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.
• 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.