A little brother visits an older brother’s grave…
Some friends I care about deeply have recently experienced tremendous loss and are now navigating the “grief journey.” It is a journey I know well and is not an easy trip or a short one. My family and I have learned some things about grief that we never knew before losing our 12-year-old son, Zack.
Grief – at least in our society – is completely misunderstood.
One out of one people will die in their lifetime, yet, the vast majority of human beings do not want to discuss it or even think about their own death or someone they love. Inevitably, we will all experience the loss of someone we love – yet for most of us – growing up, no one teaches us about that experience and what to expect. Then, when we do experience loss, we are faced with an unfamiliar, unexpected and difficult emotion…Grief.
Grief, like death, is hard for people to discuss and even harder to understand. As a result, society does not give us permission to grieve – society just wants us to return to normal just as we are discovering life will never “get back to normal.” We find ourselves settling in to some kind of “new normal” and that “new normal” may continue to change for a long time. Work doesn’t give us permission to grieve. Work is demanding and performance requires focus and attention – neither which can be found for long periods when we grieve. Daily life doesn’t give us permission to grieve. Dinner must still be prepared. Laundry must be done. Hair must be combed and teeth must be brushed. Even friends and family don’t give us permission to grieve. Sure they support us and encourage us – but some may have expectations that we need to “snap out of it” or get back to our old “self” or “move on” and those expectations can be hurtful and make us feel guilty as we struggle through grief.
If we give ourselves permission to grieve, we can find the other areas of our lives will give us permission to grieve also.
The only cure for grief is to grieve. – Earl Grollman
We may try to separate grief from the rest of our life or try to fight it somehow but that just makes grief mad. We may try to hide from grief by pouring into our work or staying busy with life and we may put on an outward appearance of being “just fine” and try to ignore grief.
But, grief refuses to be ignored and pain demands to be felt. And, like it or not, grief becomes a new constant companion after a loss. (And if we don’t acknowledge grief during the day, grief will surely come to visit at night.)
Grief is personal: It is as individual as a fingerprint. The way you grieve will be different from the way anyone else grieves. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Don’t be sorry that others might be uncomfortable with your grief. Even among families who grieve together, they still have to grieve individually. This individual grief can cause strain and even confusion between family members because we may not understand the way they are grieving. No one can do any one else’s grieving. Your grief is your grief. (Don’t hide grief from your children. Our children need to see us grieve and heal so they know it is okay to grieve.) Find a way to express your grief during the season of heavy grief. Talk about it with someone you trust. Write about it. Join a support group. See a counselor. Help others. Draw comfort from your faith. Pray. (For me, it is my faith, expressing myself through writing and helping others that helps me most.)
Grief is powerful: Grief has the power to give us sorrow, uncontrollable tears and unbearable pain one moment and then swing over to anger, guilt, fear and anxiety in the next. (And yes – grief can make us feel like we are going crazy.) The powerful impact of each of those emotions can knock us down and shake us to the core. We cannot ignore these emotions because if we try, they will just seep out all over the place and make grieving all the more difficult. We must face these emotions head-on and fully experience each one. I remember in the days after our son died, my husband and I looked at each other and asked if we would ever be “happy” again.
Grief is unpredictable: There are triggers for grief everywhere. We expect it with holidays and special occasions – it is the ones we don’t expect that take our breath. A picture. A song. A smell. A memory. Unloading the dishwasher. Folding laundry. Walking in the office. Hearing a joke. Exercising. And most of the time the triggers are not what we expect and it certainly is not when we expect it. Not too long ago, I was a mess in the grocery store (the cereal aisle) as a boy begged his mom for a specific cereal. Memories of Zack asking me for his favorite cereal came crashing down (with the tears).
Grief is a process: There is no timeline for grief. Sure, some people may think that you should be done grieving by now but I don’t even know what that means. It is not as simple as saying “I’m done grieving now.” Grief is not a virus that runs through your system and is done. It is not a disease that can be treated with antibiotics. Grief is a process that takes time – longer than people expect. Here I am, 3+ years later and I still grieve for my 12-year-old son, Zack. I still grieve because I still love. My grief is not like it was in the beginning, but grief is still my companion. And just because you have a good day doesn’t mean you are done grieving. It may take weeks, months, years, or a lifetime. But, grieving does not mean we don’t go on living. We continue to go to work or school, we get our children up and ready for the day, we cook dinner, we shop for groceries and we can still do all of those things well. We just have to understand that our lives may look different from the inside out because priorities change during grief. The way we see life changes during grief. The way we see each moment changes during grief. Some things, that used to seem so important, won’t even matter anymore. Most importantly, the way we see ourselves changes during grief. Grief forces us to not only acknowledge the death of someone we love, but it forces us to face our mortality. Grief may cause us to look closely at our faith, ask lots of questions of God and question our own purpose in life. (At least it did for me.)
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. ~ Kenju Miyazawa
Grief gives us a path: Believe it or not, grief actually helps us. Grief is a natural, healthy process that helps us to recover from terrible emotional wounds. Grieving is a necessary part of God’s path to healing. Grief may change us, but that doesn’t mean it changes us in a bad way. Grief has changed me. My relationship with God is stronger now than ever in my life. I don’t worry about the “little” things like I used to. I cherish each moment with the people I love. I care more about others and less about myself. I miss Zack and will miss him every day until I am reunited with him in heaven. That will never change. Part of our path to healing has included our family finding ways to honor and remember Zack. Doing this, helps us to know that his memory will live on and lets the world know he is never forgotten. Find a special way to honor your loved one. It doesn’t have to be something big or elaborate. It can be whatever is meaningful to you. Whatever you do, don’t stop talking about your loved one. Even if it makes others uncomfortable – who cares? They may be gone, but our relationship with them has not ended. In our house, we speak about Zack all the time. Sometimes speaking about him may cause my voice to crack and sometimes it brings tears, but that’s ok too. Mostly, we laugh and talk about things he would like or not like and what he would think about something we are doing. We celebrate his birthday every year and his little brother always gets a gift from Zack at Christmas and birthdays. When someone we love dies, they remain in our hearts and they should remain a part of our lives however you decide that should look.
“Grief is itself a medicine.” ~ Will Cowper (English hymn writer)
Grieving is not easy.
Giving yourself permission to grieve and heal from the hurt of loss takes great courage. Be gentle with yourself during the season of heavy grief.
I have listed some resources below that may be helpful to anyone who is grieving. If you know someone who is grieving, be sure to love on them.
Be blessed as you live and grieve A Moment at a Time.
For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, But a shout of joy comes in the morning. ~ Psalm 30:5
Zack Mayo September 17, 1998 – May 28, 2011
Cause of death – liver cancer