“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”Ecclesiastes 3:1,4
I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut, winded and gasping for air. I felt sick to my stomach. My heart felt like it was being squeezed and like it was breaking into a million pieces.
Why doesn’t the world stop? Why do people just carry on like everything is normal when my life feels like it has ended? It can’t be true. Surely… he can’t be dead? Maybe if I’d taken him to the hospital earlier, had the test done sooner. Then this would not have happened. It’s my fault. Why? WHY? If the doctor had been on duty sooner…If I’d never let her get into that car… If only … How could this happen? I can’t live without him! I can’t imagine her not being there. Surely there is a mistake. Oh God, how could you let this happen? Why, God? Why?
These are some of the utterances that I’ve heard as people have expressed their deepest pain in the midst of their loss. I clearly remember expressing these myself in the same way and asking similar questions as grief ravaged my life. I lost my brother and cousin at the age of thirteen; and then my boyfriend, best friend and two other friends (who were sisters and part of the same community ) at the age of twenty-two. Four different car accidents resulted in six beautiful, tender young lives gone forever. My life, and the families of our precious ones, changed forever.
The Grieving Process
Grief and loss can hit us at any time. We do not know what today, never mind tomorrow, will bring. Grieving is a natural part of the human experience, yet everything about it feels wrong and surreal.
The longer we are alive, the more grief and loss we may experience in our own lives, or witness in the lives of those around us. The year 2020 will be ingrained in world history as the year the Coronavirus Pandemic wreaked havoc across the nations and left a wake of destruction with an aftermath of grief and loss. People everywhere have lost loved ones, lost their businesses, jobs and incomes, lost their normal routines, lost their security and sometimes with that, their sense of purpose. Some families are mourning not just one, but multiple family members. How do we begin to process such crippling loss and how do we do this during the challenges of lockdown?
There is no “correct” way to grieve. People process and experience their loss in different ways and at different times in their journey. The important factor is that you do grieve. The intense feelings that come with loss need an outlet. Our western culture is often quite uncomfortable with grief and any displays of extreme emotion – especially when it is perceived as “negative” and involves outbursts of weeping, anger, lamenting and even screaming or howling. However, these emotions are completely normal and suppressing them does not help. Some people are concerned that others may view them as being “weak” if they weep and cry and can’t seem to “keep it together” and “be strong”. This does nothing to help the grieving process and often prolongs the journey as negative emotions are pushed away and shut out. Other cultures are far more embracing of emotional displays of grief and this releases those who mourn to mourn more freely.
It is important to understand the huge impact grief can have on our lives, and if we are not experiencing it ourselves, we can empathise better with those who are.
Stages of Grief
You may have heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ popular “Five Stages of Grief” model. David Kessler, a leading expert on grief and loss, describes these five stages:
- Denial- state of shock, numbness, the world becomes meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense.
- Anger-has no limits and can be directed at people (doctors, family members, the deceased, oneself, God). Under the anger is immense pain.
- Bargaining– You can become lost in a maze of “What if … or “If only…” statements. We want life returned to what is was; we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time: find the tumour sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening…if only, if only, if only. Guilt is often bargaining’s companion. The “if onlys” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently.
- Depression– Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We withdraw from life, left in a fog of intense sadness, wondering, perhaps, if there is any point in going on alone?
- Acceptance– is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and recognizing that this new reality is the permanent reality. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live. We must try to live.
(Adapted from Kessler’s website.)
This model can be helpful to understand some of the stages that people may go through, but it is important to remember that everyone grieves differently. In my experience, grieving people seldom move sequentially through the 5 stages, but more commonly jump up and down between stages, at random times and for different lengths of time. The journey through grief can be more like a roller coaster.
Although the times and stages may differ these are the feelings and physical symptoms that tend to hit one like a ton of bricks when loss is experienced:
- Sadness, despair, loneliness, feeling empty
- Guilt, regret, shame
- Anger, feeling resentful
- Anxiety, helplessness, insecurity, fear
- Physical symptoms like fatigue, nausea, sickness, weight loss or gain, aches and pains, night sweats, heart palpitations, feeling faint or lightheaded, insomnia.
So how do we navigate ourselves and those close to us through this crushing weight of loss?
Helpful “handles” in dealing with grief:
1.Don’t grieve alone. Although this in as incredibly lonely journey and no one can feel what you feel or completely understand your unique experience, it is very important to share your experience with those you love and trust- family, friends, colleagues, and people you can “be yourself with” – no matter how you are feeling. You may feel like shutting them out, but don’t. The early stages of lockdown have caused many to feel completely isolated in their grief, but now that there is more freedom to meet, ensure you talk to someone, whether it’s in person or online. There are support groups you can join if you feel like you want to regularly connect with others who can relate to your loss.
2. Work through and release guilt and self-blame. Feeling like you could have prevented the loss can keep your mind racing relentlessly, while guilt can be all consuming and crippling. Expressing the thoughts that accuse you of being responsible and guilty for the loss, and then releasing them and forgiving yourself is important in the healing process. Many people get stuck in this terrible pit of self-blame and it becomes a cesspool for self-hatred and bitterness which can really affect mental health and relationships. Give yourself time to work through this and if you feel like you are “stuck” in this place, you may want to speak it through with a therapist who can help you.
3. Closure – saying goodbye without letting go. Funerals, memorial services and wakes are there to honour the person who has died, to bring the comfort of community to the family, and to recognise the passing on of life from this earth to the next, depending on the faith and culture of the deceased. The lockdown has changed this. Using the words of healthcare workers during a debriefing session on the effects of the pandemic: “Covid-19 has robbed us because we can’t grieve and bury our dead properly”, and “We couldn’t even say goodbye as they died alone.”
For many who have not been able to say goodbye – be it their loved ones succumbing to a disease or dying unexpectedly in an accident, or even suicide – the need to tell the person what is on their hearts is huge. I often recommend writing a letter and expressing your thoughts and feelings to your loved one – giving yourself a chance to say what you never got the chance to. Sometimes people have regrets and feel like they need to say sorry. This can be a difficult and painful process but when you feel ready to do so, it is very therapeutic.
However, saying goodbye is not the same as letting go. Jenny Billingham’s comment on Dr Kenneth Doka’s book: Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss:
“Grief is not about letting go – the reality is that we retain a continuing bond with those we love – all of our loved ones contribute to our identity and help define the people we’ve become – a person never fully loses the connection with somebody they loved. It changes over time but the memories and feelings about that person remain with them throughout life.”
4. Retain the Bond: Smaller, everyday rituals can be helpful for retaining the bond with lost loved ones. These are called Rituals to Commemorate, and include things like lighting a candle and thinking of your loved one, watching videos or going through old pictures, traveling to a place they always wanted to visit, or visiting their burial site and leaving a tribute or symbolic item.
Even though my brother died over three decades ago, I still light a candle for him when it’s his birthday, and we place it next to his framed photo. We want to celebrate and remember his life and although my husband and children never met him, they know him through the stories we’ve shared. He will always be my big brother.
I love these wise words of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and John Kessler
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will re-heal and you will learn to rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
5. Take care of yourself: It can be easy to forget about your own needs while reeling from loss, but neglecting yourself won’t help you effectively deal with your grief. Try to do your best to:
- Look after yourself physically by eating properly, exercising and sleeping (you may need to speak to a professional if you are battling with insomnia – sleep deprivation makes everything worse.)
- Express your feelings by doing something creative – writing, painting, crafting, playing a musical instrument.
- Be patient with yourself by allowing yourself to be how you are in that moment and to be ok with whatever you are feeling. Instead of pushing feelings away, acknowledge them without judging them to be good or bad. Today you may be weeping all the time, tomorrow you may be crying and laughing, the next day you may feel numb. Or you may experience all of these feelings in one day. Don’t feel guilty when you have good and “happy” days, or when you have days you are numb and don’t want to talk about your loved one. This does not mean that you love the person you lost any less! Allow yourself to take one moment at a time and one day at a time.
- Realise that certain things may trigger your grief, regardless of how many days, months and years have gone by, and the intensity of the fresh wave of emotions may take you by surprise. A certain road, place, music, person or even scent may send you back and you can feel as if you are re-living the nightmare of loss all over again. Be kind to yourself when this happens, take the time and get the support you need.
Faith in the Valley of Grief
Loss of any kind often forces us to ask the big questions. This process can result in some losing their faith, and others gaining faith. When tragedy ripped open my heart and my life, and that of my family’s, I blamed God and refused to believe that He could be good. He had taken the people I loved. I walked away from my “innocent faith” as a child and became an angry and rebellious adolescent and a troubled and depressed young adult. I was terrified of loving because it had only resulted in losing.
I was in my mid- twenties when I encountered the love of God, and I finally found some peace with the loss of my loved ones. I realised not just that they are in heaven, but who they are in heaven with. The warm acceptance of unconditional love, and peace of God embraced me that day and I saw my brother and best friend bathed in the same incredible light and love. My heart was finally at rest. I had “come home.” Death, grief, loss and tragedy had finally pushed me into the open arms of my heavenly Father and I had the full assurance that I was indeed going to see my loved ones again, and what a reunion that will be!
Although the process of my loss took years and even after this spiritual mountaintop experience, many valleys were to follow as I walked the road towards greater wellness and healing. However, since that day, one thing I am convinced of is that for those who believe- death does not have the final word. God does. So regardless of your valley in the shadow of death, or any loss you have experienced, my word of comfort to you is that of the apostle Paul’s:
“And regarding the question, friends, that has come up about what happens to those already dead and buried, we don’t want you in the dark any longer. First off, you must not carry on over them like people who have nothing to look forward to, as if the grave were the last word. Since Jesus died and broke loose from the grave, God will most certainly bring back to life those who died in Jesus.I Thessalonians 4:13,14 (The Message)
Grief has an end. There is a day when there will be no more tears or mourning. A time to dance and a time to laugh is coming, but in the meantime my friends…we have been given this day to live, and there is ONE who promised to never leave us, and He will never die.
My prayer is that if you are reading this and you are walking through your own “valley of the shadow of death”, you will take heart and know that this agony will pass, that in time your heart and spirit will grow from this sorrow instead of shrink, and that you will know the comfort of God, who lost his own Son, for us.
“Comforter” by Christian artist Charlie Mackesy: https://twitter.com/charliemackesy