W.D. "Dub" Rogers, PhD.
Another Hallmark commercial with the whole family around the tree and everything is perfect. It conveys the emotions expected of the holidays, joy, warmth, and security. Yet, the emotions experienced by many are anything but those. Sadness, hurt and emptiness descend like a cloud. Sharp pain pierces to the core of your being. You press your chest because your heart aches so badly. Thoughts race. "How will I get through the holiday?" "Will it ever end?" "I don't believe I can make it." Tears come so quickly. Anger erupts unexpectedly. The simplest tasks feel overwhelming. Some or all of this may describe the grief experienced when we lose a loved one. The holidays intensify the emotions. Janice Lord states, in her book, No Time for Goodbyes, that approximately two million families will struggle this holiday because someone they love has died during the year.
If you are a member of one of these families, I hope some of the following suggestions will be helpful. Perhaps you are a close friend of the person or family that has lost a loved one and you wonder what you can do to bring comfort. The suggestions will hopefully be of help to you also. There is not one "right" way to deal with grief. The way a person grieves is as unique and individual as the person who is grieving.
A number of authorities have addressed grief. Many write about the various stages a person goes through when grieving a loss. These stages are not clean and neat, i.e. stage one lasting for two weeks, stage two for six weeks, etc. Rather, each stage overlaps as diagrammed below:
The first stage may be described as "numbness." "I just can't believe this has happened," is a common statement made by a person in this stage. Shock may occur and some may go into an "automatic pilot" mode in which they just function. The emotions shut down or feel totally out of control.
The second stage, "if only," or if there is anticipated death, the stage could be referred to as "bargaining." The mind dwells on; "if only I had not allowed..." Many possible scenarios may be played out. One may take personal responsibility for the death. Guilt or false guilt may occur. Bargaining is similar. There may be promises made to oneself or to God "if only" the situation will work out well.
Anger is characteristic of the third stage of grief. If the death is the result of a third party, such as a drunk driver, that person may become the focus of the anger. Anger may come out "sideways." It may be directed at doctors, nurses, the insurance company, God or even at the deceased. Little things that may not have been upsetting in the past may be irritating. Sometimes anger is the result of feeling powerless, helpless or inadequate. Those are painful feelings and anger covers these emotions by giving a sense of feeling powerful.
Depression, the fourth stage, is characterized by deep sadness, loss of energy or drive. The will has been "de-pressed" or pushed down. The joy is gone. Life seems to be meaningless. Appetite and sleep may be affected, either increasing or decreasing. This stage feels like the "emotional flu." The hope is gone. Wise choices to take care of oneself are important, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Walking and talking with a friend can be helpful.
Recovery will come. No, life will not be the same. The loss is always a loss. However, life, hope and joy can and do return. This is usually a gradual process and often times the small increments of progress go unnoticed. You may even feel a little crazy because there may be times of sunshine with a small laugh followed by feelings of depression, numbness or anger. The good times begin to increase little by little and the painful waves will not come as often or be as intense.
As Janice Lord states, the duration and intensity of grief will depend on a number of factors:
When a neighbor of mine lost his college age son in a car accident, he made a statement, "I've known a lot of pain in my life, but nothing like this. I know Jesus is here, (long pause), somewhere..." His words trailed off as the pain rushed in.
Even as you have progressed through the stages of grief, when the holidays come it may feel as if you are starting all over. There are a number of things you may do that will be helpful. It is very important for the family to discuss their feelings and desires, planning on how best to spend the holiday. Be careful to listen to each member's wishes, especially to those in the most pain. When my mother died, we as a family tried to replicate the Thanksgiving tradition as it had been for 38 years. That was very painful. We have since modified the way we celebrate the holidays in ways that meet the needs of our individual families. Some go skiing or travel to new places. Others move the location from year to year to different family members' homes. One family was unable to decorate a Christmas tree, so they spent Christmas with an organization serving homeless people. Other families may use the holidays to create a memorial, such as a special ornament or wreath, planting a tree and decorating it. Lighting a candle or attending a Christmas Eve service may be especially meaningful. Some have found the support of other families that have had similar experiences to be very helpful. They may come together during the holiday as a special tribute to the lost loved one, reading stories or poems, sharing particular happy memories, giving gifts, etc.
Individually, a balance between solitude and sociability is necessary. Schedule some time to be alone. You may cry or write to your loved one. One person spent time talking out loud to a picture of his mate, updating her on the family, how the children were doing, what his plans were and how he was trying to cope. These were very meaningful times to him. He did his grieving in private and was better able to hold the expression of grief when in public places. It wasn't that he was pretending that nothing had happened, he just chose how and when he would express his grief. When he had to work and he felt the emotions flooding over him, he would focus on the pleasant memories as a way to celebrate. Sometimes he would still have to excuse himself if he didn't feel the freedom to express his emotions with those he was around.
When remaining children are involved, there must be care taken to not burden them to take care of the parent's grief. They need opportunities to grieve and at the same time they need to have new special memories of the holidays. You may need to solicit the help of friends and family to help with this. Many times doing something creative with the children such as baking, painting, making gifts, singing songs is beneficial to everyone.
You cannot change the past. It is there. Sometimes it is too painful to picture the future. However, you can focus on utilizing today as best you can, knowing that healing will take place.
For those of you who have friends who have lost loved ones, there are a number of ways you can provide support. Sometimes people are fearful of increasing the hurt around the holidays so they talk but never mention the loved one or refer to their loss. The opposite would be more helpful especially as you relate specific conversations you may have had, share stories of time you spent together, or some character trait that was special. A great fear is people will forget the one I loved so dearly and is no longer here.
Recently, I asked a friend how he dealt with the loss of his college age daughter. He said he had to hang on to the belief that some how and in some way that he may never understand, God would bring good out of the situation. He went on to say that his job involves traveling and he is alone in his car so he just cries until there are no more tears. I noticed how this normally quiet man was quick to respond to my question. His words poured out. An openness and willingness to listen as they talk about their loved one, their feelings, or their concerns is helpful. Listen to hear their heart and be careful about offering advice or trying to "fix" them. Allow them to express their anger, fear, pain and grief. Be careful with your statements of comfort, especially when the death has been tragic, violent or untimely, such as a child being struck by a car. One mother stated, "If one more person tells me that God needed another flower in His garden, I'm going to throw up." "It must have been God's will," or other statements of this type are well intended but often cause more pain because they don't make sense. The "why" question screams and it is a question we just can't answer well. If you have had a similar experience, then sharing how your faith has sustained you can be encouraging or sharing passages that have given you comfort is good, perhaps Psalm 23, 139 or John 14. Though I know God does not waste pain in His economy, I avoid Romans 8:28. The pain can be so intense that whatever "good" that will come out of the tragedy pales in comparison to the great loss. I do believe God grieves with us. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." (Psalm 116:15) Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, Lazarus. (John 11) We are directed to "weep with those who weep" in Romans 12:15. Jesus is referred to as a "man or sorrows, acquainted with grief" in Isaiah 53:3.
Your presence is a support as well. Those things you do to help the family. A friend of mine came over and shined all our children's shoes before the funeral. I can't describe how meaningful that gesture was.
Good Grief by Granger Westbury, No Time For Goodbyes by Janice Lord, or Don't Take My Grief Away by Doug Manning are some books I've found helpful. There are many others. Calm Waters, Compassionate Friends and other supports groups are available along with church groups, pastors and other professional counselors.
Walking a few miles with a friend who allows you to share in their struggle is a privilege and helps in the healing. Genuine love and care while people go through this journey is the greatest gift you can give.