I say, 101, because I am a novice. I have had grief before, certainly. Growing up, grief was primarily because of change. All of your friends were in a different 4th grade class. A favorite neighbor moved away. You were not chosen to be in the play. There were varying degrees of sadness.
Adult grief came out of nowhere it seemed.
When we decided to try for our third child, I was surprised at how difficult it was to get pregnant. Month after month, I would be discouraged. When I finally did get pregnant, we were almost elated, like that first time. This was real! Wow!
Since I had a difficult pregnancy with Ethan, my second child, we decided not to say anything right away. But that did not mean I wasn’t planning. Im a planner; I plan. Each kid had a room and I was trying to figure out where to squeeze a crib. We lived in a small house at the time and the bedrooms were already tight. We considered names. I had cravings and I was tired. It was all very normal.
Finally the time was up and we announced our news to the world via Facebook. The very next day we went for our ultrasound and found out the pregnancy was over. The nurse was unclear. Shoulders were shrugged. The doctor handed us a brochure and sent us home. I couldn’t figure it out. What had just happened? What should I do? All of our plans seemed stuck in slow motion. How do we just – go back – to before? How to publicly take back what we had just put out there. What was even normal anymore?
Tears just kept rolling down my face like a summer garden hose, turned on low, then forgotten. I wasn’t crying in the normal way people do when they are mad or frustrated. It was silent. I would close my eyes to sleep and still they would roll down. I remember giving up on sleep and putting the happiest thing I could think of on the TV – Dancing with the Stars. I sat there watching that and crying. I couldn’t believe how sad I was for the baby I never met and would never hold. That was my first taste of grief.
Then my little sister died on June 9th and I found a whole new level of grief. I had shared life with her for 33 years and now she was gone. It was as if the wind had picked her up and taken her away. It was just – unbelievable. I could not wrap my mind around it. Even Sunday, I kept thinking I might run into her because we drove by the last place I had seen her. My eyes scanning the road, the parking lot where I saw her last. That day she was eating at a restaurant with a friend and I was picking up chicken salad for my daughter, who had surgery that day. I saw her talking to her friend as they walked to the car and decided not to honk the horn or anything because they looked deep in conversation and I would catch up with her later.
Her struggle with depression was known to us, but her absence was a knife in my chest. For the first two days, I could barely eat, barely breathe. When I finally was able to see her, I knew her suffering was over and that gave me huge relief. Spending time with my family helped. They knew her like I did. We had shared that growing up time together. Now with her missing, like a fresh hole in our hearts, we gathered close together. To eat. To walk. To cry. To sort through pictures. To get through the hardest days, together.
Thinking back over these times of grief, I wanted to share what helped and what didn’t. Maybe it will help you.
After my miscarriage, one of husband’s real estate clients went to the store. She filled at least one, if not two, gift bags full of items from the junk food aisle (her words). Sunflower seeds, cotton candy, chocolate bars, chips, combos pretzels, starburst. My kids were both in shock and in love as they unpacked the bags. This lovely person, Megan, had previously had a miscarriage. She knew how she had felt and she was determined to show love to me – a person she had never even met. I was floored by her love.
That night, I poured out my heart to my brother, Colin. About the things people had said to me, how my heart was broken. All the things. And then I didn’t edit it. I just hit send. He not only heard my broken heart, he acted. He declared a family emergency and got in his car to drive from Indiana to me, as quickly as possible. He hugged me, he fasted with me for my procedure, he helped make labor intensive Halloween treats I had picked out and promised to my kids. I won’t ever forget it.
A neighbor called me and asked if she could make me soup. A few days later, she arrived and took over the kitchen. She chopped and cooked and when it was ready, she left. We ate off that soup the rest of the week.
When Missy died last month, people cared for us in all sorts of ways. Thoughtful, amazing, practical ways.
- cared for her youngest son most of that first day
- brought pizza to the house as soon as they heard
- My mother-in-law took my teenage son home with her
- My daughter, shadowing me. Not asking questions except for the occasional, “Do you want something to drink? Are you hungry? Do you want to go home?” She just allowed me to sit or talk to others or wander. My husband was out of town and having her there kept me from feeling alone.
- My hubby drove almost 30 hours in a row to get back to me
- set up a meal train with meals to be delivered to my Mom’s house in one city. Others made sure my brother-in-law was having meals brought to him as well, out in another city.
- delivered paper products because they didn’t want us to do dishes
- helped get groceries delivered to my house
- brought me my favorite drinks
- helped me pick out clothing for the funeral
- brought us a warm cake and a meal that was not scheduled before the funeral just to make sure we were covered
- dropped off flowers or had them delivered
- wrote my family cards, each one dear and special
- provided us with a link to the service
- brought cold bottles of water to us in the receiving line which went for more than two hours without a break
- came over and played sports with my nephew, Elijah
- brought us gifts for the kids to the funeral
- purchased a difficult-to-obtain book and brought it to us
- sent us photos of Missy and posted stories on her timeline
- set up playdates with her boys to make sure they felt some normalcy in their routine
- extended family flying and driving in to be with us
- my cousin bringing us boxes of beautiful candles that she had made
- close friends and family reading my writing and entering into my grief with me
- dropping off hams (plural!), cookies or anything they hoped would help since our meal train was already full
I didn’t know all the people who helped and contributed. But all these people from all these different places came together and filled in any gaps they could find. When someone enters into your suffering, it really does feel like the suffering is easier to bear. Not gone, but easier, possible to bear.
Now on to the things that didn’t help.
People who tried to lighten or explain away my sorrow did not help. I needed friends to feel these hard feelings with me – so that I could make it through. Often I heard that my baby was in a better place. I could try again. God loved my baby more than I did. My sister should’ve gotten help. (She did.) Hadn’t we seen the signs? (Yes and we were fighting with her, hard.)
While any of these may, on the surface, appear valid, suffering doesn’t respond to truth. At least not in my opinion. If a friend is feeling discouraged, depressed or is in shock, hearing and sharing those feelings with them is beneficial. Jesus says to weep with those who weep. Not to make them laugh and forget their weeping. Not to encourage them with truth so that they won’t be sad. No. He says, “weep.”
So try to enter into the hard feelings. Fill the gaps you can see. And lastly, where to insert that truth. When questions arise, then apply truth. Sometimes the truth is that you do not know the answer to the question. That is truth. Share that. Other times, the suffering person asks questions about God’s character or heaven. If you can answer with truth, share that. You can even share a Bible verse here. “God promises to be near to the broken-hearted and those who are crushed in spirit, so I know that He is with you now. We are here with you.” Still feeling the feelings + providing truth if you are able to do so.
Respond to feelings with feelings. Respond to questions with truth.
Here are some additional resources I have collected on grief. Others shared them with me and I hope they are helpful to you as well.
Years ago, I found this article online about how to help a friend during an illness or after a death. I read The Pioneer Woman’s blog frequently back then. The article is mainly on how to prepare food, what to make, etc., but the comments were as helpful as the post itself. Some people described comfort kits they took to the hospital that included good tissues, eye drops, headache medicine, Starbucks gift cards, antacids and snack food.
The main thing that stuck in my head from the first article was to be specific when you offer help. Say:
- I would like to mow your grass.
- I can pick the kids up from school and they can stay over here.
- Let me do your grocery shopping today. Just make me a list.
- I would like to bring you a meal tonight. Will pot roast work for you?
When you say, “Let me know if you need anything”, that leaves the burden of figuring out what needs to be done on the person suffering. They aren’t really aware of all these details or who might be best to do each one. It is easier to respond – yes – to offers of help. If you had to leave your house right now and you couldn’t come home until tomorrow, what might need to be handled? Pet care, laundry, dishes, trash, child care, meals. Don’t worry about what you can offer, just pick something you can do and offer that.
As I searched Missy’s Facebook timeline, I found this article she had shared on grief two years ago. Her first child had died and it impacted her greatly. She was trying, I think, to help others and maybe to help them, help her too. (Don’t miss the video clip in this article!)
The article states that the two things a grieving person most wants to hear is the name of their loved one and specific stories about them. We went straight to Facebook and asked for these things. It was fantastic reading about all the people who knew her and funny things that had happened that we never knew about.
When I returned to work, my co-workers were kind but tentative. They didn’t know Missy and they didn’t want to make me cry. They said, “We’re glad you’re back.” The article states that hugging someone or saying caring words can break down that barrier between the suffering person and everyone else. But in my experience, I needed more than that.
It was confusing because yes, I was back, but nothing was the same as before. All I wanted to do was to talk about Missy. I wasn’t ready to move on. It wasn’t over for me; I wanted to keep on grieving. It would have meant so much for them to say, “Hey, I didn’t know your sister, but I’m sure you really loved her. If you want to talk about her or show me some pictures, I would love to do that. Anytime.”
The other article was posted about ten days ago by someone I feel is like a sister-in-law. Given the circumstances (me – grieving), I clicked on it right away. The article was a rebuke to me. It exposed the verbal narcissist – me. I am often so eager to show how much I empathize that I let my mouth do the talking instead of having my ears listen.
Yep. I needed to hear that. Continuing to speak means I can’t hear the other person. If they want me to comment, they will stop or ask me a question. Until then, my goal is to stay with them in their dialogue. My brother, Will, said he learned from Missy that empathy is choosing to listen to someone else’s life with such care that you can hear their heart.
Additional resources. Here is another article focused on the grieving process and what to say/not say, how to practically help, warning signs to watch for and how to help a child grieve. If you have a child who is grieving, Read Aloud Revival has a picture book list of titles to consider. You can ask for the list here. This is the final article – about how many people are grieving all around you and that the antidote is kindness.
Feel free to leave a comment about how you were helped in a time of grief or ideas on how to help those grieving.