Surviving the RIP currents of grief

Walking along the shore in Oceanside California yesterday I noticed a warning sign about rip tides. Being from Michigan I am familiar with these signs because Lake Michigan has dangerous rip currents as well that swimmers must be wary of.

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Fortunately, I have never experienced getting caught in these currents that can kill. They are survivable if a person knows what to do when caught by the unexpected pull into the abyss.

I stepped into the warm Pacific beach sand, set up my beach chair, cracked open an Aquafina and plopped my butt down for some beautiful  California sunshine. It wasn’t long till we left our chairs and waded into the water for a cool down. There were no visible rip currents where we were but the force and power of the water was very evident.

I struggle with grief related depression. Standing waist deep in the cool salt water I felt the strong push and pull of the Pacific and thought of the similarities between rip tides and grief. Escaping and surviving a rip current and surviving grief are very much the same.

The Pull

Grief, like the rip current, has an incredibly strong and visible pull that transports its hostage out into the deep. The victim can see the shore and all the happy beach goers as they struggle alone against the unstoppable force. Very quickly your treading water and it’s over your head, fear takes hold and there is no lifeguard on duty to help us in our distress. Or is there?

Remembering the sign

The beach sign gave instructions on what to do when caught in a rip current. Step one said to identify the current and step two was to exit the shallow water before it pulls you out over your waist. The rip current of grief is sometimes visible, you see it coming, and other times it is sudden and unexpected and catches you off guard. There are times you can walk out of it quickly and many other times you cannot.

Step three tells the victim to remain calm and to conserve your energy. Grief can be so exhausting and it is important to weather the storm, find your peace, and keep your head above the water. Grief has taken me to places I never wanted to go but fighting the current is futile and potentially fatal. Its important to keep your head in a rip current and during grief.

There are times that I have felt like I was going down for the third and final time but I remembered the sign once again. Step four (if you are a poor swimmer) is to wave your arms and call out for help. Hurting people need helping people. We need people to talk to and people to listen to our heart. We need people to laugh with and a shoulder to cry on. We need friends and family, pastors and counselors. We need our spouses and we need to wave our arms and to cry out from time to time. Mostly importantly we need God and to call out to him. Grief should never be done alone.

Step five says to swim parallel to the shore and out of the current. Grief is hard work I have found, and it takes much effort to swim out of it. There have been times where I was just treading water and stuck in my grief. Simply put, without effort there is no progress to the shore I needed to get back to. It is tiresome and when I get exhausted by grief I remember the sign again and step six which says, conserve energy, float and relax. I have done this very often over the last four years. It is a vitally important part of getting back to the place you need to be. I never feel guilty about escaping and getting away from it all, it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Finally, step seven says to swim vertically towards the beach. With every stroke I have found that I am nearer to solid ground. Thankfully I am not where I was, I can see the shore, the pull is gone and I can feel the sand in my toes once again.

Back on the beach

Losing a child is undoubtably the worst kind of grief any person can endure. I wish I could say that the experience in the rip current was just one go around and your done but it’s not. I have found that I get back to the beach and get on with life but the cycle of grief continues. I wade out, I loose my footing, I feel the pull and I get in over my head again and again. I remember the routine and what to do. Thankfully the rip currents aren’t as often as before nor do they seem to be as strong but I do enter them nonetheless.

The lifeguard is always on duty

I can’t imagine navigating the rip currents of grief without a rescuer on watch. The Apostle Peter walked on water when Jesus called him out of the boat but Peter looked away from the Lord at the storm and he began to sink. In fear he cried out these comforting words, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”(Matthew 14:30-32 ESV) 

The Lifeguard is always on duty and has never lost a soul yet.

I doubt, I have weak faith at times. Despite this I have discovered the continual presence of my lifeguard Jesus in the rip currents of my life. He was there the whole time, he never left me and he has not forsaken me. For this I give him thanks.

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The monkey whisperer

I usually begin to write when grief teaches me something. When the keyboard is clicking grief has had something to say to me. The quiet time between blog posts is a measuring stick of progress I suppose. I am healing and the gaps seem to get wider between the times I feel compelled to write.

Grief has been not been silent however, she gets my attention every day but not in ways that are as abrupt, harsh and cruel as in times past.

It takes a long time to accept and adapt to life after the death of a child. Some people seemingly never adapt or recover I have observed, sadly, some are drowned and destroyed. My wife and I have found that adapting, moving, and getting on with life is a necessary and often painful part of the process. Getting stuck in grief is easy to do, it often feels like you are wading through chest deep muck in water filled waders. Yet we press on.

Grief has not been silent, she whispers daily to me. She teaches me new things and has shown me something recently that got the keyboard keys tapping again. I feel free. Not free from grief, but free of the heavy shoes that weigh me down and slow my healing. I am walking with it better now. Time does not heal this wound however, there is always a limp, a stone in my shoe per-se, and the need for a walking stick to catch me from falling. I no longer feel like there is a gorilla on my back, just a nagging monkey on my shoulder who pulls at my heart from time to time.

I walked the shores in Angoon Alaska 3 years ago with that gorilla on my back. This August I returned and walked those same shores and was free from that weight but not entirely. How I wish I could have walked this beach with my son the monkey whispered. My heart sank as my feet stuck in the tidal flat that morning. Soon I was free from the pain, removed the stone from my boot and was on my way once again. And so it goes for me. I am walking free but with a noticeable limp.

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I went to sit with Jacob the other day. I sat there and talked to him and talked with God on the small stone bench opposite of his headstone. I wet the ground again at the resting place of my son and mother-in-law and thought of the strange path my life has taken in the last three and a half years. So much has changed in my life, virtually nothing is the same. I said goodbye to my son and told him we are going to California for the winter. The monkey hopped on my shoulder as I walked away from the cemetery and whispered in my ear, “I am going with you.”

“Yes”, I whispered back, “And I will carry Jacob with me in my heart.”

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Purpose in the pain

The following is something I wrote a few short months after my son Jacob died. My hope is that it may help you better understand the purposes of God in the midst of pain.

Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)

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Last October Stacey and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by going to Mexico. Our time there was memorable and filled with exciting, new, and fun things to enjoy. Six months passed by and we found ourselves in a funeral home preparing to say goodbye to our beloved son Jacob. Which experience would you say is better? Here the preacher says something contrary to human understanding saying it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. Why? Because the character of God is learned many times through hardship and less frequently through times of laughter. Therefore the house of mourning is found to be better because it is there that we discover who our God is.

The Christian life is full of growing pangs that we would never have chosen for ourselves, but God is working in us to mature us though various trials he has chosen. We experience the fruit of joy which the Holy Spirit produces as we suffer in the many hardships we endure. This joy is obviously not based in our circumstances but in the comforting fact that God is at work in our lives to sculpt his masterpiece. “My brethren count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. (James 1:2-4)

A test may be grieving you, the circumstances may be grim but our steadfast endurance in the pain produces the fruit that God desires in us. The desired goal of God is that we be perfectly matured and fully equipped for Christian living through the trial. Did you notice James says we need to let patience do the work which God desires to accomplish?Does this mean we can resist the work of God and stunt our spiritual growth? I believe it does. God wants us to stop being children (1 Peter 2:2) and to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)

There are three levels of Christian maturity. Children understand the basic truth that they have been forgiven. Children develop into strong young men by having the word of God dwelling in them and overcoming the wicked one. Young men grow into fathers by life experiences that reveal the character of God described on the pages of scripture. In all this maturing God uses trials along the way so in the end we can say with John, “I write unto you fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning.” (1 John 2:12-14) We move from reading the book about God to knowing the God of the book though our pilgrimage of pain.

I can honestly say that there was very little I learned about God when I went to Mexico. I resided in the house of laughter and my spiritual growth was at best was in neutral. We came home to that long hard winter which ended in the worst day of our lives on March 26th; we entered into the better place of sorrow. How is it better? In all the sorrow, pain and grief we find God, he is the brightest in the darkest of times. He reveals himself in ways that the happy times could never have taught us.

What was the first lesson I learned in the house of mourning? What was the first lesson in the classroom of spiritual maturity for me? Lesson number one for me was a lesson on grace. Being in a helpless and seemingly hopeless place I learned though suffering that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) In the weakest moment of my life Christ poured out his grace and showed himself strong. He is the God of all grace and he has plenty to in reserve for your many afflictions in life too. Allow God to refine you in your house of mourning, there is grace for you in your time of great need. (Heb. 4:16)

As sorrowful; yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10)

God bless, Mike.

Embracing change

Change. If there is anything consistent and constant in life it is that life is full of change.   I have noticed that many people have difficulty with changes in life. Drastic changes cause the status quo crowd to become unraveled just a bit.

Change. I guess if there is any advice I can give to parents who have lost kids it would be to  brace yourself for huge life changes. Death changes everything, nothing remains the same after a child dies. I have learned by experience to embrace the changes because resisting them tend to be futile and unproductive.

Change. So much has changed for my wife and I since our son Jacob died a little more than 3 years ago. Changes we never would have chosen except that we felt compelled to move forward in life and embrace them. Yes, that meant we embraced pain by choice many times to get to the next place in life. Some changes we chose but many were chosen for us without our approval, either way we changed as the changes presented themselves. Changes were a healing balm for us. Much like painful physical therapy heals your body, painful changes have helped heal our souls.

Change. We sold our house, our two kids got married, I am retiring at 49, we bought a house, Stacey is quitting her job at the hospital and we are going to travel nurse for the next few years in sunny southern states.

Envy. People keep saying to me that they envy what we are doing, where we are going, and living a life that is somewhat footloose and fancy free. I have to admit it kind of bugs me when they say they envy us. I realize that they only see the positive changes but fail to remember the difficult changes that led to this lifestyle. If our loved ones had not died we would not be in the place we find ourselves. Much grief, much pain, and many difficult changes brought us to this place. Do not misunderstand me, I feel blessed to be in this place but how we got here was not fun at all.

Change. We did not want to change our life but death forced changes to be made. For those who casually say they envy the path we are currently on I think to myself, “You wouldn’t want to walk path that led to these changes.” Yet here we are and here we go into our ever-changing future.

Change. I have learned to change and adapt to what life brings my way. Losing a child changed everything in our life, nothing is the same as it was just 3 short years ago. Nor can it ever be again, so we embrace the change, adapt to the new life and move forward into the uncertain future of changes to come whether good or bad.

I guess what we have discovered is that unwanted life changes are inevitable. How we respond to the changes, and the personal changes we choose to make, make all the difference in how we heal on our journey with grief. Sometimes “going with it” is difficult but I have found that changes pay higher dividends than I ever expected.

Embracing change

Change. If there is anything consistent and constant in life it is that life is full of change.   I have noticed that many people have difficulty with changes in life. Drastic changes cause the status quo crowd to become unraveled just a bit.

Change. I guess if there is any advice I can give to parents who have lost kids it would be to  brace yourself for huge life changes. Death changes everything, nothing remains the same after a child dies. I have learned by experience to embrace the changes because resisting them tend to be futile and unproductive.

Change. So much has changed for my wife and I since our son Jacob died a little more than 3 years ago. Changes we never would have chosen except that we felt compelled to move forward in life and embrace them. Yes, that meant we embraced pain by choice many times to get to the next place in life. Some changes we chose but many were chosen for us without our approval, either way we changed as the changes presented themselves. Changes were a healing balm for us. Much like painful physical therapy heals your body, painful changes have helped heal our souls.

Change. We sold our house, our two kids got married, I am retiring at 49, we bought a house, Stacey is quitting her job at the hospital and we are going to travel nurse for the next few years in sunny southern states.

Envy. People keep saying to me that they envy what we are doing, where we are going, and living a life that is somewhat footloose and fancy free. I have to admit it kind of bugs me when they say they envy us. I realize that they only see the positive changes but fail to remember the difficult changes that led to this lifestyle. If our loved ones had not died we would not be in the place we find ourselves. Much grief, much pain, and many difficult changes brought us to this place. Do not misunderstand me, I feel blessed to be in this place but how we got here was not fun at all.

Change. We did not want to change our life but death forced changes to be made. For those who casually say they envy the path we are currently on I think to myself, “You wouldn’t want to walk path that led to these changes.” Yet here we are and here we go into our ever-changing future.

Change. I have learned to change and adapt to what life brings my way. Losing a child changed everything in our life, nothing is the same as it was just 3 short years ago. Nor can it ever be again, so we embrace the change, adapt to the new life and move forward into the uncertain future of changes to come whether good or bad.

I guess what we have discovered is that unwanted life changes are inevitable. How we respond to the changes, and the personal changes we choose to make, make all the difference in how we heal on our journey with grief. Sometimes “going with it” is difficult but I have found that changes pay higher dividends than I ever expected. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting off the round about

4 years have passed since 4 family deaths started my wife and I on an unexpected journey with grief. I wish this journey had a final destination where I could get off this damn bus and let out a sigh of relief from the exhausting trip. However, I have discovered the longer I travel this road that there is no ending to this trip and sometimes you get stuck driving in circles in a round about.

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Grief comes to me (us) often and stings in ways we aren’t prepared for. 3 years post-mortem of Jacob and we are still getting our butts kicked by unexpected things in our pathway. I am not driving this bus, so I have no control of where it is taking us and where our stops will occur. One thing I have noticed recently is that the ride seems to be circular and and repetative. This week I was reminded that moving forward in grief requires more than one oar in the water.

There were some unexpected stops this past week for us. Sometimes you just gaze out the window, remain in your seat, ignore the door and wait for the bus to get rolling again. Sometimes it just easier to close your eyes and wait for a change of scenery and hope for a sunnier place.

I thought I was doing pretty good on this trip. I am an open kind of guy, I talk about my grief and I even blog my feelings and experiences for everyone to read. Then I saw myself clearly for the first time in a long time this week and it set me back it my seat. I was like, Ohhhh, yeah, that is how I have been responding to grief since this trip began.

On this grief bus you can run but there is no place to hide. You can close your eyes tight and wish it away, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. There are many expected and unexpected triggers over the years that have troubled me to which I have had a standard response. The pain comes, anxiety intensifies my grief, I withdraw and seek out a quiet place on the bus until the pain subsides. I knew this was my pattern and I didn’t see it as a problem until recently when I was asked, “Why is this your response to the pain?” and, “What are you running from?” Those were probing questions which I could not answer and honestly have yet to answer.

I can’t get off the bus but I have asked the driver to get off this roundabout because I’m ready for a change of scenery. I trust that my compassionate God will hear that prayer and merge the bus on a straight path to new and pleasant places.

I guess running, hiding and withdrawing are no remedies for grief. I thought I had a handle on this crap but the more I ride this bus the more I realize I am kidding myself. I need to stretch my legs and go to the part of the bus where they offer help for the weary travelers. The bus has been running in circles and I just noticed that I have been on a round about for some time now.

The wheels on the bus go round and round. I am on the bus for life but it is up to me to change my seat if I don’t like the one I am sitting in. There are people on the bus who can help me if I willing to move from my place.

I guess it’s time to change my seat.
 

 

 

 

 

Eternity, not time, heals all wounds

Whoever first said, “Time heals all wounds” obviously never lost a child. Time for me has only made horrific pain lessen and become bearable. To be healed is to be completely free from the symptoms of grief and for the parents of lost children this cannot be fully experienced in this life. Someday I will be healed when the silver strand is broken, when time is no more, and I enter into eternal rest with my God. Until then, time can only mend the brokenhearted for which I am grateful to God.

It has been 3 years since our terrible 12 months ended, during which 4 loved family members died. Our last 2 losses (which were only 6 weeks apart) was my son and then my wife’s mother Linda. All 4 deaths were sudden and all were unexpected, each impacted us deeply and when the dust finally settled none of my family would ever be the same.

I recently attended another funeral of a young man whose life ended at 29 years. As I looked around the parlor during the visitation I observed multiple parents who also had lost a child. Too young, too soon, so tragic, so sad and painful. I recalled the pain I felt during visitation and the funeral service of my son. In those moments it feels as if the intense pain will have to be endured forever. Thankfully, by the grace of God it is not.

My hair suddenly stood on my neck, I shuttered and the memory of the indescribable pain which returned to me when I heard the mother of the lost son lament and wail. I remembered my own laments, I remembered sitting exactly where she sat just 3 years ago. I remember making similar unique groans that only the soul of a grieving parent can release. A helpless bitter cry that was heard by all but only understood by God himself and handful of parents who sit in the funeral home. Time does not completely heal this wound but time will take the edge off the pain we feel.

The funeral ended and a grief journey began for a mother and her surviving family.

I remember talking to parents who had lost children at the beginning of my journey. I envied them, they said that the grief would change and the burden wouldn’t be so heavy and in time you will be able to walk with it. What they were saying to me was that time doesn’t heal all wounds but it does take the edge off. I wanted to be where they were and fast forward through the extremely difficult first couple of years.

In the early days of grief even the good things in life brought me pain. This reality was replayed over and over again in those first months and years. About a year after Jacob died I gave his sister Jordan away in marriage. In all the joy of that day there was an internal grief struggle that was stabbing me in my heart. I was full of joy but the pain was always there throughout that wonderful day. How I wished Jacob was there to see his big sister on her special day.

Today it is different, today it is better, but I never expect it to entirely go away. With every joy in life there will always be the desire for Jacob to be present for the events that families celebrate. Things like birthdays, Christmas, graduations, weddings and the addition of children to the family. These kinds of occasions were once a sharp pain but have now reduced to a dull ache with an occasional stab to the heart. The grief never goes away but it changes and becomes bearable. This too is a grace from God who is comforting and mending  my soul.

There have been many recent and coming events that would have been much more difficult to attend in years past. My youngest son Jared finished his college wrestling career by qualifying for the NCAA division 3 nationals this past March. (Jake was his biggest fan) He then went on to graduate from Wheaton College three weeks ago and on June 10th he will marry his high school sweetheart. In the early stages of grief these occasions were bittersweet, full of joy and full of pain but now time has taken the edge off my grief but has not healed my wounds. I think much of Jacob during these times and joy is now the predominate emotion not the heavy sorrow veiled with a smile.

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jared jordan

I ask the question, “Does time heal all wounds?” Well, I’m not an expert on anything but I do know by experience that God is my healer and time takes the edge of the pain.

“Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”  Revelation 21:3-4

Eternity, not time, heals all our wounds. As time passes the cutting edge is dulled and life without Jacob become more bearable than the beginning. For this I give thanks to God.