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My father died suddenly while on vacation three years ago. The event rattled the bedrock of my life in ways that are difficult to describe, and taught me lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.
One of the truths I discovered, is that when you lose someone you love—people show up.
Almost immediately they surround you with social media condolences and texts and visits and meals and flowers. They come with good hearts, with genuine compassion, and they truly want to support you in those moments. The problem, is that you’re neither prepared nor particularly helped by the volume then.
The early days of grief are a hazy, dizzying, moment by moment response to a trauma that your mind simply can’t wrap itself around. You are, what I like to call a Grief Zombie; outwardly moving but barely there. You aren’t really functioning normally by any reasonable measurement, and so that huge crush of people is like diverting thousands of cars into a one lane back road—it all overwhelms the system. You can’t absorb it all. Often it actually hurts.
This usually happens until the day of the funeral, when almost immediately the flood of support begins to subside. Over the coming days the calls and visits gradually become less frequent as people begin to return to their normal lives already in progress—right about the time the bottom drops out for you.
Just as the shock begins to wear off and the haze is lifted and you start to feel the full gravity of the loss; just as you get a clear look at the massive crater in your heart—you find yourself alone.
People don’t leave you because they’re callous or unconcerned, they’re just unaware. Most people understand grief as an event, not as the permanent alteration to life that it is, and so they stay up until the funeral and imagine that when the service ends, that somehow you too can move ahead; that there is some finishing to your mourning.
That’s the thing about grief that you learn as you grieve: that it has no shelf life; that you will grieve as long as you breathe, which is far after the memorial service and long after most people are prepared to stay. Again, they still love you dearly, they just have their own roads to walk.
Sometimes people leave because they suddenly feel estranged by the death. They may have been used to knowing you as part of a couple or as a family, and they aren’t able to navigate the new dynamic the loss has created. They simply don’t know how to relate to you the way they once did, and so they withdraw.
Or sometimes people see you from a distance and mistake your visible stability for the absence of need, as if the fact that you’re functioning in public doesn’t mean you don’t fall apart all the time when you’re alone—and you do. We all carry the grief as bravely and competently as we can in public, but none of us are strong enough to shoulder it alone. People often say of a grieving person, “They’re so strong”, but they’re not. They’re doing what they have to in order to survive. They need you to come alongside them.
Other times people avoid you because they believe that they will say the wrong thing; that somehow they will remind you of your loved one and cause you unnecessary pain. Trust me, the grieving don’t lack for reminders. They are intimately aware of the absence in their lives, and you acknowledging it actually makes them feel better. It gives them consent to live with the grief, and to know that they can be both wounded and normal.
Friends, what I’m saying is that it’s wonderful to be present for people when tragedy occurs. It’s a beautiful thing to express your love and support for those you love in any way you feel is right in those first few days. It does matter. No compassion is ever wasted.
But if there’s anything I would tell you, as someone who’s walked through the Grief Valley, is that the time your presence is most needed and most powerful, is in those days and weeks and months and years after the funeral; when most people have withdrawn and the road is most isolating. It is in the countless ordinary moments that follow, when grief sucker punches you and you again feel it all fully.
It’s three years since I lost my father, and on many days the pain is as present and profound as that first day.
Remind yourself to reach out to people long after the services and memorials have concluded.
Death is a date in the calendar, but grief is the calendar.
I didn’t know a human could hurt so much.
It’s not like I had never experienced loss. My grandfather died when I was six. I remember the event and the emotions of others but I did not feel devastated. I do however, remember Mom’s pain when Dad was killed in a farming accident; I was 11, the eldest of four children. Mom’s grieving was compounded by the birth of my youngest brother one week after Dad’s funeral on a bleak February day. Baby by her side, she cried in bed most of the time, for a long time. Still, my pain was not soul wrenching. I don’t remember crying, but all I really recall was the constant reminder that he was no longer there. His chair sat empty at the head of the table haunting reminder of my uncle’s first words after they took Dad’s body away, “What a big responsibility for such a young boy.” I had lost a dad and a leader. My only feelings were that of hollowness inside me and a sense of abandonment. He was gone.
Loss began to have more of an impact as I entered my teenage years. During high school I had a dog named Lady, who followed me everywhere possible. Although she may have been ugly to look at, there was no companion more loyal. When she was hit by a car and had to be relieved of her misery, it hurt. She was my best friend. I stood there watching her die and ached inside.
My first sense of deep loss as an adult came when a group of friends moved out of my life. I worked with a religious non-profit that specialized in developing teams. Quite naturally, after spending so much time together, we became very close. It was a sad day when they moved to another job assignment. Coincidentally, I listened to one member of our group say that one of the reasons she tried NOT to get close to team members is because it was so painful to her when it came time to say goodbye. To her, the loss was too deep. I didn’t agree with her logic, but I understood.
The anguish that hit hardest in my life, to that point, was the loss of my wife, Ruth, to cancer. It seemed so unfair that we were dealing with a life-threatening condition in our early thirties, but there we were. In a way, we began grieving our losses the day we received the horrid diagnosis. Ruth would not see our four children graduate from high school, she’d miss knowing her grandkids and our long-term dreams were gone – vanished. Future years of service together became a fantasy. Due to her treatments our normal life became elusive, and so it went. All this pain accumulated in addition to her possible physical death in a yet-to-be determined time frame. We set out on an intentional path to live life to the fullest in all possible ways.
Seven years of treatment, surgeries, tears and hopes suddenly came to an abrupt end the moment I watched her take her last breath. I mumbled a broken, “Goodbye…Ruth,” and collapsed into a sobbing heap in my chair. The shock was more soul-wrenching than anything I had ever experienced. I didn’t know a human could hurt so much. Her death was somehow a shock because I had clutched to hope for a few more months with her.
The following months took me through a mourning process that was foreign to me. Even though I had been blessed with a great circle of friends, an amazing team at work, caring members from the church we attended and a dedicated family, I still experienced profound feelings of loss and emptiness. Agonizing loneliness, devastating longing, missing my best friend and lover occupied my every moment. I found myself wandering around the house like a toddler looking for his pacifier.
One of the things that struck me as odd was the huge variety of ways people attempted to talk to me in the early weeks after my wife’s death, followed by a complete lack of conversation about her or my loss in the weeks to come. It was as if she had never been. Often-times I realized that the way people responded to my loss revolved more around their need instead of mine. A few who had experienced their own losses got it right. Precious few admitted they “Didn’t know what to say.”
People began pulling away from me after about the third week following her funeral, while my need to talk only increased. In truth, I would have given anything for someone to ask me, “Could you tell me about your wife’s death?” But no one ever asked.
Consequently, I began an intentional effort to find others who may have experienced a similar loss so I could talk about my experience and work through my pain. One motive for seeking out others was to comfort them through listening and understanding their heart-felt exchanges, while fulfilling my need to share concerning my own loss and process of grief. This part of my grieving process continued for six months after my wife’s death. By the end of this period I had either forgotten or gotten over the negative effects caused by those who said the wrong thing to me during my grief period.
Working through the loss of my wife left me stronger. I remember thinking that nothing else in life could be harder. The deep pain had left my feelings for others’ hurts closer to the surface.
Fortunately, the year after Ruth’s death I met a wonderful widowed lady. Mutual friends actually talked her into attending the college where I was teaching so we would meet. It certainly took nerve for her to do that. This “arranged” and seemingly innocent meeting allowed me to easily be drawn to her. You see, Judith was the most beautiful lady I had met in a long time. It was love at first sight. That next year we were married.
The day we married my four children were in their teens and Judith’s four boys were also teens. Yes, we blended eight teenagers into a family and survived. Telling that success story must be left for another day.
I could not foresee the heavy challenge emerging the year after our marriage. A policy of the religious non-profit organization with whom I worked forced my resignation from the group, against my wishes! I involuntarily left my leadership position and a 20-year career. This sudden unemployment hit me harder than a blow to the stomach. I had never experienced such depth of rejection before.
Losing my position and the relationships I’d cultivated with co-workers turned into an emotional nightmare for me. Part of the reason for the inner turmoil occurred because I failed to recognize these losses as something to be dealt with in a “grieving” fashion. I just sucked it up, acted brave about the whole situation and moved on to a new job. WRONG!
Only Judith really saw the sinking spirit in me during the next three years. She understood my silent grieving. But I pretty much suffered alone, not wanting her or the children to endure my sorrow. Occasionally while alone, I would experience sudden outbursts of grief. But I wrongly attributed those emotional bouts to residual grieving over my first wife’s death. Not always so.
My strong faith in God provided the strength to continue.
The next 20 years contained many successes both through our work and family victories. Judith and I moved two more times in response to jobs and family duties, landing in Arizona following her mother’s death.
The very next year we became concerned for Judith’s health. We both sensed something was wrong but didn’t want to consider the worst possibility. Five years of changing doctors, along with many tests finally exposed a large tumor on her pancreas. By the time doctors and tests exposed this culprit; time had run out for successful treatment.
Judith passed from this world victoriously the same month 22 years later as had my first wife.
Another deep mourning process began. Some asked if I found it easier or harder the second time. My answer: It was harder. We had only three months from prognosis to passing. During that time Judith and I intensely and intentionally mourned her impending death together. Plus, we invited each of our eight children and their families (24 grandkids) to come join me in saying “Goodbye” to their mother and grandmother. Each visit magnified the reality that Judith was leaving us and there was nothing we could do. The process hurt beyond imagination but it also played a huge part in all of our healing processes in the months to come.
As before, I was supported by a wonderful circle of friends and family. Our church group cared for us in great ways for more than three months and beyond. But just as before, even those expressions of support could not fill the empty soul-wrenching hurt in my spirit – I missed her. Only time and the grieving process would resolve the void her absence left in me. This time, not only did I face an empty bed but also an empty house. The loneliness was deafening. And as before, I observed those who admitted to me honestly, they “Didn’t know what to say.”
In an effort to help the many friends and acquaintances who expressed this sentiment of well-meaning concern, I became very open when talking to friends about my grieving process. It became obvious that my explanations opened their understanding of the grieving experience, clarifying ways in which they could help me and others through their speech and actions.
I can only express what I know and have experienced. While I am a professional, I make no claims on having official training to deal with all people in all sorts of grief. My expressions come only from my own life and from conversations with others. I recommend that individuals who seem to be in physical and emotional states beyond common dialog, be referred to professional help.
My hope is that the following experiences and suggestions will be helpful to you as you aid co-workers, friends and family encounter who are experiencing their own losses. Perhaps something you find in the pages to follow will help you be a better friend or loved one in a time of grief.
« Point To Ponder »
Comments of comfort should not be geared to “fix” the problem of grief for the bereaved.
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A reader writes: My brother and I were like twins growing up: 14 months apart and inseparable. When I was 25 and he was 26, he died of cancer. At the time, I didn’t grieve hardly at all, as I was raised not to talk about intense feelings much. So…I put a lot of these painful feelings away, and didn’t realize until this past year, when I was going through other stresses, that there was even something called delayed grief. The pain has been overwhelming. I am going through counseling with a really good therapist who is helping, but I am dreading my brother’s death anniversary date that is coming up next month. It is always an extremely difficult month for me. I am especially dreading it this year. I had been doing better lately but the past two days I started crying just thinking about my brother. I miss him so much. He was my best friend in the world and no one can ever replace him. On top of everything else, I have guilt feelings that I didn’t do enough to help him get diagnosed earlier. It has been so many years since he died but it feels like just yesterday.
My response: As you have discovered, delayed grief is very real, but once recognized and with support, it can be understood, worked through and managed – so I’m glad to know that you are working with “a really good therapist who is helping” as you come to terms with your brother’s death. I’m sure your therapist will have some suggestions for you as the anniversary date of this death approaches, but for now I’d like to offer the following, taken from my book, Finding Your Way through Grief: A Guide for the First Year. (Note that, although this passage addresses what can happen in the first year of grief, these reactions can occur at any time following a significant loss – even years after the death.)
Setbacks, Aftershocks and the Recurrence of Grief
Setbacks are the unexpected but inevitable frustrations and disappointments you’ll encounter in your efforts to rebuild following your loss. They can affect you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. They include statements from family members or friends which, intentionally or not, discourage your efforts. They can be your own internal thoughts, feelings and attitudes which have inhibited and debilitated you in the past: rigidity, closed mindedness, self-doubt, bitterness, anger, disappointment, and the temptation to quit. Or they can be external roadblocks stemming from natural occurrences or from bureaucratic rules and regulations you’ll encounter along the way.
Aftershocks or “grief bursts” happen when some of the “down” feelings you’ve already experienced in grief come at you again several months after the death, or even after a year or more. Sometimes something acts as a trigger and catches you by surprise: a song, a place, a movie or a season, and it’s as if you’re confronted with the death for the first time, all over again. Painful emotions crash in on you, and it feels as if you’re starting the entire grief process anew.
Recurrence of grief is common and normal, but disturbing nonetheless. Although the strong feelings of grief are not continuous, they can return at any time, whenever you are reminded of your loss. They may be especially apparent toward the end of your first year, as you approach the anniversary date of your loved one’s death.
As this special date draws near, you may find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of your loved one’s diagnosis, treatment and care, remembering your experience of facing a terminal illness together. You may be frightened and confused, all this time expecting that your grief would have been resolved by now and finding instead that if anything your pain has intensified.
Rest assured that what you’re feeling is normal and to be expected. You are not losing ground; the progress you’ve made is real. Getting past this anniversary is but another significant step in finding your way through grief. At this point it is only natural to look back and reflect on what used to be before you can let go of it, move on through your grief, and embrace whatever your life is going to be in the future.
Some mourners make the mistake of measuring the depth of their love by the depth of their pain. They convince themselves that letting go of the pain of loss is the same as letting go of (and forgetting) their loved one. Letting go of what used to be is not an act of disloyalty, and it does not mean forgetting your lost loved one. You will never forget, because a part of the one who died remains in you. There are many things you can do to ensure that your loved one will be remembered, and to give testimony to your continuing relationship with that person. Letting go means leaving behind the sorrow and pain of grief and choosing to go on, taking with you only those memories and experiences that enhance your ability to grow and expand your capacity for happiness.
Suggestions for coping with setbacks, aftershocks, and the recurrence of grief:
- Accept that setbacks are a reality of life over which you have no control. Remember that, although you cannot choose what life has to offer, you can always choose how to respond. The attitudes you bring to life’s circumstances are always within your control. You can choose to give up and give in, or you can choose to take charge of your life and keep moving forward.
- Know that aftershocks of grief are normal, and they will pass more quickly each time you experience them. They can be controlled somewhat by controlling the reminders of your loss, either by disposing of them or deliberately seeking them out. Maintain a balance between what you hold onto and what you let go of. Keep what’s special or of sentimental value and when you’re ready, discard the rest.
- Handle your memories with care. If they are painful and unpleasant, they can be hurtful and destructive. If they create longing and hold you to the past, they can interfere with your willingness to move on. You can choose which parts of life you shared that you wish to keep and which parts you want to leave behind.
- Soothe your pain by thinking of happy as well as sad memories. The happiness you experienced with your loved one belongs to you forever. Hold onto those rich memories, and give thanks for the life of the person you’ve lost instead of brooding over the last days.
- Build a memory time into the day, or pack an entire day with meaning. It’s easier to cope with memories you’ve chosen than to have them take you by surprise. Immerse yourself in the healing power of remembrance. Go to a special place, read aloud, listen to a favorite song. Celebrate what once was and is no more.
- Know that oftentimes the anticipation of an anniversary date is worse than the actual day.
- Identify those days, events and seasons that are likely to intensify and rekindle your pain, and build comfort and healing into them. Plan what you’re going to do ahead of time, even if you plan to be alone. Don’t set yourself up for a bad day.
- Let your friends and relatives know in advance which days and events are significant for you. Verbalize your needs and include them in your plans. They may be very willing to help, but need for you to tell them how.
- If you’re feeling anxious, confused or immobilized as a certain date or time approaches, get the reassurance you need by returning to your support group or speaking with your bereavement counselor.
- As this first year draws to a close, plan a memorial ritual. Draw on those familiar, comforting ceremonies and activities unique to your religion, culture, traditions, family or way of life. Use this ritual as your rite of passage through grieving to healing, to mark a shift in the way you mourn, or as an official end to this first year of mourning.
- Understand that you’re never really finished with loss when someone significant leaves you. This loss will resurface during key developmental periods for the rest of your life. You will have to face it again and again, not as the person you are today, but as the person you will have grown to be in two or five or twenty years from now. Each time you will face it on new terms, but it won’t take as long and it won’t be as difficult.
Making a difference in your world by being a better friend;
Grief is indeed a difficult subject to face. For most of us it does not attract our attention as a topic that we naturally wish to be an expert on. Yet, coping with loss qualifies as a natural part of life. Because you have read this book, you are ahead of many of your peers and relatives in your ability to deal with grieving.
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Knowing what to say, or not say, often comes through a better understanding of the grieving process. Such understanding does not always have to be obtained through personal experience. We can benefit from that of others willing to be honest about their feelings and journey following a loss.
Hopefully the experiences and observations collected in this book have increased your awareness of the grieving process. You are now more skillfully equipped to be a better friend to those around you who experience loss. Most of us will encounter at least one person within the next year who will be called on to process some sort of loss. It may even be you.
Comments of comfort should not be geared to “fix” the problem of grief for the bereaved. Commonly, too many who have not dealt with the mourning process will attempt to avoid it when faced with the grief of others. Grief cannot be fixed, it needs to be processed. So, the first thing we can do is to acknowledge the pain instead of trying to make it go away fast.
Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge. Heart statements go farther in comforting the bereaved than head statements early on. Logically explaining away grief does little in soothing the hurt in the heart. Mind logic can play a part in long-term processing of loss but it comes up short when the most encompassing pain at the moment is emotional.
Mourners are sensitive to unsupportive comments that seem to minimize their grief. Grieving comes from deep within us. Denying it or diminishing it can be perceived as a personal criticism. Such implications may cause guilt and withdrawal on the part of the grieving and be a hindrance to their ability to process their loss victoriously. Allowing them to grieve will uphold them better.
Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process. Grief can become the proverbial “elephant in the room” with grievers. They feel it even more than their friends. Excluding them from social events and conversations only accentuates their pain. Avoidance does not soften the pain for them. To eliminate the topic of their grieving experience and the one they have lost is to ignore the most important thing that is happening in their life. Good friends don’t do that.
Avoid time limits. Setting a time limit on how and how long any one person is allowed to grieve over a particular loss can be demeaning to the griever. They can feel like you are being disrespectful towards their loss or loved one. Be aware of timing in words of comfort. You need to be discerning in knowing when to make certain comments to a griever. Being a better friend revolves around listening and supporting their journey, instead of limiting it.
The grieving are not looking for logic statements of being told what to do. What they need is a listening ear. No one likes to be “bossed” around under the best of circumstances. To “command” a person who is grieving in an attempt to “talk them out of it” may only drive them away from you as a person with no effective help to their pain. Instructive statements must be well-timed and presented in the form of suggestions or examples. Grievers need to be heard more than directed.
Theological lectures are seldom of much relief for the pain of new grief. Theological arguments at the time of loss can be misconstrued as a rebuke. This can come across as rejection and not a form of comfort. Religious beliefs are often embraced in the mind through the logic door. Emotional pain is seldom soothed deeply through that avenue. Again, timing can be very important if this topic needs to be addressed.
Consolation for the bereaved needs to be more about their personal pain than about the one they have lost. The temptation is very strong to talk more about the person or item lost, than about the needs of the griever. The deepest problem is the emotional pain inside. Logical statements about the person or items lost can be of help. However, if we ignore the heartache being experienced, we will not help our friend to work through their journey as effectively.
Comments that might be interpreted as a judgmental attitude are of no comfort to the bereaved. No one likes to be told they are wrong or at fault for the loss. The bereaved commonly cope with forms of guilt in the normal flow of the process. It is no help to add blame to their pain. They are at a very vulnerable time in their lives and your words must be chosen carefully.
It is common for the supporting friend to feel a certain amount of discomfort but this shouldn’t be a hindrance. Remember that your words of comfort need to revolve around the feelings of the bereaved. Many of the “What Not to Say” comments were blurted out by would-be comforters uneasy with their own feelings. It’s helpful to stay away from statements that begin with, “I always say” and “you should just” to grievers. Keep your attention on the emotional state of your friend.
Recognizing the griever’s present pain has more value than attempts to empathize by comparing to your past losses. The tendency to “one up” on a griever in an effort to sympathize with them usually results in a comparison game that can diminish the pain of the griever. Also, since each person grieves differently, it is not usually beneficial to make comparisons but simply to seek understanding of the mourner’s experience.
Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional caregiver. The other half revolves around the doing. I am truly grateful to the people in my life who not only knew what to say but followed through with the supportive action. Many of my friends and family were active the day and weeks following the death of each of my wives. Others called me months later asking to go for a walk and talk, or go out to eat. My family openly talked with each other and me about their mom’s memories and how much they missed her. I was asked often by acquaintances to speak publicly about my grieving journey.
THE REST OF THE STORY
Life goes on. Mine has indeed progressed in fine style. The evidence that I have “practiced what I preach” about the mourning process becomes apparent with the developments in my life beyond my grieving period. I am living proof that the suggestions you have read in this book work and have merit.
I documented the points of progress in the grieving and healing process by writing a “progress report” to my children. This public diary served as a teaching tool for the family on grief and a victory record for me.
The following year after Judith’s death, after much re-definition of who I am, my emotions and focus in life began to settle to a new level. My vision to write this book was established. I received a refreshed job description in my career work. I moved out of the house where Judith died. With help from one of my daughters, I established a profile on Christian Mingle.
Each of the new, solid developments in my life was possible because my emotions had been given clear and ample time to grieve fully by my “leaning into” the process and having those around me who gave me permission to do so with their support.
Many of these changes have given me a new, full and purposeful life. First of all, I met Crystal Wacker. What a lady! She has entered my life with love and wit that brightens every day. Our marriage has completed my life at a whole new level. Her support for me in life’s challenges and accomplishments has been invaluable. In addition to her continued work as editor of Reach Up Magazine, she helps me in my writing and speaking engagements.