Lessons in Grief Awareness

I didn’t anticipate how difficult grief from the loss of my dad would be.  If I could leave the space to express the wrenching of my heart, it would be well more than the few seconds it takes to write and read these words.  In fact, it will probably occupy many seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years.

Please know, I am so incredibly appreciative of those who showed care for me, like drops of rain in the desert.  I needed those calls, cards, and messages and am grateful for them!  I am especially thankful for those precious few  who came out of their way to come to me, where I was at, and extend their love and support.

I truly understand, now, why it’s hard to help people in grief. Grief is different for everyone and people process differently, but there are some things I learned that are universal. I can look back now and it seems clear, even when I didn’t know what I needed from day to day in the middle of it.

Let me just say, prior to my grief experience, I was horrible at all of the things I’m about to share. I am guilty of failing to do what a healthy support person can do for a griever. But grief awareness, for me, has become about not being that kind of person moving forward. I know better, so now I do better, I hope. I am still in the process of recovering from my loss, so I’m baby-stepping back into a supportive role for others, but I sure better understand what may be involved to do so.

And in order to possibly prevent the experiences I had the weren’t helpful, I want to share some of what I learned.

AFTER the funeral is over, is when the grief really hits. A lot of times people rally in support during the first couple of weeks after a loss, and it’s great and helpful! But once things start to get settled down, and shock wears off, big waves of grief hit. If there is ever a time when people need/want grief support, it’s in the weeks that follow the funeral/memorial. Those can be dark and lonely times.

• You can’t fix grief. In a conversation I had with someone about grief, they shared that, as a fixer-type, it was really hard to just be present for someone in a situation that they couldn’t do anything about. I think that’s why people tend to avoid grief or those in it. They think, “I don’t know what to say or do.” And sometimes, even when well-intended, some of the things people default to can make it hurt more. For example, “He’s in a better place and free of pain.” True. But, in my case, my heart hadn’t reconciled that I will no longer get to see him, hear him, hug him and that hurts. The biggest challenge for all of us “fixers” is to learn to just show up, listen, or say, “I’m here – please let me know how I can help you.” Or even more specifically, “Can I do ______ to help you?” so that the griever doesn’t have to search their non-functioning brain for what they need when they sometimes don’t know!

• A brain on grief isn’t functioning normally. It is scientifically proven: “When we are responding to a loss, the part of our brain where responses are integrated increases the production of CRH, a hormone that produces anxiety-like symptoms… Our breathing may become defective. Biological rhythms of sleeping and eating are disturbed. Our digestion, metabolism, circulation and respiration change. Our ability to concentrate and pay attention decreases.” (Here is the link to that reference.) A grieving individual is in survival mode and their ability to process things as they normally would is not as likely. This led me to two personal understandings:

  • I wasn’t thinking clearly about some things that I was allowing to bother me. A brain on grief doesn’t have compassion and understanding for why people behave ignorantly toward grief – it just hurts. (Because I was once completely ignorant of a griever’s experience, I have grace & understanding towards people who unintentionally hurt me in my grief – but it is a place I had to get to once the intensity had passed.)
  • I was in no condition to function “as normal.” I had to discontinue all the areas I was volunteering or serving in. I had to discontinue connections that I had nurtured previously to focus on making it through each day. I had to scale back my involvement in the things I would normally have wanted to be a part of. I needed the space and time to mourn and heal. I needed to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and grow through it. I was on an uphill climb and there is no way I could have done this had I continued on with business as usual. Which leads me to the next point…

• There is a school of thought out there that a person has to be strong and hold it together for the people around them. The people that ascribe to this school are people that have possibly already experienced loss, but still stay true to holding it together because “life goes on.” They want you to stay involved and keep going with business as usual. And while life does go on, grief HAS to be experienced. Those who don’t adequately process grief stay stuck and often it comes out in other ways that make life worse. Most of the relational problems and addictive behaviors in human-kind stem from unprocessed grief. So while there are well-intended folks who want to shuffle you along through the process, I think it’s important to stand up for the griever who needs to take all the time necessary to process it! There is no cut and dry process; there is no timeline; there aren’t clean and clear cut phases.

how grief really works

• For grievers who belong to a community, they want to believe it is a safe place for them to express their grief, or show up and not be “okay.”  What is critically important, in my experience, is to feel like people care about you outside of the couple of hours that you might meet together weekly. I realize not everyone can be available outside of that time for a person in grief, but if the main response of concern and support is only during that period of time, it can feel like this: “I will only get support if I show up here & if I don’t, I won’t.” I know its extra effort, but in grief it is hard to put yourself out there or ask for help. I found that I could only focus on the ache in my heart and the bare minimum to function for myself and family. If a community is committed to “weep with those who weep” then effort outside of meetings/gatherings needs to be an intentional and proactive effort toward the person in grief.

Here is a link to an amazing article and some of the summation of how “the Church” (or any other community or group) can help those in grief:

  • Ask what the person’s grief experience has been like
  • Use the deceased’s name (people avoid it, but it is acknowledging and helpful)
  • Let them know they are welcome no matter how horrible they feel
  • Tell them there is no timeline for “getting over” their loss
  • Reassure them, if needed, that God can handle their questions, doubts and anger.
  • Listen, without providing solutions, and then listen some more!
  • Know that grief, and tears, demand to be felt and experienced
  • Teach your congregation (or community group, or ministry team, etc.) to keep reaching out, even if they don’t know what to say
  • Know that birthdays & anniversaries (and I would add holidays) are particularly painful, but immensely important
  • Remember that by bringing the deceased person up it won’t be something that the griever isn’t already thinking about (don’t be afraid to talk about it directly)
  • Ask about the person they lost (they just want to talk about it and remember that person by doing so)
  • (There were a lot of “don’t do this” on this list too – I would encourage anyone to read it to help those in grief.)

• Grief changes you – the person you are before grief is not the person you come out being. I really needed to re-discover who I was in light of the fragility of life – an introvert? An extrovert? What was my motivation to do what I was doing? Who am I, really? And once I figure that out, who will still love and accept me? Or who will discourage me because I’m not like I was before?  It can be a beautiful process, but there is often apprehension about people accepting the “new” you.

In light of all this, when I expressed my need for space to heal, it may have been misinterpreted as “leave me alone.” What I was actually trying to express was that I was now in need of all the support I used to be the one offering. All that I had previously been able to do, I was no longer able to manage.  Where I used to take the initiative, I was no longer thinking clearly enough to do that.

The paradox is that grief is a lonely journey – the intensity of processing it happened between God and me alone. However, along the way, when it got heavy to bear, I would have loved those in my community of fellowship to come out of their way, put their arms around me and just listen. I would have loved presence.  I would have loved to feel like if I was in the Intensive Care Unit, struggling with life because of a broken heart, people would come visit me and show support where I was at, because I felt unable to leave the ICU.

What I have discovered, though, is that this could have happened to me anywhere, with any community of people. I believe this is, generally, most peoples’experience in grief – grief from the loss of a loved one, illness, job loss, divorce, financial instability, big life transitions – just to name a few. While grief from death, for me, has been the most intense, there is more than loss of life where a need to “bear one another’s burdens” comes into play.  Yet, somehow, we sometimes have the false beliefs that we should only surround ourselves with those who are “happy,” only rejoice with those that rejoice, or check off the box that says, “I will pray for you” and call that enough.  Or maybe we figure that we are so busy and have a full plate, so we hope that someone else will take care of it. We forget that the rest of that rejoice scripture calls us to weep with those who weep and that there are several “one anothers” that ask that we are there for people, regardless of how messy their lives are or how hectic ours are.

What is the answer?

  • In talking with one of my best friends about this, she came up with something basic and brilliant: God knows what people need. We are His people and if we are connected with Him, He can inspire us to know what action to take, if we just ask. I guess that’s why it’s the hardest when “church” doesn’t step up in these cases – because we have all the available tools to, with God, and it’s written in His word to do it. What if we asked God, “I know this person in grief is unique and will have a unique experience, how can I best help and support them? Please guide me!”
  • Another answer: Grief awareness – two great resources for this are The Grief Recovery Method handbook and the National Grief Awareness Day campaign.
  • Another answer: Every one of us has some kind of experience with loss, big or small – what if we could all tap into that empathy to use to understand others? Empathy – not sympathy – to stand with someone and allow them to express their pain. (This video really expresses that clearly and well.)
  • Another answer: If you have a person that you know is struggling and is part of your fellowship of community, MAKE time for them.  (Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.)

Even though everyone is different in processing grief, I think these are a few main things that could really help.

I know God uses everything and has made ashes into beauty in so many ways through my grief experiences. And one of those ways, for me, is my passion for discipleship THROUGH grief awareness now– because everyone will experience grief, especially from death, and we are all called to weep with those who weep. Maybe my experience happened exactly as it was meant to for me to move forward in that ministry with the resolve I have to help change the culture of how grief is often handled.

I know this post is heavy.  I know it may not register with people until they experience loss themselves and realize how pertinent it is.  Regardless, it is my prayer that we will be God’s hands, feet, eyes and ears to help those who are struggling with loss.  When I needed presence, He was always near. He is the source of comfort and peace and is close to the broken-hearted, but we are also on this earth to extend that to people in need – to extend His presence to those who are mourning. May it be so.

Three Valentines

This year, I was a part of three different Valentines that spoke to my soul.

The first one was made by my son.  He wanted to get started making Valentines for his favorite people at the end of January! I cut out paper hearts for him and he stamped them, stickered them, and tried to write something on each one. He really went all out on one heart, in particular.  When he was finished with it, I asked him who it was for.  He said, in a very matter-of-fact tone, “This one is for me!”  As if I should have known!

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The beautiful thing about it was the lesson that I chewed on for a while afterward.  Why shouldn’t he make a Valentine for himself? His child-like nature doesn’t have narcissism, nor a complex about telling it like it is.  He loves himself, in the best way possible.  I wondered how many times I should have given myself some love, but instead was too busy focusing on “making Valentines” for everyone else.  He balanced both worlds – loving himself and loving others.

The second Valentine was made for me by my sweet 7-year-old niece.  She called me while she was visiting my mom and said, “Tia,  I saw you singing on your YouTube video and it was so beautiful, I knew I needed to start writing music too!” She went on to tell me that she had a notebook where she was writing down the words to the songs that were coming to her mind and heart.  I asked her to sing me one, and with amazing confidence, she sang!

She said something to the effect of, “I know we each have a jewel in our hearts that has our gifts in it and we should use those gifts! My gifts are singing and writing songs, like you!  I want to sing as much as I can.”  I told her she should absolutely keep singing and writing music.  A few days later, in the mail, I got a large heart that read: “You inspired me so much that I just kept on singing!”

Her wisdom and confidence in her God-given abilities was so pure, it reminded me that it’s okay to rejoice in the gifts I have been given.  And knowing that I inspired a little girl, who I happen to love very much, outweighs the success of most of my musical endeavors by a mile.

z antha valentine

The final Valentines that made this year really special were the ones I helped my kids make – because they were made entirely from material and tools that were once my dad’s.  From the paper, to the stamps, to the cricut machine to cut perfect hearts from, it was all from his storehouse of art supply that we claimed for an inheritance.  They weren’t the most extravagant Valentines in the world, but they meant the most to create.  It’s like a piece of him was present in the making of them.

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           My heart was full ~ exactly how a holiday of focusing on love should be. <3

Holiday Hurt & the Hope to Heal

The Christmas holiday generally portrays fun traditions, lights, presents, family and faith.  In certain circumstances, this holiday conjures happy feelings and cherished memories.  There can be a wondrous magic in the atmosphere and an underlying excitement counting down to the day of celebration.

But, there are other times, particularly after loss, that the holidays are lonely, tear-filled, and agonizing.  I remember my first Christmas after my first marriage had come to an end.  My daughter was with her dad for the first part of the holiday and I was alone.  I recall crying huge elephant tears, wondering if that was how my future Christmases would feel.

This year, while I have excitement for my children to enjoy the things we do to celebrate this time of year, there is a twinge of heartache – my first Christmas without my dad.

I pulled out the decorations and realized so many of the Santa ornaments we have were given to us by him – he got a new one each year for us.  I hung the music wreath my dad had handmade for me a few years ago as a gift and I caught myself with tears running down my face.  I took out of their box the ceramic Christmas cups my grandmother made and passed down to me – we drink traditional homemade hot cocoa in them every Christmas eve –  and I realized my dad would not be here to show me how to make the cocoa or drink from the cups with us.

I’m in a better place than I thought I would be for this time of year, but I can understand why there are many who are discouraged by the holidays.  It makes my heart hurt as I now have an authentic empathy for what that feels like to go through the season without someone you love.

If you’ve recently lost someone you love and the fun-filled holiday season has become tear-filled, then I want to tell you about a resource that helped me find deeper healing and hope. Because of it, I know I will still be able to celebrate the season with joy, despite the empty seat at our table.

That source was an amazing program by Laura Jack, who specializes in moving from surviving to thriving after loss. As I went through her program, I was able to again find the light that I’d had before my dad passed away.  I was able to unfold more of who I am and what I really need to be doing in my life.  I was able to continue to heal and gain a deeper love and appreciation for the relationship I had with my dad.  As she said each week, “We have to feel to heal.” And heal I did.

If you or someone you love has experienced the loss of a loved one and could really use some support and inspiration this holiday season, I strongly encourage you to join Laura Jack for her FREE teleseminar, From Surviving to Thriving on December 16th at 7pm CST.

During this teleseminar, Laura will share her inspiring story of how she moved from Surviving to Thriving after the tragic loss of her mother when she was 25.  She will provide tools and tips to help you do the same.  She will also be sharing information about her life-changing group program Surviving to Thriving 2014 that starts on January 6th, 2014.

I will be joining her on this call to share some of my story of loss and healing, as well as share some exciting news about what I have in store now that I’ve found a depth of healing that has brought light back into my life.

You can sign up for her teleseminar here.  Again, it is FREE! And I know, from my experience, that it is worth every minute.  I hope you’ll join us and be encouraged!

If you missed that call and you or someone you love has experienced the loss of a loved one and could really use some support and inspiration this holiday season, I strongly encourage you to check out Laura’s upcoming program Surviving To Thriving 2014. If you are ready to take steps toward thriving in your life after loss, this may be the experience you are looking for: www.laurajack.com/survivingtothriving2014

SurvivingtoThriving

Why Switchfoot won’t sing Christian songs

Ari-Amber:

As a musician, I LOVE this… as a writer, I love this too! I once heard an interview with Gungor music where Micheal Gungor said, “There doesn’t have to be so many JPM’s (Jesus’ per minute) to make it Christian!”  Art is “excellent and praiseworthy” whether it is overtly Christian or not.

Originally posted on ctkblog:

Lead singer Jon Foreman was asked if Switchfoot is a “Christian” band. His response is worth pondering.

Switchfoot is going secular. Sort of.

Switchfoot is going secular. Sort of.

“To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds. The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship

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A Lesson in Faith on the Corner of 52nd and 8th

Ari-Amber:

Loved reading this… wanted to share! <3

Originally posted on Urban Hallelujah:

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It was on the corner of 52nd and 8th that I wept.

I wept helplessly over lukewarm coffee and dry chocolate cake, in an uncomfortable green leather booth, at one of the only Manhattan diners that seemed to be open that late at night.

Just hours before, my husband had been offered his dream job in New York City. And after high fiving each other in the elevator on the way out of the office, it didn’t take long for reality to set in.  Just 2 floors down to be exact!

We would be moving to Manhattan in just 5 weeks…

5 weeks to say our goodbyes to the people who we loved (and who knew nothing about our intentions of leaving)… 5 weeks to sell our house, our two cars, and nearly all our possessions as we would be moving from a 4-bedroom house in suburbia to a 1-bedroom…

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6 Month Mark… Beauty from the Ashes

“We measure life by the passing of time… “

Six months ago, tomorrow, my life was forever changed by the passing of my dad.  In some ways, I can’t believe it’s only been six months; in other ways, I can’t believe how long six months has been!

Most of the last six months has brought many tears, heartache, and a lot of transition.  If God really bottles up tears, this season has yielded an abundant harvest.  My living room and bedroom floor have become well-acquainted with me sprawled out, face down in agony.  I have well-learned through experience the adage that the only thing that is constant is change.  Saying goodbye to my dad snowballed into other goodbyes and more grief.

Yet, somehow, God prepped me for the ability to see that there can be beauty from the ashes. I would not have been able to see this in the weeks that directly followed my dad’s passing, but I am able to see it more clearly now.  Here is my thanksgiving for the oil of joy that has begun to replace much of my mourning.

1. My connection and relationship with God has never been stronger. I have been in the desert with Him and was carried through the darkest places. I know that I’m very loved and that He is with me because I’ve felt it, seen it, and heard it in very real ways. I am never alone. Where I may have run to other people or things for comfort and acknowledgement, I am running to God now more than ever.  Why? Because He is GOOD – all the time; especially in the most difficult times. And because He will never fail.  I didn’t always know and believe that.  I do, now, with a very authentic conviction. 
 
2. I’m familiar with the concept of being refined, but if there was ever a time when the Master Creator wanted to really define the work of art, Ari-Amber, it was in the last six months.  He chipped away at the ways that I have been thinking and behaving that have hindered my growth.  He molded and formed motivations that are based in truth and love.  He pounded, to the core, the importance of forgiveness; of myself, of others.  He gave me new eyes to see: that taking care of myself is not selfish, but needed and important; that being “nice” is dishonest and not being “nice” might make people mad, but kindness isn’t always packaged with a bow; that expectations lead to frustration and giving to get will lead to disappointment; that people-pleasing is a draining, less effective way to live.  The list goes on.  I’m not the same work of art that I was six months ago.  I am grateful for the new, more defined and shaped version of me that is unfolding.  I am grateful for all that is yet to be discovered. 
 
3. The relationship with my dad, and all that was still an open wound, has been healed.  We are restored and made right. I am so thankful for the Divine Orchestrations that took place during this grief journey to bring healing and hope.  I’m not sure how it is possible (except that God is in the business of impossible!), but I feel like God fast forwarded the in-depth process of healing from the years of pain that I had around the relationship with my dad.  While I will still grieve that our time, in physical form, has ended, I have come to a place of peace about the past.
 
4. My relationship with my husband has been incredibly solidified.  Because he chose to be an amazing support to me, even in ways that were foreign to his natural inclinations, in my darkest hour, he was a light.  A year ago, when it seemed our marriage might not make it,  I had prayed painstakingly for he and I to be friends and have a healthy partnership, not just go through the routines of marriage and family life.  My prayer was answered in small ways since that time, but in large ways during this season of mourning.  In this time that I call, “The Great Dispersion,” where family and friends relocated out of state and we transitioned into new directions in a number of ways, I am so blessed to have a greater depth in my marriage than ever before.  

Those are just four of the major transformations, though there are many beautiful things that have come from this difficult season.  I’m not out of the winter yet.  But I have hope for a beautiful spring…

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Paradigm Shift

Steven Covey once detailed that he was in a subway car on a quiet Sunday afternoon.  Some young children ran into the car, followed by their father.  The kids were acting rambunctious, causing a commotion and generally disturbing the peace.  Covey claims that his initial attitude, based on what he could see was, “How could this father just sit there and do nothing?” He said to the man, “Sir, do you think you could control your children a little? They are very upsetting to people.” And the man lifted his head up, becoming aware of what was going on, and said, “Oh yeah, we just left the hospital. Their mother died about an hour ago.  I guess they don’t know how to take it, and frankly, I don’t either.”

A paradigm shift, according to Covey, is when you allow your perception (what you believe about the world) to be shifted by seeking to understand where others are coming from.  If Covey hadn’t known that the man on this subway had just lost his wife – that the kids had just lost their mom – he might have remained irritated at their behavior.  But after looking past what he perceived was happening, he was able to realize that there was much more to the story.

I’m not claiming to be the most understanding all of the time – I’ve had many moments where judgement was my default lens. However, coming across this information (that I had previously learned over 12 years ago) was a timely and divinely orchestrated occurrence.

Part of why I find it so hard to forgive repeat offenders is because I am so deeply wounded by their behavior, which is re-opened with each new offense, that I build a snowball of resentment.  I am facing the need to forgive, but am having a hard time wanting to.  Among a topical bible study on forgiveness, anger and enemies, as well as some heart wrenching prayer, this paradigm shift information helped me get to a new level of awareness in how I can begin.

See, I get so absorbed in my own hurt that I don’t see theirs.

I’m not saying that my pain is invalid or that I don’t need to feel it (nor do I believe that a person should willingly put themselves in the position to be repeatedly hurt, if that is possible).  However, I’ve realized that part of preparing my heart to forgive is to understand where they might be coming from.  The well-circulated phrase that “Hurt people hurt people” is true – people hurt others because they are hurting.  And who knows how much hurt I may have caused others in my hurting state?

It brings home the verse, “Forgive as you’ve been forgiven.” (Colossians 3:13)  I didn’t deserve the forgiveness God gave me. And maybe, in my mind, neither do the ones who have hurt me.  But I have to do it anyway.  And pray for them.  And love them!  Trying to understand what might be causing them to hurt others helps me find compassion for the pain they must have in their heart and mind and leads me to obey the command to forgive, pray for, and love them.

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Now, trust me, I feel that I will still have a process where my hurt overrides my understanding, at this point.  But there was one scripture that jumped out at me when I was researching forgiveness.  It is, appropriately, subtitled “Love for Enemies” and reads:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43, 44 & 48)

That final verse is what got me and shifted the whole paragraph, in my mind.  The Greek translation for perfect is: mature and complete.  “Be perfect” is, to me, an invitation. If I allow myself to become completed and mature in Christ, then loving my enemies and praying for them will more readily happen.

And so, I look up and know His love will fill me up and teach me how to love like He does.

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