Grief Series By Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Grief: Can Anything Good Come of It?
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Although tragedy can bring out the worst in us, it can also bring out the best in us…eventually. Our faith can be tested. Many factors contribute to resiliency such as environment, temperament, genetics and healthy coping skills. I personally was reminded that resiliency can also be God’s strength living in us when we don’t have any of our own left. That idea is reinforced in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10.
When tragedy knocks us down, often we find that we have more resources than we realized. Some people come to a living faith because of tragedy, and some of us are glad to find out that what we thought was a genuine faith is indeed real and intact. My hope in sharing some of my journey with you is that you will live life to the fullest, become the best version of yourself and treasure your loved ones and the time you have with them. We don’t know when our time or their time here on earth is up, so wasting time isn’t a wise option. Here’s a little of my story.
Life Was Good
It was a pretty day on the Friday of Labor Day weekend in 2011. Life was good. Envision a backdrop of beautiful trees with summer-green leaves and being embraced by glorious Georgia sunshine. My husband had gotten a new grill for his birthday and was itching to cook for his family. He’d contacted all three sons and, despite their busy schedules, we were all going to be getting together on Saturday for a barbecue. My greatest joy was to watch my guys interacting, cavorting and carrying on as only they could do. There is nowhere on earth I’d rather be on any given day than basking in the presence of my family. That’s how my mother’s heart works. Getting together every year for our professional family portraits even felt like a holiday to me!
The last time we’d all been together was in May on my birthday. We’d seen each other in smaller groups since then, but this would be the first time for all five of us to be together again. My husband planned his elaborate menu and happily purchased enough food for a small army. My heart was singing as I cleaned and prepared for the special, long-awaited following day of merriment.
Life Can Change in an Instant
Then we got the call. There had been a serious accident. We were told that our eldest son, Chris, was in critical condition and on life support. We were about to embark on a journey that no one could have been able to imagine beforehand. It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Our 30-year-old son, our eldest, had taken his life. No one even remotely saw this coming; it was completely out of character. Chris was intelligent, handsome, funny, well-loved and enjoyed spending time with many good friends, his girlfriend and brothers. He had lots of interests, talents and a passion for music. Chris had a heart of gold and went the extra mile for others both literally and figuratively. His legacy includes helping a friend with her newborn before work or on his way back home each day for several months. Among all the selfless gifts that he bestowed on others, he once traveled 45 minutes to bring soup to a sick friend and then immediately had to turn around to get to work on time.
Nothing could possibly prepare a family for such unfathomable tragedy. Nothing could prepare a parent for such an unspeakable nightmare. It was surreal. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. There is no way to pave the way for something like this. Or was there?
What can help get us through?
God is Always There
I had survived a difficult childhood and at 19 years old married my sweetie who was in the Marine Corps. We uprooted our household with each change of duty station. I kept the home fires burning during various deployments and found myself caring for three young children under the age of ten while my husband was in Saudi Arabia serving in Desert Storm.
By the time our world was turned completely upside down with Chris’ death, we had experienced almost 35 years of the ups and downs of married life together. Amidst the accomplishments and defeats, there had been the joy of births and the sorrow of deaths. God was faithful to sustain me throughout all of those years. I had found Him to be trustworthy and had already learned resilience through trials and tribulations. It turns out that all of this would give me strength for whatever the future might bring.
Many years of involvement with Bible studies, my moms’ prayer group, and a lifetime of Sundays sitting in church listening to homilies gave me the strength I’d need for this journey. Although I didn’t memorize scripture by chapter and verse, bits and pieces of scripture nourished me and were unconsciously hidden in my heart. I knew that He was a strong tower that I could run to in times of trouble. I was also aware that somehow all things would work together for good for those who loved Him, that nothing could separate us from the love of God, and that He sent His son so that I could enjoy eternal life. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t learned to quote where the passages could be found. I had everything I needed tucked away in my heart. This was all part of the preparation that was already in place by the time disaster struck.
Family and Friends
My family had always been there for me. We’d taken turns squabbling over the years but despite disagreements, the love was always present as the underlying thread holding me and all of my siblings together. We always stood by each other’s side when it counted.
Over the course of 53 years, I had also gathered friends from all over the country due to our military moves and had held on to a few cherished ones from back home. One of God’s hand-picked treasures for me was a friend of 24 years at that point. She has three daughters and we helped raise each other’s children. She was like a second mom to our boys and I was the same for her girls. Having known and loved Chris for so long she understood all my references. I didn’t have to explain anything which lightened my burden when I needed to talk through my grief.
Inexplicably, several months before our son’s death, I joined Facebook after having been adamant for so long that I was not even remotely interested in entertaining the possibility. Within weeks, I had reconnected with friends that I’d lost touch with decades ago. So, as you can see, my faith, family and friends were already in place to support me when we got that call.
Hidden Blessings Among Suffering
Eventually as the fog lifted, God reminded me that faith had held me up before and it would hold me up again. When Moses could not hold the heavy tablets up any longer, his friends on both sides of him held up his arms. God has put family and friends alongside us to hold us up when we are too weary. I have since met many wonderful people who have also tragically lost a loved one and are now fellow travelers on this grief journey. Our new friends include parents who have lost children, also involuntary members of a club that no one would want to be associated with. These survivor friends hold us up and help us to persevere.
During the first year after our loss, many days and nights, I couldn’t quiet the incessant chattering of my mind. I fell asleep and awakened to the recurring litany of what had happened, where we had been at what time and all the other heartwrenching details of our story. I’d memorized Chris’ note and would wake up reciting it. Over time, interspersed with the merciless tape which continued to play, I would find myself hearing lyrics of peace, hope and comfort floating around in my head as I went to sleep and as I woke up. Music had been sustaining me without my even realizing it….strains of “when everything falls apart, Your arms hold me together, when everything falls apart, You’re the only hope for this heart, when everything falls apart, and my strength is gone, I find You mighty and strong, You keep holding on” from lyrics by Fee. Also speaking to my heart awakening or falling asleep were echoes from a newly discovered song by Mercy Me, “So here I am, what’s left of me, where glory meets my suffering, I’m alive, even though a part of me has died, You take my heart and breathe it back to life, I’ve fallen into your arms open wide, when the hurt and the Healer collide”.
Two years and 26 days after our loss, just as I was regaining my equilibrium, tragedy struck again. My youngest brother, Tony, Chris’ godfather, also died by suicide. He too was a man with a big heart. Even though we knew that it was a possibility since he struggled with depression and was going through a terrible divorce, it was still a horrible loss. Sigh. So hard to understand. Sometimes the waves of life knock us down repeatedly.
Life Can Still Be Good
Despite living with a shattered heart, God has given me the ability to not be blind to the good that still exists in the world. Love will see me through, love for my husband and our two remaining sons, love for our new granddaughter and her mom, love for my siblings, family and friends, love for my Christopher and Tony who will always be in my heart and love for my Lord who planted the seeds of faith and love in my heart a very long time ago to prepare my heart for anything that could ever happen.
Faith has sustained me before and it will have to continue to give me strength now. What other reasonable choice do I have? My life has been changed in ways that I wish weren’t true and yet where my strength comes from is a truth that will never change. It looks like in unplanned ways, I was prepared. Life is not how I yearn for it to be once again, but I am able to enjoy life and see that it can still be very good.
Stages of Grief
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Perhaps you are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. It originally described those coping with their own terminal illness, but over time it’s been used for grieving mourners after losing a loved one. The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Personally, this model doesn’t make sense to me for mourners because there’s no bargaining possible anymore since the loved one has already died. There are many new models that have emerged over the decades that are more realistic with a griever’s journey. Since Kubler-Ross’ is the primary model still used and commonly known, we will examine that one first in this series of looking at grief.
Grief stages are not necessarily experienced in a neat orderly linear way. Sometimes we skip a stage completely and at times they’re all included in the healing journey but in a different order. One beautiful thing about grief is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it and you can’t flunk Grief 101. I have dealt with several significant losses and each experience has been different. I’m glad that there are other mourners to share the journey with who shine a light just a little further down the road in this foreign land we find ourselves in. I can share with you what has helped me to move toward some healing. Different things may work for you but maybe there’s something from my experience you’d like to try in your own grief process.
In the beginning, we just learn to make it through each hour, each day, remembering to breathe….. periodically reminding ourselves to eat or take a shower. This is the time to lean on others and accept any help offered. Going to the grocery store or anywhere outside of the safe cocoon of our home can be overwhelming at first. Taking good care of our health, even when we don’t feel like it, is important especially because our immune system is compromised for at least the first year. Simple things like drinking lots of water is also helpful to remember… all that crying and grieving can leave us dehydrated.
One of the things I did to deal with my pain was to write poems in honor of my son. This first one was written two months after Chris’ death.
I can’t stand to be around people
The sound of voices irritates me
The din of their idle chatter is deafening
Normal everyday life is an insult
The sound of the television is jarring
Music is upsetting
I cringe at sunlight
The leaves change color, how dare the world go on
It makes me angry
I only want the solace of my bed,
A warm comforter and a fluffy pillow my shield against the world
People hug me, I don’t want them to, I may break down
People don’t hug me, I want them to, I need to cry
Others find it hard to even make eye contact with me
My pain may rub off on them
I am half crazy
New, raw grief.
Whether we lost our loved one completely unexpectedly or whether we knew it was a possibility doesn’t really make a difference, pain is pain. We suffer either way. These next two poems deal with shock and numbness. This first one was written at three months after our loss.
There was no warning that there would be a roadblock up ahead
There was no announcement or bulletin about impending disaster
There was no siren announcing a maximum magnitude earthquake
There was no test of the emergency broadcasting system
Just a phone call that there was a serious accident, life support and critical condition
Now in the aftermath,
We cling to a thread of life support
Our emotions as survivors are in critical condition
In our numbness we think that maybe
There’s been a serious accident in identifying us as the correct family
Surely this tragedy was a mistake,
Some other family’s sorrow
But no, the reality was ours,
Lives forever altered
Our son was dead
No signs pointing to the possibility
No detours, no roads under construction
Just a dead end.
Death by suicide.
This next poem was written five months after our loss…
But it Did
This is not the way it was supposed to go
It doesn’t make sense, nothing makes sense
Everything is surreal
It’s not the way it was supposed to be
You were supposed to have a happy life
You deserved happiness and joy
Instead something went horribly wrong
You hid it so well, none of us knew
You obviously had a deep well of pain
Accumulated sorrow beneath the layer
Of what we were allowed to see
It doesn’t make sense, it’ll never make sense
Instead of the life you were born to live
We are numb with shock
You reached some unknown despair and ended your life.
You had so much going for you
Instead we now mourn your death
It doesn’t make sense, it’ll never make sense.
I shouldn’t be wearing your bathrobe
You should be wearing it.
I shouldn’t be using your things
You should be.
We shouldn’t be expecting to hear from you soon
It’s easy to play mind games with ourselves,
To believe, ever so briefly, that maybe this didn’t really happen
But it did.
This first stage of denial, shock and numbness is the brain’s way of helping us to cope. This is how we are able to arrange beautiful funerals complete with great programs of music, readings, photos and videos. This is the period of time when typically family and friends are helping with casseroles, childcare etc. Then everyone eventually goes back home to their own lives and the reality of one’s loss has room to start to sink in more firmly.
Grief Stages Two and Three
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
I was in grad school when our son died by suicide. Ironically, I was studying to be a counselor. Not even I recognized what tiny little signs there may have been. He held everything together so well, but we know now he must have been a great actor with undiagnosed depression. He had lots of friends and family who loved him, went places, did things he enjoyed and acted as he normally did. There was no moping around his house with the curtains drawn or any of the other typical signs of depression. He had always been resilient dealing with trials in his almost 31 years of life. Only he knows what his final silent battles were.
Many Ways to Express Anger
The second stage of grief is anger. Not everyone experiences this. Some get angry with God… most people don’t stay in that place, but some do. Others blame and get angry with the doctors, nurses, family members or whoever they believe could’ve done things differently so that the loved one would still be here. Some get angry with the loved one for dying and leaving them. There are those who get angry with themselves and experience regret and guilt which can turn into depression.
Anger is an action word. I think my anger at the situation and all the unanswered questions, took the form of taking all the actions I could to get to the bottom of this mystery. One of the ways I dealt with my grief was to read every book that I could get my hands on concerning suicide and dealing with grief in general. I read about 40 books on these topics in the first year or two.
A really short but helpful book, Living When a Loved One has Died, by Earl Grollman, was a reassurance when I found out what is normal in an abnormal situation. I went back to my classes 2 ½ weeks after losing Chris and went through the motions and got good grades. It was very difficult, but it was also beneficial to be distracted for pockets of time here and there. The determination to persevere was also a way to honor our son, I think that’s what he would’ve wanted me to do. I wanted to finish the path that God had set me on but I could’ve taken time off. It gave me a sense of sanity to have places to be and studying to do, maybe He prompted me to continue because that’s what was best for me. For someone else, stepping back might’ve been the answer.
As mentioned in a prior blog, bargaining only makes perfect sense in the original intent of the Kubler Ross ‘grief stages for those who are terminally ill. It’s possible that some who are grieving might bargain in a way similar to obsessive compulsive disorder symptoms such as ‘if I do xyz then nothing else bad will happen to my other loved ones.’ Bargaining can postpone feeling the pain, confusion and emotions of grief because like anger, it’s an action word. The noise of anger and bargaining make the silence and stillness needed for healing more difficult and prolong the path to finding a semblance of peace again.
Grief Stage Four
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
I personally found out what it’s like to deal with deep depression on a daily basis when I lost our son and two years later lost my brother, both to suicide. Now that I know what that is like, it breaks my heart to think of how awful their pain must have been.
There are many ways that depression can manifest itself. Some people are able to hide their depression and with others it’s obvious. I did not know this before our tragedy. This is why we need to listen carefully when our friends and family speak. We can also notice any changes that could be concerning by paying closer attention. Sometimes we can detect depression that isn’t obvious outside of careful observation. I wrote these next poems at 6 ½ months after our son’s death which sums up how I felt at that point.
Sometimes I can’t breathe the pain is so suffocating.
Sometimes my gut is so wrenched I feel physical pain in the pit of my stomach.
Sometimes I’m in such a fog that I barely notice or hear anything.
Sometimes whispers feel like shouting.
Sometimes I feel alone in a crowd. Sometimes I feel alone in my sorrow.
Sometimes I have no answers.
You were a shining light bright with intelligence and love
Handsome, funny and sweet, loving and giving, full of passion and life
But, sometimes, you must have felt you couldn’t breathe because the pain was so suffocating.
Sometimes, you must have felt gut wrenching pain in the pit of your stomach.
Sometimes, you had to have been in such a fog as to not see or hear.
Sometimes, whispers must have felt like shouting.
Sometimes, you had to have felt alone in a crowd and alone in your sorrow.
Sometimes, you must have felt you had no answers,
‘Sometimes’ must have turned into ‘most of the time’ or you wouldn’t have died by suicide.
Sometimes I can’t believe this happened
All of the time, I wish that it wasn’t true.
I can still see your smile. I can still hear your voice.
At times I sense your laughter at something I say or imagine a chuckle as you watch what I do
Sometimes I feel your love surrounding me.
At times I think this anguish will lighten a bit
Sometimes I feel some healing, some relief from this agony.
Occasionally I recognize glimmers of my former self.
I am able to see that you are now enjoying an eternity of happiness and joy.
I can see you dancing and full of life.
I know your silent pain is over. I’m comforted to know you’ve found peace.
But I only feel that way Sometimes.
No mother should ever have to cradle her son’s ashes in a box in her arms
No father should ever have to enter his child’s date of death on a family tree
No brother should ever have to carry out his brother’s last wishes
Or find just the right music or photos for his wake
We shouldn’t have to deal with such sorrow.
We could rise above the circumstances,
We could carry our pain with grace
We could look for ways to redeem our loss
We could be strong and inspire others
To live life to the fullest and make each day count
We could turn this tragedy around
But, we shouldn’t have to.
Grief Stage Five
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
The term acceptance has never sat quite right with me. It makes it sound like it’s okay that a loved one has died. I prefer phrases such as incorporating the loss into our life and making the loss a part of your life story but realizing it’s not the whole story. Our loved one lived! All those wonderful memories are a big part of the chapters of your life. Acceptance could be said to be when all the life memories together loom larger than the sorrowful death memories.
Stage 5 of grief is acceptance. This is the stage where a person is able to move forward from his or her grief by living life in such a way that their loved one would be proud of them.
One of those ways would be to create a legacy representing the person and what he or she stood for as a way to honor the fact that the individual was here, that the person mattered and that you don’t want him or her to be forgotten.
One way that we’ve done that was by starting a scholarship in our son’s name at the University of North Georgia. He loved music so we’ve designated it for financial aid for a student majoring in music.
There are lots of ways to move toward some healing and we each find what works for us to make our loss easier to carry. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve and it’s all considered normal.
My husband and sons each handle their grief differently and that’s okay. Mostly what has helped me with the healing journey has been my faith. That relationship was already in place. I will always have questions this side of Heaven. God hasn’t let go of my hand so far and I don’t think He’s about to start now. I do trust there are answers. I just don’t have them right now. I use Chris’ old Bible from when he was a young adult in his 20s and liked to read it. I’m glad that he kept it because I cherish having it. I have a photo of him that I keep inside the front cover and it’s comforting to hold them both close to my heart.
Our home is filled with many of his things now. At first, everything that was his made me sad. Now I don’t even think about the fact that the refrigerator or dresser was his; they’ve just become part of our home. The things that are more personal like his nightstand or clothing still tug at my heart, and I’m sure they always will. I have things such as his chapstick or kitchen spices that I sometimes use. Each time I use up a container of something, it’s a sad reminder that one more piece of him is gone. It all may sound silly to some people but it keeps him near somehow.
About the time that I had been feeling closer to recognizing more of the old me for several months, my younger brother also took his life. Tony was Chris’ godfather. He too was a good man. His death wasn’t a complete shock though. He did suffer from depression, unresolved childhood trauma and was going through a horrible divorce. I still didn’t expect that call, but knew it was a possibility. He was only 47. I had to continue to find new ways to cope with our losses and keep using the ways that had helped in the past.
I hope something I’ve written gives you some ideas to help towards your own healing or for someone you care about. Each day we get closer to figuring out our new normal. Grievers experience going back and forth through the stages and then later revisiting the same stages, but somehow at a different level of understanding. It’s a lifelong journey of learning to live without the physical presence of our significant loved ones.
I attempt to use my experiences to make our world a better place. We can all reach out to help those who are hurting. We can extend more love to others and not waste our days. We can find ways to honor our loved ones and keep their memory alive.
My last 2 poems were written for my brother. They seem more hopeful to me than the ones I wrote before. Maybe it’s a resignation that no matter how I feel, it doesn’t change the facts and so from that standpoint we could use the term acceptance. These poems were written three weeks and five weeks after losing Tony.
To See You As You Are
So much sorrow…
You had so much of it
Too much for you to bear any longer
So much sorrow
For us too now
You could no longer see hope
And now we can no longer see you
You deserved better than this
My tormented brother
With a big heart
It wasn’t the life you deserved
When our blurry eyes clear
We’ll see you as you are now
Full of happiness, joy and peace
No more pain, no more tears
We’ll carry that for you instead
For just a little while
Until we find our way again
We’ll go back to living while we’re still alive
And then one day, we’ll also die
In order to live again
Until that sweet day
I’ll hold you in my heart
Home Sweet Home
You are living the true happily ever after
You are home sweet home
But we are here still here
Living sadly ever after
Happy memories, painful memories
A jumble of emotions
Crying one day, numb the next
Life will continue to go by in slow motion
Until the day comes when we notice the sunshine again
And the gentler days come back
And a measure of peace settles in
We’ll never be who we once were
Your absence leaves a missing piece
Your pain became our pain
You ran out of hope
We are now left with a mission
Of finding ways to offer hope to others
And ways to find our own healing
You were a good man, my brother
Too young to leave so soon
Rest high on that mountain
The Truth about the Stages of Grief
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
There are many models for the stages of grief. The horseshoe shaped diagram is my favorite and I believe it to be the most realistic. Grief is not linear. People do not proceed through each stage in a neat, orderly fashion. Typically, stages are sometimes skipped and then returned to later, as well as stages being returned to multiple times. This can happen long after a person thought they had worked through that particular stage. Just as the traditional 5 stages of grief by Elizabeth Kubler Ross are not a simple progression through the steps, neither are the many steps in the horseshoe model. If you drew a continuous line of how the steps might go for an individual, you would see that with all the jumbled directions going across and up and down the graph, it would look like a bunch of tangled thread. For many, that’s what grief really looks like.
The Descent of Loss
It can be a slow descent or a rapid plunge to the depths of grief. As stated already, we may or may not experience all of these stages and not necessarily in the order shown in the diagram. The tumble down to loneliness, guilt and isolation can be quite rough which almost makes those lows look restful compared to what it took to get there.
Shock, Numbness, Denial
It’s typical to be in a bit of a fog after you get the news of a significant loss, whether that’s of a loved one’s death, a job loss, a serious health diagnosis or any other kind of change that could be considered life changing. Grief is a natural response to the loss of how you thought things would continue to be and the future you expected. When we lost our son, I remember repeating things like “This isn’t happening.”, over and over again as though it was a mantra. During the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen denial in the form of some people not making any noticeable changes in how they do things in the areas of social distancing, cleanliness and disinfecting or any of the other ways we have learned to be proactive in order to cut down on the risk of contracting the virus.
Emotional Outbursts, Anger, Fear
Grievers can be easily triggered. Some losses are traumatic. With trauma, often there is hypervigilance. The fight or flight instinct is revved up, as though we must be on the lookout for any impending dangers at all times. We have all experienced reactions from people that seem disproportionate to a situation. These emotional outbursts are sometimes due to grief. The increased levels of cortisol when a person is in this escalated state of vigilance causes a lot of wear and tear on one’s body and mind. As a result, anxious, angry, or fearful people are perpetually emotionally and physically drained. This of course can lead to impaired judgement and become a vicious cycle. When there’s an anger response to grief, it can be directed toward others or oneself. Anger turned inward is one of the definitions of depression. The anger is sometimes directed toward the person who died, the boss who did the firing, the spouse who left or sometimes toward those who played “supporting roles” because it’s too difficult to be angry with the source of our angst.
Fear drives the thoughts and beliefs of some of the irrational actions and behaviors of a person experiencing a significant loss. A typical piece of advice after a significant loss is to wait at least a year before implementing any big changes such as moving or a change in career. Part of the reasoning for waiting is that the individual will be further along the healing path which usually means that fear is not as much a part of one’s reasoning process.
Searchings, Disorganization, Panic
Trying to make sense of our pain, of the unexpected tragedies, of man’s inhumanity to man, or any number of other baffling incidences in life, is also a natural reaction. We often feel we can bear a crisis more easily if we can find some purpose in the suffering. Of course, there can be redemption in suffering, miracles can occur in disastrous situations, good can triumph over evil and all of this can be appreciated in retrospect. It is often quite difficult to discern any of this in the midst of the difficulties. Further down the road of one’s healing journey, these treasures can be discovered. I have found that the person who grieves must discover these on their own, rather than having others point them out, because they only sound like empty platitudes coming from others.
Disorganization is part of the mental fog and lack of clarity during the depression of grief. Often a person in this state may be unsure of the day of the week or even unclear of the status of the basic things that they normally could keep track of, such as whether they remembered to take a shower or eat lunch. It can be very confusing to find oneself acting and thinking in ways that are so untypical of the usual way of doing things. Often the energy isn’t there to even be concerned about the discrepancy of who they knew themselves to be and who this stranger in the mirror is now. Panic can set in when this disconnect is truly realized. There can be a fear that the old familiar self may not reemerge. Panic can be the answer to all the unanswered questions of what the future might hold. There can be the fear that things will always be this disjointed and hard to understand, that life as one knew it, is gone.
Guilt, Loneliness, Isolation, Depression
The situations and emotions that grief entails often bring a person to their knees. This is at the bottom of the diagram in the pits of despair. Guilt can color many of the questions we ask ourselves and sometimes there’s a continuation of attempting to blame others and to lay the guilt on their heads. We often have grandiose ideas of our own power to be able to cause certain situations that were actually out of our control. Likewise, we can also assign more power to others than they are capable of having and thereby believing they are at fault in some way in a loss situation. We have all heard absurd news claims that a particular person, country, gender or ethnicity is at fault for a situation when the truth is there are many factors that play into most situations. Loneliness and isolation can breed depression. Sometimes we make matters worse by intentionally shutting out the rest of the world. Time alone and loneliness are not the same thing. We need solitude to think things through, regroup, reflect and recharge. I say that as an introvert. An extrovert gets their energy from those around them, so in that case they may regroup and recharge better with the support of others, talking through their concerns in their grief journey and thereby processing their thoughts aloud. Isolation during grief can also be a protective mechanism against having to put on a mask and acting as though you are doing better than you actually are. Isolation means not having to answer people’s questions of how you are doing or having to deal with all the things people say as an encouragement which turn out to be the opposite. This can put the griever in the awkward position of being cordial when they really want to scream.
If a person stays on the perimeter of life for too long when there’s been a big loss, it can make re-entry more difficult. It is almost as though time stands still for the griever, but the world has moved on and you don’t quite fit in now. Things that were once important to you may now seem trivial. The latest movie, fashion trends, and the current gossip are all pretty insignificant now as compared to whatever importance you may have placed on them at one time. It’s all temporal and often grievers become larger picture type thinkers. Much is trivial when you’ve experienced the degree of brokenness that you didn’t know was even possible prior to your loss.
New Relationships, Strengths, Patterns
After a major loss, there’s a lot of reevaluation that comes out of the experience. We think differently. We see differently. Often there’s a new thirst for life because we’ve developed a new appreciation for the gifts that still remain. New relationships may come from a support group that helped you weather the storms of your trial. You might decide to use the time you have ahead of you to learn new things, catch up on your bucket list, resurrect old hobbies or any number of ways we can regenerate ourselves. All of these options could involve new people in our life and new ways of doing things. Strengths can develop from weaknesses. Surely, the difficult stages preceding these more positive ones involved succumbing to weaknesses at times. If our faith is predominant in our lives, we undoubtedly experience that in our weakness, He is strong and carries us through.
Hope, Affirmation, Helping Others
These last stages of grief are part of the adjustment to the “new normal”, the new life without the person, place, career, or situation in which we had such a connection. This is a connection so strong that the loss catapulted us into this grief journey which in many cases eventually ends up also being a growth journey. Most of us are familiar with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which can certainly happen with a complicated grief situation. Some of the PTSD symptoms can occur with “regular” grief. Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) is also a possibility towards the end of the stages of grief. We can become more resilient, kinder, more attentive, more in tune with ourselves and others and generally living a life of more depth and meaning. Grievers typically don’t take things for granted as they may once have done. In the midst of the whirlwind of all these stages and conflicting emotions, God can bring beauty out of sorrow, restoration out of pain, and a peace that surpasses all understanding. This is hard to imagine during a time period when we could not envision there ever being anything positive coming out of loss. Often the magnitude of the loss experience feels like our solid ground is shaking and crumbling beneath our feet. We can find our way again and when we do, our losses become part of our life story. They may even be many chapters of our story, but it’s not the entire story. Our grief becomes part of us and can live side by side with life’s joys. There is life after grief and it can still be good.
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Sometimes we have more power than we think we do, both the power to heal and the power to harm. There was a time when it was acceptable to use certain words or phrases, but over time we came to realize there was a better way to say something. We can choose to not be part of the problem but instead to become part of the solution. Hopefully when we know better, we do better.
The Power of the Tongue
There are many passages in Scripture that address the power of the tongue. There is one in particular that I believe will help to illustrate my point. In Matthew 12:36 we learn “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” It’s important to choose our words wisely.
The term ‘commit suicide’ is a common part of our culture. It is used frequently by the media and by people in everyday conversation. When a news reporter informs us that someone has died by suicide, they will state that the person committed suicide. In movies when there is a tragedy of this kind, the actors will say that someone commit suicide. When mourners gather at a funeral, there are whispers about the deceased committing suicide. I personally think this terminology is in the category of speaking carelessly that St. Matthew mentions.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) also believes this verbiage is stigmatizing and causes harm. They hope to increase public awareness until one day this is not the common way this travesty is referred to automatically.
Exploring the Meaning of Words
One of the definitions of commit in the dictionary is to carry out or perpetrate a mistake, crime or immoral act. Immediately when we see the term perpetrate, we know this is very bad. Think of the common ways that we use the word commit in conversation or how we see it used in headlines. People can commit murder, commit larceny, commit burglary, and commit a sin. Committing suicide is lumped in with heinous crimes. Commit has stigma attached to it.
Where there is stigma, commonly there’s also shame. The feeling of shame is on the other end of the spectrum from embarrassment. When we make a mistake, embarrassment can be present. Shame bypasses that idea and a person can arrive to the conclusion of I am a mistake or I have messed up so badly that I’m unlovable, unworthy or whatever other lie they may have bought into.
The loved ones who are left behind after a suicide are called survivors of suicide. The term survivor points to the trauma involved. The term survivor is used with significant negative events, for example survivors of the Holocaust and survivors of natural disasters.
Possible Harm of Using Commit Verbiage
Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a mental illness. Many of them suffered from undiagnosed and untreated depression. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The person’s state of mind when they took their life did not involve rational thinking. There was certainly a lack of clarity in order to believe that suicide was a viable solution to their despair. To imply that they perpetrated a crime or immoral act would indicate perhaps the person exercised free will and made a well thought out choice. Frankly in most instances, the person’s mental illness took over their rational functioning brain. The goal wasn’t to engage in a crime or immoral act, but to make the pain end. Those who attempt suicide and live usually will say that they didn’t actually want to die, they just wanted to stop their tormenting pain.
Seeking help for suicidal thoughts might be avoided because of the shame and stigma around considering taking an action which is considered a criminal act. Usually by the time a person is beyond considering the possibility of suicide in their thoughts and has actually begun preparations to end their life, they are no longer of sound mind. A person who is having difficulty navigating their life circumstances may not be willing to seek help. One of the things stopping them from admitting their angst and need for assistance can be that they are having suicidal thoughts.
The stigma of what society says about those who “commit suicide” or are thinking about it can get in the way of reaching out. Being thought of by others as someone whose character could possibly have them in the same category as one who would be willing to rob a bank, kill another, or break into someone’s home can be enough to stop a person from getting the mental health help they need.
The loved ones left behind, survivors, experience the anguish of trying to figure out what they missed, how they could have helped, whether they may have been partially responsible and a myriad of other questions and concerns. “Commit suicide” verbiage adds to the shame of feeling like a failure as a spouse, parent, sibling, friend or whatever the relationship was with the person who took their life.
Survivors are actually at a 5 times higher risk of suicide than before the loss. In the midst of grief, hearing “commit” verbiage about their loved one is jarring and basically adds insult to injury. Many of us cringe inwardly but don’t have the energy to use it as a teachable moment, at least not in the beginning of the grief journey.
There are many ways to say the exact same thing. Once we have been informed and have an understanding of the possible repercussions of using certain terminology, we have a responsibility to not be careless with our words. Commit suicide is a harmful way to describe an unthinkable horror. Hopefully, with this knowledge we would have a desire to not perpetuate stigma for either the survivors of suicide or for those who are potential victims of the kind of internal misery that can lead to suicide.
Truthful and Compassionate Terms
What phrases would be accurate and sound less like a judgement is being made? There are several truthful ways to express that someone’s pain exceeded their coping mechanisms and that they didn’t believe they could stay here on earth any longer and subsequently took action to ensure that they wouldn’t be. We can appropriately say he or she a) took their life b) ended their life c) died by suicide d) lost their life to suicide. We can change the climate of attitudes about mental health. I look forward to the day that there is no more stigma around mental health struggles than there would be around physical health issues.
People do not choose psychological sickness any more than they would choose cancer. I would respectfully ask that you commit to memory that using the term commit suicide can be disturbing to many survivors. It can also perpetuate stigma and shame which can prevent some who suffer from seeking help. When you hear others using the term, you may want to consider using it as an educational opportunity. Feel free to spread the word about this word, it could save lives.
How to Respond to the Loss of Someone Else's Child
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Our life was probably similar to yours, raising children, enjoying life, experiencing the ups and downs of the journey together… then in an instant our lives were forever changed. Our eldest son took his life. Christopher was one of the last people I would envision doing this. He was well loved by so many, was intelligent, funny, had lots of passions and interests and a heart of gold. He was always willing to help others in any way that he could.
Fortunately for many of you, you know very little about suicide or of the loss of a child. I’d like to share with you some insight into both. I didn’t realize that this could happen without obvious warning signs. I was unaware that good decent people could lose hope to the degree that this would seem a solution. Also unknown to me was that this can happen in any type of family. I’m ashamed to say that I expected to meet survivor families who are dysfunctional, unloving, or worse whose lost loved one was also some negative stereotype. I found out that is far from the reality.
The statistics are staggering. More than 48,000 people in the U.S. alone die by suicide each year, which equates to one person every 11 minutes. It is the 3rd leading cause of death for children 5-14 years old and the 2nd leading cause for college students. Most suicidal people don’t want to die, they just want the pain to end.
More Americans suffer from depression (19 million) than coronary heart disease (7 million), cancer (6 million) and HIV (200,000) combined. Only 30% of people who are depressed seek help, maybe more would if it were called cancer. Depression knows no boundaries and can happen to anyone. Suicide is caused by an illness. It is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness. These are all awareness issues and most of us are unaware of these facts because there is still such a stigma that these are taboo topics. Your loved ones are not immune, so if you note any kinds of changes out of the ordinary, ask questions.
What do you do or say to a friend or family member who has lost a child?
Regardless of whether the death was caused by an accident, illness, murder or suicide, many are in unfamiliar territory when this happens and just don’t know how to handle the situation. Here’s what I’ve learned from my experience. Losing a child is the wrong order of events whether that child is 2 years old or 30 years old. Parents normally die first so this intensifies the grief. If it’s by suicide, that complicates things further. For any type of loss, the rules are the same.
Show up for the funeral, it makes a difference. Friends, even close ones, sometimes don’t know what to say, are afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, don’t handle death well and stay away. Some don’t even send a heartfelt note because they just don’t know what to say. You may later hear from a mutual friend how badly they felt and that they think of you often. Bottom line, it’s hurtful and just adds insult to injury when the people in your life suddenly become invisible because they don’t want to say or do the wrong thing.
Don’t say ‘just let me know if you need anything.’ We’re too shocked and/or depressed to think straight. Just stop by with food, paper plates, cups, Kleenex, chocolate, whatever. Nobody is interested in going to a noisy grocery store or anywhere else for that matter for quite a while. If there are siblings, offer to take them to a movie, the park, anywhere. Then we can cry as loudly as we want without fear that we’ll upset our children even further than they already are, or we could take a much needed nap, or just simply not have to take care of someone else’s needs for a little while.
Don’t be hurt if phone calls aren’t returned. No matter how promptly we used to return calls, sometimes we just can’t do it for days or weeks, maybe even months. Leave nice messages, send cards or emails. They’ll be listened to, read and appreciated. It just might take a while to come out of the fog enough to respond.
Invite us to lunch, to go for a walk or whatever we formerly may have done with you. It most likely will be quite a while before we feel up to accepting an invitation, but it’s nice to know you’re being thought of. Don’t give up inviting, the yes may come in a different week or different month.
Words can harm. I’ve found (and every bereaved parent I’ve spoken with agrees) that what people amazingly think is an encouraging thing to say is actually the opposite. The only thing most of us find comforting are hugs and/or the words “I’m so, so sorry for your loss” and “I’m praying for your family.” Period, that’s it.
Pretty much anything else is upsetting, insulting or unhelpful and we’re put in the awkward position of knowing that you’re trying to be compassionate, but we just want you to stop talking. Telling us about your friend’s experience with losing a child, or when you lost your beloved pet, or the neighbor’s cousin etc is of no comfort at this time. Reminding us that luckily we have other children isn’t a comfort.
Pointing out the silver lining isn’t the way to go. In time we may see clearly what blessings have come from our tragedy, but we don’t need others to point them out. It stings; we know what the silver linings may be, but none of these blessings bring our child back and that’s what we really want. If they were sick or in pain, we want them back healthy. Reminding us that they’re in a better place is like all the other comments. We want them here. I personally have a strong faith and it does bring me comfort that my son is happy with Jesus, but the fact is that I want him happy here and then later to be happy with Him.
People have said things like “Cheer up, it’s time to smile again.” “There’s a new year right around the corner and things will start looking up.” These comments are meant to be encouraging, but what it says to a grieving parent is “You’re doing this whole grieving thing wrong or taking too long and it’s making the rest of us uncomfortable.”
We each grieve differently and on our own timetable and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I could give so many examples of what was meant to be helpful but was hurtful. Suffice it to say we want very few words… I’m so sorry, we’re praying for you. That’s it.
Hugs, a shoulder to cry on, listening, nodding, showing love through actions, those are the things that can be comforting. Some try to be brave and don’t want to upset you by crying in your presence, but there’s a comfort in having others cry with you. You may be surprised by some of this information. I surely was, but now I know it to be true from both my experiences and those of the bereaved families I have met. My wish is that you never need this information but if that day comes, hopefully something from this article is of help.
Memories fill my mind,
Memories of little flutter kicks when I carried you within
Sweet sounds of nursing, pattycake and silly games
Reading the same stories over and over
Baking cupcakes for school, pranks with your brothers
Riding your bike as fast as you could
Hanging out with your friends
Dances and proms, cap and gown
Working and enjoying life
Discovering you could get all good grades
Proudly walking with honors in another cap and gown
Fun, laughter and love shared with family and friends
Making a difference in the worlds of everyone you knew
Having your first home built…
I went from kissing boo-boos
to sharing leisurely lunches with my son when our schedules allowed
My life once looked like other mom’s lives
Our three sons growing into fine young men
Family dinners, dreams unfolding
Some moms carry photos of their children and grandchildren in their purses
My purse though is different
I only carry memories now
If you could see inside my purse
I have a photo of our eldest son, poems I’ve written to express my sorrow
And a copy of his suicide note
How did we get here? How did it come to this?
Over and over I retrace in my mind from baby steps to thirty years later
where only the flutter of angel wings remains.
(Written on April 6, 2012, Good Friday, 7 months after losing Chris)
Music as Therapy
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
Grieving when a loved one has died needs to include good self-care. It’s difficult to do when our attention is sometimes exclusively focused on the person we lost. Griefwork can include counseling appointments, reading, processing by journaling, writing a letter to our loved one and many other ways to wrap our heads around our new reality. All of this can be emotionally and physically exhausting which is why it’s called work.
In addition to mourning in general, you can actively help yourself using emotionally healthy coping methods. Let’s explore how music can be healing. Broken hearts are never completely healed this side of Heaven, but there can be noticeable progress in recognizing ourselves in the mirror again.
Music as Therapy
Music truly speaks to my heart, as I believe it does for most of us. Before we lost our son, I loved to drive with the Christian radio station cranked up. After his death, I just couldn’t listen to it, not even softly on low volume. I tried occasionally in the first couple of months but it didn’t last for more than 5 minutes because it was too unsettling. There were too many memories of when life was normal.
Not only was it upsetting, but these particular songs were all about Jesus and Heaven which was exactly where I believed our son to be. That was also saddening because that meant that he really did die. Chris died on a Friday and we were at Mass on Sunday. We never missed a Sunday. I quietly wiped away tears during most songs for many, many months. Instead of sitting in our usual area near the front, we sat in one of the last pews. One of the reasons for that decision was so that no one would have to witness my shoulders heaving up and down.
Secular music was also too hard for me to listen to I discovered. 4 months after Chris’ death, I went back to my exercise classes which I had loved. The lights seemed too bright and the music too loud which felt discombobulating. With some perseverance, I was able to continue once or twice per week. I found exercising helped, my classmates that I’d known for years were kind and I didn’t have to really interact much. I could get lost in my thoughts for an hour to the upbeat music even if I wasn’t the joyful person that I used to be. The music was part of my therapy.
Christian Music as Part of Healing
Eventually my beloved Christian music didn’t cause me to double over and I could listen to it again. Many songs still made me cry, but they were part of what I could tell was a healing process, rather than the pure agony I felt when hearing them just a few months before. If you are also on a grief journey, some of the same songs might speak to your heart. I’m going to include links for them so that you can listen and determine if you also find them soothing or hauntingly beautiful. Even though many tears might be shed, there is a cleansing that comes with releasing some of all that bottled up emotion through tears. If you need to cry but can’t, I’m giving you fair warning that these songs will do the trick, so get your box of Kleenex ready.
“The Hurt and the Healer” by Mercy Me includes the lyrics “Why? the question that is never far away”, “ here I am what’s left of me”, “ you take this heart and breathe it back to life”, “ I find your glory even here”. This song could certainly get the floodgates going, but I just want to remind you that it is good to feel our feelings. Remember the saying about exercise, “no pain, no gain”; denying our true feelings isn’t good for emotional well-being, so it’s better to cry than to avoid it.
The song “Need You Now” by Plumb hit a strong chord with lyrics such as “How many times have you heard me cry out God please take this?”, “standing on a road I didn’t plan”, and “ I get so tired holding on”
Another song that captured my heart in the first year of finding my way was “Falling Apart” by Fee with such lyrics as “ When everything falls apart and I find you mighty and strong”, “ your arms hold me together”, “ you said this life is gonna shake me”.
I breathe a deep sigh when I think of what I, and countless others, have endured because of a deep love, which then equates to a deep sorrow, when it’s eventually our turn to experience the grief of a loved one dying. Those were heart wrenching days, nights, weeks, months and years. I don’t cry as easily these days, but I remember well the sustenance these songs gave me. They still do, there just isn’t the desperation I once felt.
Somewhere in the Middle of the Process
“Dancing in the Sky” by Dan and Lizzy held a little more meaning for me than just the lyrics themselves because Chris loved to dance. Picturing him dancing was of some comfort and sometimes brought a smile. Some of the good questions from the lyrics are “ are you happy, are you more alive?” and “ have your fears and your pain gone away?”.
At times, there was a reasoning within myself that our son Chris and my brother Tony were indeed in a better place. I didn’t want to hear that platitude from others, but I did know deep down that it was true. “I Can Only Imagine” by Mercy Me provided the lyrics to ponder the truth of that. Reminders of what I believed could be found in the words “Surrounded by Your glory”, “forever worship You”, “Will I dance for You Jesus or in awe of You be still?” This song was released a few years before my Mom passed away and helped me then also.
“Sacred Place” by Gwen Smith is a praise and worship song. The song speaks of both “Rest for my weary soul” and “this is holy ground” which resonated with me. For me, grief was a time of increased solitude and prayer. In my former life, I was always on the move, getting things done, and spinning lots of plates. When we lost Christopher, I dropped out of everything extra that I was doing with the intent to go back eventually in a year or so. I had been volunteering every week for several years at Whispering Hope, a women’s pregnancy center. I was also an active volunteer for a decade with St. Vincent de Paul. There were probably also other extra activities that I don’t currently recall. I did continue with my grad school program to become a counselor, graduating on time with my class. My life was filled with school, studying, and grieving which included a lot of solitude. All that time of being still, resting, and leaning on the Lord’s strength when I had none of my own, became spiritual nourishment.
Natalie Grant’s song “Held” said it all. She speaks the truth with “it’s not fair”, “the promise was when everything fell, we’d be held”, “how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life and you’ve survived”
Further Down the Road
Alan Pederson, a singer, songwriter and national speaker for grief workshops, lost his daughter who was in a car wreck. He has several CDs that are all grief related. One of the songs that shined a light for me is called “A Little Farther Down the Road” which speaks of “ you’ll see the sun again”, ”this journey is filled with twists and turns” and “ you’ll find the strength to go a little farther down the road”.
“Praise you in this Storm” by Casting Crowns was also a helpful song, even though it’s also a difficult one. Many people blame God when bad things happen. Our family’s monumental tragedy happened not just once but twice with the suicides of our son and then my brother just 2 years and 26 days apart. It would’ve been easy to turn away, but I knew that wasn’t the answer. I felt that this was certainly not God’s will for these good men to die by their own hand. I believe He too cried with me. This heartache was not a reflection of who God is. He grieved with me and was still worthy of my love. One day, He’ll share with me all the details of the bigger picture that I can’t understand now. Some of the lyrics of this song stuck with me. I had pondered them years before when it was used during the funeral of a business associate. He was in his 30s and had died after a very short battle with cancer. I wondered at the time about that depth of faith to be able to praise in a storm. Some of the lyrics that described my thoughts when grief intruded upon our household were “you whispered through the rain, I’m with you.”, “ You are who you are, no matter where I am”, “every tear I cry, you hold in your hand, You never left my side, and though my heart is torn, I will praise you in this storm.”
The song “While I’m Waiting” by John Waller, was a hopeful reminder to me of my true home, Heaven. Many of us long to be with our Lord and reunited with our loved ones who may have gone ahead of us. In the meantime, we are here and may as well find a way to live a full life and not waste any of the precious time we have been given. Some of the lyrics are “While I'm waiting I will not faint”, “I'll be running the race even while I wait”, “While I'm waiting, I will serve You.”
“Tell your Heart to Beat Again” by Daniel Gokey is also one to pull on the heartstrings. This is definitely a song for when we are further down the road of grief, when we’re feeling more ready to step out into the “new normal” as we say in the grief community. The lyrics include “ You’re shattered like you’ve never been before, the life you knew in a thousand pieces on the floor”, “ you think you’re never gonna get back to the you that used to be”, “tell your heart to beat again” and “ say goodbye to where you’ve been”. My interpretation of the meaning of this song was that it was time to rejoin the land of the living. A way of honoring our son and my brother would be to act as though I was alive while I still was, rather than remaining a shadow of who I used to be. It’s not so much the goodbye of the chapters before our loss, but more of a goodbye to the parts of our grief that made it hard to breathe, hard to interact with others and the depression that held us captive for a while.
“Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsong United with lyrics such as “lead me where my trust is without borders”, “wherever you would call me”, “keep my eyes above the waves” reminds me that I have been given a platform that I never would’ve asked for, but nevertheless I have it. As an introvert, public speaking is certainly not of any interest to me and yet whenever I have been called upon to speak with youth groups about suicide over these last 8 ½ years, I have never turned down a request. The anxiety, uneasiness and frankly the secondary trauma has always felt in retrospect to be worth it when I see the impact it had on those kids.
My journey with music has also included sometimes listening to the kinds of music our son liked which included techno and drum n bass. Most of it is not my taste, but at times it helps me to feel close to him. Music is a universal language. If you are missing a loved one consider listening to their favorites. A measure of healing can be prompted by finding music that makes you cry. It can even be helpful to listen to music that makes you smile or laugh in remembrance of what life was like when your loved one was physically present. They are still with us in our heart because love doesn’t end, love lives on.
Reading as Therapy
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
If you enjoyed reading before you embarked on a grief journey, you may find reading is a comfort. You could also find out the exact opposite, that it now falls into the category of things you once enjoyed that are too difficult for a while. The psychological term for reading as part of a self-growth program is bibliotherapy. As a therapist, I often assign it for homework.
Reading for Knowledge
I needed to understand grief when my mom passed away. I was shocked that I took it as hard as I did because I was an active Catholic Christian, and knew exactly where she was. Apparently, I thought that meant I would be sad of course but that my faith would insulate me from the depth of emotion. I learned that grief was necessary even for the devout although it was different in some respects from those who have no eternal hope. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that I could be both a good Christian and grieve deeply. I found C.S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed, helpful. It’s about the process he went through in losing his wife. We can learn a lot and find solace in reading about other people’s grief even if the relationship is different. I did find a very helpful book specifically about losing a mother named Motherless Daughters:The Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman.
When our son died, I found I needed to read everything I could find about grief and suicide because I hardly knew anything about the topic. Even though I was already a couple of semesters into my grad program for becoming a counselor, I hadn’t learned anything yet that could help me to even remotely understand what had just happened. A book that I would suggest to anyone who is treading the waters of grief, even if they don’t like to read, is Living When a Loved One Has Died by Earl A. Grollman. It is a very short book with very little on each page but it covers so much territory. Resonating with what grief can look and feel like can help a person to know that these things are normal and that they haven’t lost their mind. It is typical to be concerned about our sanity because we can find ourselves to be so different than who we knew ourselves to be.
Reading for Comfort
There are lots of good books about grief but a suicide loss propels a person into “complicated grief” and survivors really benefit from books about this specialized niche. If your loss isn’t suicide related, there could still be value for you in reading a book or two in this category, but my suggestion would be to concentrate on general grief books. Some of the books that helped me that I will share here will mostly fall into the suicide category.
At our son’s wake, we were given our first book on the topic by a friend who lost their daughter to suicide just 13 weeks prior. I remembered thinking there was no way I’d be able to attend a wake or funeral in 13 weeks. Just how much of a sacrificial gift his presence was I realized more fully when 14 weeks later I found myself at a funeral. It was for a friend’s husband who had battled cancer and had been present at our Chris’ wake.
The book we had received was My Son, My Son: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss or Suicide by Iris Bolton. This is one of the few books that I would suggest for the healing journey for any kind of grief. For me, it was especially helpful for many reasons. Iris was the clinical director for The Link Counseling Center when they lost their son to suicide. I could relate to so much of what she had to say. I met her just 6 weeks after our loss and have heard her and her husband speak many times over the years. If you are a survivor of suicide, this book is especially for you.
At one time, I had a list of all the grief books that I had read, which was about 50 if I recall correctly. Here I’ll share some of the titles in the hopes that one of them could shed some light for you or someone you know.
Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman
If I Could Mend Your Heart by Mary I. Farr
Silent Decision, Awareness Out of Tragedy by Laurie Hyatt, Ph.D.
Healing a Parent’s Grieving Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt
Gone but Not Lost by David W. Wiersbe
Heal My Broken Heart by Monica Hofer
A Guide for the Bereaved Survivor by Bob Baugher, Ph. D.
Remembering the Death of a Child by Robert R. Thompson, M.D.
Tears of Joy by Natalie Flake
Favorite Grief Books
How I got to the place of having favorite grief books is a question for another day. Along with the Iris Bolton book mentioned before, there are several that I vividly remember as being especially helpful. One day I would like to reread them. Letters to My Son, Turning Loss to Legacy by Mitch Carmody was one of the first ones I personally purchased. We met Mitch at a day long workshop for grieving parents. He had lost his little boy to cancer. Along with being an author and speaker, he is an artist. There are poignant drawings throughout the book which touched my heart. He is also Catholic and I appreciated those references in his story.
There’s something about actually knowing an author that I also find helpful. Choosing Hope, Finding Joy: A Journey Through Trauma and Loss by Sheri McGuinness resonates for lots of reasons. She is the director of the Suicide Action and Prevention Network in Georgia. I have gotten to know her over the years through various survivor events, serving together at fundraisers, summer camp etc and now consider her a friend. Her book revealed so much more of her story. I already knew she was awesome, but the book was such a reminder of the possibilities of resilience and hope.
Choosing to See, A Journey of Struggle and Hope by Mary Beth Chapman is another unforgettable story. The author is the wife of well-known Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman. They lost their little girl in a tragic accident that involved their teenage son. The sorrow was on so many levels. It was as though they lost two children that day. They continue to live out their testimony all these years later. Steven made a CD of grief music, Beauty Will Rise, that has helped many to cry, ponder, process and find hope.
A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser is a real eye opener. The author lost his wife, young daughter and his mother in a tragic car accident. Whew. We should never compare pain. There’s always going to be a “worse” story or a “better” story. The reality is that pain is pain and when it visits you personally it’s awful. This book gave me a lot of hope that if he could somehow eventually make it through his tragedy, then so could we.
I would love to be able to say that reading the Bible also helped me during the time of voracious reading but that wouldn’t be truthful. During those first several years, I certainly read some of God’s Word here and there, looked up scriptures or cross referenced. All of that did help me, but no I didn’t read the Bible for hours straight like some of the books I’ve mentioned. I did better with reading Daily Devotional type books during that time. The primary one that I found helpful is called Streams in the Desert by L. B. Cowman. It’s all about the sorrow and struggles of life, which resonated of course, and also about hope and victory which frankly we all need more of in our lives. Reading for knowledge, comfort and strength has been a big part of my grief journey.
Spiritual Resources on the Grief Journey
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
My faith was important to me long before the deaths of loved ones pushed me into truly realizing the power of leaning on the Lord. Life can definitely be uncertain but I am very certain that God is loving, faithful and trustworthy.
Prayer for Comfort and Clarity
We all have our own prayer styles that we prefer. Sometimes traditional prayer feels right and at other times a free form, whatever comes to mind, conversational type prayer is preferred. I talk with God in both styles on this grief journey, just as I did before my losses.
I was a member of a Moms in Touch International prayer group for many years. One of the lessons that stuck with me was the value of praying in a similar style as the perfect prayer, the Our Father. We used the acronym ACTS for the best order to pray in, especially since oftentimes we seek the Lord when we need something and start out our prayer with the gimme this and gimme that type of conversation.
“A” stands for adoration which is the best starting point for prayer. Praising, worshipping and adoring the Lord at the beginning of our prayer time is like us saying hello to each other when we first meet. Of course, when we pray, we’re talking with the God of the universe who is worthy of our praise, so usually we desire to say more than just hello.
“C” is for confession or contrition. One could look at this as an examination of conscience, asking ourselves how we have missed the mark and asking for forgiveness for those sins.
“T” stands for thanksgiving and we all have much to be thankful for even during the difficult times of struggle and grief.
“S” is for supplication which is where we ask for that which we need and sometimes what we want. Following this little formula is usually how I pray and it has given me both comfort and clarity over the years.
Sometimes we might not feel up to praying. That’s ok, scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray. Prayer doesn’t always look like prayer, so that’s something to keep in mind. Doing the laundry for your family when you don’t even want to get out of bed, seems like both a sacrificial gift and a prayer in my book. Noticing a beautiful sunset and being grateful even with just a little smile is also a prayer.
Although praying the Rosary is specifically a Catholic form of prayer, I do know that others have been known to also pray it and find blessing in it. I have a friend who finds comfort in just holding hers and running her fingers across the beads. The rosary has only been on the outskirts of my prayer life, but I have certainly prayed it more often in the last 8 years than in my entire life before then. Jesus’ mother Mary suffered grief; she understands. If you have any doubts, look at a photograph of Michelangelo’s statue, The Pieta, as she lovingly holds her crucified son.
A nice, little prayer booklet that I found more recently for a gift is called Prayers for Grief, Loss & Depression by Jim Auer. Many of the prayers are of a Catholic nature. One of them is Mary, Undoer of Knots. There are many knots (difficulties, messes, struggles or traumas) in life that can put a knot in our stomach and grief is one of them. There’s also a Mary Undoer of Knots novena that you might find helpful. A good source is Pray More Novenas.
Sacraments as Part of Healing
Faithfully attending Sunday Mass and receiving Communion were key for me right from the start of our losses. So much in our world is turned upside down when grief enters into the picture. Keeping up with our spiritual practices in the “new normal” provides some structure and continuity which provides some comfort psychologically. More importantly, I believe for me, the graces and strength to face each new day, came directly from reception of Eucharist.
Grief can involve a fair amount of “stinking thinking”, unnecessary guilt, irritability, selfishness and other assorted things that don’t serve us well. The sacrament of reconciliation (or confession as I still call it) is also good for the soul and helpful for cleansing and comfort along the path of grief.
The sacrament of anointing of the sick has actually also been used for times when we are struggling emotionally. I didn’t realize that until I saw it used in that way at a retreat. So that’s something to keep in mind if you are having a tough time with the loss of a loved one. It’s good to know that it isn’t reserved for only dire medical situations.
Scripture Can Be Helpful
The Lord needed another angel. God picks the best flowers for His garden. Wait! No! The Bible doesn’t say any of these platitudes that people like to say. What God’s Word does say is that He will walk with us in the suffering. Isaiah 43:2 states When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you.
There are 42 Psalms of lament. They are worth looking at and seeing which ones resonate with you. Many of these cries out to God are raw, desperate, unfiltered grief. They are typically followed by a petition letting Him know what you’d like for him to do about your complaint. The psalm protest is resolved through an expression of trust based on God’s character despite not knowing the outcome of a situation. A good example of this would be Psalm 71:20-21, Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.
Eventually, even with deep grief, we can profess Phillipians 4:6-7 The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. With our spiritual eyes, we can see the beauty of what our receiving line in Heaven will look like. That kind of eternal joy can give us some peace in the here and now.
Online Resources for Those who Grieve
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
There are many websites that would be helpful for those who have lost a loved one. I’d like to share some of the online resources that have helped me over the years. Hopefully something that I found useful will also resonate with others when they find themselves in a similar time of need.
There are support groups for every type of difficult struggle that you can imagine. Some people find that a grief support group helps them to process their experiences in ways that they aren’t able to do otherwise. When my Mom passed away, I attended a support group called GriefShare. They have groups all over the country and it’s easy to find the ones closest to you on their website.
They are a non-denominational Christian organization but anyone is welcome to attend regardless of whether they are a person of faith or not. Although a course format of 13 weeks is used, each lesson can stand on its own making it possible to join a group at any time. In my opinion, it is usually beneficial to start with the first lesson though. The meetings are casual and friendly. A short video on an aspect of grief is shown at the beginning of the meeting. A discussion follows for those who wish to engage in the conversation. It’s perfectly acceptable to not have anything to say also. Of course, there will always be a quick introduction at the beginning of the meeting in order to share your name, who you lost and how long ago your loss was.
You’ll find that the attendees’ losses can range from a very recent loss of just a couple of weeks to a handful of years down the road. There’s a workbook to go along with the video topics which can keep a person grounded in their grief work in between meetings. Their website also has various resources to include articles, opportunities for personal study and encouragement. The understanding and compassion from others who “get it” is priceless. I made some wonderful friends from my group and we continued to meet socially for potlucks and other events for many years. Eighteen years later, one of those friends and I currently meet for lunch every month. Along with measures of healing, support groups can sometimes include the blessing of new friendships.
If the grief that you are experiencing is related to a suicide death, you will fit in better with a specialized support group for survivors of suicide loss. You can find information online for your area. In northeast Georgia, we call them SOS (Survivors of Suicide) groups. In southern California, they’re known as SOSL (Survivors of Suicide Loss) groups. Using key words, you should easily be able to find the support needed for complicated grief in your area.
In my area, some good sites for resources are through the Suicide Prevention Action Network and the Georgia Suicide Prevention Information Network. They both have many helpful links to useful information for survivors and others. Being able to share with people who truly understand was tremendously helpful for me. We were all dealing with the unique complexity of a loved one’s death by suicide. It is different from general grief in many ways, so usually a general grief recovery group isn’t as impactful.
The Compassionate Friends is a wonderful international group for those who have suffered the death of a child of any age. It is open to those grieving a child’s loss due to any circumstance. Children dying before their parents is not the natural order of things so it wouldn’t be unusual to have members in their 70s grieving the loss of an adult child in their 50s. Although members of these support groups are primarily parents, it is also appropriate for grandparents and siblings. Their website also has extensive resources for grief and loss. They sponsor a conference held in different parts of the country each year with all of the states usually represented.
Favorite Websites for General Grief
The Grief Toolbox is a great central place to find useful information including many great articles, podcasts and links to other related websites. One of those links leads you to Alan Pederson who facilitates grief workshops nationally. He and Mitch Carmody do workshops together and also individually. The Compassionate Friends has sponsored their events locally several times. My husband and I attended and were glad that we had taken the time and energy to be vulnerable and participate in these workshops. Both of their websites have phenomenal resources for insight and healing.
Another great resource is Open to Hope. They have helpful podcasts, a TV series, articles by hundreds of authors and many other pertinent resources. The founders are a mother/daughter team, Dr.Gloria and Dr.Heidi Horsley who are able to shed light on parent and sibling loss specifically and grief in general.
Websites for Suicide-related Grief
Of course, there are many websites specific to this topic. One of my favorites for the national associations is from the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). This group is well known for the Out of the Darkness fundraiser walks which are held all over the country on college campuses and in large cities that draw thousands of participants for each walk. Their website has valuable resources for prevention and for survivors who travel this type of grief journey.
Another great website for education, prevention, hope and healing is from the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). Both of these sites would also be helpful to mental health professionals.
General Resources for Life’s Difficulties and Stressors
There are many websites and apps dedicated to relaxation techniques. My clients report several as their favorites. Hallow is a Catholic meditation and prayer app. They also have some great articles on their website. Finding some peace in the midst of grief is a worthwhile goal to pursue. Their logo is a circle with a halo above it which I find endearing.
Another app which is called Headspace is rather popular. I have gotten good reports from clients of its effectiveness. There is a version for children also. They too have many articles and resources on their site. Due to the current pandemic, they actually are offering a year of their “plus” version free for a year to those who are unemployed.
The third meditation app that I have heard is helpful is Calm. It is also instrumental for getting a good night’s sleep according to its fans. Sleep can be rather difficult for those who are grieving so this would be a bonus.
There are many types of resources for handling life’s struggles in a healthy way. Some of them are addressed in my other blogs. As a therapist, I believe counseling is one of the available gifts for a healthy way to handle a journey through grief. Online are many excellent therapists that can be found. If you are looking specifically for a Catholic therapist, some are listed on CatholicTherapist.com.
Also, there are many who are members of the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (CPA). This organization began through the inspiration of Sandy McKay who also founded Holy Family Counseling Center where I have been a therapist for six years. Grief stinks and most of us don’t volunteer for it. When it happens, God provides lots of resources by using the gifts and talents of people who choose to allow Him to use them as a vessel of grace and healing.
Honoring a Loved One Who Has Died
by Irene Rowland, MS, NCC, LPC
There are so many ways that we can honor someone who has died. A remembrance can be as unique as your loved one was. You can continue to honor them throughout your life in many different ways until you too are called Home.
The decisions made concerning visitation and funeral arrangements can be the beginning of creatively honoring our loved ones. Oftentimes at these events, along with the usual photos there will be on display items that were personal to the beloved deceased. I have attended funerals where there were items that the person enjoyed using such as their mountain bike, skis, or guitar. Families have brainstormed and come up with some pretty clever ideas.
At our son’s visitation, we arranged a table with photos along with some of the things that he loved. He had a passion for music and enjoyed to deejay so we included his turntables. Our family put together a beautiful video of photos which had some of the music that he would’ve liked playing in the background. We made a poster collage of photos representing his almost 31 years here on earth and also a poster with his photo in the center with lots of space surrounding it for people to fill in with their messages to him. These were all meant to honor him, a loving remembrance for those who knew and loved him and also a way to introduce him to those who were there to support members of his family but didn’t actually know him.
We also made beautiful photo collage posters and a video for my brother’s funeral. He was a corrections officer so there was a color guard detail of fellow officers and there were two of these “brothers” stationed on each side of his photo and urn as a way to honor him.
Memorializing as Part of Healing
When considering ways to honor your loved one, there are both the typical options and the unique ones. All the details of a headstone, including design, color, and the inscription that is chosen, can be a way to honor your loved one. These can also give you and others comfort or inspiration each time you see the gravesite with the carefully chosen reminders of who this person was and what they stood for. The same holds true for a lovingly selected urn, memorial plaque, and location chosen for a final resting place.
At my church we have a courtyard of remembrance which is paved with bricks honoring both people and occasions. It was important to me to have a brick there honoring my family of origin, which covered both those who had passed on and those who are still with us. Then when we lost our son, I wanted and needed to add one engraved for him. Somehow, it felt like proof that he once was here living on this earth. Two years later when we lost my brother, he too had a memorial brick placed in the courtyard. I’m at church a lot for Mass, Adoration and I also work there several days each week counseling clients. I personally find comfort knowing that I can stop by the courtyard during my everyday activities, say a prayer and visit for a few minutes. I would like to think that 100 years from now, that courtyard will still be here with their names and dates visible on the bricks. What helps one person in their grief journey may not resonate with someone else’s healing journey, but this small gesture feels right for me.
Many people have arranged to have their loved one’s name on a memorial bench, donated a tree with a plaque with their loved one’s name, or created fundraisers for worthy causes bearing the name. There are many tangible ways to keep their memory and name alive in these kinds of ways. Those who have the financial means might donate money or land for a building, park, hospital wing, or a hospital itself which will then carry their loved one’s name.
We started the Christopher M. Rowland scholarship at my alma mater, the University of North Georgia. It is awarded each semester to a student with financial need who is a Music major. Our family came up with the various criteria that the applicant would have to meet in order to be chosen to receive the scholarship. It’s not a huge scholarship like some of them, but when the average person is attempting to make their way through college, every bit of assistance helps. Our son truly loved music so I’d like to think that he’d be pleased with our decision. Over these years, each of the students who have benefitted are links in the chain of continuing his legacy of lending a helping hand to others and making a difference. Helping friends and family was one of Chris’ hallmarks. Those who knew him were very aware that he was a man of integrity and could be counted on.
Another way to create legacy by way of honoring a loved one’s life is to get involved in the organizations that meant a lot to them or groups that represent a hobby or interest that they had enjoyed. An additional avenue to creating legacy would be to support the associations that promote research and programs concerning whatever their illness or struggle may have been. For instance, when my sister-in-law passed away, I made a donation to the Lymphoma Foundation since that type of cancer was the cause of her death. Both volunteering and fundraising can be a way to give a gift that keeps on giving. The ripple effect of our choices can positively affect others for many years.
Because of my love for my brother and our son, and the desire to somehow redeem our tragedies into something of lasting value, I have found myself involved in activities that normally wouldn’t have been part of my life. I have participated in many 5k walks, motorcycle rides, concerts and other fundraising events. Along with my desire to help with suicide awareness and prevention, survivors’ healing journeys are important to me also. Here in Georgia, we have an annual summer camp for survivor families called Camp SOS, and it’s meaningful to me to serve as a care team member each year.
To make it through a trauma and ultimately be emotionally ok is an everyday miracle of sorts. To then actually flourish eventually would fall into the category of post-traumatic growth (PTG) which is also a common miracle. To find meaning in suffering is what our Lord taught us. When we allow traumatic experiences to propel us into a better version of ourselves, then post-traumatic growth has taken place. The eventual positive change is quite noticeable in some people.
Personally, I already had a thirst for life and generally didn’t take things for granted. It doesn’t seem that there are any observable changes for the better in me that others could enumerate. Internally though, I notice things on a deeper level often. I was in grad school studying to become a mental health counselor at the time of our loss. It used to make me angry when people would tell me that I was going to be a better counselor because of what happened.
How dare they say such a thing? I was already going to be a good therapist. What was meant as a comforting statement felt hurtful. I felt like people really needed to use their inside voice and keep those comments to themselves. Pointing out any possible benefits to a griever stings and just feels unkind, even when given as an encouragement. However, it turns out that those may have been true statements. Today, as a therapist, I probably actually am less shocked at what I hear and more profoundly understanding of the various crosses that people carry. Most likely I’m also more eager to help others progress on their growth journey so that they can truly see who God created them to be and how He sees each of us.
Love Lives On
When we lose someone significant to us, they are still with us. “Love lives on” is an expression that I’ve heard often in the grief community. It’s true. We honor them by remembering them and living our lives to the fullest. Many of them taught us beautiful things about unconditional love, sacrifice, acts of service, and the value of enjoying fun and laughter. When we continue their legacies by loving others well, we are honoring them, keeping their memory alive and so in many ways their love lives on.