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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
“Till death does 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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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.
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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.