Job 2: 11-13 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
While in graduate school I took a class on grief. Not because I didn’t understand grief, but because I wanted to understand how to help others who are stuck in grief or avoiding grief. For a part of the class, the professor had us look at this passage from the Bible and talk about the things Job’s friends did to help him in his grief. We talked about how they wept for and with him. We talked about how they traveled a long way to be with him and how they didn’t recognize Job because he was so changed by his grief. We talked about how they sat with Job and didn’t say a word for 7 days. Then my professor said something I’ll never forget. He said “Job’s friends did everything right . . . and then they opened their mouths”.
In our society, we want to fill someone’s pain with words. But you don’t have to say anything to help someone who is grieving. In fact, often it is best to just be there and listen.
Over the last several years I’ve been asked multiple times how to help someone who is grieving. This is always my advice:
Just be there
You don’t have to talk
There are no magic words that will take away the pain, so please don’t try
Let them cry, scream or be silent
Don’t judge what they say or do. They are in a state of shock and even the strange stuff is a normal part of the processing
Just be there for them
If they need a hug, give them a hug
If they don’t need or don’t want a hug, DON’T
Remember they are hurting; there is nothing you can say or do to make the hurt go away. Please don’t try. They need to feel the hurt; it is the only way through this.
If you are a practical kind of person, then help with the practical things of life. Do their dishes, clean their house, do the laundry. They probably can’t handle the simple tasks of daily life. Everyone is different; if they see this kind of help as an intrusion, then don’t force it.
When the drama of the loss dies down and you return to your life, don’t forget their pain is really just starting. When you think of them let them know. It’s easy to feel forgotten when the world returns to normal. This is when the majority of the support disappears and letting them know you remember them is a gift.
Don’t be afraid to mention the person who died. Especially to a grieving parent. It may make them cry, but I promise you it is music to their ears.
Share your memories. When someone dies, no new memories can be made with them. You might have a memory they have never heard or didn’t know about their loved one. When new memories cannot be made learning something new about a loved one is a wonderful gift. As I was preparing this blog post, I got a text message from the mom of a young man my son was in school with. They were talking about gym class and he shared a memory of Dawson with her, she turned around and shared it with me. Apparently, her son liked to dive to the ground when they were playing ball in gym class. Dawson didn’t like it and would shout “stoooooooopppp” in an exasperated voice. In that moment I heard a new memory about my son, and for just a split second, it was like he was here with me again.
You don’t have to talk
Just be there for them
To read other posts I’ve written on how to help those who are grieving click here or here
I usually don’t weigh in on political debates. Not because I don’t have an opinion, or because I don’t care. But because I don’t have the energy. As a grieving mom what precious energy I do have is reserved for the things that improve my life.
But after this latest shooting, I’ve seen something new happen, something that makes me MAD.
For some reason, the phrase “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families” has come under attack. People are saying it’s not the right response because it won’t fix the problem.
They have completely MISSED THE POINT.
As a mom who’s tragically lost not 1 but 2 children let me explain why saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is the ONLY appropriate response in the wake of such tragedy.
After my children were killed in a car accident I heard so many people say this to me. Each “I’m praying for you” or “I’m thinking of you” was cherished. Every. Single. One.
But more than that, I craved the prayers of others. I knew I couldn’t do this on my own. I desperately needed the thoughts and prayers of others. Especially when my prayers consisted of only 2 words: “help me”.
I needed the prayers of others so much I was afraid to tell people when I was having a good day. I was worried hearing that I was doing well would make people think I was “better” and they would stop praying.
I firmly believe it was the prayers of others that helped me survive that first year. And continues to help me as I navigate life without my boys.
In the wake of such traumatic and tragic loss, there are no words. Nothing can be done or said to make it better. All that’s left is to pray for and support the surviving family members.
I cringe every time I see a family’s grief plastered all over the internet. Or when their children and their moment of greatest fear realized are used as a pawn in a political debate.
There is a time to scream your opinion from the mountaintop of social media. But it is not now.
In the immediate aftermath saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you” lets these families know they are not alone.
And that’s what’s important.
These families are in shock. Soon they will have to begin the long hard road of grief. They need our thoughts and prayers. They need our support. Not our political opinion.
Telling them “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is KIND. And it’s CARING.
True it won’t fix the problem. But that’s NOT THE POINT of this statement.
It’s to express sympathy. It’s to say I know you are hurting. It even says, “I hurt for you”.
This is why saying “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” is the ONLY public response that should be happening right now.
This is a hard one for me to post. It feels more vulnerable. It’s one thing to try and write what you’re feeling and thinking for people to read. Especially when you can hide behind the security of the internet. It’s quite another to say it out loud, in public. But even then there is a level of security with that because you can walk away and it’s over. But when your talk has been recorded and you decide to post it on the internet, where anyone can see it and nothing ever goes away, it’s a very scary thing.
This is my story. It’s personal. It’s hard. It’s emotional. But I share it because I believe I have something to say that can help others.
Last year I had the opportunity to share my story at my uncle’s church.
My Dad’s side of the family was gathering for a family reunion in Iowa where he grew up. My uncle seized the opportunity and asked me to speak at his church. I quickly discovered it’s more nerve wracking to speak in front of family than it is to speak in front of strangers. I woke up that morning full of nerves, I remember saying to my cousin “What made me think this would be a good idea.”
My Uncle Chuck is the one who introduces me in this video. When he asks anyone who’s related to me to stand up, 3/4 of the small town church stood up. (Most were in town for the reunion). You’ll notice my reaction . . . ya, I freak out a bit.
I’m sorry the sound quality isn’t the best. We had some trouble getting the video copied. You should be able to hear it if you turn up the volume, just watch out for the crying baby who’ll blow out your speakers. 😉
I’ve heard from some people that they cannot hear the video. So I’m posting the content below:
I would like to begin today by introducing you to my boys. Dawson, my oldest is one of the smartest people I know. When he was 4 years old I bought him non-toddler Transformer toys. They were rated for ages 8 and up. Dawson eagerly opened the directions and sat down to figure out his new toy. I will say Dawson is the only male I know who willingly reads directions. After a while he brought me the Transformer and the directions. He was having trouble and needed help. It turns out 8 and up does not include adults. It was well beyond my skill level and I was unable to help Dawson. I apologized to my 4 year old, and he sat back down with his directions. It wasn’t long before he came to me with his Transformer completely transformed. As he grew his engineering mind had him building things out anything he could find. He even built himself a Transformer costume. To this day when I need something put together or figured out Dawson is always the one I think of. Shy, sensitive and stubborn, Dawson is entirely to much like me.
Devin, my youngest was born with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. As a toddler if the house was quite, I knew he was into something he shouldn’t be. When he was 3 years old, my grandparents came for a visit. All the adults were in the living room talking. Devin walked into the living room, marched right up to my mom and said “Grandma, give me a dollar”. My mom, a bit taken back said, “Why should I give you a dollar”. Devin very sweetly replied, “Give me a dollar and I’ll give you a drink”. “But Devin, I’m not thirsty”, my mom replied. Devin just repeated his offer. The two went back and forth for a little bit, until my mom finally said reaching for her water bottle, “Devin I’m not thirsty, and if I was, . . . she reached for her water bottle and it was gone! The little imp and snuck in stolen her water bottle and was trying to sell it back to her for a dollar. In that moment I knew I was in trouble. One afternoon Devin proudly told me his 4th grade class voted him class clown . . . twice.
January 22, 2011 was a beautiful and chilly Saturday morning. I was headed out for a photo shoot. The boys and their dad were going out on an adventure. The morning was hectic and chaotic as we were all trying to get ready and out the door. I was rushing around trying to make sure everyone ate breakfast, while also trying to get ready for my shoot. I rushed up the stairs while Dawson answered the front door. I saw the back of his head as he talked to his uncle. As I was doing my hair Devin came up behind me and pet the underside of my arms while smiling his sweet smile at me in the mirror. Eventually we were all out the door.
My client ended up not showing up for the photo shoot, so I headed home much earlier than planned. As a result I was home when the call came in. With that one phone call my world came crashing down. My family was in a fatal car accident. From the moment I got the call time stopped. A day that began full of the promise of family fun became a day of trauma that altered the course of my life.
At the time the doctor told me my boys had not survived the accident I basically shut down. I really don’t know how long it took for my brain to begin functioning again. What I do know was the first few thoughts that crossed my mind became defining moments for me.
The first conscious thought I remember having was the realization that God knew when they were born, my boys lives would be short. In that moment the thought brought me a small measure of peace, because I knew God was in control and I would not turn my back on him.
The second defining thought was a fragment of Romans 8:28. It went through my mind like a flash of lightening. The thought that God would make something good come from all this. From that moment, I have clung to that promise with a death grip. It has been this promise that enables me to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Someday I will see something good come from this pain.
The third defining moment for me was actually a decision I made. Standing, next to my dad, in the hallway of the hospital, I decided I was going to be real with my pain. My thought process behind this decision was that I did not want to hide behind the “God is good, so life is good” attitude I had seen growing up in the church. I wanted to show people that God and pain could co-exist in life.
I don’t know where this idea that the Christian life is easy and free from pain comes from. When people are struggling they are often met with comments like “you just need to pray more, have more fain, maybe you did something wrong”. These comments, this attitude communicate that pain in life equals you’re not Christian enough, you don’t love God. If you just had more faith life would be great. This is such an unbiblical attitude and it makes me mad. God NEVER promised us a life without pain. What he did promise us was that he would be with us in our pain. This is what I wanted people to see through me as I grieved the loss of my boys.
In 2013 I wrote a blog post I want to share with you.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted ~ Matthew 5:4
I never understood this verse. How can you call someone who is mourning blessed? I think someone mourning would think they were anything but blessed.
Then I found out what it really means to mourn. I know what it feels like to be so deep in grief you forget to breath. I know what its like to feel the crushing weight of grief so heavy that you can’t breathe. I certainly didn’t feel blessed. And I still didn’t really understand this verse.
Yet, it was in some of those moments of grief, that I felt God’s presence and heard his voice. It’s hard to describe what it felt like one day to have this overwhelming peace spread through me. To know that it was from God and to hear him tell me he had everything under control. It was a “peace that passes all understanding”(Philippians 4:7) that only God can give.
But I still didn’t understand. I’d lost everything that mattered.
Then the other night I was thinking about all the times God came along beside me in my grief, all the people he sent to pray for me and support me and then it dawned on me . . . . I’m not blessed because I mourn, I’m blessed because in my grief God made his presence known and comforted me.
It’s in the word “comforted” the blessing lies, not in the mourning. It is an amazing blessing to feel God’s presence, especially when he’s all you have left.”
There are so many ways God was with me during the most painful part of my journey. Those first few years were excruciating. The pain was so intense any physical movement required an enormous amount of effort. Breathing became a chore. One afternoon I was driving home. I stopped at a stop sign next to a small country school where Devin had played a basketball game. As I sat there at the stop sign, I realized I wasn’t breathing. I wasn’t holding my breath. I had just stopped breathing. I was so scared to take that next breath, to start breathing again. Because I knew as I inhaled I would not only be breathing in air, but pain as well.
So much of my grieving was done in prayer. Initially I was afraid to sit and pray. I didn’t pray for weeks, maybe even months. Somehow I knew to sit and talk with God was going to unleash a torrent of pain and tears that I wouldn’t be able to control. But once I was able to pray, and that intense pain of grief washed over me, I found the easiest way to deal with it was in the presence of God. I would wander into the boy’s bedroom, kneel over Dawson’s bed to pray and end up curled in the fetal position on the floor crying out to God for help. Every time. For months and years. Even today this occasionally happens. And every time after my tears are exhausted and I can hardly breathe from the ugly cry that just happened, I feel better, lighter and ready to handle the next step.
In those desperate moments on the floor of my boy’s bedroom and in so many other ways I learned how God draws close to the broken hearted.
One afternoon I was sitting in my living room. I don’t remember anything about what was going on, or what I was doing. All I remember was sitting there on the ottoman, leaned over with my arms on my knees. I must have been talking with God. Suddenly this feeling started deep within and spread throughout my entire body. It was a feeling of warmth and peace. I wish I had words to describe what it felt like. It was amazing and I knew it was from God. For the first time in my life I truly understood what the phrase “a peace that surpasses all understanding” really means. In that moment I understood how Horatio Spafford could write words like “when sorrows like sea billows roll, it is well with my soul” only days after all his children were lost at sea. I never understood his song of peace in the midst of tragedy until that moment.
It’s interesting, when you turn to God in your deepest pain, he is there in ways you cannot even imagine. I would be standing in the balcony at church, singing worship songs with tears streaming down my cheeks. Singing songs of praise to God, while feeling the most intense emotional pain I’ve ever know, was such a spiritual experience for me. It was like he was pulling all the pain out of me, leaving comfort in its place. I have no words to describe what it was like, or how close God felt. All I can say is when you take your pain to God, he does not disappoint.
It wasn’t just through these intensely emotional experiences God provided comfort for me. It was through the people around me as well. When we left the hospital the social worker who’d been working with us pulled me aside. She said to me “You have the largest support system I’ve ever seen”. She saw only a fraction of the support that has surrounded me these past 5 ½ years.
Both of my parents come from large families. Growing up I loved having so many uncles, aunts and cousins. But I have never been so thankful to come from a large family as I have since the accident. My mom’s family descended upon us, flying in from all over the country. The chaos of my Greeley relatives was exactly what I needed. They held me up that first week. My dad’s family is a bit quieter, but their support as time has stretched on has sustained me too. I have an amazing family! My large extended family has been a built in support system.
In addition to my family, I have an online family of friends. Several years ago I joined an online photography club. We shared pictures, critiqued each other’s images and grew together as photographers and friends. We laughed and joked with each other. Even though we’d never met, we became family. The support I received from this group of online friends was so evident my family could see how close we were. Shortly after the accident a few members decided we needed to meet. A trip to Las Vegas was planned. Suddenly in the midst of my pain, I not only had something to look forward to, I had something to get excited about. For 3 days we bounced around the desert taking photos. We laughed, picked on each other and had fun. I had a break from the constant pain. For the first time since the accident I felt carefree and the trip was the highlight of my year. I firmly believe God brought this group of photographers into my life when he did, because he KNEW I was going to need them.
Then there was the support I received through friends on Facebook. Yes, social media can be a good thing! Friends from college, high school and even grade school offered me words of support. One afternoon I was having one of my more desperate “help me God” prayers. Crying on the floor of my boy’s room, all I could do was cry out “help me” over and over again. Later that day I received 3 messages from people, all from different parts of my life. Each message told me they’d been praying for me. I began to cherish every single “I’m praying for you” I received. Whenever someone would ask how they could help, I’d ask for prayer. Through various contacts there were people praying for me all around the world. Everyday I would hear of someone else, usually someone I didn’t know, who’d heard about the accident and was praying for me.
The church my family belonged to at the time showed us an amazing amount of support that first week. They supported us in many ways, but one thing has always stood out. Every night for a week at 6pm they had dinner for us at the church. So many members of my extended family came into town that my mom had worried how we would feed everyone. But the church had that all taken care of. In addition to feeding us, those nightly meals gave us an anchor in the storm of that first week.
Another church in town opened up their building to us for the memorial service. We were expecting so many people; our church was not big enough. Over 600 people came to the service. I’m still in awe of the number of people who came to mourn with us.
One of my favorite shows of support was organized by a lovely woman I hardly know. She organized a group of women to leave gifts on my doorstep from December 1st through January 22nd. This is the hardest time of the year for me. Dawson’s birthday, Christmas and the accident day all in close succession are followed by Devin’s birthday in February. This particular year, I felt spoiled and actually looked forward to coming home from work everyday. It made the holidays easier and this difficult time of year more bearable.
I don’t know why God graced me with such a wonderful support system. Especially when I’ve met so many grieving parents who are deserted by family and friends. But through this experience I feel like I’ve gotten a glimpse of what God intended the church to be, a place where people come together and support each other through the painful events in their lives.
I work in a community mental health clinic. The other day one of my clients mentioned that he had learned not to mention his mental illness in church. It broke my heart to hear that. The church should be a place for people who are hurting to find love, encouragement and support. But instead we are too busy living under the God is good, so life is good attitude to be real about our pain, or honestly listen to someone else. I sincerely believe if the Christian community would be more honest in our pain and struggles there would be less of it, because we would share the burden together instead of dealing with it alone. We are to help each other carry our burdens.
There is a scene at the end of the Lord of the Rings movies that I love. Frodo and Sam are trying to get to Mt. Doom so Frodo can destroy the ring of evil. No one but Frodo can carry the ring and at this point in the movie the weight of the ring is too much for him. Frodo collapses and cannot go on. Sam his trusted friend, in a climatic moment in the movie says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”. This is what the church should be and this is how I’ve felt these last 5 years. No one can ever carry or take away my pain, but I have been carried through the pain by the love and support of those God sent to comfort me.
One night, nearly 2 years after the accident, I was feeling very sorry for myself. I was working through a Beth Moore bible study on James. This particular evening the word “cherished” kept jumping off the workbook page. In my self-pity I was crying out to God about how much I just wanted to feel cherished. I started thinking about all people who’ve been my support. Then I heard God say to me “see all these people I’ve sent, this is how I’ve cherished you”. Let me tell you that was an experience. I cried for a full 20 minutes. I didn’t stop shaking for an hour! Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be COMFORTED.
Through all this I came to understand Jesus sacrifice on the cross in a whole new way. I grew up in the church. I’ve heard all the bible stories and I know all the songs. I can probably still remember the motions to the songs we sang in Sunday school when I was a kid. But in some ways I never fully understood the sacrifice God made. One evening it dawned on me, God knows what it’s like to lose a child. Worse, he knows what it’s like to watch his son be tortured and beaten, hung on a cross and die. Matthew 27 tells us about God’s reaction. Verse 45: “Now from the 6th hour there was darkness over all the land until the 9th hour.” The footnotes in my bible tell me that’s from noon to 3pm. Right in the middle of the day, and it was dark. If I could have turned the sky dark that day I would have. I’d probably have left the sky dark for weeks. I felt betrayed by the sun when spring came around and the weather started turning warm. Around 3pm Jesus breathed his last and this is what happened verse 51:“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”. That’s a very familiar part of the story because it symbolizes the separation between us and God being removed and this is usually where we focus. But it goes on to say “And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.” The first time I really read that after the accident, I read the actions of a Father who was grieving the death of his son. And I could so relate. My world shook to its core. I wanted to scream. If I could have caused an earthquake to outwardly express what was going on internally I would have. Suddenly it all made sense. There are not multiple paths to God, there is only one! And that path is paved with the blood of Jesus. Though intellectually I knew that before. Now living through child loss, it made sense to me in a way it never had before. I understand why God will reject people who reject his son. It’s not because God doesn’t love them, it’s because they reject his son. And his son DIED for them.
Part of being real with my pain isn’t just telling you about all the wonderful things God did for me. It’s also explaining what happened when I allowed my pain to take my focus off God. The last 2 years or so, I have struggled with trusting God. I’ve been through several opportunities to trust God with my future these past couple years. Each time I failed miserly.
The crazy part of me decided it would be a good idea to go to graduate school and get my counseling degree only 2 years into my grief journey. When it came time to find an internship or do a case presentation that would determine if I could graduate I did not put my trust in God. Instead I looked toward the future and saw everything that could go wrong. After all, if God allowed the accident into my life, how could I be sure he would look out for me now?
I let anxiety into my life. I couldn’t sleep or function well. Things got worse as graduation loomed closer and I would have to leave the safety of school and find a job.
I started questioning God’s character. I questioned his motives, his intention and his caring. I would say things like “If I believe in the sovereignty of God then that means he knew the accident was going to happen and he did nothing to stop it. If he’s willing to let something that awful happen to me, then how can I trust he won’t let more bad stuff happen?” I would pull up stories from the Old Testament to show how “scary” God can be. I wanted answers. “How can I trust a God who allowed my children to die?” I wanted answers to this question not only for me but also for all the grieving mom’s who ask “How can a loving God take my child from me?” I asked so many people my questions. I was desperate for an answer. Sometimes I took my questions to God.
Sometimes I need to write my prayers out. I thought I’d share a few from last year with you.
May 9, 2015
Lord, I am struggling to trust you. I want to fully and completely trust you. Yet I am afraid. I’m afraid of more pain and disappointment in my future. I’m afraid to trust because my life has already fallen apart once. I don’t want to go through that again. I’m afraid you will bring me more pain. I’m struggling to believe in your goodness.
I want to see your divine creativity play out in my life. I want to again be excited about what you have planned for my future. I want the peace that comes from fully trusting you. God please help me with my lack of trust.
May 11, 2015
Lord, my heart is troubled and afraid. I am afraid you will not continue providing for me or that my future holds more intense pain. I’m afraid you have more painful lessons to teach me.
God please remove these fears and doubt from my heart. Replace them with your peace. Show me what I need to do to let go and fully trust you again.
June 9, 2015
I’m beginning to see now that in allowing anxiety and fear into my life I abandoned your love for me. In my anxiety and fear the devil taught me to fear you! I have been afraid of you God. Afraid of what you can do in my life. In that fear I gave the devil a stronghold in my life. Lord I pray that you will drive all the anxiety and far from my life! Fill me instead with your perfect love.
September 28, 2015
Am I confident in God? Not fully. I want to be. I know in my head that God loves us and will do anything for us. But there is a seed of doubt. Why? Because I know God does not always step in when we want him to. He doesn’t stop bad things from happening to us. Why? I don’t know. The bible tells us that God is sovereign and everything is under his control. How do you reconcile that to a God who loves you when something horrible happens in your life. Does that mean God wanted it to happen? Does that mean God allowed it to happen? Does that mean it was part of Gods will? Or is it just part of this broken world we live in? I want to have confidence in God! But I don’t know how to deal with the doubt in my mind. The doubt that says bad things happen and God doesn’t always step in. But then God didn’t’ step in and save his own son from a gruesome death. Because there was a bigger picture. The difference between what God knows about our life and what we know is huge. God can see the whole picture. He can see why I ‘ve had to endure the last 5 years alone. Why I don’t get to see my boys grow up. I wish I could see the bigger picture. Maybe that would make it easier to endure. Maybe it would make it easier to understand my purpose in life.
November 27, 2015
Lord, I’m trying to trust in you. I want to trust in you because I know in my head that you care for me. But it’s hard, hard to believe in my heart when I think about the accident. If you care for me so much why did you let that happen? I’m scared my life will always be like this. Are you taking care of me? I want to believe you are. I want so badly to trust you and not carry these burdens. But I don’t know how. I don’t know what to do. How do I let go and trust you. My kids are gone and I am alone. I hate this. God please help me. Help me understand. Give me wisdom. I want to trust you with my whole heart. But it’s broken. Not just broken God, it’s shattered. I don’t know how to put the pieces back together.
And earlier this year . . . .
March 11, 2016
Lord, give me wisdom to understand your role in the accident. Was it your will? Why didn’t you stop it? How do I trust you when you allowed something so devastating to happen to me? But did you allow it? Was it just part of living in a sinful world? How does your sovereignty play into all this? Lord, I just want to understand. If I’m not meant to understand then please replace my questioning with your peace.
Can you see the pattern? I’m afraid of what’s coming, I’m afraid of what’s coming. I took my eyes off God and looked instead to the future.
I started a devotional on Job last month. I was nearly in tears before I finished the introduction. The author made this statement: “The person of faith is one who like Job, knows what it is to be torn apart by the enormity of God”. Wow! That’s how I felt for over 2 years. Torn apart because my God is huge, he’s in control of all things, and he didn’t save me from this pain. How do you reconcile that?
In my years of questioning, and searching for an answer I came up with only one. You don’t. You don’t reconcile that God loves us and yet bad and painful things happen. I wish I could give you answers. I wish I could answer these questions myself.
There are many standard answers I could give. We live in an evil world. God gave us free will. Bad things happen. But none of these soothe the pain in my heart. None of them help me understand why God allowed this pain into my life. I don’t think there are answers that will satisfy my broken human heart. But then if I had answers I wouldn’t need faith.
You see, I don’t think we are meant to get the answers to these kinds of questions. If we had the answers it wouldn’t be faith. Knowledge yes, but not faith. It’s easy to trust things we know and understand. It requires no effort, no faith. Faith is trusting God in spite of the questions and in spite of the doubts. I think God wants us to lean on him even in the uncertainty and doubt. That is true faith.
Recently I’ve begun to realize all my questions were more about me than about God. When I took my eyes off God and looked toward the future, all I saw was fear. I was afraid of more pain and more suffering. When I allowed anxiety into my life instead of trusting God, I allowed a spirit of fear to gain a stronghold over me. In that anxiety and fear I quit spending time with God. Which only made the anxiety and far worse.
I also realized my questions were about my pride. What has happened in my life isn’t fair and I wanted answers. I deserved answers. At one point I even told God he owed me an amazing future. I mean really, how prideful can you be to tell God he OWEs you something. But since I didn’t trust God, I tried taking control of my life so I didn’t have to struggle anymore. In reality my struggle was made worse because I wasn’t willing to let go of my control. There’s a level of humility required to say to God “I trust you no matter what”. You have to be willing to put yourself aside and give God control. That requires submission to his will.
As a result of all my questioning I would beat myself up. I felt like such a horrible person. After all the wonderful things he did for me after the accident, here I was questioning his goodness and love. But I now know, the questioning isn’t wrong it’s human. In the multitude of people I talked to there was one pastor I spoke with who tied my questioning to my grief process. It had not occurred to me that my questions were coming from grief. In that one statement she helped me normalize what I was going through. It’s normal to ask these deep and confusing questions. It’s part of growing and maturing in our faith. It’s part of dealing with the hurt and pain in life. It doesn’t mean I’m turning my back on God or that I have a lack of faith. Like the author in my Job study says, “such feelings are not incompatible with faith”.
For the past 2-3 years I have been trying to be strong on my own. I’ve focused on the future and what could go wrong. I’ve been trying to control the outcome so I don’t have to experience more pain. This has led me to more anxiety and depression than I have ever known. My life has been more difficult and less peaceful as a result. Grief and child loss are hard enough on their own. But I compounded it by walking away from the peace God gave me.
Even in my doubt and questioning, everything God has done to comfort me is still there. My support system hasn’t deserted me after all these years. God is still providing for me. And he’s still there waiting for me to come back and rest in him. Just a few days ago I was finally able to let go of all my questions. I still don’t have answers. But I have my peace back, and that is far better than any answer. My most recent prayer has been: I would rather have the peace that comes from trusting you than answers to my anxiety fear filled questions.
I was recently reminded why that afternoon, when God filled me with his peace, I understood how Horatio Spafford could write the words “It is Well, With my Soul”. It was because his peace came from knowing he would spend eternity with God. The feeling of peace, that afternoon, was more than just God comforting me. The peace came in knowing that I belong to God. That my eternal future is set. That was not something I was sure of before the accident. Not because I hadn’t given my life over to God, but because I didn’t believe God loved me back. But in those first few years after the accident I felt God presence in such a strong and comforting way, I knew without a doubt he loved me and I would spend eternity with him.
Our hope is in heaven. Peace comes from knowing this hope will be realized.
Our lives are bigger than here and now. Bigger than the problems we face today, tomorrow or in the next 10 years. When I focus on the future all I see is what can go wrong. Like Peter walking on the water and taking his eyes off Jesus and only seeing the waves that can sweep him away. When I focus on God I have peace, because even though life is filled with struggle and pain, I know God loves me and I will spend eternity with him. That is where the true comfort is.
I’ve had so many people tell me how strong I am. But I’m not. I cry, I despair, I question, I get bitter and angry. Left to my own devices I would not be standing here today. It’s God who gives me strength. It is through his promises for my future, those he sent to support and comfort me and his hope that I will one day see my boys again I have strength.
God gives us his strength in our weakness, so “that everyone can see that our glorious power is from God and not our own”. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:7
“You are so strong.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this statement over the past 6 years. While a part of me loves to hear it and part of me feels strong, I know I could not have done any of this on my own. The strength I have does not come from me; it comes from within me, from God living in me.
A few months ago I watched a video with my favorite radio show host. He was interviewing a Christian musician. I don’t remember most of the interview, but I the one thing I do remember really hit home. He said, in the wake of a personal trauma, his grief over the situation, kept crashing up against something solid inside him – his faith in God. When I heard that, I knew exactly what he meant. I’d felt the same thing in my own life.
Every time the intense pain of grief washed over me, I turned to God. I’d cry out “help me”. They were the only words I could utter. I’d ugly cry in God’s presence because I couldn’t do it alone. Through this process a strange thing happened, I realized when my grief was at its strongest I felt closer to God than at any other point in my life.
When I turned to God in the middle of my pain, he was there for me. Every. Single. Time. Sometimes I could hear him talk to me. Others I just knew he was there.
One afternoon, I was on the floor of my boy’s bedroom crying out to God my desperate “help me” plea. I was feeling very alone that particular day. Later that afternoon I received messages from 3 different people who didn’t know each other but knew me. Each message was a variation of “I’m thinking of you and praying for you”. I was overwhelmed and in that moment I knew God had heard my prayer of tears and was letting me know he was with me.
Through this journey I have learned when you reach into your deepest pain, you’ll find God there holding you.
Sunday mornings became a time of meeting God on a whole new level. I would go to church and hide in the balcony. I would sing the worship songs and cry through the whole thing. One of the most spiritual experiences in my life was praising God while in the greatest emotional pain I’d ever known. I wish I could accurately describe what it was like. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to God. I could almost see him. I felt like he was reaching down and gently pulling my pain to himself. Pain, relief, praise and comfort it was such an interesting mix of emotions. But it gave me the strength I needed to face the day.
There are so many ways God has given me strength to travel this journey. My first thoughts after the accident were of God (you can read about it here). He provided me an amazing support system that has prayed for me and carried me through (read here). He’s been there in my pain and held me when I cried. All my tears of grief have been spent in God’s presence.
I don’t know how people travel through this cruel world without God. And I don’t know how people get through child loss without Him to lean on. I would not be here today, if not for the hope and strength God has given me. I could not have made it this far without God. Left to my own devices I would have curled up in a ball and stayed there. The strength God has given me is the only thing that has kept me going. I could not have done this alone.
“You have the largest support system I’ve ever seen.”
The hospital social worker said this to me as we left the hospital the day after the accident. I still remember the look on her face, a mixture of disbelief and pride. Friends, family and church members had been flowing in and out of the hospital for the last 2 days.
Before we even arrived at the hospital that horrible Saturday afternoon, members of our church had started to fill the ER waiting room. By the time we arrived, my parents and I had to be ushered past the waiting room through staff only doors so those who’d come to support us wouldn’t overwhelm us. Friends had completely filled the ER waiting area. Most were stopped there and not allowed on the ICU floor where we were taken. I never ventured into the waiting area to see the crowd. I was barely holding it together as it was, I couldn’t emotionally handle that. Though I never saw them, I appreciated their presence.
Many other friends, who came to support us, came in through a different hospital entrance. They were able to make it to the ICU floor where my family and I waited for news of my husband. I can still remember looking in the waiting room and seeing them, sitting and talking to each other. I felt like I should go over there and join their conversation, but I just couldn’t. I stayed close to my family because I could not handle any conversation. I couldn’t talk to them, but I was so glad they were there.
The group of friends who came to the hospital shifted throughout the day. Some came and went, others stayed for hours; new ones arrived as word of the accident spread. I appreciated their presence and the fact they didn’t intrude on my need for distance. The social worker who spent time with us during our 36 hours in the hospital watched the ever-shifting crowd of people who’d come to support us. Apparently, they made an impression on her prompting the comment as we prepared to leave the hospital that Sunday afternoon.
Years later I understand why she was so impressed. I could not have made it this far without my support system.
Going to graduate school to become a counselor I learned one of the most important factors for success in therapy is the individual’s support system. It’s not the relationship with the counselor or the therapeutic techniques used, it is the support system that makes the most difference.
I can only imagine the hospital social worker saw the size of our support and knew we would be able to travel the hard road ahead.
In truth, she saw only a fraction of those who’ve shown up to support me on my journey of grief.
Through social media, my online photography club, and my rather large extended family I have been carried through my grief. I haven’t had to do any of this alone.
One night while working my new, I’m no longer a stay-at-home mom, job I had a meltdown. It was one of those bad grief days that I couldn’t contain. I was stuck in a call center customer service job and all I wanted was to go home and cry. But I had to keep answering phone calls. I made some big mistakes that night because I couldn’t focus. I was struggling to stay together so I could finish my shift.
I posted on Facebook how bad my night was going. I watched the slowly moving clock, willing it to move faster so I could go home and break down properly. Finally, the time came for me log out of my computer and leave work. I walked out of the building and started heading to my car, only to discover my parents had come to pick me up from work.
They had seen my Facebook post and had seen beyond the vague words and knew I was doing worse than I’d let on. My mom said to me “We weren’t sure if this would be ok”. It was a little weird, yes, but it was such an awesome thing for them to do. I curled up in the passenger seat of my van and cried as my mom drove me home, with dad following behind us.
This is just one of the small ways my parents have supported me.
The second Christmas after the accident, I wanted to hide away from reality. I couldn’t afford to go on vacation like I had the year before. So I talked my family into hiding out in the mountains with me. My parents found a rental house big enough for us, along with my sister and her family. We spent 3 days hiding from the world. It was peaceful and fun. (You can read about it here.)
I realized my sister and her family had given up all their holiday traditions to hide away with me. I felt bad about taking them away from their traditions until I mentioned it to my sister, she replied, “It’s the only thing you’ve asked us to do”. After all these years I still tear up at the selfless support.
My extended family has been another layer of support. Both of my parents come from large families. Growing up I loved having so many uncles, aunts, and cousins. But I have never been so thankful to come from a large family as I have since the accident. As news of the accident spread my mom’s family descended upon us, flying in from all over the country. The chaos of the Greeley side of my family was exactly what I needed. They held me together that first week. My dad’s family is more quite, but their support as time has stretched on has sustained me too. I have such an amazing family.
I could also go on about all the different ways my friends have shown me support. But this post is getting long. You can read about it (here, here and here).
I don’t know why God has blessed me with such a wonderful support system. So many grieving parents are on this awful journey alone. I’ve heard horrible stories of the things other bereaved parents have had to endure from family, friends and even their church. It breaks my heart when I see how little support some people have.
At the Compassionate Friends support group I attend, we have a saying “Your address book changes after the loss of a child”. It’s so true. People you thought would always be there for you disappear and others surprise you by becoming new friends. Even with my support system, I’ve had my address book change. People I thought were good friends are gone. And others I’ve had minimal contact with over the years became a larger part of my support.
I would not have been able to walk this path alone. I need every single person who has supported me in any way they can. Each one of them has carried me on this journey.
We are not meant to carry the burden of our pain alone. It’s too heavy and too hard. We need people to love us, support us and help carry us through.
This concept is so beautifully demonstrated at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo and Sam are trying to get to Mt. Doom so Frodo can destroy the ring of evil. No one but Frodo can carry the ring and at this point in the journey, the weight of the ring is too much for him. Frodo collapses and cannot go on. Sam, his trusted friend, in a climatic moment says to Frodo, “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”. This is such a great demonstration of how we are to support one another. No one can ever carry or take away my pain, but I have been carried through the pain by the love and support of those God sent to comfort me.
I will admit this title is misleading. There is no “survived” in child loss, there is only enduring it. But survived sounds more socially acceptable, doesn’t it?
Early on I made a decision to let the grief in. I’m generally a pretty emotionally controlled person, more of a thinker than a feeler if you will. Somehow I knew this journey would require me to feel the pain. I was terrified of the road that now stood in front of me.
The fear started after my extended family left. The chaos of my mom’s side of the family had kept me going that first week. As soon as the last one left for the airport, I felt empty. Then is settled on me . . . Fear. I looked at my future and all I saw was a long, dark road filled with pain. I was scared of the coming days because I knew they would be filled with the most intense and painful feelings I have ever felt. I curled up on my mom’s couch and cried. I was too exhausted to go home, too scared to be completely alone, so I spent the night at my parent’s house. How was I supposed to move forward?
I knew a mom who’d lost her son 5 years prior. From the way she talked, it seemed like it had just happened. She was stuck in her grief, and I did not want that to be me. I didn’t want to have to start over 5 years from now because I didn’t deal with it first. Somehow I knew the only way through this would be to let the pain in. So I decided to face the pain and grief head on.
It is the hardest thing I have ever done . . . .
When the searing pain would hit, instead of pushing it down, I would let it wash over me. I’d let the tears fall until there were no more.
I went deep into my grief, I allowed myself to feel the crushing pain. I would wander into the boy’s room and sit on their beds. I would go through their things, trying to connect with them. The sadness would start first, and then the full impact of the consuming pain would hit me and flood through me. I couldn’t breathe. I’d collapse on the floor in paralyzing tears. It hurt so bad, my legs would not support my weight. I cried out to God asking, “Why couldn’t I keep them?” or just pleading, “help me”.
It hurt. It was hard.
I’ve had “meltdowns” in the bathroom at work and other public places. I’ve cried so hard I can’t see while driving. I’ve cried at church, in museums, while watching movies, and my favorite place the privacy of my bedroom.
Grief comes is waves. Sometimes the waves completely overwhelm you and others are smaller, more tolerable. I rode the waves of grief today, so tomorrow the wave would be smaller. Sometimes there is no warning, it just hits you like a sneaker wave at the beach. The kind of wave that’s stronger than you realize and rips your feet out from under you. Other times you can see the waves coming and you dread the moment they hit. Those times it’s really tempting to run and hide from the coming wave.
It was late July, a few years ago, when I learned how trying to hold your grief in will backfire.
I was having a bad day. The kind of day where the grief sneaks up on you, and before you know it you are in tears. I’d already cried through much of the church service while struggling to maintain control because I was in a public place. I tried, really hard to keep myself under control.
It was my sister’s birthday and I didn’t want to make the day about me.
After the service, driving to my parent’s house, I allowed myself a few tears. The drive to mom and dad’s was not long enough. I needed more time to let my grief out. I was expected to be there, so I sucked in my pain and put on the best happy face I could muster.
It took so much of my energy to hold myself together, I couldn’t fake the happy attitude I needed to keep everyone from knowing I was having a bad day. There were questions I tried to deflect but wasn’t able to do so successfully. Thankfully they quit asking what was wrong. I was doing fairly well. It was obvious I wasn’t in a good mood, but at least I wasn’t crying.
After the birthday lunch and presents we all gathered in the family room. My sister said something that started me laughing. I was laughing so hard, really harder than was necessary for the comment. I quickly lost control. The dam burst and next thing I knew my control crumbled, I was in tears. I flew to the bathroom so I could break down in private. I locked the door behind me and my legs gave out. I sunk to my knees and cried. The tears were falling from my eyes to the floor. It’s hard to sob without making noise, but I didn’t want people at the door asking if I was ok.
After the crying subsided, I still wasn’t ready to face anyone. I stayed in the bathroom for a while and played a game on my phone until my mom started texting me. After a couple more minutes I used a cold washcloth to try and reduce the effects crying had on my face. Once I felt I would be able to maintain control and deal with any looks or questions from my family, I left the bathroom.
I tried so hard to push my grief aside, to be ok for my sister. I ended up making everything worse. That day I needed to give myself the time and space I needed to grieve. But I denied it and it pushed it’s way forward anyway.
Grief will always push its way out.
Grief is exhausting. But it’s more exhausting to not let it out. Trying to constantly maintain control takes and exorbitant amount of effort. Grief is hard, but it’s harder not to grieve.
So I learned to let it out, scream, cry, do whatever I needed to do to release that emotion. For me its crying fits. I’d cry so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’d try to stop crying just so I could breathe. I’d gasp for air only to start crying all over again.
It sucks, it’s hard and it hurts. Oh boy, does it hurt! But when the crying is over, the pain has subsided. I feel empty, poured out in tears. But with the emptiness comes a lightness I didn’t feel before. The weight of the grief has lifted temporarily and I can go on. Until the cycle repeats itself, I am free.
Because I faced my pain when I did, today I can breathe. The waves are smaller and come less frequently. Sitting here 6 years later, I know I did the hardest work of processing my grief early on. I know that’s why I can function and teach others about grief.
At work, I help run a grief group. I talk to them about how they have to face their grief and let the pain in because that is the only way through this.
In the group, we talk about how grief will always come out. It doesn’t matter how much you hide or run from it, grief will not be denied. If you don’t face it, you only make the process harder. Anxiety, physical issues, chronic pain, depression can all come from unprocessed grief. When grief is not dealt with it will come out in the most inconvenient and uncontrollable ways. The only way to have any amount of control with grief is to face it, feel it and ride the waves.
I’m here because I let the pain in.
I’m enduring. I’m surviving.
Are you having trouble letting the pain in? Are you running or hiding from grief? Feel free to comment, send me an email or message me on Facebook. Do you know someone who is grieving and could be helped by this post? Feel free to share.
If you are reading this because you have lost a child, I am so very sorry. I know the pain you feel, because I have felt it too. I know the depth of suffering that comes from losing a child. I wish no one had to experience this, but sadly there are too many of us.
My purpose in writing this letter is to outline a few of the things I have learned in my grief. Maybe in doing so, your journey will seem a little less scary. It’s so easy to feel alone and grief is so unscripted you may think you are going crazy. I want you to know you are not alone and what you are experiencing is normal, for the circumstances you find yourself in.
There is No Order
Shortly after losing my 2 boys in a car accident someone said something to me that I have always appreciated. I have no idea who it was, or exactly the words they used, but their comment helped me navigate that first year. This person told me there are no stages to grief. You may have heard about the “Stages of Grief” but, after 6 years, I am here to tell you there is no such thing. Stages imply order. Once you complete the first stage you move onto the next and so on. As you get through all the steps, viola, you are done grieving. Oh, how I wish it were that easy!
Grief is unpredictable and it can take you by surprise. It’s more like a rollercoaster where you can’t see the dips and turns. I’ve also described grief like ocean waves that sneak up on you when you’re not ready. You may take weeks to go through the different emotions, or you my go through them all in a 30 second whirlwind. Grief cycles and turns so much you may feel like you are going crazy.
You Are Not Going Crazy
I believe child loss is the most agonizing emotional pain there is. Our bodies simply don’t know how to handle the intensity. One minute you may be fine and even able to smile. The next you collapse into tears. Or maybe you are laughing at something and your laughter dissolves into sobs. The smallest or strangest things can set off the tears. I’ve been triggered by an aisle full of kitchen mixers at the store, an innocuous comment by a friend and even a Taylor Swift song (the reason behind this one seems so silly).
As exhausting as the mood swings are, they are normal. I’ve melted down in the grocery store, the bathroom at work, my car, in front of family, and even in the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC and other equally embarrassing places. Sometimes your emotions will make sense and be easier to control. Other times the power of your grief will be so overwhelming you will break down despite your best intentions. Both are ok. Both are good. It’s normal you are not crazy.
The Intensity of the Pain will subside
I was astonished at the intensity of the emotional pain I was in. It was so painful I could feel it physically. My heart hurt, I couldn’t breathe, and any movement I made took an enormous amount of effort.
Writing this letter 6 years later, the pain is now a dull sadness. Every now and then the intensity returns, but it’s not an everyday occurrence anymore. Thankfully so, I’m not sure I could have survived 6 years of that kind of intensity. I’m not sure when it started to subside, but it did. It was a slow and gradual process over the course of time.
You’ve probably heard the expression “Time heals all wounds”. (I hope no one has said this to you in the face of your loss). I disagree with this statement. I think there are some wounds that the passage of time can heal, but not all. Time itself doesn’t heal anything just by continuing to march forward. All time really does is put distance between us, and the day of our loss. It’s what we do with that time that determines if we “heal” or remain stuck.
The only way to “heal” from grief is to go through it. I know it hurts and I know it’s hard, but you have to feel it. You have to let it in, because that is the only way through. It may seem easier to run from or hide from your grief. But remember this, GRIEF WILL NOT BE DENIED. It will always come out. The more you run from it, the more likely it will come out in a way you have no control over. Facing your grief head on is the hardest and easiest way through this journey.
There is Hope
I still remember the first Compassionate Friends meting I went to. (CF is a national support group for bereaved parents/siblings/and grandparents.) It was only a few weeks after the accident and I couldn’t imagine life without the intense pain that had become my constant companion. The leader of the group was 10 years into her child loss journey. I remember listening to her talk and realizing there was hope. She was able to function and live a life. I listened to her story and knew I wouldn’t always be in this place of powerful pain. Attending the local Compassionate Friends chapters has helped me in many ways. I realize I’m not alone on this journey. And in seeing others farther along in their journey, I knew what to expect as the weeks, months and years marched past. I knew there was hope.
Hope can also come from faith. I don’t know what your spiritual beliefs are and I know in the face of losing a child talk about God can feel trite. I hope you will continue reading what I have to say. I’m not going to tell you things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “God needed another angel”. (Please excuse me while I throw up over those statements). No, what I want you to know is God is here for you, if you’ll let him in. He can offer you comfort and peace. I know there are a lot of hard questions about God and painful circumstances like ours. But that is a conversation for another day.
I found when the pain hurt the most and the tears wouldn’t stop, God was there for me when I cried out for help. He gave me peace and surrounded me with support. He makes this burden we carry lighter. I know he will do the same for you; all you have to do is ask.
There is so much more I want to say, but I’ve already written more than I planned. If you have any questions or would like prayer, feel free to comment, send me an email or message me on Facebook.
I am so sorry you’ve joined this awful club, but know you are not alone.
The first week of July I went to a family reunion in the Midwest. I spent a peaceful week on my uncle’s farm reconnecting with uncles, aunts and cousins. One of our activities was to visit several cemeteries. I know this sounds odd, many of us in the younger generation thought it was. But it was a way for Dad and his 5 brothers to pass on family history. While I know most of the family stories, I did learn some new things.
There is one family story I have heard about since I was a little girl. I’ve always been interested in it, but this time the story came alive for me in a way I wasn’t expecting. It’s the story of the train accident.
In 1919 my Great-Grandpa George piled his wife and several of their children into their car to drive the preacher home. On the way a train going backwards through the train crossing struck the car. My Great-Grandmother Lily, who was pregnant at the time, and the 3 youngest girls were killed. My 4-year-old Grandpa spent a month in the hospital.
The newspaper article on the accident is surprisingly graphic. It included gruesome detail about how Lily and the youngest child died. Though I’ve known this story for most of my life, reading the article was shocking.
Yet there are things not included in the article that have become part of my family history. I know that after the accident George went to his mother and said, “I killed my family”. The guilt he must have felt having been the one driving the car. My grandpa came home from the hospital and went through the house looking for his mom. No one told him she had died. My grandpa grew up without a mother and when he married my grandma he said, “Now I have a mother”. (I recently learned my grandma found this romantic). My grandma had to teach my grandpa how to celebrate birthdays and holidays, because this was not something George did with his surviving children.
I always thought it was sad George never celebrated his children’s birthdays or holidays. I will admit on some level I judged him for it. But now I understand. Birthdays and holidays are so hard without my boys. It’s easier to respond to those days the way George did, pretending they don’t exist. I have no desire to celebrate the holidays. My birthday is hard without my boys. Their birthdays are even harder. While there are a few holidays I tolerate, most I’d just rather ignore. In this I feel a kinship with my great-grandfather.
Like George I know the anguish of losing more than 1 child in a tragic accident. I understand the depression and fear he must have felt from that day forward. And thought I don’t carry the guilt he must have felt, I can imagine it compounded his feelings of grief.
During the family reunion last month we stopped by the accident site. The family gathered around my Uncle Robert, the oldest of my dad’s brothers, as he again told the familiar story. We wandered around the area trying to find evidence of the train tracks long since removed.
My cousin was able to identify the train bed and we were able to see where the road had been repaired to accommodate the missing tracks. As I stood on the ground where the train tracks used to be, and faced the direction the train had been traveling, I could see my family wandering on the road where the impact happened. And it struck me, nearly 100 years later and we are still talking about this accident. I was filled with awe and overwhelmed by the meaning of what I was witnessing. Tragedy like this doesn’t just effect those involved, it effects future generations.
After my uncle recounted the story, my Uncle Chuck stated to my cousins and I “If you think your grandpa was odd, or your dad’s are odd, this accident is why”. This tragedy shaped my grandpa, who he was and how he lived his life. It affected my grandpa’s personality and how he raised his boys. My dad and his brothers were raised by a father who’d suffered trauma and loss at a very young age. Trauma shaped their lives. My cousins and I were raised by fathers who learned how to deal with life through the lens of trauma.
Standing on that quite Midwest road I couldn’t help but wonder if George would have liked knowing we are still talking about him and those lost in the accident. Three and four generations later and we still remember, as a fellow grieving parent, I know George would have liked that. Though I now understand my Great-Grandpa George in a way only another grieving parent could, he had something I don’t . . . surviving children. He has descendants who 100 years later still remember him and those he lost. I have no surviving children. I will never be a grandmother or great-grandmother. I can’t help but wonder, who will be at my children’s accident site to remember them 100 years from now.
I sat in bible study struggling to stop the tears. Despite my best efforts they still flowed.
I still have no idea what hit me so hard. I just know it was more confirmation of what I’ve been learning the past few weeks. I’m learning exactly why this journey of grief is forever.
Last month I wrote about my experience at a trauma workshop. When I first volunteered, I told the leader I didn’t think I’d be a good candidate because I’ve been doing so much better lately. However, as soon as I started filling out the mood log, the emotions appeared. Certain words triggered immediate tears. I began to realize no matter how well I’m doing or how much the intense pain has lessened, it’s always there, just beneath the surface. Waiting.
I never know when it will hit or what will trigger it, but it’s always there. Always.
A few weeks ago, I posted a photo I found in one of my grief pages. Within hours it had been viewed and shared more than anything else I’ve ever put on FB. The image was a sculpture of a man kneeling, bent over. He was made out of rocks. The image describes what grief feels like in one profound visual. I’ve often described it as feeling like I’m made out of cement. Rocks works too.
As I looked at that picture, it occurred to me that I still feel that way. I’ve just learned to carry the weight.
That weight is why my energy level is lower than it was before the accident. That’s why everything sits just below the surface. To survive, I’ve learned to carry the pain and keep it at bay most days, but it requires a tremendous amount of energy. Some days it leaks out, like it did in bible study.
I’m slowly understanding why everyone says this is a forever journey. The pain. The weight of grief. It never goes away. It is simply too heavy.
Friday evening I had an amazing opportunity that became a game changer for me. I was attending a trauma workshop conducted by Dr. David Burns, a psychologist who has written many books on depression and anxiety. In the workshop, Dr. Burns was teaching us how to use his methods to treat trauma. He stated there would be a live demonstration of these techniques at the end of the first day, if anyone would be willing to volunteer. I thought about volunteering, but that’s as far as it went. A couple of my co-workers attending the conference with me suggested I volunteer. Well in reality, they were a bit pushy. 😉 On our first break, with the support of a friend, I went and talked with Dr. Burns. I gave him a brief description of my trauma, of losing the boys, along with the depression and anxiety I’ve dealt with since. (You can read about some of it here). He thought I’d be a great subject and asked me to fill out a mood log.
I did not hear much of the next segment of the workshop because my nerves went crazy. My stomach was fluttering and my hands were shaking. I managed to fill out the mood log (I hate filling out those things). On our lunch break I showed Dr. Burns my log and he asked me to sign a release because they were going to videotape the session.
10 minutes before we were to begin the live demonstration, I started getting nervous again. I said a quick prayer, for courage.
The demonstration got off to a rocky start. Since I’ve shared my story publicly a few times, I had a bit of trouble shifting out of presentation mode. I had to remind myself this is supposed to be a counseling session, not a presentation. Dr. Burns and I had trouble connecting in a way that would make any therapy possible. He brought up the disconnection and we managed to work through it enough that I was able to let my guard down. Once that happened, all the pain I keep at bay to survive, bubbled to the surface.
What followed was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had since the accident. It was so that intense at one point I doubled over because I was crying so hard.
Together we walked through my mood log. I had listed several of my negative thoughts I have when my depression and anxiety are at their worst.
“I’ll be alone forever”
“My life will always be like this”
“I’ll never be successful or financially stable”
“I’m a fraud at work”
“Life sucks, life is hard”
We added to the list too. When the subject of my faith came up, I was a bit reluctant to talk about it because I didn’t know what everyone in the room believed. As we processed my reluctance to be bold about my faith, I realized I sometimes edit my story because of my fear of being ridiculed or disregarded. The thoughts we added to my list were “David may be judging me” and “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”.
We moved on to identifying the distortions of these thoughts. Black and white thinking, Overgeneralizing, Discounting the positives, Emotional reasoning . . . the list goes on. As a trained counselor, I know the next step is to look for the evidence that these are true or false, and find the positive thoughts to combat the negative thoughts.
It was then that Dr. Burns did something completely unexpected. He basically said, “What do these negative thoughts and feelings reveal about you that is beautiful”
Ummmm . . . . . what??
We then made a new list. This list looked at all my negative thoughts and emotions and discovered the positive attributes of myself. It was hard to do at first, but once we got the ball rolling, I couldn’t write them down fast enough.
“These feelings show how much I love my boys”
“Shows I’ve been through something significant and awful”
“Shows my high standards, my concern for my clients, and wanting to help”
“Protecting my beautiful faith”
“Protect myself from being hurt and un-respected”
“I want to have people in my life to love”
“I want meaningful relationships”
“Protecting myself from future heartbreak”
“Being realistic and not denying reality”
“My anger is justified”
“My worry protects me by keeping me vigilant and alert.”
For me, this list changed everything. Once we were done with the list I felt lighter, like a 50-pound bag of bricks had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt Happy.
There are good reasons I think these negative thoughts and I’m not just beating up on myself. Because these messages are given in a negative way, I sink deeper into depression or anxiety. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
Now when I have a negative thought, I try to identify the good part of me that brings that thought into existence. For example: the next morning I woke up feeling really foolish. As I was getting ready for Day 2 of the workshop and having to confront all those people who had witnessed me breaking down and hearing how I talk to myself in my dark times, I felt really foolish. But, instead of letting that thought linger and grow, I searched for the meaning behind it. I realized I felt foolish because I had opened up. I had been vulnerable in front of a large roomful of strangers. They had seen some of my deepest pain. The vulnerability which connected me to every person in that room the night before, was now making me feel very silly. So I said to myself “No you were not foolish last night, you were vulnerable. And vulnerability is something you want in your life, even though it feels uncomfortable”.
After identifying the beautiful parts of me that led to the negative thoughts, Dr. Burns asked if I was ready to attack the negative thoughts. After I agreed, he began role-playing my inner voice and would speak one of my negative thoughts to me. I would then have to refute the thought. If I didn’t win, we’d change places and he’d be the one defeating the thought. We kept going back and fourth until I had defeated all my negative thoughts in a huge way. Through the role-playing, I learned to not only defeat the negative thoughts, but to obliterate them! Below are some of the ways he helped me to stop thought thoughts in their tracks:
Negative thought: “I’ll be alone forever”
Response now: “I might be alone right now, but I don’t know the future. Anything can happen. Besides I am not alone right now. I have amazing friends and family. I could probably let my walls down with them a bit more so I don’t feel so alone. But I am not alone now”
Negative thought: “My life will always be like this”
Response now: “My life has changed so much in the last 5 years. What on earth makes me think it will stay the same now!!”
Negative thought: “I’ll never be successful or financially stable”
Response now: “I completed graduate school in the midst of the worst kind of grief. I didn’t curl up in the corner and bemoan the terribleness of my life. I set out to do something about it. That same determination will keep me moving forward”
Negative thought: “I’m a fraud at work”
Response now: “I’m inexperienced. Good grief! I got out of graduate school less than a year ago. Of course I don’t understand everything about how to help my clients. But I have client’s that are improving and making progress. And some of them even like me.”
Negative thought: “Life sucks, life is hard”
Response now: “Yes, my life sucks. But there are good things about my life too. I have friends who love me and pray for me. I have family who would do anything for me. I can get out and take pictures and share the beauty I see around me with others. Yes, life is hard. No one ever said it would be easy. But I have help. I have lots of help. I don’t have to do it alone.”
Negative thought: “David (Dr. Burns) may be judging me”
Response now: “Yes he may. But that’s his problem. My faith is what has brought me through this hell, and it’s what keeps me going. My faith has helped me survive. My faith is what’s given me hope. If he cannot appreciate that about me, then he doesn’t need to be part of my life.”
Negative thought: “They’ll think I believe in fairytales”
Response now: “They might think that. But that’s because they’ve never experience the peace of God. They’ve never understood the power that peace can have over their lives. They’ve never known what it’s like to be held in God’s hands. And that thought makes me sad for them.”
This process gave me a profound sense of relief. The negative thoughts have always communicated, in some way, a message of self-hate. After walking through these exercises, the connection between the negative thought and the message it conveys has been severed. That made all the difference and for a moment I felt carefree.
Though this experience was intense, I learned something. I learned the depression and anxiety I’ve experienced the last few years are not things I need to fight against. They honor my loss and the pain I’ve gone through, though that doesn’t mean I have to live with the messages the depression and anxiety speak into my life. I now have the tools to obliterate my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth.