The best analogy I’ve ever heard about grief has been stuck to my ribs since my father died. When your dear one dies, it is as if hundreds of candles are lit all at once – that is how extreme the pain feels. It encompasses every fiber of your being and sometimes feels too intense – as if you might not survive.
But one by one, as the moments turn into days, the days turn into weeks, the weeks turn into months, the candles burn out. Of course, there is always that one. It burns in your belly, a constant reminder that your father, sister, mother, daughter, son, grandparent, friend has left this earth never to return again.
And then there are those days – the unexpected ones. Not always the anniversaries or the birthdays or the holidays, but the ones that sneak attack you out of nowhere. Those days when you smell that food, feel that breeze, see that color, something that reminds you of them – and without warning, all the candles light up in such an extreme way you can’t even catch your breath.
And you look around – expecting that the entire world has frozen in that moment. You KNOW that someone else felt that burn, felt the searing pain that flew from your stomach through your lungs and into your throat, leaving an unfulfilled scream hanging out there, just waiting to fly into the air.
But when you look around, everyone is doing their thing. They are oblivious. They don’t see the ripping sadness that is tearing your heart into pieces. Because unless they’ve experienced loss, death, complete terror like you’ve experienced, they don’t understand.
Many will try.
Many will not know what to say or how to say it.
And because of that reason, they might ignore you or hide from you – because they don’t know what to do. They often say the things that are hardest to hear – that seem extremely calloused – like “Heaven needed another angel” or “They are in a better place.”
Although the intentions are well meant and the words are heartfelt, many have no idea what to do with death because they’ve never experienced it themselves.
It’s not something they do on purpose. I’ve learned that GRACE is one of the most important parts of grief. Because we all do it differently. People become different versions of themselves in those times of severe sorrow.
But those who have joined me on this path – especially the path of unexpected, untimely grief – know and understand that it is all about the moments. You begin by surviving one moment at a time. Then it moves to an hour, and then a day. Sometimes the pain is immobilizing. But in order to survive, you have to keep moving.
One moment at a time.
People are really important – family, friends – especially during the paralyzing pain. We won’t ask. But meals, cleaning, the basic things that are hard to do – it helps when you offer to do them.
Once again – GRACE – is really important. Knowing that some days will be super hard and we won’t want company, but other days we will really need you. But mostly just to sit. Not to talk. Cry with us. Don’t try and understand. Just be.
It’s like walking in ocean water, moving through pain. You push against complete resistance. The sadness doesn’t want you to get through it. It wants to settle in your chest and stay there forever.
But you can’t allow it to live there.
Sadness is a disease that grows into bitterness and anger and becomes toxic if we allow it to live there for the years after loss.
Sadness is natural and okay in the beginning. It needs to happen. And in fact, remnants of sadness will always remain.
Today I feel sad. Today is 16 years since I lost my father. And I am sad.
But I haven’t allowed the sadness to create weeds of despondency in my heart. Sadness also has the dichotomy to become joy if we allow it.
How did I find joy after losing my father? 10 days after my wedding? 22 years into my life?
It was all in the moments.
But then it was all in the art of allowing the pain to strengthen me, to use that pain to minister to others.
When we lived in Grove City, we met our dear friends, Jim and Jess. Jess, after many years of waiting, was going to have babies. And when I say babies, she was pregnant with not one or two – but five!
She tragically lost two in utero. It was heartbreaking for them as a couple. But the triplets were set to make their appearance.
We didn’t know Jim and Jess well – not yet – but when Jess gave birth to those beautiful babies, Jack, Libby, and Philip, the unimaginable happened.
They went home to be with Jesus.
Babies. New life. Lost. Unfair. Not right. Horrible. They hadn’t even begun their little lives and they were gone. It was terrifying. Unbelievably sad. Even…wrong.
And I didn’t understand her screaming pain. But I knew my own screaming pain. And the two of us, we were able to unleash our screaming pain together.
I will never forget, sitting on her bed, the two of us together, Jess and I. And she pulled out the babies’ clothing. One by one, piece by piece, we smelled each piece of clothing and shared a beautiful moment together.
Although our grief was very different, our pain was very similar. Loss leaves a hole in your soul – an empty vacuum. It was as if she and I were scooping love into one another’s loss. We were connecting arms and memories and feelings and allowing one another to grieve.
Jess and I are sure that my dad was rocking the babies in heaven. Hanging out with them, telling them stories.
I began to see purpose in my loss when I was able to use it to scoop love into Jess. I knew there weren’t words I could say to make her feel better. But I could smell her babies’ clothes. I could sit beside her and cry.
And unbeknownst to her at the time, she was scooping love into my loss by allowing me to share in hers. Instead of pressure cooking our pain and letting it seethe and simmer, angry and ugly, we were letting it out, sharing the aroma with one another.
Days like today my candles burn bright. I don’t want to forget him, although the time is coming near when he will be gone longer than I had him in my life alive. And that is scary to me. But every single time I share in someone else’s loss, it seems that he comes to life again. It’s as if the pain of losing him has made me…does it sound cliche?
I have a mantra. Some of you may be sick of hearing it. But it is CHOOSE JOY. I had a choice when I lost my dad. I think all the emotions I went through were normal. There are stages of grief, and we all need to walk through them. We are angry, we are in denial, we are numb. But those stages can’t last forever.
I had to CHOOSE not to remain in sadness and allow it to grow weeds. I had to CHOOSE to let others in and allow them to serve me in my time of need. I had to CHOOSE to share my pain with others and scoop love into their souls. Daily, I still CHOOSE to allow the pain of my loss to minister to others.
If you are in fresh grief, it is okay. You need to walk through those stages, push through the ocean water one moment at a time. Your candles are burning bright right now, but I promise if you take it moment by moment, eventually it will be hour by hour. Then day by day.
After time, our grief wounds begin to scab. And the scabs will sometimes be ripped off. But if we allow those grief wounds to become scars, those scars will show others that they, too, can survive the screaming pain.
I am sorry, sweet friends who have lost. It wasn’t right, it is never timely, and it is never easy. But I hope my heart can scoop some love into your sore soul today.
I am praying for you.
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Carrie has written several blog posts about her loss. You can read about her wedding, or about the last letter her father wrote. You can also read about her own suffering with cancer and how she was miraculously healed. Pain serves to create in us the strength to serve others.