Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring: a Welcome Reprieve from Grief

There is just something about the return of the sun and warmer temperatures for those recovering from the loss of a loved one. Perhaps it is those therapeutic walks in the sunshine. Perhaps it is the longer days of sunlight. Or perhaps it is the new life in the green shoots peeking out from under last fall’s decaying leaves, or in the noisy chatter of all the birds. But spring is definitely a relief…I know it was for me after losing my wife of 30+ years to cancer in January of 2005.

One of my strong recommendations is to find a means to get away from where you live, and where that loved one also lived, oh so recently. I took a sabbatical for 2-months. I know what you must be thinking—it must be nice to be a college professor! But there are many ways to achieve a low-cost getaway. For instance, live out of a suitcase in a friend’s spare room for a few weeks. Use that time 1) to get away from all those reminders of her (I am writing from a widower’s perspective), 2) to get out into nature (hopefully you can find a creation-accessible spot—in most towns there are great nature trails and parks, whether right downtown or nearby), and 3) to draw near to God.

As I describe in my book, “Transforming the Valley of Grief” (Xulon Press, also available on Amazon.com), block memory of Scripture was a huge help to me—especially the 23rd and 57th Psalms. And those nature walks were amazing. It is there that God met with me and healed (to a large degree) my wounded soul. He used nature and His Word like a defibrillator to stop my spastic, grieving heart, and restart it again with a more normal rhythm. God is good. You need to rediscover that for yourself, and a getaway is a potentially powerful way to experience Him for yourself. I know…I was there…where you may be right now…in the Valley of Grief. And He met me there! “The Lord is my shepherd…He restores my soul…He leads me in paths of righteousness…” And he transforms Valleys of Grief!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Facing Grief and the New Year

Holidays can be tough for those who have recently lost someone dear. For me, the New Year took place almost a year after my wife’s passing on the prior January 21st. All the grief counseling books tell you to brace yourself for important holidays and anniversaries, which can trigger memories and unlooked for bouts of grief, especially during the first year or so following the loss. I had weathered Christmas reasonably well, most likely owing to my being surrounded by my loving family. But I was unprepared for how the first “dropping of the ball” in Times Square would affect me.

First of all, January is a dark and lonely time, without much sunlight (strength, duration) where I reside. So when grief strikes, as it often does like a sudden flash flood, it is easy to sink into despair. It is cold…and dark…and lonely…and I am NOT just talking about the weather. For the first time in my life, I began to use and benefit from an S.A.D. light. (My departed wife suffered from “seasonal affective disorder,” or depression and sleep disruption resulting from light deprivation in the dark winter months—I used to refer to her obnoxious broad spectrum white light box as the “shekinah glory,” since you could see and feel the glow from two rooms away!) To this day I still use her light box during the dark times of January!

Second, I succumbed to my loneliness for the first time, and did some irrational things. I was in an “all of a sudden” panic to find someone to replace Karen, and the sooner the better! Yes (and I am embarrassed to admit it), I signed up on one of the many internet match-making services. But as soon as I had a nibble, I remember canceling my subscription in a panic—I was ill-prepared for the mid-life dating scene. (You can read about a much better and thoughtful approach in my book—“Transforming the Valley of Grief: Men Finding Hope and Their Way Following the Loss of a Love One” --available on amazon.com.)

If you or someone you know is facing his first not-so-happy New Year, having recently lost someone dear—be prepared for 1) the dark and lonely days of January, and 2) irrational decisions that can be made in the depths of loneliness. I know…I’ve been there!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Grief and Thanksgiving

At this holiday season, I am reminded of both the bad and the good things attached to the holidays for someone dealing with grief, whether over a recent loss or one more distant in time. The “bad” things are holiday “triggers” that provide unwanted reminders of the better times past. In my book, “Transforming the Valley of Grief,” I use the metaphor of “flash floods” for such times, when things are going well and then, all of a sudden some reminder of the departed loved one takes place, possibly at some important anniversary or on a holiday, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we are once again swept away by the tides of grief.

But the “bad” things can be “good” ones as well. I am reminded that Job worshiped God upon hearing of the loss of his children:
Job 1:20-21 (ESV)
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. [21] And he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
I am also reminded of the following passage from Joel:
Joel 2:13-14 (ESV)
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
and he relents over disaster.
[14] Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
for the Lord your God?
In the early stages of my “valley of the shadow of death” experience, I found this passage VERY encouraging—that God would “relent over disaster.” More importantly, it taught me to look for “left behind blessings” in the death of my wife to cancer. And what are we to do with those left behind blessings? We are to worship! That’s what the “grain offering and drink offering” are for—“for the Lord your God.” So at this time of grief in your own life, I encourage you to be thankful for your “left behind blessings” and to worship the Lord, who is gracious and merciful…and relents over disaster (even your own disaster!). I wish for you a thankful holiday season!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Metaphors for Grief

In the depth of my grief, when my wife of 30+ years succumbed to colon cancer, I found it helpful to think about my situation in terms of a metaphor. The metaphor I chose was that of a tsunami. You see, Karen was diagnosed the week after Thanksgiving of 2004, and died a mere 7 weeks later. Right in the midst of her struggle, a real tsunami took place off Sumatra, during which more than 240,000 people lost their lives to the great tidal wave that swept down upon them. Both “tsunamis” left devastation in their wake.

And why was a “tsunami” such a good metaphor for my experience? Well, first of all, it captured my sense of impending doom. I envision standing on the beach watching a real tsunami wave grow in the distance as it approaches the shore. One has a growing realization of what one in facing. And it isn’t good! Second, it captures the sense of helplessness. Again, one stands on the shoreline watching the approaching wave, and knowing that there is little you can do to forestall its coming or prevent the havoc it will wreak when it strikes the shore. About all you can do is hold hands and pray and watch it come. You want to run, but you realize you can’t outrun the destruction about to overtake you. And finally, after the wave has struck, you find her hand ripped out of yours, and yourself drowning in the surf, struggling to breathe, and clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of what you once called life. The shoreline is there—you can see it from the crests of the waves (but never from the troughs)—if you can only claw your way up the sandy slope against the undertow, knowing that she will not be there when you finally make it. You can see why this has been such a powerful metaphor for my loss!

In counseling men in similar situations, I encourage them to think of a metaphor for their loss. Was it like a tsunami? How so? Or perhaps your loss was more sudden, as with a freak accident or quick parting. Perhaps a tornado is a better metaphor? You emerge from the storm shelter to find everything destroyed…gone…and only you are left behind to pick up the pieces and rebuild…if you can. Or maybe your loss was long and drawn out…a never-ending “goodbye.” I’ll leave it to you to come up with your own metaphor. But as I urge in “Transforming the Valley of Grief” (Xulon Press), interacting with a metaphor of loss is a good way to process grief and to make progress toward healing.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How Men Deal with Grief
I have been asked if there is a difference between the way men and women experience and process grief. My answer would have to be, “No….and Yes.” On the one hand, there are many similarities between the grief experiences of men and women. Certainly both experience pain when they lose someone dear. And I have found that both men and women experience fear as an overriding emotion during the early stages of grief. Finally, both sexes experience loneliness throughout the grieving process, and especially so if the one lost was much beloved (for example, a spouse or child). I am reminded of Frodo (of “Lord of the Rings” fame)—some wounds never really heal. However, the negative emotions of pain, fear, and loneliness should diminish with time. In that sense, healing can and indeed will take place. But it takes time…

On the other hand, I do see differences in the way that men and women process grief. From my personal experience, it seems that women have a far easier time processing their grief verbally. In contrast, men tend to retreat to their “caves” to lick their wounds in private, or at least they are expected to do so. When I lost my wife to colon cancer in 2005, I searched valiantly for grief support groups 1) with a Christian perspective (I am a Christian, and this was central to my own healing), and 2) with other men as well as women in the group. Although I could find Christian grief support groups, groups with other men were not to be found. In the end, I settled for one in which I was the only man. Now, to be fair, I understand that widows outnumber us widowers something like 3-to-1. Nevertheless, I take this as symptomatic of the differences between how men and women process grief.

Please understand that I am not arguing that men should process grief alone and in private. Although there is an important role of private times during the process of grieving, I believe that both sexes must “do the work” of grief, and that this will of necessity involve verbal processing. In “Transforming the Valley of Grief: Men Finding Hope and Their Path Following the Loss of a Loved One,” I argue for many avenues of verbal processing for men, including conversations with family members, with close friends/accountability partners, with professional counselors if necessary, and yes, in grief support group settings. My encouragement to grieving men (and their support teams) would be in the direction of more verbal processing, not less. But please be aware that this may not be as “natural” for us men as it is with most women. We may need a bit more extra motivation/encouragement to come out of our “caves” and do the work of grieving.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I have been thinking recently about metaphors for personal tragedy. When I lost my wife to cancer, it was about the same time as the great earthquake and tsunami of 2004. Now on the heels of yet another Sumatran earthquake and tsunami, I find myself thinking again about loss and grieving in the wake of a personal tragedy. For me, the tsunami was the perfect metaphor for what I experienced. Standing on the shoreline, we watched the tsunami wave approach as we held hands on the beach, helpless to do anything against the impending crash of that unavoidable wave of misery. That mighty, awful wave grew, and filled the horizon. It came and crashed, and it devastated the life I once knew. It left me floundering in the surf, struggling for air and my very existence, fighting my way back to the beach of my life, which would never be the same again. She was gone, and I was alone,

In my book, “Transforming the Valley of Grief: Men Finding Hope and Their Path Following the Loss of a Loved One,” I talk about metaphors for grief, and that choosing an appropriate metaphor can be a helpful step in processing grief and moving forward in the Valley toward hope and healing. For some, loss comes suddenly and unexpectedly, in a tragic accident or with a heart attack. Perhaps a tornado is a better metaphor than a tsunami in such cases. For others, loss is a long drawn-out process of illness, decline, and the protracted “goodbye.” Perhaps being lost at sea in a leaky boat, slowly filling with water but going down nevertheless, is a better metaphor than my tsunami. Each man experiences loss in a different way.

Finding the right metaphor can be an important step in the grieving/healing process. And I am here to testify that God can meet us at our lowest point—floundering in the surf, emerging from the storm cellar to find everything swept away, or sinking in the depths. I refer to what ensues as a walk through “the Valley” (of the shadow of death). But take comfort in God’s promise found in Hosea 2:15—“I will make the Valley…a door of hope.” I did!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I have found that men tend to respond to grief much differently than do women. Whereas women are prone to process grief verbally and socially, men tend to retreat to their “caves” and process grief in private. I’m not saying that this is a good thing—in the end, I believe that true healing requires verbal processing, regardless of gender, i.e., talking about the deepest feelings. I am just saying that this is far more “natural” for women than for men. But it also explains how men are treated when they go through grief…essentially alone!

My office answering machine is a good illustration. When my wife fought (and lost!) a two-month battle with aggressive colon cancer in 2005, the “traffic” on my office answering machine went from 5 or 6 messages a day to virtually nothing. Actually, that’s not completely correct—there was one message, and that was from a woman colleague!

Perhaps it’s true that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus!” In other words, men overtaken by grief should not be surprised by their experience, which may be quite different from that of women. And they should not be surprised to find that grief support groups (which they sorely need!) are dominated by women. I’ve provided some valuable aids to grieving men in my book, “Transforming the Valley of Grief: Men Finding Hope and Their Path Following the Loss of Loved One.” This book is unique in that it explores the experience of grief from a male perspective, providing helpful tips to survive, and even transform “the Valley of Grief” into “a door of hope.” (Hos. 2:15, ESV)