Category

Grief/Loss

7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward.  As caring adults, we will serve our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

If your child is attending a funeral for the first time, you may feel a little bit like you’re on pins and needles. While you don’t quite know how they are going to respond, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time. As human beings, we naturally find a measure of comfort in knowing what to expect. This is true for children as well as adults. Just as we prepare our children for the first day of school, for a big move, or for the coming of a new sibling, we must also take the time to prepare them for a funeral.

Your child learns their patterns of behavior from you. The way your child initially views funerals will depend on you and your explanations. By discussing important topics in advance, you can prepare your child and help calm any anxieties.

7 Key Topics to Discuss

1. Discuss what they will see

Your child may feel a bit anxious at first, so try to give them as accurate a picture as possible. Look up the funeral location on the internet and show them what the venue looks like. Will there be a casket or urn? Flower sprays? Show your child pictures and explain the purpose of these items.

Also, depending on the beliefs and values of the person who has died, funeral ceremonies may differ. The funeral of a Catholic person will look different than that of a practicing Jew or an agnostic. You may not always be familiar with some aspects of the ceremony, but if you do know what prayers or rituals to expect, discuss their meaning and purpose with your child.

2. Talk about the emotions they may see in others 

Your child is no stranger to emotion – they feel things every day – but they are probably not used to seeing adults expressing sadness or crying. So, explain to your children that funerals typically elicit emotion. In fact, it’s part of their purpose – to give people an opportunity to publicly mourn (outwardly express) the loss they feel. In the eyes of society, the funeral is an acceptable place to express yourself emotionally. As a result, people display different emotions. Tell your child that they may see some people crying because it’s sad when someone you love dies. They may see other people who don’t look sad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. We all show our emotions in different ways.

3. Assure them that their own emotions are normal

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others seem unfazed. However, it’s important that a child knows that whatever they feel at the funeral is normal. If a child had a close and intimate relationship (as is the case with a parent or sibling) with the person who has died, they may need to cry themselves. Let your child know that this is okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

4. Explain what death is

Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you. Before having a discussion about death, it’s important to take your child’s maturity level into account. Consider how they’ve responded to the death of a pet or an insect or how they respond to stressful situations.

In general, help your child understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, discuss what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be simple, concise, and clear. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died. In fact, it’s better not to use euphemisms. For children, euphemisms can be confusing, so tell it like it is in gentle terms.

5. Explain burial & cremation

While your child may have many questions, the most important thing to emphasize is that because the person is dead, they don’t feel pain. When explaining what a casket is, you can also talk about burial. Again, use simple but clear language. Talk about how a hole is dug in the ground, and then the casket (with the body inside) is placed in the hole. Then, everything is covered again by dirt. Your child may ask why this must be done. In whatever words you think best, explain that after a person dies, we must take care of the body with respect and care.

As for cremation, again, make sure they understand that the person feels no pain. As you discuss urns, you can also discuss cremation, how it works, and that the body becomes cremated remains (ashes) after the process is finished. The words you use should depend on the age and personality of your child.

6. Prepare them for seeing a dead person

Seeing a dead person for the first time is often difficult. If you and your child are planning to attend an event where the body will be present, let your child know in advance. Talk with your child about how the dead person will look. You could say they will look like they are sleeping but their chest won’t move because they aren’t breathing. If your child expresses a desire to touch the body, let them know that the person may be cold or hard. Above all, don’t force your child to view or touch the body. You must give them a choice. Some children will want to say goodbye or express love through touch in this way. Just remember, forcing a child to do something they aren’t ready for can do more harm than good.

7. Teach them about funeral etiquette

Every aspect of the funeral will be new to your child, which is why it’s important to discuss funeral etiquette. By doing this, you will also alleviate any fears they may have and help them feel more comfortable. Discuss why we typically wear dark clothing – to symbolize our grief and sadness. Make it clear that they must be respectful in their behavior during any services they attend. You know your child’s behavior tendencies – specifically call attention to what they should not do.

Keep in mind, children are children, and there will likely be a few mishaps, especially if they are under preschool age. If their behavior is distracting to others or begins to disrupt the people around them, you may have to remove them from the service for a quick break. Explain that we need to be considerate of others and that this is a very important time for many people who loved the person who died. You may also offer your child a quiet activity to keep them occupied during the service, such as a coloring book.

Answer Their Questions

Now that you’ve worked hard to prepare your child, it’s time to answer their questions. Answer as best you can. Be honest and straightforward. Let your child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. They aren’t looking for euphemisms – they are looking for information. As they ask questions, they are processing the death and what it means.

Some questions you may hear:

  • Why do people die?
  • When do people die?
  • Is death forever?
  • Where do you go when you die?
  • Can I still call them?
  • What happened to him/her (the person who died)?
  • Did it hurt?
  • Am I going to die?
  • Are you going to die?
  • Why do we put them in the ground (if it’s a burial)?
  • Are you sure it doesn’t hurt (referring to cremation)?
  • What if I want to talk to them?

Ask If They Want to Participate

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected author, educator, and grief counselor, participating in actions after the death of a loved one helps us give expression to our grief. He says, “Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief…. Funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).”

For children, especially those who have lost someone significant in their lives, you might consider inviting them to light a candle in remembrance at the funeral ceremony. You could purchase two identical stuffed animals, placing one with the person who had died and giving one to the child. Thereafter, if the child wants to feel close to the person who is gone, they can hug the stuffed animal close. You could ask if the child wants to draw a picture to place in the casket. If not a picture, some other item. By inviting children to participate, you validate their grief and show them that they, too, are important.

For more helpful information about children and funerals, take a moment to read Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals.

Simple Tips for Writing Funeral Thank You Notes

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

At a time of loss, it may be very difficult to find the energy and willpower to write thank you notes. However, doing so is an important way of acknowledging the caring support and kindness of family and friends. In addition to expressing your gratitude, by writing thank you notes you will also have the opportunity to revisit their acts of kindness and find a measure of comfort in knowing that people care about you and your loved one.

Writing thank you notes is not just about rules and etiquette. It’s about sincerity and making genuine connections with people. Keep in mind – an imperfect letter that comes with heartfelt sentiment is better than the most perfectly written note.

Let’s go over a few simple tips to keep the process simple.

Select thank you cards

The thank you cards you select should reflect your own personality. Pick something that appeals to you. That may mean that you select cards with printed verses or quotes on them. You may prefer blank cards where you can fill the space as you please. Or, you may want to order custom cards through an internet service like Snapfish or Tiny Prints. Select something that will make the process simple for you while not sacrificing sentiment.

Decide who should receive one

After a loss, many different people support us in a variety of ways. One way to keep track of who you want to thank later is to keep a running list of names. You can do this with pen and paper or simply create an electronic list on your phone. While many people should receive a thank you card, more than anything, make sure to thank those who offered much-needed practical and emotional support.

Thank people who:

  • Sent or brought flowers
  • Made a memorial donation or helped your family financially (do not mention the amount)
  • Put special effort into doing something special, such as sending you a photo of your loved one or sharing a poignant memory
  • Took part in the funeral service (pallbearers, musicians, readers, clergy, officiants, etc.)
  • Helped in tangible ways like providing food or transportation, babysitting, running errands
  • Wrote a condolence letter

Keep it simple and heartfelt

With funeral thank you cards, no one is expecting a lengthy epistle. So, feel free to keep it short and simple but also personal and heartfelt. One to three sentences is more than enough (unless you want to write more), and it’s perfectly acceptable to write similar phrases on each one. Sometimes, that’s all you have the energy to do.

Best practice is to keep your message sincere and personal. Express your gratitude. Be specific about what you are thanking them for. Don’t worry about the “perfect wording.” Instead, focus on sincerity.

Feel free to include your other family members in the signature. Also, make sure to mention your last name or the full name of your lost loved one. In case you are writing to a person you do not know well, including names will help refresh their memory.

For helpful hints on wording, click here for sample text.

Break up the list

While there’s no need to thank each individual person who attended the funeral or visitation, your list of people to thank may have grown larger than you expected. If that’s the case, you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of thank you cards you have to write. Instead of stressing, break your list up into bite-size chunks. Write what you can, then set them aside until you have more time or energy. Give yourself permission to take it slow.  Alternatively, you can ask a family member or close friend to help you.

When to mail them out

In general, you should try to send out funeral thank you notes within two or three weeks of the funeral.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to meet this deadline, especially if the loss was someone especially loved. If you just aren’t up to writing notes, then wait until you feel better. It’s never too late to send your gratitude to others.

If now is not the time

If you find that you just don’t have the physical or emotional energy to write thank you notes, remember that guests and those who were there to support you do not expect any kind of gratitude. They simply wanted to offer love and support when you needed it most.

At a later time, when you have the energy available, send a little note or gift to those who were particularly supportive. You can start out with, “I’m sorry it took me so long, but I do want to thank you for….” Or, “I apologize for the delay in sending this, but your gift of flowers at Mark’s funeral service was lovely, and I wanted to thank you….” In the end, it won’t matter how much time has passed – they will still be touched by your words of appreciation and gratitude.

Navigating the Emotions of Suicide or Overdose Loss

By | Grief/Loss, Loss from Suicide

It seems like it’s all over the news. The opioid crisis is ravaging communities. Another celebrity dies of an overdose. Another teenager takes his own life. Grief is always hard no matter how a loved one has died, but for those who are grieving the loss of a loved one to overdose or suicide, there is an added dimension to grief. For one, it seems like the death could have been somehow avoided. For another, the death leaves those left behind with many questions; none of them easy to answer.

As a society, we tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or that don’t fit into neat categories. Typically, the death of a loved one fits into a category that is easily understood: chronic illness, accident, injury, heart disease, cancer, old age, etc. But death brought on by addiction or suicide can leave us at a loss as to how to react. Because of this, those grieving the loss of a loved one to overdose or suicide have added hurdles in the grief journey. However, just because the grief looks different doesn’t mean that what you are feeling isn’t completely normal.

Let’s discuss some of the common feelings associated with losing a loved one to overdose or suicide.

The Death Feels Avoidable

In the cases of overdose and suicide, the death feels like it was preventable. You may be plagued by considering all the “what ifs” and “if onlys.” If only I had known. If only I had gone to see them that day. What if I had shown them how much I cared? What if I had done more? There is a sense that somehow, in some way, what happened is your fault. You feel that you could have done something to prevent the death of your loved one. While the death may have been preventable to a degree, it is not your fault. In most cases, it is a culmination of many things, not the actions or inactions of one person.

Guilt Sets In

For many families and friends dealing with suicide or overdose loss, guilt is an unwanted companion to grief. While the feeling is the same, the expression looks different for every person.

  • Guilt sets in because you feel that you could have done more to help.
  • You feel that it is somehow your fault that the person who has died developed an addiction or decided that suicide was the only option.
  • You feel guilty because you feel relieved. It’s hard to deal with an addiction that impacts family and friends for years on end, so when the person is gone, there is a sense of relief, which is then accompanied by a sense of guilt.

All of these are natural reactions, depending on you and your circumstances. These emotions do not mean you did not love the person who died. They are simply what you feel, and it’s okay.

Anger Shows Up

Oftentimes, when a loved one dies due to suicide or overdose, we become angry because it feels like the one who died had a choice in the matter. They didn’t have to die. You might feel angry that the person didn’t try harder. Or, you might be angry at the drug dealer who enabled the addiction or the bullies who made your loved one feel that there was no other way. You may even feel anger toward any medical staff or first responders involved because they couldn’t do more to save your loved one. If you are feeling angry, you’re not alone. For many people, anger is a normal and natural response to loss.

Shame Sneaks In

Shame sneaks into our grief and tries to make us feel like our loss is less than or not worth mentioning. This adds a new level of emotional distress. Both suicide and overdose deaths fall into a type of grief called disenfranchised grief. Losses of this kind are largely unacknowledged by society and are often mourned in secret. Ken Doka, who coined the phrase, says that disenfranchised grief is “Grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned.”

Because we may not want to publicly talk about a loved one who committed suicide or was an addict, negative emotions may take hold inside, and a sense of shame may develop. We feel that our loved one’s death is something we should not talk about – something that we should hide.

A person may feel shame because:

  • A family member suffered from an addiction or committed suicide.
  • They feel that they enabled the person who died.
  • They feel that they didn’t do enough to help.
  • Other people think that the person who has died is less worthy of mourning due to the circumstances of their death.
  • They feel judged by others because of their lost loved one’s struggles.

Blame Separates Us From Each Other

A recent survey found a greater incidence of blame between the parents of a child whose death was related to drugs or suicide. The study found that of the blame comments they researched, 64% blamed the child who died while 36% blamed a parent. And nearly 50% of parents who lost a child to overdose or suicide report that their significant other blames them for the death.

Built on similar emotions as guilt or shame, blame works to separate us from each other. When something happens that we can’t control, we automatically look for someone to blame. You may blame the person who first introduced your loved one to drugs. It may be that you blame yourself for not seeing the struggle sooner or doing more. You may even blame the person themselves for not fighting harder or for letting others bring them down.

That is a lot of hurt and blame going around. As you process through your grief, know that blaming others feels like a natural reaction, but isn’t necessarily helpful. Instead, work through your emotions, seek support from your family, and move toward reconciling yourself to the loss. Remember, it’s not about “moving on” or “getting over it.” Instead, reconciliation allows us to find a “new normal” that works for us.

Stigma Isolates

As if blame, shame, and guilt weren’t enough, there is a certain stigma that grievers often feel after losing a loved one to overdose or suicide. Because society at large often views overdose and suicide with negativity rather than compassion, those who are grieving feel the need to suffer in silence, leading to isolation.

This stigma from the outside world may lead mourners to:

  • Not talk about the loss of their loved one.
  • Be reluctant about showing their emotions about the loss.
  • Shy away from counseling or joining support groups.
  • Hesitate to ask friends or family members for support.

As a society, we are becoming more aware of our own biases, but for so many, the stigma remains. But if you are in the midst of grieving, remember that you have the right to mourn. The manner of death does not negate the value of the person who lived or the love you felt for them.

Fear or Anxiety Rises

After a traumatic loss by suicide or overdose, you may feel an increased amount of fear or anxiety. You may fear that a family member will also die in a similar way. Or, you may feel anxious about your relationships and wonder if surviving family members are keeping their internal struggle or habit a secret. This type of fear and anxiety causes some people to try to control others, as a means of protecting them. While it is good to want to protect your loved ones, be careful not to overdo it. If you find that anxiety is interfering with your work life, family life, or the health of your relationships, consider speaking with a counselor who can help you process through these complex emotions.

Depression Takes Hold

Lastly, depression can be triggered by grief, especially by a difficult loss compounded by guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, blame, and isolation. If you feel that you may be in danger of slipping into depression, seek help immediately. A good counselor or psychologist may be able to help you see the situation from a different perspective, provide helpful therapies, and work with you to maintain healthy habits and positive thought patterns.

Consider Compassion

As you work through the complicated emotions of loss due to suicide or overdose, try to replace negative emotions with empathy and compassion. Think of the person who died with compassion for the pain they were experiencing that led them to such extreme measures. Think of yourself and your family members with compassion, trusting that you did the best you could in difficult circumstances. Consider with compassion those who do not understand the pain you are going through. Allow yourself to release blame and embrace forgiveness.

You’re Not Alone

Every single one of these emotions is normal and well documented behavior for those who have lost a loved one to overdose or suicide. If you are experiencing any or all of these, you aren’t alone. Others who have lost a loved one in similar circumstances are feeling something akin to what you are feeling. They do not feel exactly what you feel – no two grief journeys are the same – but they are intimately familiar with the struggle to cope with a difficult loss. Remember – you feel this way right now, but it will not last forever.

Reach out to others who understand, talk to counselors, friends, and family members, surround yourself with people who are willing to listen. If you continue to walk through the journey through grief, sometimes fighting for every step you take, you will eventually find your way through to renewed hope and healing. And who knows? You may one day find yourself on the other side, ready to help another who is going through the pain of grief and loss.

Grief & Difficult Relationships

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

If you’ve had to deal with a difficult relationship with a close friend or family member, you’re not alone. Many of us know the pain associated with tense relationships such as arguments, hurtful comments, and even estrangement in some cases. Did a face just pop into your mind? It could be anyone – a parent, a spouse (or former spouse), a sibling, a child, or even a friend. The person and the circumstances differ, but we can all relate to the stress associated with difficult relationships. Oftentimes, the relationships that hurt us most are the ones that are close to us (e.g. family). Those are the relationships that are supposed to support us during hard times and enrich our lives, but in many cases, they don’t.

So, what happens when that person who brought pain to your life dies? In many cases, grief can be compounded by sadness over what might have been. This article will share a few ideas for coping with grief after the loss of a difficult relationship.

So, what happens when someone who has hurt you dies?

When the relationship was strained, you may have contradictory, negative, or unexpected emotions after the death of someone close to you. In addition, you may not know how to deal with these contradictory emotions. Perhaps you feel relieved but deeply sad or disappointed at the same time. You may feel like this person let you down because they didn’t try harder to mend the relationship. Or maybe you feel guilty for avoiding the person because of a negative experience. Alternatively, you may feel so angry that you convince yourself that you are glad the person is no longer around. This may sound quite harsh, but for some, the relationship was so hurtful or abusive that the person left behind cannot access feelings of compassion or sadness at the loss.

While all grief is hard work, in many ways, dealing with the loss of a difficult relationship can be harder for the survivors to process. This happens for many reasons, but one of the most common is because of the deep pain associated with the relationship. Additionally, the survivor may have held onto hope that the relationship would change for the better, but with death, that hope is lost. Even though the relationship brought deep pain (and possibly anger), most of us still wish things could have been different, but death ends the possibility for change.

Difficult relationships bring up complicated emotions

Some of these examples may resonate with you:

  • Numbness; not knowing if what you’re feeling is actually grief
  • Feelings of relief, which may seem inappropriate and abnormal (though they aren’t)
  • An absence of sadness, though you can see that others are sad
  • Finding it difficult to accept that the person is gone and any hope for reconciliation is gone, too
  • Feelings of grief even though others may think you shouldn’t grieve the loss
  • A lack of closure even though you thought the person’s death would not affect you
  • Feeling guilty that you didn’t try harder to have a better relationship while the person was alive
  • Anger that the person took something precious from you (i.e. a happy childhood, good self-esteem, a healthy, loving relationship)
  • Feeling justified in your anger against the person who has died

This is not a complete list. You may be feeling something entirely different, but please know that whatever you’re feeling, it’s normal. People experience a wide range of emotions when someone dies, whether the relationship was difficult or not: explosive emotions, numbness, anger, shock, disappointment, relief, sadness, to name a few. No matter how you feel, the most important thing is to process through your emotions and move forward. You must work hard to prevent destructive emotions and thoughts from festering inside you, which is far more likely to occur when the person who has died represents a source of pain.

Why you should allow yourself to grieve for people who have hurt you?

Simply put, you need to work through all the feelings of grief for your own well-being. Oftentimes, those who never deal with the pain and wrongdoing done to them end up as hurting, broken, and sometimes angry, people. In some cases, they themselves become the “difficult person” in someone else’s life, and the cycle continues. Those of us who have dealt with a long-term difficult relationship need to realize that there is deep emotional baggage to unpack, which doesn’t end simply because the person who inflicted it is dead. We must still learn how to reconcile with our past and move forward toward the future in a healthy way.

A few tips on moving forward with grief

To unpack all of the conflicting emotions that you are experiencing, take some time to try to name your feelings and then begin to process through them. First of all, give yourself permission to grieve, no matter what that looks like. As you process the loss of this person, here are some thoughts on how to unpack the complex emotions you may be feeling:

1. Process what happened

“Mourners must go backward before they can go forward.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor, author

It’s important to understand that trauma can come directly from negative experiences (i.e. hurtful words, actions, and abuse) and indirectly from a lack of positive experiences (i.e. affirming words, expressed love and affection, and quality time). So, for example, if most people saw that you had a good father who provided for his family, but he never hugged you or told you he loved you, then you might feel the conflict resulting from indirect trauma. Here are a few ideas to help you process what happened:

  • Acknowledge the pain that you experienced and allow yourself to validate the pain without minimizing what happened.
  • List out all the emotions that you feel, without judgment.
  • Journal about the experience you are going through. Share what you do miss about the person, what you don’t, what you wish the relationship had been like, and what it actually was like.  A journal is a safe place to externalize your emotions, which is necessary to grieve well.
  • Talk about the difficult relationship – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with a safe person such as a spouse, friend, or counselor. Use this time to process what you feel, both relating to the recent death but also relating to previous tensions or trauma. It’s the unsaid stories that can do the most damage, so even if you are angry, put it into words. Don’t hold those painful thoughts and emotions inside.

2. Mourn for what was lost

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” -John Greenleaf Whittier, American poet

Mourning is the external expression of internal grief. Expressing grief externally through mourning helps us to move forward in our grief journey. When we lose someone with whom we had a painful, difficult relationship, the process of mourning may be a little different. Here are a few examples of what mourning a difficult relationship may involve:

  • Allow yourself to mourn for what might have been. Grieve for the child that felt lonely, hurt, and alone. Grieve for the hugs and kisses and comforting words that didn’t come. Allow yourself to cry, not necessarily for the person who hurt you, but for the pain you endured.
  • Turn anger at the other person into compassion for yourself. As a wounded person, you are likely angry at the person who hurt you. However, anger will not help you heal. Instead, turn your anger at the other person into compassion for yourself. Tell that hurting child or young person inside you what you wish you had heard from other adults in your life. For example, “You didn’t deserve to be treated that way,” or “You are worthy of love and affection.” When you treat yourself with compassion, you give yourself a gift the other person couldn’t.
  • You can also try writing a letter to the person who has died to tell them everything that was left unsaid. Just because one party is gone doesn’t mean that you can’t still reconcile yourself to the loss. Tell the person exactly how their actions made you feel to get it all out. This is about you and your life, your healing, and your future. There are no longer any feelings to hurt or consequences to fear. Say what needs to be said so you can heal.

3. Choose to forgive

“Hatred is the rabid dog that turns on its owner. Revenge is the raging fire that consumes the arsonist. Bitterness is the trap that snares the hunter.” – Max Lucado

Finally, forgive, even when it feels impossible. Think of forgiveness as something you are doing for you, not for the other person. Release yourself from having to carry the burden of anger and bitterness. Only then can you release the hold they have on your life and emotions. By forgiving, you can find the peace you’ve been searching for. Remember:

  • Forgiveness is for your own well-being
  • The process of forgiveness can take time
  • Forgiveness does not excuse the behavior of the other person
  • Forgiving someone begins as a choice, not a feeling
  • Prayer, guided meditations, or deep breathing can help you focus on releasing feelings of anger and bitterness and receiving feelings of compassion and empathy for yourself and others

Do it for you

There are no perfect relationships. In fact, at some point, even the best of relationships will experience misunderstandings, moments of pain, or a few harsh words. For some, deep down, you really did love the difficult person in your life, and you are sad for the relationship that never was. For others, years of harsh words and painful interactions have encouraged you to build a protective wall around yourself. Even now, you’re not sure how to take it down (or if you even want to). No matter where you fall, at some point, you felt love toward the difficult person in your life or desired love from them. While it is a greater challenge to forgive and grieve a person who brought you pain, once you’ve done it, you will experience a freedom you’ve not known before.

 

Survival Guide to Grieving Special Days

By | Grief/Loss

We all have “special” days in our lives, and after the loss of someone we love, they are often particularly difficult. Birthdays. Holidays. Anniversaries. The first day you met. The first time you knew you loved them. Their favorite day of the year. No matter who you’ve lost – parent, grandparent, spouse, sibling, child, or friend – any day of the year could be special to you and the one you love.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a noted grief counselor, author, and educator, affirms that our grief journeys are as unique as we are. “In life, everyone grieves. But their grief journeys are never the same. Despite what you may hear, you will do the work of mourning in your own special way. Be careful about comparing your experience with that of other people. Also, do not adopt assumptions about how long your grief should last. Just consider taking a ‘one-day-at-a-time’ approach. Doing so allows you to mourn at your own pace.”

When those special and significant days come, here are a few ideas for navigating through them:

1. Plan ahead

As a special day or milestone approaches, consider what you will need to get through the day. Think ahead and decide if you need to take the day off to rest and reflect. You may also wish to do something special or meaningful to honor your loved one’s memory. Or, you may want to go to a special place or gather with certain people on that day. A little planning ahead of time can make for a more peaceful and contemplative day.

2. Take time to remember

The hardest part about a day that is special to you is if no one else seems to remember. No matter what the particular day may be, if it’s significant to you and your lost loved one, do something to remember, to celebrate, to commemorate, and to honor it. Take flowers to the gravesite, look through old photos and videos, light a candle, or write a letter. All of these are simple ways to express your grief outwardly. The outward expression of grief will help bring peace and healing on a difficult day.

3. Give to meaningful causes

Giving back is one way you can pay it forward to others and carry on your loved one’s legacy.  Though your loved one is gone, their legacy lives on through you. For example, if they greatly valued children, find a way to give back to local or international programs that help children. You may even sign up for a race or a walk that raises funds for a special cause. Focusing on the needs of others will also help you look outside your own pain and take a break from grief.

4. Reinvent the day

Another option is to reinvent the days that bring you pain. For example, on the anniversary of your loved one’s death, do something that would have delighted them. If they loved to fish, go spend a day at the lake and take time to remember and cherish. This same principle can be applied to any special day. Changing routines and focusing on what brings you joy and peace, even temporarily, can help you get through a hard day.

5. Enjoy quiet time

For many of us, we need time alone to process through our emotions, so quietness may be what you need on the “special” days. Take deep breaths and allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you need to feel. If painful emotions come to the surface, find a healthy way to express those emotions. Remember, it’s okay if you need to cry. Grief journaling, creative expression, and spending time outdoors are all very effective ways to express your feelings.

6. Talk about your feelings

Your friends and family care. Don’t be afraid that you’re going to “bring them down” if you talk honestly about the sadness that you’re experiencing. If you need to get something off your chest, do it. Too often, our culture encourages us to stifle sad emotions and put on a happy face. But it’s healthy to express what we feel and confide in others. Let those who love you support you. If your friends and family are unable to give what you need at this time, join a support group or find a counselor.

7. Spend time with friends and family

While it is good to spend some time in solitude and reflection, it is also important to socialize with people who support you and care about you. Go out to dinner or prepare a meal together. Turn on a favorite film or tv show. Numerous studies have shown that laughter plays an important role in lowering stress, improving mood, strengthening our relationships, and contributing to our overall health. By taking time to laugh with people you love, you take a healing step forward.

Don’t Forget – It’s a Journey

Some of these suggestions may appeal to you while others don’t. That’s okay. Remember what Dr. Wolfelt said earlier? Our grief journeys are never the same. They look different for each of us, so some of these options will be right for you and others won’t. Simply choose what’s best for you and follow through.

The “special” days will always be special to you, but eventually, the pain they awaken won’t be so overwhelming. The grief will lessen in intensity, but we never truly get over our grief. We become reconciled to it. In other words, we find a new way to live because the old way is gone forever. It’s hard work, and it will take time, but eventually, you will find your “new normal.”

But for now, grieve. Cry. Remember. And look for ways to celebrate your lost loved one on those days that are special to you. Or find a way to turn painful days into positive, uplifting moments that help you honor and remember the one who died. May you find the peace and reconciliation you need.

How Creativity Can Help You Deal With Loss

By | AfterCare, Grief/Loss

Your way back will happen very slowly. Almost like a whisper. You will be OK. Not the same. But OK. Not you. But still you. – Christina Rasmussen

Sometimes talking about our grief isn’t enough. Maybe our words don’t fully say what we want them to say. Or they don’t capture the depth of what we feel. This is why creative expression is such an integral part of the human experience and an excellent way to process the painful feelings we encounter, especially during times of grief. For many, participating in creative self-expression can help bring deep-rooted, complex emotions to light.

As part of your grief journey, you might consider taking up an activity that allows you to express yourself creatively. For many of us, painting comes to mind first, but you don’t have to take up painting if you don’t want to. There are many ways to express yourself creatively and tap into what is hiding below the surface. For example, you could: draw (pencil, pastels, ink), paint, sculpt, scrapbook, keep a grief journal, take photographs, garden, write poetry or prose, cook, bake, take up calligraphy, compose music, restore a car, woodwork, or create a memory quilt or box.

In the end, the final product doesn’t matter. The healing value is in the doing. You don’t have to be good at something to take it up as a vehicle for healing. In other words, you don’t have to be a writer to keep a grief journal. You don’t have to be a painter to use watercolors or oils. You don’t have to be a photographer to take beautiful pictures. All you need is the motivation and the desire to see if creative expression will help you.

Here are a few reasons why delving into your creativity may help you deal with loss.

1. It helps you express things you might not be able to put into words.

We all know how it feels to be at a loss for words. Creative expression allows us to become more aware of how we actually feel. In the creative process, we slow down a little and think about our emotions, actions, moods, and behaviors. There may be something going on inside that we don’t realize is there until we take the time to explore it.

2. The creative options available to you are wide and varied.

As mentioned above, you aren’t limited in what medium you choose as your creative outlet. An Australian woman did choose to paint and is now exhibiting her work, while another woman created works of art made from the clothing left behind by the son she lost. Eric Clapton, a musician who lost his young son in a freak accident, used music to help him deal with his grief. No matter what form of expression you choose, the results can contribute to the healing and reconciliation you come to regarding the death of the person you loved.

3. It’s a safe way to express your emotions.

Grief can bring out a myriad of emotions. Some of your emotions may even make you nervous or afraid. Using your creativity to deal with loss is a way to safely express yourself. No other person needs to be around when you create, unless you want them to be. It’s a time when you can choose to be alone to constructively explore what’s in your heart and mind. Your work is as private as you want it to be, and even if the emotions that reveal themselves are ugly, it’s better to get them out than to have them bottled up inside, waiting for a moment to burst.

4. It’s something you can control in a world that may seem out of control.

When we lose someone we love, our world is rocked. Things that felt safe and secure before may now feel shaky and uncertain. Depending on the depth of the loss, it may feel like everything is spiraling out of control. By taking up a creative habit, you create an opportunity where you can exert a certain level of control over at least one aspect of your life. It’s your work, and you make the rules. Throughout the process, creativity may become a reliable friend – a means of self-support during a time of confusion and pain.

5. It provides you with an opportunity to engage with others who are grieving.

Some will choose to engage in solitary creative expression. Others will take the opportunity to participate in collective creative expression. If you decide to paint, you might join a group of other painters who are going through loss. If you decide to write poetry, you could join a writing group focused on grief. You are not alone in your journey – so many others are also dealing with grief in their own way. You may find a kindred spirit in a class who will come alongside you as you grieve.

6. It is beneficial to your health.

It has been discovered that self-expression, particularly the arts, can actually help relieve feelings of stress, fear, and depression. The body calms during the activity, which, in turn, contributes to reduced blood pressure and even releases chemicals in the brain to decrease some types of depression. By allowing the emotions building up on the inside to find outward expression, you are actually allowing your body to relax, resulting in less strain and better health.

7. It helps you remember that there is still beauty in the world.

No matter which medium you choose to interact with – photography, journaling, woodworking, painting, etc. – at some point you will make a realization: there is still beauty in the world. The flowers are still delicate, the mountains are still impressive, and people are still worth knowing and loving. Even in grief, you will have good moments – days when you remember that life can be good. When those days come, don’t reject them. Embrace them. Remember that life can be good again…not the same but still good.

A brief note regarding creative expression and children in grief: Creative expression activities (most often arts & crafts) are very helpful for children experiencing grief. Children have a difficult time identifying what they are feeling, much less putting it into words. Arts & crafts allow them to communicate without words and provide an opportunity to release their emotions and express their thoughts.

If you’d like to give creative expression a try, you first need to pick an activity that appeals to you – even if you don’t think you’re good at it! Then, for three or four consecutive days, spend at least 20 minutes a day doing your chosen activity. After a few days, evaluate how you feel and if you’d like to continue. Fully embrace the activity during the trial phase and express yourself fearlessly. Your emotions are important, and they need to be expressed so that you can move forward.

10 Ways to Reinvent Valentine’s Day

By | Grief/Loss, Seasonal

The only cure for grief is action.” – George Henry Lewes

Grief is hard every day, but it is especially hard on those days throughout the year that we think of as “special.” Valentine’s Day is one of them. The stores are stocked with chocolate and Hallmark cards, and everywhere you look, people are discussing their plans for the day. But for you, Valentine’s Day is a source of pain and tears.

If that’s the case, consider finding a way to reinvent Valentine’s Day. While the day specifically celebrates love, it isn’t relegated to only romantic love. The things and people we love go beyond just romantic relationships. This year, by focusing on bringing joy to others, you will make Valentine’s Day easier on yourself. Who knows, your actions may even help you process your grief. After all, as nationally-respected grief educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt says, “Grief is what you think and feel on the inside after someone you love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of those thoughts and feelings. To mourn is to be an active participant in our grief journeys.”

10 Ways to Reinvent Valentine’s Day

1. Invite friends over for dinner

Celebrate the love of good friends. We all have friends who stick with us through thick and thin, especially during times of grief. So, plan a meal or go out for dinner with some of your closest people, and celebrate what you’ve meant to each other. You could even bring Valentine’s Day into the mix by giving each other sweet treats.

2. Plan a night out with others who have experienced a similar loss

When we experience a loss, finding a support group is incredibly important. One way to seek support is through getting to know others who have experienced a similar type of loss. Instead of staying at home alone, go out with others who are struggling, and together, focus on what’s good in life. An attitude of gratitude is valuable to everyone both mentally and emotionally, so look for the good!

3. Allow your children to pick an activity

If both you and your children are grieving this Valentine’s Day, ask them what they’d like to do for the day. It’s important to give children opportunities for healthy fun even in the midst of sorrow. They may want to go to dinner, the zoo, or a movie. Make sure to manage their expectations by letting them know what kind of budget you have. For example, we can go play putt-putt or eat dinner out, but not both.

4. Attend a group activity

Another opportunity to fill the evening is to attend a group activity – either with friends or with the intention of meeting new people. You could attend a club of some kind (book club, writing club, chess club, etc.), take part in a support group or a prayer group, go to or host a painting party, or see what’s going on in your local community.

5. Participate in random acts of kindness

Perhaps it would do your heart good to focus on others for the day. Random acts of kindness benefit you just as much as the other person. Some ideas to start you off: go ahead and give to the street performer or the homeless person; donate gently used items; leave a larger tip for the barista or server; bring in breakfast for your co-workers; give someone a compliment; or just smile at people. A simple smile brings a large measure of joy.

6. Volunteer

For some people, taking part in an activity is the most helpful course of action. If that’s the case for you, consider volunteering your time on Valentine’s Day. By focusing on others, you take the spotlight off your feelings of grief. Is there a local organization that you regularly volunteer with or one that you’ve been curious about? This is a great time to give it a try.

7. Send a card or flowers to someone

Even if you are grieving, you can offer a kind gesture to others. Rather than looking to receive a card and/or flowers and chocolate this year, choose someone to give to instead. Perhaps an elderly person living alone or in a care facility, a friend or loved one spending the holiday in the hospital, or someone who is also grieving the loss of a loved one.

8. Treat yourself

Grief is hard work. That’s why Valentine’s Day might be a good day to treat yourself to a little pampering. Go to a spa. Get a manicure or pedicure. Schedule time with a massage therapist. Or if these options just aren’t you, treat yourself to a favorite dessert or a hot beverage you rarely consume, get a new haircut, or buy a new pair of shoes. There are so many ways to care for your own needs.

9. Enjoy some animal therapy

If you love our four-legged friends, spend time receiving love and affection from them on Valentine’s Day. Check out what’s available in your area. For some, an equine therapy program is appealing. For others, a program that allows you to take dogs for walks, pet and play with cats, or just help out around the shelter is best. And, if you’re able, you could adopt a furry friend and give it a forever home.

10. Travel somewhere

A final way to reinvent the holiday is to inject a bit of excitement into it. Rather than sitting at home, plan a trip for yourself to a new place. Invite friends or go on your own. A change of scenery will be a nice change of pace and give you some relief from the difficult work of grief.

This Valentine’s Day, find a new way to view the day. Give to others. Pamper yourself. Spend time with friends and family or with animals. Or go on an adventure! No matter what you choose, the day doesn’t have to be gloomy and sad. Even if the loss of your loved one is still close to the surface, it’s okay to find little ways to experience joy in life. While your life will never be the same, it can be beautiful.

A Year in Review: The Top 5 Books on Grief & Loss from 2018

By | Current Events, Grief/Loss

We mourn because we love. That’s true of us all. Grief is a universal emotion, and because it is, we can find hope and encouragement in the stories of others. Dr. Wolfelt, nationally recognized grief expert, tells us about the importance of mourning well. He says, “Making the choice not just to grieve, but to authentically mourn, provides us the courage to live through the pain of loss and be transformed by it. How ironic that to ultimately go on to live well and love well we must allow ourselves to mourn well.” Below is a list of the top 5 books published in 2018 (chosen based on Amazon reader reviews) about grief, loss, and the journey toward healing. Perhaps the words and experiences of others will help you as you navigate your own grief journey this year.

Book #1: The Widower’s Notebook, a Memoir

Author: Jonathan Santlofer

Synopsis: On a normal day in New York, Jonathan finds his wife, Joy, fighting for breath in their living room. After calling the paramedics and spending many tense hours at the hospital, he learns that she has died. Not sure how to deal with the depth of emotion welling within him, he turns to writing and art to help him maneuver through the complexities of losing the wife he loved.

Review: “Widower is stunning, harrowing, un-put-down-able…Jonathan Santlofer finds language that is immediate and intimate for the irreconcilable trauma of loss. Without pause he captures the shattered time that is grief—this book is fearless, brave for its humanity, honesty, love. Santlofer brings the reader into his heart, sharing all the things that one feels but dares not say aloud, all that one wants to know but can’t ask of themselves, of those around them, of their lost loved one.” —A.M. Homes, author of May We Be Forgiven

Book #2: Grief Day by Day

Author: Jan Warner

Synopsis: Grief Day by Day offers 365 reflections, weekly themes, and healing exercises for dealing with the complexities of grief. Jan Warner draws on her own experience with loss to offer hope and useful guidance to others who are struggling. With the book’s set-up, the reader can use it in the way that best suits them and their specific needs.

Review: “This is quite literally a shattering book: it takes in both hands and smashes one of the most pernicious of our modern myths – that grief is an aberrant state, properly and speedily to be put away. It instead explores the idea of grief as a part of life. Thus repositioned, grief can be acknowledged as one (but only one) enduring element of the mourner’s identity.” ―Sarah Gristwood, best-selling author, historian, and commentator on the British royal family

Book #3: Wonder Widows

Authors: Trish Comer, Peggy Langenwalter, and Jennifer Cox Horak

Synopsis: Written by three widows, this book is an invitation to join Trish, Peggy, and Jennifer on their journey. They kindly and lovingly share about their challenges and triumphs while navigating widowhood. This book focuses on empowering widows. Not only do the authors share their personal stories, but they explores how to shape a new identity, how to handle holidays and anniversaries, and so much more!

Review: While Wonder Widows is a compassionate window into a sensitive and painful passage, it’s also hopeful as it explores the possibility of lives rebuilt. I think this is an important book for everyone to read because sooner or later we’ll all experience loss, whether our own or that of a friend. Reading Wonder Widows gave me insight into what might be going on behind the public face a grieving person presents to the world and how we might all be more aware and compassionate.” —Amazon Reviewer Danelle

Book #4: Grief as a Second Language: A Guidebook for Living with the Loss of a Loved One

Author: Stacy Parker

Synopsis: Written by a bereaved parent, this book helps people understand and become comfortable with the language of grief. As it moves the reader toward a greater understanding of the complexities of grief, it explores important topics like how to release self-blame, how to cope with the physical absence of your loved one, and which reactions are perfectly normal (all of them!).

Review: “This book is written by the best kind of grief expert, someone who has taken the journey out of the darkness and back into the light. Stacy shares with her readers practical tips and tools for taking care of your physical and emotional health after loss and for finding purpose and meaning again. Thank you, Stacy, for being honest about your own grief journey and helping us to navigate ours. I wish I had this book after my brother died; it would have been a lifeline at a time where I felt very alone and had no idea how to navigate the second language of grief.” —Dr. Heidi Horsley, Executive Director of Open to Hope Foundation

Book #5: Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense

Author: Dr. Paul David Tripp

Synopsis: No matter what the catalyst may be, we have all had our lives changed in an instant. Whether it be death, illness, loss of employment, loss of relationship, or something else, we aren’t sure how to deal with what has happened. In this book, Dr. Tripp shares his own journey and what it means to trust God even in the midst of suffering.

Review: “We don’t have to go looking for it. It will come and find us. Sooner or later, suffering at a catastrophic level will wreck our lives. Paul Tripp understands that personally. He also understands the gospel personally. His new book does not trivialize our sufferings with glib formulas. This wise book leads us deeper into the gospel of the cross and closer to the Man of Sorrows himself.” ―Ray Ortlund, Lead Pastor, Immanuel Church, Nashville, Tennessee

Another book worth taking a look at is by noted author, educator, and grief counselor, Dr. Alan Wolfelt. Grief Day by Day: Simple, Everyday Practices to Help Yourself Survive…and Thrive was published in late 2018 and offers answers to the questions that plague the hearts of those who are grieving. How am I supposed to cope? What should I do with these thoughts and feelings? How can I both grieve and still live with hope and meaning?

Hopefully, one or more of these books will speak to your heart and give you comfort and peace on your journey through grief in 2019.

7 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Grief

By | Grief/Loss

Grief, in its normal context, is already difficult to bear and elicits a variety of emotions. When you add in the element of trauma, everything becomes more complicated. When a loss is sudden, unexpected, or associated with horror, the impact is profound, and it will take much longer to heal.

Defining Grief

According to nationally-recognized grief counselor, educator, and author Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief is “everything we think and feel inside after someone we love dies or leaves or something we are attached to goes away. In other words, grief is the instinctive human response to loss. Grief is natural and necessary, [though] our culture tends to deny, diminish, and judge the pain of grief…. If you are grieving, rest assured that what you are experiencing is not only normal, it is the very thing that will help you heal.

We grieve because we love, so it is natural to experience feelings of grief at a time of loss. The feelings that manifest will vary from person to person with some experiencing sadness while others experience anger, relief, or disbelief. There is no right or wrong way – you simply feel what you feel.

Defining Trauma

Trauma is defined asa psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” The element of trauma can complicate grief in a wide variety of situations: violent or sudden deaths, witnessing the death, serious illness or injury, accidental death, experiencing a natural disaster, or going through a divorce, to name a few. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which type of event you experienced, what matters is your response to it and how deeply it affected you.

It is important to note that some individuals who experience traumatic grief (or traumatic loss) will likely exhibit Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms. This doesn’t mean that everyone will showcase symptoms, but a minority will, depending on the situation. For survivors of assault and other crimes, natural disasters, car accidents, mass shootings or the sudden death of a loved one, some degree of PTSD is common and can have deep psychological effects.

Dealing with Traumatic Grief

With traumatic grief, there is a dual challenge: coping with the trauma while also coping with the grief.

In the beginning, trauma will overshadow grief. In many cases, this means that shock and disbelief will take hold at first, interfering with the normal grief process. These feelings of shock and disbelief will actually protect you. As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “If you are in the early days of your grief journey, you are likely still feeling numbed by shock and disbelief. This is a normal and necessary step, for it is nature’s way of protecting you from the full force of the loss all at once.” Eventually, the feelings will abate, as you become ready to deal with reality.

It’s important to be on the lookout for indicators that a person is suffering from traumatic grief. Some symptoms include: insomnia or sleep disturbances, anxiety, poor concentration, loss of appetite, feelings of guilt and blame, shattered assumptions about the world, themselves, and others, or fear of grief and trauma reactions.

In general, trauma makes grief harder to resolve. In other words, it will take longer and require more work, but it most certainly can be done. People who have experienced a traumatic loss can go on to find new meaning in their lives and eventually reconcile themselves to their loss.

7 Tips for Coping with Traumatic Grief

1. Take your time.

The grief journey is different for everyone, and there’s no set time frame. With the added complication of trauma, it’s best not to rush. Instead, take the time you need to fully explore both your feelings regarding the traumatic event itself and your grief feelings associated with that event. Dr. Wolfelt says, “Grief is not something you can do all at once. Feeling so many feelings often leads to [feeling overwhelmed]. Instead, take in ‘doses’ of grief and mourn in bits and pieces.”

2. Be kind to yourself.

Grief is hard work, and if you are to reconcile yourself to the loss you have suffered, you will need energy for the days, months, and possibly years to come. Practicing self-care is not about feeling sorry for yourself, but about caring for yourself with compassion. You have suffered a loss, and you need compassion. Dr. Wolfelt reminds us that “self-care fortifies your long and challenging grief journey…to be self-nurturing is to have the courage to pay attention to your needs.”

3. Don’t fear your feelings.

After a traumatic event, it’s natural to experience shock and disbelief. However, eventually these two feelings will disappear, and others will take their place. When this happens, don’t be afraid. You may experience fear, anxiety, anger or a strong sense of loss or sadness. In cases of traumatic loss, you may experience flashbacks or sensitivity to certain sounds or words (e.g. sudden, loud noises; squealing tires, etc.). Don’t try to “be strong” but instead focus on letting yourself replay the events in your mind as you work to come to grips with them.

4. Allow yourself to replay events.

This may seem counterintuitive and scary, but in order to process an event, you have to face it. Dr. Wolfelt assures us that replay is natural and normal. He says, “Replay helps you begin to acknowledge the reality of the death and integrate it into your life. It is as if your mind needs to devote time and energy to comprehending the circumstances of the death before it can move on to confronting the fact that someone you love has died and will never be present to you again.” Depending on the traumatic event you experienced, it may be best to replay the events in small “doses” so that you don’t become overwhelmed. You may even find an experienced counselor to take the journey with you.

5. Be aware of PTSD symptoms.

As we discussed earlier, someone who has experienced a traumatic event may exhibit symptoms of PTSD. While it is most commonly associated with veterans, civilians can also experience PTSD. A few symptoms to look out for: nightmares or scary thoughts, anger, inability to trust people, high anxiety levels, always expecting danger, to name a few. A person can exhibit a few of these symptoms without it being full-blown PTSD. To determine whether you or a loved one is experiencing PTSD, it’s best to speak with a professional. Above all, remember that PTSD is not linked to your personality, but to the intensity and duration of a stressful event.

6. Find ways to express yourself.

Self-expression can change you and the way you perceive and experience your world. Transforming your thoughts and feelings into words gives them meaning and shape. The alternative—denying or suppressing your pain—is in fact more painful. If you do not honor your grief by acknowledging it, it will accumulate and fester.” Dr. Wolfelt makes an excellent point. We must make time to explore and express our feelings, or they will destroy us from the inside. There are many ways to do this. Pick one that fits you best: journaling, painting, talking it out, building, hiking, exercising, etc.

7. Seek out support.

You have experienced something difficult, heartbreaking, and traumatic. You can’t move forward all alone – you need people. A group of people to offer support and encouragement, to give you hope when the days are dark, and to stick with you no matter what lies ahead. And for many, it’s helpful to speak to a licensed counselor who can help you navigate through the murky waters of traumatic grief.

The journey ahead is not something you asked for. It will include some long and difficult days. But you and your future are worth it. Don’t give up on finding new meaning and joy in life and learning how to incorporate what you’ve experienced into the story of your life. The past doesn’t define you unless you let it. Your present choices can pave a new path into a bright future.

The Value of Vigils

By | Current Events, Grief/Loss

Things happen in this world that break our hearts. In many cases, there’s nothing we personally could have done to prevent the events from occurring. Most recently, we’ve seen a number of shootings occur across the country – Brooklyn, Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton. People – old and young – lose their lives, and in the midst of it all, as human beings, we must stand together and mourn together. This is why candlelight and prayer vigils are necessary and helpful.

The grief journey is long and hard. On some days, we feel horrible, while on other days, we feel bad for feeling okay. All of this is part of the journey toward reconciliation. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief educator and counselor, says, “We, as human beings, never resolve our grief, but instead become reconciled to it…You don’t get to go around or above your grief. You must go through it. And while you are going through it, you must express it if you are to reconcile yourself to it.” In other words, we should not seek a resolution to our grief, but instead, we must pursue reconciliation. We will not “get over” what we’ve lost or go back to our “old normal.” However, we can find our “new normal” and renewed purpose and meaning.

In many ways, this healthy human need to grieve is one of the many reasons why attending a vigil may be helpful to your grief journey, especially after an expected or traumatic event. Here are 5 more reasons why attending a vigil may assist you in your grief.

Vigils Provide a Time of Remembrance

First of all, a vigil is about remembering the person or people who have died. Everyone takes time to intentionally dwell on and recall each life and mourn their loss. Often, close loved ones speak and share memories and anecdotes. These stories draw us in and give us a glimpse into the person’s life that we may not have had before. As a result, we feel closer to the one who has died and can mourn in a more personal way.

Vigils Are an Invitation to Action

Taking part in symbolic actions has grief-healing benefits. Dr. Wolfelt says, “When mourners light a candle…they are provided with a physical means of expressing their grief.” Mourning is the outward expression of an internal grief. In order to heal and find a way to move forward, we must allow our grief expression and give motion to our feelings. Attending a vigil or funeral, lighting a candle, or writing a grief journal are all examples of putting motion to grief.

Vigils Affirm Our Values and Beliefs

A third benefit to vigils is that they provide a time for us to affirm our values and beliefs. We come together with a common purpose: to mourn the loss of someone precious. During this time, we also remember that we value life, we all know the pain of loss, and we all believe in a better world. In a moving speech at a candlelight service just after 9/11, Dave Frohnmayer put it this way, this is “a time to understand even more clearly what we believe…and proudly to affirm, live and act upon those beliefs.”

Vigils Are an Expression of Our Love and Emotions

Loss unleashes a variety of emotions: confusion, yearning, anger, sadness, guilt, regret. We should not feel ashamed of our emotions; we feel what we feel. Many times, society as a whole frowns upon open expressions of grief, but this attitude is flawed. We are human. We feel, and we feel deeply. It would be unnatural not to grieve. The vigil offers an opportunity to move toward embracing your pain so that you can begin to process the loss that you feel.

Vigils Provide an Opportunity to Offer Support and Stand in Unity

Finally, a vigil brings us together as one people, one community. It is an opportunity to offer and receive support, which is absolutely vital to healthy healing. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “The quality and quantity of understanding support you get during your grief journey will have a major influence on your capacity to heal.” So, a vigil provides us the ability to join with others, to stand in unity, and to mourn the loss together. We are not meant to live life alone, and our journey with grief is no different.

If you’ve lost someone to an unexpected or traumatic event, please know that your grief is normal and to be expected. Do not feel ashamed of whatever it is that you feel. Instead, do the work of grieving. Attend a candlelight or prayer vigil. Talk to people. Find a support group. Write down what you’re thinking and feeling. Paint. Dance. Whatever it is that you need to do to express your emotions in a healthy way, do it! The process will not be easy, and there will be days when you just want to give up. But if you keep moving forward, you will one day find that the intense pangs of grief are less frequent, and you have renewed hope for the future.