Dear friends recently lost their dad. I remember being surprised after my dad died at how bone tired I was. As one acquainted with grief, I offer this short primer, not as a scientific study, but as an anecdotal narrative of what I’ve experienced, what I’ve observed and what you may expect.
Emotional work is physically exhausting. You will wake up tired, your sleep patterns will be disrupted, a deep weariness settles in. Make allowances for being tired; avoid extra responsibilities if you can. Take a nap without apologizing for it.
Your brain is overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. It is hard to focus. You repeat yourself in conversations. You begin a sentence, but can’t finish it. Fog is everywhere. Your ability to think sequentially is diminished. Basic decisions—where to eat, what to do next—are challenging.
When someone you love dies, you look for clues, for signs, for anything that can help you make sense of his/her life. Or make sense of his/her death. You examine the relationship you shared, reviewing communications, reminding yourself of what is true. The more contradictions there are, the more you ponder. We want to understand, but the understanding doesn’t always come.
You couldn’t care less. You stop eating. Or you can’t stop eating. Personal hygiene slips. You are tempted to veg-out with TV, computer games, mindless occupations. Habits help. Brush your teeth, take a walk.
Grief is a lonely thing. After the outpouring of your friends’ comfort and compassion, life for them returns to normal. But your life is unalterably changed. Grief makes people uncomfortable, unsure of their response, so they may avoid you in an effort to protect themselves. You may be reluctant to articulate your grief to yourself, let alone to others. Living in community can propel you into social situations that insulate you from isolation.
There is no getting around the fact that grief is painful. We don’t like pain, so we search for shortcuts that will make the pain go away. I’ve seen folks allot 4-7 days to grieve and then pack up their grief and put it into storage. But grief too quickly stowed will return, ringing the doorbell, insisting on being present.
How long will this last? Ecclesiastes 3 gives a clue: To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven. (emphasis mine) Three months is a normal time to experience the deep initial wave of grief. The loss will be with you until the end of your days; you will never be “over it.”
And then there will be the realization that—for a moment—you had forgotten how sad you were. It feels like betrayal to experience a slice of joy.
Another time will come when you feel like you should be sad, but the emotion is just not there. Then you make a decision to either manufacture the sadness or to let that moment pass. There is a ditch on both sides of the road: the ditch of denying grief, pretending you are fine; and the ditch of gripping grief with clenched hands that won’t release it. When the tears come, let them. But don’t force them.
The summer after my mom died, I remember a scene of social awkwardness and resulting tears at a summer camp. Some girl impatiently demanded to know why I was crying. I was too embarrassed to articulate my awkwardness, so I played my trump card: “Well, wouldn’t you cry if your mom had died?” It was patently dishonest, and my ten-year-old self recognized—and regretted—the manipulation the moment those words left my mouth.
Underneath all of these thoughts is my faith that God is sovereign, that He knows my tears, and that I can trust Him. He doesn’t erase the pain as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but He does promise to comfort us. And that is enough.