WHEN DEATH DOES US PART
“Till death do us part…” I repeated. Those words seemed to echo throughout the huge college chapel following my promise and then my bride’s commitment. The witnesses, family and friends, of our wedding stood by smiling. Our parents sat with proud looks on their faces. In all honestly, however, I only viewed those words as a symbol of commitment. I did not really think I would experience that part of those important words, let alone do it twice.
Ruth and I had never been happier than we were that delightful day in July.
Our wedding crowned three years of getting acquainted through writing letters and occasional long distance phone calls. Looking back, this strengthened our relationship because it forced both of us to express our hearts, feelings and beliefs on paper without the distraction of the physical area. That was great for my growth both emotionally with her and spiritually with the Lord.
The proof of the depth of our relationship revealed itself in the ensuing years of life. We were not only committed to each other but we understood each other. We did, indeed, marry our best friend. To keep our growth together on a “roll” we spent every one of our wedding anniversaries—alone—discussing the “state of our union.”
But the day would come when I dreaded our tradition. It was the summer following Ruth’s cancer diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy and our loss of “normal.” Those events proved to be the biggest challenge to our relationship to date. Up to this point our love had been a mutual give and receive. Now Ruth was so drained physically and emotionally that she literally had nothing left to give—either to me or our four young children. Thirty-three is a young age to be facing a life threatening disease.
Finally, for the first time, I sensed our relationship changing and it hurt me in that realization. Ruth was no longer able to contribute to our relationship as before. And, in brutal honesty, I found myself questioning my love for her…simply because things seemed to be one-sided for the first time.
I was preparing for my first experience teaching the book of I John at the school. Opening up 1 John 4:10-11, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” God spoke to my spirit, “See, I loved those who did not love back and I acted on their behalf. You are doing that for Ruth and it is okay!” I dropped to the floor sobbing.
Soon after, my dreaded “state of our union” meeting came. Sure enough, Ruth asked how I had been during the throes of the hardest days that winter. I hesitantly, yet openly shared with her how I had struggled and how God met me. She simply said, “I thought so. It’s okay.”
The following six years were filled with days and weeks of hope and disappointment. We faced treatments and then recurrences, over and over.
The most memorable time happened again during our “state of our union” talk that next July. Following a special day on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan, we sat talking. During a warm embrace, Ruth softly said, “I have never felt so at one with you.”
Three short months later, I watched her take her last breath. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Within days I became aware of this hole in my soul that seemed permanent.
Losing a spouse has many aspects to it that are not always understood by many. Indeed, there is the death and physical loss of that person leaving a void in your life. Theirs is also a loss of intimacy in communication. I had no one to tell even small things to that Ruth would appreciate hearing. My biggest loss, however, was the loss of the relationship. It seemed that in addition to grief due to the death of a friend, I had lost the close relationship we had. Love songs were next to impossible for me to listen to.
A year later, God brought along a godly widow lady to the school where I was who absolutely swept me off my feet. What a beautiful lady!
The next year Judith and I found ourselves in a large church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with six sons on one side and two daughters and Judith’s sister on the other. Again, the room echoed our vows, “Till death do us part.”
These words had much deeper meaning to both of us. We had both experienced this hard truth to the fullest. However, even with that, we idealistically viewed the reality of it happening again as being a lifetime away.
Now, the process of blending eight teenagers became twice the task either of us had imagined. Yes, the volume was an issue. When you bring two families together they bring their baggage along. That meant twice as many problems. The growth and mistakes of our kids only drove us to the Lord and to each other. We learned early on to talk about everything, no matter how hard the subject. We reviewed the development of each of our kids every three to six months.
The joys and challenges we experienced in our successful blending of families from two different countries and cultures will have to be addressed at a different time. I need to fast forward sixteen years from Judith and my wedding.
Judith’s health began to be of concern. We spent five years chasing symptoms from doctor to doctor. We intentionally worked hard on her health, even though we did not know what we were fighting. Once again we faced this issue together.
She had to have an emergency surgery. During which the doctor called me in the waiting room. He said, “Mr. Knapp, I am sorry. I am seldom surprised … I found a very mean looking cancer tumor in Judith that came from somewhere else.” I immediately knew she was going to die. I sat down and sobbed uncontrollably for nearly an hour. That continued daily from that day in August ‘till Christmas day.
The next day a full body scan exposed cancerous spots on her lungs and a large, stage-four tumor on her pancreas. With that news Judith asked, “Does that mean I am going to die?” I teared up and nodded “yes” as I leaned over for a long sobbing embrace.
Judith and I talked about everything. This was no different. The next four days in the hospital were full of time we spent mourning her impending death together.
Gradually we communicated with our eight children and their families that they needed to do whatever it took to come see Mom/Grandma soon before pain medication made it hard for her to be alert. I watched, monitored and participated in each one’s mourning. Some of our grandchildren wept the deepest in my arms.
About a week before she left for heaven, I was talking to her quietly at her bedside and a tear trickled down the side of her face. Through her medicated fog she whispered, “I’m sorry I have to die.” Now the tears were running down my cheeks. I assured her it was okay and that I would be fine. I gave her permission to go on without me and that I would be along soon.
Early Sunday morning late in October, Judith leaped into the arms of Jesus.
I was alone again. The loneliness was deafening.
A classic question was posed to me by a pastor friend and his wife. How can we as a couple prepare for such a tragic event as one of us dying “before our time”?
First, be committed to developing the deepest, most open relationship possible. Keeping your emotional distance to possibly reduce unknown future pain is not a good idea.
Next, I would encourage you to have a policy of open communication, even when things are great. That way, it won’t be a new event to add to the struggle of tragedy. Also, it should be a given practice of walking with God closely when things are normal or “easy.” That way you won’t have to learn how to trust Him AND go through tough times at the same time.
Have conversations about “if I go first” at some time or another… better sooner than later. This could help your spouse greatly with hard decisions should you go to heaven first. Live each day with the appreciation for your spouse like you could lose them tomorrow. Keep all relationships current. To this day, I have no relationship regrets with either Ruth or Judith because we lived out our relationships with short, current accounts.
I also recommend couples be willing to take the message of 1 Corinthians 7:4 further than the bedroom. Help each other take care of their temple (physical body).
Finally, don’t be afraid to educate yourself about the grieving process. “Till death do us part” is no joke. It is for real and should be considered seriously.
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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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
« Point to Ponder »Beware of time in words of comfort. Avoid time limits and be sensitive to timing for comments.
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WHAT TO SAY
WHAT NOT TO SAY
Taken from the book by David Knapp, I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss, 2015. For a better understanding as to why the comments in black are more helpful than the statements in red, get the entire book at www.
Your loss is a very difficult thing to go through, I am sure.
Get a grip!
I will always remember him/her.
I don’t want to talk about the dead. Let’s talk about the living.
Do you need someone to go with you to choose a casket or marker?
I know what you are going through. I lost a kitten once.
Can we go for a walk on Sunday afternoon and chat?
You need to take your mind totally off your pain.
Tell me something special about your early days with him/her.
You should be thankful he/she is out of pain.
It’s so good you have the freedom to cry/express your feelings.
You need to get over this.
No, you are not crazy. You are grieving and it is okay. This will pass.
I know EXACTLY how you feel.
I realize this must be hard for you.
Call if you ever need anything.
So, how are you feeling today?
Let me tell you what you need to do.
I understand that you feel the way you do…and it is okay.
You can’t bring him/her back. God is in control.
Can I help you find others who have had a similar loss?
This happened because God had something/someone better for you.
Can you join our group for dinner this Friday?
Call me sometime.
His/her memories are a legacy of love.
You need to let go of him/her so you can start living again.
Are you up for a chat now or next week?
You look great. You must be over it.
Thanks for having the freedom to talk to me about your feelings right now.
How are you holding up?
Here is a favorite memory I have of him/her.
So now you are all alone. What a shame.
You made the right decisions surrounding his/her death.
At least he/she is not a vegetable.
Can I call you on an anniversary that is important to you?
You need to get all his belongings out of the house as soon as possible.
Can I come by and get your grocery list on Friday?
You are not making sense. Snap out of it.
Can I come by and help clean on Tuesday?
How does it feel to have survived his/her death?
You should be thankful it wasn’t worse.
Tell me about your child/loved one. What was he/she like?
Your child is in a better place. God needed another angel.
I miss him/her too.
You should be happy for the time you had with him/her.
You did all you could do at the time.
How are you ever going to forgive yourself?
I am praying for you and your family.
Well, at least you won’t have to potty train that child.
I have no idea of the depth of your pain but I am here for you.
You can always have/adopt other children.
You are lucky to at least have other children.
His/her memory will live on in my heart.
His/her time was up. His/her death was meant to be.
Can I take the kids to the zoo on Saturday?
(say nothing and avoid all contact)
I have been remembering you a lot lately and I love you.
You are lucky to have had them in your life for as long as you did.
I know he/she loved/relied on you a lot.
At least they had a good life.
He/she knew how much you loved him/her.
I understand your pain. I lost someone once.
You need to only remember the good and forget all the bad.
Your hurt must be big right now.
Grandpa is sleeping.
(say nothing but give a hug)
Keep your happy face on.
What was it like when…?
Life must go on.
I love you and am proud of you.
Now you are the head/leader of your house.
I loved him/her too and will miss him/her.
God needed him/her in heaven.
Can I help you write a letter about your loss/grief?
You must not speak ill of the dead.
You are the man (woman) of the house now…buck up.
I wish I had the right words. I just want you to know I care.
I don’t want to hear details. I just want you better.
Can I come by Wednesday evening to visit?
Wow. You look sad/awful.
I can’t take away your pain but I can be a friend.
You need to keep a stiff upper lip.
Have things happened to ease your pain?
I could NEVER go through what you are right now.
What have you done to deal with your grief/loss?
Now that she/he is dead, you should get a pet.
I was shocked to hear of your loss. I’m a friend who cares.
You must feel as bad as I did when…..
I am so sorry for your loss.
Just stay busy and you will get by.
Tell me about him/her.
You must stop crying. You might upset someone.
I feel so sad for you.
You must be strong for others.
What is something I can do for you this week?
He/she must have brought this upon himself/herself.
Your heart break must go deep.
You need to be alone when you grieve.
It breaks my heart to see you in such pain.
You need to stop feeling bad/crying.
I’m sure you cherish your time with him/her.
Don’t burden others with your feelings.
How have you been feeling this week?
He/she is with God now.
Is today a better day for you?
All things must pass. Time will heal.
I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.
You will find another to replace them.
I can’t fix your hurts but I can be here for you.
You can’t fall apart.
Can I call you to chat on Saturday evening?
“What is done, is done,” I always say.
I am so sorry this is happening to you.
This is a blessing in disguised.
We have missed you lately.
I have had a bigger loss then you so I know it is not as bad as it could be.
May God bless you and give you strength and comfort.
If you had more faith, he/she would not have died.
What do you need most today?
God does not give us more than we can handle.
What would you like to say to him/her right now?
You need to forget about him/her and move on.
You must be hurting deeply.
He/she is in a better place now.
God mourns with those who mourn.
It is too soon to face your grief.
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In listening to other men who had gone through the loss of their wives, I realized that people go through the grieving process differently. I even saw this in myself. I discovered there were differences in how I worked through my mourning time after Ruth died in contrast to the way I experienced grief after Judith died. As I reviewed what was different and why, it became apparent that many factors were not the same: I was older, I no longer had kids at home, I had done it before, and I talked to more people about it the second time. Many things can affect how a person goes through the grieving process. A few include:
- The personality type of the person mourning
- The definition of the relationship between the bereaved and the loss/person lost
- The way the loss took place, whether over time or suddenly
- The coping skills of the griever and the stability of their mental health
- The support team available
- The culture and religious perspective of the one who experienced loss
- The social and financial situation they are in, or come into, based on the loss
- The age of the grieving person
A Process not an Event
Another important realization for me was to accept that grieving is a process and not an event. My personality wanted to experience it as an event, fix it and get on with life. Not so! As waves of emotion continued to well up month after month, I realized that, little by little, I was letting go of my losses with each “first” life event after my wife’s death. The first holiday, the first time her birthday came up, the first time seeing mutual friends without her, and the first wedding anniversary. These were all events in the process that required time to happen and heal.
Beware of implying that a mourner should “snap out of it” too quickly. “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life,” are both comments that imply just that. Prematurely stated comments to that effect can do more harm than good. Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most. Beware of making comments that begin with “you should” or even “you will.” Better would be statements like, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
I experienced the re-establishment of a new identity after the loss of my job and position. I had to rebuild a new set of friends and lifestyle after we moved across country as a family. It is all a process and not an event.
A Natural Emotional Response
I came to see grief as an emotional condition that’s as natural as bleeding when my arm gets cut. As a man, that was hard to acknowledge at first. I remember thinking when I was younger that if my wife’s parents died, she would really cry a lot. I refused to think my emotions would be “reduced” to sobbing.
But the moment I watched Ruth take her last breath, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an emotion I didn’t know was possible. It completely controlled me for a time. My heart was broken and it was as real as any other human hurt.
Mental logic such as, “Look what you have to be thankful for,” or “She is in a better place” did nothing for my hurting heart. I found more solace in comments like, “I really miss her too.”
Feeling of Hopelessness
Hopelessness is a word that accurately describes the hurt of the grieving. The inability to reverse the loss can be devastating. I could not bring my wife back from the dead. I could not get my position and job back. I could not recover the money I lost in a business deal. I could not bring my friends back into my life after they moved away. Things were out of control and it was scary.
Knowing what to say when helping the bereaved with the sense of hopelessness depends on the circumstances and timing. In many cases reassurances that times will be better in the future and that this hardship will pass are in order. Other times the best thing to say would be, “It must really hurt for you to be going through this now.”
Comments that minimize or gloss over the loss are of little help to the griever, especially near the time of the loss. “Things will be better,” “You can always have another child,” “You’ll get another job,” or “You will find another wife” are comments that do nothing to relieve the broken heart. A simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” is better than attempting to predict the future.
Grief is about the Griever
The grieving process is about the pain of the griever and not the one lost. Try to identify with the hurt the mourner is going through instead of logically dealing with the one (or thing) lost. No one really knows how any other person feels or what it is like for them. We can be the most help by focusing on helping them identify and often express their feelings with the goal of healing and victory.
A comment that can actually enrage a mourner is “I know how you must feel.” WRONG. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you really don’t know exactly how someone else is feeling. There will be unknown variables that can affect the way loss grips another person. Beware of comparisons in an effort to minimize their pain. Acknowledgement of their pain is more helpful than trying to redefine yours.
It Takes Time
Grieving takes time to process. Both the bereaved and those who help them must allow for the time factor. However, the amount of time required varies greatly from person to person. Many people advised me to not make any major decisions for 12 months. That may be a generalized statement, but it can be very inappropriate to demand of all grievers. Some people intently work through their grieving process in months where others require years. When seeking to aid someone who has experienced a loss, beware of predetermining a time frame for them.
Instead of saying, “So, are you doing better now?” or “You look like you are on the mend,” ask your mourning friend, “How is today going for you?” This will give more room for the ups and downs of the process without making them feel wrong if they are having a bad day.
True, time does heal the mourner. When processed well, grieving does come to a conclusion. There can be a certain amount of comfort from knowing that the hurt felt today will not be forever. It is also true that time does not completely erase memories or even a bit of sadness.
That truth was shared with me from a total stranger a few weeks after Ruth’s death. The shop keeper/owner was obviously approaching retirement. His friendly demeanor made it easy to share my recent experience of loss. Upon hearing my story he simply stared out the window and recalled his wife’s death ten years before. “Yes,” he continued, “you never really get over the loss. It is just that the pain and difficult memories fade in time.”
It is interesting to note that the Bible even connects mourning with time. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” New King James Version, Ecclesiastes 3.1, 4.
Time alone is not enough to process one’s pain. Some steps, however, cannot be totally ignored forever. Actions are required to victoriously emerge one day from the pit of despair. Not processing grief well is like sneezing while holding your nose and shutting your mouth. You can blow something else out!
One action step I struggled with concerned experiencing all the “firsts” that followed my wife’s death. These included the first time seeing friends since my loss, the firsts of each major holiday, the first spring day, the first social event, the first time going to familiar places, the first anniversary of my loss, and even the first time having a meal with my family after my wife’s funeral. Being able to experience a one-year cycle of life, and going through all the “firsts,” could possibly be one of the reasons that twelve months is generally promoted in the grieving process.
I also had to process the scope of my loss. For many, coming to grips with the permanence of their loss becomes one of the hardest actions. Life as one knows it has stopped. Resulting changes required by one’s loss, such as help with household chores, companionship, intimacy, help with decisions, can take time and struggle. Identifying these losses and the required changes is where long conversations can aid in the dissecting of the details of one’s loss. Consequently, grief can actually be layered and needs to be peeled back like an onion.
Often, identifying with the struggles of the bereaved can only be acquired by being with them. “Call me if there is anything I can do,” only confuses the mourner. They will never call you. First, they could feel “weak” if they admitted need. Second, they often aren’t thinking as clearly as usual, making a simple call to a friend for help an impossibility. I suggest you show up at their place (or make a phone call) and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and just felt I should come by.”
With the loss of my wife, I needed to realize that I lost more than just a family member. I lost my lover. I lost my best friend. I lost all the dreams for the future we had. I lost my connection to certain friends. I lost a relationship of intimacy. Each of these losses required adjustment by me. I felt like someone had torn apart my Lincoln Log house I had built over the years and I now needed to rebuild it. But many of the core pieces were missing.
Doing Life Again
The days immediately following a loss can be a blur or even a fog, but life goes on. A friend, Michael, described it this way. “So how do you live, how do you survive? You focus on the “have-tos” first. I have to work. I have to shower. I have to eat. I have to keep up the house. I have to take care of the others in the household that are hurting just as much or more than I am. I have to hold them, comfort them. Focus on helping them get through this, while dealing with the reality that such a big part of our lives has been torn from us. That’s all there is for a while. Down times are the worst. Grief, mourning, pain, tears come. My pain, pain to my kids, pain to everyone who feels the loss seems overwhelming. Focus on things that matter; things that make a difference. Songs on the radio that you sang together bring tears again. Life will never be the same!”
Grief and Identity
People respond differently by suddenly having the stigma or identity of being the one who has experienced a loss. Taking on the title of widow vs. married, unemployed vs. having a job, homeless vs. having a secure abode, single again vs. married, or even childless vs. cuddling a baby becomes a struggle in and of itself. This new identity is required to fully find release from the pain of the event. It can be part of the process to freedom.
The pastor of the church we were attending was a great counselor for me during Ruth’s seven-year illness and death. I would often go and just tell him everything that was going on. One time, just before she died, I was in his office reviewing the events of the week. The doctors had sent her home from the hospital to die. He sensed that I was about to explode but could not. He wisely and lovingly said, “David, Ruth is dying.” His stating that stark and awful truth released my emotions. I found that acknowledgement necessary to help me process my loss after she died.
Accepting the new identity that loss demands, however, needs to be processed well. I recall observing my mother’s response to being “the poor widow” with five kids. She actually got to where she enjoyed the pity that identity offered. She actually became good at reminding people that she was widowed so they would possibly pity her. This became a hindrance to her healing.
In contrast, I recall the day about three months after Judith died when I sensed I was beginning to accept my singleness. It seems that from the time of Judith’s funeral till that day, I could not be content to let a conversation rest with someone who did not know me until I made them aware of the fact that I was recently widowed. The identity of being a recent widower held me captive. Then, one evening, I was at a concert and struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting beside me. When I got home I realized that I did not even mention anything about my being a recent widower. I was simply me, a single man. It felt freeing.
A person is now faced with the challenge of building a new identity, starting over. This can be scary. It requires effort. Who they are now, after their loss, needs to be redefined. This can include things like making new friends, adjusting their social calendar, maybe visiting places and people they have not seen before, and it may even mean changes in wardrobe or decorating that reflect them now. Often, part of the struggle is getting past the question, “Would my loved one approve?” or “Am I being disloyal to them by changing?”
As the griever passes through this part of the process, you can help them by changing the nature of your questions. Instead of asking how they are doing with the loss of their loved one, begin asking specific questions about them. Of course, talking about their loved one is always in order for their healing. Eventually asking specific questions about them will be helpful as they establish a new identity. “What kind of music do you like these days?” or “Would you like to go out with some friends this Friday?” can be starters. One couple at my church asked me regularly what movies I was enjoying lately. It helped that they were asking about ME and who I was now.
This may seem like it should go without saying: Grief hurts. However, I didn’t really know to what extent it hurts until I experienced it firsthand. The pain of the mourner comes from deep inside them. It cannot be fixed quickly, nor should we think they “aren’t doing well” when this pain shows up.
Six months after Judith died, I was invited to have lunch with a hospice chaplain who himself had lost his wife about the same time as me. Someone who knew me and saw me weekly had told him I needed to talk because I wasn’t “handling things well.” At the end of the two-hour meal, the chaplain leaned back in his seat and admitted, “I asked to meet with you today because I heard you weren’t doing well. The truth is you have helped me beyond belief. Thanks.”
It made me wonder why this other friend who saw me more often thought I wasn’t handling things well. As I reviewed our visits, I realized what had happened. The friend who saw me weekly witnessed me tearing over easily and regularly in public. He concluded, albeit inaccurately that it must mean I was not doing well. In reality, because I had the freedom to show, my occasional painful moments, I was actually doing great in terms of working through the process.
Another important thing in understanding grief and pain is the truth in the statement that “hurting people hurt people.” As you strive to help those you know who grieve, please give room for them to express themselves. Sometimes in fits of pain they can hurt others. This may not even be intentional. An understanding heart and a polite, timely word would be much better than judgment, criticism or pulling away from them.
Not A Quick Fix
The list of helpful and not so helpful comments I heard during the viewing and funerals of both my wives is confusing. Many came from an effort to “fix” or help relieve my grief. If someone does not feel they have such a statement they feel like they “don’t know what to say.” Grief does not have a “quick fix.” Grief only needs to be heard and identified, in most cases. Listening is better than talking. Statements of the loss are better than logic for why or results of the loss.
No Prescribed List
My personality likes predictability and lists. It frustrated me when I heard others describe their journey and I noted differences. I wondered if it was just me or them that was missing something. I finally came to the realization that although grief patterns exist, there is no such thing as a definite checklist of things every mourner must go through to process their loss well.
This helps explain why some people would question whether I was really doing well if I had not experienced a certain thing (i.e. anger, guilt, blame, “WHY?”, etc.). Knowing possible feelings like this can be helpful to identify what a person is going through and accept it. However, to use any set of expectations as a checklist, much less judge a person on how well he or she is doing, can put undue stress on your relationship by adding wrong expectations.
One’s Faith Can Be Challenged
I was recently interviewed over the Internet for an online TV talk show. During the interview a viewer texted in, “How did you handle your “Why God?” question?” I realize that often times this is one of the first questions grievers ask. My answer was not as some would have expected. (See the complete response in chapter 12).
One’s worldview, especially regarding the spiritual side of man, tends to emerge during times of loss due to death. The “why” questions bring out fundamental beliefs, or the lack thereof, regarding basic human experiences from “origin” to “purpose” to “conclusions” surrounding human existence. Grievers often express their questions amidst their hurts. This topic can be a source of comfort for many but a source of distress for others. Your sensitivity to the griever in this area is crucial in helping process and move on to victory.
« Point To Ponder »
Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
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