“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 Conquering Despair: A Healed Heart.
I had no idea that the extreme pain of grief affects us in so many ways all at once. There are various factors that may affect the severity of grief, but this blog will discuss the unexpected, sudden, and tragic loss of a loved one. 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 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, and no, a couple of Advil will not relieve it. The physical pain of grief starts like a tightness in your chest and radiates everywhere, somewhat like the achiness of the flu, just 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, 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, and after riding that rollercoaster all day, 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 and the conversation swirling around me seemed like it was in a foreign language. I couldn’t follow it or take any of it in.
No two people will experience the exact same symptoms of grief in the same degree, but everyone will experience some of these. And there are more manifestations of grief that I have not mentioned, like headaches, upset stomach, dizziness, panic attacks, restlessness, alienation, problems sleeping, having moments when you can’t believe your loved one is gone and you think you hear or see them, and possibly having a heightened fear of death. Whether you have one or all of these manifestations of grief, there is a process through time into healing that must occur, and there are no short cuts.
So what is the first step on the journey of grief toward healing? Proverbs 3:5-6 comes to mind, “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.” At a time when I felt I couldn’t trust anything else, the Lord was the only one I felt I could unconditionally rely on. 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 this whisper of hope in my heart, and the funeral over, I had just enough energy to put one foot in front of the other and begin that journey through darkness into light.
If you are also injured as I was, the first concern is your own physical care and that of your spouse and children, but grief will not be denied, and it will wait somewhat patiently as you physically recover before it hits with full force. This can coincide with a point when you accept in your heart and mind that your love one(s) are gone from your touch and you are able to face the circumstances surrounding the death(s). None of this occurs in a straightforward fashion, but rather its like Space Mountain at Disney – up, down, sideways, dizzying and sometimes terrifying. It can take weeks, months or even years, but it is all part of the grieving process. You are not going “crazy.” This is when you need to be kind and gentle with yourself. Create time in the day to relax and give yourself a break to relax and refresh. Everyone has his or her own way of doing this. Walking, praying, reading a chapter of a novel, listening to music, an hour at the beach, a cup of soothing tea – do whatever lifts your spirit and gives you a break from your grief, taking care to not fall prey to destructive behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, or retribution. These behaviors will not bring healing, they will just add to your grief.
During this time there is also a desire to keep our loved one(s) close. 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 allowing us to reinvest our lives. But meanwhile, memories flood our senses particularly on holidays, holy days, birthdays, anniversaries and the like. I can remember bringing little pumpkins to my family’s graves on Halloween, balloons for every birthday, and decorating for Christmas, to name a few. You of course will come up with your own ideas, and my only guidance on this is to not let the day arrive without a plan in place. Taking 15 minutes out of the day to actually do something to remember your loved one(s) will make the difference between coping with your loss or being crushed under the weight of it.
Whatever our loss is, there is also a loss of our identity as it relates to that person(s). There will be a new self emerging and looking for meaning in life. Embracing this 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 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 reconcile our grief and go out and create a new branch on the tree of life.