Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lessons I'm trying to teach my parents

Mike's death has not just affected me, but the tragedy has taken a toll on my parents as well. Mike was very much a part of our family. My parents grieve the loss of their golfing buddy and bowling competitor, the loss of the "Italian boy", as he was affectionately known by some members of my family. My parents' grief is complicated because not only do they miss Mike, they grieve for me and what this loss means for me.
I can only imagine that it would be quite difficult to see your child in so much pain especially when she proclaims that she thought dying of heartbreak was just an over-exaggeration, but she was sadly mistaken. It's real. Consequently, parents go immediately into "protect mode". They want the pain to go away. They want to be able to fix it. But, they can't.
While my parents might feel this loss a little differently than some of my close friends, I have noticed the desire to "stop the pain" and to "do something" is quite the same. I was going to call this post "How to Help Someone You Love Through Deep Grief", but that's boring and has been done before. So, seven months into grieving this profound loss, I offer some things I have learned about my own deep grief and hope that they can help you if you are currently grieving or want to know how to help someone who is.

1. Be careful with the language you use. "Move on" sends me through the roof! "Move forward" is much more accepted and embraced by me. "Move on" fires me up because it implies that I have to forget about the person I just lost. I will never forget Dude. I do know that I have to move forward and I'm willing to do what is necessary to adjust to the new normal. "Move forward" implies progress.

2. No pain, no gain. Counselors and others who have suffered profound loss will tell you it is imperative that you let yourself experience the pain. It hurts. A lot. Sometimes the pain is so overwhelming you think you will die or you would rather die, but deep down you know there will be better days. I have noticed that there is intense pain, then your body goes into "survival mode" and you almost try to forget what happen to you/deny the loss, and then when you come out of this "bubble", the pain is intense (but sometimes a little less intense) again. Encourage the griever to experience the pain. It will be painful for you to watch the griever go through the necessary emotions, but think of how painful it is for them to keep them inside.

3. Talk about the loss and bring up the person's name: Oftentimes, I hear my parents or friends say, "Don't feel like you have to talk about it" or they shy away from bringing the loss up because it either makes them feel uncomfortable or they are afraid it might make you feel uncomfortable or some combination of both. Let me just be honest with you. Someone who is grieving has not forgotten about the person. In fact, they may be struggling to think of something else to talk about because their thoughts are (at times) consumed with the loss. When someone asks how I am dealing with this or brings up something about Mike, I am so thankful. Not only have you just given me permission to let my mind relax, but you have acknowledged my loss and I very much appreciate that. I especially love to hear stories from people about Mike. I have kept every letter and card and message people have sent me. Talking about Dude keeps his spirit alive and brings a smile to my face (even if tears are falling from my eyes, too). And, if the griever doesn't want to talk about it, believe me, they will have no problem telling you that!

4. Reach out to the griever: Grief is exhausting. The grief counselor told me grief doesn't go to sleep when you do, and she was right. There are so many emotions that the griever goes through, sleepless nights, lack of appetite, physical aches, emotional pain....all of this takes a toll. It is exhausting. The last 7 months, I have barely picked up my phone to call people or to make plans. It is not because I don't want to talk to them or do things with them. I do. I really love it when someone calls or suggests we do something fun. But, I don't have much energy to initiate the contact. I am slowly starting to get better about this, but I would offer that the griever needs you to help them. I have always been one to jump to help others. Not recently. I can't. Reach out to them. They will respond and will be so thankful that you did. I know I am. I feel very loved when someone asks me to do something or takes the time to call and check up. Most of the time I want to do it, but don't have the energy to ask sometimes.

5. Just do it.: Immediately after someone dies, people kindly ask what they can do or how they can help. I remember being graciously asked that question numerous times and my response typically was, "I have NO idea!". I responded that way because it was the truth.  I had never experienced anything like this before and couldn't even think of what my name was let alone how someone could help me. I found it most helpful when people would just offer to bring dinner or call or come over and sit with me and give me lots of hugs. Some would send a text message that simply read "I love you" or a song or a poem that they thought I could relate to. Anything and everything, no matter how small, made a difference. I would have never been able to articulate my need for all of the things people did for me, but I clearly needed and appreciate every one!

6. You can't fix it: My parents are the biggest culprits of this one. They want to fix the pain. They want to protect me from the pain. They want all of this to go away. But, they can't, you can't, and it's not good, too. The most helpful thing for me is when someone says "I don't know what you are going through, but I am here for you". Say it and mean it. That will mean the world to the griever.

7. Keep an eye on the griever, but don't smother them:  People sincerely try to be helpful with all of their suggestions and I have considered every single one because I know they offer them with a compassionate heart. Some people have offered things that I would have never thought of so I appreciate all of the suggestions. But, it is also important to understand that the griever deeply misses the person they've lost. So, if they start talking about heaven, it doesn't necessarily mean they are planning how to get there. It might (so you should keep an eye just to be sure), but not necessarily. I talk about it not because I want to go there ( I do when God wants me to go), but because I want to know what Mike is doing. It's frustrating because I can't really know, but I do like to think about what his new life with Christ is like.
Since the loss, I have also preferred to be by myself a little bit more. The first few months after the tragedy, it wasn't a good idea for me to be by myself. Just too painful. But, now it is OK, and I welcome the time to process everything and to grieve just the way I need to...or to sing and dance like nobody's watching to one of Dude's favorite songs!

8. Pray for them. This goes without saying, but those in deep grief need lots of prayer. It has been hard for me to pray. My mind can wander at night or in the morning and I sometimes have trouble formulating the words I want to say to God. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit can intercede for me, but any prayers anyone else lifts up is extra protection and a blessing to me.

9. Refrain from asking too many questions: This particularly applies if the death was a suicide. A suicide survivor has so many questions swirling around in their head. Additional ones can just seem incredible overwhelming.

10. Everyone grieves differently: I had always heard this, but never quite understood it until now. All of Mike's family and friends are grieving, but we all do it differently. I love writing my feelings and the lessons I am learning out on "paper. Hence, this post.  I have been to counseling, but I don't find that as helpful as others do. I much prefer the support groups and the grief blogs. Some of his family/friends prefer to grieve privately. Some are angry. Some use humor to deal with the pain. Some openly express emotion and others cry in the quiet of their own room. 

Before experiencing such a loss, I didn't know how to attempt to help someone who was truly grieving. These are the lessons I am trying to teach my parents (and anyone really) as they struggle to know how to help me (or my godfather). It's just my two cents, but I wanted to document them so I can remember them in the future -- although I doubt I will forget! Hopefully, they are helpful to someone else, too!

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