pay a physical visit to your Muslim friend within days following their loss.

In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, the deceased is believed to be on a path to being re-born again in another physical life. Helping such a one cope with their grief could revolve around assisting them celebrate their loved one’s life. Emphasizing the accomplishments and good traits in the form of scrapbooks and photo displays can bring inner comfort to the griever.

WHY?

The “Why?” question is a common expression when anyone experiences a loss. Whether it is the loss of a job or the loss of a child in a custody case, the “Why?” issue can creep in, or crash in. The emotional hurt from the loss can make a logical answer seem irrelevant.

When that question does loom over the griever, be slow to assume you have an answer. Remember, the one grieving is experiencing an emotional hurt and a logical reply may not be of help. They mostly need you to identify their pain and support them at this time. Don’t play God.

Genuine concern goes a long way in helping the bereaved. Sensing your authentic caring is more help to them than a long prepared speech. Polite awareness of their worldview or religious persuasion will be helpful in aiding their grief.

 

 

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Dealing With The Loss of A Child

Posted by on Jun 7, 2016 in Blog, Comfort, Grieving

 

When Loss Steals A Child

Comforting those who have lost a child by any means

“When a child dies before the parent, the world is upside down.” (Old Chinese proverb)

Ruth and I did not talk very much about her impending death those seven years she battled cancer. I am sure it would have helped us some had we done more. One of the times we did have a serious talk about her going to heaven revolved around our children. She mourned her own death often and alone. She commonly said she felt like she was being “replaced” in life. The one painful topic we talked about was her mourning her loss of our children. “I probably won’t be able to see their children,” she muttered through her sobs. “I’m going to miss….” She rehearsed many things about our kids that she would not be there for. I watched her affectionately rock our youngest with a faraway look in her eye. I knew she was “missing” that bond in the future and trying to enjoy it now.

This level of loss was all so new to me. I would just listen to her as she reviewed her losses. And likewise, listening is the most powerful thing a friend can do for parents who have lost a child. The hurt comes across as unusually sharp and persistent. A thoughtless comment like, “Well, it must be God’s will,” is not a help at all. Their pain is deeply emotional and not theological.

MAJOR STRESS

The study I referred to in chapter four on life’s stress factors listed the loss of a child as being a close third behind losing a spouse and public speaking. There are factors about losing a child, however that can be permanently stifling. No matter how many children one has (I have eight), each one is unique. There will be always enough love for each child. Each one has their own permanent place in a parent’s heart. The loss of that child can never be replaced nor a substitution found. A child is irreplaceable.

I have heard well-meaning friends doing more harm than good to a grieving parent by saying thoughtless things like, “You can always have another one,” “Maybe you can get a dog,” and “Well at least you won’t have to go through … with this one.” You will find it always much better to identify the pain of the parent with simple statements such as, “I have no idea of how much you must be hurting right now.”

Recently I was privileged to meet Daniel Parkins in Southern California. Our get-acquainted conversation eventually exposed our recent losses. I was intrigued while listening to his process of dealing with his loss of a very young son to a serious illness. He lays it out well in his book about their journey entitled Nineteen Days:

I’m not sure I can explain the feeling well. It’s too impossibly deep for words to express. It’s as many writers and poets have said throughout the centuries — the breaking of the heart in two. It’s worse than anything I have felt, anything that I have heard, anything and everything cannot be compared to it — to take my son off life support, the beautiful Samuel whom we loved so desperately. Samuel, whom we prayed so fervently for and hoped for and dreamed for. Samuel, the younger brother, was now going to be missing in our lives for the rest of the sentence we were called to live. It really felt as though my son was being murdered; only I could not prevent it. I felt helpless. (pg. 144)

The Parkins were blessed with a circle of friends and colleagues who felt the pain with them and gave them lots of time and freedom to work through their grief. Their heart ached, not their long-term logic. Daniel pointed out to me that one of the very best thing received from others was that many were simply present for them and even gave silent hugs. Their loss and pain needed to be acknowledged, not explained away.

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT

The loss of a child can be one of the most difficult losses. Even the Bible sees it as a severe experience. “…make mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation…” (Jeremiah 6.26b)

Helping a friend or relative grieving the loss of a child may be a long-term commitment. Unlike other losses, the loss of a child returns to the mind of the parent in a fresh way when unmet milestones come along for the life cut short. You can be most helpful by supporting these times of prolonged grief. Just remembering with the parent can help soothe a broken heart at the child’s birthday or death anniversary. A card or text could go a long way to add comfort.

Loss is indeed a part of our human existence. Helping each other through these normal times increases our bonds to each other and fulfills a purpose for us being in each other’s lives.

LEADERSHIP MISSED IT

A few months following Ruth’s funeral, I met with a missionary couple who had been students under my teaching a few years prior. They had just returned from abroad where they served as missionaries in a remote area. While there, they had suffered the loss of a young child. During the year following that tragedy, their leadership had counseled with them that they should “get over” their loss and get on with life. This unwise counsel only deepened their emotional pain so severely that they packed their belongings and returned home.

I listened to their story in its entirety and expressed my empathy for their grief. The few comments I made came from the depths of my own mourning experience. At one point the wife burst out, “Finally, a leader who understands! No one else has indicated an understanding ear.” Her sobs flowed freely. The leadership in that area did not know what to say. Consequently, saying the wrong thing drove this dear couple away from their life’s passion.

Finding oneself aiding a friend or relative who has lost a child can be a shocking place to be. Knowing what to say can be a huge help in the healing process for them. It is important to remember all the standard things about the grieving process found in chapter two. In addition to these points, a few special considerations can be beneficial both to you and to the mourner you are helping.

HUMANS HURT

It is very human for parents to hurt following the loss of a child. Emily Rapp, frequent memoir blogger and author, described her experience of losing a child:

My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, ‘Death and dying are very different.’ Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.

Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.

Nothing you say can make the pain go away. A caring comment cannot make it worse.

Helping to deal with the loss of a child may be a permanent part of your relationship with the bereaved parent. You can do things like sending ‘thinking of you’ cards on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday. Offering to talk about the surge of feelings that can come over a grieving parent may bring tears, but remember those tears are not from hurt you created. The tears are part of the release process.

GUILT

Parents feel responsible for the welfare of their children. Parents believe they are to protect their kids from harm and even failure. In addition to the “normal” attributes of the grieving process, we need to understand the complications possible with the loss of a child. At some point, some parents need to work through guilt. The feeling that there was something they should or could have done — or not done — to prevent the death commonly emerges. This is not abnormal. Here, again, concepts from logic statements may not help the loss of the heart.

I saw this truth first-hand one evening. At the end of a concert I noticed that the mature gentleman sitting beside me wore a sweatshirt indicating he hailed from the same state I grew up in. So I asked him what part of Iowa he was from. As it turned out, he lived not more than 30 minutes from where I grew up.

Early in the conversation he made it known that his daughter had died. He and his wife subsequently moved to their present home to be near her grave. I later learned that this all happened over five years earlier. As I listened, he unfolded his pain. A week before his daughter’s fatal car wreck she had been date-raped and the dad felt he could have done something to prevent it. It became obvious to me that his ongoing guilt had suspended his grieving process in time, keeping it very much alive. I encouraged him to find someone he could talk it through with. He assured me a local pastor was available to him. As we parted, I felt sad that his guilt (whether imagined or real) prevented his soul from healing.

A DIFFERENT LOSS

The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents may even tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of their child that died. This feeling can haunt them for years. The pain after the loss of a child differs from any other loss of a person you may know and love. Accept this and acknowledge it where needed. Be very careful not to try to compare your loss of a job, marriage or pet with it.

Also, telling a grieving parent that their child “is in a better place” may be more of an insult than a comfort. Showing concern for the parent’s pain is more helpful. A simple, “I have no idea of how bad you hurt but I am here for you” is much more supportive. You may even be able to offer to help them do something physical such as house work or cleaning the garage during difficult days. Inviting them to talk about their current thoughts about their child can be of help no matter how long it has been since the child’s death.

ANGER

Anger can often be a part of the grieving process. In many cases it is even directed towards the deceased for leaving. Judith told me she felt a bit of anger towards her first husband for leaving her in death.

With the death of a child, anger isn’t usually directed towards the child, but can be pointed to a third party.

Joy Swift, who lost three children through murder, explained anger expression in an article entitled “How to Survive the Death of a Child:”

You will probably experience strong feelings of anger, especially if your child’s death is caused by a particular person. In that case, you have someone to lash out at, if only in your mind.

But when the death is caused by accident or disease, your anger may become confused. You may pour it out on someone who is completely undeserving of it — a doctor, a police officer, a rescue worker, a friend, or even your spouse. I expressed my anger quite freely, but George, a passive man, kept his inside and talked to very few people about how he really felt. (Signs of the Times – December 1987)

TIME

Realizing the core emotional needs of one who has lost a child can be helpful in your ability to help them and understand what they are working through. These complications can add time to the normal grieving process; many parents actually grieve the loss of a child for years instead of months. This does not necessarily mean they are in need of professional counsel. An understanding, empathetic ear goes a long way in knowing what to say.

In the English language there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. There’s a word for someone who lost a spouse — widow. There is a word for someone who has lost their parents — orphan. This lack of definition seems to be a reflection of the ambiguity of how parents who lose a child feel. Try to understand that and be careful not to try to explain it away. It’s doubtful you will ever totally understand their feelings, unless you have indeed lost a child the same way as the one you are helping.

Beware of the tendency to pull away from people who are hurting emotionally. Watching a friend or relative work through emotions such as anger can be hard. Your presence can give them permission to express their hurt and be freer. Be free to tastefully talk about the lost child with them and invite their response. Trite comments like, “Well, you could always have (adopt) another child,” may only multiply their hurts. Listen to where they are today in their feelings instead of referring to some possible “fix” in the future.

 ADOPTION

Adoption is usually viewed as a very positive event. Placing a child in the arms of willing, loving parents is a good thing. The loss of a child to the birth parent, in many cases, is overlooked. The mother who offered that child for adoption, if she is alive, can often experience the grieving process either immediately or over the course of her life.

Louise chose adoption for her baby:

It wasn’t fair. I had morning sickness just like the other ladies. I had a large pregnant belly just like the other ladies. I was uncomfortable at night getting kicked in the ribs just like the other ladies. I went through the same pain of labor as the other ladies did. But it wasn’t fair that I left the hospital empty-handed.

Then another lady, that had never felt the pain and joy of pregnancy, walks into the hospital empty-handed and walks out with a little pink bundle of joy.

My grieving was a choice. I knew I had to make a choice on how this child was going to be raised. Was I really ready to be a single parent? Or do I give this baby to a couple who is ready and waiting to be parents?

I struggled with that choice for almost eight months. In my heart, I knew adoption was the best for the baby. So the grieving started. The life growing inside wasn’t for me to raise. I chose not to give into [sic] imaginations of sleeping with a baby on my chest, or playdates, having a child take their first steps to me. I was fortunate enough to have been attending counseling sessions at a crisis pregnancy center. There I was able to talk with other moms who placed their baby for adoption. I knew the most painful days were still yet ahead of me.

The pain of loss was real. It hurt! I cried! I went through pregnancy but my arms were empty!

That was many years ago, and yet there is a lump in my throat as I write this now. The pain of loss will always be felt, but for me, it’s different as the years go by.

Louise’s support for her grieving process only began in the days and weeks following the adoption. Those were critical times, to be sure. Reassurance for her decision was vital. Acknowledgment of her deep pain had to happen. Comments like, “Well, at least you won’t have to potty train the baby,” would be detrimental rather than helpful.

She would find more comfort in companionship, words of understanding, and even thoughtful opportunities to begin diverting her thoughts to her own healing. Like many situations where a child is lost, her pain is not something she will “get over” in a few months. It literally becomes a part of her. In the months, and even years ahead, it can be helpful to still speak of the child and give reassurance that the child is doing great.

DIVORCE

The process of a divorce affects the whole family. Symptoms of grief are often not associated with the process, but they are usually there. One of those issues can be the loss of children. This can be either through the physical separation or even through losing a child custody case.

Years after his divorce, Michael’s former wife filed for full custody of their two teenage sons. He lost. Michael described his loss:

My God, I am losing both my kids at once. Gone … across the country. I will never be a part of their day to day lives again. Everything I had is gone. I am now the relatives they visit for a vacation. Every part of their lives that I participated in has now been severed irrevocably. Each time I see them the loss is displayed before my eyes. Changes in growth, physically, mentally, differences in attitudes … each time I see them they are different people, with shades and shadows of the kids I knew before. The kids I knew, the kids I raised, my sons … are gone. God, why not take my arms and legs, my eyes … why my kids? Take it all. Take everything I have. Leave my kids. Every text, every e-mail, every phone call, every Skype session, makes my loss more real. Reopening the wound, salt, alcohol, peroxide … They move on with their lives. Activities, sports, girls, learning to drive, prom, school … the calls get less, Skype sessions cease, texts are rarely returned because they have moved on with their lives leaving me behind. Anger, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards the one who caused this to occur, the one who uprooted them, the one who took them from all they knew and loved and moved them to a place with no friends and family other than the one who took them except on rare occasions. Everything points to the holes in your life. I coached them and their team… That’s gone. The games, the plays, taking them to their friends, running your life around your kid’s activities, everything severed, cut off, burned … lost. Emptiness … pain ….

Supporting a grieving parent who has experienced the loss of a child will feel unending. Your understanding will mean a lot. Be prepared to care for them through many emotional ups and downs and even some false starts in the recovery process. A non-critical ear may be just the thing they need most to make it through a moment or day of grief. Heart comments will often be more helpful than logical statements.

“I’ve never been where you are so I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I would like to hear about your process of loss,” can be a great way to help a hurting parent move towards a place of freedom.

ABORTION

The number of abortions in our society has risen drastically over the last several decades. It’s been documented that emotional stress can be experienced, hence the growing pool of potential hurting men and women. If you are or know someone who has had an abortion either recently, or in the distant past, the grieving process is still very real. Like many losses, grief from an abortion can be “stuffed” down, embraced or spread out over a lifetime. Being aware of these options can help you be of great healing assistance to one experiencing it.

“I don’t know how anyone could ever kill their baby,” can be very hurtful or condemning when said in the presence of one who has experienced an abortion. Long-term sensitivity to grieving parents is a must. Helping someone in the depths of grieving an abortion will need to include concepts of forgiveness. Forgiveness may be needed from friends and relatives, from the unborn child, and even themselves. Understanding God’s grace and forgiveness may be a beginning. Your understanding ear can be an important part of their victory.

MISCARRIAGE

One loss of a child that is often played down too much is that of a miscarriage. Friends and relatives can be cold or even rude by either ignoring the pain process or demanding one short-change the grieving process. We need to view this as a full-blown loss.

The mother in miscarriage cases does not suffer alone. The father can experience a variety of hurts that need to be processed. In his article “A Father’s Story: Mourning the Baby We Never Had,” Ian Wallach explained some responses he heard about:

A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn’t want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they’d moved apartments to escape the baby’s room they had created. He said he took no time off from work — not a single day — yet still didn’t understand why he’d misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.

Your help for parents who have experienced a miscarriage needs to be long term. Allowing time alone to grieve helps, but don’t be afraid to talk about it with them in months and even years later. A good suggestion you can make would be for the grieving parents to have a funeral. It will help a bit to bring closure for them. I also suggest you include the lost baby when referring to the number of children they have.

CHILDLESS

Mother’s Day can be a hard day for some. Older, single people who would like to be married and have children but don’t can view Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as a reminder of their personal disappointment and feelings of failure in the family area. The day that celebrates their missing role can trigger grief that doesn’t seem to go away.

Shawn and Jenn are long-time friends of my family. Their life has been very fulfilled since their marriage many years ago, including a strong relationship with each other and a very productive career together in a religious non-profit organization. One thing is missing for them. They have no children.

Jenn offered some candid comments regarding their journey of hope and disappointment towards having children in their personal blog:

It’s complicated. And there’s no time frame. The broken heart can’t always be defined, but it’s there. And the smallest little thing can stir it all back up. There’s the lie that nobody cares and that people are tired of hearing about it. There’s the lie that we’ll be old and lonely and still aching for those six babies we never got to hold, raise: the legacy that never was. It’s hard and it hurts. It’s grief, loss, doubt, and sometimes guilt, smashed in some weird, oddly shaped box. A big part of the grieving process after IVF [in vitro fertilization] (x3) is knowing that you’ve done ALL you can using the most advanced medical treatments and procedures and surgeries. It’s taking two steps towards closure, accepting that you will be ‘the couple without kids,’ and then falling backwards at the thought of Christmas mornings with just the two of us – forever.

MURDER AND SUICIDE

Violent deaths are always traumatic. In the event of a child’s violent death, whether their life was taken by themselves or others, breadth is added to the sorrow. Horror and deep regret multiply the pain. The scope of this grief swells up as often unexplainable by many parents.

In an interview by Timothy C. Morgan on March 28, 2014, Kay Warren attempts to put her loss into words. She and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, had lost a son to suicide one year earlier:

Because of our love, we conceived a child together. I birthed him from my body. He was a part of me. A part of me is no longer here. How can I be the same? For us as a couple, as a family, there were five of us; now there are four. Our child murdered himself in the most raw way I can tell you. Suicide is self-murder. Our son, the murderer, was himself. The trauma of knowing what he did to himself, how he destroyed the body of this child that we loved. He did it to end the pain. How could we ever be the same? Trauma changes you. I can’t ever go back to who I was. (Christianity Today)

As you come alongside parents in this form of grief, you will need to accept the fact that their hurt will be long term. In fact, you would be better prepared to help them if you expected their grief to increase for a time instead of subsiding. Beware of verbiage that pushes them to “get over it.” The goal for a bereaved parent is getting through the process, not getting over it. Consolation of having other children, if this is true, is no comfort for the one lost.

Often simple statements of your continued friendship and support will do more good than attempts to make their hurt go away. Keep contact with them through social media and texting if impromptu visits seem out of place. Showing them your support will be more meaningful than saying it.Baby loss

 

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What to Say when a Spouse Dies

Posted by on May 25, 2016 in Blog, Comfort, Grieving

Fam grief    “Sixty-one years is a long time to be married to the same person — and then lose them,” Elaine said as she stared into space. “Wow,” was my response. “That is amazing and I can’t even imagine how it must feel for you now. The loneliness must be overwhelming.”

“You’re right, it is,” was her confident reply. We went on to cover simple changes both she and I had experienced over the last year: buying food and cooking for ONE instead of two, learning to manage jobs our mates always did, and adjusting socially to being single. I noticed that her spirits and demeanor improved following our talk.

Did you notice that I did not say anything like, “I know how you feel?” or “I know, I lost two wives!” Neither statement is helpful. I really don’t understand another’s personal pain, and she did not expect me to. She only needed me to empathize and acknowledge her pain. And comparative statements tend to shut people down. Too often, when we don’t know what to say to FIX their problem with grief, we feel we can’t help and so we shy away. Not so. Grievers need to be heard, not fixed, or out-done.

EXPRESSION, NOT QUICK FIX

Expression and closure are important for those who have experienced loss.

I had the opportunity to share my experiences and lessons of going through loss at a large men’s prison in southeastern California recently. The chaplain, who is a long-time friend, invited me to share with the “church” he was responsible for behind bars. It proved to be a great opportunity to offer healing.

Following my talk, men began lining up to express appreciation and tell me their stories. One impacted me in particular. A man in his early 60’s with a ponytail had joined the line. When he got to me he was so emotional he couldn’t talk. He stepped out of line for a moment before he composed himself enough to tell me his story. He had married his childhood sweetheart, then went to Viet Nam. He came back with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and she eventually left him. Later in life he was able to overcome the effects of the war and she returned to him. He never said why he was in prison, but while he was serving time, she died. He never got to say goodbye, nor did he have the opportunity to settle any hurts OR even go to her funeral.

My forthright talk about grief and even my facial expressions made him feel that I was the first person to come into his life who understood his pain. This rough and tough man sobbed on my shoulder for the longest time, and it gave him release.

You can be of great help to those you know by allowing them multiple opportunities to express their pain (not fix it) and thus aid them in steps of closure. It can even be helpful to ask, “Where do you see yourself in your grieving process? Tell me about it.”

GET TO THE POINT

Get to the point. This is good advice for people who wish to really be of practical help to a friend or relative who has experienced a recent loss. It is very easy and tempting to make general statements like, “If there is anything I can do to help,” or “Let me know what I can do.”

As clear as these may seem to you it can sound more like “la la land” to the griever and require more energy than they have. Grieving takes a lot of emotional and mental energy. Often simple “yes” and “no” questions are all one can process with any level of definitiveness. Future planning skills are hampered in the minds of the bereaved. Thinking about needing groceries next week will not be a need until the minute one runs out of milk.

If you are really serious about helping your friend or relative in some physical way, specific questions are better. “Can I come over on Tuesday and help you get your housework caught up?” “I do grocery shopping on Saturday, can I call you then to see what you may need from the store?” “Is it okay if I call you Thursday evening between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. to chat?”

IDENTITY CRISIS

Judith died early on a Sunday morning. Seeing and touching her lifeless body is permanently embedded in my memory. I walked from the bedroom to the living room and collapsed on the couch with uncontrollable sobs. I was inconsolable. As the tears lessened, my soul began to hurt and a hollow feeling overwhelmed me. I felt like a nobody. Immediately, my identity and definition of who I was vanished. I was no longer Judith’s husband. She was gone. I was single again and did not know what that meant. I was no longer among the marrieds group in society. I no longer had someone to check in with concerning daily events and decisions. All future plans we had made were useless and gone!

Some have tried to explain this identity crisis caused by the loss of a spouse as an amputation of one’s self. One man, following the loss of his wife, expressed it well. He likened him and his wife as a pair of pliers. With both sides present and attached, the pliers are a very useful tool. He said he felt like one side was now gone and the “pliers” could no longer grasp anything. The re-definition of one’s self becomes then compounded by the difficult situation of loss due to death. It barges in as a situation that has to be worked through and not easily dealt with by immediate replacement. Some of my sense of fulfillment in life revolved around Judith’s happiness and well-being. That purpose in life for me vanished.

Friends’ comments that meant the most in helping me cope at this stage included, “I know how much you loved her,” “I don’t know how you feel right now, but I want you to know I am here for you,” “I am praying for you,” and “You are still very important to me.”

SOCIAL ADJUSTMENTS

Being single again created many other adjustments for me. For the longest time after both of my wives’ deaths I still felt married. I wore my wedding band for months after they departed. I still thought of myself as half a couple. Adjusting to my new reality and viewing myself as a whole single person took time. I began to realize that my regular circle of friends had to make the same adjustments. Some pulled away while others saw me as a threat.

Elisabeth Elliot, in her book Loneliness expressed it well:

In spite of this modern shuffling of ancient norms, social gatherings are still often made up of what we (sometimes loosely) call couples. As a widow I never enjoyed being a fifth wheel. I threw things off balance simply by being there, but this was a reality I had to come to terms with. It was nobody’s fault. It would be silly to protest that the married people were supposed to do something about my feelings in the matter. Many of them tried. Everybody was kindness itself in the beginning, hovering over me, offering helps of all sorts, inviting me out. Many continued to be kind when the so-called grieving process was supposed to be over, but there was nothing in the world they could do about my not being half of a couple anymore. (pg. 41)

HOLIDAYS CAN HURT

The first holidays after losing a spouse can be excruciating. Christmas especially looms as hard for many. Being helpful and attentive to those you know who were recently widowed can be very important.

Following Ruth’s death in October, her parents were still living near us and, of course, I had four children to think about and care for. We had Thanksgiving with her parents as usual. Christmas developed differently. A good friend who lived in Grand Rapids made me an unusual offer. He had been a missionary pilot and now had his own plane. He invited us to join his family for the week of Christmas in a private cabin complex in the Bahama Islands. We only had to meet him at an airport in Florida and he would fly us over to the island and take care of us for the five days we were there. We took him up on it. The solitude was just what we needed at that time. The pain we could have experienced during the holidays was diminished.

Judith’s death was also in October. I saw the month of December as an opportunity to heal through many “firsts” in my grieving process. This time I had an empty home. Two families of kids and grandkids lived nearby, but my house was empty. Early in December I flew to Iowa to attend a Christmas gathering of my many siblings and their families. I knew this would be a good opportunity to begin the Christmas season by connecting with them for the first time since Judith’s death. It turned out to be a great time of healing for many of them as well as for me. I then had an evening of Christmas gifts and meals with the two families living near me. For Christmas day, however, I was alone. I thought nothing of it since I had celebrated Christmas with my kids. However, a couple hours after I got up and realized it was Christmas day, I began to sob. I wept for several hours that morning. My healing was continuing. That afternoon I attended a community potluck meal and met some new friends that I enjoyed being with.

Both experiences, being with people in a different setting, as well as being alone helped me to reflect and heal. Some grievers continue to struggle, trying to reproduce past Christmases. Some avoid the season altogether, while others start all new traditions for the holidays. As with the grieving process itself, there is no best way to deal with the holidays. Dangers and benefits to each exist. It becomes important to have a plan that best suits the people involved.

You don’t have to come up with an almighty solution to a griever’s pain over the holidays. It is often important that you address it by asking them what their plans are for the upcoming holidays. This can give them an opportunity to talk through it and it lets them know you are aware and concerned with their pain.

WAYS TO HELP

Remember that grieving can’t be “fixed.” Grieving is a process to be experienced. A great way to help the mourner, can be by assisting them physically to ease life’s demands while they heal.

Judith often told me about the ways many people helped her during her years of widowhood. She had four young boys and a house to maintain. Prepared food that arrived at her door became a valued treasure as she could not concentrate on preparing food and everything else. She spoke of ladies who showed up and simply came in to help clean or do dishes. Some people came to help remodel the basement in order to make it more usable. Men would take the boys and teach them to shoot or ski. Actions like this actually aided in her ability to heal. Serving becomes the same as comforting.

She pointed out that the most effective servers were people with whom she had a good relationship. Interestingly, there were those who did not make the effort to build a relationship either through service or emotionally. For them it seemed easier to do a “token task” and avoid her pain and situation altogether. But that approach to help falls short when practiced by friends.

During Judith’s time of terminal illness, friends set up a website folks could go to in order to sign up to bring meals to my house. Our large circle of friends brought meals every other day for three and a half months, which made our grieving burden seem a bit lighter. Likewise, offers to come clean my house after her funeral were greatly appreciated. Though generally able to do everything before, grieving disables, if not derails, even the strongest person for a time.

Time is a Friend

To the griever who is engaged in the process TIME IS THEIR FRIEND. This can be both comforting and dreaded news. It is comforting because it assures them that time does have a healing affect in their grieving process. However, it can cause dread to those who wish grieving were a short event that is over and done in an instant and not something to experience over a length of time.

Your comments should reflect understanding that time will be an important ingredient in their grieving process. “You should put this behind you,” “You should get on with your life,” “Life goes on, you know,” or “What’s done is done” can give the wrong impression about time and grieving.

You can be more help by saying things like, “What was it like when…?” or “What are some things that have eased your pain?” or “No, you are not crazy. You are grieving.” or “I remember this about your spouse…”

 

 

« Point to Ponder »

Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process.

 

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When Death Seals a Spouse

Posted by on May 18, 2016 in Blog, Grieving

Special help when aiding those who lost a spouse through death

I attended a stress management seminar in Detroit many years ago. During that seminar I learned that on a national average the top two highest stress-producing events were public speaking and the death of a spouse. During the months following Ruth’s death my reading included information on dealing with the loss of a spouse. Among the statements about the importance of taking care of your own health while you grieved, the point emerged that among older people the possibility of the surviving spouse dying often increased by forty percent in the year following the loss. It is not necessary for anyone to be a statistic in the national averages. These facts do, however, emphasize the significance of losing a beloved spouse.

TO BE RECKONED WITH

The doorway to my bedroom seemed to jerk me to a sudden stop. Staring at the spot where I watched my wife take her last breath three weeks earlier, I melted into another uncontrolled sobbing session. My daily wandering around the house like a two-year-old child looking for a pacifier seemed endless.

This time I ended the emotional session by thinking of other deep hurts I had experienced. I perceived them differently now. My mom came to mind. Suddenly my situation seemed not so harsh. Wow, I thought, She really had life tough when my dad died suddenly! For my whole life I only could remember the difficult years surrounding my dad’s accident from my 11-year-old boy’s perspective. But now, through my own loss, my heart ached for my mom and I admired her in new ways.

I was the oldest of four kids the day of my dad’s accident. Mom was a young 30-year-old pregnant woman living in a home with no indoor plumbing and a pot belly stove that burned coal or wood for heat. Winter had only delivered half her force when our lives changed forever that sunny February day. My mother’s grief seemed to cause our lives to stop. She spent a lot of time in bed and only got up to give the minimum care for her four small children. One week after my dad’s funeral she delivered my youngest brother.

A week after Mom came home from the hospital with my baby brother, we got an unexpected visit from her dominating mother. She burst into our house unannounced. Upon her arrival, she found the house in a chaotic mess. Mother was in bed, as usual. It had been nearly a month since my dad was killed in the accident. The newborn at her side received all her attention at the expense of taking care of the house and the rest of us children. In retrospect, Mom’s behavior was understandable given all these circumstances. Unfortunately, Grandmother responded in a very harsh fashion.

“Get out of that bed and stop this right now,” my grandmother snapped. My mom had never crossed her commanding mother her entire life and she didn’t start then. She did what she was told physically, but she could not deal with her grief so easily. So, instead of going through the grieving process in a healthy way, Mom stuffed it down for the present but her grief didn’t stay down. The pain seeped out the rest of her life.

Difficult days for my mom continued that first year. With no husband, Mom still had a farm to manage. She had no clue how to do that and care for five kids. That spring and summer the neighbors came in force to help plant and then harvest a crop. However, she lost the farm and we had to move into the small town nearby. The only financial income Mom qualified for was government assistance. Three hundred dollars a month did not go very far, even back then. Very often, the money I got from mowing lawns supplemented to buy bread and gas.

This experience, along with the busyness of life, kept a raw place in my mother’s soul. I saw her pull out Dad’s picture and weep each time hard emotional events occurred. The most vivid one came during her divorce from the man she married three years after my dad’s death. Her healing had been aborted and she suffered for it for years.

Sadly, my mom died relatively young of a rare disease that could have been triggered by stress. In my judgment she suffered in many ways, because her grief was not processed well.

Sometimes circumstances and dominant personalities hinder some people from grieving freely. In many of these cases, having a friend or close relative who gives them “permission” to grieve can be a key to their victory. Instead of pointing out their strength or toughness, an honest statement about their loss and pain would be more beneficial to their long-term healing. A straightforward question such as, “Are you giving yourself time or permission to cry sometimes?” could be just the thing that helps.

THE CLOSER, THE LESS

Roz called me from Florida the other day. She was hesitant but asked, “Can I ask you a question about how to help a new friend of mine?” She explained that a new lady had just started coming to her Bible study who had recently lost her husband. Roz said she wanted to help her and not be a hindrance to her. Neither of us had a long time to talk so Roz asked me for a “really concise version” of what she needed to say or not say. I replied, “The general rule is: The more recent the loss, the less you should say.”

What that means is that the closer it is time-wise that the loss actually took place, the less you should say. If they lost their loved one that day, you say very little. Maybe one sentence like, “It must really hurt.” Do not try to solve their mourning issue with a long logic statement on how to look ahead, etc. However, if you are talking to them three months later, you might find they want to rehearse how their loved one died in vivid detail.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, lost her husband in an accident. In a poignant personal post on her Facebook timeline June 3, 2015, she articulately expressed some things about her first month of grieving that demonstrate what I’m talking about with my phrase, “the closer, the less”:

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked, “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear, “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

THE ROLLER COASTER

Grieving the loss of a spouse is not an event; it is a process. This process can take one from emotional highs to deep grief without warning.

Judith stopped in her tracks and stared at the silhouette filling the doorway. Gordon (her husband) had died just weeks before. She and her sister were out shopping on a much-needed reprieve. Gordon had been six foot six inches in stature and built like “Mr. Clean.” The man in the doorway grabbed her attention. “Judith,” Marsha began, “Are you okay?” The swell of emotion engulfed Judith, right there in the clothing department.

Marsha’s response to this normal event in the healing process of a mourner was right on. She did not try to talk Judith down or out of the emotions that swelled up. She did not criticize her for expressing her emotions openly. Instead, she came along side and saw it as normal and healthy and just let her cry.

One of the common errors I have seen in those who are friends of the bereaved emerges when they see their friend show emotions and somehow think that it is not good, or a sign they are struggling. The common implication is that a lack of emotion signifies they are doing okay. This isn’t true. Public display of emotions can be a sign that the bereaved is freely working through the process and can be very “normal.”

I have received negative feedback from friends who witnessed my public expression of emotion. Some saw it as weakness, while others concluded I must not have been doing well. In fact, the opposite was true. I experienced added healing each time I had the freedom to express these sudden bouts of emotions. To deny someone this freedom of emotional expression could be a hindrance to their healing.

Author Jerry Sittser, in his book A Grace Disguised explains it this way:

Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life. (pg. 42)

When this happens in your presence instead of saying something to try to stop their tears it would be better to say, “It’s okay. I know it must hurt sometimes more than others. I miss them too. Thanks for having the freedom to cry in front of me.”

TIME WELL SPENT

Understanding the depth of emotion a friend or relative is going through can go a long way in helping you know how to assist them in their journey. Often this can only be found out by spending time with that person and listening closely. You may even need to ask clear questions. A simple, “How are you doing?” will not produce a true picture. A better question may be, “Can you tell me about your up and down feelings today (or this week)?”

A friend of mine who lost his wife eight months ago wrote this to me. “I believe I am doing ‘well’ which might need some explaining. I still get blindsided by my emotions and, for what seems like no reason at all, I have a meltdown. The pain doesn’t seem as sharp and overwhelming as it has in the past, but it is there. Loneliness is hard to handle. A busy schedule helps, but a busy schedule doesn’t satisfy the need to talk and interact with a person of confidence. God knows these things and I am learning how to handle the different situations that come into my life.”

A listening ear and the right questions can provide needed information to you as you seek to be the best comforter to a friend or relative. Avoid statements of command that tell them to “Suck it up” or “Be strong.” Those only imply that stuffing their grief is the best, when that is not the case.

WHAT’S IT ABOUT

I have noticed that, many times, the attention in loss tends to be directed towards the loved one lost. However, I’d like to suggest that one truly understands the depths of grief when it is realized that grieving needs to center around the pain of the griever.

“Your loved one has no more pain,” announced the attending doctor. This response to the death of a loved one is very kind when announcing their death. The blow of the news concerning immediate loss can even be softened more with consolation that the one who has died is better off in some way. However, as time passes, the pain that the griever is experiencing overshadows any trite consolation pertaining to the deceased. Their soul is hurting beyond belief. I remember feeling like there was a hole in my soul that seemed permanent.

   Statements such as, “They are in a better place,” “It was their time to go,” “God loved them so much He wanted them with Him in heaven,” “It was God’s will for them to die,” or “They are happier now” put the emphasis on the wrong place and do not benefit the griever. Grief is not a result of the change in the condition or location of the dead. It is caused by the pain being experienced by the griever because of their loss. Acknowledging and addressing the pain of the griever can be of much more help in processing them through to victory.

A NO-BRAINER

I met Bob and Rachel years ago. Bob’s first wife had died suddenly a couple years before. By the time I met them, Bob and Rachel had just met. They soon married and were building a life of ministry together. Forty-one years later I got a letter from Bob saying that Rachel had died suddenly. I waited until after the three-week time frame to contact him because I knew that would be about when most people began to pull away and his need to talk would only increase.

The day we connected by phone was a Saturday morning. Some have asked me, “So, what did you say to him?” My answer is, “Very little. Mostly I just listened.” About the only significant thing I said to Bob during that hour conversation was, “When I read your letter about Rachel, it broke my heart.” Following his tears, he went into detail telling me everything surrounding her death. It was then I learned the startling news that Rachel had taken her life. It was obvious that he felt the need to unload the details that probably were tormenting his mind including the struggles he was having. I sensed a freedom in his spirit when he said, “Goodbye. Maybe we can talk again.”

I knew that I did not have to know what to say to Bob; I only needed to connect with his emotional hurts and let him talk through his experiences. Grief is an emotional issue, not a brain issue. Heart responses help more than logic statements at this point.

You don’t have to have a well thought out plan of logic to help the grieving. Simple concern works great.

LONELINESS

It is well worth repeating here that loneliness, to most who have lost a spouse, soon becomes a huge hurdle that can last for years.

Loneliness is a very real part of the grieving process. Loneliness can be experienced in addition to missing the one who has died. Thomas Wolfe puts it this way: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human experience.”

This aspect of the grieving process is often overlooked by those not experiencing it. I found it to be suffocating. We all understand that we will miss the one whom we have lost. But, what about the oppressing loneliness that develops later? Many have expressed that, though missing their loved one was difficult, coping with the loneliness was more painful.

That being said, as you respond to those who have faced a loss, include loneliness as part of their experience in your thinking. This aspect can be easier to help them with since all of us have had bouts of loneliness in our lives. “How are you handling times of loneliness?” is a good question along with, “When can I come by during times you are commonly feeling alone?”

YOU DON’T KNOW

“Sixty-one years is a long time to be married to the same person — and then lose them,” Elaine said as she stared into space. “Wow,” was my response. “That is amazing and I can’t even imagine how it must feel for you now. The loneliness must be overwhelming.”

“You’re right, it is,” was her confident reply. We went on to cover simple changes both she and I had experienced over the last year: buying food and cooking for ONE instead of two, learning to manage jobs our mates always did, and adjusting socially to being single. I noticed that her spirits and demeanor improved following our talk.

Did you notice that I did not say anything like, “I know how you feel?” or “I know, I lost two wives!” Neither statement is helpful. I really don’t understand another’s personal pain, and she did not expect me to. She only needed me to empathize and acknowledge her pain. And comparative statements tend to shut people down. Too often, when we don’t know what to say to FIX their problem with grief, we feel we can’t help and so we shy away. Not so. Grievers need to be heard, not fixed, or out-done.

grieving men

 

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