I have developed a hatred for platitudes. You know, the things people say when they don't really know what to say, that either totally misses the point, doesn't honor the devastation the person is truly feeling, or is simply salt in a wound.
We have all succumbed to them. Saying things like, "He's in a better place now", "God has a purpose in this and some day you'll understand", and one of my favorites, "When God closes a door He opens a window." I even had a friend who, soon after losing her husband, was told not to worry because she would be able to find another one someday.
Those of us who have gone through intense times of struggle and heartache within the gaze of onlookers have endured those comments. People mean well and really want to offer encouragement but sometimes it just falls flat. Some of what they say may even be true, but not necessarily timely.
My deep dislike for these empty words makes the fact that I too was recently guilty of offering empty words to a young woman who needed so much more. Afterward our conversation, I felt sick that I had fallen into this same trap and had to ask myself why I had let it happen.
I could have spoken into her sadness, allowing her to know that she was heard and that someone understood, at least on some level. Our circumstances were different but the ripping of the heart was the same and it brought a deep sense of loss. Most of all, I could have shared the story of my own journey as I have navigated the overwhelming beast of grief and heartbreak.
The reason that I turned to platitudes was because I was afraid. Afraid to open the box that I have tried to keep the lid on in order to manage the emotions inside. But mostly, I was afraid to expose the pain. If I expose it, I have to accept it as being real which is something I think we all naturally fight against. Maybe that's why we turn to the platitudes, because we don't want to be honest about the pain in our own form of loss.
After this disappointing exchange, I was motivated by an unlikely source to be more outspoken about my own experiences. In an interview of Gwen Stefani, who had recently gone through a devastating divorce due to her ex-husbands' infidelity, she shared how healing came as a result of sharing her grief through music. It has served others by helping them to put words to their own feelings within their individual context, as they too struggle to lean into healing.
My situation is a little more complicated since my grief also comes through a loss of relationship which doesn't allow the same "freedom" to share like Gwen's, but I now see the importance of figuring out how to share my experiences so that I too can honor the pain of others.
I remember when I was in the original tornado of emotions at the deepest level of my grief, it was hard to find people who were willing to join me in the muck even if they din't know what to do or say. I was thankful for a couple of friends who did just that, but they had no frame of reference with what I was dealing with. It would have been helpful to talk to someone who had been through it, was honest about how much it all "sucked", and could give me an realistic view of the long road ahead.
So, with all of that said, here are some things that I learned through my ongoing dealings with grief which I'm hoping will help someone--most of all the young woman I am thinking of the most. I have found looking at the traditional 5 stages of grief to be very helpful and I have clearly seen myself cycle through them.
1. Denial :
This has been the tipping point and the trickiest one to navigate. I have read that denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief which I think is definitely true. It has served as a way to not be so overwhelmed but has also held me back. Maybe that's just the way it works and as we become stronger and work through the other areas, the denial piece begins to fade away.
In my situation, I so badly fought against the reality of my own situation. I did not want to accept what had happened and I found myself doing anything I could to distract myself. Some things were healthy like exercise (although it became excessive) and reading the Bible and prayer (which also became excessive but I think that was ok). But some were not as healthy, like shopping in order to forget the pain, or an excessive need for entertainment and travel to escape.
God was patient during these times though and I see it all as part of the process as He gently showed me what was helpful and what I needed to get a handle on. I'm still a work in process and can tend to turn to things in order to soothe myself. I learned that we all need times of comfort, but the value of the options we choose is determined by how we feel afterwards. Do we feel refreshed or guilty? That has become my litmus test which works pretty well.
I had never really "allowed" myself to be angry since I thought it was wrong. Unfortunately over the course of my life, my body had reacted to what my mind wouldn't accept in the form of ulcers, anxiety and depression. I had to actually learn to accept the fact that I was angry about many things then I had to learn how to express it.
Acknowledging the anger I felt towards certain individuals in my situation actually served as a source of structure for me amongst overwhelming chaos. It's the one thing that I could really grab ahold of. It brought me stability and empowerment which led me to be able to finally voice my true feelings about a lot of things that I thought were wrong. I found value in correctly expressing my anger and that it was valid.
But, left unchecked, it was quickly turning into toxic bitterness. Not only was I angry at people, but I was also angry at God for allowing this pain in my life. Healing started to come as I combined the acknowledgement of my anger (including specific details of exactly who and what I was angry about) with forgiveness. I had to make the conscious decision to forgive strictly out of obedience to God. I sure didn't want to, especially since it had become a source of power. As I learned to allow God to be that source, I have been able to slowly release it. I still have a ways to go but I'm getting there.
This one is interesting for me and how I found it manifesting itself in my situation was with the prayer that became more of a mantra: "Please Help me find Purpose in the Pain". Scripture is clear about the purpose pain has in our lives and it truly is the time when God does His best work. I am a walking testimony of this as He stripped away all that I had turned to for validation, purpose and identity in order to find it in Him. What has created the most grief in my life has also created the most fruit, as I have had to totally rely on Him to get through the next day.
But, I have learned recently how my pursuit to study the process of healing in order to use it to help others has become distorted. I was desperate to make sense of the loss I had experienced in so many areas and this created an unhealthy desperation to fix the things in other people lives that don't make sense to them as well. I focused on the "head knowledge" instead of the "heart knowledge" and it stunted my own healing process.
I think I became too focused on learning how to teach people to heal with God's help, instead of letting God help heal me, which He could then use as an example to teach others how He could help them too. The semantics are similar but different enough to cause problems. I think it's common for those of us in the church to feel the pressure to push into ministry mode before we have experienced enough healing of our own to be effective.
I just saw a quote by Henry Cloud today which says it perfectly, "If your approach to a goal is to get better, gain mastery or learn, as opposed to proving you are 'good' at it, you are more likely to succeed." It's the same idea as having to put on your own oxygen mask before putting it on someone else, which I've always resisted because it seems selfish and self-focused. I'm starting to get it now.
This one was easy for me since I have suffered with depression most of my life. Experiencing great loss obviously is going to naturally cause depression, but I was so sick of being stuck in it. I was really motivated to find my way out.
What caused me the most problems was the shame that came along with the grief. I naturally accepted the idea that I had caused the problems that led to my loss- it was somehow my fault. The young woman who I had talked to recently mentioned that she was learning not to be defined by her loss, which I totally get. I went through a time when I felt I had a big letter across my chest representing my own situation and my own shame. I thought it was all people would see so it kept me embarrassed and disconnected.
The turning point for me was when God started speaking specifically into my life about the value I had in Him. Someday soon I will share about one such crazy experience, but His words into my heart started to chip away at that deep sense of shame the enemy had planted years before. Then, I was introduced to the writings of shame researcher Brene Brown who I have shared with before. The way she has expressed the findings of her research spoke into my specific emotions. Her writings echo the Word of God beautifully and God has brought great healing through an interesting source.
And this leads us to the finale. To acceptance. I both love it and hate it equally. It's what God has been leading me to but I have gone kicking and screaming the whole way.
The fact is that I don't want to accept the reality that my experience has created. I don't want to accept the fact that because of my time with grief I am now a different person than before, in some ways better but in some ways a bit tainted. I don't want to accept the fact that the hopes and dreams I once had will no longer come true and that I need to accept new ones. I don't want to accept the fact that I now see the world a bit darker than before. I don't even want to accept the fact that acceptance will mean there's no going back to the "comfort" of denial.
But, as I have cycled my way through each of these steps in rotation, the time in each one has become less intense and shorter, all constantly moving toward glimpses of this thing called acceptance. It's taken me 6 years to get here, but this past year has brought a shift. And the best part was that God has been with me every step of the way.
He's given me the insight I needed at times and the power to make it through each phase. He's been the giver of tough love through rebuke and truthfulness, yet of grace that comes with me constantly screwing up the process and losing ground.
And no, it hasn't been easy but I don't think it's meant to be. That's what the platitudes imply but they simply aren't true. That's what so many of the books I read made it sound like but that hasn't been my experience.
I love the analogy of how weight lifters need to actually create tears in the muscles in order for them to repair themselves, which makes them stronger. That's what grief can do for us as well. It hurts and it appears to be tearing us down, but if we can stick with it, even when it's uncomfortable, we will become stronger.
It's a process, with a lot of ups and downs, but with God's help we do seem to make it through. And I still believe there is purpose in it all. Even if it's just in sharing our own reality with someone else. That's what I really want to be able to tell this young woman, even though it exposes something in me. I guess that's what living this life of following Christ is all about.