In the last two months I have found myself an unwilling student in the classroom of grief. It’s not where any of us want to be, and yet at some point in life we will all likely find ourselves in that place; and grief will teach us some hard and cruel lessons. However, I’ve also discovered that there are some lessons that I’ve learned in grief that have served a purpose and have been a blessing rather than a curse.
Ten weeks ago, on June 18th, I lost my Mother unexpectedly when her horse fell over backwards on top of her while working cattle at our family’s ranch. I have lost loved ones before in my life, but the sudden loss of my Mom has left me reeling, feeling numb, lost and adrift in a sea of indescribable pain. In the two months since that Thursday morning phone call I have felt like I’ve been in the middle of that stormy sea and have struggled trying to find my way to shore. And yet, like so many things in life that are hard and painful I have two choices: I can keep on moving forward and let the grief mold and shape me and my character as well as strengthen and endure my faith in the Lord; or I can allow grief to destroy me. There are some days that I allow the sadness, regret, anger and fear to take over and I am oh so tempted to just bury my head under the covers and not come up for air. But I have also discovered through the loss of my mom that she has given me a rich heritage of faith in God’s plans as well as a sense of fortitude that keeps pushing me forward.
Here are some of the lessons that I have learned through this grieving process; it’s a list that I keep adding to as the days go on, a list that I will probably continue adding to over the years as grief continues to teach and change me. But two months later, this is what grief has taught me:
1.) We all process grief differently. My father, two brothers and I, as well as the rest of my family have all reacted and responded differently. My Dad and my brothers were rocks, handling the responsibility of making those oh so very hard phone calls, making most of the funeral arrangements, calling in friends, family and neighbors to help with cattle work that couldn’t wait. They were hurting and upset, but they were calm, as was my sister-in-law and niece when they showed up at my door that morning. My husband was also a calming presence, holding me and holding our children while our world - while his world was collapsing. When Dad called me early that morning to tell me, I lost all sense of peace and calmness. My mind could not rationalize what my father was telling me. I couldn’t breathe. I was sick to my stomach. I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a hammer. While others were making decisions around me I was just trying to breath.
Now, in the months following I have found that in order to get through this grief I need to have lots of time with God, praying, writing, reading His Word. I need to keep life and death in their proper perspective. My Aunt led me to the book “Heaven” by Randy Alcorn, and I have found so much comfort and peace in this book because it leads me to what Scripture says about heaven. I know that ultimately, although I’ve “lost” my mom, I haven’t really because I know exactly where she is and I know that because of our salvation through Jesus Christ, I will see her again someday in a place that is more glorious and amazing than anything we know here on earth. (My mom always hated the terms “passed away” or “lost”….she preferred just cutting to the chase and saying that ‘someone died’ or to say that they had "gone home"….it makes me giggle now about how adamant she was that we not say either of these two things when she died. Death did not scare her one little bit because of her belief and trust in God and His plan for eternity).
2.) Heartache is a real thing. I’m not talking about the idea of heartache…. I’m talking about the literal ache in your heart. It is an intense, sharp, and overwhelming pain that my heart felt, especially in the days that followed my Mom’s death, and that even plagues me occasionally still. It totally caught me off guard how physical grief was; I felt like someone had their fist around my heart and was squeezing the life out of it. I truly wondered if I was going to follow right behind Mom and join her in heaven, the pain was that intense. I walked around with my hand over my heart saying, “It just hurts so bad.” There is a reason why it's called “heartbreak”, you actually feel like your heart is breaking in two.
3.) We can’t do grief alone; we need to let others come alongside us. All that I did know to do in that instant was to start calling in reinforcements because all of a sudden I was paralyzed and couldn’t put one foot in front of the other much less make any kind of decision. Two of my best friends as well as two pastors from our church dropped everything that they were doing and came immediately. I don’t know what I would have done without them, they helped my kids pack their bags, they packed my bags, thinking about all that I would possibly need in the days ahead. They followed me around in my dazed state and made me eat and drink and sit down. They made phone calls for me. They prayed over me. My precious friend Deb sat beside my bed with me and wept. My sweet friend Roxanne drove the kids and I to Lusk so that Mike could tie up loose ends at home before leaving. She never stopped praying for me the whole way. I began receiving phone calls and texts from family and friends. I don’t know how I survived that first day because everything is such a blur, but I do know that I was able to because of the people that surrounded me. Friends and neighbors began to circle around Dad and the boys and I, helping with things on the ranch, bringing food, offering all kinds of help. Our family began arriving and showering us with so much love and care that we were overwhelmed. Everyone's kind words and love covered us all like a warm quilt.
There were times over the next several days, however, when I needed to remove myself from everyone else and be alone. I would sometimes find myself as fragile as spun glass, feeling that if one more person hugged me or said a kind word to me telling me how sorry they were, I was going to break. Those moments were fleeting though and I did discover that grief most certainly cannot be faced alone. I’ve just had to learn when I’ve reached that point where I feel fragile and need to escape; and I’ve discovered that after a time of quiet retreat I am then ready to face people.
4.) I've learned that grief is exhausting. In the days that followed my mom’s death I was overwhelmed with all of the decisions that had to be made, with things on the ranch that still needed to be taken care of, with people that needed to be called, arrangements that needed to be made and on top of all of it dealing with the anguish of losing the most important woman in my life. Again, it felt like I was in the middle of a raging sea; in the beginning the waves were enormous and kept slamming me to the ground. I felt like I was continually fighting them, just trying to come up for air. I couldn’t sleep or eat or think or breath and had to take things one step at a time, one minute at a time. As the weeks went on the waves became smaller and less frequent, but they still hit at unexpected times, knocking me down and taking my breath away. I have learned to just ride the waves with the knowledge that it won’t last and I can trust that ultimately God is in control of the sea and He won’t let me drown.
I also had to learn to “be kind to myself”. That was such a hard concept for me, but something that people told me over and over again....I didn’t realize that I was being unkind to myself! But I discovered that it meant being patient with me and making sure that I was taking care of myself and my most basic needs. I had to figure out how to get enough sleep, force myself to eat even if I didn’t feel like it, escape to a quiet corner of the house - even if it was just the bathroom - when I was starting to feel like things were closing in on me. I had to grab my Bible and begin searching for scripture that was going to calm my spirit. I've had to be patient with myself and ask my family to be patient with me in the weeks and months that have followed because my sadness isn’t letting up. I know that it has an effect on Mike and the kids, but I can’t fake being ok when I’m really not. I've needed to give myself time and realize that grief doesn’t have a timetable; it’ll take as long as it takes and I just need to let it happen.
5.) Grief will hit you at the most unexpected times. A picture, a smell or a memory are triggers for the grief to return with a vengeance. What I’ve discovered is that it can be anything; certain foods that Mom made or just loved, the sight of decaf instant Folgers coffee (because that was her drink of choice), a book that she loaned me, a sweater that she wore. Being in her home or her favorite places on the ranch have taken on a different feeling for me now because it hurts. State Fair was hard because everywhere I went I was reminded of her, seeing so many people that she would have loved catching up with, checking out the booths on the Midway, eating at our favorite spots, hearing her give Hannah words of encouragement, having her take Kade for a few hours to a couple of days so that they could enjoy their usual favorite spots. When my kids went back to school this week I had two days that I allowed the grief to wash over me because it was too quiet and I missed our phone calls that happened so often after they had left the house. Those phone calls and uninterrupted visits with my mother were a lifeline to me. The urge to call her was so unbelievably strong, I had to keep reminding myself that she wasn’t there to call anymore. In the quiet moments of my day my mind will start thinking about all of the milestones that are ahead of us that she is not going to be here for and I am overcome with such an intense longing that all I can do is let the tears fall.
I get that certain dates, celebrations and occasions are going to be hard to face without my Mom, what I didn’t realize is that sometimes grief will catch me completely unaware and hit me like a freight train…..at the most inconvenient of times. Like the other day while I was in Walmart, something as simple as shopping…all of a sudden I was thinking of all of the times that we shopped together because we were so similar and both hated shopping. We would fill our carts but then inevitably when we would get to the checkout counter we would decide that about a third of what was in our cart was unnecessary and give them back to the checkout person to put away. The tears came right there in the middle of the toilet paper aisle, the realization that I was never going to experience Walmart shopping with my mother ever again.
I’ve learned to just welcome the tears, no matter when or where or who I am with, to just let them flow and if someone asks if I am ok, to be honest and say “No, I really miss my Mom.”
6.) There is freedom in grief. I was given a book by a dear friend at church about understanding grief; in this book C.S. Lewis was quoted from his book “A Grief Observed”, he said about his experience after the death of his wife, “An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet….Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.” Sometimes I think that our society tries to encourage us to just push through our grief as quickly as we can; I think that this is in part because we don’t want someone else’s grief to touch us. We don’t want to see people sad, or upset, or crying so hard that they are a blubbering, snotty mess. We would rather say “Wow, he/she is so strong. They are really getting through their loss so well”, and then go on about our lives. In our culture I think that we try to avoid pain of any kind at all costs, wanting to bury it or ignore it. I think this because this was how I thought before my mom’s death. As a result we are ashamed if our grief is too much, if it affects those around us, if it goes on for too long, if it’s too emotional or demonstrative. We think that we should have better control of our grief instead of it controlling us. But the fact of the matter is that grief hurts, and the first step in healing from it is to allow ourselves to feel the pain. It does a burn victim no good to just ignore his burns, he has to go through a very long and painful healing process until scar tissue forms and eventually becomes less painful and less obvious. The same is true for grief. The painful process is part of the healing. If we don’t allow ourselves to go through the process then we won’t have freedom, we will remain prisoners of grief.
7.) God does not waste grief. I have learned that 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 is absolute truth: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” Two of my best friends lost their mothers just months before I lost mine, and one of my best friends lost her father and her mother-in-law in the past year. I also have many dear friends who have lost a parent over the years. My husband still hurts from the death of my sweet mother-in-law, Barb. I hurt for them at the times of their losses, but my compassion for each of them has multiplied since losing my own mother. And the love and compassion that they each shared with me is something that I can’t even put words to; it’s a compassion that moves into empathy because they actually feel the pain along with me, they don’t have to imagine what I am going through, they KNOW what I am going through.
God does not waste our grief. I know that my Mom would not want this grief to be destructive in any of our lives. She would want us to give it to God and allow Him to use it to glorify Him and to honor her life. Grief is so unbearably hard, and yet there have been so many beautiful moments of joy and blessing that I have experienced since the loss of my beautiful, sweet Mom. I think that I am feeling things more sharply, seeing things more clearly because I realize that life is so unbelievably precious and so fragile and can’t be taken for granted.
Our loved ones may not be here tomorrow for us to tell and to show how much they mean to us. I have found myself measuring time now based on the day that my Mom left us, and I also gauge time by how many days/weeks/ months it’s been since I last talked to her. How many days have gone by since the last time I saw her face and felt the warmth of her hug. If I had known that she would be gone on the morning of June 18th, would I have done or said anything different? You bet I would….actually I would have just said more…..and yet I know that I can’t rewind time as much as I’d like to. So I have come to the realization that what grief teaches me is that I don’t take any of my relationships for granted. I am going to love hard and completely, I never miss an opportunity to say “I love you”, or “I appreciate you”, or “I am here for you” because death is real and could happen at any given moment. I don’t want the pain of death to be because I have regrets. I have experienced that one of the reasons that the death of a loved one is so incredibly painful is because we love so incredibly much. That’s what I want grief to teach me.
Jana M. Fraley