Last year was a rough go. My brother committed suicide on January 4th, and my mother-in-law passed away from Alzheimer’s at 70, on September 5th, the day after my last son was born.
While my grief over Mom was intense, I think I’ve had a harder time healing over my brother’s suicide. It was so sudden, violent, and painful. I knew Mom was close to going to Heaven…I had time to say goodbye. I knew Mom passed peacefully and with Dad nearby. Nothing surrounding Eric’s death was peaceful. And he died alone. Mom died because of a disease…there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop it. Eric died because of mental illness and it left me questioning what I could have done to save him. It was just different. Harder. More traumatic.
I always wondered what it would be like to say goodbye to a parent and/or a sibling…forever. My husband, Bryant, lost his brother Chris when Bryant was 17 and Chris was 27. I would ask him what it was like – how unbearable was it? How badly does he miss him now? Does his heart always ache? And Bryant would always share that yes, sometimes it does hurt so badly it takes your breath away, but that Jesus’s grace somehow covers the pain and gives you the strength to keep living…and living well. But I have to tell you, this grace is learned…
Do you remember when Kobe Bryant died? I was absolutely crushed…and not because I was a die-hard Kobe Bryant fan, but because I was entering into the pain of his wife and daughters. I kept thinking, “Why did they let him on that helicopter? Wasn’t it obviously foggy?” I tried to imagine what his last few hours with his family were like. I agonized over his death and the events leading up to his death. I worried whether Kobe and his daughter and the others experienced fear or any pain in their final moments. And then one evening, I just fell in a heap on the floor and wept. As I wept, I started talking about my brother and all I wished I could have done to prevent his suicide. And then it clicked: Yes, I was heartbroken over Kobe’s death…but I had been ignoring my grief over my brother and it needed to escape. Kobe’s death was it’s escape.
I was terrified of my grief. I had seen it as a wave that threatened to overtake me. I was afraid that if I gave in and felt, I’d be completely overwhelmed and unable to process or to function. And so for a good several months, I kept it all at bay. But that evening, as I sat on the floor sobbing, almost unable to breath, I realized that what I was doing wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t truly living because in order not to feel any grief, I had to also numb myself to feeling joy, happiness, peace. We can’t pick and choose what emotions we feel. We are either feeling all of them, or none of them. It’s funny because now when I look back, I remember Bryant being concerned that I had gone numb – that I wasn’t completely myself and unwilling to truly feel. I wasn’t able to fully engage with my family because I had to keep myself somewhat removed from every situation to keep myself isolated from emotion. From feeling.
And I wonder how many of you can relate? You’ve walked through a season of loss and you are terrified to process this loss…You feel like you don’t have the strength, the energy, the ability, the stamina to approach the grief. And so you’ve turned off your emotions like you turn off a faucet, because you know how finicky grief is and how it can be triggered by not only sadness, but also happiness. You are a shell of a person and your family misses you. But what other choice do you have?
I can promise you that stuffed emotions will ultimately erupt…and it won’t be pretty. It will be at the least opportune time in often uncontrollable and destructive ways. Stuffed emotions can make you anxious, depressed, suicidal, angry, self-sabotaging, self-medicating, addictive, and on and on the list goes.
So, here’s what I have done: I’ve learned how to surf. I don’t ride literal waves, but I have learned how to surf the waves of my emotions. I’ve allowed myself to feel. I’ve embraced the grief so that I can embrace the happiness and joy. If a song comes on that reminds me of my brother, I don’t turn it off, I don’t distance myself from the memories, I don’t stuff the sadness. I feel. I let myself be sad. I cry. I talk about it with my husband and close friends if need be. I enter into the emotion and ride the wave. If I embrace it and don’t fight it, it will pass and pass quickly. As I allow myself to feel in the moment, I reduce the intensity of the next wave of grief. But if I try to fight it and go against the waves, I exhaust myself and get beat up by the emotion. The grief is in control and I succumb to the violence.
I’m also learning to allow myself to enjoy the happy memories. Yes, they can at times highlight the ache and the pain of forever, but they also allow me to keep that person close. And laugh. We need to laugh.
So, is it time for you to pick up that surfboard and ride the waves? Your loved one is with you in your heart. You can feel the pain because the grief is the best reminder of the love. Embrace the sadness, don’t fight it, and then you will have the strength to appreciate the joyful moments.