Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Grieving: Yesterdays, Boxes, and Shelves

I want to share some pieces of advice. Words that have been helpful to me. Words that help me give grace to others. 3 pieces that don't necessarily have to do with each other, but they do.


I have a friend from ACU/Abilene days.  I only "see" her on Facebook, but seeing her and hearing her is important to me. She is wise, compassionate, and funny--all borne of heartache and healing. We were brought together years ago (nearly 20*%&@# years ago) when we sat in a hospital supporting a dear friend we had in common who was losing her dad to cancer. We were all ACU students at the time. We bonded over hard chairs, prayers and hugs, and a commitment we made to make sure that our friend in common would not ever spend a moment in that hospital by herself, without a friend at her elbow.  We agreed to make sure one of us was always there.  I know I missed some college classes and even remember walking out on a test to do so. It never mattered.  And because I made this promise to a new friend, I got up and walked out of a college class that last morning knowing I had to get to the hospital.  With no cell phones, or texts, or emails in that day and time (dating myself again), it had to be my Spirit that told me no one was at the hospital and the hour as drawing near.  I was there.  Standing outside the room, the only non-family member present, as a wonderful father and man was ushered in to heaven.

This new friend knew about sitting alone in a hospital.  Her freshman year of college (my senior year of high school) her brother (a freshman in my high school) took his own life.  And no one showed up to the hospital. I did not know them then, but was devastated to think this friend and her family grieved alone.

And that thought and feeling and desire to show up and be present has been with me ever since.  

And she made it our mission to not leave our friend alone in a slightly different, but no less, devastating situation.  This beautiful soul also found her dad after a suicide attempt later on.  She knows grieving, and picking yourself up, and taking a step.

And letting go of YESTERDAYS.

So I contacted her not too long after our child's serious suicide attempt.  The only person that I thought would relate, who I could say things to and not worry about judgment, and who I knew at the very least would pray--knowing prayers.  Shared grief, that I'm sure looking back from my current vantage point was hard for her to dig back into years later.  But she did it for me.  And she shared some advice with me that was given to her in a grief support group.  This advice gave me a knot to tie into the end of the rope I was quickly losing my grip of.  I have saved this advice.  And periodically revisit it and remind myself of what I need to let go of.

Her words to me:
"Someone told me I needed to forgive myself to be able to quiet all of the would'ves and could'ves that continued to torture me. I asked how in the world I would ever be able to do that and they responded,

"Let go of the hope for a better yesterday." 

That was a huge moment for me and I have clung to that thought. Forgiveness - letting go of the hope for a better yesterday. That was a turning point for me because all of the things that happened in my yesterday's, some of which I may have been able to change, most of which I would have never been able to do anything about, were done and gone. They were never going to be back and there was nothing that was going to change them. I had to be still and know that God is God."

This advice is helpful to anyone grieving. When we're grieving, we are experiencing a loss. That loss can be from physical death, death of a relationship, dreams, expectations, normal life, etc. Particularly, when grieving a suicide, and suicide attempt, the grief is complicated and has some extra components for the loved ones trying to learn to live again.


For many years, my mom participated in a Christian 12 Step Group at the church I was raised in, their church of over 40 years.  My mom is a compassionate person and gained much from working through the group, encouraging others as they worked the steps, and the perspectives she gained from the stories of other brothers and sisters. One of the lessons she learned in that group that I have heard her share often is about our BOXES.  Think of this as an emotional BOX.  We all have our own emotional box.  When life has hit hard and I am dealing with things like my dad's Parkinson's disease, teenage children, and changes in our family or marriage, my box is full.  When my box gets full, I'm brewing for a melt down.  It is too much! I cannot put one more thing in my emotional box at that moment! You have your own box, too.  I may or may not know all that is in your emotional box. When your box is full, you've got all you can handle.  So, when you look at the list of what is in my box, don't compare it to what is in yours.  It doesn't matter if you think the stuff in your box isn't as bad, or hard, or overwhelming as the stuff in mine.  When your box is full, you have all you can handle. And you are ready for your own meltdown.  We, ALL OF US, can only handle what fits in our box, no matter what it is.  Occasionally, even in my support groups, when someone hears everything we've gone through in the last 3-4 years, they automatically start to say, "well, my story is not as bad as yours."  This discounts their own box, their own story, and their own grief.

If your box is full, it is full.  
Sit down, 
YOU do belong here. 
No apologizing for your tears, angst or grief.  
We'll learn how to handle our boxes together.  
No matter what is in them.

One thing we've learned through all of our therapy, psychiatry, and the myriad of things we've had to process and grieve in the last few years, is that you can only deal with and truly grieve--one single item at a time. I can grieve the loss of innocence for my child and nothing else.  When I've made a little progress with it, I can put that one back on the shelf.  Then I have to pick up another thing on my shelf that needs attention.

 Over 10 years ago, when my only older 1st cousin drowned in Joe Pool Lake, I grieved.  I loved him.  We had forged a special relationship as adults mainly through our letters, art, books, and gift exchanges through the Texas prison system.  He was a talented, but troubled soul.  When he died after being on the outside for a few months, and during the 4 days it took for the rescuers to find his body, I grieved hard.  Just for Bryan.  Six weeks after his drowning, my best friend who'd been battling an awful cancer for over a year, left this earth as well.  When she died, I had to put grieving for Bryan on the shelf--even though it hadn't been very long since Bryan's death.  At times I would put Lynn on the shelf because I needed to grieve for Bryan around that 1st birthday when I visited his grave.  But then I had to put Bryan back on the shelf, because I was grieving Lynn, I was grieving for her girls, her husband, her unwavering friendship and support, and we were all facing so many 1st's without her, a group of "framily" forged in service, support, and grief.

At that time, I would feel guilty for not grieving Bryan.  That had nothing to do with my love for him, my amount of sadness, or whether or not I missed him.  It had everything to do with what was the most pressing grief at the moment and that I could only take one thing off my shelf at a time to grieve.

Our bodies, brains, and psyches can only handle so much grief at a time. I had to grieve the loss of innocence and the terrible trauma we learned had happened to our precious child after her suicide attempt first.  We have had to grieve the loss of our life as we knew it--several times.  We have grieved the changes in friendships, which continues at this point in varying levels and as milestones occur.  We have grieved the changes in family relationships. I have grieved recently, because this current life is our normal now and it's not what we want for our children, or ourselves.  We have grieved the loss of spiritual unity.  We have grieved the challenges life has brought to our table. We have grieved the loss of Keith's faith.  We grieved it as individuals, couples, and then with our children when it was time to reveal this particular loss to them.  I had begun grieving the loss of Keith's faith before our world was turned upside down.  When I found that child of mine near death, Keith's faith went on the shelf.  I could not handle it and the grief for and over my child and our family. We also have a large piece of grief that we visit only very briefly, but that we know is looming as we watch my dad's decline due to Parkinson's' disease.  Due to that, some of our grief processes have been long.  I could not revisit and begin to really grieve the losses from Keith's de-conversion until over a year after the suicide attempt.  It was all too much at one time.  I have had friends express in so many words and through action/inaction that they think I/we should be all better, over everything, moved on, back to normal, etc.  So, when you wonder at this point why I am still grieving the loss of normal life and friendships? Because I have way more on my shelf than can be handled at a time.

Grief is work.  Hard work.  Not fun.  But it has to be done.  Each grief.  So full healing can occur.

Let go of your hope for a better yesterday, don't apologize or compare the fullness of your emotional box with mine or anyone else, and give yourself permission and grace--you can only deal with one item at a time. Give others that same grace with their grief shelf.  Let go of timetables, expectations of yourself or others, and be and deal.  Right where you are.

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