Monday, May 27, 2013

What Does Grief Look Like? (Part 1)

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

Just exactly what does grief look like? While there appear to be common stages to grief, with probable, distinct emotions likely in each stage, not everyone experiences the grief process exactly the same way. It is helpful for the grieving person and their family and friends to be familiar with the stages and emotions.

SHOCK. Shock or denial is the first emotion grieving people experience: the feeling of numbness or unreality. A grieving person’s mind seems unable to accept the new reality. It has been described as “God’s anesthesia,” a built-in psychological protection to help us absorb the initial trauma. It gives us adjusting time. In this stage, grieving people may appear as though nothing has changed, and they are unaffected by their loss; they go forward “with unusual calmness and composure.” They often act as if they are unbothered by their loss. And they may personally feel as though they are living someone else’s life, or, as I described, like an actor in a play. This numbness stage soon wears off and anger and anxiety replaces it.

ANGER AND ANXIETY. In this stage grieving people look at the world continuing uninterrupted around them and lash out at its normalcy. Their world has altered immeasurably, but the larger world doesn’t (to them) seem to notice or care. Remember my near meltdown and suffocating anxiety experience during a grocery store visit I described in a previous blog post? Consider the following example experienced by a woman who lost a friend: “How can the sun still be shining? How can these people act as if nothing is wrong? I wanted to stand up and yell at them. I wanted to grab someone and just shake them. I wanted to burst into tears.” In this stage, the grieving person wants to drag the world into their grief and suffering; they become angry at, or jealous of others’ seemingly pain-free life.

Their emotions may swing quickly from anger to guilt to worry to fear. Then they’ll swing back to guilt again. They don’t want to feel that way about other people; they don’t want to be constantly thinking about themselves. Yet they can’t reconcile why they lost and others didn’t; they don’t know why they survived and their child died. One powerful, gripping feeling after another rips through a grieving person’s psyche, threatening to dismantle them emotionally, to destabilize them permanently. The shear variety and extremity of emotions can produce indescribable emotional pain, a feeling as though one’s heart will actually shatter. They feel as though they can’t possibly go on, keep living.

When bearing up under these unrelenting emotions threatens to become too disabling, the grieving person becomes mad. Sometimes really mad. They blame others, themselves, God. They may rebuke themselves for what they didn’t do, the mistakes they think they made that could have changed the outcome. They might even get angry at the child who died, or the surviving children for living. Additional fear simply feeds this anger. (If you have been taught, or feel, that anger is a sin, please read my previous blog addressing the fallacy of that belief.)

We like to feel as though we have control over our lives, that we are the ultimate "captains of our ships,” which of course we are not and never really have been. Losing control is unnerving; questions about the unforeseeable future may preoccupy the grieving person’s thoughts. The best thing you can do is let the grieving person know you, as their friend, will be there for them.

DEPRESSION. This stage actually signals a transition. When the grieving person can’t sustain such intense, volatile emotions of anger, guilt, fear and anxiety, the mind and body seem to settle into a state of exhaustion and succumb to depression.

In this stage the grieving person may feel as if everywhere they turn something arises to remind them of their baby or their loss. They can’t seem to get away from it. They may also find it difficult to perform normal daily activities, and they may not care to do so. It may take every ounce of energy they possess to get up in the morning and put one foot ahead of the other to keep going. They may feel unnaturally tired and sleep a lot. They may be disinterested in anything in life, even the simplest, life-sustaining activities. They may feel ineffective and foggy-headed, unable to concentrate. Tears may come easily and often. They may avoid others, going out, enjoying life. They may not care if their broken heart stops beating, finally ending their excruciating heartache. 

“Often, depression is anger turned inward. The anger may be toward someone else or toward oneself. Guilt is one of the most common emotions that fuels anger toward oneself. ‘Why didn’t I…? Why did I…? If only I had…’ But guilt has a double whammy;: it comes when the bereaved person forgets her grief, if only for a moment. She will find herself laughing, enjoying a meal, or just relaxing. AS you counsel with a grieving person, be aware that this false guilt is normal and that part of her depression at this stage may, in fact, be anger at herself.”

Usually a person swings between anger/anxiety and depression, sometimes to the extreme and within the same hour. Being with the person when they want your company, encouraging them, showing gentleness, kindness, patience and good listening skills go far in helping the grieving parents through this stage.

ACCEPTANCE. The pain of loss will linger, but, over time, it becomes different. There will still be those moments of, “I wish I had,” “if only,” and a desire to retrace steps and relive moments prior to the loss, but the pain becomes less acute and more bearable. Life starts to normalize, and the grieving person starts to look more to the future, not just surviving the moment or day. This is truly the beginning of healing.

The grieving person need not worry that their feeling of acceptance is selfish or equates with dismissal about their lost baby. Acceptance simply recognizes that you must no longer live in the past, which robs you of your future. You are satisfied that you said a proper goodbye. You don’t disregard the love and feelings you had for your baby, but you make a conscious choice to move forward with your life.

Grieving is important. Do not attempt to short circuit the process or avoid it. You really can’t bypass the pain. A grieving parent must be allowed to, and allow herself to experience the pain and walk through the valley to healing. Showing feelings is not a weakness; grieving parents must not be expected to deny their feelings.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Denying or delaying our feelings can delay our healing.

Yet know that not everyone experiences all of these stages, and they will unlikely go through them step-by-step in a neat little process. This is no time to pronounce that the grieving parent must pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just get over it and on with it. He should not rush himself or be rushed. Give your friend or family member permission to grieve and continue to let them know that you'll be there for them, loving and praying them through this difficult, often under-appreciated or misunderstood, painful process.

If allowed, time will heal the wounds loss inflicts and the grieving parent will once again experience that peace, happiness and joy they once found so elusive. 


NEXT WEEK: Unhealthy grief…

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



(Reference: The Counsel of a Friend: 12 Ways to Put Your Caring Heart Into Action by Lynda D. Elliot, 1993.)

(The Five Stages of Grief, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross includes a stage of “Bargaining.” For more information see the home site:


Monday, May 20, 2013

10 Ways to Comfort a Grieving Parent

Anxiety weighs down the human heart,
but a good word cheers it up.
Proverbs 12:25

Your friend or loved one has lost a baby in pregnancy, birth, or soon after birth. You want to help, but what’s the best way to do that? Consider some of the following suggestions:

Be There! Nothing says “I love you” more to your friend or family member than being there for them. Yet many people are uncomfortable around someone who’s grieving because they are at a loss for words. Then we end up avoiding our hurting friends instead of just doing something as simple as sitting with them in their silences.
In the initial phase of grief, conversation with the hurting person isn’t a necessity. They’re unable to think clearly because their mind is in shock. As I’ve mentioned in my blog, thinking just becomes too painful and energy sapping for a grieving person. It’s easier, and demands far less energy emotionally or physically, just to sit, since all of your energy is already being directed into simply coping.
People won’t remember the words you speak to them, but they will remember that you were there.

Be Quiet and Listen. If the grieving parent wants to talk, let them. Be quiet, don’t make judgmental statements; don’t give them suggestions, unless they ask for them. Again, as the Psalmist says, set a guard over your mouth and keep watch over the door of your lips!!

Meet A Need. Serve them. Don’t just offer to do something if they need it; do something for them. It’s highly likely that the grieving person will not know what they need until some thoughtful person does it for them.
And the things you do for them don’t have to be big things. In my previous blog I mentioned a list of items to consider, such as running errands, going grocery shopping for them, delivering a meal, watching their other children so they can rest, be alone, or get out. Again, ask God to show you what the person needs. They may be hesitant to ask for help, so it’s not out of line to gently nudge them to accept your offer. Sometimes you have to tell them—lovingly, gently— that you’re going to do it; just making a “yes” or “no” decision can be stressful or difficult for them.

Let the Grieving Parent Share Memories With You. Sharing memories may mean looking at pictures of the deceased baby, looking at baby foot or handprints, anything the parent kept as a memento of their child. If the thought of doing this makes you uneasy, pray for strength to look at these pictures. It will definitely give you a more intimate feeling of what the parent is suffering. Doing this may truly allow you to be able to weep with the person who weeps.

Give Comfort by Using the Word of God. But be careful with this one!! Do not lob Scripture at them too soon in order to “take away their pain,” lighten their misery, or nudge them to put their loss into some kind of “positive” perspective. While God’s word can uplift, edify and heal, it is God Himself who is the source of comfort and healing. His word is alive and active, mishandled, can cause more damage to an already damaged heart, particularly if it’s offered in a pious, preachy way.
Yes, everything will work out for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. But remember that second, critical part of that verse: for those who love God and are called according to His purpose. There is a qualifying prerequisite there. And even if they are believers, it doesn’t “feel” good to them right now; and God, not you, will be the One working it out for good, in His timing!  
Be sensitive to whether the person seems receptive to the hearing of God’s word. Then you might want to incorporate a technique I’ve found helpful and successful: Write a note or letter of condolence that incorporates God’s words and truths without slinging, “Psalm whatever says this,” or “First Corinthians, thus and so says that….” If they’re Christians, they probably already know these verses and don’t need them reiterated to them. If not, then the grieving person is receiving help beyond measure without realizing it. This technique takes skill and much preparation (I’ve sat for hours composing a note on my computer, editing and re-editing it, before selecting my best stationery on which to copy it by hand.)
And don’t try to answer the “whys” and “what ifs” your friend or family member will incessantly ask and repeat. You really don’t know why; any speculation is only your opinion and nothing more. It’s best to keep your opinions unshared. Remember Job and his friends? If you’re unfamiliar with that story, read it to see how that turned out and what God had to say about all of their “wise” assessments. (They may want to voice their opinions and answers these questions themselves in order to make some “sense” of it. Just listen to them.)
It’s sometimes helpful to write a note, telling them that you’ll be calling them in a couple of days to check on them. Then call!!! This will undoubtedly give them something to look forward to, (they probably need something to look forward to), and let them know that they’re on your mind. If the day you do call just happens to be one of those days that they want to hide and disassociate from the world—and don’t answer the phone—don’t despair. Leave a message!
I remember one of the most important, precious phone calls I ever received was from a friend who I hadn’t had an opportunity to see for several weeks. She called and left a message on my answering machine saying, “I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, and I realized that you wouldn’t know that unless I called you and told you. So I’m calling to tell you that I’m thinking about you and love you.” What was my response? I sat and wept because I knew that someone was thinking about me, they hadn’t forgotten about me, and that they cared about me! Pretty simple voice message with a HUGE impact.

Recognize and Affirm the Person’s Feelings. Listen and comprehend the feelings and then validate them. Let them know that their feelings of anger, shame and depression are normal. Let them know that anger is okay. It’s not a sin to feel anger (just read the Psalms!). I’ve heard so many Christians say they “shouldn’t feel anger,” or that “it’s a sin to be angry.” Just where in Scripture does it say that? Paul tells us, “Be angry but do not sin in your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). Big difference. And in my case it was normal and justifiable for Chris and me to be angry with the doctors who provided poor or improper care, or misdiagnosed my condition, contributing to the fatal outcome.
Church grief groups or counseling can be immensely helpful in this area because a person can often express their grief in this type of setting without the extra burden of feeling judged; they feel “safe” expressing their feelings to a “professional” or others who have walked, or who are walking in their shoes at the same time.

Include the Grieving Parents in Activities. You may think they don’t want to do anything while they’re grieving, and, perhaps they don’t; or their own practice includes formal mourning through withdrawal for several days or weeks, but give them the option to say no. So often the distraction of an activity will help them relax, momentarily take their mind off of their pain and gives them an opportunity to experience healing laughter and joy. In the early stages of grief, laughing may not be possible; they may be angry that the world around them seems to be buzzing on quite normally, oblivious to their loss and grief.  
Yet continue to ask, even if they say “no” often. At some point they might just say “yes.” Just don’t give up on them.
Encourage them to get outside to exercise. Being in the fresh air and sunshine does wonders for the body physically, and exercise releases endorphins (“happy hormones”) that reduce depression and elevate a person’s happy, content feelings. Exercise can also go a long way to help someone get sleep. Since insomnia is common in grieving persons, healing sleep is a plus!

Be Available! Again, this can’t be stressed enough. And don’t stop being available right after the funeral or memorial service is over. Your friend or loved one will likely need you for much longer—months or a year or more. You may wonder why they can’t seem to move on and stop talking about it. If you’d suffered the kind of loss they have, you’d understand why. Since you probably do not, don’t expect the grief process to take “x” amount of time.

Encourage a Grieving Parent to Withhold Making Major Decisions. They may feel pressured to make decisions too soon, and most grieving people are on emotionally shaky ground and don’t really have the energy to make good decisions at this time. If there are decisions that must be made, encourage the parents to seek out good counsel from friends, their church, their medical staff, or even lawyers, if necessary. Look for people with knowledge or expertise in whatever area is needed. Most decisions can wait. Hastily made, poor decisions may later add to their burden and grief.

Most importantly, be present, be a friend. And don’t be offended or put off by what the grieving parent says to you. It’s likely that they aren’t thinking straight and may not be able to function normally for some time. Cut them some slack, and love them. This is all
about them, not you. J


NEXT WEEK: Just exactly what does grief look like?

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!



(Reference: The Counsel of a Friend: 12 Ways to Put Your Caring Heart into Action, by Linda Elliot; 1993.)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Comforting Words for a Grieving Parent

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Romans 12:15

            Your family members or friends have lost their baby in pregnancy, at birth, or soon after. You hear the news, and you’re shocked, devastated, or confused. First, your heart aches for them. Then you panic as your mind screams, What do I say to them? What words can I utter to give them comfort? What should I say to help them, let them know I care? What shouldn’t I say…?
In your eagerness to let them know you care about them, you may hastily utter remarks that hurt rather than help. First, let’s look at what not to say to someone who has lost a child this way:

            “It happened for the best.” Did it? Do you know that? Can you even begin to
fathom, or claim to know, God’s eternal plan and reasons for this event? This statement can make the grieving parents feel as though they really don’t have a right to be sad or to grieve; it negates their sorrow.

If some well-meaning friend says this to you, you can gently point out to them that that is something you, and they, may never know. You can ask them
            why they said that. It’s okay to make them think more carefully about their words.
            And you can always answer by saying, “Well, it doesn’t feel that way to me
            right now."

“Don’t worry, you can have another baby.” While that may be true, the grieving
parents need to mourn the baby they lost. Children are not replaceable. In addition, if the mother is over thirty-five or medical or infertility problems
involved, they may not be able to have any more children.  

If you’re the grieving parent, be honest. Tell this person that you really
don’t want another baby right now; you wanted the one you were carrying and planning to have and invest your heart and soul.

“You didn’t really know the baby, so it’s not like losing a child who has lived
with you.” This may be true, but it is not a thoughtful, comforting or
encouraging thought. This comments makes the loss of this particular child
seem undeserving of grief. Again, the dreams and expectations have been lost.
Those lost dreams need to be grieved.
If you’re the grieving parent, your response could be: “I am grieving
because I really wanted to get to know my baby and now I won’t have that
opportunity.” (Much of the grief revolves around wondering what their child’s
personality would have been like, what they would have done in their life, etc.
So much of their grieving involves what they don’t know and won’t be able to
find out, no matter how much they think about it.) 

“I know exactly how you feel.” Unless the person uttering this remark has
actually walked in the shoes of a grieving parent that has just lost a baby,
they have absolutely no idea how the grieving parent feels and shouldn’t   
pretend to know, or convince themselves they do.
If you’re grieving parent, don’t hesitate to say: “I don’t know if
anyone can truly know what I’m going through right now.” If the speaker truly has lost a child, then you can ask them: “How did you feel? What kind of emotions did you go through? What helped you heal?”

“What are you going to do now?” The grieving parent is likely too stunned
and shaken to even know what they’re going to do, or even want to think
about it. And this question really can be an invasion of their privacy, unless
you are an intimate friend who knows they have the privilege of asking such
a question.
As a grieving parent, it’s okay to say that you really haven’t thought about what you’re going to do; that you’re still trying to deal with this loss and go through the grieving process in a healthy way. Tell the person you need to do that without anyone nudging you forward, or suggesting that it’s time to move on.

“Call me if there’s anything I can do.” On the surface this comment seems
helpful and caring but actually rings hollow to the receiver. And, chances are, the grieving parents really don’t know what they need. As I stated in my previous two blogs, because I was dazed and walking around in a fog of depression most of the time, I didn’t know what I needed. If you speak these words, don’t expect to be called.

            Many people are—like I was—hesitant to make that phone call to ask for help, and a person who is grieving is unlikely to know what she or he needs.  

If you really do want to help, think of the little everyday things that are
            probably now a burden to the grieving person. Call them and ask them what
            you can pick up for them at the grocery store for them while you’re out running
errands. Tell them you’d like to cook a home-cooked meal for them and ask what day would work best for them. Or just drop one off. They can freeze it for a time when lack of energy or desire to perform basic tasks envelops them.

Ask if they would like company, to just sit. Ask if you can care for their other children while they rest or go for a walk by themselves. Invite them to go to a movie. Offer to tidy up their house. Ask God to point out to you just what they might need. He will be faithful to provide you with that knowledge.

So, what are good, thoughtful words to say to someone who is grieving the loss of their baby?
            Consider the following, encouraging words:

            “I’m so sorry. I know how much you wanted to have that baby.” This
            acknowledges the sorrow of a parent’s loss as well as their desire to have a
            baby. It also validates the person’s need to grieve.

            “It’s okay to cry if you feel like crying. I won’t mind.” This will validate
            their feelings and need to release their emotions without embarrassment or
            guilty feelings. Sometimes tears will come freely; other times, a grieving     
            person can feel flat and inhuman. And these emotions can vacillate in a
            mere heartbeat. Be prepared for that to happen!

“Would you like to talk about it?” This displays the most priceless support possible to the grieving parent: your willingness to listen and provide a shoulder to cry on. If they want to talk, listen! Restrain yourself from using this as an opportunity to deliver a theological discourse, or point them to Scripture passages that illuminate the purpose of pain, suffering, loss, appropriate reactions for persons of faith, or expound on theological issues. Simply listen.

“May I call you in a few days to see how you are doing?” If the grieving
person says, “yes,” then do it!! Don’t forget or put it off. One of the worst
things for a grieving parent is to get the feeling that after a certain amount of
time passes, no one seems to want to discuss your loss or pain with you any
longer. Assure the grieving person that you will continue to be there for them,
indefinitely, to listen, to help, to care for them.

“I’m so sorry. I really don’t know what to say.” I received this comment several
times and found it to be one of the most comforting, honest responses I heard.
They were right; they really didn’t know what to say. They knew it, and they
didn’t try to be profound or clever.

Last, which should actually be first, Pray, Pray and Pray some more before you utter or pen your words. Be slow to speak; be a listener first. Then ask God to give you just the right words to say. He will be faithful to instruct you as you sincerely seek to be an instrument of His love, mercy and grace!

I hope these comments and questions get you started in the right direction in offering comfort to a grieving parent, or anyone who is suffering a profound loss. 

NEXT WEEK I’ll look at the basics of grief and what you might expect from yourself, or others, in the grieving process, and what to do and what not to do as a person navigates the valley of grief.

Thanks for joining me.

Until next week!