How To Grieve: A Complete Guide

11:45 AMHeather

Considering the response from yesterday's blog post about grief, I feel compelled to address the topic again.  A sequel, if you will.  Or an epilogue.  Which I hope you will find quite helpful--whether you are a person in a season of intense grieving or you know someone who is.  

Consider this my grieving for dummies.  From a dummy who's been there.

1.  There's no how-to on grief.   Let me cut to the chase.  My title of this blog post is completely tongue-in-cheek.  Because the truth of it is--there's no how-to on grief.  There's no "one way" to do it or task list to complete.  Because everyone grieves differently.  Every lost relationship or loss is different.  Even in my own most intense season of grief, my sister and I grieved differently.  We both lost the same dad--but we each had our own unique relationship with him.  

So, please please release grieving from expectations.  There's no time frame.  There's no method.  There's no how-to.  Because I liken grieving to a survivor mentality.  You are just getting from one breath to the next.  One day to the next.  One moment at a time.  Don't own it when you sense people pressing you to move on.  Like the sympathy card I got two weeks after my dad died.  Saying my friend hoped things were returning to normal.

Excuse me?

Because for those who are grieving, their normal has forever changed.  And the task at hand is allowing and processing the emotions associated with that loss.  And learning how to create a new normal.  

There's just no how-to for it.  Therefore, be released from expectations.

2.  The name of the game is GRACE.  Grieving requires grace.  Grace on yourself in this terribly hard situation.  And for the people around those who grieve--your call is to pour out more grace than you ever have before.  Because grieving people need the gift of one way love, whether or not they deserve it.  They need the margin of GRACE to survive this.  To be able to swim in an ocean of mercy from others and an ability to be quick to forgive ourselves in this struggle.  

During the hard seasons of grief, your resistance becomes very, very thin.  This means your body's immunity is suppressed and you might become ill.  A lot.  I did.  Eye infections, colds, stomach infections, and even shingles. It also means your ability to cope emotionally with everyday stresses is worn thin.  Your patience is stretched.  And your temper might be short.  Take a deep breath if any of these situations are the case. 

Please hear me, however.  This is not a pass for any and all poor behavior.  Or an excuse to behave badly.  Rather, it is a call to put every single day and emotion and action within the context of the grief.  Which means having the grace to realize that grieving means you simply aren't yourself.  Because it changes you.  And you are learning how to come to grips with that.

3.  Allow yourself to go with your instincts.   Unless your instincts are self-destructive, as in self-harming or numbing your pain in an unhealthy way...go with your instincts.  Even when they don't make sense.  Because--guess what?  Most losses don't make sense either.  

Let me explain by telling you how this has looked in my life.  I went to a showing of Steel Magnolias at Waco Hall on a Friday night, just months after my dad died. Hello!  The whole death scene!  NO ONE warned me.  So I ran out of Waco Hall.  Full force.  Full speed.  Because I had to escape.  I couldn't watch another moment. I'm sure I looked crazy to those who saw me.  (Even to the cute boy who followed me out, with great concern.  Yep.  I married him!)

For awhile after my miscarriage, I felt the need to distance myself from some baby showers and such.  I just needed breathing room to mourn.  And I needed that to be okay.  

There were many days I just wanted to sleep.  Or be alone.  Or listen to some song that meant something to me.  Repeatedly.  As in, on a continuous loop.  And it drove my roommates mad.  But, grief is trying to make sense of what doesn't make sense.  

It's tearing up photos of your ex and burning them if you feel compelled.  Or watching home movies endlessly.  Or putting photos of your lost loved ones away--because its too painful right now.  Or maybe the opposite--framing every photo you can find and displaying it.

So, I say--go with your instincts.  From one moment to the next.  Again--unless it's self-destructive.  Give yourself the freedom to be alone, scream, sleep, refuse invitations, refrain from big crowds, run out of church when they play the song from the funeral, decline invitations to baby showers if you've miscarried or weddings if you've suffered the loss of a love relationship.  Be honest with those closest to you about your needs.  And ask them for extra grace.  Don't forget to pour it out liberally on yourself, too. (read #2 again)

4.  Remember grief comes from more than death.  We, as a culture, really really stink at grief.  I mean, seriously stink.  I will address this more in the following point.  But one thing we do REALLY poorly is acknowledge the grief of people who have not experienced a physical death as we would define it.  This means that we, as a culture, tend to ignore the grief from miscarriage, infant loss, divorce, broken engagements, jobs, big moves, pets dying, and any other dream that has taken root in someone's heart...only to be lost.  

The feelings are the same.  So, the biggest gift we can give those who grief what we might classify as a "non-traditional" loss is to actually acknowledge it.  To validate the concrete thing that took up space in someone's life and heart...and to acknowledge that it is gone.  

I have friends who are grieving their station in life because it's not what they anticipated--such as singleness or infertility.  Friends who are wrestling with feelings of grief because they had big dreams that have been shelved.  Friends who grief continually because their child has special needs and all the hopes they had have been shifted.  A sweet friend who recently lost a very long lasting relationship that she expected to end in marriage.  

Grief is grief is grief.  So, let the hurting grief.  If you have suffered a loss--allow yourself to grief.  Let's quit defining grief with a limited perspective.

5.  Create concrete rituals in your grief.  Have I mentioned how much our culture stinks at grief?  I think of Downton Abbey this last season, as we watched poor Lady Mary in her grief.  There seemed to be a ritual or tradition of wearing black for an extended period of time--an outward display of the state of her heart.  Of course, such traditions can also be restricting, as Scarlett O'Hara seemed to feel about wearing black when she wasn't feeling it.  

My point is that our culture does not have concrete rituals for grief.  No particular traditions or markers of this hard season of life.  This adds to the sense that grieving is ambiguous in its definition and expectations.  Personally, I think rituals can offer milestones along the way.  Sort of outward displays and traditions that allow a person to mark their grieving season. 

Since we don't seem to have them naturally, I think it can be beneficial to create them.  This may be, as one friend does, taking flowers or a flag or a Christmas tree or other holiday mementos to her infant daughter's grave.  It's an outward ritual to mark the inward journey.  Another idea that I loved was the acquaintance who had a necklace made with her father's signature on it.  A jeweler was able to take her dad's actual handwriting and inscribe it on a necklace that reads, "Love, Dad."  For this grieving daughter, it's a regular reminder of her loss and her journey.  It's a concrete way to memorialize and validate her loss. 

Think of the Race for the Cure or the Susan Komen 3-Day walk or the Relay for Life.  These are concrete rituals for survivors and mourners to commemorate their journey.  After the loss of our nephew, we planned a birthday party for our son where books were donated to a school library in our nephew's name.  It was a way to memorialize him.  It was cathartic for us to bring our friends into our pain and give them a way to celebrate the life of our nephew.

Our daughter chose to donate her hair to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, an non-profit that donates all wigs to cancer patients.  This was her way to mark the journey of watching a family friend beat cancer.  
One of the most precious displays of friendship for me was when a college friend sent me flowers and a sympathy card after our miscarriage.  Her card noted that this was a genuine loss and death and she wanted us to know that she considered it such.  How precious for her to validate our loss in such a concrete way. 

Concrete rituals of grief are important.  Where they don't exist naturally, we can create them anyway.  Consider for yourself what would be a therapeutic and concrete way to mark your journey of loss.

6.  Don't go it alone.  As the body of Christ, we are called to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.  As I very strongly stated in yesterday's post, you need to be willing to enter into the pain of those in your life who are grieving.  It's not optional--it's your call and your duty.  

This does not mean having the perfect words to say.  In fact, these are the perfect words to say, "Listen.  I don't know what to say.  I don't want to say the wrong thing.  But, I'll sit her with you in silence so you know you aren't alone."  

Grief is isolating and a very lonely place.  Because of your loss, you feel very alone.  Left by the person or the dream that is now gone.  What you need more than anything is for people to buck up and sit with you.  If you feel alone in your grief, prayerfully consider who you know that feels safe.  And let them know, even if it's hard for you to ask for help, that you need help.  Let them know that you need a night out and can they please go with you to the movie.  Or you need someone to come hold your hand and let you ugly cry.  Or you need someone to sit and listen as you recount every detail that you can remember about the person you've lost.  

Yes, Jesus is always with you and you are not alone.  But perhaps more than any other time in life, you need people to go the distance with you.  People you can touch and hug and who can be a physical manifestation of the fact that you aren't alone.  So ask a trusted friend to sit with you while you clean out the closet or the nursery.  

Ask for help.  And this includes going to counseling if you feel you might benefit from it.  Do not go under water and drown in your grief because you needed someone to be the life raft and you didn't want to ask for this.  

7.  Grief has no timeline.  To expect a person or yourself to complete grief on some timeline is like asking somebody to recover from a major surgery within a certain time frame--or else.  It's like expecting an amputee to return to their previous state.  

It's not possible.  

When something or someone precious and sacred have been torn from our lives, it changes us.  We can't go back.  And we can't be expected to heal within a certain time frame.  Because healing takes time.  And grief means healing with lasting scars and sometimes, lasting impediments.  As I said yesterday--grief cannot be cured.  

But, it can be survived.  New normals can be built gradually.  Learning to live with it can happen.  God will sweetly create beauty from our ashes and redeem our hard places.  But not overnight.  Sometimes, He pulls back the veil of heaven and we get to see the purpose or the good that can come from the very bad.  Sometimes, we have to choose to believe this truth because it's not so evident.

Here's the best analogy I can come up with, from my own experiences with grief.  Once you've met grief, you can never unfriend it or unmeet it.  It becomes a companion for the rest of your life.  With time, you learn to walk alongside of it rather than to be subject to it's every ebb and flow.  Gradually, you might even forget it's there.  You will reach a place of going hours or days or weeks or longer and forget how it shadows you.  In my own life, I've learned how to run my race with it tagging along.  Now, I lead it more than it leads me.  But my encounters with grief have become part of my story.  I cannot delete these chapters.  Nor do I want to--anymore.  Sure, there were days initially when I just wanted to forget.  

But this is no longer true.  I've learned how to co-exist with these chapters of grief that have marked my journey.  I've even come to an incredible place of realizing I would not change them if I could. That is a miracle of epic proportions that can grow in the soil of pain.  Because in my Father's hands, these chapters have been part of shaping and refining me.  They have brought forth fruit and growth and a profound depth in my faith that couldn't have been accomplished in any other way.  They have born in me a compassion for the grieving.  A place to say, "Listen.  I've walked this road.  You can get through this."  A place to connect with the hurting souls of others in ways I never could have without my own experience with grief.

I can honestly say that I am thankful NOW.  In the past, I've been mad, bitter, and full of self-pity. But now, my prayer in writing this blog post is to throw out a ray of hope to those drowning in grief.  Even as I write this, I'm praying for you who needed to hear this.  I'm saying to you that I've survived.  And you can, too.  You are not alone.  

I'm saying there is no how-to on grieving.  But, I hope what I've learned along the way brings you comfort, too.  

Press on, dear one.  Just put one foot in front of the other for one more step.  One more minute.  One more hour.  One more day.    

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