Dear Friend in Grief,
Loss comes at us in so many ways: failed relationships, shattered dreams, serious illnesses, broken promises, and often the greatest of these – the loss of a beloved person in our life. All these losses come shrouded in pain and sorrow.
Inevitably, there will come a time for each of us when someone or something we treasure is taken from us. When that happens, we are swallowed up in grief. Grief is a process, a period in time when we seek and struggle to learn how to live again after devastating loss. Hopefully, during that journey our broken heart will heal, and we will become a stronger and even better version of ourselves.
William Wordsworth in his Intimations of Immortality says, “…nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” Nor, can anything prepare us for its loss. Even when we anticipate the passing of someone whom we love and is near death, we still cannot grasp the overwhelming grief that will inevitably overcome us in that moment. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” 1 We never forget that moment. It is the moment when “your heart is torn out of your chest and then placed back in your hand still beating.” 2 You can’t breathe, you can’t think – your world is spinning out of control. So, what do you do next?
1. CRY: Emotional tears are not the tears of smoke or onions. They are tears that speak when we cannot. They tell our story for us. “I feel so alone.” “I am overwhelmed with sorrow.” “I am collapsing under the weight of the emotional and physical pain of my loss.” “A part of me has died.”
Did you know that tears are self-soothing? They offset the stress hormones that are released when we are grieving and, tears cause our body to produce feel- good chemicals called endorphins which ease physical and emotional pain. Tears also have anti-depressant qualities and can help us to fall asleep. We have all heard, “I cried myself to sleep.”
Being stoic and fighting back our tears is NOT how our bodies are created to respond to grief. Bereaved souls who don’t weep are depriving themselves of the natural healing properties of tears. Do what comes naturally – allow yourself to cry.
“The tears…streamed down, and I let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for my heart. On them it rested.” (Augustine, Confessions IX, 12)
2. ASK WHY – Lament: “Why her?” “Why him?” “Why me?” “Why did he go?” “Why didn’t she stay.” “Why?” “Why?” We cry out “why” in pain and anguish. Asking why does not mean that we lack faith. We are actually crying out to God because of our faith when we ask questions or lament. “Oh God, I don’t understand why.” “This doesn’t make any sense.” “It’s so unfair.” “This pain is more than I can bear.” “I can’t breathe.” “I feel like I am going to die too. Please help me.”
2 Corinthians 4:8 says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed but not driven to despair.” Lamenting is not an expression of despair but one of hope. It is a prayer for help. Asking “why” is part of the healing process. In that moment we feel the need for an explanation. We can be completely honest when we lament to God. With each “why” we breathe out pain and sorrow and breathe in hope. We may not hear an answer, but we believe He is there listening. Slowly but steadily, we realize there are things in life that we will never be able to fully understand. In that, is our answer. God gives us the grace to accept that there are some things we cannot make sense of in this world. And He replaces our need for an explanation with His consolation, the source of true comfort and grace which in time brings us peace and the strength to embrace the future.
3. PRAY: As I held my own beating heart in my hand, my mind was frantic. My thoughts spiraled into white noise. Yet, words spilled out of my mouth, “Dear God, please help me……” At the time, I didn’t have the close personal relationship with the Lord which I developed on my journey through grief, but thankfully due to my upbringing, prayer had become instinctive. Most people believe in God or some form of higher power. Such beliefs provide a spiritual meaning to our existence and allow us to trust that ‘physical death’ is part of a much greater plan for mankind. As we move from this life to the next, ‘death‘ is the sacred bridge connecting now to forever.
For those of us left on this side of eternity, prayer is a priceless gift in living through loss and opens the door to having a full life again. Studies show that people who pray and people who have others praying for them, reduce their stress and heal more quickly. When I didn’t know what to pray for, I just prayed the same words over and over. “Lord, please take care of Gerry, Dawn, Stephen, and Michael and tell them how much I love and miss them. And please help me because I’m not doing very well right now and I need you to carry me. I’m not sure I can take another step.”3 As we remember that “the power of prayer is in the One who hears it and not in the one who says it”4 our prayer becomes a soothing balm to the agony of loss. The prayer of others is just as important. So, pray and ask others to pray for you too.
4. SHARE YOUR STORY: Sharing our story is vital to healing after loss. From the first moment the pain of loss washes over us, there is no running from it. There is no place to hide from it. Nor do we want to. Loss is many faceted. It isn’t just about having lost the focus of our life, love, and affection. It also encompasses the loss of every role that we and our loved one lived in each other’s life. In sharing the details of that life, we honor our loved one and the enormity of our loss. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said that, “Grief shared is grief abated…Tell your tale, because it reinforces that the loss mattered.” 5 Each time we tell our story we chip away at our pain. Each time we tell our story we heal a bit more.
A bereaved friend of mine calls it “leaning into your grief.” Retelling the story of our tears over and over is vital to living fully again. Each time we see a family member, friend, or acquaintance for the first time after our loss, it is usually very emotional. Use this opportunity to share your story as you are comfortable. In our culture people can feel awkward facing another’s grief; sharing your story will comfort you and can put others at ease. Finally, set aside any stress you might have about repeating yourself. Repeat yourself as often as you need. This is your time to heal, and your example can serve to help others who are not sure what to say to you.
5. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF – Eat, Exercise & Sleep: Living through loss takes a toll on the human body as well as our mind. The emotional stress of it wreaks havoc with our bodies, and it is imperative that we eat, exercise and sleep as well as we can. After the loss of her husband, Joan Didion says, “I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.”6 Often we have no appetite when we are mourning, food just isn’t appetizing, and we end up pushing it around our plate. Yet, we need to nourish our bodies as well as our souls in grief. Find your own “congee” – ask for something healthy that you can tolerate until you are ready to include more variety in your diet.
There are lots of variables regarding exercise, but physical activity releases hormones into our bodies that help us to cope with pain and stress. If you work out on a regular basis, don’t push yourself to go back to it immediately. Start with a modified version of your workout and gradually work yourself back up. If you don’t normally exercise, adding a brief walk or some other form of activity to your usual household activities can go a long way toward lifting your spirits and helping you sleep.
Sleeping during new grief was really difficult for me. Lying alone in bed, I longed for yesterday, was shrouded by the excruciating pain of today, and was terrified of tomorrow. I felt like I only slept every other night. A lack of sleep can cause us to be forgetful and to make poor decisions. It can also impair our immune system, increase our anxiety, and affect our emotions. Eating healthy foods and getting some exercise can improve our sleep. Try not to nap during the day and try to stick to the same bedtime at night. Setting up a nighttime routine can help too. Mine was a cup of chamomile tea with honey and to read for a while. When I shut off the light, I would pray and usually cry myself to sleep. Avoid laptops and iPads if possible before bedtime, their blue light stimulates the brain to think it is daytime and as a result melatonin production that is needed for sleep stops. If you must a device before you go to sleep, adjust the light setting to a low level.
I hope these first 5 points have been helpful. Watch for the second half in two weeks! Please know that grief is very individual. It requires hard work but there is no timetable for living through loss and there are no hard or fast rules. Remember you are never alone in your grief. Let God, who is faithfully by your side, move you through your days. His guidance and direction will be your comfort and your strength.