The Wednesday before Christmas 2015, Betty Crane, 90-years-old and living on her own, rode the train from Santa Barbara to Riverside to spend the holidays with us. She visited her sisters, opened gifts with her grandchildren, and took us out to eat. She never returned home. On Wednesday, January 27, 2016 she died. Complications of pneumonia led to respiratory failure and a heart attack.
My mother-in-law and I were not close. We both had small control issues. Her view of the world as a source of endless suspicion rankled my own barely-managed feelings of scarcity. Her rich imagination spun tiny observations into incredible stories that my unbridled sense of correctness could not endure. I am not proud of this.
But three things I appreciated about Betty 1) She raised the best man I know. 2) She noticed beauty and remarked on it every day. 3) She savored each meal she ate with us. “This is delicious, Rebecca! You couldn’t find any better in any restaurant!”
Suddenly, her voice is gone. February bagan the long exhale for Ken and me. After days of bedside vigils — A cruel game for the watchers, as my sister-in-law put it — we slowly find our way back into living our lives while mourning her death.
I’ve been surprised by how fragile and emotionally exhausted I feel. I don’t remember being so raw after either of my parents died. But grief has its own logic. It is what it is. And I choose to engage it all.
One reason I’m open to the grieving process is that I know many misconceptions surround loss, and I can identify & avoid them. John James and Russell Friedman, in their book The Grief Recovery Handbook, name the most common approaches to grief that just DON’T WORK because they completely ignore emotional needs. Here’s what we’ve been told — not because the tellers are cruel, but because this is what someone told them and they believed it.
1) don’t feel bad
2) replace the loss
3) grieve alone
4) just give it time
5) be strong for others
6) keep busy
James and Friedman make it clear that this time-honored “wisdom” does nothing for our need to grieve. They examine each misconception and reveal the damage it does. Read the book if you want to know more.
6 ways to find “good” grief
Feeling bad is good for you ~ Ken and I give each other space to feel sad, tired, confused, fragile — just plain bad. When we face our difficult feelings it’s less likely they will fester. We are gentle with each other and with ourselves as we acknowledge our humanity.
Remember that no feeling is wrong, bad, or invalid. Our feelings are human. They are the natural response to hurt and loss and grief. By acknowledging your feelings, you acknowledge your humanity.” ~ Desmond Tutu
We neither minimize nor philosophies. No comments like Things work for the best. This was meant to be. God called her home. Rubbish! And if you tell me Everything happens for a reason, I might slap you. Not because I’m determined to feel bad, but because those words totally lack empathy and compassion. They do NOT help me feel better! So why say them? (For more insight on this idea read Tim Lawrence’s article HERE. Thank you Chris Oberg, my friend and pastor, for sharing this with me!)
Leave the space empty ~ We will not fill the space Betty left. The void left by her voice, her presence remains because nothing else has her shape, taste or feel. People, experiences, dreams — things of significance to you — are not disposable, interchangeable, or replaceable. When we lose one of these a wound remains.
Grieve with others ~ In all of this we have not been alone. Ken and I keep each other company — collecting Betty’s belongings, mortuary arrangements, telling his aunties their sister has died. Ken talks or texts his sister daily, we let friends know that we’re frazzled, our faith community shows up. Over and over people have sat with us in the discomfort. Just being. Their presence could not change the outcome, but it transformed our experience.
Time does not heal all wounds ~ As James and Friedman point out, the mere passage of time will not bring healing. It’s how we move through time that matters. Active engagement with grief is what brings healing. So Ken and I talk about how we feel. We listen to each other. We hug a lot. And we walk on the beach, eat on the patio, watch the sunset, or soak in mineral pools — activities that soothe and center.
Be honest (weak) for others & yourself ~ Being strong for others gets a lot of points in western culture. But it means pretending you feel something that you don’t. The truth: We don’t do justice to our loss if we buck up and stay strong. More truth: Grief is love facing off with its oldest enemy: death. And while love is stronger than death, the strength of love looks like tenderness, brokenness, and vulnerability.
Screw Busy ~ We’re a culture that has low tolerance for emotions and feelings. Grief is an emotional quagmire. A heap of unbidden feelings. Rather than face the bothersome mess, we’re encouraged to numb it. An effective way to numb our feelings: keep busy, very busy. ↣ Bonus: Busyness is socially acceptable! It is a badge of merit and worthiness in a culture that values packed schedules, monster check-lists, and performance (doing) over human feelings (being).
Crazy-busy is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us. ~ Brené Brown
Ken and I are letting what we really need, whatever form it takes, catch up with us. We show up for responsibilities, but we don’t take on extra work. Often we give ourselves permission to be totally unproductive for an afternoon or entire day. We make time to sit with feelings of confusion, weariness, and loss.
So many things cannot be fixed, only carried. When you face loss, and I know you will, I hope that my words give you a sense of companionship. It is not our achievements that make us the most winsome, the most human, the most relatable. It is our shared wounds and the ways we choose to carry them.