Saturday, January 22, 2011

Grief - Normal, Good, Bad, and What to Do With it

This may well be a very difficult post for many of you to read through. Many of you are dealing with grief in ways you can't explain, and aren't sure why. Some of you are friends with women (and men) who are dealing with grief and you don't know how to help them. Some of you are looking for tools for the future, while your husband is currently deployed or about to deploy. Others of you are civilians, fascinated by military life and all that it entails. Talking about grief isn't comfortable. It's not even comfortable for me to write about, as I vividly remember the pain I endured just as a result of remaining by my husband's side. It's quite impossible to be human and remain unchanged by the effects of war when you're married to a veteran, in any capacity of service. I hope that this post offers valuable insight to those of you who aren't sure why you feel the way you do. Maybe it hasn't been spelled out in this fashion. Maybe it has. Maybe... maybe you just need some confirmation, and someone to talk to who understands. As I said in my last PTSD post, this one, there are women who want to talk to you without pressure. Don't walk this road by yourself. You don't have to. I want to note once again however, that this post is NOT to serve as a medical diagnosis of any kind, nor take the place of licensed/certified therapy or counseling. I am not a professional. I'm writing things down from a book written by professionals, and commenting my own thoughts at the end. Grief happens to people outside of the military just as much as in the military (I think), but this post is specifically geared toward military wives.

Grief is neither a problem to be solved 
nor a problem to be overcome. 
It is a sacred expression of love. . . a sacred sorrow.
-Dr. Gerald May, M.D.


The Purpose of grief
God built the grief response unto us for the purpose of mentally, emotionally and spiritually processing loss-producing events. Those vents are integrated into our altered world, and help us move on to a state of greater strength, resourcefulness, resilience and faith. If we are not willing to face the grieving process, or if we try a short-cut, we'll be left adrift in our sea of pain, never reaching the shores of healing that the Lord intends for us.
As drill instructors repeatedly reminded your husband during his basic training, "Pain is simply weakness leaving the body!" In a similar fashion, "Tears are a way God has provided for sadness to leave our body." If we resist this mechanism, our sorrow may never lose its intensity.
King David wrote: "You have taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your Book?" (Psalm 56:8) God - in His infinite tenderness and love - not only takes note of your tears, He stores them. They are they precious to Him. Down through the ages, mourners would often catch their own tears in tiny bottles called lachrymatories and keep them as a memorial for their grief or as a symbol of their love and respect for the person for whom they were grieving. Typically, the mourning period would end when the tears evaporated from the bottle. God sees your tears and feels your sadness. He has a tear bottle with your name on it.

When we grieve,
  • we are authentically engaging the emotions that come with loss - rather than stuffing or denying them. As many grief experts say, "You can't heal what you don't feel."
  • we are protesting the injustice of the loss - rather than acting like it was okay with us
  • we are expressing that we deeply wish the loss had never occurred - rather than minimizing it
  • we are facing the devastating impact of the loss head on, absorbing it and eventually mastering it - rather than running from it, deflecting it or pretending it didn't happen, only to have its effects hit us again and again
  • we are allowing our brain to replay the tapes of our disturbing and traumatic memories in a sale environment, thereby robbing them of their terror and integrating them into our rebuilding life.
  • we are inviting Jesus to enter the dark forest of our pain, experience it with us, comfort us in the midst of it and walk us out the other side of it - rather than sitting passively alone and paralyzed at the edge.
When we refuse to grieve,
  • unresolved grief is a factor in the development of a wide range of psychological problems including outbursts of rage, restlessness, depression, addiction, compulsion, anxiety, and panic disorders.
  • unexpressed grief is linked to the development or worsening of medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, asthma, and a variety of allergies, rashes, aches and pains.
  • we are at odd with our body's built-in psychological processes to deal with a traumatic event.
  • we are at odds with God's spiritual intentions to meet us in the midst of the fire of our trauma, causing us to miss out on His plans to deepen our faith and strengthen our relationship with Him.
"Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts." -Charles Dickens

"Normal" Grief - What you can expect to experience
C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian philosophers and teachers of the past century (author of Chronicles of Narnia, among many other works), had his own trek through the dark forest of grief after his beloved wife, Joy, died of cancer. He kept a journal for many months after her death in which he wrote the following:
Grief still feels like fear. Perhaps, more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. If gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.

As you read through the following list of symptoms, check any that you are experiencing.

  • Fear. You may fear that you will experience more losses, that your husband won't get any better, that your symptoms won't improve or might even get worse, or you won't be able to endure the pressure now existing in your household. You may fear your friends will abandon you in your pain, that your husband might harm you or your children, or that he might leave you.
  • Anger. It doesn't have to be logical. You could be mad at yourself, your circumstances, your husband for coming back so changed, at the military, at God for allowing your husband's trauma, at the paperboy for bringing more bad news about the war, at your neighbor for being intrusively helpful and caring. Your anger might be seething just below the surface for a long time.
  • Rage. You may yell, scream, stomp, slam doors, kick the trash can, kick the dog, pound your pillows, throw things, yank things off walls or our of the ground. Sometimes you feel better afterwards. Usually you don't.
  • Weeping. You may cry. Then cry some more. And more. And just when you think you couldn't possibly have any more tears to cry, you cry some more. You may wail, or just sit in a chair, tears flowing down your face like a waterfall.
  • Guilt. If only I'd... What if... I should have... Hindsight and regret could occupy your thoughts for a while. As illogical as it sounds, you may blame yourself for what happened to your husband or for what's happening in your household.
  • Loneliness. You may feel that no one can understand what you're going through now - and that no one wants to, either. People may indeed avoid you for a while - not because they don't hurt deeply for you, but because they just don't know what to do or say. So they choose the typical default setting: nothing.
  • Blaming. This is so unfair! Where's the justice? What did we do to deserve this? Somebody has to be held accountable! Why didn't my husband take better care of himself? Why didn't the military protect him better? Why doesn't he get over this?
  • Running away/numbing. You may look desperately for an "escape hatch." There must be a way out of this! You may try drugs, alcohol, work, travel, ministry, sex, food, shopping, gambling - anything to get you away from your difficult environment.
Other symptoms may include (check any you are experiencing) - 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Dehydration
  • Memory lags, mental short-circuits
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Sleepiness, fatigue, lethargy
  • Nightmares
  • Hyperactivity
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Frustrated
  • Overly talkative
  • No desire to talk
  • Feeling out of control
  • Emotionally overloaded
  • No feelings at all
  • Others not on the list _____
Some people might check many or more of the symptoms; while others may have only checked a few. Everyone processes grief and loss differently. If you checked a lot, it probably means that you are more fully engaging in your grief. If you checked a few of them you may have already worked through a lot of your grief issues - or you might be denying your grief or deferring it - putting it off until later. Only you and God know for sure! In any case, healthy grieving could involve a number of the above symptoms simultaneously. If they persist at a significant level for a long, long time (many months or years) it could mean something has "hung up" the process. but for now, it's okay! What you feel is normal and you need to embrace and work through these feelings. Not try to fend them off!

What about "loss of faith?"
In chapter 1 of the book, the question of how a loving, all-powerful God could allow His children to experience so much fain, was touched on. (My words.) You may know the answer to that question. And yet, when your world is crashing down around you, and you're one huge, tangled ball of emotions, excellent theology isn't always the greatest comfort. Doubting God's presence when we're hurting is a pretty common response which is based on a common assumption. As psychologist, educator, and author Dr. Larry Crabb writes in his book Shattered Dreams:
In our shallow, sensual way of looking at life, we tend to measure God's presence by the kind of emotion we feel. Happy feelings that make us want to sing, we assume, are evidence that God's Spirit is present. We think  a sense of lostness or confusion or struggle indicates His absence.
We can have confidence that the sun continues to exist even when it's hidden by rain clouds. God is still near even when we don't sense His presence in our circumstances. But that doesn't mean we won't have faith struggles - even the best of us! Consider the paragraph written below by C. S. Lewis not long after his wife died. he didn't hesitate to communicate his disappointment with God as he tried to come to grip with the most shattering grief of his life:
Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is separate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are not lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once.
How closely can you identify with Lewis' "crisis of faith?"

His crisis didn't last forever. By the end of his journal, we read how he had come out of the other side of the dark forest, with more clarity, more love and stronger faith than ever before:
Turned to God, my mind no longer meets that locked door; turned to Joy, it no longer meets that vacuum . . . There was no sudden, striking, and emotional transition. Like the warming of a room or the coming of daylight. When you first notice them, they have already been going on for some time.
God's secret work. Dr. Crabb writes: "When God seems more absent from us, He is doing His most important work in us. He vanishes from our sight to do what He could not do if we could see Him clearly." 
Remember when Jesus Christ hung on the cross and cried out to His heavenly Father in despair, "My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?" God was silent. But it was at that exact moment that God was closing the transaction which was the number one reason the Son had to come to earth - reckoning His death as payment for our sins. And this is what brought Jesus the greatest joy of His eternal existence!"
The late Pastor Ron Mehl describes what God is doing in your life while He seems absent:
God is aware of your circumstances and moves among them.
God is aware of your pain and monitors every second of it.
God is aware of your emptiness and seeks to fill it in a manner beyond your dreams.
God is aware of your wounds and scars and knows how to draw forth a healing deeper than you can imagine.
Even when your situation seems out of control.
Even when you feel alone and afraid.
God works the night shift.
What you can expect from others
When you have experienced a great trauma or loss and your grief is assumed and evident to all those around, you will be treated differently for a while. This is to be expected - but some treatment you receive is helpful and some you could do without. As C. S. Lewis expressed in his journal, "Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers."

The less-than-helpful things. Especially in the Western world, social taboos have been invented that make us try to avoid or deny any discomfort from loss. We look with disdain at the outpouring of grief in other cultures and accuse them of "lack of control." We don't realize we are the foolish ones, holding in something that would be better let out.

But it's important to remember that your friends mean well. Their insensitivity is not because they intend to hurt you or prolong your grief - it's just that they're uninformed about what to do and how to help. When the following comments are shared, it's best to see the good hearts behind them. Smile if you can, say thanks, and move on. But don't follow their advice! Check the ones you've heard...

  • You need to put it behind you. Time to move on.
  • Don't dwell in the past.
  • You just need a good distraction.
  • Think happy thoughts!
  • Haven't you prayed about this yet?
  • Don't "cave in" to your sorrow. Keep a stiff upper lip!
  • You should be over this by now.
  • What would Jesus do? (counseling by cliche')
  • It's not as bad as it seems.
  • Keep a grip on your emotions. Don't cry in front of anyone.
  • Since you're a Christian, you shouldn't be grieving. Don't you know that God works everything out for the good?
  • You'll feel better tomorrow.
  • Hey! Did you see that special on TV last night? (In other words, let's talk about anything else but your grief.)
  • Be strong for your kids - don't let them see you cry.
  • How are you? (but they don't really want you to tell them too much."
  • You think that's bad? Let me tell you what happened to me...
  • If you just had a little more faith, this wouldn't seem so bad.
The helpful things. There are going to be a few of your friends who are wise in the ways of grief - either because they've experienced it themselves, have been trained, are particularly intuitive, or have read a lot of books! When you find these people, do whatever it takes to keep them around!
  • When they ask, "How are you?" they really want to know, and they stick around for the answer.
  • They're willing to give you their time; available when you need them.
  • They'll sacrifice fro you.
  • They're good listeners, non-judgmental, won't interrupt you to talk about themselves.
  • They take the initiative with you; they reach out to you by calling you up, asking you out, including you in their lives.
  • They find out what you need and then go get it for you.
  • They'll pray for you and pray with you.
  • They won't mind if you cry, in face they'll end up crying with you.
  • They've got your back.
Who do you have in your circle of friends like this?
What have they said or done that's been especially meaningful?
To whom could you be this kind of friend?

If you can't think of anyone who could be your supporter or for whom you could be a support, start asking God to send women like this to you, or to open your eyes to a current acquaintance who can be that kind of a friend. Make this request of Him daily - keep on knocking!

How NOT to grieve
Sometimes we will do anything rather than undertake the hard work of grief - then think we're accomplishing something. These actions might make us feel a little better temporarily, but they don't allow us to move out of our despairing state. Following is a list of how people attempt to cope with their situation without actually facing their grief. Check any you think you might do from time to time.
  • Act out - giving in to the pressure to misbehave.
  • Aim low - to what seems more achievable.
  • Attack - beat down what's threatening you.
  • Avoid - stay away from anything that causes you stress.
  • Compensate - make up for weakness in one area by gaining strength in another.
  • Deny - refusing to acknowledge that the event occurred.
  • Displace - shifting an intended action to a safer target (like kicking the dogs).
  • Fantasize - escaping the reality to a world of unachievable wishes.
  • Idealize - playing up the good points of a desired action and ignoring downsides. 
  • Identify - copying others to take on their desirable characteristics.
  • Intellectualize - avoiding emotions by focusing on facts and logic.
  • Passive aggression - getting your way by pointedly avoiding what is expected
  • Project - seeing your own undesirable characteristics in others.
  • Rationalize - creating logical reasons for self-destructive behavior
  • Regress - returning to a child state to avoid problems or responsibility.
  • Suppress - consciously holding back unwanted urges while ignoring the root cause.
  • Trivialize - making something small when it really is something big.
If you recognize any of this behavior patterns in yourself, you first need to see them for what they are; hoped-for shortcuts to restoration which won't get you there at all.

Show this list to the woman you trust and look to for encouragement and advice and ask her if she sees you engaging in any of these behaviors. But don't "act out" and punch her if she notices some, and then "rationalize" later. She may move past "passive aggression" and end up "displacing" you! Then, it's a matter of prayer. Ask God to help you realize when you're avoiding your grief work by falling into these habits, and to help you partner with Him in the process.

How to grieve
Be aware of the process. It is a process, for sure - but it's not a precise process. Each person will grieve a bit differently than the next. However, there are some generalized descriptions that are useful - kind of like milestones along a journey, to let you know that you are making progress, or not.
  • Immobilization stage - Shock; initial paralysis after being exposed to the crisis or trauma. It takes a while for the enormity to register and sink in. Jaw drops, breath catches, can't decide what to do next. 
  • Denial stage - Trying to avoid the inevitable. No! This can't be happening! Or, It didn't affect me; it's not that bad. Or even: It never happened. I just imagined it.
  • Anger stage - Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up-emotion. Life sucks!! Rage seething belong the surface at all times; lashing out at anyone for the slightest reason; blaming others; sometimes cold, ice anger; self-isolating to avoid blowing up.
  • Bargaining stage - Seeking in vain for a way out. Making promises to God if He'll fix things; setting conditions for healing, like: When my husband returns to normal, then I'll be okay.
  • Depression stage - Final realization of the inevitable. A very sad time, but also the turning point, because the griever is finally resolved to the fact that he or she won't be able to restore life to the way it was. It's the staging area for victory.
  • Testing stage - Seeking realistic solutions. Maybe I should try getting out more. Maybe I should talk with someone about my situation. Maybe I should start exercising again. Maybe I should join that Bible study I heard about.
  • Acceptance stage - Finally finding the way forward. They are not fully acknowledging the trauma or crisis. It was bad - real bad - but I survived. I'm going to make it. My world changed, but I can live in this new world. I could even prosper.

There is more to this chapter about grief, and there is information about how to have a good mourning, not trying to be the lone ranger, putting faith in the right place, signs that your mourning is working, information about keeping a grief journal, and a few other great tools to help you out, but I don't want to give the book away. It's worth buying. 

It's taken me days to get this blog post out. Longer than a week, to be honest. I hope it is helpful to you.

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