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In an irreversible moment, your life changes forever. Your life is upside down and your heart is inside out. Life goes on for others, but yours came to a screaming halt. With comfort and assurance, Dr. Flamming points ahead to tomorrows that will become a little easier than today. From years of pastoral experience and the heartbreak of losing his own son, the author knows that grief ...
In an irreversible moment, your life changes forever. Your life is upside down and your heart is inside out. Life goes on for others, but yours came to a screaming halt. With comfort and assurance, Dr. Flamming points ahead to tomorrows that will become a little easier than today. From years of pastoral experience and the heartbreak of losing his own son, the author knows that grief is anything but a tidy, predictable progression.
Written in short, easy chapters, with practical helps, this book can be your companion as you struggle to pick up the pieces and go on.
When Grief Breaks In
What Do I Do Now?
Unpredictable Emotions of Grief
Decide Who to Talk To
When One Day at a Time is Too Much
Find Your Releasing Activites
Strength from Beyond Yourself
Soemtimes Faith Needs Healing
Turning Points and Beginning Again
When Grief Breaks In
Grief is a heavy word. I know of no way to lighten its load upon our hearts. But before we begin to speak of the challenges of grief and how we will get through them, let me begin with helpful and positive words concerning what grief is about.
WHAT GRIEF IS ABOUT
Grief is to the inner self what the healing systems of the body are to the physical self. Just as the body has many systems that allow the physical self to heal when the body has been through trauma, so grief is one of the vital systems of the inner self that allows the emotional and relational parts of us to heal.
Suppose you were in a train wreck. You survived but received significant physical injuries. The physicians and surgeons did what needed to be done to help you not only survive but also heal and recover. Pain was part of the journey. Patience was needed. There were high times and low times. Sometimes you cried, sometimes you smiled, but always you hurt. But eventually, at a pace slower than you anticipated, you walked and smiled and worked again. The physicians and surgeons were indispensable agents of healing. The truth is that their task was to create the right conditions in which your body could heal itself. God created the body with healing systems that immediately go to work when trauma happens, especially if they are given help from those who know how to help.
When you have lost someone you dearly love, you feel as if you have been in an emotional and relational train wreck. Your whole world crashes around you. The sharp, stabbing pain you feel on the inside may be invisible to others, but it is constantly present within you. Your heart is broken, and no heart doctor can heal it.
This is where grief comes in. Grief is the heart doctor. Of course, it is not a physical heart doctor but an emotional, relational, and even spiritual heart doctor. Grief is an invisible healer. As painful and even horrible as it sometimes feels, grief eventually heals us enough so that we can begin again. It is the inner heart system that eventually helps us put life back together again. But this heart system embraces deep and painful emotions related to our loss. The positive wisdom of grief seeks to take the awful pain of our loss and eventually redeem or recycle it for our good. We will probably not sense this when we are going through such painful grief. But looking back, we realize that a quiet transformation has taken place. For instance, we will see how grief will tenderly transform the terrible loss that we experience into a tribute to the one for whom we grieve.
The key point here is for you to adjust your vision so that you can see the invisible but positive power of grief—grief as a healer. Grief is your friend, not your enemy. The inner pain will be intense. You will need immense amounts of patience. There will be many low times, sometimes even depressive times. Recovery will come much slower than you wish. The sharp, stabbing—but inner—pain that is the signature of grief will seldom leave you alone. But through it all, keep believing that silently and invisibly, grief is doing its work of recovery, because it is.
THAT IRREVERSIBLE TRAGIC MOMENT
One thing we have in common. For all of us, our journey with heartbreaking grief began with what might be called an irreversible tragic moment. At that moment, what has been is gone forever. It is a tragedy of indescribable loss. One loved and treasured is gone. Even if we are skilled with words, we likely can find no word or phrase to describe the feeling of being torn apart by the loss.
How did it happen with you? It might have been when you received the phone call that the tragedy had happened. Or it might have been the word from the physician that your loved one was in a coma and the end was near. Or maybe there was a knock at the door with the news that nobody wanted to deliver to you. But someone did. Your world changed forever. It is that moment when the one you have loved is gone and the future you had longed for is no longer possible.
That tragic, irreversible moment, that moment that seems to change everything, we are apt to remember for the rest of our lives, even down to the last detail. We do not talk about it, because it is too painful, even after many years. Besides, people would think we never moved beyond our loss. Yet we remember. We remember where we were. If others were present, they too become part of the memory. We might even remember what they were wearing and where they were sitting or standing. We are apt to recall what words were said and how we responded.
In my younger years, an older Jewish tailor became a good friend of mine. One day after he had fitted me for a new suit, I noticed the tattooed numbers on his arm. I asked him about them. After pausing a moment, almost as if he was gathering himself, he shared with me that, as a young adult, he had been incarcerated in one of Hitler's death camps in Germany. The tattoo was his number. Following an extended silence, I asked him if his experience still bothered him. Had he been able to forget? His reply was simple but painful. He said, "Many nights I wake up and remember some part of it. When that happens, I am so glad when day comes and I can go to work and forget it all for a little while." Those memories were at least forty years old by that time.
The rest of the grief experience, the period of healing and recovery, will weave itself into our lives. When we look back at the healing epoch of our grief, our memories will more or less run together. But the tragic, irreversible moment becomes a permanent memory. It becomes part of who we are and who we become.
So if you are troubled or puzzled about why you remember so vividly what happened on that day, the reason is that we remember the tragic moments of our lives. There is nothing wrong with you or your emotional health if you remember those moments, hours, and days.
THE WORLD GOES RIGHT ON
One of the abrupt and painful realities you will face is that the world goes right on as if nothing has happened.
Your whole life has been torn apart. An invisible emotional and relational hemorrhage is bleeding inside you. Except for the immediate sympathy of those closest to us, nobody seems to notice or care. A mother said to me after her son died of cancer, "I go to the grocery store, and everything goes on just as if nothing has happened. I want to stand at the door and scream, 'Don't you know what has happened? My son is gone. His future is gone. His promise is gone. His wife has no husband and his children have no father. Our lives have changed forever, and you go on gathering your groceries as if none of this matters.'"
I remember when our son Dave died after such a gallant fight against leukemia. A nice article appeared in the newspaper in addition to the obituary. I went to the barbershop to get a haircut before the memorial service. My barber had read the article and said, "I'm sorry about your son." Another barber nodded. There was a brief moment of pause, which I deeply appreciated. Then everything went right on as usual. Clip, clip, clip. In truth, that is what should have happened. One cannot expect a funeral wreath to be hung on the door of the barbershop because one of its customers has suffered a death in the family. But I cannot tell you how much it hurt. My son had died. His wife was now a widow. His girls were without a father. Our lives were changed forever. But the barbershop went on just as if nothing important had happened, clip, clip, clip.
While you are trying to let grief do its work, one challenge facing you is that the culture, the society in which you live, is not prone to help you. Oh, people will respond sympathetically during the immediate crisis. But the culture of which you are a part has a short interest span. People will expect you to be free of your grief as soon as possible and get on with your life. The world in which you live has little patience with grief.
In former days and in other cultures, a woman whose husband had died would wear black for months, maybe a year. Doing this may seem depressing to us. But the wonderful thing was that it made valid the grief she was feeling; she was not expected to be over and done with it in a brief time. In the popular view of our society, grief should certainly take no longer than a year at the most. In truth, after one year, you will have learned how to function, how to say the right words at the right time, how to smile instead of weep. But deep inside, you may well be grieving just as intensely as ever. Grief will be doing its healing, transforming work when most people will have forgotten that anything happened. "Get over it and forget about it" is more their message than "stick with it."
The purpose of this book is to help you stick with it. The world of which you are a part will not be there to cheer you on.
GRIEF IS AT WORK
A hidden purpose of grief is to take the sharp edges of loss and soften them. Grief is not only a healer. It also transforms things. It does so in a gradual but soft and wise way if we will let it.
For example, grief can transform things by what it does to the finality of everything. Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this the neverness of what has happened.
Nicholas's son, Eric, was twenty-five years old when he fell to his death while mountain climbing. In the dreadful aftermath of the loss of Eric, Nicholas kept a journal of his thoughts and his sorrow. Eventually he published these reflections under the title Lament for a Son. In one of those he wrote:
It's the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace us as he leaves for school, never to see his brothers and sister marry. All the rest of our lives we must live without him.
I think of the loss of our son. For fifteen months we had fought the leukemia with the faith and hope of total recovery. Then, in a rapid reversal, he came out of remission. It all happened so fast, and then he was gone. Suddenly Betsy, his wife, was a widow; their three daughters were without their father; my wife, Shirley, and I were suddenly the parents of two sons, not three. His two brothers felt brotherless. The great potential of his life came to an end.He had significant musical talent, but the songs he wrote, the melodies he sang, were silent. I could go on and on. But when you have suffered such great loss, everything is so sudden and so completely final. As Wolterstorff puts it, "It's the neverness that is so painful."
A Transforming Tribute
What does the tender wisdom of grief do to the neverness of what has happened? Don't misunderstand. The wisdom of grief will never make light of your inner devastation. Grief will not blunt the reality of what has happened. But it will seek to transform it.
The wisdom of grief softly and quietly asks questions: "Would you really like to be able to just walk on as if nothing had happened? Would you like to live as if that person's place in your life really didn't matter? What would it really say about your love for that person if you could just yawn and move on?" The wisdom of grief whispers, "Don't you see that part of the intense pain of your grief is your tribute to the one you have loved and lost? It is your salute to a life well lived, a commendation and blessing for the one you remember with such devotion."
The wisdom of grief has a way of allowing the one who is gone to never be forgotten. One way we can embrace these memories is to create rituals of tribute. One of ours is to light a candle every Sunday on a little altar in our house. Someone might say, "That is a needless reminder of your loss." We would reply, "It is our sustained tribute to one we loved so deeply." Rituals of tribute are important.
Anniversaries play a key role here, even though they are painful. As you anticipate a key grief anniversary date, you will feel the heaviness days before. But when the anniversary arrives, it will quietly salute the significance of the life that was lived and the love that both of you cherished.
Christmas will be difficult every year. But in its own way, the heart-hurt that happens is an eternal tribute to the one you have lost. A way to mediate the loss that you feel is to make a gift in memory of and tribute to the one you have lost.
The wisdom of grief is also telling you something about yourself and your relationship with the one you lost. Listen to it and treasure it. Just as your grief pain is a tribute to the one you have lost, it is also a tribute to you. In a way, the loss that you feel is a precious jewel. It is a tribute to the relationship that you have shared and the love that you have given. It hurts so much, yet it also honors the bond that was yours.
From Closure to Possibility
The wisdom of grief, in its own slow way, is doing one more essential thing in its work of transformation of the neverness of your loss. It will use the finality of your loss to eventually redirect your attention from what has been to what can be. The finality of what has happened, ever so slowly, provides some closure to what has been and begins to point to the horizons of what can be. Without a measure of closure you cannot move from the past to the future. But the closure comes with such tenderness that it never erases the tributes or the memories from what has been. It builds a bridge from the self that was to the self that can be. It will take time, sometimes a long time. But you are called to get on with your life without forgetting the one who is gone.
Now, you can stop the wise and healing power of grief if you choose to. Granger Westberg tells about the rich widow whose musician husband died twenty years ago. She has kept his music studio just as he left it when he died. She has locked the keyboard of his piano. For twenty years the piano has played no tune or issued forth with any music. Each day she stands for a long time in the doorway with her memories. She has consistently refused to reenter life. She has become known as "that eccentric old lady."
Westberg remarks that she never wrestled her way to a new way of life. Apparently, she had few or no friends who were willing to stay by her side and help her walk through the "valley of the shadow." She felt that her only friend was her deceased husband, and she was dedicated to remain loyal to him. She wanted no one ever to play that piano again, lest she would be disloyal to the memory of her husband.
The truth is that the tragedy in losing her husband was made more serious by her own tragedy. She was in some way meant to eventually make music with her life. She refused by building a fortress around her memories. It may be that no one will ever play that piano with the expertise that he did. But the piano was meant to be played. The music was meant to be heard. Part of the music was to be hers. Part of the music is to become ours as well.
The way to keep from building a fortress around our memories is to turn our memories into tributes and eventually to make music with our lives.
HELPING THE HEALING
In this chapter I have said that the great invisible helper and healer is grief. It is a gift, though many would refuse it if they could because of the pain that goes with it. But grief, though we might not choose it, is a gift from God. As the physical body has Godgiven systems to help it through trauma, so also does emotional and relational trauma have the healing system of grief. It works silently and is accompanied by great inner pain, but it has wisdom and healing power all its own. We can learn to be patient with it, trust it, and believe in it.
In your pain seek help beyond yourself. In the Christian faith the cross is the primary symbol. We Christians have decorated it, polished it, made jewelry out of it. Yet its basic truth remains: it is a symbol of great pain and suffering. Perhaps anticipating our heartbreaking times, Jesus instructed us to take up our own cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). For a Christian, heartbreaking grief becomes the healing cross that one carries day by day. The healing comes with the awareness that the Lord is walking with us, day by day, step by step. He has been there. He knows what grief is all about. He uses the process of grief to put us together again.
But don't forget the source of healing inside you. It is the grief process itself. As with physical healing, the healing of the grief process is invisible and does not depend upon your concentration. Even if you cannot think things through, fix them, or busy them out, you can trust that the God-given emotion of grief is doing its work on your behalf.
Remember, please, that healing is a process, not an event. It takes time. If you will believe it is happening and be patient with its work, healing will happen. The challenge now is how to encourage the healing process of grief within you. A basic and early question is What do I do now? To that we now turn.
Excerpted from Healing the Heartbreak of Grief by Peter James Flamming. Copyright © 2010 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted September 25, 2011
I was in his congregation when his Son Dave passed away, and he managed his grief publicly better than I have in recent years. I have read many books on grief and grieving in addition to going through the Griefshare Support Group several times. Dr. Flamming, in plain layman terms gives the reader an excellent avenue to help them process their loss. I loved the softcover so much that I downloaded the e-book!
Charles W. Baker, Jr.
South Chesterfield, Virginia