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It’s oh, so hard to know what to do when you are watching a heart break.
You want to reach out and make it better, make the pain go away, make a difference. But it seems like nothing you can do will matter much in the face of such a huge loss.
While it’s true that you cannot “fix” the brokenness in a bereaved parent’s life, there are some very important and practical ways you can support them in their grief-especially as the weeks turn into months and then to years.
Here are five practical ways to support grieving parents:
- Remember anniversaries and birthdays. Take note of the date our child left this life, his or her birthday, the day of the funeral-trust me, you aren’t reminding us of anything-we cannot forget! When someone else shares that they remember too it is so, so encouraging. It means my child is not forgotten, that he still matters to another heart and that someone else recognizes that the world lost a treasure.
- Keep showing up. Keep inviting me to lunch. I may have turned you down a dozen times in the first few months, but that was because I just. couldn’t. do. it. As my heart begins to comprehend my loss, compassionate companionship sounds more inviting. I need to talk, but it may take me awhile before I am able to do it. Please don’t give up-keep trying.
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Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent
Five Practical Ways to Support a Grieving Parent
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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Adults are amused at the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket. Parents smile when they anticipate that the two-year-old is not going to like giving up being the baby of the family when the new baby arrives. Yet Adjusting to loss is a fact of life.
Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss. Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point.
The bigger question concerning loss that we all encounter on a regular basis is, “What do you say to a friend or loved one when they experience severe loss?”
Most of us have a cliché or two that we blurt out in a nervous effort to get the moment over with. Unfortunately common statements like, “They are in a better place” or “I know how you must feel” really don’t do much for the pain the griever feels. I learned from personal experience that few would-be comforters are comfortable with helpful statements like “Your heart must really be hurting right now.”
My first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, administrator and teacher at a college and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all so new to me and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
In desperation I became a student of grief. And along the way I discovered that understanding a few of the basics about the grieving process (i.e. a broken heart) could help others know what to say to those who were encountering one of the many losses life throws at them.
Grieving is not only normal, it is essential. This knowledge applies to those who make up a support circle around the griever. Suppose you cut your arm. It bleeds. Loss is a cut and grief is the natural result. A cut requires time and attention to heal. It may need another person to help care for it. Ignoring the cut can lead to infection. Similarly thwarted grief can cause issues that will surface sooner or later. And grief is best processed with the help of friends or relatives.
Just like First-Aid 101, there are things that can be learned. Good friends need to understand that the list of losses that merit being classified as “grievable” is much larger than many would admit.
One of the dominant methods, which is vastly ineffective, of dealing with grief and loss is avoidance. Our default ways of coping with grief by changing the subject, stuffing it down, explaining it away in a feeble effort to prevent grief’s symptoms hurts the griever more than you realize.
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 fall into that category. Prematurely stated observations to that effect can do more harm than good. Likewise, opinions that begin with “you should” or even “you will” are not helpful. Transparent statements resonate with grievers: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.” Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most.
Most people mistakenly think the mourning process is purely an emotional condition, ignoring that it is a physical condition as well. We tend to accept that dying happens among the elderly every day. But it is also true that if you are married, it WILL happen to one of you, eventually. My case is unusual because it not only happened during my younger years, it came again twenty-two years later, when death took my second wife.
The lessons I had gathered from my first wife’s death were unavoidably refreshed. My notes and observations took on a deeper, more refined form.
One close friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say” following months of unexplained silence. Others were just obviously ill-at-ease. But when we’d talk and I explained what it was like in the grieving process and how I could have been helped, their responses were receptive. I began to see that most people, whether friends or family or in professional capacities, really did want to connect with a person in grief, but fear, ignorance or verbal clumsiness held them back.
I sensed a deep compulsion inside me, “Don’t hoard your lessons.” Requests for written versions of my story and lessons mounted. And my friend’s awkward admission became the title of my book, I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend To Those Experiencing Loss.
(Dr. David Knapp is the founder of Grief Relief Ministries and is a national conference and seminar speaker. He has served as a college professor and president, and has been a personal counselor. Dr. Knapp and his wife Crystal live in Mesa, Az. He can be reached for a booking at 866-596-0470 or through his web page. His book can also be ordered online. www.griefreliefministries.com/book )
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Timeline suggestions for practical things to do to help grievers;
Every circumstance is different when people experience loss. Each individual grieves differently. Some people spread their mourning process out over a long period of time while others seem to be very concerted in their grief. Generally speaking, there seems to be similar patterns in the process that can help us understand what to do at different times to be helpful.
The following schedule is the one I tended to follow during my grieving process for both my wives. In no way am I implying everyone should follow this exact pattern, but my journey can serve as a working example of loss.
The day each of my wives died I was fortunate to have friends or family present. I can’t imagine not having them there. My wives’ deaths left me so numb that I could not even think straight for a while. Having someone there, even if they said nothing, helped me function. They took care of the daily logistics of physical things like meals, cleaning, and decisions that needed immediate attention.
Don’t wait or even expect someone to ask for your help at the death of their loved one. They may not be able to even make that simple of a decision. Seek out ways to help by visiting or calling.
THE FIRST WEEK
This time period gets foggy for many grievers. The possible decisions required can be overwhelming. Everything from finding a funeral home to choosing a casket to planning and executing a funeral become monumental things to deal with — and that on top of grief. This week can be very stressful for the individual as well as the family. Even the best of families can have conflict over some of the details that are required at this time. Many of these things are often handled by the family members nearby, but sometimes that is not the case.
Making yourself available to help with the planning for the events of this week can be a first step. Because grievers often have trouble thinking clearly, gentle suggestions as to things that need to be handled and an offer to help can be in order. The little details such as transporting flowers from the memorial service to the cemetery can be on your list of offers to help. Meals for the bereaved and their guests are often a huge blessing during this week. If there is a funeral or memorial service, make every effort to be there. A phone call every couple of days is often appreciated to remind the bereaved that they are not alone in their pain.
Phone calls, sympathy cards and references to my wives took a noticeable decline at about the third week. It seemed like someone made a public announcement and the whole world said, “That’s it. We will forget her now.”
For me, however, the opposite was happening. The numbness had subsided enough that the reality of her absence was finally reaching my foggy brain. I was permanently alone again now. My need to talk about the whole event increased instead of reduced. My deep emotional sobbing sessions had gone from three times a day to one or two. My mind needed to process what my emotions had seemingly been responding to. I needed to talk about her death more than ever. I remember thinking that I would have given anything to have someone ask me, “How did your wife die? Tell me about it.”
Many people would ask me, “How are you doing?” I would answer, “Fine.” However, the ones that helped me the most would be more specific with, “How has this week been?” or “Tell me where you are in your journey or recovery process.”
I remember being stricken with the fear that everyone would forget her. I was clinging to memories of her, but it seemed everyone else was forgetting. So, I did things to ensure a recorded legacy for each of my wives. For Ruth, I wrote an article for a Christian magazine about her life and got it published. For Judith, I asked my two daughters to each put together a photo book about her. One was a legacy book with pictures and information about her family. All eight of my kids’ families were given a copy. The other was a “grandma” book of pictures of Judith and each of the grandkids, one kid per page. Each grandchild received a copy for Christmas that year.
A face-to-face, or at least a phone call, with the intent to talk a couple of hours about the loved one’s death and the grieving process experienced by the bereaved should be offered. Avoid general statements when arranging this. Be specific with, “I would like to hear the details of how you are processing your pain and your recovery.”
Three months from my wives’ deaths the grieving process seemed to release its grip on my emotions. I began to laugh again. I found myself more at ease in public alone. My sobbing sessions had subsided to one every other day. Still, from time to time I had to audibly tell myself that she really did die. The truth continued to sink in. However, I still hurt and felt like I had this visible “hole in my soul” as I lived life. I craved communication, intimacy with an adult, someone to talk to about my feelings. At this point, logic statements began to help more than just the heart comments that I needed before.
Long talks about my grieving process were harder to come by as most of my friends were expecting me to be “getting over it” by now. Finding someone who understood and would not “think ill” of me became harder to do. I set out to relieve this need by talking to other men who had lost a wife in recent years. That helped.
Your relationship with a bereaved friend may not be close enough for you to have conversations about “how are you feeling these days?” However, you could encourage them to have such a conversation with someone they know who would listen. Talking through one’s process and progress can be a big step for them to realize and embrace the steps they have taken towards healing.
A card of encouragement to a bereaved person can assure them that you have not forgotten their pain and are supporting them in their progress towards victory. It can be an aid in helping them cope with their loneliness as well.
I thought I was going crazy. It had been six months since my wife’s death and many days I still felt as hollow and uncertain emotionally as I did the first month after she left. What is wrong with me? I mused. Everyone thinks I am doing so well outwardly, but I still feel like something is missing on the inside.
For me, the six month stage was kind of like the “teenage years” in my mourning process. I didn’t feel quite like I was out of the woods (i.e. an adult) but I had progressed past the seemingly out-of-control emotional times (i.e. childhood) I experienced for so many months. My sobbing sessions were measured by the week instead of per day, and my interest in my future had increased.
At this stage I still had the need to talk to people who would be comfortable with me sharing deep feelings and with people who had been there, done that. One man I had such a talk with told me later that it was a bit uncomfortable for him, but it sure helped me. Another one stopped listening to me after a few minutes. So it obviously takes a special person to fill this bill.
Though I realized both my mental and emotional states were nearing a more victorious place of healing, “relapses” back to the ache stage were common. Assurances that my time in this “in-between” stage of the grieving process was normal would have been great comfort. If someone close to me had “given permission” for me to address the ache that came back periodically, I believe I would have been relieved of some guilt.
During my grieving experiences with my wives at this six-month time period, people “told” me that I was very vulnerable emotionally. My response was bewilderment and even anger. I don’t feel emotionally vulnerable, I thought. And besides, how do they know how I am emotionally? They haven’t even talked to me about it.
Caring words of caution from a trusted friend would have been more effective than a casual acquaintance making a judgment from a distance. It’s important to honestly assess one’s level of relationship with the griever.
The truth is that I really was still emotionally vulnerable. I am thankful to God that I did not make any emotional decisions that I would have regretted later. I would not see that truth for another three months. At the nine-month period, when I looked back at how I was feeling in comparison, I realized that my emotional state had improved and I felt “more like myself.” The possible decisions I could have made during the most tumultuous grieving, both socially and in my career, would not have lined up with my lifetime personal core values.
Much counsel has been given in our culture to not make any major decisions for twelve months following losing a spouse. In many ways, I see the wisdom for that. It provides opportunity to go through one cycle of life dealing with all the “firsts” after losing a mate. For the griever, time is your friend. In the case for both my wives’ deaths, I had grieved in a very concerted fashion. I had “leaned into” my pain and embraced grieving willingly. Not everyone does that, I guess.
For me, the ninth month of grieving was a turning point. I finally felt very secure socially. I felt like my emotions were more “normal.” Remembering my wives did not cause pain or emptiness. I even enjoyed it when friends teased me about finding another wife sometime. I considered re-marriage more seriously.
This stage varies with people, for sure. I have known of some men who were at this point after six months of grieving, while some women I have met have admitted it wasn’t until the eighteen-month time frame that they were open to give their hearts away again in romance.
BIRTHDAYS, ANNIVERSARIES, HOLIDAYS
Among the important “firsts” grievers go through are the first holidays. For some these times can be nearly as difficult to experience as the day the loved one died. Cards, phone calls and even invitations to do something special can be put on your schedule on behalf of the bereaved person.
The first Christmas after Ruth died my family and I appreciated an invitation by a friend to spend the potentially difficult holiday in a location we had never been to before. The first Christmas after Judith died I responded to an invitation to attend a community-wide potluck dinner and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Remembering wedding and death anniversaries with a card, phone call or visit can help the bereaved cope with the day because someone besides them remembered. They feel less lonely due to the fact you shared it with them. Even responding in some way at the deceased’s birthday can have the same effect.
The one-year mark for grievers tends to carry an uncertainty with it. How will they feel the day of the anniversary of their loved one’s death? Will anyone else remember? What should they do that day to commemorate their loved one, if anything? You can come alongside to help with many of these questions.
Be mindful of the possibility that the anniversary can be a significant event for years to come. Many, not only rehearse about the one that they lost, but also the grief associated with that loss.
A phone call or card showing you remember your friend and their loved one will go a long way in bringing comfort. If possible, you can also do something physical with them. Take them out for coffee or dinner and talk about the life of the deceased. Going with them to visit the cemetery and bringing flowers in memory of their loved one will help establish a bit more closure and peace to the bereaved.
I have known of a few good friends and close relatives who have taken the effort to put some of the above suggestions on their yearly calendar and actually follow through with them. Believe me, if you don’t make yourself a note in some way you will most likely forget.
« Point to Ponder »
Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional care giver. The other half revolves around the doing.
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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.
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