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.”
When you write about your pain, you are putting yourself on the line ~ the safest line you can find. It is the line on a piece of paper that directs the flow of your thoughts and feelings as your write or journal about yourself. This exercise is one of the most effective ways of working through grief that I know.
Let’s talk about journaling for the purpose of healing the hurt in your heart. I know that I risk losing some of you as a reader immediately, but if you will stay with me for just 3 more minutes. . . . I’ll make this short, sweet, and doable.
The Mystery of Pain, Pen & Paper
Are you attracted to the mysterious, the unusual, or unexplainable? If so, journaling might be something you are more interested in than you have even thought of before. Writing about our pain is one of those mysterious processes that changes our mourning. By writing out our feelings, the power of grief is rearranged so that we regain control, even for just a few moments. Expressing feelings on paper brings relief from the whirlpool of emotions. Our raging or stuck emotions experience freedom when our pain flows from our mind and heart out through our finger tips. I can’t explain why or how this works; all I know is that it does work.
End the Cycle of Suffering
Here is another thing I know. While we might be able to speak about our pain, memories, confusion, anxiety, fears, etc., the words we speak return to our ears keeping the whirlpool of emotions frothing in our hearts. On the other hand, when those same words find their way onto paper through our finger tips, a physical relief often occurs. Some current research even suggests that the process of hand written expression is more emotionally effective than using a keyboard.
Journaling is to your mind what Drano is to a clogged shower.
Journaling is to your heart what a cozy bed is to a child.
Journaling is to your body what summer rain is to dusty ground.
Important Questions to Consider
Here are some questions you might want to consider: Do you want to feel better tonight or in the morning? Do you long for relief? Does the privacy of expressing your own grief in your own space appeal to you? Are you willing to let go of those overwhelming emotions? Why not put it on paper? Why not give it a try? It can’t hurt you further and is highly likely to bring much needed relief, clarity, hope and healing. Any piece of paper and pen will do. You can dispose of it when you are finished or can keep it safely to revisit when you need the encouragement of already processed feelings.
Guided Grief Journal
In the midst of our grief, we need others who have traveled ahead and left us tips for our journey. Comfort for the Day is just such a resource for you. Written with compassion, insight and specific grief journal guidance, this book becomes your story of how God is faithful to bring healing for your broken heart. You will journal your way towards help for your hurting heart as you are comforted from Scripture. As you put your pain on the line you will move towards releasing it. If you think of it, please let me know how your experience of writing your life on the line is working for you.