Grief is a universal experience. Every person will at some point in his or her life experience loss in some form. The only way to stay safe from loss is to never love, never care, never attach. The amount of grief we feel tends to correlate to the amount of love we have for a person, pet, job, situation, etc. As a counselor, I advise my clients to let themselves make space for grief and mourning rather than trying to be “fine” and shoving the grief down, drying up the tears, and getting on with life too quickly. In many cultures, mourning is a sacred time set aside for weeks so that a person is allowed to cry, wail, be surrounded by loved ones who do nothing other than “be” with them witnessing this pain and offering kindness (not advice). Being able to sink deeply into grief and truly mourn enables a person to rise more quickly in a state of emotional freedom in which they can feel joy again rather than numbness. Putting off mourning, trying “get it together” and act “fine” by going back to work and regular life duties too quickly only prolongs the healing process. Sometimes we try to “speed up” the grieving process because we are uncomfortable or even terrified of the sinking- the feeling out being out of control, of emotional pain so severe it is hard to breathe, the fear that if we sink we will never rise again. Other times we try to speed this process up because we are of a practical mindset and feel that there is no time to be “in the feels” and we have things to get done. However, grief always finds its way to force us to experience it one way or another. Sometimes, in maladaptive, negative ways such as drinking too much, workaholism, an affair, emotional numbing, disconnecting from loved ones, etc.
Recently, I experienced a miscarriage. I had gotten my hopes up after an early ultrasound that showed a strong heartbeat and baby growing on target. My blood work was perfect. Everything was in line. Post-miscarriage pathology testing revealed no genetic abnormalities. I was left with no explanation other than simply it must have been God’s will for me not to have this baby right now. I know God loves me and isn’t a magic genie there to just give me all my wishes and make life peachy. I believe that God uses life as a testing ground to teach us the lessons we need to learn to evolve spiritually. Unpleasant experiences teach us things we would not learn from happy times. I can accept what happened and want to ask what I can learn from this rather than “why me”, but I still needed time to grieve as my body endured the physical and emotional suffering for days on end of the miscarriage process at home. For a moment, when I got the news that morning that the baby had no heartbeat and a miscarriage would start soon, I actually considered going into work that night and not telling anyone. I am that much of a workaholic. I had to use my counselor voice on myself and say “Jen that is nuts! Go home!” so I made the radical move of taking a full week and half off from work. Thankfully, I have PDO saved up and could do this. Just FYI, if anyone has to go through this horrible experience I would highly suggest you ask your doctor for pain pills, take the week off from work, get childcare for your kids, make sure you have plenty of Gatorade or electrolyte drinks in the house (hydration will keep you from dying or having to go to the hospital), prepare your mind with prayer and wise counsel (thank you Angela for helping me when I was in spiritual warfare by reminding me of the truth) and plan to settle in for a hellacious ride. I have given birth to two full-term babies with no pain meds at home with a midwife. This was worse simply because the pain was for absolutely nothing. There would be no baby at the end. There was no finish line, only empty arms. If you have never given birth naturally before, it is probably less emotionally and physically traumatic for you if you just schedule a D&C procedure at the hospital. Doing it naturally isn’t something for the faint of heart. It took 5 days for everything to be over.
But, through this experience I realized this was the first time in my life that I have ALLOWED myself the chance to SINK DEEP and truly MOURN. I remember when one of my best friends was dying of cancer, I only took one day off from work. When he passed, I didn’t take off any time to mourn. I never told many people what I was going through. I just kept soldiering on. And I fell into a depression for about a year. No one knew because I just soldiered on being “productive” while feeling barely able to do so. But, this time I would not make this mistake. I would sink and I would rise. I cried until my eyes were almost swollen shut. I lived on the couch wrapped up in comfy blankets for a week. My church brought meals and my Mom kept my boys for a few of the worst days. My husband made sure I wasn’t passing out from blood loss and was eating. But then….it was over. As if I had “cried it out” and truly felt an emotional release of all the pain. I went back to work the next Monday feeling JOYFUL and grateful to be back to being able to help people and shocked at how good I felt. I wasn’t soldiering on depressed and dying inside. I was ALIVE. I had done my work. I had processed my grief because I allowed myself the time to truly “ugly mourn” the kind that many people avoid doing. It requires courage to sink deep. It requires knowing you will come back up eventually and for me, it requires knowing God is there with me in the sinking and in the rising. I feel closure and peace and it hasn’t even been a full month. Sure, I still have moments (usually when I’m alone driving in the car listening to music) that I feel pangs of sadness or “what if?” but they don’t take my breath away and I let them come and let them go like the ocean tide comes and goes. There is nothing to stuff down or soldier through. Only an allowing, a coming and knowing it will eventually go out too.
Grief isn’t something we talk about much in our society and most of us just wing it the best we can. But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31 May you sink and then rise soaring on wings like eagles as the Lord renews your strength.
On a cold, grey December day in 2012, I said goodbye to one of my dearest friends. Friend isn’t even an adequate word. This friend had helped me through some of the worst seasons of my life and helped me find joy even in the months and years I wanted to literally run away from my life, my struggles that seemed never ending, and the pain I held in my heart as I forced a smile onto my face in daily life. It was an unconventional and unlikely friendship by all outward judgment, but it is one I cherish to this day. He: a deeply depressed and lonely person. Me: a young, frazzled mom feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders, having almost daily panic attacks while trying to attend to my children, go to school, and work a job. Somehow, our brokenness collided and somehow started a healing process for us both. With each other, we were both able to smile amidst the hand life had dealt us.
And then he started getting sick. First, just stomach aches. The stomach aches would come and go. Good days and bad days. I figured it was gallstones or something. He saw a doctor and they didn’t think it was anything serious, probably acid reflux. The medicine didn’t help. Then, things started to take a turn for the worst, then a nose dive for the worst. The doctor ordered some invasive medical tests. I took him to those appointments, sitting in the waiting room reading a book until it was time to go back and see him in the recovery area. The doctor tried to ascertain if I was his daughter or wife or what (“just a friend”) and we laughed a little about that when the anesthesia was still in effect. I helped him to my car and took him to get a Steak and Shake milkshake that sounded good to him. He couldn’t even drink more than 2 sips. I knew this was more than acid reflux. It got so bad that I took him back to his family doctor one day and went in with him to his appointment. With tears in my eyes, I said “please, this is serious, help him.” The doctor took a closer look and realized he was jaundiced and I saw a look of serious concern spread across her face. She ordered some blood tests and a full-body scan.
He received the dreaded phone call about his results when I was on my way into work one day. Employers don’t look kindly towards “I need to take a month off to attend to my sick friend” so I had to trudge on taking care of him while having to go into work and perform while holding back my desire to curl up in a ball and cry. I received a text in a Kangaroo gas station parking lot that would change everything. “It’s not good, it’s cancer, it’s terminal.” Leaning on my steering wheel, I whimpered like a dog, barely able to catch my breath. I texted back, “You are not alone in this.” It was all I knew to say. His daughter bluntly asked me to just cut ties now unless I was in it until the end. Not a second thought, yes, I am in this. I don’t leave the ones I love in their time of need.
I still had to keep the rest of my life running as my friend was slowly and painfully dying. I couldn’t lose or quit my jobs. I couldn’t neglect my kids. It was really hard to explain to my children’s Daddy who was planning a wedding with me after we had finally reconciled why I was going to visit another man daily who was dying, but somehow he understood the best anyone could under the circumstances.
Then, that December day came when we said our last goodbyes. I got some sort of closure. I sat in the 3rd row of the chapel during his memorial service silently shaking and weeping in a black dress with frills and tiny white polka dots. A close friend of mine who had lost touch with me for a year or so due to her own difficult life circumstances and issues really came through for me that day. She simply sat beside me so that I wouldn’t be alone in that pew. She held my hand and anchored me when I felt like I was going to pass out. She understood the gravity of the situation because she was one of the only people I have ever been able to tell everything to. We have gone through some difficult things since then, but that day (and others) will forever anchor me to her, no matter what.
Psalm 30:11 (ISV) says: “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” During my period of mourning, I had read this verse and felt a mixture of impossibility and hope. Although I have always loved to dance, I didn’t dance for a year. I didn’t feel music in my body, I didn’t feel anything except a crushed heart for many months. Most people didn’t realize what I was going through, and thus didn’t offer support because this was not my spouse, my child, my parent, etc. It was admittedly an odd friendship. I learned there is a name for this kind of grief: disenfranchised grief . I realized it was up to me to do this grief thing more or less on my own. I started seeing a counselor. I had started going to yoga classes before he passed away as a way to cope with the anxiety and panic attacks I was having. I continued this and found myself crying silently in class as yoga helps release deep emotions. Yoga was a huge part of my grief journey. It helped me re-connect to my body and my numb or conversely chaotic emotions. I prayed, I read stories of grief and mourning. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman spoke to me on a deep level, although it is not necessarily a grief oriented book. The characters all experienced losses and had to go on heroically. I feel that it is important to share what helped me during the grief process. It is an active process and not a passive one waiting to one day be ok.
Fast-forward to 2015. I am usually so busy with work, kids, home, etc. that I don’t go out much if at all. I just try to keep my head above water on any given day juggling all my responsibilities. I had made a new friend whose kindness and genuine Christ-like love for others still has me a bit in awe. He gifted my now-husband and me two tickets to a charity gala. My husband and I went to the gala and in a series of unfortunate wardrobe events, the dress I had planned on wearing didn’t work out. We were late to the event, so I just grabbed the first thing in my closet that would work without thought. It was the black frilly dress with tiny white polka dots on it that I had worn to my friend’s funeral. I didn’t even think about it at the time. I just threw it on, grabbed my high heels and ran to the car. We were bickering on the car ride over to the country club about some matter of no importance. So, when we arrived, we both grabbed a glass of wine immediately. I seldom drink, so when I allowed a couple more glasses to find their way into my hand, I am not even going to lie. I was drunk. Then the music was crunk. And before I knew it there I was dancing in my seat then up on the dance floor doing the Cupid Shuffle then dancing to “Que Linda Back It Up” and my dancing was hearkening back to days of yore when I would shake it like a Polaroid picture and drop it like its hot on a regular basis. My husband isn’t the dancing kind, so he just sat mortified, amused, or perhaps jealous at the table drinking another glass of wine….it was pretty hilarious but also the source of some bickering on the way home about why my kind of dancing isn’t appropriate for public viewing. That was fine though. It was worth it. The next morning I woke up and realized that I had worn my FUNERAL DRESS to the gala and my MOURNING had literally been turned into DANCING and JOY.
Sometimes I still feel a wave of grief welling up in my heart and I let it wash over me. It comes and it goes. No point fighting it. Just like an ocean wave, you just ride it out. If you fight the rip tide, you will lose. But if you surrender, you will come out the other side. But, I smile at the fact that even this one time I was able to dance and rejoice. I also now understand why wine is a prominent feature in the Bible.
I’m still winging it through this grief and dancing and joy thing….do you relate to my story? Leave a comment with some advice or your experiences and let’s wing it together.
One thing I have learned in my 30 years is that, most of the time, it is a good idea to just show up anyway even when you feel like a mess or like you don’t know what you are doing. It isn’t realistic to avoid starting a new job due to fears of inadequacy or to tell your boss “I’m taking a personal day” once a week because the waves of life are getting rough and you feel stressed out, hurt, or angry. Don’t feel like something is wrong with you and you can’t go into work or to yoga class or to the park with your kids because you are a hot mess. Show up with your hot mess, authentic self anyway. You will feel better. Avoidance and isolation because you are afraid to show everyone your mess only leads to the downward spiral of isolation and depression. Kind of like how some people feel like they have to lose weight before joining a gym. NO. That’s what it is there for. Get out there. Connect with someone. Anyone. Join that gym. Go to work. Don’t turn down that invitation to join your friend at church. Go walk at the park. Can I tell you a secret? Most women I have talked to are about one more thing away from crying or becoming an episode of “snapped” most of the time. We think “they” have it all together, but they don’t. We women juggle so much, care so much, love so deeply. We get hurt. We feel inadequate or scared. It’s ok. Just show up anyway.
I talked to a stranger at the park about her horrible divorce yesterday. The conversation started with her commenting that I was almost inspiring her to get up off the park bench and run circles around the playscape like I was doing. I told her I was only doing this because I comfort ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s the night before and I’m feeling like crap about it now. You never know. Sometimes if you are honest, someone else will be honest and then you realize that the lady you thought was a Stepford Wife is actually going through an awful season of life and needs support. You are not some weird crazy person who is a failure because you have issues and sadness. You are doing the best you can. Just like all of us. Some people claim to have unlocked the mysteries of the universe and they can “manifest” only rainbows and sunshine but while I do believe in the power of positive thinking, prayer, being mindful and intentional, I take issue with the theory that all you have to do is learn to “manifest goodness” and nothing bad will ever happen in your life ever again. Seriously, I have a ton of positivity and spirituality going on, but I still have my days. I still had to earn my degrees. That 160 page Master’s thesis didn’t just manifest itself. That’s life. It has ups, it has downs. It has seasons, it involves change. It requires work. Change and work isn’t always fun. I hate it when I’ve had an awful day and I feel like a stressed out, emotional wreck on the verge of busting out in tears or having a panic attack at any moment and I have to go into work and be all “calm counselor” or attend an IEP meeting for my son with 5 professionals staring at me talking to me about my son’s behavior challenges. I can’t just “manifest” my way out of those things. I can, however, just show up with my authentic self, put in the work, and do the best I can.
I feel things deeply, but I know that I have to reign in my intense emotions if I want to do things that matter a lot to me like living in my own home in a safe part of town, feeding myself and my kids, clothing myself and my kids, staying married to the man I love but sometimes don’t like, and just in general living a sustainable and stable lifestyle. That is not to say one should suppress or repress emotions, we MUST have a time and a place to completely release. I have learned that can be crying in the car on the way home listening to country music or in yoga class before work (its ok to cry in yoga class, I checked) or sitting outside and writing in my journal on my lunch break. I don’t have to call out of work or stay in bed all day and comfort eat. That crap just makes you feel worse.
I love how author Lysa TerKeurst says “feelings should be indicators, not dictators” meaning that our feelings are giving us valuable knowledge about the state of our hearts, but we don’t have to react immediately and self-sabotage just because we feel really sad, hurt, or angry. We don’t have to call out of work and end up losing our job or bail on girls’ night out because we aren’t sunshine and rainbows. We don’t have to go to the courthouse and get divorce papers just because our spouse is really, really pissing us off right now. We can tune into the information our feelings give us, but choose to delay reacting until we can react in a way that doesn’t destroy what we work so hard to create in life. Are we working for or against what we truly want and need? The long-term patterns determine the long-term outcome.
My first experience with just showing up was when I was 16. I was so scared to show up to my first day of work. I almost no-showed. But, my grandma had used her connections to get me the job, so if I didn’t show up it would certainly get back to her and to my parents. So I just showed up. All pimply, skinny, scared, untrained, young and wearing very unprofessional clothes. But, it was OK. It was fine. I SURVIVED. I LEARNED. I even LAUGHED a few times that day. They didn’t fire me due to incompetence! I learned that I can figure out a cash register and deal with difficult customers by just trying to understand their frustration and acting like I cared. I learned that a smile and kind voice go a LONG way. I learned that sticky notes and to-do lists are my best friend. As time went on, I realized that showing up meant money, MY money and no one could tell me what to do with it. Missing a day meant missing MY money and MY freedom of choice. I went in even on days when I had fought with my high school boyfriend or had a hangover. I went into work 3 days after my best friend suddenly died. I learned that work actually helps. It forces me to get my shit together mentally enough to function. I learned that having to smile and act happy sometimes made me actually feel happy by the end of the day because someone would be nice to me or I would observe something that would remind me that life is still a gift no matter how much BS is a part of it.
Looking back, each season of my life has given me PLENTY of reasons/excuses not to show up at all or to quit. But also many reasons why I HAD to show up. Not just at work, but in my marriage, in my friendships, as a parent, etc. Stressful life circumstances and grief/loss could have been my reasons to just throw in the towel and accept my misery so many times, but instead they catalyzed me. I could have refused to show up and try when I was a massively overwhelmed, broke 22-year-old with an underemployed boyfriend, a newborn and a 2-year-old who was newly diagnosed with autism. There were endless therapy appointments and paperwork. We couldn’t pay our bills. I got by with one pair of shoes until they wore out. There were months when I didn’t know how we would pay rent and I had to contemplate really bad options. I skipped meals to save money. Ultimately, I realized I had a choice. There was so much worry. I didn’t even have my faith to lean on during that time because I was so spiritually empty, stubborn, rebellious, and lost. I hadn’t yet learned that I don’t have to bear my burden alone just on my aching shoulders. I hadn’t yet had my desperate prayer on the bathroom floor “come to Jesus” moment yet. But, I did know that I had a choice, I could do what needed to be done. I knew the rent wasn’t going to pay itself and it would be a cold day in hell before I was going to move in with family and all of the headaches and dysfunction that would entail.
Over the years, I have worked as a waitress in a smoky bar until 2am with men sexually harassing me, I have worked as a preschool teacher caring for twenty 2-year-olds all day and doing the hours of cleaning at the end of the day just to do it all again the next day for $8/hr…and going home to my own 2-year-old who didn’t let me rest either. I worked a physically demanding job running up and down flights of stairs carrying baskets full of laundry, walking around helping clients, and standing on my feet all day during my pregnancy with my youngest son until one week before he was born. I would go home having contractions and wondering if my son would be born premature because I had to push myself so hard. Thankfully, my body didn’t let me down and he was born at 37 weeks strong and healthy into my hands at home without pain medication or a bunch of unnecessary interventions. I didn’t fear or fight the pain of labor. I knew it would end eventually and it wouldn’t kill me. My big, strong boy showed up, opened his eyes and looked into mine. Worth it. Every bit of it.
I once worked a job driving around po-dunk providing early intervention special education services in-home for at-risk children, sometimes being told to “get the f#$% off my property you DFCS b#$$%” and threatened to be shot. I somehow was able to not run for my life, but rather explain to these people that I was not DFCS and was only there to teach their special needs child colors, letters, and numbers. I actually ended up getting along well with that family. I worked myself to the bone all through graduate school while also caring for my young children because there was no other option. Well, there were options. I could have left my kids with my mama or my man and run off to live with some guy or I could have just tried to be ok with a diet that only consisted of ramen noodles for my kids. But those options are unacceptable to me. They were traps, illusions that short-term pain and sacrifice was harder than long-term bad choices and the long-term consequences and pain they bring. I’ll take short-term suffering to create the life I want to live over that any day.
“No one ever said life would be easy or fair” I remember hearing several relatives say over the course of my life. Why would I expect it to be? I am strong. I am smart. I don’t need easy-peasy puddin’ pie. Anything worth having is worth working for. I hope if anyone gets an easy life, its people who are truly so weak or unable they need easy. I’m perfectly capable of showing up and doing what needs to be done even if I feel like I’m falling apart sometimes.
I remember when one of the best friends and mentors I have ever had was dying of cancer. It was a situation where I could have walked away with all of our good times and just let his daughter care for him by herself. She asked me “are you in this for the long haul, until the end? Because if not, just say your goodbyes and leave now before it gets really rough.” I felt like I could barely breathe. My heart physically hurt and I shook when I cried as I said, “I’m in…until the end.” I rarely missed a day coming to see him and care for him for at least a few hours. I only missed one day of work during this whole time and that was because he needed me. He could have been my excuse for quitting work and letting myself completely fall apart. But the fact remained that my kids needed to be sheltered, clothed, fed, and cared for. I’m in it for the long haul when it comes to them. Nothing has ever or will ever motivate me like my kids. I kept my job. There were many days when I would hold it together all day long at work counseling women and children, only to fall completely apart listening to music on my drive home. There were days when I would lay my head on my steering wheel in my driveway and just shake crying so hard I could barely force air into my lungs.
Working and taking care of my children was what kept me from being a wreck 24/7 while mourning my friend’s passing. At work, I HAVE to find my strength, muster my resources, and get it together. At home with my children, I have to tune into them and out of my pain and be present. I find joy in those moments with my kids or at work helping people. I didn’t have to do this, I suppose. Plenty of people just give up and stay in bed, drink or drug themselves to death slowly or quickly, or neglect their kids. But, it doesn’t make sense to me to take the easy way out in the short-term only to reap more pain in the long-term or worse to redistribute that pain onto others. Life is hard, but we can do hard things. We can find strength when we don’t already have it in things like showing up to do our life’s work whether that is being a stay-at-home mama or a CEO or just extending love and care to those who cross our paths, being honest, reaching out for help when we need it, and helping someone who is even worse off than we are.
The most courageous thing I can do is just show up anyway no matter how crappy I feel. Just put on my big girl panties even though I feel about 4-years-old in the moment and go into work, take the kids to the park, read bedtime stories, and then at the end of the day cry in a bubble bath listening to that song that just touches something deep in my heart. I pray the most in the shower and in the car. I pray God will keep giving me strength to just keep showing up no matter how scared or inadequate I often feel. God hasn’t let me down yet. I’ll keep doing my best and let God do the rest. That’s all anyone can do.
Don’t feel like you are not good enough to show up. You are. You are as good as anyone else. No one is perfect. We are all just winging it. Winging it alone is hard, if not impossible. So just show up where you need to be today and let’s wing it together.
Can you think of times in your life when you just showed up even though you were scared or felt inadequate? How did it go? Did you learn anything about yourself?