This week has been filled with grief. My sister’s husband Don passed away on Monday. Nearly everyone I talked with this week shared a major loss in their life which happened in the last few weeks. There is the horrible Israel / Hamas war to frame things. This morning Hidden Brain’s Podcast came to the top of my queue with its timely content: Healing 2.0: Life After Loss which got me reflecting on what I know about grief.
Not a Linear Progression
My first observation is that everyone is different, and no one goes through the so-called “stages of grief” in a linear fashion. We have a tendency to jump between all of the reactions. Often little things will result in very strong responses. This is normal. The grief process is messy and chaotic.
The other thing is that it’s good to pull back from the grief when it’s too much. This isn’t denial. We don’t have to be pressing into grief all the time. It’s healthy to oscillate between grief and something that reminds us of life.
Most People Don’t Help
Most people are not very good at helping you grieve. They are uncomfortable and want to do or say something to make their discomfort, and yours, go away. This is a period that is uncomfortable and no words are going to change that.
Many people will want to identity with you, and will bring up how they “understand” because of X, where X is something completely silly like they broke up with their boyfriend of six months.
All I can say is that it will get better in time, and that there will be people who are a surprise blessing.
In one of my lowest moments a gentleman I barely knew came up to me, put his arm over my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said “It’s hard”. When he saw that I got it, he smiled at me and walked away. I knew he understood my pain, that I wasn’t alone, and that somehow it would get better. I think that brief interaction carried me for more than a month. Trust that when you most need it, God will bring people by who will speak to your heart and be a source of encouragement.
My recommendation to people who are grieving is figure out who are the people and activities that are the most comforting and helpful, and make sure that what you concentrate on. Maybe it’s your closest friends and favorite activities, but don’t be surprised if it’s people you just met or a new activity. I have met a number of people who were never runners, cyclists, or hikers, but found that they ran, pedaled, or walking their way out of their grief.
If you know someone who is grieving, don’t try to fix them. Be willing to sit in that difficult place with them, and talk about whatever they want to talk about. Often what people need to hear is what that gentleman told me. “It’s hard”, with an indication that you really see their pain and won’t run because of it. Sometimes no words are best.
When faced with deep grief it’s common to play the “what if” game. This is an endless rabbit hole which will bring nothing but pain. I was willing to permit myself one or two what if? in a sitting, but then I would remind myself that it’s not going to be helpful and find something else to think about.
For example, After I lost Libby to cancer I found myself wondering if we should have chosen more extreme measures, been more aggressive to find experimental treatments, etc. What didn’t help were the many people who thought we should have fought harder, who had hope that Libby could have been miraculously cured if only…, that we shouldn’t have given up and switch to hospice care when we did. I had some comfort that Libby and I had talked extensively, she had written a living will, and most importantly that Libby knew she was going to see the Lord, something she deeply desired to do. Our hope is in eternity, not now.
Remembering and looking at the richness of life together can be very healing in time. I found writing down memories particularly helpful. The day I lost my dad I wrote a tribute to him. Likewise, when one of my mentors, Doug Goins passed. I couldn’t do that with Libby because the emotions were too strong. Several months later I was able to write 27 years of blessings .
During a time of severe grief it’s really important to time take care of yourself. Get sleep, if you are having trouble sleeping be willing to take meds for a bit. Take care of your body and find time to feed your soul. Listen to music… it helps most of us move into places, to face emotions that we might have trouble accessing otherwise.
If someone you care about is deep in grief find little ways to help them. Often to drop off a meal, or if they would prefer, take them out or have them come to your place for the meal. Whatever you do, don’t ghost them because you are uncomfortable. Don’t say “If you need something, ask and I will be happy to help”. Most people don’t have the energy to self advocate. Rather I recommend observing what they are doing and then make a specific offer of help. If you can’t come up with something ask what’s really hard for them, what’s a struggle, or overwhelming them right now. Based on that answer ask if they would permit you to take a very specific action you have determined would lighten the load on them.
The USA we have a narrative of the transformational trauma. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. I think this puts a huge pressure on us which isn’t that helpful. When we are grieving it’s hard. What many people impact as transformation is likely not going to be the end result. That’s not to say that you won’t be changed, but the changes are going to be in things like having more compassion for others.
There are times that your physiological reactions with knock you back and your emotions will run wild. There is nothing you can do about this. What you can do is choose your response. We can observe and slowly direct our thoughts. What helped me the most was to choose life. To look for beauty, to find things that I could be grateful for, to look at things that gave me hope, to watch for people being kind to each other.
If you are anything like me, once the crush of functioning and a sense of numbness fades, you will face a crushing loneliness, just a huge sense of emptiness is likely going to one of those hard things you will face. Nothing will make it go away, but in time, it will heal. I found loneliness can transform into solitude.
If you have someone who is grieving the lost of someone, make it a point to check in on them. Not so much in the first couple of weeks, but after that when everyone else is going on with their lives. Encourage the grieving person to have good outlets. Maybe they have enough friends (and it will take several) who understand enough to be good companions. Maybe encourage them to check out GriefShare or other support organization.
- Hidden Brain podcast: Healing 2.0: Life After Loss
- two blog posts I appreciated
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.II Cor 1:3-4 ESV