Grief is like that…it surprises us

I was a blubbering wreck – which surprised me.

We were attending a funeral, and my heart ached for the family. But that did not explain my over-reaction.

As I searched in the bottom of my handbag for tissues and got Chris to find his handkerchief, I tried to figure out what the problem was. A quick run through the calendar in my head reminded me: It was the same week as the baby we had lost would have had their birthday.

I realised that my reaction was explainable, and that the emotions that were overwhelming me were really my own grief. So I was able to acknowledge that my feelings were valid, and put them on hold to deal with them later. I cleaned myself up, and at last, offered my condolences to the family.

Grief is like that.

It surprises us with emotions that seemingly bubble up out of nowhere.

Sometimes there are obvious triggers: we see something that reminds us of our loved ones; we meet someone who knew our loved one, and we race home to phone them, only to realise…they’re no longer on the other end of the phone. We watch a movie, a television programme, or even an advert, and the tears begin to roll down our cheeks – for no good reason that we can instantly identify. But if we pause for a moment to think about it, we may recognise it as grief.

But anniversaries are another matter.

Some anniversaries are obvious: Birthdays and Christmas, wedding anniversaries, and the anniversary of the death of our loved one are examples of occasions where we know we will miss our loved ones terribly. Others around us usually understand, and we are easily excused.

But other anniversaries are much more personal and private. Some we want to remember; the first time we met, the first time we held hands, the time we went on a trip somewhere special. Sometimes anniversaries are not even about grieving for a person, but an event that happened, or something we had hoped and planned for that never happened. Some other anniversaries we don’t wish to remember but still live on secretly in our hearts. 

Being aware that anniversaries that we don’t consciously think about may pop up and surprise us can help to reassure us that we are not going insane. Somehow, our subconscious is reminding us that this matters to us.

We can acknowledge our grief

We can acknowledge our grief—which is easier to do if they are pleasant memories—or we can try to lock it away. But if we continue to hide grief deeply within us it can breed like a cancer and cause us to be bitter and angry, poisoning our thoughts and attitudes on the inside even though we may smile on the outside.

Finding someone we can trust to help us acknowledge our grief is so worthwhile; a dear friend, a Pastor, Life-Line or a counsellor.  Often we anticipate that the pain of our past coming to the surface is going to be worse than hiding it away.  But instead, many people find that what before was a deep, dark, lonely secret, brings them hope, joy and healing when it is unlocked and released. It’s as though they’re able to fill a big, deep hole with all sorts of good. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have the memories anymore—it’s just that they are no longer such a burden.

Some people find it helpful to use a perpetual or birthday calendar and pencil in occasions that might be significant. This enables us not only to acknowledge our grief, but warns us—and those with whom we live—to expect turbulence. Instead of cancelling all appointments, we can look at this in the same way as the pilot of a plane navigates around and through stormy weather—being prepared for a bumpy patch and fastening seat-belts, but hopefully getting through without too many bruises.

If we care for people who are grieving,

we can take the initiative to acknowledge their grief. If we’re aware of an anniversary, we can send a card or flowers or take them out for dinner, or to a movie or something else special. On the anniversary of grandpa’s birthday, perhaps grandma would like a way to celebrate. If there’s no anniversary that we’re aware of, how about going out with them for a cuppa or a walk ‘just because’? There’s no lonelier place when you’re grieving than thinking you’re the only one in the world who is.

When we are aware that grief affects us all

in so many different and surprising ways, we can be more compassionate and understanding of people with whom we live and work. If we understand that many of the people who may shock or even disgust us are possibly dealing with a constant source of issues over which to grieve, we can grow acceptance. We can recognise that they need our love—not our judgement.

A number of years ago, our family collected all of the Christmas cards we received and placed them into a basket on our kitchen table. Every morning, we would pull out a card, pray for the sender and send them a note just to say we’d prayed for them that day. One day I received a phone-call from a dear aunt.

‘How did you know?’ she asked me.

‘Know what?’ I asked. She went on to explain that the note we had sent to her had arrived on the anniversary of her husband’s death and how precious the note was to her. We put that one down to being a God-incidence.

Anniversaries and memories are significant parts of our lives. They remind us of all the people and events which have made us who we are. How we deal with them will influence who we are to become.

*Published as ‘When the storms strike’ in The Lutheran, April 2014.

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Mother’s Day

On one particularly frightful worst-mother morning, I threw a particularly frightful tantrum because the family had seemingly forgotten my birthday. Though there had been some efforts to help me to celebrate—one out of the four of the kids had made me a home-made card, and my husband had gone shopping at 10-minutes-before-closing time the night before—I remember feeling particularly unimpressed by the lack of thought.

It seemed I was being taken for granted.

I also remember my performance – to my shame.

But on the following Mother’s Day, the family made up for the previous              un-celebration. I was smothered in flowers, gifts, cards and hugs, and the obligatory, celebratory ‘Stacks On!’ where all five of the other members of the family piled on top of me.

I was required to stay in bed where I received a cooked breakfast followed by coffee, the paper and a puzzle book. Bliss! Lunch was served eventually, complete with Oysters Kilpatrick and Prawns. I don’t remember the rest of the menu, but I do remember how I felt…like I was the most important mother in the world.

I wanted to write something wonderful and inspiring about mothers in preparation for Mother’s Day – a definitive article on mothers. But the story of my tantrum reminded me that I am probably the least qualified of all to write such an article.

So I looked for help.

I asked my friends what I should write about mothers, but they raised more questions than answers:

How do we define ‘mother’? Who is a mother? Is ‘mother’ a job description? Are all mothers female? Why are mothers from different generations so tough on each other? Does becoming a mother make one weaker or stronger?

I wanted to make it a light-hearted article so people might want to read it, but realised I needed to be sensitive to the grief that surrounds motherhood.

I wanted to remind people not to take their mothers for granted, but remembered that many who will read this have lost their mother.

I wanted to remember those who have yearned to be a mother but will never hold their child in their arms. And those mothers who have said their final good-bye to their children.

The harder I tried, the more I was reminded that motherhood cannot be restricted to a thousand words.

I looked to the bible for what it said about mothers. Though there are plenty of examples of godly mothers, there are no specific instructions.

Mothers such as Hannah and Moses’s mother are upheld as examples of women who nurtured future leaders in their homes. The bible gives specific instructions to fathers, but talks only of the mother’s role as nurturer and carer, and that she needs to be respected, honoured and protected in that role.

 

Mothers have a tough gig. Always have had, always will have, I suppose. Perhaps that is the pain to which God was referring when Eve sinned – not the pain of child-birth which everyone is terrified of but soon passes from memory. But the pain that Simeon prophesied to Mary: ‘the sword that will pierce your soul’  (Luke 2:35); the solitude of becoming a mother – giving everything she has, to bring her child into life; having to stand up for what she believes is the best thing for her child, despite the pressures of outside observers and her own heart breaking.

 

I read a book in which an author called his mother ‘a quitter’. She was an accomplished pianist, he said, but she had a whole house full of unfinished projects. I wondered how he became ‘successful’. His mother’s work was obviously invisible to him. If he had looked at her through eyes of love instead of criticism, he would have understood that a mother’s life happens in seasons rather than schedules. He would have seen her as ‘the one who dropped whatever she was doing for herself, for the good of those she loved’.

 

A few weeks ago, I was wandering in our local shopping mall and saw a family struggle.

‘What are you looking at?’ the mother snarled at me.  I concentrated on the blank, non-judgmental look on my face.  Two of her three children were screaming: one because she’d been hit by her big brother, the other because his mother had hit him.

One day I’m going to get in big trouble for doing this, I thought as I made the decision to walk toward this screaming family, instead of away from them. She watched me come close to her and we both stared at each other in an uncomfortable space.

God. Words, please? I prayed.

At last, I broke the silence between us.

‘This mother-thing is tricky isn’t it?’

That’s all I said. But a dam full of what she had been holding inside just burst out in a tidal wave of words. She told me about what had been happening in her home: why the kids had been fighting, why they were crying now, how she felt about it, that she didn’t know what she was going to do about it, could I hold something while she picked up the stuff that she’d dropped, how life was so tough at the moment, how she loved her kids but was struggling especially with her son’s behaviour…

While she talked and I listened, she packed up all the bags around her, organised herself, placed the older kids either side of the stroller and began to push. We walked together for 100 metres until she stopped.

She looked at me and she smiled.

‘It’s just a stage. It’ll pass. Thanks.’ she said and we headed off in different directions.

I smiled back, knowing that though I could not walk in her feet, for a few short moments I had walked beside her.

 

 

 

Originally published in The Lutheran magazine, 2014, May edition.