Grief, according to Psychology Today, is the acute pain that accompanies loss. I’ve always thought of grief as a period of time following an event, but the older I get, or perhaps the more life experiences I have, I realize that grief is actually a lifelong process. Grief is not something people feel or experience within a finite period of time. And it’s also not something that hits you only when you’re in a slump or already sad about something else. In fact the opposite is true, and it very often hits when you least expect it – at a time of happiness.
My grandparents died many years ago now but occasionally one of the girls will do something and I’ll think things like Uncle Dale would just love that ornery-ness in Audrey or Mama would not like this music but she would be tickled pink to see Ella sing in church. Sometimes those thoughts make me smile and sometimes they bring tears to my eyes, and I think that’s because I’m still sad that they aren’t here with us.
Grief is not just about mourning a person, but it’s also about mourning the loss of a thing – a job, a child’s favorite stuffed animal, a home when you move. And it can even be about unmet expectations, including expectations you may not have even known you had.
Children have expectations about their life that grow and mature as they get older, as their world gets bigger, and as they reach milestones. A young person who never had parents may still mourn the absence of parents on a prom night or a wedding day or even a dark day like one of a diagnosis. A child who used to live with two parents may suddenly notice a traditional family at a restaurant or even on TV and then be overwhelmed with feelings such as I only have one parent here.
I don’t think I believe in the old adage time heals all wounds. I think our wounds *can* heal with time, but when that happens it’s because we’ve used our time and energy to think about all that’s happened and we’ve bravely faced all we did or did not see, all the choices we made, or all that we could not control.
For children this is especially tough because they really don’t control a lot that happens in their early life. And one of the complexities tied to their grief and their moving on from something is that it can seem like their ability to accept a situation is a validation of poor decisions others have made. What is simply an acceptance of the adult, and a willingness to love the adult anyway, can be a very large leap for wounded hearts to make.
A child’s ability to move on with their life or accept a situation is also not the end of grief. The sad truth hidden within acceptance is that standards have changed. With acceptance, expectations are often lowered – of people, of life, and even of God.
Acceptance is supposedly the last stage of grief, but I think maybe the stages don’t always go in order. Or maybe they happen in order initially but it’s not just one cycle. Because what’s clear to me is that there are still days and moments of anger or sadness long after the days of acceptance.
One of the hardest things to do as a parent is to watch your child grieve. Tears, anger, tummy aches, sleeplessness and yet constant tiredness. Perhaps the next hardest thing is allowing your child to grieve in their own way and their own time, all while not adding your feelings to their burden, rushing them, or trying to save them from it.
I came across an old word a while back: nepenthe. If I’d paid more attention during Shakespeare lessons I wouldn’t have had to look it up. It’s something that makes you forget grief or suffering. Alcohol, people, work. Even good things can become unhealthy addictions as we search for a nepenthe. I think maybe the bravest thing we can do when we’re grieving is to forego nepenthe. The bravest thing we can do is avoid all the things that could make us temporarily feel better and focus all our effort on working through our loss and our feelings.
I found that Shakespeare even nicely summed up all the thoughts I’ve been trying to wrap my head around: Tears water our growth.
Some time ago, I read Max Lucado’s Facing Your Giants. It’s about the life and choices of David, and about facing the giants in our lives. Grief is a giant. It often doesn’t reveal itself as obviously as Goliath did, so we have to be on the lookout. And when we recognize it, we have to bravely face it each time.
Last week at a work event, our leadership team painted stones with messages that are important to us. I used three colors to write the word brave – a color for me and each of my girls. Brave is my battle cry and my encouragement. It’s also my reminder that David defeated Goliath with just a small smooth stone.