*Author’s Note: I know I’ll get flak for this article. In regard to divulging my past, I’m not rehashing it as a self-pitying exercise (please, don’t!), but as background to the main topic: handling loss. In regard to grief, I’m not presuming that my way of handling it will work for everyone who is handling a pain or loss. These are simply my words on how I handled my own grief, in hopes that my thought processes might provide some light to anyone needing it.
When tragedy strikes there’s inevitably a lot of guilt, confusion, regret, anger, sadness – almost every emotion imaginable – mixed up in the wake. Though this time of year isn’t, as the myth goes, the height of the depression season, it is about a new lease on life, whether you consider that through the birth of Jesus Christ or simply because the new year is just around the corner and you’ll be able to start fresh with a crisp, unmarked calendar.
New beginnings often require the acceptance of hard truths and the confession of past ills. Dirt can’t be washed away by ignoring it. It takes attention, scrubbing, and accepting it for what it is – dirt – in order to clean it up appropriately, whether that means using baking soda, bleach, or detergent, or all of the above.
Despite the joys of the season, the holidays bring to mind a season when I was feeling significantly crummy. It’s not something I speak of often, but neither do I want anyone to feel like I have an aversion to speaking about that difficult time. In fact, I believe my willingness to talk about the crumminess of that experience is the sole reason for my successful healing.
Hence, my confession:
It was the first time I’d chugged Sailor Jerry.
Yep. That’s right: the spiced rum. Chugged it. Quite deliberately straight from the bottle and quite a significant amount of it. No, this isn’t some aside about how alcohol = evil, but merely a description of how I tried to drown a hurt that I didn’t know how to manage.
It was 2007 – I was 25 years old – and it wasn’t four months prior that I’d relocated to Georgia (U.S.) with my then-husband of two years. This isn’t an ex-husband bashing, so I won’t describe the specifics of the situation, but things were pretty rotten and had been for a long while. Our marriage was marred with problems from the honeymoon on, problems I should have seen for what they were had I not been blinded by love. And that’s my fault.
Still, the holidays are supposed to be a joyful season, full of hope and love and togetherness, and on top of that we had moved to Georgia to start a new, happy life together. But, all I faced in that place was disdain, loneliness, rejection, and more emptiness than I ever have before.
I sought solace from various places – through my job, through exploration (granted, mostly by myself) of our new state of residence, through projects, through attempts at socializing, through efforts to join a nearby church – but none of it filled me. So, in my darkest hour, Jerry became my greatest friend.
Ironically enough, it was when I dragged myself up the stairs and sat on the floor of the master bathroom, in a near stupor, that I came to my senses. The picture cleared. My heart lifted. The anxiety in my spirit eased.
I picked myself up off the floor and stumbled into bed, a plan to retake my life firmly in mind.
More isn’t always better.
For months prior to my rum-soothed meltdown I’d been tapping resources like marital counselling books and websites and even calling on my buddies (and even the now-ex’s buddies) to get their input about what I should do. I’d inundated myself with gobs of information, as much information as I could muster, because more data means a more accurate answer, the RIGHT answer… right?
And what got me thinking about all this? An article by ChadCopyWriter, “How to Crush the Blank Page Every Time”. Of course, he’s writing for an audience of both professional and hobbyist writers, instructing our poor souls on how to overcome that fierce creature, Writer’s Block. But, in the article, Chad said the problem of writer’s block revolves around a curse that’s often confused for a blessing:
“There’s so much to know, and it’s so easy to access information. Anyone with a smartphone can access all the information known to man at any given moment.”
We suffer from information overindulgence.
We’re informationally obese. Our slightest curiosities, from how to make a gluten-free pizza to how many colors can a chameleon replicate, are tended to by a few keystrokes into our search engine of choice. No longer are we forced to practice patience and restraint, waiting diligently (and politely) for our turn to come… if it ever does.
We are that kid – yes, THAT spoiled child we all hate – who gets whatever sweet treat or toy his heart desires the instant he desires it.
I’ve caught myself victim of this blessing-masked curse many a time. Usually it’s as hubby and I are watching our DVR’ed shows and I find myself wondering something inconsequential, like “Where do giant octopuses live?” Or “How long has it been since Trix® first introduced their ‘limited time’ fruit shapes?”
And, then, inevitably, I pick up my smartphone and in a diligent search for the answer, much to the chagrin of my husband, who is forced (kind of) to pause the show until my curiosity is adequately quenched.
Ugh. So embarrassing. So pointless. So… STUPID.
The last header of Chad’s article, “Stop planning, start doing,” hit me deeply, not only because I’m a writer who has battled writer’s block many a time, but because I’ve applied that same philosophy to various occasions in my life, including that holiday season of 2007-2008.
“At some point you’ve got to stop getting theoretical and start getting practical. You have to learn by doing. Find the deep end and jump in with both feet. You don’t need to know how to win gold medals at the Olympics to dive into the pool, you just need to make sure your phone isn’t in your pocket and that you know how to stay afloat.”
The Great Debate: Information vs. Action
As I waded in my pool of self-pity on the cold tiles of my bathroom floor with my new buddy Jerry, I ended up telling myself what I’ve told others numerous times: “Stop crying. You’ve done that enough already. Time to DO something.”
As a novice Biblical scholar, I find scripture to be a helpful, if not primary, resource for answers. It’s comforting to know that God has imprinted his laws upon our hearts (Rom 2:15), whether we know the Bible’s words by heart or not. (I can say definitively that I am NOT a person who finds quoting verses easy!) I can’t count the number of times I’ve instinctively felt a certain way about something, only to be validated by a scripture I read later on, sometimes many months or years down the road.
In Exodus 14, Moses and the Israelites are being chased by Pharaoh and his army. Here is, in short, how it goes:
“5When word reached the king of Egypt that the Israelis were not planning to return to Egypt… Pharaoh and his staff became bold again… 6So Pharaoh led the chase in his chariot, followed by [600 of the best charioteers]. … 10As the Egyptian army approached… [The Israelis] were very frightened, and cried out to the Lord to help them.”(NLT)
Scary, right? Can you imagine having 601 charioteers hunting you and your family down? So, what did the Israelites do? What most people do when affronted with a serious problem: they cried.
The Comfort of Crying
I’m not going to reference all the medical papers published on the benefits of shedding tears. I’ll just assume you understand that humans have an innate need to weep, moan, cry, shout, scream, yell, thrash, wail, what have you, when we’re in deep despair.
There’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
However, there comes a point when you have to stop crying and start doing.
The Israelites had the right information. They knew (1) they were escaping slavery, (2) they were being pursued, and (3) as God’s chosen people, He would protect them.
So it makes sense that they “cried out to the Lord to help them.” He is, after all, their protector!
But, to what avail do they cry? As a Christian, I’m not saying there is no use or purpose or point to crying out to God, but have you ever wondered where the adage “God helps those who help themselves” comes from?
While it isn’t scripture, my guess is that that concept can be derived from the Exodus story.
The Comfort of Action
While the Israelites cried, God was no doubt listening to them. But, it surprised me to read what happened next. As Moses is standing there, telling his people that their God will come to their aid, that He’ll deliver them from the hands of the Egyptians, God finally can’t take it anymore and says to Moses:
“15Quit praying and get the people moving!”
That’s right: God essentially tells them “Stop whining and DO SOMETHING!”
To achieve healing, let the wound heal.
When someone gets a bad scrape or cut, what do we do? Clean it up best we can, patch what can be patched, and leave it alone.
Anyone who’s suffered a significant wound knows that healing itches. I got a pretty bloody 6”x6” (or bigger) scrape on the back of my thigh while hopping down from a slightly-too-tall-for-me stump this past summer. (Go figure it was the first day I’d worn shorts.) But, man, once that thing scabbed over the itching was hard to ignore.
This is where I think therapy and counseling make a huge mistake: they may want to keep scratching when what really is needed is for the cut to be left alone. While I have nothing against therapy or counseling in times of distress, because these have their merits, and believe that it is necessary to have someone trustworthy and knowledgeable to talk to aside from friends, I also strongly believe that the only way someone can complete the healing process is to leave the wound alone for a while.
Stop scratching it. Stop picking at it. Stop fretting over it and stop – STOP – fixating on it.
Ruminators vs Non-ruminators.
I’ve heard it said that divorce is like experiencing a death in the family. One grief counseling site says, “Divorce or separation can be as painful a shock as if the partner had died.”
For me, though we (thankfully) didn’t have children, it was like that… and I had to keep reliving the funeral every time I went back to “our” house to get more of my things, when we had meetings to discuss division of property, when we met, lawyers in tow, to finalize the deed, and even two years later when I had to put my divorced last name on my tax forms because Uncle Sam was having a hard time understanding what had happened.
Psychologist J. William Worden, in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, states that
“People who ruminate… focus on their negative emotions without taking action to relieve these emotions. In the context of bereavement, this involves chronically and passively focusing on grief-related symptoms. … Ruminators focus on their loss presumably to find meaning and understanding, but research shows that they are less likely to find it than non-ruminators.”
I highlight “chronically”, “passively”, and “presumably” for the following reasons:
- Chronic means “persisting for a long time or constantly recurring.” Back to the scab illustration: if you keep picking at it, it’ll scar and exist FOREVER. You’ll never, ever get over it. So patch it up (take action) and leave it alone.
- Passively means “accepting or allowing without active response or resistance.” In other words, your grief will become HABITUAL. You may not even realize it’s there… and then you’ll wonder why your old friends don’t want to talk to you anymore. Answer: it’s because they’re tired of hearing about it.
- Presumably means “to suppose that something is the case.” Ruminators presume a more intense focus – i.e. a continued search for answers, data, and INFORMATION – is the right answer, the answer that leads to healing. WRONG. It isn’t.
Don’t build pain detours: take the bumpy road.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting hiding the pain, tucking it deep down, or repressing it. These “solutions” never result in healing! It’s like ignoring a deep cut: soon it’ll become infected, fester, and you’ll end up in the hospital worse off than you were to begin with.
My suggestion: take the bumpy road. Go down ALL those awful, horrible paths. Do the hard hurting, the sobbing, the really, really embarrassing whole-Kleenex-box kind of crying where you have snot and tears running down your face that you just can’t wipe up fast enough.
Facing the bumpy road takes guts. It’s really, REALLY hard.
You don’t understand? That’s okay.
Chad’s last sentence of wisdom:
“It doesn’t have to make sense at that moment in time, or ever.”
Nope. It doesn’t. In my situation, I found that the best way for me to heal was to stop looking for an answer to the “why” and “how”, and just accept that I didn’t need to know, that the answers I was looking for didn’t really make any difference to my current (or, rather, then) situation.
Worden further notes, at the top of page 77, that “mourning is finished when a person can reinvest his or her emotions into life and the living.”
Wounds, whatever they are – loss, confusion, separation, disappointment – do not define our existence. When we seek too many answers to life’s hard questions – like the why’s and how’s to difficult situations – sometimes we miss the biggest, most obvious answer, the answer we really need:
That WE are alive, important, and worth living for, even if we have to live a little differently to make it work.
Here’s to renewal by trekking the bumpy roads,