My friend’s father died a little over a year ago. With tears she frequently exclaimed, “He left such a huge hole in my heart.”
I wondered the how I might feel when my dad would die. Would his death leave a hole in my heart?
Yesterday, my biological dad died. And my grief is so different than my friend’s grief who had an adoring daddy/daughter relationship. Mine is an empty grief. Maybe the best way for me to describe it is I am experiencing the death of a hole.
Holes –empty spaces where there once was something.
The Beginning of My Hole
My hole began when my parents separated and eventually divorced. At the tender developmental age of 4, I can’t remember specific harm this brought into my earliest years, yet I do know enough now to be quite certain I was affected by their dissolving marriage.
The hole that began with the divorce only grew as promises of my father’s letters or phone calls evaporated. The mirage of an absentee dad was the best I could get as weeks turned into months without seeing or hearing from him.
I could share the details of many specific disappointments and awkward events that involved this man I called “dad.” The best way of understanding the relationship is this: It would be absurd to expect, wish or hope for a paralyzed person to lift themselves from their chair, walk over and welcome me into their room. Likewise it was just as impossible for this emotionally paralyzed man to know how to be the dad I needed.
And so I lived nearly all my life with an unusual father who only grew more self-absorbed as he aged. I am coming to know that our grief reflects the relationship. The relationship was odd, and in the truest sense, weird. Isn’t it strange that a father could not “see” his daughter, could not engage with me as I needed, and never showed interest in my life or my heart’s desires? My guess is that I am not alone in this life experience.
Somewhere along the way, I decided that even though he could not love me as I needed, I could give him kindness as he needed. It wasn’t always easy. Maybe I am a good actress. He remained happy with the relationship. All the while I began a wonderful relationship with God, my forever-never-abandoning-adoring-perfect Heavenly Father. And my heart began to fill as I came to realize I was completely understood and loved unconditionally by the Best of Dads.
But this I do know, When a hole dies, it’s a weird grief. I have no sorrow except for the deep sadness of the tragedy of his life and those nearest to him. He died alone after a 2 month intense struggle, in medicated agitation and anger. His anger in his later years pushed us back when we wanted to step in with guidance or loving concern as he aged. But he was completely uncooperative to accept any assistance in his decline. This is tragic! It could have been so different. But it wasn’t. He lived out his script to the bitter end.
And so it is the “the hole” of everything-that-was-not that I grieve. How do I grieve this loss well? I am not sure. Much of my grief was already processed by accepting him for what he was; living his life in his unique ways, forgiving him for the hole he left in my life. I believe he didn’t know any differently. He was emotionally paralyzed, blinded and handicapped.
The Edges of My Hole
Yet with any hole, no matter how large or small, it has its edges. It’s along these edges that remnants of the genuine contributions of my father’s life clings.
I see a wonderfully creative, problem solving engineer, builder and artist. When my brother and I would spend our annual week visit with him and his family, I recall with a smile going to the beach, pier fishing and body surfing. For these memories I am grateful. I know he had a dream of taking all his adult children to the Micronesian islands so we could all experience the ecstasy of his love for that part of the ocean. And at his best moments, he could write or speak of spiritual realities with beauty. These memories cling to the edges of the hole. And I am grateful.
The Lesson of Grieving a Hole
And so my take away is a deeper desire to live healthy and whole, authentic and honest relationships with my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I want to love others, listen to their hearts and stories. I want them to know they have been seen and heard. They are loved just because they are, not because of any accomplishment. I want the death of this hole to be the seed that germinates connection, warmth, emotional and spiritual safety with all who live in my sphere of influence.
I want us to be assured that no matter what, even in our twisted, emotionally handicapped ways, we are more important to each other than we are to one’s self. And when any of us should die, I long for our absence to leave a hole instead of being the death of a hole.
Work! Who likes it? Possibly, just the word, W-O-R-K, conjures up negative memories of pulling weeds in the ivy bed as a kid. At least it does for me. But for the sake of honesty, there is some work I love to do. Possibly you enjoy certain types of work as well. For instance, I really enjoy ironing. The transformation of wrinkled shirts to crisp, pressed ones ready to wear is very satisfying. In addition to a quality iron and ironing board, I always toss in a favorite movie and I’m set to iron while revisiting old classic stories. How about you, do you enjoy yard work? Maybe it’s doing the dishes . . . or cleaning your boat. Just now, think of the one or two types of work that you like doing and identify what it is that makes it enjoyable for you. What tools make your work more satisfying and productive?
What is Grief Work?
As I continue to coach others through their grieving journey, we often explore that to grieve well means doing grief work. What do I mean by “grief work?” It is quite simple; grief work is paying attention to the grief journey and responding in healthy, appropriate, and at times, painful ways. It means facing the emotions and dealing with them in the moment. This can be awkward. When we are in the middle of a busy day and a wave of grief over takes our thoughts and feelings, it is awkward to excuse ourselves and interact with the grief. However, when we do, we are always better for it.
Grief Work Tools: Journaling
What are the tools in grief work? My favorite tools are a paper, pen or pencil. Keeping a small notebook handy helps us capture our response to the wave of emotions in the moment. Sometimes a good night’s rest changes the perspective of the monumental pain and we awake ready to journal about what is in our hearts. As confusing as it might feel, journaling about it somehow brings clarity. Journaling, random writing rants, poetry, letters addressed to God or the deceased are all good places to start. As you experiment pouring your heart out on paper you will discover which forms of pen to paper are most effective for you. And then do it regularly, like brushing your teach or doing the dishes. Comfort for the Day is filled with Scripture guided writing prompts that are specific to the grief experience. Check out this link to order your copy.
Another tool includes exercise. Often the buildup of grieving emotions is released during exercising. When we exercise, our body is fueled with fresh oxygen and that is just what is needed to put us back on the healthy grieving path. In addition, positive hormones, such as endorphins, are released that give us a better frame of mind. Exercise also helps us rest better and we need all the assistance we can find to improve rest during grief.
A huge and often painful part of grief work includes forgiveness. When we find ourselves in the vortex of blame, regrets, and guilt, it is time to get serious about grief work. It is time to be honest, take responsibility for what is real and true. It is time to be forgiven and forgive others. It is hard work and for many they need some assistance to navigate this section of the journey. It takes courage and hope. One little step at a time can lead you the whole way until you are out from under the shadow of remorse and suffering. Forgiveness is the best way to begin healing the pain.
Other tools for grieving well include gardening, taking up a hobby, fishing, hiking, sketching, painting or listening to soothing music. Choosing any of these types of activities connects you to a brief respite. It is a way to experience self-care. For a time, the intensity of grief can rest while we engage in activities that comfort.
Tapping into educational and support resources are additional grief work tools. Some of those might include:
Check out books that can be supportive and useful for your grief.
Arrange for a few visits with your pastor or spiritual mentor to discuss issues of faith and God as it relates to suffering.
Reaching out to resources puts you back into the driver’s seat of your grief life. You educate yourself and move from fear, uncertainty, and ignorance to peacefulness and application of new knowledge. These are important grief tools.
Why Do Grief Work?
In short, grief work is simply paying attention to your grief and responding intentionally in ways that you know will help you heal and discover restoration. As a follower of this blog, you are already well along the way to understanding and practicing your grief work. Keep it up, even when you don’t feel like it. Just like ironing shirts is satisfying to me, your grief work can bring you hope, encouragement, understanding and satisfaction. Considering the option of disengaging with your grief and allowing it to rule you, trapping you in suffering; grief work is such a better choice. Putting into practice some or all of these grief tools can transform your grief work into something you look forward to doing, because you know it will help you feel better.
Throughout my active grief, I was tempted to withhold what I was honestly experiencing, thinking I would spare myself added discomfort, or spare the one who casually asked, “How are you doing?” Did they really want to know, or was it simply syllables filling the silent space? I began to experiment with my options. I could look past the person and respond, “Oh, just fine.” Or I could look into their eyes and ask, “Do you really want to know?” Most caring human beings said, “Yes. Tell me.” The conversation ball was back in my court and I had a choice to make. I could respond with polite avoidance, or be honest with them. Which option would benefit us the most? Always, it was honesty. But being honest about our grief is a bit of an art.
Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.
While my son died over 32 years ago, there are times the wave of grief sweeps over me. This often happens when I volunteer at Camp Agape; a bereavement camp in Texas for kids ages 7-12. I serve as the lead grief counselor and grief educator for the volunteer training. This past summer, I found myself overcome with the need to share stories about Dawson. And there was Darlene. It took courage, yet in the nurturing atmosphere of the camp activities, I was able to cry freely and be real with Darlene. She listened so well, and I was free to be honest.
Have you ever connected the virtue of honesty as important in your grief? Please give it some serious thought. Are you beginning to understand how important it is to first be honest with yourself? If we haven’t made it a practice of telling ourselves the truth about how we feel and think before we became a griever, it might feel quite unusual to begin now. Begin by honestly assessing your thoughts and feelings at the beginning and the end of each day.
Just how do you take this kind of personal inventory? It is so easy to fool ourselves into believing something differently than our authentic self really knows. Now that your heart is broken, there is less need to pretend with yourself. The healing feeling is grief. If you want the grief to move through on its flow to the sea, then you have to get in and ride the current to its destination to find restitution, resolve, relief, and renewal.
Let’s begin right now. What are you feeling, thinking and experiencing at this moment? What have you already experienced? These questions are made easier when you evaluate your grief with the word back below.
Fear, Hostility, Acceptance, Anxious Loss of Emotional Control, Socially Awkward,
Reconciling, Resigned, Confusion, Loss of focus, Loss of appetite,
Helpless, Hopeless, Moments of Joy~Trust~Peace.
If you wish to gain the highest amount of benefit from being honest with yourself, take out some paper and a pen and do some reflective writing about your grief experience thus far. Further ideas on the positive effect of writing about your grief can be found here. Now that you have been honest with your current grief experience, you might find the courage to be honest with others. Talking with a trusted friend is a safe place to begin. This might be out for coffee, on the golf course, or with a fishing pole in hand, on a hike, or sipping a cool lemonade on the back porch. You could start by reading them this blog, or simply summarize what you are learning about the importance of honesty with your grief.
Not every Inquiry Needs a Full Explanation
It is true that we can sense when others are not emotionally safe for us to share an honest reply. I found that a few pre-planned replies helped enormously. Without going into detail, I sometimes honestly responded, “Today is a little on the hard side right now. I don’t feel like talking about it. Thank you for asking.” Or “I don’t think I will be fine for a long while.” Or “It is exhausting for me to talk about my grief right now. Thank you for understanding.” With these responses we can still maintain the virtue of honesty, but avoid the mismatch of the timing or the person inquiring.
The virtue of being honest with ourselves and others, is a useful tool in the bereavement process. It opens our hearts to the healing presence of the One Who knows us best. When we exercise our trust in God’s faithfulness to heal our broken hearts, we can experience it even more readily when we practice honesty with Him. No need to hide any of the pain from His authentic healing presence.
Have you ever had a time you practiced being honest or avoiding honesty about your grief either with yourself or with others. Your story just might encourage another reader. I am guessing it will.
He sobbed, trying to get out the words through the deep pain in his heart so I could hear it. “I . . . (taking a breath and a gulp to swallow the cry) . . . am afraid I am forgetting my son.”
The Mental Process of Bereavement
As my client finally found words for his suffering, my heart understood the experience behind the declaration. There was a time I too was fearful of my son’s memory fading into obscurity. Immediately following our son’s death, my mind was consumed with his memory. I could vividly replay the days that his leukemia gained the victory over his life. The dark morning of his death never wandered far from my consciousness. He was the focus of every waking thought and was found even in my dreams. But I struggled to recall all the scenes of his sweet three and a half years. Would they disappear as he had from my life? With the passing of time, I encountered days with little or no thought of my deceased son. I wondered how to understand this occurrence. Was I forgetting him?
“May I ask you a question?”
The sobs were subsiding and he replied, “Sure.”
“When your son was alive, were there times you didn’t think about him?” Silently I waited for his answer.
“Yes . . . of course there were. I would go to work and not have a conscious thought about my son for the whole day. Or when I was out golfing, I didn’t think about him then.”
I responded, “Did you fear that you were forgetting your son or that somehow your love for him was ending?”
“Of course not.
How Love and the Mind Work Together
“Since your son died, the very nature of grief means that your mind and heart are consumed with thoughts, memories, regrets, questions, and a never ending rewinding of mental images and stories of your son. This intensity continues for varied periods of time, depending on the person. Grief (your overwhelming sadness) is also the top priority for your mental and emotional focus. However, eventually as healing for your broken heart takes place, you begin to think about others, other issues, and other concerns. Your mind has space to think about work, social gatherings, political topics, simple pleasures, and more. Balance returns all the while your memories of your son remains.”
Kick Out Your Fear of Forgetting
I further queried, “Do you think this fear of forgetting your son and doubting your unending love for him, is visiting you today like an unwelcome intruder?”
“Well, I didn’t wake up this morning saying to myself, ‘I think I’ll be fearful today,’” He chuckled. “So I’m thinking this fear is very unwelcome.”
“Fear has a way of sneaking in when we are not looking. It is also escorted out when we accept the truth about a situation. The truth is, the natural occurrence of healthy grieving moves us back into functioning daily living. There is increased mental energy and focus to think about things around us and the consuming thoughts of our loved ones begin to fad. However, your love for your son and your memories of him will never end. Just as you knew you loved him and could remember him on demand before he died, the same will be true now and into the rest of your life. Amazing little things will trigger those memories and release your love. Are you ready to let fear out the back door?”
Coming along side a grieving friend immediately after the death of someone they love is probably one of the most intentional acts of selfless caring we can do. But how many of us are hesitant and uncertain about what to do or say. Here are a few ideas that my grieving friends have taught me.
Listening is really important. For those who have witnessed the death of a loved one, they need to repeatedly talk about the details of the dying process, and their feelings about it. Knowing this need of the grieving, may help us as we find ourselves listening to details of a the death that we might be unprepared for. Some stories are of a painful death-bed struggle that extends over time; others may die quickly and quietly. Other death stories can include details of an accident, violence, neglect, or how someone took their own life. As a listener, I think it is helpful to offer acceptance and understanding even when the story might generate uncomfortable feelings for us. (Being a comforter is never about us.) The less we say, the better. The less we react, the better. Just be the listener that supports and acknowledges the story without judgement or dismay.
A Safe Listener
With complicated death stories such as suicide, your friend might find it very difficult to talk unless they know you are completely emotionally and spiritually safe for them to share with. These kinds of trusted listeners are discerning, discrete, caring, gentle, and wise. They know that this conversation needs to be kept in confidence and held safe from others who may not handle the information with care and protection. Again, we must guard our reactions, so it never turns the attention to us. These moments of story telling are for the benefit of the grieving. When we listen, we give them space to begin their journey towards healing.
The ancient book of Proverbs offers this wisdom:
“The one who knows much says little; an understanding person remains calm.”
The Message, Prov. 17:27
Repeating the Story until Healing Begins
An important thing to remember is that nearly all the bereaved need to repeat their story of the death details many times over. Yet after they have processed these memories of their grief experience, they will move past it, and you will have been a valuable part of helping them through this earliest of grieving experiences.
So, what to do when you aren’t sure if the grieving friend has already processed their memories? Simply asking, “Have you talked to anyone yet about the day your husband died?” If they say “yes,” you could give them the opportunity to continue the conversation by offering, “Do you want to talk about it anymore?” Then just listen. If they answer, “No” you might respond by saying, “When you feel ready, I am here for you and will be honored to listen to your experience.” If you don’t feel you would do well listening to the details of a death story, then it might be best to offer support in other ways. To do so, take a look at more blogs for “Conversations for the Comforter.”