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One year later

It’s almost 2am on June 4th, and I can’t sleep.

And I can’t help but remember that exactly a year ago tonight, I didn’t sleep this night either. Only last year, I was spending my sleepless night in the waiting room of an ICU… during the final hours of my father’s life.

I can’t believe that it has been a year now since he passed away.

I still wonder about all the “what-ifs”, despite my best efforts to banish them from my mind… and that’s at least part of what’s keeping me up tonight. I know that the what-ifs are a pointless pursuit. But pointless or not… they haven’t really gone away. They’ve just gotten somewhat easier to ignore (most of the time).

As difficult as things have been, I can’t even imagine how much more difficult it must be for someone to deal with the loss of  a loved one without God. I miss my dad a lot — but I’m confident that he is in heaven, so I know that I will see him again. And ultimately, that’s the best comfort anyone could ever have. For a believer, death is not a “goodbye” – it’s a “see you later.” That doesn’t make the pain and grief any less real, but it does remind me that this loss is definitely one-sided. For those left behind, it’s a big loss. For my dad, it’s all gain.

One thing I’ve learned over the past year is that it is important to grieve… but everyone will deal with it differently. I was amazed (and frankly, offended sometimes) by how many folks thought they knew exactly how we (the family) were supposed to work through this process. Some even went so far as to tell us that we were doing it wrong!! I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong way. I’m not even sure that it’s a “process” — since “process” to me implies a beginning and an end. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has gotten to the end.

My dad lived 1000+ miles from me, so things were a little strange for me at first (once I was back home). I didn’t have the constant physical reminders of his absence… so in some ways, it was easier for me to get back to my “normal” life. But then the loss would hit me when I’d think about calling my parents on the phone, or forwarding a funny email, or whenever I had news (good or bad) that I just wanted to share with someone. I began to pursue one of my father’s hobbies — photography — and there were some tender times when I wished I could talk to him about that. And then, of course, there’s the conversations with my family… which sometimes lead to tearful memories (or tearful sympathy for what they were feeling). I expected those moments of sadness… or at least I was somewhat prepared for them.

But there were other things that I really wasn’t expecting. For example, it would hit me sometimes when I’d listen to contemporary Christian music on the radio (which I used to love). Christian music can actually be morbid and depressing when you’re dealing with a loss.

Another thing I wasn’t expecting was how much I’d come to dread going to church. Even in a good, healthy church… people are people, and they can say and do some amazingly insensitive things. It doesn’t help matters that you desperately want things to get back to some sort of “normal.” You want people to believe that you’re OK… and you tell them that you’re OK… even when you’re not. Things have gotten a lot better over time… but even now, a year later, I still have no desire to go to my church when I’m feeling “down.”

The last thing I wasn’t expecting was how some new things have become very significant to me. Within a couple of weeks of the funeral last year, my church was going on a missions trip to a children’s home in Mexico. I decided to join them at the last minute… mostly because I just wanted to keep myself occupied… and because I didn’t want to be alone on Father’s Day. I had never gone before. But once I got there, I was hooked… and I realized that this was exactly the sort of project that my dad would have supported — helping kids who really needed it, doing practical things, and even throwing in a little photography! We’re going back to Mexico in about a week — we’ll be leaving June 12th. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m excited about the projects that we’re planning. When I go to Mexico, I’m not just doing something worthwhile – I feel like this is something I can do in my father’s honor. And that has made it all the more significant to me… and therapeutic too.

So here’s a little advice if you’re trying to comfort someone who has gone through a difficult loss.

  • Don’t expect everyone to deal with pain the way that you deal with it… or in your timeframe.
  • Don’t try to be someone’s counselor and confidant unless you already have that level of relationship with them.
  • Sometimes the best thing you can do is just be there. A friend who can sit with you through awkward silences can be far more comforting than one who feels compelled to give advice… even if it is good advice.
  • Be honest. Don’t say that you know what someone is going through if you really haven’t experienced it.
  • Even if we say we’re OK… there’s a good chance that we’re not.
  • Talk about something other than the loss. (It can be discouraging when every conversation begins with, ‘Are you doing OK?’)
  • Most people are very supportive for the first couple of weeks after a loss… and then they disappear. If you really want to help someone who is going through this sort of thing… be there for them when everyone else has forgotten. (a month or two later… or more… and on holidays).

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