Friday, November 30, 2007

The Season That Changes All Seasons, II

This is part two of the continuing topic of loss recovery through the holidays. Today's post is written especially for the person who has suffered loss and is facing the holiday season under the weight of grief.

If You Are the One Recovering From Loss:
• Be sure you seek out a support system. I never would have made it without my girlfriends who called or emailed to check on me. I remember less about what they said, and more about their quiet vigil of presence. Support groups are available in most every state through ministries like GriefShare. My GriefShare group had mostly widows, though. I recommend groups that share similar loss.

• If you are the grieving person, and your friends offer to come and do specific chores, watch a young child while you nap, etc., then consider letting them. It allows them to express their grief through beneficial works. If you are grieving, chances are they are too. And you will start to feel the weight lifting off your shoulders as you allow friends to help.

• If others do not want to acknowledge your missing loved one, don’t force it. But also don’t allow others to tell you how to grieve. Your grief is yours. Remember that women grieve differently from men, so be easy on your spouse.

•“Closure” is just a latch on the neighbor’s fence. If others tell you that you need to bring closure to your loss, it is only because they haven’t faced your kind of loss. They do mean well. Don’t allow meaningless “happy affirmations” or clich├ęs to ruin your day.

• Augustine’s “Dark Night of the Soul” seeped in every evening at 8:30 for my husband and me, so we learned to go to bed early to “beat the demons” to bed. Rest is a necessary ingredient to recovery from loss.

• Memory loss can be caused by the body’s natural response to shock, a literal washing of the neurons with a numbing chemical generated by your body. Yes, the Creator thought of it all. But the memory loss and feelings of numbness can make you feel as if you’re losing your mind. You’re not. You’re normal.

• It’s fine to give yourself permission to distance yourself from social settings that you know typically create stress for you. Picture yourself in that place in advance. You are the best judge of what you can and cannot handle.

• If your loved one has passed unexpectedly during the holidays, you may want to consider asking a friend to remove their gifts and donate them to charity in honor of your loved one. Our favorites are assistance to AIDS victims and a women’s drug treatment center, but there are homeless people who need gifts, elderly folks, shut-ins, and families in your church who can’t afford to buy gifts. Again, let this be your choice and not something you’ve been pressured to do.

• Avoid mind-numbing solutions to grief such as over-medicating or alcohol. Eventually the effects of those things wears off and you still have to face the loss. If you take anti-depressants under your doctor’s advice, then you and your doctor can decide what is healthy for you.

• Make yourself a cup of your favorite hot drink, start a fire in the fireplace, or light a candle and then journal a letter to your loved one and express what you are feeling through the holidays with them gone. Written expression is helpful for triggering natural coping mechanisms.

• Money can be mismanaged and disappear quickly if someone isn’t minding the till. Allow a trusted friend, pastor, or family member to help oversee your finances through the first year of grief. Grieving widows accustomed to a spouse who oversaw the finances can wake up one day to find the lights shut off or the home going into foreclosure just because you were too numb or inexperienced to keep vigil over your pocketbook. Let others help.

• By making the choice to commence facing my journey of grief right away, the unbearable heaviness didn’t linger as long as it does in denial. So embracing was the best choice for me. When I felt the heaviness seeping in, I mentally confronted. I even held conversations with it—“Oh, it’s you, Grief. Come on in. We’ll talk.” I put feelings to words. Today it feels like . . . It’s different than last week when I felt . . .It’s worse. . . It’s better. . . This anniversary date is killing me . . . When will I stop crying? I had a dream about you. . . Today was amazing.

• Here is one suggestion that I’ve not seen anywhere else, but after asking several grieving parents about this, many agree with my husband and me about the problem caused by music; perhaps it’s worse for parents suffering the loss of a child. Song lyrics are written out of an artist’s emotions. When my emotions were raw and I was still suffering shock, songs about heaven, love, loss, even Christ’s suffering and death sent my emotions into a nosedive. Most radio song themes depict love or pain and so does church music. My husband experienced the same anguish. We both love music. He and our two sons are musicians, so our home is full of music. We kept the radio and CD player off for many months. It was another of those temporary changes we made in order to keep our emotions on an even keel. I visited the neighborhood music store and found recordings of beautiful peaceful music that had no recognizable tune and no lyrics. Sound therapy is soothing. We often fell asleep listening to the soothing sounds. Time eventually healed us in that regard and we were able to enjoy our music again.

Sorrow is a sacred time in a family’s life. It is the season that changes all other seasons. Respect and honor include the practices of sensitivity and patience. Gathering to weep is as important as gathering to laugh. During the holidays, make time for both.

♥If you are suffering loss and don’t have someone to call, please call the Hickmans and we’ll be glad to talk you off any ledges or offer you our own experiences through loss. Tel. 704-655-9390.

"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break." William Shakespeare

“And the people who recover are the people who admit, and are able to talk about it and to share it.”
H. Norman Wright

“Because of the LORD’s great love, we are not consumed, his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Lam. 3:22,23

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Season that Changes All Seasons

After the sudden loss of our daughter, we were warned by other grieving parents of the “dreaded holiday season.” Our family had always enjoyed our Christmas fanaticism, the neighborhood lights competitions, and the many annual traditions we practiced. Having had loss thrust on us suddenly, we had to reconstruct Christmas. I attribute this one sane response to our family’s dependence on Christ since there is no other logical explanation for a season when all seems illogical. The old traditions were too painful so it became evident that we were going to have to create a new normalcy for the holidays. Because it had always been our tradition to hang the old handmade tree ornaments made by our children over the years, pulling those precious keepsakes out for me as a mom was devastating. We had several discussions with our sons and agreed that for at least a couple of years, we were going to keep the tree in temporary retirement.

Whether it is a tree or some other family heirloom that reminds you of the loved one you have lost, thinking of putting those types of triggers out of sight in advance of the holiday season could help to alleviate some of the stressors that may negatively affect your raw emotions.

However, that didn’t mean we were going to force our boys to sit around the house glum-faced. A friend passed along a timeshare that first Christmas so we visited an island in South Carolina, a new experience for us all that created a fresh memory. We were surprised at how a change of scenery lifted our hearts out of the doldrums. The condo came with a full kitchen and we all cooked something different and fun, but not laborious.

After several years, my holiday spirit did return, the ornaments were pulled out, and I was glad to return to our old Christmas traditions.

The best gift a grieving person can give to himself or herself is permission: permission to change traditions, to create new normals, to kindly say “no” to social settings that place high expectations on you. Another fact you might remember is that people who love you might be afraid of mentioning your loved ones name. Over time, whenever possible I gently dispel this myth to anyone who will listen. My daughter’s name is the sweetest sound to my ears. I carry her with me everywhere I go, so when I noticed everyone around me holding back from mentioning her name, it created an emotional deficit. So my husband and I agreed to mention her whenever we want and sometimes that is almost every day.

For the holidays, personal memorials aid your sense of loss like a healing balm. Holding a candle lighting service in honor of your loved one can be a comfort and allow you to reflect positively about the one you are missing. I wore one of Jessi’s blouses and my husband played one of her CD’s. I sprayed her favorite cologne into the air, closed my eyes, and danced in the aroma. Our youngest son and I collected miniature ornaments that we felt his sister would love. We found a miniature tree with battery operated lights. We decorated the little tree, took it to the cemetery, and gave it to our Jess for Christmas. We felt as though somehow she knew and was there with us. Just as we were leaving the cemetery, a soft winter rain let go and in the dim grayness, we could see Jess’s tree shining out. It was a reminder of the light of Christ that had always shown forth from her heart. That is the power of memory-on-purpose. Purposeful memories bring comfort.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your family is to be certain that you don’t fall into the denial patterns of trying to act like nothing has changed. Of course everything has changed from this time forth. By acknowledging that change you fill that empty space with new memories and reflections; you grieve freely and positively.

Tomorrow, other gentle suggestions for helping yourself or a grieving friend through the holidays.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holiday Freedom

Even though I have without a doubt the best in-laws in the world, we aren’t traveling to see the Hickmans this year, a decision that was difficult to make but with one too many ministry obligations, we had to bow out. Bowing out can cause guilt to set in, if you allow it.

For many years, my spouse and I experienced great guilt around the holidays, so much so that we started dreading the holidays almost immediately after Halloween had passed. We were supposed to be at both in-laws home on the exact day and at the exact same hour—noon—or else we were horrible folks.

We sang the Thanksgiving song with our children, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” but all the while there was a knot in the pit of my stomach. I knew that for every minute I lingered at my husband’s family’s home beyond the noon hour, my own mother paced, looking out the window for us to drive up.

My sons are coming of age, meaning the marrying age. My hubby and I have already filled up the holidays with giving outside of ourselves, so much so, that hopefully when our boys take on their own families, if they come home they may join us in our ministry endeavors and if not, we have families outside of our own who need encouragement.

Holiday Freedom is steeped in scriptural truths. Jesus came to lighten our yokes, to set the captives free, to break the bondage of sin off of us; yet we Christians, because of the very nature of family togetherness that we tout, allow it to weaken the very courage and forthrightness we proclaim throughout the rest of the year. Family enablement is not only complicated but unhealthy.

Holidays should be a time of mirth and Thanksgiving; families should gather around the love and freedom that they share in Christ. We should also share that joy with family members who might sense that joy in us and be drawn to it. But if we are forced into some habitual mold designed by someone else for us, it’s going to feel awkward because we were not made to wear the yoke of anyone but our Creator who died fitting it just so lightly.

This week we are joining our church family in some good works and then taking our sons to the mountains. It’s becoming a tradition for us, but one they do not have to follow when they leave us and cleave to their own wives. Expectations ought to be as flexible as God’s grace. I’m thankful for grace.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Hug an Angel

We’re going to blink and be right in the middle of reaching out for the 7th year to angels with HIV/AIDS. Every Christmas we deliver very generous gifts from the Christmas wish lists of children of/with AIDS, meaning that if they don’t have AIDS, either a mom and/or a sibling have it.

If you are one of the lucky people not born with this horrible disease, then you can say a prayer of thanks to God and, if you can, give to the Secret Angels Project. We take any and all sizes and denominations of filthy lucre and have never seen a dollar amount too big or too small.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve reached out to two AIDS patients who have suffered terrible depression. Their precious lives at this writing hang in the balance. These are really young people who feel culturally cornered by this monstrous disease. Cornered people can have desperate thoughts so please pray for these angels who suffer in secrecy.

In the past year since our last Christmas outreach, we’ve given tens of thousands of dollars in:
• utility bills and rent
• pantry items
• clothing
• back-to-school clothes
• Christmas toys and other gifts

We’ve done this while maintaining a low overhead (I’m free) and an always diminishing bank account that miraculously fills back up through the giving of readers, other authors, church folks, not so churchy folks, and other people of compassionate hearts and spirits. This season, we are in desperate need of funds for their health crises as well as our media department. Our website has got to be updated and it isn’t free. If you would like to designate your giving, we honor that as requested.

Next week, we’re going to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to all of the families on our list. Then December 8, we’ll deliver Christmas gifts to 100 children, 72 with AIDS, and the remainder “of” AIDS. This is a lot of manpower to manage in the midst of editing a book and starting a new one. I can’t do it alone, that’s for sure!

If you can give to the Secret Angels Project, you may mail it to us at:
Secret Angels Project
16136 Grafham Circle
Huntersville, NC 28078

If you notice, I don’t offer specific stories of the parents and children who are the recipients of our giving. That’s why we call the charity “secret” angels. Although we realize that you might be moved to give if we rip your heart out with one of their stories (like it rips our hearts out to hear them), our mission and the nature of this compassionate fund allows explanations only in broad and general terms. So thank you for giving in secret and trusting us to be really good stewards on behalf of angels you may never meet this side of heaven.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Upon Closer Examination

My son was once blessed with an art teacher quite crafty in her approach to freeing up the young creative mind. She asked my son to go out into the school yard and find an object, preferably something that would not matter to him. He picked up a chunk of concrete and brought it back. She instructed him to then take his drawing stick of charcoal and tie it to a long stick. Then he had to draw the object—from the tip of that long stick. He had to draw it numerous times until he began to really see the object, see all of its imperfections, the way light fell across it, and how it cast a shadow. He was energized by the exercise and told me, “I didn’t realize how much I could care about something until I had really seen it up close, appreciating it for the space it takes up and the shadows it casts.”

I am reminded through my boy’s art exercise that compassion for others is not likely to come to me. Compassion kicks in when I reach into life and draw back a chunk of it examining where I can serve another. Do you remember when you first heard that as a new believer you were supposed to impact your world? I was a teen and was very engaged in the same rhetoric that I heard from church leadership. But engaging others through service did not make sense to me until I participated in a service project. As much as I gave lip service to compassion, true love for others stayed locked away until I began the practice of examining other lives. Like the art that was hidden in my son’s chunk of concrete, love is fanned into flame when it becomes active. As I wonder how many students had walked past Jared’s chunk of concrete without knowing it as he had known it, I think about the sea of humanity that floats past like flotsam. What will I do with it?