WATCHING HOPE DIE
Last week I wrote about a colleague who has since become a dear friend of mine and her struggle with loss and grief. Her son, an addict in recovery for six months, relapsed and overdosed one morning even as his mother was praying for him, feeling a deep sense of peace about his well-being. Here is the rest of her story. Please bear with me- it is a little longer my usual post but I entreat you to read it, especially if you or someone you love has gone through a particularly tough loss.
For a long time there were days when the best she could do was to get out of bed. She did not eat on those days. If the phone rang it went unanswered. Household chores were left undone.
On his days off, her husband retreated to the garage where he sat for long hours staring at the car he had worked on with his son.
Photo Credit: Mark Grace
She was inevitably drawn to her son’s bed room. She would lay on his bed with one of his favorite shirts crumpled in her arms. “No one told me to do this. In fact, I was afraid to tell anyone about it, because I felt ashamed. I would hold his shirt for a long time, breathing in his scent. It was a like a little ritual that kept me anchored and caused me agony at the same time.”
You can imagine the tremendous odds my friend was facing as she tried to make sense of her experience. Sudden unexpected loss is one powerful cause of a phenomenon known as complicated mourning. For some reason those of us living in developed countries tend to have skewed ideas about grief in general, often expecting the griever to “get over” their grief in an unrealistically short period of time. Aubrey Smith has listed some of the incredibly unhelpful things we Christians do and say to one another during times when we are suffering. If you have a friend or loved one who is going through a difficult time, especially if they have endured a complicated loss in their lives, I’d recommend that you read her essay, to be found here.
In addition to the helpful alternatives Aubrey suggests, I want to add a few comments, based on my experiences in studying complicated mourning and working with people going through particularly tough losses.
- There are no “stages of grief.” Katherine Kubler-Ross’ altogether wonderful book never outlined grief process or stages of grief. A closer examination of her classic text will show that she described five case studies involving five different people. She did not document a “grief process.” Many well intentioned people over the years have said to me, “We just need to get mom out her anger stage so that she can move on in her grief.” Says who? Not Kubler Ross. Approaching your own or someone else’s grief as though it were a problem to be solved by “moving people on to the next stage” is almost always guaranteed to prolong the grief experience, not shorten it.
- There is no time limit for grief. Twelve to twenty-four months is the time limit that is usually quoted when referring to so-called “normal” grief. Stop and think about that for a moment. First of all twelve to twenty-four months is about as imprecise an educated guess as you can get, It is NOT a scientific prediction. Of course the longer one’s grief interferes with their life, the more friends and family should pay attention, but putting a stop watch on someone’s grief invariably makes them feel crazier and more ashamed of their experience, thereby adding to the complications of one’s mourning.
- No one gets over grief. Give a Westerner five “stages” and make the last one “acceptance” and you are guaranteed to produce, as we have in our society, a boatload of helpers whose single-minded goal is rush the mourner to stage five as quickly as possible. What I routinely tell people who are experiencing the agony of loss is this: “Your feelings are caused by two very easily identifiable factors. The first is that you are a human being. God made you to have feelings, not to deny them. The second is that the intensity of the pain you are experiencing is a sign of the depth to which you were committed to your dead loved one.”
- In other words, pain and sorrow are symptoms of humanity and love, and not of abnormality and weakness. No one likes to hear this. Most of us want it to be over as soon as possible. But so many of us who have had agonizing losses also will be the first to say that we do not want to be “cured” of our sorrow. The experience that Kubler-Ross identified as “acceptance” needs to be further described. Acceptance of what? Very rarely is it acceptance of the reality of the loss. Most often it is acceptance of the emotions that come with having lost someone or something intensely important.
BUT WHAT CAN I DO?
- Mourner: Get professional, competent help in dealing with complicated loss. Don’t try to go it alone.
- Caregiver: get informed and competent support. For yourself. You’ll need it to provide the kind of care you want to give.
- Mourner: Understand that there is a rhythm to healing. Don’t force yourself to stay face to face with your loss on an uninterrupted basis. Go into it and then get away from it. Both poles of this rhythm are necessary. Friends or loved ones can gently, sometimes insistently help the griever to take a break. And sometimes you need to leave them alone and take a break yourself.
- Mourner: Stay away from people who try to cure you, cannot listen to your experiences, thoughts and feelings, who make judgmental statements about you, or who leave you exhausted from being around them. Consider it the one best thing you can do for yourself to stay away from people who cannot give you what you need.
- Caregiver: Don’t try to reason people out of their feelings. Someone once said that a perspective that is rooted in an emotional experience cannot be changed by rational arguments. That is precisely why political arguments only succeed in making people more firmly convinced of their point of view. Talking people out of their grief is an extraordinary waste of time, and sometimes can be damaging, especially for children.
- Caregiver: On the other hand, reality checks are a good thing. People in complicated grief sometimes need to be gently reminded of realities of daily living and the realities of the past. Saying something like, “You know, I just don’t agree with that. I know that uncle Albert loved you deeply,” is just what is called for. However, the longer we talk after making such a basic, self-responsible statement, the more likely it is that a powerful point will be lost in the griever’s reaction of anger, shame, or self-blame.
- Caregiver: It is not your job to heal the mourner. If it appears to you that you have accomplished that feat, then head for the nearest professional so that you can carefully talk through the experience with them. Only God heals. Your job is to be with the mourner and to bring nearer the possibility that God will do for them what they cannot (and you cannot) do for themselves.Your relationship with your grieving loved one should never substitute for their relationship with God.
- Mourner or Caregiver: Love yourself or your grieving friend pragmatically and in small, regular doses. Not the cosmetic, clear-eyed, neatly put together self, but the self whose eyes are swollen from crying, who is still in her bathrobe at two in the afternoon, the self that is still irrationally expecting to see your loved one. Practice patient, persistent encouragement.
- Mourner or Caregiver: Be patient with strange experiences, intrusive thoughts, uncharacteristic desires or puzzling reactions. Mourner, you are not crazy. You are a normal person going through incredibly stressful circumstances. If you were in the middle of a hurricane, you would not expect life to bring you so-called normal experiences. Don’t expect that now.
- Mourner: Let God love you by letting God hear your anger, your anguish, your desperation and your accusations. Read the Psalms if you don’t believe those experiences are biblical.
DOES IT EVER GET BETTER?
Wisdom & Hope
Photo Credit: Mark Grace
A couple of years, give or take many months after we began meeting together, my friend told me about an experience she had while driving to work. She was still making the same commute from home to work that she had been making on that horrible morning. “I can’t explain what happened. The car was filled with his scent. I felt his presence, as though he were sitting there in the car with me. He whispered in my ear, ‘Mom, I am okay. I am really okay. Don’t worry.”
Her grief “process” was far from over. But that experience represented a turning point in her sorrow and suffering. She began to find her way out of the pit of disorientation and despair, out of simply putting one foot in front of the other and began to wake up to new life and new hope.
My friend did not come to that experience because of great advice that I gave her. She came to it because I insisted on being with her, praying for her, and honoring her journey and her ability to get the answers she needed from God for herself. And while her grief was not “cured,” she received something much more powerful—comfort from the God of all comfort.
What have I missed in this essay? What has your experience been, either as a caregiver or someone who has experienced complicated mourning? Leave a comment and help us all learn.
Photo Credit: www.crosscards.com