This time last year in 2016, I had the opportunity to share my story of grief, hope and gratitude at Arborlawn United Methodist Church during our Hope for the Holidays service.
It’s a personal story, revealing things about me you may not know, along with practical tips that have been helpful to me in learning to move through my grieving. It’s a faith journey that has not been easy, but along the way I’ve learned alot about life and God’s love for me. It’s about finding gratitude in the pain. To all the people struggling with loss and emptiness during this week of Thanksgiving, we hear your prayers and lift you up toward the Lord.
My grief journey began with the stillborn death of my son, John, on Thanksgiving Day 1998. I hadn’t been feeling movement like I should. I went in for a checkup and my husband and I were told the devastating news. There was no heartbeat. I was sent to Labor and Delivery to be induced. I remember watching the nurse place a “falling leaf” on the door as a symbol to others entering our room that this was not a celebratory moment for us. I had also suffered two miscarriages prior to John’s death so this was our third baby to lose.
Following John’s death, I suffered from depression and my world — which had stopped turning — was dark, very dark. Time stood still like I was living in a silent movie. Deafening with quiet. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t get out of bed without great effort. I felt disconnected from anything pleasurable. I was empty and I had nothing left inside of me.
This scripture from 2 Corinthians 12:10 says, “when you’ve done everything you can do, that’s when God will step in and do what you can’t do.”
I told God, “I need you. I can’t do this by myself anymore.” This was the first time in my life for me to say these words.
In 2006, my very active, vibrant Mother had a stroke. Because my dad was blind from macular degeneration, we agreed as a family that my parents would come to live with me, my husband and our daughter. For the next six years, we would be caregivers to my parents.
Daddy passed away in 2011 from complications related to his diabetes. To illustrate to you how much my faith had grown since the death of my child, the first emotion I felt after Daddy’s death was “joy” which may sound strange. You see, I had four years to watch him deteriorate, become frail and slowly lose the ability to do things he once found enjoyable. I had done much of the grieving during my caregiving — something called “anticipatory grief.” I had also journeyed with him, and my mother, during his time in hospice. Of course I was sad, but the joy I felt was from knowing he was in heaven, free from illness and pain, and free to to do all the things his physical body could no longer do. Plus, I had my mother to think about. I felt like I couldn’t grieve openly because I needed to be strong for her.
Two months later, my brother Jim, killed himself. Jim had struggled most of his entire life with depression. Losing my dad was probably more than Jim could bear. I still cannot put into words the exact emotion his death left me with. Suicide is so different. It’s a raw pain, like someone pulling off a bandaid over and over again. And the support you receive from others is different after suicide. People just don’t know what to say. In my heart, I wish Jim could have chosen a different solution, sparing his wife, son and my mother the pain of taking his life. I will never forget the phone call I received from the police notifying me they had found my brother’s dead body, nor my mother’s face when I had to tell her that her child was dead. Again, because my mother had lost her husband of 64 years and her 59 year old child within weeks of each other — I felt like my mother needed my strength, not my sadness.
In 2013, my mother died very suddenly from a brain aneurysm. We were literally telling each other “I love you” in the kitchen one minute and five minutes later I was calling 911. That was a hard loss for me. I had plans for many more years of living to do with her. I hurt as deeply when I lost her as when I lost my son, John. My mother was the first person that loved me, held me close, and knew everything about me. After she died, I felt like I lost all of that. Right after she took her last breath, I remember this intense feeling of love I had for God. Thankful that He gave my mother such a grace-filled ending to her life. She died surrounded by her family with a tear and a smile on her face. I am grateful God left me with that image of my mother’s beautiful face.
But, after her death I was left with three losses I needed to process and I crashed. I was no longer a daughter or a caregiver — I struggled trying to figure out who I was anymore. And, there were times I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore.
To put into perspective for you, in two years time, I lost half of immediate family. Before I had time to process one loss, I was dropped into another, then another.
Okay, let’s set all that aside and talk about some things that have been helpful for me.
In 2006, an author named Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a memoir called, “Eat, Pray, Love” that was made into a movie. She tells her story of the year she traveled to find herself again after a devastating divorce. My suggestions are an adaptation of her story…
Eat — Feed Your Soul
Grief can be isolating. Expect the opposite of who you normally are for a while, but it will get better. Surround yourself with resources, attend a support group and rely on close friends. Journal, sing, meditate, go for a walk, or just be still. Sometimes if we are “doers” we think we should be replacing our grief with things to keep us busy. But grieving will consume your free time. Just because you aren’t active doing something doesn’t mean you are not being productive. Your productivity right now revolves around grieving. If you are a “to-do list” maker — plan on putting the word GRIEVING right at the top of your list everyday for awhile. Be diligent in telling yourself “it won’t always be like this. There is a better tomorrow waiting for me.” This is an especially important message for you to tell yourself each night before going to bed. Your brain needs this reassurance.
Pray — all the time
I prayed for sleep, I prayed to get out of bed, I prayed for strength, and I prayed for hope. If praying is hard for you, or it’s not something you normally do, start small. God already knows what’s on your heart before you even say it. As my mother was laying in the hospital bed, I was alone in the room with her overnight. The room was full of hospital sounds and smells. I suddenly felt like I was going to be physically sick. I was so overwhelmed with the reality of what was going to happen. I closed my eyes and I just started saying over and over again, “God, please replace my anxiety with your peace.” I must have said it 100 times. I could feel my anxiety melt away and I was able to regain my composure to face the next moment. On the days you feel like you can’t live because the pain is greater than you, for me those were the days I prayed the most.
Love — Love Yourself
One of the biggest emotions we struggle with after loss is guilt. I should have known. I should have noticed. I should have taken the time. I should have said something. Did she know I loved her? This is all normal, but remember to be kind to yourself. We all do the best we can with what we have at that moment. We cannot see the future, we leave that up to God.
Here are three important points:
- Grieving is a full-time job and is very draining
- Lower your expectations of who you think you should be right now
- Accept that fatigue is to be expected
Jesus came to help the broken. I am learning to live my life reaching out to God’s loving arms. I am learning to find my gratitude through my brokenness. Every moment I choose to be grateful for the time I had with my son, John, my dad, my brother and my mother, is time I am not anxious or afraid about the future. Because gratitude and fear cannot co-exist at the same time. Just like He’s done for me, He will see you through this. It’s God’s promise to give you hope and a future.
Since the death of my son John, I was faithful in my promise to God to help others heal, find a sense of hope to move forward in their grief journey and to develop skills to help others in the future. For 17 years, I have served as a lay facilitator for our Grief Support Ministry Team at Arborlawn United Methodist Church, in Fort Worth, Texas, where we have worked with hundreds of people by offering year around grief support groups along with the Hope for the Holidays services the week prior to Thanksgiving. For more information, please visit www.arborlawnumc.org or email [email protected]