Suffering sucks. It just does. There’s no way around it. Sometimes our natural inclination is just to put our heads down and wait for the hard times to be over. The idea is that if we bury our heads, we can get through it. It’s true that we can get through it that way, but it may not be the best way. What if, instead of just waiting for the bad times to be over, you lifted your head and tried to figure out what you can learn during the hard times?
This would be a different stance for many of us, and it would have to be a conscious choice on a daily basis. It would mean taking a moment to dig in to the suffering, to explore it and see what else can be gleaned. But just imagine what you could get out of it!
You might learn some things about life. You might learn that life keeps going, even if it seems that you will be perpetually stuck in the frustrating place you’re in. You might learn, if you look closely, that it’s never all good or bad. Even in the darkest and most frustrating days, there are rays of hope and light. You might learn that those little things are things to be cherished, and that they can make the suffering more manageable.
You might also learns some things about yourself. You might learn how strong you are. You might learn how resourceful you are. You might even learn about some of your relationships (good things and not so good things). You could learn that you have some virtues you didn’t know you possessed.
The bottom line is that suffering presents us with a unique opportunity: groan or grow. Which do you choose? We’ve already been promised that God will never put more on us than we can bear- that means, we will survive whatever the obstacle is right now. Just keep going! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!
I thought about titling this post Moving Forward from Grief or something like that, but I intentionally didn’t want to send the message that at some point you just “get over” a loss. Maybe for some people that happens. But often, when you experience the loss of a loved one, your life is different forever. Not always in a bad way, but things just aren’t the same. You develop a new sense of normalcy. For some of us there might always be a void. So, you move while you grieve, because it’s a reality that life has to keep going. But how do you do that?
I think an important step in the process is to work to accept the fact that things won’t ever be the same. Longing for the familiarity of “life before” is natural but it can also stunt our progression. Things won’t be exactly the same, and that has to be ok. When I think back to losing my dad 7 years ago, I remember being so confused by the idea that life could go on without him. It just didn’t seem possible. He had been such an integral part of my life (and the lives of so many others), that I could not fathom a world without him walking around. For weeks, I would call his cell phone, expecting to hear his voice, before I even realized what I was doing. But still, every morning the sun rose, my day started, and I had things to do. The world did, in fact, keep turning without him. That didn’t necessarily make my days seem easier, but I did begin to believe they were possible.
For people with whom we’ve had important relationships, it can help to think about how that relationship can remain with you in a different form. This is certainly connected with your religious and spiritual beliefs. As a Christian, I believe that people’s spirits continue after their physical bodies die. So for me, there was the hope that he was watching over me, still with me in some way. When we knew he was dying, my dad and I made a deal that if we needed to talk after he died, it would be in a dream. Now, I am so grateful we had that conversation. It was his promise to me that his dying wasn’t an eternal goodbye and it was our promise to each other that our connection was bigger than physical bodies. So, while his physical presence left me long ago, I’m still very connected to him. I often dream of him- usually they are mundane conversations about the goings on of my life. It was how we spent much of our time together while he lived, and what I’ve missed the most. But during those dreams I am reminded of his wisdom, the wise counsel he gave me, and I can feel him cheering me on, even if when I wake up he’s gone again. Death can take a person from us, but it can never take away our relationship with them. Whether the death is anticipated or sudden, we have the opportunity to rework the relationship we have with the person we lost so they don’t have to be completely gone from our lives.
Sometimes, we need a tangible reminder of the person we lost. That can be in the form of a picture, a trinket, an item of clothing, whatever the case may be. For some, it helps to keep the person close in that way. I’ve had lots of milestones since my dad died- things that I would have wanted a pep talk from him before, or wanted to see his face smiling in the crowd; my college graduation, licensure exams, my wedding day, the day I received my PhD, the list goes on. On each of those days, though he wasn’t with me, I took him with me in some way- a sticky note, a ring he wore, a piece of jewelry he gave me, something. I’ll probably do it until I’m old and gray. It’s my way of honoring him, of carrying him with me as my life changes and develops.
Often, the thing that helps the most is to talk about the person we lost, either with people who knew them, or people who didn’t. Just the act of talking about the person keeps them with you, reminds you of what they meant to you, and keeps their memory alive. The more you talk, the more you understand and the greater your opportunities for moving toward healing. For some, it’s helpful to visit the gravesite or look through the funeral program. For others, they like to extend energy outward- reconnecting with social groups, activities, or other endeavors. This doesn’t represent a betrayal to the person you lost. Our loved ones would want us to have healthy, fulfilling lives in their absence.
As you begin to adjust to the “new normal” there are often logistics involved- bills, insurance payments, new organization of who does what household duty, etc. As for help with this if you need support. Some people prefer to handle these things alone, and others need someone to hold their hand. Do what you need to do. Handling these things scratches at the wound of your pain- a jarring reminder your loved one is gone. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. Prioritize the most urgent needs and save the others for when you’re ready.
These things help, but understand that there will still be times when sadness rushes over you with no apparent trigger. For me, it was the shower. I don’t know if it was because it was always quiet time, or because I was alone. I’m not sure, but the reality of him being gone often hit me in that vulnerable moment- I cried for him and for the moments I would never get to share with him. He didn’t see my graduations. He didn’t walk me down the aisle. He will never meet his grandchildren. Now, it’s not as often, but it still happens, 7 years later. I’m ok with that. I’m glad to have known a person whose death can bring me to tears so long after their passing. Then, there will be other times where you feel great and you feel a sense of great joy. I had anticipated that my wedding day would be a day a grieved for my dad, felt his absence keenly. Instead, I felt his presence. I felt him beaming as I walked down the aisle. I felt his blessing on the life choices I’d made since he died. I felt pure joy. All of this is grist for the mill when moving while grieving. There is no prescription. There are no right answers. Just keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. It gets better.
Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices! Tell me, what are some other things that have helped during the grieving process?
Recently a Facebook friend of mine has been posting about appropriate ways to handle situations where people are grieving. I was happy she did it, because she addressed some of the ways that we can be unhelpful to people when they are going through difficult times. I think that most of us truly do want to help and have the best intentions, but sometimes we say things that send implicit (hidden) messages to people that they should get over it and move on. While we certainly wouldn’t wish for anyone we love to be grieving forever, it’s important to give people the time they need to go through the process. It’s natural to feel sad, upset, angry, and frustrated at the occurrence of a loss. So, what do we need in the face of grief?
1. Time- It is a natural human response to a loss to feel the need to get away for a while. Sometimes, people don’t feel like being bothered, and sometimes they feel fine. There is no prescription for grief and everyone’s process is different. Give yourself time to feel the loss and throw all the stuff about how you are “supposed” to grieve out the window. Often, people can have a delayed response. So, it could be really meaningful if you drop and email or call 2-3 weeks after a loss, when most other people have gotten back into the swing of their lives.
2. Support- Support can come in a lot of different ways. Some people just need someone to sit there while they cry. Some people need to talk about the person that they lost, look at pictures, and reminisce. Some people need instrumental help- food, laundry, washing dishes, opening mail, etc. If you’re going to offer something to a person who’s grieving, do it. If you aren’t really willing to do “anything” they ask- then don’t promise that. If you aren’t actually going to answer the phone at 3am, don’t say “I’m here whenever you need me.” Sometimes, people don’t know what they want. Offer some choices of things you can offer, or just do it! People who are grieving may need to be gently reminded to eat, sleep, go for a walk, or shower. If you need to do this, do so in love and understanding.
3. Space- Give people the space to feel their feelings about the situation. As church folks, we are famous for giving people all these churchy phrases that are supposed to help people feel better: “They are in a better place.” or “Don’t cry. It will be ok.” or “Be strong.” Sometimes, people don’t feel like being strong, they don’t want to look at the big picture of God’s plan, and they don’t want to think about anything after the minute they are currently trying to survive. This was one of the things I remember being most frustrated about after my dad died. People were telling me how good of a man he was, how he was now with God, etc, etc. All of those things were true, and I still believe them. But, the day after his death, they were the furthest from my mind. I really just needed someone to hand me a tissue and tell me that they were sorry it happened. That’s all.
4. Pray- Combine whatever physical acts you do with the act of prayer. Just as we need it every day, people who are grieving need more than ever to feel God’s comfort. It can be hard to understand or make sense of your loss. Sometimes people feel angry at God and that’s ok. Just remember that God’s protection and love is bigger and better than any a human can give. It might feel like too much for the grieving person to pray for themselves at that time, so your prayers are important.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the well known model of Stages of Grief. What we now know is that while these don’t necessarily go in a certain order, they are common reactions to a loss:
So, if you find yourself or a loved one having these feelings after a loss, remember, what you are feeling is normal. Don’t try to force yourself to feel something else, or “get over it” before you’re ready. Try to take care of yourself and move through the process naturally. When we move to the place that we have accepted the loss, we can begin to figure out what life looks like without our loved one. But, this is only after we give ourselves the time we need to grieve.
Note: Feeling of sadness, crying, etc. are all a part of the grieving process. While there is no prescribed time, most people are able to return to some sense of normalcy within a few weeks or a month. Things will still be hard, but they often feel less overwhelming and impossible. If it’s been several months and things don’t seem to be getting more manageable, it might help to reach out to a professional for support.
More next week on Recovering from Grief. Thanks for reading and make Well Choices!
This time of year is hard for a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Some people have seasonal mood shifts due to shorter days, colder weather, and less sunlight (click here for more info on seasonal depression). Some people are thinking of and missing loved ones they may be estranged from or have lost due to death. Others may get overwhelmed by the stressors of trying to select and buy gifts they can’t even afford! For various reasons, people struggle. Stress levels go up, and people can get more depressed and anxious. But, the holidays don’t have to be a miserable time of year. Here are some of my suggestions for having a safe and happy holiday season.
1. Connect with friends and family. If you have positive relationships with family, try to figure out ways to connect with them. Maybe you can’t get to them in person, but you could arrange to video chat or put in a phone call when you know others will be together. Spend time with friends if you can’t get to family. The holidays can be a great time to reconnect with people you haven’t kept in touch with, or to try to mend relationships that may be in need of repairing. If you’ve lost a loved one, take some time to honor and remember them as a part of the holidays. Perhaps you can do this by continuing a tradition they loved, lighting a candle, looking at pictures, or simply talking about them! Just because they are physically gone doesn’t mean they are no longer a part of your family. Another option is to connect with social or religious groups. Relationships matter.
2. Give back. Altruism is a great thing to do any time of year, but during the holiday season when we can get caught up in materialism and “stuff,” it can be helpful to have some perspective and take some time to be (or give) a gift to someone less fortunate than you. For the past couple years, my family has chosen to do that instead of giving gifts for Christmas. Some years we will adopt a family, or volunteer to serve a meal, or give a monetary gift to someone in need. Maybe you know of a friend who is lonely or isolated this time of year and you can set aside an afternoon to spend time with them- what a gift!
3. Set some boundaries. One of the great gifts we can give to ourselves and others is to be honest about our limitations around this season. Set a budget and stick to it. Is that Christmas gift really worth 13 months of credit card interest? Perhaps it’s letting family know that they won’t get gifts this year, or that they will get hand made gifts (my favorite!!) Perhaps it’s knowing that as much as you love your family, being around them for too long will be stressful. Maybe the boundary is internal and you need to balance social time with some alone time. Everybody is different so listen to your own needs! For me, I love family time, and it’s important to get some serious alone time. Blame the introversion. So, I work to balance social time with carving out time for me.
4. Remember what this is all about. Perhaps this should have been the first bullet. For me as a Christian, the real purpose of this season is an anticipation and excitement that God thought enough of me to send a Savior, born into humble circumstances for a divine purpose. When I think about the gravity of that gift, any item I can buy in a store pales in comparison. Sometimes we get so lost in the commercialism that we lose a sense of wonder and gratitude. Focusing on the true meaning of the celebration can keep us in check.
5. Keep up the self-care. A lot of times people’s schedules change during the holidays, and it can be easy to lose track of your sleep schedule, exercise regimen, and let’s not forget the holiday desserts! It’s important to try to keep up the things you normally do to try to keep yourself healthy. I’m not saying don’t indulge, because for some people that would be unreasonable, but also keep in mind that those schedules serve to regulate our minds and bodies and losing them can exacerbate the potential for holiday stress.
These certainly aren’t all the tips, but hopefully they can be a good start. The important thing is to do what you need to do to take care of yourself. For more tips, check out this Mayo Clinic Article: http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544