Grief has been a tremendous, unwelcome guest in most of my adult life. However, I am hoping that my pain can help to ease your just a little. Although dealing with grief is a personal journey that varies a greatly, our paths criss-cross a good bit. I hope my story helps you in some small way.
Do Not Assume Children Don’t Understand.
I was very young (about five) when my paternal grandfather died as a result of a heart attack when putting the boat in the water at Toledo Bend to go fishing. My brother and I were living with my grandparents during that time. The family arranged for some of my cousins and me to ride the bus from school to a family friend’s house. Once family members told us about Pawpaw, our little hearts broke. Services were in Baton Rouge. But the youngest of the grandchildren were not allowed to attend. We did not understand. We had no closure.
I believe families should handle the decision whether to allow children to go to services for a close family member on a case-by-case basis. However, I knew what was going on and the decision not to allow me to attend my grandfather’s funeral hurt me. Tears can be therapeutic. We should not attempt to control the grieving process for kids by shielding them from what is happening. Some kids understand more than we know. They also adjust quicker than we do, in most cases.
The Grieving Process is Different for Critical Illness.
When I was a senior in high school, doctors found a cancerous tumor on my mother’s thyroid gland. She had surgery to remove the tumor and thyroid on that side and had radiation therapy afterward. Months later, severe pain in her abdomen caused several trips to the Emergency Room. Eventually, with her medical history, the doctors decided to run further tests and found more cancer. The surgeon thought they “got it all” so they did not order radiation or chemotherapy. Within months, she was back in the hospital. This time, the surgeon merely closed her back up because the cancer was too widespread to remove. The oncologist called the family in to tell us that it was just a matter of time before it took her life.
I was pregnant (around five months) with my oldest son at the time, her first grandchild. My question to the doctor was “How long does she have?” He pointed at my distended belly and asked, “When are you due?” I told him, and he said that she would not live long enough to see the baby. To that, my feisty mother laughed out loud and told him, “Well you just hide and watch!”
Critical Illness Brings Healing of the Heart
The next few months were torture for all of us. It seemed like an eternity. She stayed with her mother in her childhood home. Her illness gave us all time to process what her death would bring and process bad feelings. It allowed time to handle legal matters. Even my father (they divorced years before) had a long talk with her and buried the hatchet. It was horrible to see this vibrant woman fade away.
My baby decided to grace us with his presence three weeks early. So, my mother not only lived to meet her grandson, but she visited us in the hospital and held him the day he was born. She died 2-1/2 weeks later. You think God knew what He was doing?
Guilt is Often the First Emotion When Grieving
When she passed, after a short time in a coma, I was nineteen. I had spent time talking to her while she was in the coma, at the urging of the hospice nurse. But the sight of her breathing erratically in her skin covered, skeleton-like frame haunted my dreams for years. On the drive home that night, I felt a tremendous relief, for which I immediately felt guilty. I knew she was in heaven with Jesus and she was breathtakingly beautiful and pain-free. But I didn’t know what to do with the guilt.
I still miss my mother, even though I have now lived more years without her than I did with her in my life. I missed her most during my pregnancies and when my kids were little. It is natural for a girl to want to ask her mama for advice. Her sister stood in her place for me for many years.
Another Lengthy Illness
Just a few years later, doctors diagnosed my father with cirrhosis of the liver caused by years of alcohol abuse and an undiagnosed case of hepatitis C. My grief started almost immediately with fear. I had no idea what to expect. The big strong cowboy they called “Coon” was weak, sick and very emotional. But after decades of alcoholism, he stopped drinking.
Jesus is Calling
He had been raised in the Baptist church but had no desire to go back. I believe he was angry at God. But the Pastor of my grandmother’s church, Kevin Hand, started visiting with my dad. At some point, he brought his guitar. You see, my father had once planned to go into music ministry. This pastor turned friend, spent weeks and months visiting, playing the guitar and singing with Daddy, first old country songs, then old Gospel hymns. God leading Kevin, through lots of prayer and counseling, brought Daddy back to church.
The Emotions Came Flooding Back
I hadn’t realized how hard my mother’s illness hit me until my dad got sick. That is the period of time I learned to stuff my feelings. I had two children and a husband at home. There was no time for heartbreak. Thankfully, I was active in my church at that time. God sustained me. Good friends propped me up. But I also learned that keeping the mind occupied put the emotions on the back burner. His death hit me hard. My daddy was my “give it to me straight” person. He didn’t mince words. I went to him when I was mad at my husband. Through even the years of alcohol abuse, I knew how much he loved me, and I loved my daddy.
All I wanted to do was sleep, and when I wasn’t sleeping, I was irritable and short. I didn’t clean the house or take care of the kids very well, even though I was a stay-at-home mom. I started eating emotionally and let myself go, not wearing makeup or bathing often. Someone convinced me to call my obstetrician, who put me on an anti-depressant after diagnosing me with post-partum depression. Thanks to a positive work environment (sales), God working through my church, books and Christian teaching and the medication, I finally started pulling out of the cloud that had surrounded me.
My World Turned Upside Down
In 2004, I was in the middle of a divorce and was living with my younger sister, Jennifer. She was six years younger than me and so much like our mother; smart, quick-witted, funny, silly and one of my very best friends. No matter how much we fought, we were sisters which made it okay. We infuriated each other but could not stay apart long.
She took her daughters with her to a friend’s camp in Mississippi. The adults were riding four-wheelers on the Homochitto River in Franklin County late into the night. There was a bridge closed to through-traffic due to erosion and the river changing course. Rather than truly barricade the bridge, they piled dirt where the bridge met the bank, and the residents rode bikes and ATVs over it all the time. As the third four-wheeler in their group went over the pile of dirt, the dirt gave way where the bridge didn’t reach the bank, and they fell about 50 foot. My sister and her boyfriend were on that bike. He yelled for her to jump off but she was scared and did not, and the bike landed on her on the rocky bank.
I was alone in my car when I got a call from Dave, a friend of my sister’s that went on that trip. He told me I needed to call the hospital since they would not give him any information about Jennifer. When I called for the doctor, his words to me were only, “She’s dead.” I was in a grocery store parking lot and fell apart, sobbing hysterically.
The Rest Was a Blur
My home was Jennifer’s house. Everything made me think of her. I slept with the nightshirt that smelled like her. The days and weeks after that kind of ran together in my mind. I spent hours crying. The memorial service and funeral were held at my church. I just went through the motions. I was just numb.
People advise others not to make big decisions after a traumatic event in their lives. I cannot stress this enough! Because after her death, I decided to leave my job with the State of Louisiana, up and move my children with me to Mississippi to live closer to my younger sister and put many miles between me and Collins, the man that had helped me through the nightmares that had been my life. Although I am happy I got closer, emotionally, to my youngest sister, it was one of the dumbest things I have ever done.
I Was So Angry with God
After years of my adult life spent in the church, serving, teaching and learning, I was unprepared for the sudden, tragic death of someone so close. I thought my sister was bulletproof. I was so angry at God and questioned Him regularly. The Bible is full of godly men and women who question God. David cried out to God so much in Psalms. We do not have to understand His reasoning to learn and grow through our grief. But I shut Him out. He could not help me if I pushed Hin away.
No Time Limit on Grief
After only six months in Mississippi, we moved back to Louisiana. It is obvious now, that my emotional state was unstable, to put it mildly. I was a wreck. My baby sister was gracious enough to let my oldest kids stay with her to finish the school year. I felt like a failure as a mother. My guilt, over first moving my kids to another state, and then leaving them with my sister, was tremendous. My soon-to-be-ex-husband and I fought terribly during the divorce. My younger son was stuck in the middle of all the fighting. I never made it easy for him. He was at such an impressionable age and probably felt abandoned by his mother. Grief only intensified all of those emotions.
My struggle with grief this time around took years to work through. In some cases, I think we learn to live differently and do not actually “get over it,” as some people suggest. We learn to function with a new normal. I wrote to Joyce Meyer Ministries (https://joycemeyer.org/) after a couple of years after watching one of her telecasts. Someone from her staff answered me through a heartfelt letter with one of her books and a DVD or CD. I don’t even remember which one. My takeaway was that there is no time limit on grief and there are no rules. I think I just needed to know that my feelings were normal. That letter was my first step of turning back to God and trusting Him with my emotions again.
No, Please, Not Again
And then, almost two years ago, it happened again. I found out that my younger brother committed suicide. You can read more about it in my post, Stupid Flood of 2016.
This time, I had to be stronger for my nieces and my children. God had prepared me to be the rock for them. He showed me how, through the hardest things I had ever endured, to point my loved ones right back to Him. He gave me His peace and joy, through the guilt and heartache. The difference this time is that I learned to lean on Him in my times of weakness. I know that no matter what happens, I can crawl into the lap of the Father and put my head on His shoulder as He holds me close and tells me that everything will be okay.