Lessons In The Grief Valley

Valley
When my father died suddenly back in September, I began doing what I always do: I started writing.

These six posts, (the first one written just three days after his passing, up until one written today), are some of the most personal things I’ve ever shared here. They’re also some of the writings I’m most proud of.

I’ve collected them here, in the hopes that they will be an encouragement and source of comfort, for those experiencing loss and grieving of any kind.

Thanks for reading and sharing.

John

 

Fragile

LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 1: FRAGILE PEOPLE: HANDLE WITH CARE (MY WEEK AS A GRIEF ZOMBIE)

My dad died very suddenly, three days ago.

The first few seconds of that morning phone call, will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life; the one where I heard my youngest brother’s voice quivering, as he told me that my father had passed away in his sleep, while on a cruise with my mom on his 70th birthday. The words sent me immediately to my knees on the front lawn, and sometimes I feel like I’m still there, at least a good part of my heart is.

Since then, I’ve been what I would call a Grief Zombie; walking around in an odd, contradictory haze, of searing pain and complete numbness, which each like to take rapid turns overpowering me. It’s as-if you’re being sucker punched by sadness one second, and bearhugged by gratitude the next.

But all the while, since that life-altering phone call, (as those who have experienced the loss of someone they love, know), I’ve had to continue to do stuff; take the kids to school, buy bananas, go to the gym; partly because things still need to get done, and partly because these mundane, ordinary things, help keep you from completely losing it, in the face of the pure insanity of your reality.

Over the last three days, as I’ve navigated parking lots, waited in restaurant lines, and sat on park benches, I’ve done so, pushing back tears, fighting to stay upright, and in general, being just seconds from a total, blubbering, room-clearing freakout.

I’ve felt like I’ve wanted to wear a sign that says: I JUST LOST MY DAD. PLEASE GO EASY.

I mean, other than my embarrassingly bloodshot eyes, and the occasional puberty-recalling break in my voice, it’s not like anyone would know what’s happening inside me or around me.

And while I don’t want to physically wear my actual circumstances on my chest, I know that if I did, it would probably cause people around me to give me space, or speak softer, or move more carefully, and it would probably make the impossible, almost bearable.

But even as I’ve wished that people could see the personal hell that I’m going through, I’m aware of the acute blindness that I usually live with, and the tremendous ego that exists in the request itself.

Why am I so special?
Why is my pain any more pressing than anyone else’s?
Why do I assume that everybody but me is alright?
Why do I expect everyone around me to be any sturdier than I feel?

This week, I’ve been reminded that I am surrounded by Grief Zombies all the time. Maybe they aren’t mourning the sudden, tragic passing of a parent, but wounded, broken, pain-ravaged people are everywhere, everyday, stumbling around, and yet most of them time, I’m fairly oblivious to them:

Parents whose children are terminally ill.
Couples in the middle of divorce.
Kids being bullied at school.
Teenagers who want to end their lives.
Spouses whose partners are deployed in combat.
Families with no idea how to keep the lights on.
Young moms with little help, little sleep, and less sympathy.

Yet none of them wear the signs.
None of them have labels.
None of them come with written warnings reading: FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE.

And since they don’t, it’s up to you and me, to look more closely and more deeply at everyone around us; at work, or at the gas station, or in the produce section, and never assume they aren’t all just hanging by a thread.

We need to remind ourselves,  just how hard the stories around us might be, and to approach each person, as a delicate, breakable, invaluable treasure, and to go easy.

As you walk, drive and click around this week, people won’t be wearing signs, but if you look with the right eyes, you’ll see the signs.

Life is fragile… Hold it carefully.
People are fragile… Handle them gently.
You are fragile… Take it easy.

_________________________________________________________

Superman
LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 2: FINDING MY KRYPTONITE

These are weird days in Metropolis.

Ever since my father passed away suddenly three weeks ago, there isn’t much about life that isn’t profoundly different; from the way the nighttime feels, to the tightening in my stomach whenever the phone rings, to the way I see my children.

I think differently, I sense time differently, and I look at the future differently as well.

But more than anything, the grief I’ve experienced since the loss of my dad, has led me to a clear and startling admission: I’m not a superhero.

For the past 16 years as a pastor, I’ve made a living saving people; of dramatically flying into the burning rubble of other’s lives, and coming out without a scratch, carrying the grateful mortals I’ve rescued… or so I thought.

OK, maybe I haven’t pictured myself in quite those grandiose terms, but I’ve certainly seen myself as a problem solver, a fixer, a leader.

I’ve prided myself on being professional, and excellent, and dependable, and like many in ministry, I’ve been the person others come to for help. If there’ve been bullets to outrun, trains to overpower, or tall buildings to leap over, I’ve been your man; or rather, your Super-man.

But then I ran into Kryptonite.

Ever since I learned of my father’s death, I’ve felt decidedly human; and been brought, both figuratively and literally, to my knees.  I’ve found myself unable to focus, or stay engaged, or control my emotions… (just like an actual person).

For the first time, maybe ever, I’ve had to admit to others (and to myself), that I need the saving. And for the first time, I’ve taken the costume and the cape off, and stopped being so damn super.

It’s a pretty tough thing for any would-be hero to face weakness; to acknowledge when they’re reached the end of their strength; when they are broken, defeated.

I think many of you understand that. I think you’ve been wearing the costume for a while too, yourself. 

OK, so maybe you’re not an overachieving pastor. Maybe you’re a superstar at work, or a perfectionist parent, or a superhuman spouse, or a school sports star, or an academic sensation.

Maybe you’ve gained some attention, or recognition, or reputation by being great at something, and ever since, you’ve become, on some level, in your own situation, a superhero.

Maybe you just find your identity and your worth through your pursuit of perfection.

Lots of us live with inflated perceptions of ourselves; straddled with unrealistic expectations and unreasonable goals, either from outside or from within, we strive and strain to keep it all together; to earn the accolades, to get the grade, to look the part, to get the prize, and to do everything short of saving the world.

And setting down the weight of the planet isn’t easy, once you’re convinced that you’re supposed to be carrying it; that it’s your job to keep it all up and spinning.

In fact, if you fancy yourself a superhero, most people will be content to hand you a costume, point you to a phone booth, and cheer you on.  

If you’ve stumbled upon this post, and you’re exhausted from being superhuman, whether at home or school, or in your marriage, or at your job, please hear me: You can take off the costume.

We all have our Kryptonite, and we all reach the capacity of our power. We all find ourselves bruised and bloodied and beaten-up by this life, and yet, the great news, is that even then, we can endure. Only we don’t do it on our strength, or with our ability or charisma or intellect.

Sometimes we move forward, only as we are carried on the shoulders of others. I am learning this these days.

The past three weeks have been incredibly painful, but so freeing too. It’s a pretty powerful thing, to admit when you are powerless.

Maybe, like me, you’ll need to hit some traumatic turn in your road to realize all this, but I’m hoping not.

Perhaps you’ll see these words, as permission to be imperfect.; to not have it all together, to fail and fall and cry, and to be carried for a while.

I’m retiring from the superhero business, and I’m asking you to join me.

Ditch the spandex.

Welcome to humanity.

______________________
Woman-looking-into-heaven-cat-heaven-Nico-Piotto-Flickr-Getty-Images-106798602

LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 3: WHEN “A BETTER PLACE” AIN’T BETTER

Words are wild, unpredictable things.

Often, ones delivered in love and designed to heal, can wound terribly, especially when attempting to help someone dealing with death.

In trying to help you weather the loss of a loved one, kindhearted, well-meaning people, will often tell you that those you mourn over, have “gone to a better place”.

Though said earnestly, and always in love, this is almost never very helpful or comforting, as grief is really about the personal sense of loss one feels in the here and now.

For survivors, this is largely about how stinkin’ lousy this place currently is.

When you’re dealing with crippling pain, and with the unfathomable newly-made hole in your life; when you’re just trying to piece together in your mind, a patchwork of coherent thoughts to make the present bearable, the phrase “a better place”, often adds insult to horrific injury.

Yes, you want goodness for your loved one, and you think about all that they cannot and will not experience here, and yes, the thought of them in Heaven, free from pain and worry is a small help, but you’re also pretty darn selfish about the whole thing, too.

To the grieving mind, the pushback to this idea comes easy, if we think about it:

Heaven was already a better place before all of this happened, but this loss, and the void it has created, has now made this place, (the place where those left behind have to stay and live), a much, much worse place.

And in this sadly ironic way, the seemingly innocent words that you hope will bring comfort, can actually amplify the loss for a survivor; magnifying the great chasm between them, and the one they no longer have.

“Heaven gained an angel”, is another similar well-meaning, but greatly flawed attempt at consolation. Again, it’s a beautiful image and a sweet idea, but for those carrying on here in the valley, it’s mixed with the horrible reality that we, living where angels are already in very short supply as it is, have had yet another casualty.

Please don’t hear this as a slight to you, if you’ve ever spoken these words, even to me.

They’re ones that I’ve offered as well at one time or another, and in those moments, I too, was lovingly, desperately reaching for something that could help carry someone as they wept.

It’s just another reminder, and a lesson for the heart, that when facing the irrevocable, irreplaceable loss of someone you held dear, all words fail.

In the end, the only thing we can offer someone who we care for, which can provide the kind of comfort that we all wish words will, are prayers and presence.

There’s something about simply being with someone; about sitting with them in a pain that you refrain from speaking into, that allows stuff much bigger and far greater than words to be exchanged.

And only in those sacred moments of silent presence, can the power of that “better place”, really be felt.

A lesson I’m learning in the valley…

__________________________

Blowing Dandelion
LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 4: IN THE WIDTH OF A BREATH

It’s been six months since my father passed away suddenly, while on a cruise with my Mom and brother.

I’d like to say that things have gotten easier since then, that the pain isn’t still crippling at times, that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I won’t get to share life with him anymore, but that would be a lie.

I’d like to say that I’ve made peace with the pain, but I’m not sure you ever really do that.

What’s so unbelievable at times, is the ways in which grief waves hit you.

Sadness often springs its cruel surprise party; jumping out of bushes, or from behind grocery store aisles, or from inside the hall closet. The simple, ordinary, sometimes completely unrelated stuff that derails and devastates you is staggering; smells, sounds, food, sitcoms, songs, breezes, temperature.

Lately, one of the things that’s been my constant companion in the Grief Valley, is the idea of thinness; of the stark, brutal, incomprehensibly small space between living, and leaving.

My father died in his sleep on the ship, following a birthday dinner filled with food and laughter, and with the usual excitement and promise of the first day at sea.

As far as any of us can tell, he experienced no pain, no trauma, no anguish.

He simply went to sleep, and stayed asleep.

As he closed his eyes, it probably never occurred to him that these were his last hours here. No soul-searching, no fond looking back, no final words, no dramatic speeches.

I want to feel relief, but what I really feel is cheated.

I’ll never forget one of the first things my mother said when I spoke to her on the phone from the ship: “He had a beautiful death.”

It was, in its gentleness and swiftness, indeed beautiful, but here a half-a-year removed, it’s that same silent suddenness that’s really messing with me.

I picture his face in that moment lying there in bed; as he quietly passed from this life into what is beyond it; no fanfare or drama or bombast. He just breathed… and then he didn’t.

His heart was beating, and then it ceased to.

And in that most infinitesimal of spaces, my father’s 70-year life was over, and so many others were irrevocably, completely altered.

In the width of one breath, everything changed for me.

I’ve heard and spoken all the words about how quickly life moves, and about how fragile it is, and those words have never been truer than they have these past six months.

However, what’s both infuriating and frightening, (and yet somehow beautifully sweet), is just how thin it all is.

And honestly, I’m not sure what to do with all of this here as I type; other than feel like I’m reading aloud some saccharine-soaked greeting card platitudes; about loving the people around you while they’re here, and about living your life to the fullest, and about not sweating the small stuff, but that’s horribly underselling the gravity of it all.

Besides, there are some lessons that can only really be learned when looking back, and sadly the Grief Valley is something you simply can’t walk through until you’re in it.

My faith tells me that on a September night, in a cruise ship bed, in that thinnest of expanses, my father went from conscious, to much-more-than conscious; that without ever waking-up, he suddenly received the answers to the questions that every one on this side of the thinness wonders about.

And yet some days I confess, as I ponder all of it; that my faith too, becomes the thinness. It sometimes stretches to a paper-width place, as hope and grief pull from opposite ends, and where I strain to look for the light breaking through.

And it’s in that place, where somehow, God is closest.

One breath here, the next breath, hereafter.

That, is life and death; the great, glorious thinness.

________________________________

prosthetic-leg
LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 5: ATTRITION AND AMPUTATION:LOSING AND LIMPING IN THE GRIEF VALLEY

My dad died nearly 8 months ago, and some stuff is finally starting to settle.

There are realities that hit you little by little as you grieve; brutal truths that you’ve probably really known for a lot longer, but that you couldn’t quite wrap your brain around enough to claim as your own.

Maybe it’s your mind’s way of protecting itself from bearing too much sadness, too much trauma at one time.

One of the things that’s become clear in recent weeks, is the simple reality that my life will not get better.

That’s not to say that I won’t feel better, or that the sadness won’t eventually recede somewhat, or that there won’t be really, really good moments. (I’ve experienced all of this in the months following my Dad’s passing).

I know in the future, that I’ll laugh bombastically, and eat decadent meals, and be moved by music, and I’ll travel, and dance, and create, and feel moments of true joy and contentment.

When I say that I know that life won’t get better though, it’s admitting the sobering truth, that despite all of these incredible, gratitude-inducing, live-giving things that will surely come, my life will simply never be as good as it was when my father was in this world.

It will never be better, than it was before he left.

It couldn’t be.

No matter who or what I add to my journey, or what victories or successes they bring, they will never replace the part that’s gone; the part uniquely shaped like him.

It would be an insult to my father and to his unimaginable impact in my life, to expect otherwise.

I guess that’s why the word loss, while seemingly incomplete, says it all pretty darn well as you grieve.

When you do lose someone close to you, you learn to make peace with attrition; with the cruel, horrible subtraction that death delivers. You realize that there was a time, now in the past, when your family was whole, and that no matter what the future brings, it will always remain less-than.

I imagine it’s not unlike the way a new amputee feels, as they move though life without a leg.

They adapt, they learn to cope and relearn to navigate daily tasks; they find creative, amazing ways to do everything that they did before, but it’s always a reaction to damage.

It’s always an attempt to respond to invasive intrusion; to get as close as they can to wholeness, to completeness, and yet there’s just no way to get it all back.

You live, but you live with a limp.

That’s what grieving is.
That’s what the attrition causes.
You do move forward, but it’s only because it’s the only direction you have left, if you want to keep living.

You take every painful, awkward, desperate step it takes to keep walking, and you try to go as far as you can, with what you’ve lost.

This probably comes across as pretty depressing stuff, but for me, it’s a gift; helping me clearly see and appreciate the present.

Most likely, this won’t be the last time I’ll grieve someone I love, and when that unwanted day and time does come, I’ll look back and remember these days and these times, as ones when I was a little closer to whole.

For everyone reading this in The Grief Valley, struggling to take the next excruciating step; be encouraged.

Yes, you’ve lost something irreplaceable, but you haven’t lost it all.

There’s still a good, beautiful, blessing-filled path for you to walk.

So walk on, even if it is with a limp.

________________________________

blooddropfinger
LESSONS IN THE GRIEF VALLEY VOL 6: 
BLOOD BREAKS THROUGH THE SKIN

Blood is fascinating.

It’s so full of life, so critical to every breath and step; a powerful, perpetual flood, flowing just there beneath the surface of our skin. It’s a force that we’re largely quite oblivious to as well, even as it’s part of us, even as it sustains us.

In fact, we don’t think much about our blood until something breaks the flesh, and we realize just how close we are to it all. Some times it takes so little to bring it rushing to the surface, and then the challenge is to stop it before it does too much damage.

Grief is this way.

It’s hidden, just there beneath the visible stuff of life.

Some days, we who’ve lost someone we love are quite unaware it’s still there at all.

We forget the river raging underneath.

Sometimes, for stretches of hours or even days or weeks, we move and plan and laugh, and play with our kids, and go to restaurants, and mow the lawn, and fold laundry, and Tweet our dessert photos, and everything feels normal, and then it happens; a pin prick, and a wound opens.

The stuff that breaks the surface and triggers the flood of sadness and memory in the wake of loss, is confoundingly random; often so innocuous, that it seems ridiculous; that is, until the abrasion.

The most mundane, trivial things can derail you in The Grief Valley; much like that split-second slip of your finger opening a can, or the sudden misstep walking in the garden that can cut the skin, turning an ordinary moment into Triage duty.

Here, ten months after my father’s passing, I find (among a million other places), that solitary trips to a local grocery store do this for me. For no reason that makes any real sense, I often find myself pushing back tears in the breakfast cereal aisle or the produce section. (Awkward for the clerks, I’m sure).

And as silly as is sounds, it’s the place where I grieve fully; it’s the place where I so often bleed and bandage, and where I again face the hidden flood.

There is no rhyme or reason to things that reopen the wounds for any of us.
There is no sense to Grief.
It simply comes when it chooses, and it makes you bleed.

Over time, you learn to accept that the stuff beneath the surface just isn’t going away… ever. You may develop thicker skin, or you may be less apt to break as often as before, but the flood is still there below; of sweet memories, and wasted words, and missed opportunities, and lost tomorrows.

I think walking through this valley for the past 10 months, has helped me realize just how much is happening right below the surface for all of us.

I don’t just see people now. I try to see into them.

I know that there is more than they show, and more than their surface skin reveals. I know that at any moment, they may be bleeding and they may need bandaging.

Look around for those in your path who may be walking wounded, and who simply aren’t showing it.

See deeper than skin.

If you’re navigating your own loss these days; be aware of the river of grief beneath your own flesh, and make peace with the fact that it won’t stay hidden forever.

Don’t be afraid to bleed.

 

12 thoughts on “Lessons In The Grief Valley

  1. John,

    God’s timing is simply amazing. This morning, I was speaking to someone who recently lost their husband and the father of their 6 teenaged-young adult children in a tragic and sudden motorcycle accident. Then I found this in my inbox. Of course, I forwarded it to her. I pray that it will be a help to them.

    You touch a lot of people, more than you will ever meet or know. Thanks for your authenticity, sincerity, and love of people. God has blessed you with this gift, and when you use it for His glory, you honor Him, and bless us all.

  2. Thank you. I lost my husband in an accident just over 3 weeks ago. Our children lost their father. The world lost a wonderful, giving person who made a positive impact on everyone who met him. Your blog reached me in a profound way. Only someone else who’s been here understands and it helps to be reminded that we’re not alone though it feels like it most of the time.

    • Leah,

      I am so very sorry for your loss, and grateful that these writings have helped in some way. I know that your grief is completely unique to you, and that no one can really step into your shoes, but please know that many others are walking this road. You’re not alone.

      Reach out if you need anything. [email protected].

      Blessings and peace as you move forward.

  3. I’m so sorry you lost your father but so thankful you’ve shared your feelings. For those who have been through similar situations your words ring so ture. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for sharing your heart. I feel very comforted and inspired by your words. I feel like a lot of us are on this road, as you said, experiencing all sorts of different griefs…really any huge loss we face causes grieving…even if it’s not an actual death, it can sure feel like one! So thank you. I’m also going to share your writings with some of my clients in therapy that I’m walking alongside of in their grief and loss…

  5. Pingback: Lessons In The Grief Valley | RONDA'S DISCUSSION TOPIC OF THE DAY...

  6. You have spoken my heart.???? My broken heart that is mending, but has scars amd sometimes still bleeds through the bandages. We lost our father suddenly the early morning of Dec 31st 2014. Your words have made me sob, laugh at myself and giggle with joy in the connections and then cry again. There is soo much truth and I discovered a deep joy and comfort in the parallel of our Valleys of Grief.
    Thankyou.

  7. Thank you John. It’s been over 11 years since my daughter died, and these posts resonate with me still today, even though I have a wonderful son and daughter-in-law, fantastic husband and a full and happy life. There are days that it hits me all over again as if her accident were yesterday. I’ll be sharing your articles with the other moms I try to support in their grief. Bless you for sharing these writings.

  8. John, I very much appreciate these pieces. Very little is written or discussed about the loss of one’s parents, especially as adults. We are supposed to expect it; it’s in the course of things, so grieving your parent as an adult doesn’t really hurt all that much, right? ! I lost my mom when I was 21; she was 46; I still grieve for her and for the adult relationship we never got to share. My dad seven years ago, at age 76 (and that was not enough; why do so many of my friends still have BOTH parents?!). Not generous of me, but I’m just trying to understand my own losses, right? I think that I especially appreciate the sentiment that your life will not get better. It could get better in part, of course, but not in whole, which is how you speak of it. My life was simply better with my parents in it.

    I am also filled with joy and gratitude that I have that reality. Many folks, including my husband, would not or could not say that about their parents. I know that they loved me not perfectly but from a deep and tender place. Now that I am 53, I will sometimes arise after sleep, look in the mirror, and see my parent or a feature looking right at me. It’s odd and reassuring. They are with me and will continue to be with me.

    Your posts are terrific studies in writing, as well. As a Lutheran pastor’s kid and an English teacher who favors essay and rhetoric, I am both provoked and inspired by, as well as envious of, your willingness to speak truth to power and to do so in a most intelligent and accessible way.

    Thank you for sharing your insight, your pain, and your talent with me and many others.

  9. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so pertinent to how I’ve felt since I lost my mum to suicide 14 years ago. Thank you

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