Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea at the time what that would mean.” Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised
One of the principles I first learned in GriefShare is to “lean into your grief” … that is, to not be afraid to experience the pain. Nothing that we do can diminish nor extinguish the darkness that comes from significant losses. I think it is natural for us to try to relieve pain. And no amount of fear is associated with darkness.
Stepping into our suffering/darkness means that we no longer are going to engage in the fantasy of denial. It means that we acknowledge the reality of the small, ongoing reminders of our loss. It means that we allow ourselves to hurt, cry, experience and express our pain. In this most difficult process we carve out the new life we did not want nor expect.
If you are suffering through grief, are you trying to make the pain go away or are you accepting of it as a natural part of the experience? Are you making major life decisions in order to force the new life realities into existence … or are you willing to walk through dark valleys in order to find the path that will emerge into a life that uses your experience for your own benefit?
There are no easy answers.
Sittser’s chapter on the darkness that surrounds sudden and significant loss is so expressive … I doubt it can be improved upon.
We tend to quantify and compare suffering and loss. We talk about the numbers killed, the length of time spent in the hospital, the severity of abuse, the degree of family dysfunction, the difficulty and inconvenience of illness, the complexity of details during a divorce, or the strings of bad luck. … All losses are bad, only bad in different ways. ~Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised
Maybe we do this because we struggle to find something to say, and this focuses the attention elsewhere. I don’t know about you but I’ve never actually felt better because I knew that there was someone else worse off than I was. I can think of losses that are worse than mine, sure. But that doesn’t make me feel better.
The truth is that our losses are…ours. Even within the same family the loss of a loved one will be experienced differently. The reactions will differ. The way we show our emotions differ. It is really hard to compare losses - because there is no established path through grief. There are no ‘stages’ that we move through one after the other until we finally emerge, as if we were on some emotional obstacle course.
The worst loss that someone can sustain is mine….yours. I’m the only one who feels exactly like I do about our loss. But that doesn’t mean I am unconcerned about how others feel, or what others go through, or how it affects them. If anything my empathy level is much deeper than it was before we lost our son.
I think that at some point we really need to pay attention to how we think about our loss(es). Ultimately ruminating about the circumstances and pain surrounding them is necessary at first, but not very helpful in moving onward in life. Even if my loss is the worst of all, I must decide what I am going to do with the life I’m left with.
I’m currently blogging through Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised. I recommend that you pick up a copy today.
In the hours that followed the accident, the initial shock gave way to an unspeakable agony. I felt dizzy with giref’s vertigo, cut off from family and friends, tormented by the loss, nauseous from the pain. After arriving at the hospital, I paced the floor like a caged animal, only recently captured. ~Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised
Do you ever recount in your own mind the time when you first knew of your loss? I admit that it’s a moment I would like to forget. Four years have now passed since I heard the words that changed our world. You might think that after some time this memory would fade, but not so. I don’t think I’ll ever forget - even though it didn’t even seem as if it were happening to US… ‘grief’s vertigo’ is a very specific way to express this feeling.
I’m not really sure when that feeling ended. It lasted a long time, visited again and again at unexpected times.
Maybe what someone today needs to know is that this feeling will pass. This is not the total experience of grief, nor is it the most painful. But it will never be forgotten.
…I noticed a change in myself. I had a different perspective because of the losses I had endured. I saw clearly that my grief journey had not come to an end, and it was not going to. it had become a part of me, and I had the choice of where to place my focus - on what I had lost or on the new normal I had gained. ~Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like A Man
When it comes to talking about grief, I don’t know of any other term I hate more than “new normal”. I first began hearing that term (that I remember) after Hurricane Katrina. Everything had changed and we were going to have to get used to a new normal. I didn’t like that term then, and I certainly do not like it as it relates to the loss of our son.
But I think the real reason I dislike that term is because I don’t want a new normal. In the first year of our grief journey I remember thinking that God had taken away my old life and given me a new one I didn’t like … one without my son. To think of this as ‘normal’ in any way really stirred my anger.
Well, I’m still not crazy about it. That term just sounds too trite and cute to address the … new reality … that those in grief have to deal with. Let’s face it, there isn’t a good way to talk about something that hurts so bad.
When you look in the mirror now, a stranger seems to be staring back at you, so you start to do everything you can to become the same man you were before your loss…. Parts of the old normal are probably gone forever because of your loss. ~Jonathan Fann
Part of getting back to normal is figuring out what to do with this stranger called grief that has moved into your heart and isn’t leaving. One thing you can do is - after a time - help others who are just starting the journey.
No matter what you call it … this hurt you’re feeling isn’t going away … it is now normal. A new normal. No matter how you feel about it.
Why is it that so many of us men believe that warning signs are only for other people? Why is it so hard for us to resist a shortcut? … This tendency can have devastating results when it comes to grief. ~Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like a Man
The shortcuts are all dead ends. I guess everyone has a story that begins, “what I thought to be a shortcut was, in reality...” We know in life there are very few, if any, shortcuts. In grief, there are none.
Since I began my journey in grief and become acquainted with the ministry of loving grieving people, I have witnessed the folly of the shortcut. Nothing that we do will really change the reality of the loss of a loved one. How many books are written to tell grieving people not to make significant changes within the first year of a dramatic loss. Yet people still go down that path believing that it will turn out well for them, although there is enormous heaps of evidence that this does not work.
Especially men. A natural enemy of making good and patient decisions is the male ego, which suggests that input is not welcomed. We will hear it. We will acknowledge that others should have heeded it. But we have it figured out and no longer need to hear what others have to say - even others who have first hand experience.
Fann lists several shortcuts that men try to take to circumvent the pain of grief. In the end, he says grief is waiting on the other side. Excellent chapter in a book I highly recommend.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that both men and women utilize reminders as part of their grieving process…. I think there is a somewhat consistent difference in the way men and women utilize those reminders as part of their grieving process. …. Reminders can bring back memories that help you move forward in your grief. … I trust they will eventually transition from reminders of your loss to symbols of hope. ~Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like A Man
I am really enjoying reading this book. It is very well written, the chapters are not too long for my attention span, and for some reason there is something on almost every page that resonates with me. This chapter touches on something I would have said I had not thought much about…but I really had.
I remember very early on in our grief journey that I determined to get a tattoo to memorialize John Robert’s life. I’m not repulsed by tattoos (although I don’t get the total coverage tattoos I see sometimes!). I am repulsed by needles and pain. I’m sure that made me delay my desire for a tattoo until that desire waned. Which, of course, is the problem with tattoos. When you get tired of them you can’t get rid of them.
There are pictures… we have so many of them. They are on display at my house and in my office. But there are only a few things I regard as ‘mine’ (not that I’m unwilling to share them with Maggy), and as Fann suggests, they are hidden away and never talked about.
In a dresser drawer is a box. In that box is a ring. It is John Robert’s high school ring. For those who do not know, he died just a few nights before graduation. He was wearing that ring when he died. It is beaten up and scarred, which is not surprising given the manner in which he died. Every once in a while I take it out and look at it. It doesn’t fit on my fingers, but I usually try anyway. Then I put it back and it retains a place in my heart as a reminder of the boy I miss so much.
Yet, I never really thought of it being hidden away until I was reading through this chapter. It is interesting to know that this is something men do. My wife kept the ring for a while, and she wore it where people could see it and ask about it. Just one of those differences between men and women and how we grieve.
What one thing have you kept that contains the greatest memory of the loved one you’ve lost?
I have made countless visits to homes as a hospice chaplain. … Inside the home is a flurry of activity, often centered in the kitchen… But oddly, most of the time there isn’t a man in sight. … The men are gathered together, engaged in some activity. I’ve found them working on cars, feeding livestock, repairing plumbing, or simply wathching TV in the basement. During tiems of grief, men will even tackle projects they’ve put off for ages. Men simply need the activity to process their grief. ~Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like A Man
I suppose it is true as a general rule that men communicate better when they are busy. The activity is a distraction, or else it is a conduit toward expression of what’s going on inside. When there is a loss, there is nothing that can be done to alleviate the pain of sorrow and grief. But there are lots of things that can be done. Placing one’s focus on what can be done is a moment of escape, though never totally, from the pain of loss.
In this regard, I think it is important to do something with someone else. There will be plenty of alone times to be in sorrow. But doing something with someone else arranges for potential conversations one needs to have. It also gives opportunity for there to be healing … telling old stories, asking aloud questions of the heart, and talking through guilt related to the loss.
Being busy with a friend doing something that you like to do is a healing situation that one should seek out. It’s one way to Grieve Like A Man.
Often, men do not share their grief journeys with the women in their lives because they believe talking about the sadness would cause the people they love even more pain. Men think that being a hero means internalizing hurt and thereby protecting others. ~Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like A Man
I’m far from the ‘strong silent type’, but that didn’t stop me from struggling to find words to address the grief that came to live in our hearts. In my perspective it was my job to comfort my wife and others in our family in their pain. You can’t do that when you’re falling apart yourself.
I “talked” about my grief in other ways. I wrote about it on my blog. I talked about it in sermons and classes. I had discussions in support groups. But that one-on-one time with family members still leaves me speechless. I can only hope that I found ways to communicate both my sorrow and my support.
But the truth is we need to talk about our grief. If not for us, for others. That doesn’t mean we cannot grieve alone as we need. It only means that our grief spills over into our relationships in our family, and we should acknowledge that.
So often friends would say, “I don’t know what to say.” I completely agree. I don’t know what to say. Even today. Fann suggests that even simple expressions can be enough. We don’t have to offer monologues. In fact, we shouldn’t.
“I love you.”
That might be enough. It might have to be.
My father taught me a lot of lessons, but he never taught me how to grieve. … My father could not even discuss the death of his mother … I remember my father leaving the dinner table during one of these discussions to avoid crying in front of us. That taught methat men don’t cry and that they don’t talk about their losses. ~ Jonathan Fann, Grieve Like A Man
Grief is such a personal expression of loss, and you really cannot compare your grief with others. In some ways we all grieve alone because no one knows exactly how you feel.
Men, in particular, can be tempted to only grieve alone. This can be very costly.
From the moment we learned that John Robert had died there was only a very short time until we began to be surrounded by family and friends. In that first week we were almost never alone. When all of the events of the funeral were over and people began to resume their own lives, there were those who continued to walk with us through our journey of grief. It is true that they are still walking with us.
I can point to several men who were crucial to my journey - without whom I do not know how I could have come this far. Some had losses of their own, some could not imagine our dreadful loss. Some called every day, others were in touch in other ways. Some came alongside as strangers, but who are now deeply important.
As Mr. Fann points out in his excellent book, we learn a lot of things from our fathers. How to grieve is not one of those things. I suppose our parents hope that we never have to suffer a significant loss until much later in life.
I encourage men especially, not to withdraw nor to hide their grief. Find a friend, a set of friends or a support group and lean on them. Perhaps I need to encourage men to seek out their grieving friends and give them permission to express their heartache as they need to, without judgment. I have found that having men like that in my life has been a great blessing on difficult days.
Men grieve alone. But they shouldn’t.