How to Survive Death

Open notebook ready for devotional writingMany of us have lost someone we were close to. The death of a parent, a spouse or close friend can be devastating to say the least. Maybe you’ve lost a partner, parent or child and you’re trying to find your footing again. The permanency of death is something that can take you by surprise when you are faced with it on a minute by minute basis. But you will get through it, sometimes you won’t want to, but you will. I have been there and hopefully my experience grieving through the first year will help you as you embark on your own unique journey through grief.

Like you, I’ve lost a loved one. We buried my dad in November 2014, on a freezing cold Saturday with two feet of snow on the ground. I wrote and read the eulogy, a sanctuary full of people watched the wonderful slide show play on the wall-sized screen beside the cross. Images of my childhood splashed on a wall like droplets of a lifetime past. I watched each image play and the yearning in my heart grew stronger that I would wake at some point and it would all have been a nightmare. A terrible dream that could be shaken off, but it wasn’t. My dad was gone. Now I had to figure out what life was like without him. Just as you have to carve a new trail without the companioning footsteps of your loved one.

Figuring out the new reality can be daunting. As my mom and I waded through the responsibilities and decisions in the months that followed, the stress was palpable. Dad had always been there to make decisions, he had always been there to fix things, he had always just been there. Every day of my life, my dad was there. I began asking questions like: How do I face the rest of my life without him? How does the sun keep coming up everyday when I just wish it would stop for a minute and let me breathe? How do I fill this massive black hole left in my life? Those were all questions I asked as the weeks and months marched on into the terrifying new reality that was mine. I’m sure you have questions of your own, I hope my experiences help you find your own answers.

The first challenge in those early months, was getting over the shock that he was gone. There were two levels of shock and numbness, really. The first level of shock enabled me to keep busy with funeral details, legal matters and doctor’s forms. Once that wore off, the numbness set in and I couldn’t feel anything. I kept expecting to be able to call him and talk to him, ask him questions like he was still living next door. The denial was evident when I would walk into the house and expect to see him in his chair. A voicemail from him became one of my most precious possessions, he left it for me about a week before he died. He had heard a new joke and couldn’t wait to tell me. I must have listened to it 50 times, just hearing his voice and laughter made me feel better. It’s natural to yearn for that connection, and there is nothing wrong with listening to a recording or tape for comfort.

A few months later, the anger started to seep in around the edges. How could he just die and leave us? Why didn’t he prepare better for this? How are we supposed to handle life without him? I went through a time of being angry with dad for not looking ahead more and setting up mom better. It was an uncomfortable and short-lived period of processing, but it’s necessary. It’s normal to have those feelings and you shouldn’t feel guilty about them. Somehow acknowledging the anger I had gave me permission to make dad human again. When someone dies we tend to only remember the good about them, almost idolize them. I found it to be helpful to remember dad realistically, mistakes and all. Keeping the integrity of the memories was better than granting him sainthood. The anger is a natural part of the process your mind has to go through as it deals with this new reality.

Change can be part of the process as well. My mom moved in with me a few months after dad died. We spent 7 months sorting her house and belongings before renting their longtime home. She and dad had been retired for years and she was used to having someone around all the time, so being together was easier. Resist the urge to isolate yourself, keep friends and family close. They won’t know you’re struggling unless you tell them, so even when you don’t feel like it, you have to reach out. In order to navigate this massive life restructure, you have to stay connected to the people around you. It will get easier, just keep reaching out.

Others can play important roles in your journey, allow them to travel alongside you. Most people won’t know what to say, so give them grace for this. You will hear things that won’t necessarily be helpful, but the people mean well and their misspoken encouragement is often the best they can do. I heard, “You will see him again in heaven.” I heard it over and over again. While that statement is true, and I hold to that hope, it doesn’t help the massive wound left in a broken heart. It doesn’t help the widow in the dark of night, or the fatherless in search of direction. The other thing I heard a lot was, “I’m glad you and your mom have each other.” While that was true, and I’m thankful as well, it seemed to give people permission to leave us alone and not worry about our struggle. When I heard that, my first thought was, “Yes, we have each other, but we are both grieving!” The thing that helped the most was, “I’m so sorry, your dad was a great man and we all miss him. Can I bring you dinner?” Or, “Can I come over and sit with you for a while?” Even if you feel abandoned or hurt by their good intentions, it is important to maintain personal connections to friends and family. Just give them grace for not knowing what to do, for getting wrapped up in their own lives and for forgetting your loss.

You may struggle with feelings of abandonment. Not just that your loved one abandoned you, but that people around you don’t seem to understand how much you’re hurting. The truth is, they don’t understand. As harsh as it sounds, your grief is not as important to others as it is to you. Don’t expect too much from them during this time and just treasure the positive interactions you do have. Keeping your expectations in check will save you heartache and disappointment. Make sure you don’t expect the church to rally around you and bring you meals everyday for two weeks, then call everyday for 6 months. They won’t. If they bring you meals for a week, then be happily surprised! If they call to check on you, love them for it. But this is your grief and journey, not theirs.

I found that taking trips was a good way to distract myself from the daily reminders and tasks at hand. Mom and I took several trips in the RV during the first year. Not just to get a break from the endless sorting, selling and moving, but to keep perspective and be reminded that there was still life out there. There were still people laughing and enjoying each other. There was still music and dancing. There were still sunsets and bike rides, long drives and warm breezes. Take time to ground yourself in the feeling of life. Don’t let the grief rob you of the simple beauty of every day. It may be hard to see for a while, but keep looking. Eventually your eyes will clear again to possibilities and hope in the future.

It is normal to dread the anniversaries and events as they approach. The first Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday, wedding anniversary, father’s day…all these dates will hurt. You may feel an uprising of pain that you thought had healed. You may regress a bit in your journey, but recovery will come quicker each time. It is important to allow yourself to cry, allow the pain to be deep and real. Don’t short change yourself in this, it is a big deal. Do not listen to people who say, “Really? It’s been 6 months, you should be over that by now.” They have no idea what they’re talking about, smile and shake it off. Grief is a personal journey and you are allowed to walk it how you need to walk it. Recovery will look different for each person. Some people seem able to hide all their heartache and move on with life unchanged, others stumble and grapple for emotional stability for years. We are all different and the process is as unique as we are. If you find yourself struggling to perform daily tasks months after your loss, I suggest you seek the help of a therapist. They are trained to help us process grief and can enable us to move forward with life.

The search for closure can be different for everyone. One of the most powerful things I did seemed so simple, but ended up being balm to my soul. Standing at the edge of the ocean, I gazed out over the graceful waves that rolled in towards me. The water swept in gentle ripples as I knelt in the sand. With a small piece of driftwood, I began to write. I wept softly as I wrote a letter to my dad in the sand. Words that I wish I had said, words that I knew I had said but wanted to say again, words that encapsulated the tears of my heart. The sand seemed to accept the etchings with grace and wisdom, knowing the grief and tears mixed with the message. I sat back on my heels to review the love letter, the words again became like a prayer. As the waves gently licked the sand clean, my message seemed to be accepted and received. It was incredibly healing to feel like I was able to say those things to dad, like we had a conversation. I like imagining that the ocean’s waves, gathering the letters to itself with each surge, was symbolic of him receiving the message. Even if it seems silly, do what feels good to your heart in order to achieve closure.

As the one year anniversary approached, I found myself getting more and more anxious. The emotions returned and I struggled with dread of that particular day. That is perfectly normal. I did not allow it to derail me completely, but I gave it status as an important stepping stone into the rest of my journey. A bookend to the matching stone marking one year previous, encapsulating a journey of immense importance to me. A journey of pain and loss, heartache and healing, strength and self discovery. As the day arrived, I realized that a new character had entered my story. An elusive and ambiguous one named, “acceptance”. It took a year to develop the final character in my grief journey, but I welcome it’s arrival. It sort of slips in under the door and you slowly become aware of it’s presence. Just wait and watch, you will make it’s acquaintance when the time is right for you.

Ultimately, this journey is not about your loved one. Their story is done, the final chapter has been written. They signed the autographed copy of their memoirs and handed it to you with their final breath. Now it is about the continuation of your story, your triumph over loss, your recovery from heartache. The life you shared with your loved one will never go away, you will have those memories to cherish always. Focusing on yourself and your future does not belittle them or diminish them in any way. Resist the guilt that moving on disrespects them, your loved one would be disappointed if you stopped living. Take heart, you are on a journey. Journeys are flexible, open to change and often have surprise endings with unplanned ports of call. This journey through grief is just one part of your story. You get to choose where your journey goes from here, how this experience will change you and where it leads you. I guarantee that the grief and recovery will change you, how it changes you is completely up to you.

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