Is it possible to understand another person’s loss? Loss is one of those words with many definitions, perhaps as many as there are endings. While there are many ways to share compassion and to commiserate with or relate to other survivors, can we really “walk a mile in their shoes”? Maybe that is why suicide and its aftermath are so confusing, why people sometimes say things that make the pain greater, even if their words are meant to encourage. They don’t understand. I can relate to much of what others who have lost a loved one to suicide say, but each loss is unique. And I would not want anyone to experience what I have just to understand what I went through.
Can I understand the experience of someone who has felt suicidal? Not really. Can you grasp what it is like to lose a soul mate of 33 years even before he ends his life? That was my experience, because my husband was severely ill for several years before his death. And yet, I don’t really know what it is like to see a dear spouse forget me day by day after dementia has robbed him of that most precious of memories, the face and name of his truest love.
We don’t say someone was “closer than the man I work for.” We say he was “closer than a brother.” Can you put yourself in the place of a man or woman who has lost someone who has always been there for them, throughout their whole lives? I can’t. Do we know what a mother thinks who lost – by suicide or other means – the only child or children she will ever have? Can we say, “I understand”?
Despite these differences, I believe loss is the single common denominator that unites us. Loss tears us apart at basic levels. We humans fight wars because we feel we have lost something that must be returned or avenged. We band together based on shared loyalties to different things as we try to fill some void inside us, yet we often feel lonely and empty. How much more desolate are we when life comes undone after great personal and significant loss?
How are we to move forward? When our very existence is challenged, our vulnerabilities exposed, how can we be expected to face such forfeiture – and our own mortality? During the darkest season of my life, I stumbled on ten words that had the ring of truth: loss tears us apart; God can put us back together.
We live in a broken world. There may be no perfect understanding this side of eternity, but what draws us close to each other doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective. Thank goodness for that. God gave us each other. A sense of community and connection with others is perhaps the most important tool for healing that survivors can find. Getting advice from experts in related fields is something we all long for from the very beginning, but becoming a part of a community in which we can interact and share both pain and healing is something that is priceless, especially when it comes to “celebrating life.”
Celebrating life, whether I realized it or not, was something I did naturally, even at the beginning of my mourning for my husband. Reaching out to connect with others was another instinctive healing urge that guided me back toward life and hope. I had always heard this was possible, but I also realized – in 2007 – that I had never encountered this kind of darkness before.
If you think about it, we all learn from others. We start at the beginning of life, and this is one task that never ends. Learning and sharing are as old as mankind, yet we have not learned everything yet. Some things cannot be passed on by information alone. Some things have to be experienced. I believe each person who enters this world leaves a special and unique message that no one else can deliver. I think each person who loses a dearly loved child, partner, sibling, other family member or friend can provide comfort to others that is uniquely his or her own. In this way we are all adding to the body of knowledge in the universe.
It may be that when we have completed our time on earth – no matter at what age that time comes – we are ready to move forward. Our message has been delivered; our impact on the world has been made. For people who love us, however, there is never a good time to lose us. I cannot ask for more time with my husband in exchange for a date when I must let him go – again. That is something I cannot give. I would never willingly let him go.
Or would I? We two used to talk about things like that in deep conversations that ran long into the night. I suppose everyone has that kind of conversation at some point. How do we want to face the end of life? What are the best decisions regarding the care of our children? Should the one who is left remarry? Are there certain people we should consult for advice if the unthinkable happens?
We had it all planned … except that nothing happened the way we thought it would. As a television commercial advertising a popular health product shows, we don’t get advance notice of when our heart attacks are coming.
Personally, I was sure my husband and I would take our lasts breaths together in our sleep one night, passing from one peaceful existence to another wrapped in the arms of each other. We would be well into our ninety’s, and our children would say, “This is how they would have wanted to go because they loved each other so. This is the way it was supposed to be.”
I did not plan for my daughter to walk alone toward her handsome bridegroom. I did not realize my husband’s recounting of his dream in which I wore a yellow dress would be his last. I did not think of holding his grandsons in my arms for the first time without his arms around me.
Yet, I celebrate his life every day. I understand the path he took had more to do with saving me than saving him. I look forward to holding those children, who are so much a part of him every chance I get. My husband was so much more than the way he died.
When my daughters smile or my grandsons laugh, when I see in a beautiful spring day all the echoes of days my husband and I shared that were good, I know I can never return to those innocent moments in which I could just read about loss without knowing something else deep in my heart. But I also know, I will share the joy he brought to my life and the way he made the world around him better.
I will tell the stories he used to tell and share stories about the things he did and said. I will sit in a sandbox or push a swing and pass the love he gave me on to someone else who, in turn, will one day talk about the grandfather he never met as if he knew him.
Children have an innate spirit of connection and healing. They will watch others with no embarrassment. They are open and obsessed with learning about the people and things around them. Somehow, adults have lost part of that ability along the way, often all of it.
I write about hope, but I also write about the horror in life and that moment of realization when we see just how bad something is, when we see we have lost something important and it is too late to get it back again. That is the moment, the parting of ways, when we go down inside ourselves and decide what kind of person we want to be.
Today I was sitting in my chair, doing not much at all. Simply reminiscing I guess.
I found myself looking at a few pictures that are placed around the room. A picture of my amazing husband and me, another shows my three sons as young men on the day the eldest got married. Each makes me smile and one even makes me laugh… if you could see the expressions on their faces, you would understand and you would most likely have a chuckle too.
All of this is part of my life. As I look at the picture of Mike as a newborn baby and compare it to pictures of him as a young man I can’t help but think about all of the time in between and since.
Mike as a baby, oh my gosh, he was a delight! Okay, he was loud and messy but oh so very happy. We still laugh sometimes when we talk about the fact that we would know Mike was awake because he would be singing to himself in his crib, he was simply a happy guy.
I spend some time remembering Mike and his brothers as little boys. It seems they were forever hungry! Running and playing in the backyard with one another and always, always including the dog. It warms my heart to recall them lined up on the family room floor, each with a pillow and a blanket as they would watch an old movie, chattering and just happy to hang out together.
Yes, they grew up. So different from one another yet with a strong connection at the same time. Each so very independent and quite sure that he knew what was best for his brothers. Yep, very different from one another and yet quite a lot in common.
All of this is part of healthy grieving. Remembering what was, the events, thoughts, feelings, all of that is part of why I miss Mike. Why I grieve his death. At the same time, all of those things are why I will forever love Mike.
It’s been 9 years since Mike died. It’s not unusual in the beginning for our memories to be a bit skewed. We might imagine that the person we are grieving was never angry, or always was reading, any number of things. But as time passes, as we safely and effectively process our grief, our memories once again settle down and become more accurate.
Yes, it’s entirely possible that I remember more or less mud on my floors than was actually there, and that’s okay. What I remember the most, what I felt then and feel now, is the very deep love. And that’s what matters.
Wishing you a day of gentle, heartwarming memories.
Have you had your cup of hope today? Meeting a friend for tea or coffee warms the heart and makes life’s burdens easier to bear. In the same way, reading comforting words and hearing about the experiences of others can help us heal after loss. Excerpts coming up in this series are from a longer eBook I wrote several years ago. I wrote these “cups” in this format because I can’t really sit with you in your kitchen as you tell me about your loved one and how you’re feeling today, but I don’t want you to remain stuck in grief or to just try to keep your life afloat. Surviving can be much more than that. I’m asking you to trust that healing is possible, the same way I had to as God took me through the “valley of the shadow of death,” on my way from the miracle of the old life to the miraculous vision of the new. In Cups of Hope, you will read about traveling through grief and receive compassionate understanding about what you are going through.
“How do you survive after losing someone you love?”
“Where is God before, during, and after?”
These and more questions I try to answer every day through my writing and my volunteer work. When God led me through the aftermath of my precious husband’s suicide, I had no idea I would end up writing about grief and healing for other people. I wasn’t really thinking about God much at all. I had entered the valley of the shadow of death … and I felt very much alone.
Ron loved me, our family, other people, even strangers. He laughed a lot. His sense of humor could make everything all right. He invented and built things. He respected others. He knew a lot about a great many topics. He was gentle and kind. He worked hard. He enjoyed simple things. He wanted us to have a good life and be protected. He was human. And he trusted God.
But everything was suddenly different for me. I wondered, how could I go on?
God had been real for me since childhood. I watched my earthly father comfort the bereaved. I followed him down rows of mourners. He shook each hand; I did the same. Though he was a minister for over fifty years, he never made me feel I had to follow in the family business – God’s family business. Along the way, many things happened to show me that God was real.
God loves. He loves me, my family, all people. His sense of humor can make everything all right. He invents things. He respects others. He is gentle and kind. He enjoys simple things. He wants us to have a good life and be protected. He sent his fully divine and fully human Son, Jesus Christ, into a broken world to die for us, for me … for you.
The world is still broken. But I’ve met many of God’s other children and seen his image in the human heart, in the hearts of believers and nonbelievers. I’ve spent a lifetime breathing in the fullness of His earth and returning there for healing. I’ve questioned. I’ve feared. I’ve lost my faith and found it again, so I know both are possible.
How could God not be a part of everything in my life … even great loss? My husband knew Him on a personal basis, too. God created both of us. He led us to each other. He midwifed the birth of our family. I believed on that last day that the God who brought us together would not really let one of us be taken from the other. Looking back now, I feel that God closed my eyes to some of the realities. Had He not, I would have died, too.
I met Ron when I was twenty-one and, for the next thirty-three years, he was my world, the father of my children and my soulmate, and when he left, my universe was altered on a molecular level. I existed but little more. And I found such darkness. There I would dwell for quite a while though you might not have known – unless you looked closely – because I went back to my job as a newspaper reporter only eight days afterward.
I wandered, crying as I drove to and from work and assignments, drying my eyes to go into the office and to do interviews and take pictures. I recorded the lives of others even as my own was ending. I am a person well suited to being alone, but this was something very different. I felt as if the planet had shifted, and I had been shifted, too.
I learned traveling through the Garden of Grief is a long journey but one that has many blessings. Now, I write about the bits of light and hope that eventually brought me back into life … and the gifts my husband gave me through his life. I write about the healing I experienced and the miraculous way it happened and continues to grow.
Strength. Wisdom. Compassion. Appreciation and respect for all. Those are some of the gifts that turned my life’s greatest tragedy into something powerful and good.
God did this. And he did it at a time when I thought he had forgotten me.
Sometimes when I’m working with a grief coaching client, they will ask, ‘Is it okay if I don’t cry every day? If I laugh at a joke or enjoy a meal with someone, does that mean I never really loved them at all?’ It’s a sincere question and it seems to plague so many. It breaks my heart all over again for each person.
Someone comes into our life, and we come to care deeply about them. This may be a pet, friend, neighbor, relative, life-partner, etc. We come to love them.
Relationships aren’t simply calm and smooth. Most have disagreements, incredible joy, frustration, comfort, passion, irritation… I think you get the idea. Those times that we are not in sync contribute to the complexity of our relationship. Working through those times and finding ways to support and care for one another often bring us closer together.
When we are both in the land of the living, we don’t expect to always have the other on our minds. We enjoy activities with others. We read books, watch movies, go to the store, continue our careers, usually without this one we care about so much at our side.
So, when I’m working with clients, I remind them that their relationship continues, long after one has crossed to The Other Side. It’s different in many ways, but in a surprising number of ways, it continues.
To my way of thinking and believing, trusting in the depth of caring means that it is indeed alright for us to feel relief. To laugh, and even forget the pain for a while.
As healing happens, the pain softens. And the feelings that we experienced when we were together, become more clear again. This doesn’t happen all at once and it doesn’t happen overnight. It happens a little at a time. Much the way our caring relationship deepened in the first place. So yes, we can grieve while we are healing. It’s okay to laugh when your heart is not whole. It’s okay to feel just a bit of relief today.
We grieve because someone we love deeply is no longer with us. As we heal, the grief begins to ebb and what remains is love.
Remember, love never dies.
Guest post by Ari.
What helps… expressing feelings through art
After my son died I looked for ways in which to cope with the many feelings I was experiencing: sadness of course, but also guilt and anger. I couldn’t sleep, walked the darkened house crying, wanting to scream but not wanting to awake my husband who blessedly slept. Those first months were so very hard! One day I saw some cheap acrylic paints at the store. I had never painted anything in my life but I took them home. Of course they sat unused for some months. I wasn’t ready. Finally one day I grabbed the tube of black paint and some paper and slathered it all over with my hands – why bother with a brush? I wanted to feel that blackness as it spread across the paper- it mimicked my grief so well. I “painted” many black pictures in those early months, sometimes dipping my finger in bright red and writing WHY? over and over. It is the most
important question we have in our beginning- unfortunately no answer usually comes. But I had discovered art, and my feelings were expressed in other ways besides words. Sometimes people cannot understand, they get tired of listening to you, they get uncomfortable with your tears. Art therapy helps you deal with feelings that are sometimes hard to express, and it helps heal a broken heart.
My art has evolved from angry black scenes. It has been almost six years without my boy. I can now create with bits of paper and paint beauty that soothes my soul, brings a smile to my face, and when shared it also makes others feel. Art has helped me to heal. It is one of the most important tools in my arsenal against the grief. I try to spend a few minutes avery day creating something, however small. It is my self-care. I hope in reading this that you will give it a try- what do you have to lose? Everything helps a little, nothing helps a lot, but you might discover something in you that you never knew was there until this dark time in your life. Let yourself find some comfort in art. Draw, paint, collage with paper, anything that takes you out of your blackness for a bit. You don’t have to worry about being an “artist”, no-one will judge. Just create!
I made this picture using bits of paper and some paint. The seagull represents my son’s spirit, always watching over me, yet I am always left behind. When I did this one it made me cry- and that’s ok. Tears are healing, they are liquid love. Let yourself feel, and let yourself heal.
by Jan McDaniel
Holidays happen all year round. But why are they so hard, especially after loss? The answer to that question is both simple and complex and lies within the human brain and our experiences.
After a significant loss, everything is different, but sights and sounds that are stored in the brain from years of mostly pleasant associations and from general, cultural experiences as well as our personal experiences make neural pathways that connect the present to the past. In other words, we expect things to be the same as we have experienced them before. No where is this more fundamental than when we think of holidays of different types.
When this can’t happen because a loved one is no longer with us, expectations can’t be met; the conflict that results causes pain and confusion. We feel that something is wrong on a physical level. And, of course, we know what that something is. A loved one is not here, and we long for that person to be in his or her accustomed place.
Holidays are just hard. And they will be for some time to come. Even after much healing and rebuilding takes place, bittersweet memories will always be with us because we loved and love the person who used to be such a big part of our life. Especially in the early years post-loss, others celebrate and sometimes seem to forget our pain while we dread or try to avoid what we used to enjoy.
Each person is different. Each grief journey is unique. And all of us can do things to ease facing a holiday. Holidays happen all year. With that in mind, I have put together a Holiday Planner with suggestions. I hope it will be useful to you all year long.
Be patient. Be gentle with yourself. And know you are not alone.
Many years ago I was introduced to Reiki. This beautiful energy work changed my life in many ways.
Something very profound, which has stayed with me and been very helpful to me over the years was learning about the Reiki Precepts written by Dr. Mikao Usui, the founder of this healing system. These precepts, or ideals developed by Dr. Usui are simple. Having said that, they are profound in their beautiful simplicity.
When a heart is broken, experiencing grief of any sort, having something to turn to is very helpful. And so I want to share these ideals with you and encourage you to incorporate into your life as much as feels right for you.
Reiki Ideals for Daily Living
Just for today, I will give thanks for my many blessings.
Just for today, I will not worry.
Just for today, I will not be angry.
Just for today, I will do my work honestly.
Just for today, I will be kind to my neighbor and every living thing.
For me, keeping these ideals in mind helps me to focus on what feels right. To remember that I only need to focus on this moment right now. One day at a time, one hour at a time. Indeed, one breath at a time – is enough. You can do this. You are not alone. We are walking this path, through grief and into healing, together.
I wish you a day of gentle healing and peaceful moment.