Tomorrow, August 5th, will mark 4 years from my husband’s death. It seems like a lifetime ago, and yet it still feels like yesterday.
I want to take a quick minute to thank all of those who came to my side that devastating day and the gut-wrenching days to follow. To those who dared to step into the mess and didn’t shrink back because it was ugly or hard. Those who stuck with me, listened with compassion, holding space for the tears and even the occasional yelling. Those steadfast and faithful friends who stepped up - and the unafraid, undeterred new friends who stepped in. To all of you, I am humbly and forever grateful for your courageous, Christ-like love. I thank God, literally, for you every day. I pray I’m as good a friend to you in your time of need as you’ve been to me.
And, here’s something hard and maybe unusual for you to hear someone say: to those of you who disappeared, who didn’t show up, that couldn’t look me in the eye, who vowed to be by my side but found yourself too busy, to those of you who just…couldn’t….I understand. And I forgive you. I understand because I’ve been there, too. It is simply true that you don’t know or even understand until you know and understand. Until you’ve been through it, you just don’t know. I pray you never know. The thing about us people is that when it comes to death, we are so very awkward, and we hate awkward. So much so that we become people that we never wanted or intended to be. We say things we shouldn’t, or don’t say the things that we should.
Let’s just call it like it is: We’re not really good at caring for the ones left behind.
But, that’s who I want to talk to today: The ones left behind. And by that, I mean anyone whose loved one - be that a spouse, or a parent, or even a child - has passed from this earth to heaven, leaving those that love them behind. We know that that loved one has passed from death to life. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent Me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.” John 5:24 They are living Another Beautiful Life in heaven - The ultimate, perfect, incredible life promised to the children of God. The life we so long for ourselves.
So, what about us here? What kind of life is left for us here?
If you haven’t had a chance to yet, I’d really like to encourage you to listen to Episode # 40 titled Are You Alive? I talk about living a life fully in aliveness. It’s different from merely being alive; merely existing. And I believe this is what God intends for us. Each one of us.
But today, I’m going to talk about some of the practical things people “left behind” may come up against.
In that first year, there is a very real and numbing emotional shock that we experience. It’s our brain’s way of protecting us from overload. You’ll feel numb, and almost like you’re experiencing things, events from an out of body experience. Almost or more like you’re just watching it happen as opposed to participating in it. And the interesting thing is that in the midst of that, you think you’re operating perfectly normally. I look back at my journals about this time and I see a girl (less than 12 months out, mind you) ready to move on and tackle the world. Yes, I actually thought I could just move on. I was definitely living in a made-up world where I thought nothing could touch me or keep me back. This is the greatest evidence that I was still in shock. It’s really not until you get out of it maybe 6 to 9 months later, that you look back and realize you were operating in a state of shock. I guess that’s why they tell widows and widowers not to make any drastic decisions that first year. Because you’re impaired and you don’t even fully know it.
But after that first year, your awareness starts to open up. And then this is when you also start becoming aware that you have Widow’s Brain Fog, if in fact, it is your spouse who has passed away. Widow Brain is a term used to describe the fogginess and disconnect that can set in after the death of a spouse. This feeling is thought to be a coping mechanism, where the brain attempts to shield itself from the pain of a significant trauma or loss. Honestly, I’ve heard people who have lost a child describe this very thing, so I’m not altogether certain it’s only reserved for widows. Trauma is trauma, and the brain does a very good job of protecting us and itself from damage. But Widow Brain is quite literally having the shortest attention span and the shortest short-term memory possible all at the same time…all the time. This fog keeps you from remembering simple conversations you’ve had, or decisions that you just made the day before. The numbness of shock and the brain fog is your brain doing its job to keep you safe, and we’re grateful. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. My suggestion here is to write everything down. All the conversations and decisions. Write it all down. You’ll probably need to do this for a while because Widow Brain can linger for many months.
Obviously, the first year is when you experience all the “firsts” without your loved one - the first birthday and the first holidays. The first party, the first…the first everything. That first year is hard with all these significant dates. During that first year, you’ll have waves of emotion, and sometimes you’ll find yourself in the grocery store sobbing in front of the pyramid of lemons because upon seeing them you’re reminded that your sweet husband always made sure you had lemons for your healthy water.
Here is where I would encourage you not to try to suppress or ignore your emotions. The fastest way to move through grief is to let the tears and emotions happen. And don’t let anyone try to convince you that there are stages of grief that you move through. Grief is not linear. It looks more like a child’s Etch A Sketch. It’s all over the place. Oh no, I think I’ve just dated myself. But if you remember this drawing toy, you had to use both knobs to move the drawing stylus both vertically and horizontally. Most of my drawings looked like a wild tornado. A sufficient picture for the grief process, I think. And drawing a straight line was for the super elite. For the normal person, a straight line looked more like pinking shears. That’s how grief is. And just when you thought you were getting good at ups-and-downs, you’d bump the toy and all the lines would disappear and you’d have to start all over again.
Grief also has no timetable. In fact, I would argue that you will always have grief with you for the rest of your life. But that it will just grow to be a part of you, subsiding to a low frequency hum. So, don’t beat yourself up if you’re still losing it in front of the pyramid of lemons. It’s okay. In fact it’s normal. Nothing has gone wrong.
Let me stop here a second. If you’re listening and you know someone who is experiencing Widow Brain, please don’t make them feel stupid or out of touch because they can’t remember the last conversation they had with you about that important decision. Please deal with them tenderly and carefully. As tenderly and carefully as you would want to be treated. And if you know someone who is navigating through grief, please don’t ever ask them “don’t you think you should be over this by now?” Or anything remotely suggesting that they “get over it.” Again, care for them with as much compassion as you would like to be cared for.
Now, the second year is interesting in that, you’ve already gone through all the first significant dates and have even come around to the date of your loved one’s death. But the difference between the first and the second year is that, now, this second year, most of the numbness has worn off and now you feel the rawness of everything. The protection has been lifted and you really feel things now. So, it’s like you get to experience all the “firsts” again, but this time the Bandaid has been ripped off and the wound is fully exposed.
But, here’s some really encouraging news for us. The second year begins the healing of that wound that allows something beautiful to take place in the future.
In Episode 26: Shaped for The Journey Forward, I talked about moving forward and moving through life, and being changed in the process. I knew after my husband’s death I could no longer be defined as resilient. But I thought being changed in the process was getting my resiliency back. I’ve now discovered that it wasn’t resiliency at all, but Posttraumatic Growth.
Posttraumatic Growth was developed by psychologists Richard Tedeschi, PhD and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, in the mid-1990s. It’s a concept that holds that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive personal growth afterward. Tedeschi says, "People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life." Based on my own lived experience, I could not agree more with this assessment.
Posttraumatic growth is positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event. The idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new even if the term is. Just a quick glance at Job in the Bible confirms this.
The two doctors that coined the term “posttraumatic growth” describes how growth and change occur in five general areas. The first area is in new opportunities. Sometimes people who must face major life crises develop a sense that new possibilities have emerged from the struggle that were not present before. A second area is a change in relationships with others. Some experience closer relationships with the people in their lives, and they can also experience an increased sense of connection to others who suffer. A third area of possible change is an increased sense of one’s own strength – It’s an attitude of “if I lived through that, I can face anything.” A fourth area of posttraumatic growth is a greater appreciation for life in general. It’s seeing things with a new perspective in mind. The fifth area can be seen in their spiritual life where they find themselves loving and depending on their Heavenly Father in a new and deeper way.
The doctors rightly pointed out two important observations with regard to posttraumatic growth. They say, “Just because individuals experience growth does not mean that they will not suffer. We most definitely are not implying that traumatic events are good – they are not. But for many of us, life crises are inevitable, and we are not given the choice between suffering and growth on the one hand, and no suffering and no change, on the other.
Secondly, Posttraumatic growth is not universal. It is not uncommon, but neither does everybody who faces a traumatic event experience growth.”
My takeaway from this is that life is going to provide us with many opportunities to experience posttraumatic growth. But, we get to decide if we actually want to allow it to change us and grow us. Or, we could choose to stay the same. For me, my choice is to embrace the opportunity for personal, emotional, and spiritual growth. I love having a new appreciation for life, a newfound sense of personal strength, and a new focus on helping others. I love getting outside of myself and my self-centeredness to see the world and my purpose in it in a whole new light. I even love being grateful for the hard things in life because they teach me to lean hard into Jesus, and to learn to trust and depend upon Him more.
How about you, friend? What will you choose? If you’ve been one left behind after your loved one passed over into Heaven, what will you make of your life now? Even if you’re just moving through that first year, will you open yourself up to the idea of posttraumatic growth? Will you let the pain and grief shape you on this journey? Will you choose to grow with a sense of new possibilities afforded you now; grow in your relationships with others; grow in recognizing and appreciating your own strength, in appreciating life to a greater degree, and lastly, grow in your spiritual faith as you lean in hard on Jesus with trust and belief that He cares for you and He’s got you?
You’ve been 'left behind' for a reason. What will you make of it, friend? What will you choose?