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Two years

This past Saturday was the two year anniversary of my father’s death. On the one hand, it seems like it couldn’t possibly have been that long because the memories are still so fresh. Yet on the other hand, it feels like it’s been even longer: so much has happened in last two years, and even the greatest achievements and sweetest of moments since then have been somewhat diminished because he wasn’t there to share in the celebration… and the difficult times have been that much harder without an understanding voice to tell me that everything would be OK.

Is it getting any easier as time passes? Well, yes and no. I’ve definitely made progress since I wrote this post, and even since last year when I wrote this one. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about my dad, but some days are more difficult than others. Losing a father in June seems especially cruel because you’re bombarded by father’s day advertising everywhere you turn. This year, my church is also sponsoring a father-daughter event the week after Father’s Day… and I’ve been helping with some of the promotional stuff. I’m honored to be a part of it, but it can be bittersweet at times.

For me at this point, the grief is almost like a physical injury that is healing: at first, you nurse and protect the injured area… but as you start to feel better, you relax a bit —  until you accidentally hit it or move the wrong way or someone bumps into it and the pain floods back in. It becomes more manageable, but doesn’t go away. Walking through the loss of a loved one is an intensely lonely and individual experience, even if you are surrounded by folks who love you.

But Ps 68:6 says that God makes a home for the lonely (or to borrow from another translation: He sets the lonely in families)… and He has certainly done that for me.

People cope with loss in different ways. I kept myself busy and shifted my focus to other things… like a missions trip to Mexico. So this month also marks the two year anniversary of my first trip to Casa Hogar Benito Juarez, a children’s home in Reynosa. I love how something that was originally a last-minute impulse decision has turned into an amazing opportunity for me to honor my dad’s memory and do something for a group of kids who have very little in this world. We’re leaving for our next trip (my seventh in two years!) tomorrow morning. These June trips have been a welcome distraction for me. They give me an excuse to get excited about something while keeping my mind occupied on positive things. And beyond that, as I’ve developed relationships with the kids and the workers, I’ve started to think of CHBJ as the Mexican side of my family :)

Thinking about life & death & what really matters

Recently, my (relatively small) church has been touched by a number of losses in a short span of time. I wasn’t very close to any of the deceased, but I knew their families… and I had the opportunity to help put together short remembrance videos for a couple of them (restoring some older pictures and putting them to music). I was honored to be able to do that for the families, and it was interesting to hear the stories and see what pictures people chose when trying to sum up the life of a loved one. It made me wonder what “snapshots” of my life would be most remembered.

With the holiday season here, I’ve also been thinking more about my dad lately. Even though it’s been a year and a half since he passed away, the void just seems more tangible around holidays or significant milestones. Last year was definitely more difficult, and difficult in different ways — for example, things would catch my eye that would have made great gifts for him, or I’d see something that I wanted to tell him about. Last year, it was about constantly being reminded of his absence. This year, it’s more about the memories. Good memories, but still tender. And being back at my mom’s house where every room and nearly every object has a memory attached has only intensified the effect.

Being so close to the end of this semester at school has also given me a few reasons to pause and re-evaluate. I remember when I was in high school, my dad challenged me to define success in my own terms. That was pretty powerful coming from someone who was very successful by most worldly standards. Over the years, I’ve defined it in different ways: finishing school, being independent, working in some sort of ministry, getting the job I wanted, solving problems, making a difference, serving others… all good and noble goals. But how I should define “success” in my current situation, as a non-traditional student in an extremely subjective field? At times there’s been a bit of a disconnect between my goals as a student and my values as an individual. “Success” means making sure that the things that have true & lasting significance don’t get buried under the things that have only temporary importance. The problem is… it’s not always easy to tell the difference when you’re in the middle of it all :)

My mom & I shared a lot of memories about my dad while I was home. But some of our greatest memories aren’t necessarily things that would have made his top ten list. In fact, some are probably things he’d rather have us forget! But they’re the things that stuck with us, the things we learned & grew from, the things that made us smile… and the things that made him smile. That’s what mattered the most in the end.

And I guess that’s not a bad definition of success: making the choices that would make my earthly father — and my heavenly Father — smile.

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).