Many 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.
The Lord is my Shepherd.
Dictionary definition of Shepherd: protector, guardian, defender, keeper. The untameable, unstoppable force of the Almighty is my Protector. The creator of the universe is my Guardian. The Master of all lightning and thunder is my Defender. The One who breathed life into creation is my Keeper.
I shall not want.
My every need will be provided by my Shepherd. He knows what I need. He knows what I want. He has not forgotten.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He doesn’t take me to desolate places. He chooses good places for me to rest where I can be nourished and cared for. In my human ignorance, I sometimes choose not to be nourished by the green pastures, but it is His intention that I find rest there. Sometimes I get in the way or am too busy to see that everything I need is right in front of me.
He leads me beside still waters.
He finds the place in the river that is tranquil and safe to drink. Not a raging torrent or a slippery bank, but a place beside the calming flow of quiet water. When I feel the unmistakable pull and confusion of a whirlpool, it is not He who has led me to it. I have wandered from the flock and found danger. If I listen for His voice, it will lead me back to the safety of His care.
He restores my soul.
When my soul is torn and tattered by the wind and rain. When my heart is broken and shattered by mean people or broken dreams. He is able and willing to restore me. He is able to mend my heart and soul to it’s original wholeness by the simple touch of His presence. I am not too damaged. I am not too lost. I am restorable.
He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
He is proud of me as His child and wants to lead me on paths that bring glory to His name. He guides me on paths that are safe and healthy for me. If I listen closely to Him I can avoid many of the whirlpools and valleys.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me.
At least I’m walking, not crawling, through the valley. Although it’s not under my own power. He is there, right beside me, with His arm around my waist and our hips touching. All my weight is on His shoulder as I limp unevenly from the fatigue of the valley. My body is spent, my strength is failing, my brokenness is obvious. But He supports me from His steady position and carries me on. Whispering encouragement and helping me stay upright to make slow but steady progress. We pass through shadows and I don’t see well in the dark. But I trust His vision, because it’s perfect. Darkness has no power over Him and his vision is the same as on the brightest day. Nothing can hide in the dark from Him, so with my Shepherd on guard, I am safe. Even in the presence of death, I am safe.
Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
The rod is a weapon of defense to fight off attacking animals or enemies. One blow can stun or kill a lion. The rod would never be used against me, only to protect me and keep me safe. My Shepherd is able to wield this weapon and dispatch those who come against me. The staff is the Shepherd’s hook, used to correct and guide His sheep. This staff is a gentle and caring way for Him to get my attention if I stray or to gather me into His arms when I am injured. Knowing that my Shepherd has these tools at His disposal helps me relax into His care. He is not unprepared for our journey through the valley. He has brought what He needs to care for me, keep me safe and bring me through it to the other side.
Thou dost prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
Even with those around me who would harm me, I can rest in the knowledge that my God is there. I can relax and eat knowing that He is in control.
Thou hast anointed my head with oil;
He has chosen me as His. He has marked me as His own. He has applied the salve to my forehead that seals me in His Spirit and heals my every wound.
My cup overflows.
The blessings bestowed on me by my Shepherd are too much to be contained in a vessel. They keep flowing day after day spilling out over the edges of the 24-hour mold and flooding into each other. Each day has new blessings of it’s own, I can rinse my wounds in this healing flood and be refreshed.
Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
Because I am His, I will always have His goodness and mercy abounding in my life. Because I follow Him, I will always see these identifying characters in my spirit. Because He walks beside me, these companions walk with me also.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
His salvation is mine forever. His sacrifice was for me, no matter what. He has written my name in His Book of Life and no one can erase it. There is no pen that can write over it. There is no eraser that can lift it out. There is no mark that can block it from the page. I am His and He is mine, forever and for always. He will never leave me. He will never change His mind. He will never change who He is. He has always been and will always be my Shepherd.
Well, I’ve never been much for video games, so I didn’t think it would hold much interest for me. I was wrong. It starts out really easy and you get the hang of moving the little colored shapes around to solve the puzzles. Then it gets harder and harder, with more and more obstacles. There isn’t a tutorial either. When a new obstacle appears, you have to just figure out how to clear it on your own. If you aren’t able to finish the objective with the allotted number of moves, you fail. It doesn’t just say game over either, it has a banner that actually says, you failed.
The last puzzle I lost was the most frustrating yet. I had attempted it multiple times over the past week or so. I was doing really well, clearing the pieces I needed to, using as few moves as possible, I thought I was going to make it. As I came to the last piece to clear, I realized I wasn’t going to have enough points to pass the round! I tried to do some other moves just to gain points, but as the game ended, I didn’t make it. Even though I had cleared the required obstacles, it wasn’t good enough. There was that familiar banner, you failed.
Wow. That hits home on so many levels. That phrase is something we all dread. That result is something we all fear. Doing your best, thinking you’re going to make it, and then finding out it’s still not good enough. So, when it asks if I want to give up or try again, I try again with the same puzzle. I keep trying until I solve the challenge ahead of me. I know a little more about it now, so I can try some different strategies, but most of the success is the luck of how the tiles drop.
Sometimes I feel like my life is just one big game of Candy Crush. I have a brightly colored board that I keep moving pieces around on, some pieces fit, others don’t. Some obstacles are easy to overcome, others are permanent without a way to erase them or clear them completely. The choices we make become the determining factors in success or failure results. Do you want to give up or try again becomes a life long journey. Wanting to get it right, and be good enough, shapes our self image and self worth.
I want to keep progressing in this life-sized Candy Crush game. But not through buying more moves or asking my friends on Facebook to gift me another turn. I want to move through this maze of life by learning from my mistakes and doing it better the next time. I want to see my obstacles for what they are, obstacles. Things to overcome or circumvent. Experiences that make me stronger and shape me into a better person. Not something to stop me cold. My friends are vital to my success, not because they can give me another turn, but because my true friends give me another chance. They have game boards of their own and they know we all fail sometimes.
My biggest comfort comes from knowing that when my final game board is completed, I will be good enough without question. Not because I got the obstacles cleared or because I became a pro at moving the pieces around. I will never have to face that blasted failure notice again, because the game master has already purchased my pass to complete freedom. No matter what I do, no matter how many times I have to try the same challenge over, no matter how many times I see that banner of failure, God still loves me and I will always be good enough through the grace of my Savior Jesus Christ.
“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24
I have had an amazing week. I’m not sure what possessed me to do it, but I agreed to house two 16 year old exchange students from Japan! It sounded like a good idea at the time, but by the day they arrived I was terrified!
Everything turned out wonderful though and we have become close friends who will miss each other terribly. They leave tomorrow and we are all tearful tonight…
Have you ever been in a position to show someone your culture? To show someone, who knows very little or nothing at all, what it is that makes you an American? I have had the rare opportunity to be an ambassador for our beautiful and proud heritage.
When we become Christians, we become ambassadors for Christ. It is now our privilege to show people what it is to be a child of God. We are now able to open our hearts, and sometimes our homes, to those who want to see who He is through our lives. A “rubber meets the road” introduction to what it’s really about. Not religion, not empty ceremony. Real relationship with a real Savior.
As they pack their things tonight in preparation for departure tomorrow, they leave with a small understanding of being an American. They are infatuated with the love of the people they met, and intrigued by the customs they encountered. The girls want to stay longer and they will take a small part of me back with them to Japan.
So, take a chance. Next time you get the opportunity to show grace for no reason, do it. Next time you have an interaction with someone who doesn’t deserve your mercy, give it freely. Next time someone hurts you, and isn’t sorry, forgive them anyway.
I hope that, as Christ’s ambassadors, we endeavor to show His love and peace. So that when they encounter us, they can’t help but want to stay a little longer and know more.
I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. I asked him why he classified himself as “non-religious”. His answer was amazing to me. He said, “It means I do not follow any particular faith or religious practice. I have nothing against it, but it just isn’t something I can internalize comfortably. I believe that there is a force that we don’t understand and science and religion are twin sisters asking the same questions. Besides I’m more comfortable with the questions than the answers.”
“More comfortable with the questions than the answers”, now there is a profound statement. Not one that is unique to him either, I think a lot of people feel that way. I am certain of the answers I have found, but realize not everyone has found them. But how can it be that we are more comfortable with uncertainty and wonder, than we are with allowing ourselves to believe in something we can’t see or fully understand?
Are the answers so terrifying that we prefer the questions? Is it God that they are afraid of or the fact that their life would change if they really knew Him? Maybe knowing the answers would force them to face something in themselves that they don’t want to give up. Or they fear they would have to become something they don’t think they are strong enough to be.
In Matthew 8:28-34 there is a story of Jesus casting out demons. The men who were possessed were so violent that no one could pass through that region. Casting demons out was not unusual, but this time He sends the demons into a herd of pigs. When the men were healed, and the pigs drowned, the herders ran to tell the townspeople.
This is where it gets interesting. Instead of coming out and worshiping Jesus, they come out and pleaded with Him to leave their region. The whole town. It doesn’t say they are aggressive or came with torches and pitchforks, but they came to beg Him to leave.
They were more comfortable with how things were. They could control how things were. They knew what to expect with how things were. If they let Jesus in, He might change everything. It was scary to think that He had that much power. Terrifying to think that if He could do that, the other things He said might be true as well.
It was easier to ask Him to leave them alone. Let them live with the questions of who He really was. What He really could have done. How things might have been if they had believed Him. It was easier to busy themselves with the business of life again and pretend it hadn’t happened. Close their eyes to something profoundly unexplainable.
In all the other places Jesus went, amazing things happened. The sick were healed, the lame walked, the blind were given sight…miracle upon miracle. How sad it is that this entire town missed out on Jesus. I’m sure they had lame, blind and sick people who needed His touch. But they were more comfortable with their current reality, than with this unimaginable reality that Jesus brought with Him.
So, have you found the answers? Are you looking for them? Or are you too comfortable with the questions to look up? Whether you believe or not, He loves you. Whether you want Him to come or not, He’s there beside you. Whether you ever ask the question or not, He already has the answer.
When He arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met Him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then, the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they pleaded with Him to leave their region. Matthew 8:28-34
I was the full-time daycare person for my oldest niece until she was four. It was just me and her all day while her parents worked. We went to the mom and me classes, swim lessons, dance class-the whole bit. At the time, I lived close to Washington Square mall in Portland. So we would go there to walk the mall before it opened in the morning, and then stay to shop for a while after. We bonded firmly and are still very close years later.
When she comes to visit me, one of our favorite things to do is go to the arcade/fun center in Bend. We play games, laugh, have fun together and forget the troubles of this world. Guitar Hero is one of my favorites, I’m not very good at it, but I love trying! There’s always lots of laughing, dancing to the music and just general merriment that builds good memories.
Well, this last time we went, there was a new game-Dance Revolution. It has an electronic display, like a giant TV screen that shows you the picture of what you’re supposed to be doing. You stand on a platform that has squares on it. First, you stand in the middle square that is just metal. The squares forward, backward, right and left of you are all touch sensitive. So when the screen and music tell you to, you step on the correct sensitive squares to get points and dance to the music. We both love dancing, so it played right into our wheelhouse.
We played at the same time, there are two stations side by side, each on our own set of squares. It took me a little bit to get the hang of it, especially when you have to jump up and land on two sensitive squares at once! All to the beat of the music and with the right feet on the right squares, it’s a good challenge.
I was following along well, and we were having a good time. Then I got distracted by the graphics on the screen and missed a few steps. That got me flustered and I scrambled to get caught up. The more I tried to catch up, the more I messed up and missed steps and the screen kept telling me I was doing it wrong!
Finally, I stopped, stood on the plain metal square, and took a breath. I told her, “I’m just going to start from here and try again!” I didn’t try to catch up or anything. I waited, listened for the beat, and started from where I was. My score was still lower, but at least I was having fun again and playing the game.
On the drive home I started thinking. I had recently needed to hit the reset button on my life, again. My steps were all messed up, I was hitting the wrong squares, making the wrong choices. My score was plummeting and I was miserable. I thought, maybe this game could give me some insight into what to do with my life. Maybe I just need to stand on the metal square for a moment and get my bearings. Maybe I need to refocus on the music and find the beat again.
I think we all get there sometimes. We think everything’s going fine, we’re dancing on the platform, getting our groove on, and suddenly something happens that throws our steps off. Whether it’s choices that we have made, or choices others have made and impacted us with, it’s our option to stop and stand still.
So I chose to do that. That night as I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I talked with God. I told Him I wanted to be in sync with Him again. I wanted to find His beat again and get back in step with Him. When sleep finally came, it was more peaceful than it had been in a while.
I still had to make the difficult choices to change the beat that I was on, but it was worth it when I finally felt my steps align with His. All I had to do was stop, listen and start from where I was. There was no catching up, no do over. All He wants to do is take you from where you are right now, to where He has planned for you. My favorite scripture is “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and a future.”
Are you tired of trying to catch up and get it right? Are you out of breath and out of step? Stop condemning yourself and just stand still on the metal square. Feel the solid strength beneath your feet and focus on the beat of His heart. It has been beating for you since the universe began. Before you were conceived, He loved you. No matter what you’ve done, He loves you. No matter where you are, He loves you. Just close your eyes and listen to the beat.
I was talking with some friends who were expecting their first child. They were super excited, as can be expected, and they were happily babbling about the decorations for the nursery. They had chosen a paint color they loved, hung adorable pictures and created custom curtains. The crib they picked out was the best money could buy and they spent hours putting it together. It had all the newest safety features and the best mattress for ultimate comfort. There was a rocking chair that had been handed down for generations in their family and they were super excited to include it. All these preparations, all this effort and the baby wasn’t even there yet!
You know, our world is amazing. There are colors everywhere that we can’t even come close to duplicating in paint. The scenery is so amazing that millions of pictures exist to try and capture the breathtaking beauty around us. The sun, moon and stars are so mesmerizing that an entire industry is built around studying them and sending back pictures so we can appreciate their splendor. There are countless creatures all wonderful and complicated, so many in fact that we keep discovering more!
I am just as awed by nature as the next person. I can sit and watch a waterfall for hours. I love walking along the beach and feeling the power of the ocean. Seeing those pictures of star nurseries in space takes my breath away.
However, I think we can get confused. We can put so much importance on nature, and the effort that God put into it, that we miss the point.
The world was just a nursery. He was preparing a place for His precious child and He did it with excitement! You can tell by the colors and creatures He made for us. I can just see Him painting stripes on the zebra thinking, “I can’t wait to show to this to him-he’s going to love it!” Placing the sun to give light for us during the day, and the moon to softly kiss us at night.
I see God as an expectant parent, loving His children enough to prepare a nursery for them that goes way beyond paint and window treatments. Out of His imagination came millions of things too wonderful to understand. He gave us His image so we would never forget we are His. He gave us His Spirit so we could always feel connected to Him. He gave us free will, so the relationship with Him would always be a choice. He gave us His love, which is the greatest gift of all.