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ALL SOULS' DAY AND GRIEVING

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GRIEVING AND ALL SOULS’ DAY

All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2nd. It is a day commemorating the “faithful departed”—those who die in God’s grace and fellowship. It is a day, traditionally, to remember those who have died—especially, those recently departed.

Some churches commemorate the day by celebrating the individuals who have died in their congregations that previous year. They have a special service, do things like making a banner with all the names on it, and even personalize a memory candle to give to the families present at the service. This can be very meaningful to those grieving, since the first year is often the most eventful and emotionally challenging, as families go through the various milestones and holidays through that year. To have their loved ones remembered like this can be very comforting to the bereaved.


THE GRIEF PROCESS

Grief is a process that is both natural and extensive. The manner in which various persons, families or cultures grieve can differ greatly. The feelings associated with grief—and even the time span, progression, and intensity of reactions— are quite varied, depending on the individual and each unique situation. There are no real blueprints to go by—although grief literature and studies have described some stages or factors in the process for many who experience it. There is wisdom that we can gain from those who have gone through similar experiences, and that can be helpful.

Multiple kinds of feelings (positive and negative, expressed or non-expressed sentiments)—even unresolved emotions— all play into our grief journey. Hopes, dreams, and plans that are no longer possible with our loved one can affect our will and motivation. Change and the “empty spaces” in and of themselves may require emotional, mental and practical “work”. Our regular routine, everyday events, work and life shared with our lost loved one –even thought and conversation patterns—may become altered in ways that we may not have expected.

There are many kinds of losses—jobs, physical functioning, home town /community /families /home (with a major move), pets, loved ones … whatever makes up what we love or have valued, depended on or considered “normal” in life. When the loss of a loved one is involved, it helps to realize that every relationship is different—involving two unique individuals, time spans and “distance-closeness” factors (to name a few variable factors). So… everyone’s grief is a little different.

It is normal for those in grief to not be as fully functioning as they ordinarily would be. We need to give ourselves and others “permission” to do and be a little (or a lot) less than what is typical of our usual patterns. Loss of a loved one amounts to a blow emotionally, mentally, and physically (with a wide variety of potential physical symptoms). Some individuals may feel not only “loss” but “lost”.

Grief can leave those experiencing it with at least a temporary sense of instability—emotionally, situationally, relationally, financially, etc. Since there is no precise “map” to follow on this journey (which we might wish for when we feel off-balance), the progress toward a “new normal” may be slow at times. Past patterns connected with the loss have been taken away— out of our hands through death or loss. New ways eventually emerge, and life finds “new normal” elements—as we discover and walk out our lives connected with our loss.

It helps me to remember the story of the Mt. Saint Helen's volcanic eruption that happened in Washington State in 1980. When scientists and experts expected the vast devastation to take decades to begin noticeable recovery, they were surprised with the results. 

The blast covered more than two hundred twenty-five square miles, and the over 75,000 foot high cloud of ash circled the globe in about two weeks. Words like "barren" and "lifeless" were used by many as they described the loss. But life returned in much faster and broader ways than expected--even decades earlier than could have been foreseen--including underground and hidden life that began to emerge.

The story is always an encouragement to me as an analogy to loss and sudden devastation. Unexpected signs of life and recovery can come sooner than we expect or believe.

Making headway may feel unpredictable and sometimes beyond our control. Emotions and memories can rise up suddenly from unexpected triggers: sights, sounds, places, foods, people, etc. Often we hear the phrase: “one step forward, two steps back”. An element of felt “chaos” can also be typical now and then. At times personal momentum may be more “stop-start” or, for periods of time, more like drifting in a current.

Some find it difficult, for a time, to find their usual motivation. Most find that more rest and sleep is needed. Many people find that this is a good time to find a strong “anchor” for the soul (mind, will and emotions)—particularly as thoughts turn to their loved one and what life is like after we leave this earth. Some find a greater desire to seek answers for a deeper, closer and more real relationship with the God who made us. It is encouraging to find that He is the God who said that He wants to give us a “future and a hope”. [Jer. 29:11]

Other feelings can be associated with grief besides the sadness and empty sense of loss that many people feel. Anger is felt by some of those who grieve—anger at oneself, at the loved one’s leaving, at God (for allowing it) and/or at anyone who could be “blamed” (rightfully or mistakenly) for the death. “Relief” is frequently felt by those who have watched a loved one suffer for a time, and who now—through death—is free of all that pain.

The most loving of caregivers can experience a wide variety of feelings—even relief—when their loved one dies. Those who have had a less-than-desirable or unresolved relationship with the deceased may feel complicated emotions, including regret—whether any wrongdoing exists on the part of the mourner or not. It helps to remember: feelings can come whether they are connected to the truth or not! 

Feelings are very real, but the thoughts or conclusions that are connected with them may not be true. It helps to be able to confide in someone—or pray that we can find someone to talk to about our grief. To air some of our thoughts, fears, regrets, memories, etc. helps relieve some of the burden and can bring a measure of comfort. It helps break the feeling of isolation and loneliness often connected with grief—even when we are around others who are grieving the same person, loss or situation.

With a measure of kindness on our part, relief can also be experienced by those who hear a report of an abuser’s death, or the loss of one who has done us harm, or hurt a loved one. Forgiveness can free our hearts from malice (whether we actively or always feel that way or not). Forgiveness is a choice we make--just like choosing to love when we don't feel like it. We release the person to the always-just God. He then can free us to live and focus elsewhere. Life certainly may not be the same, and elements of pain usually still remain and diminish with prayer and time. Forgiveness opens the door to freedom from obsession and oppression.  Rather than remaining continually "stuck", releasing things into God's hands enables us to move forward.

Those in loss can also sometimes feel appreciation and gratitude for the time that they were able to spend on earth with their loved one—whether that time was short or long. When we seek Him, God can bring a sense of thanksgiving to our hearts—even when an observer (or even we, ourselves) may not think it makes sense. The variables and complexities of the griever’s life can result in a wide range of emotions—which may sometimes feel as confusing to the person grieving as it is to an observer.

Sometimes those who are grieving experience a “tired” feeling—physically, emotionally, and in their wills— affecting their willingness to do things and/or to go on with day-to-day life. Part of the answer is to rest…and even sleep more (as we mentioned before). It is also a time to be open to others’ true help and support. It’s often wise to set more limits on outside pressures and responsibilities for a time. Some need to consider letting up on whatever self-expectations (that we are accustomed to putting on ourselves) and self-demands (to continue doing all we used to do... even refusing help) that can lead to feeling overwhelmed. We sometimes need to give ourselves and others more grace--and some down-time. This can be a very wise way to respond to others who are grieving—and even to ourselves as grief hits.

As we described above, it is normal to feel tired-- some say “very weary”…”exhausted”… Words like “progress” and “formulas” and “predictable” may not be useful to gauge our path toward a new life lived without the physical presence of our loved one. As feelings, thoughts, and memories haphazardly seem to “bubble up” from inside, we can learn to rest in the fact that the deeper parts of our being are adjusting to the loss.

We can get to know ourselves better, and gradually forge a new life—a new “normal”. This new “normal” may not feel at all normal at first, because all of our thinking and patterns are connected to what was considered “normal” before. We need to give ourselves time … and freedom… and permission to find healing and comfort—in order to adjust to a new season in our lives.

In the journey through loss, and as time goes by, overall life and new connections (and people/places/things) can eventually crowd in and be given more “permission” to become part of the new life and the “new normal”. Although things are not the same, situation to situation, person to person (and there is no one person who can be truly “replaced”), God has created human beings with more resilience than we sometimes realize. He has provided for ways to adapt and adjust—even at times without conscious awareness or effort.


RESPONDING TO THOSE IN GRIEF

We can all learn to be more sensitive and connected to those who are grieving. To begin with, there are a few things that may help for us to remember. No matter how passionately we feel about helping a person who is in anguish, there are some classic responses that simply do not work well.

For the acquaintance or friend of the bereaved, it is easy to feel helpless, and to want to put distance between us and the bad “feelings” connected with others who are facing grief and loss. Consequently, those who are grieving may find some others are avoiding them. It is easy for those others to feel uncomfortable, and not know what to say or do. 

Remember:there are no "right" words that exist that can take away the loss. The words are of far less importance than the loving presence and caring heart. To even say, "I'm not sure what to say or how to help" is a more courageous and loving gesture than the avoidance that may be easier to do. 

Or, in an opposite way, it is common for people to feel like they need to “fix” the bad feelings of those in grief by saying something to make the grieving person “feel better”. Bluntly put: We can put the “fix-it” notions out of our heads! We simply do not have the power to do what we would sometimes like to do: whisk our friend away from the maelstrom of emotions and circumstances brought on by the death of his or her loved one.

One of the most common things that we hear from those who have experienced grief is a statement that goes something like this: “People don’t have to feel like they have to ‘fix’ my pain by saying ‘the right thing’. There is nothing they can say that can fix it. There is no ‘right thing’. But it is nice not to feel like a leper that they anxiously ignore because they don’t know what to say or do.”

The simplest way to support is with a straightforward, sincere statement like: “I’m sorry for your loss”. What comes after that depends on the personal connection to the person grieving, and whatever the grieving individual feels like saying, expressing, sharing or doing at the time.

How can we respond? We can listen—with genuine attention and empathy. And, after listening (or in knowing the person and situation) we can specifically suggest a way that we might help. It is recommended to make a concrete offer. The reason for this is two-fold:

First, it is common for the bereaved in the early days or weeks after a death to have some element of “foggy” thinking or to not know exactly what to ask for. Remember, this particular grief is a new journey for them. They may even feel self-conscious about asking for or receiving help.

Secondly, a specific offer takes the burden of thinking off of the grieving person, who already has much to think about and is most likely embroiled in a sea of emotions. This leaves the bereaved person with a simpler decision: that of saying “yes” or “no”. Also, this can at least start a helping conversation. The objective of those who are supportive is to genuinely be a help… so… even if the answer is “no”, we can understand that we have offered help and support in love. Later, something may come up that works for our friend or loved one in their loss. 

We might offer something again later. Attention comes to the bereaved in the days after a death or loss, but the help they need is often extended much past that point. Just to be remembered (or to have grass cut… or children babysat… or receive a card… or other practical help) can be a very kind and helpful gesture. Prayer is a great support, and God can give us ideas on what to offer.

Those of us on the outside looking in may need to screen our opinions and judgments. That might seem obvious to many of us, but how often have we heard someone—after what that observer judged to be a sufficient time period that had passed—express the sentiment: “It’s been long enough!”? Or say, “Get over it!”? We could add: “Snap out of it!” We certainly do not recommend these statements as helpful.

There may be much that we do not know, realize or understand about the person or situation regarding the life, relationship, and grief that he or she is experiencing—no matter how well we may assume we know that person and his or her life.

While most people are beyond the perspective of “just get over it”, it needs to be recognized that the cause, the expansiveness (i.e. Hurricane Katrina), the depth and the personal extent of the loss greatly affects the longevity of the mourning process. Some lives after enormous loss will bear the scars and effects much like a patient who loses a limb. A person living without a leg will remember and deal with this reality and its side-effects every day, even if the emotional, mental and practical physical adjustments have already been made. In the Hurricane Katrina example, we can mention an important piece written in a major New Orleans newspaper afterwards which described the opinion that, “We all are suffering from some degree of PTSD”.

Standard “pat” answers may not do much to console a grieving friend, even though they are given with the wish that we could short circuit the process of pain and grief for them. That, of course, is not something under our control.

Even well-intentioned “spiritual” truisms (“He’s in a better place.” “Just trust God.”) can be less than useful unless we know the person well and understand where they are in their faith-walk. On rare occasions, some of these things can be a gentle reminder from a personal friend, confidante or spiritual adviser. But most of us do not fall into that category with the bereaved we know. Listening and affirming them as persons can be a much more comforting and encouraging position to take.

Although the truth remains that there are no quick or easy answers to remove all the pain or emotional struggles of a loved one going through a loss, there are some real and appropriate ways to be supportive, and to be a blessing to those in grief. Almost everyone feels good when they know someone else cares. We can lovingly and patiently walk alongside them (rather than pulling them along our own pre-judged path or way). Praying for—and, sometimes, praying with them (if they agree to it)—can bring the blessing of grace and clarity, help and sustenance, provision and comfort that God loves to give when we intercede for (and pray alongside) others. As we mentioned previously, offering specific, practical help (bringing meals; picking children up from ball practice, shoveling snow, etc.) can help reduce the normal stress of life.


WHAT HELPS, DAY TO DAY?

What are some things that grieving persons have said that give comfort, support or meaning to their time of loss? Being present and even acknowledging our own helplessness can be more affirming than the altruisms and automatic responses like “I know just how you feel”. As we have said, the truth is, emotions in grief greatly fluctuate —from hour to hour and day to day.

Again: Every situation is different— as are the accompanying needs and feelings. Some have described grief as an unpredictable roller coaster ride. Many things beyond our control can affect our feelings. It is quite “OK” for our feelings, moods—and even mental outlooks— to ebb and flow for some time after we experience death and loss.

There is no way of knowing, at any given time, exactly what someone in grief may or may not be feeling. If we are grieving, we, ourselves, do not often know exactly what to expect of ourselves! Anything from scents that we smell; to seeing similar clothing or physical features of the deceased; to sudden memories, etc., can prompt unexpected reactions. Intensity of relationship to the deceased; the way in which someone has died; highly personal and unknown private factors; and innumerable other details make a difference in how (and how intensely) we grieve.

Needs can vary (person to person and, at times, hour by hour in the grief process) as to whether an individual is needing more private time in grieving, or has a desire to express thoughts, feelings or memories in conversation. We can be thoughtful and sensitive to them. Again, our loving focus in on them and their needs, not on our own “need to help”. We can give them “grace” if they seem unpredictable, hesitant or undecided about help, or embarrassed by unmanageable tears.

We can help by simply expressing the fact that we are available to listen and converse as he or she desires it. We can give them the freedom, and offer the choice in a gentle, humble way—whatever the need that he/she is currently having. We can accept their decision to talk or not talk without getting offended or making them feel compelled to converse. We can offer peaceful understanding that it is “OK” for them to not know exactly what they want or how they feel. Again, we can encourage them to rest, and/or we can help with some tasks to give them hands-on help, if that is possible and accepted.


WELCOME: OPEN HEARTS, LISTENING EARS AND HELPING HANDS 

Re-capping, we cycle back to some early comments in this article concerning aspects of grief. Countless studies have been done on grief. Stages of grief have been outlined in innumerable books and articles. They have become familiar to many of us in our culture. One well-known paradigm was defined by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross regarding one’s own death… the “stages of dying” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).

Gaining knowledge regarding the grief process is helpful—to the observing friends and to those who are, themselves, grieving. Even a general overview can help us gain awareness of the various emotions and responses that a friend or loved one (or we, ourselves) may be experiencing. That, in itself, can help us in our helplessness.

While standard “pat” answers may not do much to console a grieving friend, a willingness to be “present” and available helps bridge the gap of isolation that those in grief can feel. Grieving individuals have expressed the feeling that “life goes on” for the rest of the world, but, for them, things are no longer “normal”-- and no longer “moving right along”. Some heartbroken individuals feel like (or express that they feel like) they are “going crazy”— because life and everyday feelings seem turned upside down.


We can actually help those who are grieving feel “normal” (amid what seems like anything but normal) by our own loving understanding of the fact that there is a wide range of “normal” (behavior and feelings) during the grief process. Combine this with some loving, listening ears. Some affirmation of what they are facing or feeling or experiencing—and a lot of love— can be reassuring. And finally, we can add the helping hands--at the right time and in ways that fit the bereaved person's needs and their willing acceptance.

We simply need to remember that all the reactions, perceptions, and processes can vary greatly. They cycle. They go up and down, backwards and forwards. Most of the time, we can still be considered quite “normal” throughout the overall grieving process.



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