A Year in review: 3 Valuable things I learned about life during my grief journey
a year in review
I never expected for my life to change last summer.
Last year on the fourth of July, my husband and I packed our bags, hopped on the first morning flight available and rushed down to North Carolina to be with my mother. Although the doctors sent her home on hospice just a couple days before our arrival, we went down there with every intention to pray, stand in faith as a family and watch God work a miracle.
I never prepared myself for what happened on July 9, 2015. The morning started off with prayers, hope and loads of faith for my mother’s healing. But before sunset, I stood around my mother’s bed with my family and watched her exhale for the final time. Life as we once knew it had changed forever.
Since that moment, I’ve embarked on this new journey in my life. To say the road is hard is an understatement. Milestones, birthdays and the holiday season reopen the wound all over again. One that has yet to partially heal.
Maybe you’re traveling down this road with me. Or maybe you haven’t experienced a personal loss but you’re experiencing a life transition that has deeply impacted your life. Regardless of your transition or where you are in your journey, below you'll find three life lessons I’ve learned over the past year that can apply to grief, loss or change in general.
My Lesson on People:
Don’t Place Unknown Expectations on Others
Grief makes people uncomfortable, and everyone reacts to it differently. I’ve never been uncomfortable sitting with someone in grief but a lot people aren't wired that way. Some people honestly don’t know what to say or what to do so avoidance becomes their solution, while others really just want to fall back and give you your space, placing the ball in your court whenever you are ready to talk.
As a strong, independent person, reaching out to people to say “ I need help” didn’t come naturally to me. One of my girlfriends pointed out that even if people didn’t call me they were still there for me and would respond in a heartbeat if I needed something. Based on how I supported others during their hard times, I initially thought, why should I have to reach out to people? They should just be there. My expectations weren’t high. I never expected for people to call or check on me every day. I just expected people to show up in the way I had for others, but in retrospect, it was unfair for me to expect people to meet my expectations if they didn’t know what I needed.
The Fact: People move on with their lives as you continue to deal with your loss. It’s not because those people don’t care, but their world moves on as usual and your life has changed. People want to respect your space, and sometimes you just have to express what you need instead of assuming that people know. This is not giving a pass to those who abandon you but to give grace to those who want to support you but may not know how.
I eventually made a decision that I would not place expectations on anyone, so if people called or didn’t call, I stopped dwelling on it. It wasn’t always easy to do at first, but over time I realized I didn’t want to harbor resentment when I had too many other things to deal with. Why make the journey any harder?
I decided not to let people’s action dictate how I would get through my grief journey. I identified several people who could sit with me in my grief (honestly, that’s all you need). I learned to extend grace to others and to appreciate those who showed up, and I realized that people will show up in their own way. It doesn’t have to be identical to mine.
And at the perfect time— on the days I needed it most —it always seemed like I received a phone call, a card in the mail or a text message with a scripture or just someone letting me know “I’m thinking of you today. Praying for you.” You know what else I learned? My girlfriend was absolutely right. When I did reach out, people were there right away, ready and willing to help in any way they could.
Losing a loved one or going through any life-changing event forces you to enter into a new season in life. Focus on fostering the positive relationships with those who are willing to walk through the rain with you, because those are the people you want standing beside you when the storm clouds break.
My Lesson on Self-Care:
Know Your Limitations
I remember a month after I returned home, my husband wanted to go to a friend’s birthday party. I was initially hesitant about the invitation. I had a feeling I wasn’t in a place where I even wanted to be around a crowd of people, whether I knew them or not, but I decided to give it a chance.
It was a beautiful summer night in Chicago. The scenery downtown was amazing. We dressed up since it was our first time going out in a while, and we prepared to enjoy the night out. However, as the night went on and everyone around me laughed and played games, I struggled.
Certain songs that came on the radio reminded me of my mom, and I held back tears unable to focus and really enjoy myself. Only a couple of people there knew me, so the majority had no clue what I had gone through. The introvert in me can find it exhausting to engage with a lot of people at social events on a regular day (as I prefer intimate settings and recharge during alone time), so add that factor on top of grief and it was not an easy night! I realized my gut instinct was right. It was too soon for me to attend the event, and the overused phrase “fake it until you make it” really doesn’t apply to certain situations. Sometimes, you just don’t have the energy.
That night taught me a lesson moving forward. If I was up to going out or attending a social event, I went. If not, I just told people I couldn’t make it. And if I felt up to it at first and later found myself sad or in tears (because those moments happen at the oddest times), it was okay. I preferred being around people who knew what I was going through for that reason. If you’re the opposite and prefer hanging around big groups, including those who don’t know your situation, just know that you don’t have to apologize or feel bad when those unexpected moments happen. It's part of the process.
The bottom line is you have to make yourself a priority while adjusting to a new life, and that may mean clearing out your social calendar temporarily or being selective of how and who you spend your time with. Don’t overextend or commit yourself to too many things. The last thing you want to do is spread yourself too thin. Be present where you are right now. Don’t force yourself to wear a façade for the sake of others. I’ve learned to be honest with myself and the people around me about what I want and need in that moment. Give yourself permission to take it day-by-day.
My Lesson on Faith:
Trust God through the Process
This lesson might state the obvious to some. Of course we should trust that God will see us through, but to be 100 percent honest, I struggled. This was the biggest lesson for me to learn. While the death of my mother drew my father, sister and brother closer to God, it pushed me away. I became angry. Discouraged. Frustrated. Disconnected.
My mother was the strongest Christian I’d ever known. Period. Throughout her entire battle with cancer, she only spoke of God’s goodness. Even on her challenging days, she still spoke in faith and praised God for everything. Small things. The things we take for granted every day, like being able to go out and enjoy a movie without feeling tired. She taught our family about faith in trying times. Her faith inspired me to believe.
After losing a friend to cancer in 2012 and watching my husband’s closest cousin/best friend transition from a rare form of kidney cancer the following year (at the young age of 29), we were fed up with dealing with the disease back-to-back. (I had also lost one of my grandmothers and my grandfather to cancer previously). My husband and I stood in faith at the end of 2013 and declared that sickness and disease would not touch our family in the coming years — but in August 2014, we found ourselves staring sickness in the face again when the doctors diagnosed my mother with Stage IV colon cancer six weeks before our wedding.
Still, I knew that this time would be different. Even when things suddenly took a turn for the worst, I still believed God would perform a miracle that many viewed as impossible, and she would live to share her testimony with the world. Stage IV was not too hard for God. My mother would be a living witness. No one could tell me differently. Needless to say, I was devastated when she passed. Why did I have to go through this again? This was my mother. My confidant. My mentor. My friend. My spiritual counselor, whom I talked to every day. How could she be gone??
After spending 11 months with my faith at an all-time high, my faith crashed and took a major hit. I remember the evening of her passing, my husband wanted to pray with me, “praise God in the midst of the storm,” he told me. In my mind, we had prayed fervently all week, and frankly I was prayed out. So I shook my head and told him, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” In all actuality, I could have chosen at that moment to praise God like my husband did. I just didn’t want to.
I had an even harder time reading the Bible. My mother was notorious for writing scriptures down on index cards and placing them around the house, so when she was diagnosed, my mom and dad posted scriptures everywhere — on the mirrors, the refrigerator, dressers and any other visible place. During her final days, my dad hung all of those index cards on the wall in the back room where she slept, and we each took turns reading them to her.
Shortly after she passed, I walked into that same room one night and just stared at the wall, which was still plastered with her favorite scriptures. Many of them I knew by heart since we had confessed them over her health on a daily basis during her fight. As I stood in the middle of the empty room and looked at those same scriptures in the aftermath, the previous hope I felt was gone. My mind screamed none of this had worked. I eventually walked over to the wall and snatched each card off one by one, the whole time wondering, what was all this for? What was the point?
Over the following months, I found it hard to pray and talk to God. I felt too weary to read the Bible, and when I did make it to church, it was difficult to listen — my mind too preoccupied with my own “ buts” and “ whys” to stay focused on the message and second-guessing everything I heard.
One Sunday morning, I felt a strong urge to go to Lifechangers church, my home church at the time. When I walked into service, Pastor Gregory Dickow was speaking about the power of healing and specifically requested prayer for people diagnosed with cancer.
Really God? I almost asked out loud as I watched people stand up for prayer. The doubts and whys bombarded my mind before I could even make it down the aisle to my seat. As service continued, Pastor Dickow began preaching on faith. “Jesus is praying for you,” he told us. The scripture that flashed across the screen immediately caught my eye.
Luke 22: 31-32: Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you. I have prayed that your faith will be strong and that you will not give up. When you return, you must help to make your brothers strong.
Jesus is praying for me. I stared at the screen for several minutes in a trance, mesmerized by the words in front of me. Surely I had heard that scripture before, but not in the way I heard it on that Sunday. There was so much in that scripture that began to speak to me. The enemy wants me to lose my faith. Jesus is praying that I hold on. Don’t give up. Get through this to help others. That scripture stayed on my mind all day and night, the next day, and the weeks after until it eventually found its way into my heart and my spirit.
Trusting God throughout the process, especially when you have so many unanswered questions is not easy. I eventually learned that instead of finding comfort in knowing why God allowed this to happen, I needed to find comfort in who He was — a comforter, and yes, still a healer. I still don’t know why this happened. I just need to trust and believe something good will come from this.
Even when we feel like things won't turn around, we can choose to believe they will improve one day. Having faith that a situation will get better is not a decision based on how we feel today or tomorrow. It’s believing things will turn around no matter how we feel in that moment. Eventually my faith grew stronger and started taking precedence over my feelings. It’s a fight at times, but not one you have to go through alone.
As I continue to move forward in the healing process, I am constantly discovering something about God and myself as I rebuild my life and my faith. When I reflect on where I was a year ago, I'm grateful for the progress I've made. I definitely don’t have it all together today, and I certainly haven't arrived to a place where everything is smooth sailing. I have a long way to go on this journey. There’s still a lot of sadness and hurt, but I’m thankful that God’s love reaches down to lowly and dark places to mend broken hearts. I've learned to place my shattered pieces in His hands in the process, and I trust that He will use them to create something new.