Monday, January 17, 2011

Comfort in Pain

I'm going to begin this post by admitting upfront that it's a post I did not want to write. For days now I've tried to just forget about it and let other things keep me busy but I am not being allowed the luxury of forgetting about it and moving on. Not to sound all mystical and whatnot, but I take that to mean this is a post that I need to write, even if I don't really want to write it. I honestly don't know who the "need" is for, and it may be just for me. Or, you.

Back on the 11th of January, Phil Johnson posted a link on twitter that I clicked on, and read. His tweet said "Heart-rending: Pray for Tricia Williford and family". In more ways than I can explain, I wish I wouldn't have clicked the link and yet at the same time I'm very glad that I did. If you would like to go and read it for yourself, you should know that it's the retelling of a very sad day recently when a woman lost her husband to a sudden illness, and her raw emotions as the reality of what was happening, unfolded before her.

Before I go on, I'd like to take a few minutes to sort of vent a little about grief and the grieving process. I'm not even sure "vent" is the right word, but it's the best one I can think of just now so it will have to do. Grief, and the grieving process after someone close to you passes on, is one of those subjects almost no one wants to talk about. Understandably so, it's a sad and heartbreaking subject and if there is a football game or a political news bit or some other scandelous or equally entertaining tidbit of news or whatnot to talk about instead of grief and grieving, that's what you'll find people talking about. This is not to be accusitory or anything like that, because if I'm 100% honest I'm pretty sure I'd do it too. My hat is off to people in the field such as grief counsellors, hospital chaplains, hospice workers, funeral home workers and the like. They spend their career caring for others in their most vulnerable state ever, and it's the hardest work any person will ever do. Those folks deserve much much praise.

For the very same reason other folks don't want to talk about it is the same reason I really didn't want to write about it. It's a sad subject and it makes me sad, and will probably make you sad too (unless you're already sad due to grieiving and then it will likely have an entirely different impact on you). However, because I tried really hard to forget about Phil Johnson's link, and Tricia Williford's blog post, and the whole experience she went through and was entirely unsuccessful at it, I knew I needed to write this and say a few things about the subject.

It's All Normal

I do not know Tricia Williford but as a former widow I can tell you that we are connected in a way that only widows can be. As I read more of her blog I learned that we both snort sometimes when we laugh and were both nearly the same age when becoming a widow. Then I read that she's an editor and would likely cringe a great deal at my horrific writing, so the similarities stop there. In any event...

As I read the account she wrote about the day her husband died in front of her, my eyes began to well up and my nose began to itch pretty much the same way they're doing now. You see, I've been where she was and in my mind's eye it's all still very fresh, even though it's been over 15 years ago. When I read she found herself a little surprised that all she said was "okay" when she was informed that the emergency medical techs had done all they could and he was gone, I just sat here and nodded. See, you might suspect that you'll react with some larger than life kind of reaction, or flip out like what you've seen on tv or in movies, but sometimes all you say is "okay". Of course it's not okay, but somehow your heart and your mind disconnect at that moment in time and your heart runs one direction and your analytical brain takes over in a type of auto-pilot and "okay" is the most logical response.

Often the next response you might be surprised coming out of your own mouth is "what do we do now?" Your heart doesn't want to know what to do now, your heart is hiding away in unbelief and unbelievable pain, but your brain is in auto-pilot and taking care of business. The thing about this is, it is entirely normal. It doesn't mean you're emotionless, or don't really care or anything like that at all. It simply means this is one of the ways people normally respond to a surreal, impossible, traumatic moment. For the record however, flipping out, screaming, crying, being struck mute, or just walking away, those are all normal reactions as well.

I can only speak to this from a spousal perspective but I will say there is no such thing as a "proper" response to hearing that the one person on this planet you shared your heart with has just stepped out of this life into eternity. It is the most devastating news you will ever hear, even if it's at the end of a prolonged illness. You can prepare yourself as much as possible but there really isn't anything you can do to "prepare" yourself for that moment of finality when it's over, and someone says it outloud, and you know it's actually over.

Because I Was There

As I read Tricia's account of her final moments with her husband, I just kept nodding through tears. I didn't really want to keep reading but I wanted to keep reading at the same time. In a way that I can't explain I know that she was writing it because she had to as much as I was reading it because I needed to. I know that might not make sense to anyone else, but it makes sense to me. When she wrote about the way their eyes locked for the last time, I remembered. When she wrote about the last words he said, the last conversation they had, I remembered those too. When she wrote about holding him until she saw his skin color change, I definitely remembered. I suppose I could look it up on google and find out, but the truth is I have no idea how long it takes between the moment of death and the moment there is a noticable difference in the color of the skin. What I do know, is that there is an immediate change in the physical appearance of a person when their soul is no longer in their body and their skin does take on what seems to be an immediate grayish color. In my own personal experience that physical change came in just moments, even though it felt like seconds, I'm sure. I also know that this is a very unpleasant topic and most people definitely do not want to talk about it or hear about it. However, if you are with your loved one when they go, you'll notice it and you'll remember it and somehow, in some way I can't explain, it's comforting to know that others have experienced this as well. There are others who do know how you felt at that moment because they've felt it too. If you have gone through being at the bedside of someone you love when they leave this life, there are certain things that you will remember and quite vividly, that you really never wanted to have as part of your memories of that person but they're there all the same and always will be. It's definitely heartbreaking but at the same time, in a way that only Christians will understand, there is a profound inner rejoicing in knowing at that moment in time, while you were still saying goodbye, they were present with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is the most bittersweet moment, but you hang onto the sweet as it brings great comfort.

Grieving is one of those things that defies a neat and tidy little definition or limit, or explaination. Just a few moments before I started to write this I noticed a friend of mine posted a FB status where she mentioned a sudden outburst of tears she had today for her dad, who passed away in November. What sparked the outburst? An item on a grocery store shelf. It's this kind of thing that you least expect and is perfectly normal and will happen. His favorite shoes, that stupid commercial she always laughed at, those chips he liked, the smell of woodsmoke in the fall, the way the sunset turns the sky a brilliant display of pinks and purples, or the color you painted the downstairs bathroom that he absolutely hated. You can be weeks, months or even years down the road from the passing of a loved one and quite literally out of nowhere something like this comes up and just dives right straight into the center of your heart and fresh tears begin to flow. That's perfectly normal too, because that person was a part of your life and your world and their likes, dislikes and memories you shared together - that connection will always be, even if they are no longer here.

I think I needed to write this because there are a lot of people that don't understand grief. I think I also needed to write this because I know people that right this minute are experiencing a death anniversary of someone they loved so much. I think maybe I also needed to write this for Tricia so that she knows she's not alone, even though we don't know each other and will likely never meet this side of Heaven. I think I also might have needed to write this because I know so many people very close to me that often feel like it's something they can't or shouldn't talk about because doing so brings other people down. Maybe I also needed to write this so that I could strongly encourage grief counselling even if it's years after the fact. I just can't recommend it enough, and it's never too late to spill your heart to a professional counsellor and learn healthy, positive, practical ways of dealing with your emotions that stem from losing a loved one. It's one of the hardest things you'll ever go through, and not all of us know how to handle it very well. That's what grief counselling is for, to better equip us to process all the emotions, reactions and even trouble we might have in our relationships with others.

As I sit here and think for a minute about all the people I know who've lost loved ones and still grieve for them, a lot of names come to mind. Names I don't get to say very often anymore because they're not here and talking about them doesn't happen much. This is one of those sensitive things that people aren't sure about and don't want to mention in case they'll upset you. Sometimes I think not hearing their names makes us feel like they've just been forgotten. We certainly haven't forgotten them. We haven't forgotten Ben, Harry, Jasper, Bruce, Bruce, or Rosemary's dad, James' mom, Phil's mom, Stephanie's grandma, Victoria's son, Tricia's husband, Barb, Michael or Keith, or the countless other people I could mention. These are people that were a huge part of someone's life and it's still good to hear their names, and know others remember them too.

I don't have any kind of fantastic closing for this post, so this will have to suffice. Just know that if you're grieving today, there are many who grieve with you and understand at least some of what you're going through.

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