Saturday, January 24, 2015

Move Forward Within a Loss

Move Forward Within a Loss

When my mom died in 2013, I naturally wanted to preserve her memory. I brought home many of her lovely bird figurines, and already had a collection of vintage photos and books from her side of the family. Dozens of beautiful sympathy cards had arrived in my mailbox. With all of these poignant mementos of her life, I decided to dedicate a bookcase in my bedroom as a memorial to her. I did eventually tuck away the cards into a basket, but then filled that space with vintage glassware that I brought home from her house the following summer.  

After Christmas last month, I thought about where to put some of the pretty gifts I had received from my children. 

To make room and to signify a shift in focus from old to new, I decided to pack away much of what was on the top three shelves of the bookcase. 
Bittersweet, for sure, but it was time. There are still so many beautiful memories of her around my home. She will not be forgotten, visually or otherwise.

As I wrapped the fragile items and put them into boxes, I started thinking of the concept of moving forward within a loss. Why do I say “within” instead of “after”? The initial loss or stress might be the death of a loved one, a divorce or other intimate relationship breakup, an empty nest after years of child raising, a downward career change, a move from a familiar home, a health setback, a betrayed friendship, a cataclysmic change of lifestyle or worldview, loss of status or reputation, traumatic abuse from others (emotional, physical, sexual, etc.), or whatever else. While this may at first be seen as a single event, we continue to live with the repercussions for far longer. So the loss may actually be a long process that we live within.

As I thought about this, I realized that there are several healthy ways that we can move forward.

Be aware of your feelings and be kind to yourself.

Loss often brings out fear, sadness, anxiety, insecurity, guilt, and other troubling emotions. How are you processing these? 

If you have faced multiple losses or serious disappointments in a short period of time, this can get quite complicated. I've been known to lump all of my assorted griefs from many areas of life into one pile and try to deal with them as a pack. That can paralyze the soul. I realize now that I need to face each one individually for what it is. This is actually more manageable and productive. My soul is beginning to shine again.

Are you taking care of yourself through nutrition, sleep, exercise, fresh air, the beauty of nature and art, music, fun times, friendship, and other life-enhancing practices? 

Have you drifted into any harmful attitudes or practices that will drag you farther down into a spiral of despair? A bit of solitude can be a balm to the soul, but isolation can be deadly. So can addiction, bitterness, and giving up on the basics of life. If you find yourself sliding into a pit, ask for help!

Many people just try to slog on through life and ignore the pain. Have you given yourself permission and time to grieve, even when it is inconvenient?

My friend Abigail moved to Japan last spring. She and her husband had lived there for several years a while back, but this latest move has been a tough transition, especially with two young children. She recently wrote on Facebook: Most of the time I'm okey-dokey with our adventuring. It took me a good long while to come round to this particular Japan move, but when God opened my heart to the prospect of joy in it, I jumped in. Again. Both feet. And brain. And heart. And all the rest. So I'm not regretting. I'm not saying a forceful no. Or even a polite no thanks. But my heart hurts sometimes. I think this is normal for every nomadic person. Maybe. Or maybe not. I can really only speak for myself, but after reading others' blogs and thoughts on this lifestyle, it seems as if you really do need to give yourself room to breathe and grieve and to find peace for the moment and to give thanks for each snowflake.”

Surround yourself with caring people.

Family members and friends can be a real healing balm in a time of crisis. I am so thankful for the people who have gathered around our family in our many times of crisis. However, not everyone will understand your pain. Some will not know what to say. Some may say something that comes across wrong. I get that. They might need a little help from you to know what you need them to say and do. 

I don't expect everyone to rally around with quite the same skill or intensity. I know they are there, and that if I ask them specifically for something I need, they will usually come through with compassion as they are able. 

Unfortunately, there are also toxic people out there who don't really care at all, and who may even take advantage of a griever's vulnerability. Some people can be just plain cruel, either intentionally inflicting additional pain, or just being so self-centered that they create unreasonable demands because they are jealous of your diverted attention. You are under no obligation to listen to them or even spend time around adults who continue do this. Children are another matter, of course, especially when it comes to feeling left out. They need special care of their own, especially if they too are grieving, as well as a bit of gentle explanation about what is going on with you.

You may wish to meet with a pastor and/or a professional therapist to help you through the grieving and transitioning process. Both kinds have been helpful to me, though some have been better suited for my needs than others. 

You don't have to stick with one if it isn't working. Ask around for recommendations. You are the one who knows what is working or not, and you have choices.

Lisa Grace Byrne of Well Grounded Life quotes a woman in Rwanda about her experience after the horrible genocide of 1994 when 800,000 people (10% of the population) were slaughtered:

"We had a lot of trouble with western mental health workers who came here immediately after the genocide and we had to ask some of them to leave. They came and their practice did not involve being outside in the sun where you begin to feel better. There was no music or drumming to get your blood flowing again. There was no sense that everyone had taken the day off so that the entire community could come together to try to lift you up and bring you back to joy. There was no acknowledgment of the depression as something invasive and external that could actually be cast out again. Instead they would take people one at a time into these dingy little rooms and have them sit around for an hour or so and talk about bad things that had happened to them. We had to ask them to leave."

I have also found support on-line with forums and blogs for those who are facing similar issues as I am. I have an e-mail group list of trusted family and friends I can contact if I need extra emotional support or prayers. I value their input and I've gotten a lot of great advice. I call them my caring circle. 

Understand the different ways that people process loss at different times.

The morning after my mother died, I flew up home. Everyone was in shock, but there was much to be done to prepare for the funeral. I was in the best emotional shape to concentrate on that, partly because of my personality and partly because I had lived far away from home for so long and was not quite as tightly connected to my mother's daily presence. My priority was to stay calm and focused, and do what the others couldn't. I assured my family, “I know it doesn't look like I am really grieving right now, but I am. I just want to get through this, and when I get home, I will take the time to fully process this.” We were able to respect each other for our different ways of grieving. One who had spent weeks diligently caring for my mother cried a lot. One walked the dogs and ran errands. One cooked up a storm of delicious comfort food for everyone. I contacted relatives, planned the funeral (with input from the others), wrote obituaries, and practiced my eulogy

Grief hit me later on, as I knew it would, and it still grips me from time to time. I am aware that sometimes I won't think as much about it, and I've learned to not feel guilty about that. It doesn't mean that I love her less, just that time is healing me. I also get very choked up or melancholy at other times, and have learned not to be alarmed. It comes and goes, and that is entirely normal.

I had a miscarriage in 1988. At first I felt just fine. I could handle it. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord,” I quoted. A friend warned me that in a week or so, a wave of hormones might hit and send me into emotional upheaval. She was right, and I'm glad I was prepared. Was it sinful for me to be angry, unsettled, and weepy for several days? Not at all! I had just lost a baby! Good grief! It would, however, be disturbing if I was still reacting like this decades later. I still feel twinges, but not the full measure of grief. You can read more here: 25 Years Later, Looking Back on a Miscarriage

Processing a loss usually comes in phases. Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross is famous for her work On Death and Dying, in which she outlines the five stages of grieving: denial & isolation, anger, bargaining, depression (sadness), acceptance. You can read more about these here: The Five Stages of Loss and Grief. These stages can certainly overlap, and even if you have gone through one, it's not uncommon to go back to an earlier one. You may need extra help and intervention if you get completely stuck and can't move forward at all.

Honor memories in a way that helps you.

For me, beyond the visual reminders that I mentioned earlier, this meant thinking about things that I admired about my mother and trying to weave those into my own life. She was sacrificially kind and hospitable to her children (and everyone else), and I try to emulate that. She was an excellent gardener, and I find that planting and caring for flowers, especially those that attract butterflies, reminds me of her and makes me happy. I created several photographic tributes to her on my blogs. I wear some of her clothes. I talk to my sister about her. Again, some of these will change as time goes on. I don't have to keep doing something just because it reminds me of her. I can come back to it later on if I want. There are no rules here. So much of grieving is intuitive.

Those who have gone through divorces face a special challenge in honoring memories. Some have found it uplifting to recall the happier times and the admirable qualities of their former spouses, while also acknowledging the challenges. This makes it easier to forgive, heal, and co-parent.

Honoring memories is also a positive practice for those who have lost cherished friendships. There may still be a way to salvage a remnant of the relationship with relaxed expectations, but if not, you can still think happy thoughts and learn to let go.

If you have lost a job, you may be overwhelmed with a feeling of personal failure, and you may fear trying again. Think about what you did well, and the skills you gained. Make plans for how you can enhance those strengths and skills so you can do better in your next opportunity. Remember the people who helped you in some way, and let them know that you noticed.

Let your faith bring you comfort, courage, and guidance. 

God cares, and he has a plan for our lives, even within our losses. I ask him to heal me, to lead me, and to enable me to love others well. We read Psalm 23 at the bedside of my husband's grandfather the day before he passed away. These familiar words have often comforted me. See my photographic essay on Psalm 23 here: Beside the Still Waters.

I know that God is big enough and kind enough to handle my emotions, even my anger and doubt and fear. He helps me to forgive, to trust, and to step out in confidence. I am grateful for that.

I can see ways that, with God's grace and strength, I have grown up through the many losses and challenges I have faced in life. Think about what you have learned so far, and how much more insight and compassion you have. You can use this in the future to help other people.


What has helped you to process the losses and disappointments in life? Please share in the comment section!

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

You may also like to read:


Poems of Comfort and Courage:

Hymns with Reflections on Grieving:
Move Forward Series

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