“My heart was racing so fast it jerked me up off my pillows as I gasped for air in my sea of uncontrollable panic. Fear flowed through my veins warning me something horrific was about to happen, but it already had. My consciousness was out of sync as it dashed between parallel universes, caught in the past yet knowing the tragic future. Gerry and the kids were dead. I can’t remember how I found out, but I woke up and I knew. My brain struggled to make sense of it all through the fog of catastrophe and sedation.” – excerpt from Through It All.
I had no idea that the extreme pain of grief affects us in so many ways all at once. The grief from such an event is not a storm that causes temporary flooding or a snowfall that causes school to be cancelled for a day or two. No, it’s a Cat 5 hurricane that blows in, wreaking havoc in every possible way and leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. In a heartbeat, your world becomes unsafe and unpredictable, and you are afraid to trust anything. I didn’t realize that there is actual physical pain associated with grief, that no amount of Advil will relieve. The physical pain of grief starts like a tightness in your chest and radiates everywhere, somewhat like the achiness of the flu, only worse. Emotionally, you alternate between a heightened awareness of your surroundings that is saturated with anxiety, fear, panic, and even anger, and then, overwhelming sadness, loneliness, and even embarrassment and loss of self-esteem. When you are able to say to yourself, “this really happened and he or she, or they are gone,” the fear and panic can be confusing because your heart is beating out of your chest as if something awful is just about to happen, yet it already has. You relive that over and over. When the overwhelming sadness washes over you, the tears won’t stop, you become exhausted, and can feel hopeless, guilty, and powerless. Grief is all-consuming. After riding that rollercoaster all day long, you reach a point where you can no longer concentrate on anything and you lose touch with what is going on around you. I can remember sitting at the dinner table where the conversation swirling around me seemed like it was in a foreign language. I couldn’t follow it or take any of it in. I felt so unconnected.
No two people will experience the exact same symptoms of grief or to the same degree, but everyone will experience some of them. And, there are more manifestations of grief that I have not mentioned, like headaches, upset stomach, dizziness, panic attacks, restlessness, alienation, problems sleeping, even having moments when you can’t believe your loved one is gone and you think you hear or see them. You may also have a heightened fear of death. Whether you have one or all of these manifestations of grief, there is a process of living through loss that must occur before we heal, and there are no short cuts in getting there.
So, what is the first step on the journey of grief toward healing? Just when our world is falling apart, Proverbs 3:5-6 call us to, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” When I felt I couldn’t rely on anything in my life, the Lord was the only one I felt I could unconditionally trust in. I couldn’t make any sense of what had happened or how I was going to get through the next day, let alone the rest of my life, and I definitely could not lean on my own understanding. So, I was relieved to be able to say, “Lord, I have no energy or strength left. I completely surrender myself to You. Please lead the way because I am thoroughly and completely lost.” With the funeral over and a whisper of hope in my heart, I had just enough energy to put one foot in front of the other and begin that journey through darkness into light.
The journey through grief is not a straight path, but rather it’s like Space Mountain at Disney World – up, down, sideways, dizzying and sometimes terrifying. It can take weeks, months or most likely years to release our stranglehold on the past and step into our future. Rest assured you are not going “crazy,” it is all part of the process. This is when you need to be kind and gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to cry and ask why. Talk about your loved one(s) and the life you shared together with others. Remember to take time each day to refresh. Everyone has his or her own way of doing this. Walking, praying, reading a chapter of a novel, listening to music, spending an hour at the beach, nursing a cup of soothing tea – do whatever lifts your spirit and gives you a break from your grief. Take care to not fall prey to destructive behaviors involving alcohol, drugs, or retribution. These behaviors won’t bring healing and have the potential to prolong grief to the point of making it intractable.
During this time there is also a desire to keep our loved one(s) close. We are so afraid of forgetting their touch, their smell, and the sound of their voice. The closer they were to us, the tighter the bond, and while it never actually breaks, in time it will gently loosen giving us the ability to gradually create a new identity for ourselves and to reinvest our lives. In the meantime, memories flood our senses particularly on holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and the like. I can remember bringing pumpkins to my family’s graves on Halloween, balloons and flowers for every birthday, decorated wreaths for Christmas, and setting four red roses in the ocean on the anniversary, to name a few. Of course, you will come up with your own ideas, and my only guidance on this is whatever you do, don’t let the day arrive without a plan in place. Taking fifteen minutes of your time to do something to remember your loved one(s) in a special way will make the difference between coping with your loss or being crushed under the weight of it on that special day.
Whatever our loss is, there is the added loss of our own identity as it relates to that person(s). We have lost the focus of our life, love, and affection, as well as every role that we and our loved one lived in each other’s life. Reconciling that is the most difficult but important task on our journey. When we allow ourselves the time and space to grieve fully we become whole again, and in time, a new self will emerge and look for meaning in life. Embracing this step takes a great deal of courage and a willingness to be open to new ideas. For me, this meant reaffirming my trust in the faithfulness of the Lord, and truly surrendering to His Will for me in my life.Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps.” In the end, it was the Lord who I trusted to be in control of the outcome of my life. We never “get over” the loss of our loved one(s), and a healed heart bears the scars of where we have been, but with the help of the Lord, we can live through loss and go on to create a new branch on the tree of life.
Abundant blessings to those of you who are living through loss.