Part two in a series on grief by Shauna Caldwell with G. Neil Parker. In the previous article, Shauna introduced the hard work of coping with losses and changes. We looked at self-care for your body, mind and spirit. In this article, she examines accepting losses and changes in our life and understanding the feelings associated with this process.
The unexpected, tragic deaths of our twin sons, Jordan and Evan, dropped me into a dark hole—which King David aptly named “the valley of the shadow of death.” It is a foreboding and unfamiliar place. It is inky black with a high ceiling that blocks out any light. I fumbled through my days in its shadow. The anvil that dropped on my chest each morning was my body’s reaction to the reality that I struggled to accept.
It’s OK that things are not OK.
In Jerry Sittser’s book, A Grief Disguised, he recounts the loss of his wife, mother, and four-year-old daughter in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Sittser’s experience resonates with mine. He was acquainted with the terrible darkness. He describes a dream in which he found himself running frantically toward a setting sun, trying to hold onto its light and warmth, only to have the sun vanish over the horizon. He was left alone in the darkness. As he sat with his dream, Sittser decided to turn back and “walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it.” He decided to “embrace [his] grief and to be transformed by [his] suffering” rather than to think he could dodge his sorrow.
Walking into the darkness rather than attempting to escape it plunged me into a foreign, complex world of emotional pain. In your grief (remember: grief = losses + changes), you may have a sense that your emotional, as well as your physical self, is betraying you. This response is normal.
In the first year of my grief, I tried to express how I felt. It’s like struggling to get dressed in the dark. After much fumbling around, I realize that my sweater is inside out, and my head is through the armhole! Finally, once dressed, I am perplexed to discover that the sweater is too small and that it is 100% wool. My grief is so tight, itchy and uncomfortable. My grief is a bursting dam; my feelings sweep into every crevice of the void created by my loss. The feelings associated with grief are disorienting and distressing. When people say, “it’s going to be okay,” I scream, “it’s is not going to be okay!”
Whether your challenges relate to bereavement, unemployment, strained relationships, physical or mental health, financial instability or lack of support, you may feel helpless, out of control, and afraid. Permit yourself to feel what you are feeling. It is important to sit with your grief. It’s okay that things are not OK, but if you are drowning, talk to your doctor and a grief counsellor. They can help.
Fear and anger
My grief-related fears have been both rational and irrational. One time, while preparing to leave for a vacation, I became intensely afraid. I anticipated that while I was absent, I would lose another loved one by death. It took a Herculean effort to get out our front door. I wept uncontrollably on the way to the airport.
Following the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” He started to feel a fluttering stomach, a tightening throat, and restlessness. His wife had been the axis upon which his whole world turned. Now that she was gone, Lewis asked, “who am I now?” Lewis laid bare his feelings when he wrote in A Grief Observed, “Her absence is like the sky spread over everything.”
I have discovered that fear and anger travel in tandem. Although anger feels like a dominant emotion, it is not. It stands like a bodyguard over my more vulnerable feelings. Anger shields the fragile fears I find hard to own. Instead of being vulnerable about the fears I feel, I protect them by getting angry: at people, myself, God, a disease, or even institutions.
I’ve experienced a variety of fears:
Fear of a lost identity: Who am I now? I feel tentative. I’m afraid I’ll keep diminishing as a person as things are stripped away. I wonder who I am at my very core. I feel a strange loneliness.
Fear of abandonment: I feel abandoned by God. Why did he let this happen? I wonder if my friends will leave me because they feel uncomfortable with my loss and its changes.
Fear of being labelled: I feel the stigma of being “that parent” who lost two sons in a high-profile accident. Others may feel embarrassment: “he’s that guy who’s still out of work,” or isolation: “she’s the one whose marriage is on the rocks.” If another’s judgment of you displaces your identity, you can lose yourself.
Fear of losing my mind: I feel as though I’m going crazy! The “not understanding” and the “not being heard” are deeply wounding. Spiritual truth has been my sanity. It is a discipline to see scripture as God’s plumb line in my grief. I’ve faced many fears over time and have begun to let God comfort me. As God showed me my fears, he came alongside me.
So do not fear, for I am with you, do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you … Isaiah 41: 10 NIV
I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve been working on my posture since our boys died. No, it’s not that I’m squaring up my shoulders or holding up my chin.
I am leaning. It’s not an intuitive stance, but it is an essential thing to do.
You cannot “feel your way into a new way of feeling.” You can only become acquainted with your feelings and then chose to “act your way into a new way of feeling.” This posture is challenging, perhaps impossible, if you decided to do so on your own. Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you. Psalm 55:22 NIV
Lean into your grief
Leaning is the opposite of running, numbing, medicating, stuffing, fencing-off, closing-up or shutting down. I have to allow myself to be emotionally authentic as I process my losses and changes. Why? Because I want to come through grief, allowing it to have its full effect so that I become deeper, stronger, wiser, more loving, kinder, more thoughtful and compassionate.
The healthiest way to navigate grief is to run toward it, not away from it. It is common to hear people speaking about needing “closure” for their grief. Closure is a human effort to make sense of sorrow in the hope that the pain will disappear —because I’ve made sense of it. There is no such thing as closure in grief. Grief is messy. It can’t be tied up with a bow and put away; it will always be with you. Over time though, you gradually experience reconciliation in grief. You never move on, but you can positively move forward.
Leaning involves being vulnerable and allowing significant people into the mess of your grief. To have an open and receptive posture toward others will enable them to enter your pain gently. Leaning is learning to be honest with God. It makes so much sense to be angry with God when things hurt, and life is hard. I’ve wailed and beat upon his chest and then was enveloped with his presence. When I invite Jesus into the chaos, I discover perspective, quiet, comfort, guidance, hope, love and courage. Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lam. 3: 22-23NIV
Dorothy Hunse, Director of the Charles J. Taylor Centre for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care, Acadia Divinity College, puts it succinctly: “Grief needs to be embraced … and grief needs to be shared.” Dr. Hunse goes on to say: “Within the church, we sometimes think that if we truly have faith in God, we shouldn’t need to grieve. We turn grief avoidance into a spiritual badge of honour. And yet, turning into [our] grief, giving space and time to it, choosing to welcome it, is the only way through it. Another way to say this is ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Matthew 5:4 NIV. ”
It is my experience that only Jesus can lift the heavy anvil off my chest. Also, he brings people along to help with the heavy lifting.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, And saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:8 NIV
Next month in “What do you do with the mad you feel?” we explore what to do when you can’t rid yourself of the anger you feel due to loss.
Shauna Caldwell lives in Calgary with Jason, her husband of 26 years. In one calendar year, they were gifted with three children – Katie, Jordan and Evan. Parenting “Irish triplets” provided opportunity to learn to cling to Christ for needed daily strength. Katie is now a medical school student. Shauna’s twins graduated to heaven in 2016, after a dreadfully public accident. The Caldwells own a small IT company. Shauna serves on two boards: Cornerbend Ministries and Youth for Christ. Shauna is grateful to her Uncle, G. Neil Parker, for his significant editorial assistance with her writing.