Abi May explores how we can cope with the changes that bereavement brings
This article was published in the September to December 2019 issue of Rapport magazine.
We take some life journeys by choice, but at other times, we find ourselves on a path that is far removed from our wishes.
The book of Ruth in the Bible illustrates this in a way that seems quite relatable. Naomi and her husband went with their two sons to Moab seeking a better life, as there was a famine in their own country of Judah. Whilst living in this foreign land, Naomi’s husband died. At some point, her sons married, but then ten years after their father, they also died. By then, economic conditions had improved at home, and so Naomi decided to head back to Bethlehem where she came from. Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law, travelled with her.
Naomi was presumably not happy to be going home without either her husband or her two sons. Reaching Bethlehem, the cheery greetings of old friends seemed misplaced.
‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she said. Naomi means ‘pleasant.’ ‘Call me Mara “bitter” because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty’ (Ruth 1:20-21).
We might feel empty and broken when someone significant has died. I know that’s how I felt following the deaths of both of my two children, 30 years apart, leaving me to face the future with no children or grandchildren.
But my story didn’t end there, and nor did Naomi’s – more on that in a moment.
The impact of bereavement
At the death of a close loved one, we come to realise that having a ‘time for everything … and a season for every activity’ includes having a ‘time to weep … a time to mourn’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4). How we live through grief is unique to each individual, although there are many common elements.
Grief moves us emotionally: we can be sad, tearful, shocked, disbelieving, angry, depressed, heartbroken, anxious, guilty, angry, confused, fearful and much more. Our thoughts may race. We may lack concentration.
Grief often impacts us physically: we may not be able to sleep, or we may not want to wake up; we may not eat, or we may eat too much. The stress of grief can precipitate illness or worsen existing conditions.
Living with loss has a practical side: dealing with funeral arrangements, managing a loved one’s affairs, getting rid of old clothes, returning disability equipment, closing bank accounts, cancelling contracts – and all whilst we are riding the roller-coaster of our grief emotions.
Our life may change considerably: as a result of a loved one’s absence we might need to adjust to living alone or not having caring responsibilities. We now shop and cook for one. Perhaps we have to do things that our loved one used to do for us. We might be lonely. We may fear for our future.
Grief can be isolating: everybody else’s life seems to be going on just as it was, but our life is forever changed. Bereavement can also result in family conflicts. Tragedy can draw us together, but different styles of grieving and different personalities can also drive
Although our faith may bring us comfort, we are still human: any of the emotional and practical consequences of grief can apply to us as Christians, just as much as to anyone else. In addition, we might find ourselves questioning long-held beliefs, wondering why God allowed what happened. This type of crisis of faith was described by C.S. Lewis in his book, A Grief Observed. We might feel guilty feeling the way we feel, however that is.
A way forward
Our life following bereavement might never be the same again. Still, we can find a way to live in these new circumstances, and in time regain our hope and joy.
Naomi, the widow and bereaved mother, probably felt she had reached the end, but eventually she would proclaim, ‘God hasn’t quite walked out on us after all! He still loves us, in bad times as well as good!’ (Ruth 2:20 The Message). Ruth, her daughter-in-law, would shortly marry Boaz and bear a child who would become the grandfather of David and have a place in the lineage of Jesus.
My own personal path has not given me an enlarged family, but I have found other ways to live with loss. I grieve; I actively find ways for my children to be remembered. I help others through my Living with Loss project. Importantly, I also enjoy life alongside my husband John – gardening, walking and travelling, amongst other activities.
What follows is, in a nutshell, some of what I’ve learned from my own experiences and from supporting others on how to cope with the death of a loved one.
Grieve and remember
The ‘work’ of grieving is an active process of giving expression to our thoughts and feelings, alongside finding ways to honour the memories of our loved ones. It’s when we do this active ‘work’ that we find comfort: ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’ (Matthew 5:4).
Allow yourself time and space to grieve; allow the tears to flow when they must. Finding opportunities to share your heartache with another can be helpful.
As you mourn, you can discover a new relationship of memory with your loved one. This can take many forms – photographs, websites, benches, sponsored walks, teddy bears made out of a loved one’s clothes, and many more. (You can find ideas on my blog.)
Of course, there is a balance. Whilst you honour the memory of your loved one, you also need to live your life. This includes giving yourself permission to be happy. It is not betraying him or her to have times when you smile again.
Take care of yourself
Grief is stressful and this impacts on the body’s defences. Many people’s health habits decline as they care for a loved one or immediately after their death. It’s time now to try to restore balance by taking small steps. Improving your diet and getting out for a bit of exercise is a good start.
Self-care extends to being kind to yourself. This could be a favourite snack or curling up on the sofa with a good book; it could mean a relaxed walk outside in nature or a visit to an old friend. In other words, treat yourself with the same care and kindness that you would offer to a valued friend in a similar situation.
Make space for God
As Christians, we live in hope of the resurrection, but even a firm personal belief in where our loved ones are now does not change the fact that they are not here. As we make adjustments in order to live our life without them, we need God at our side. The Psalmist prayed, ‘Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief’ (Psalm 31: 9). Making space for God’s mercies might come through heartfelt prayer, moments of gratitude or finding our voice in the book of Psalms.
Don’t feel as though you are alone – you are not
We are each unique, with our own personalities, life experiences, families, sorrows and joys, but there are other people who have gone through broadly similar losses. Many find it helpful to take part in a support group, either in person or on an internet forum, thus discovering that they are not alone and that there is a way through. Others, particularly those whose loss was traumatic, find it useful to receive grief counselling.
Have patience with yourself
Too often we judge ourselves harshly. We may feel we’re not coping with our loss, or at the other extreme, we may feel guilty that we’re not behaving in a way we think we should be. But there is no right or wrong way to grieve. It takes time to adjust to loss; there is no schedule. As you may discover, grief is messy. ‘A rollercoaster’ is a better description of the journey through loss, rather than neat chronological stages.
Perhaps now is your season of mourning, but happiness can return.
‘Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).
It is unlikely to be a literal night of eight hours – however much we wish for it to be over quickly – but this ‘night time’ of our lives will eventually turn to ‘day time’. That’s what we have been promised.
Take a deep breath as you walk through this season, one step at a time.
Abi May is an experienced retreat leader, author and educator, as well as a bereaved mother. Abi and her husband John have been running Living with Loss grief support events around the UK for almost four years. The Living with Loss project is a member of the National Bereavement Alliance.