How To Grieve

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” 

-J.K. Rowling

 

I have been to the doctor a dozen times since the first time my heart broke in two. Lab tests and ultrasounds relentlessly search for the hint of anything wrong—my thyroid and hormone levels gone wacky; that pesty little cyst that took up residence inside of me.

 

With accuracy, my doctor can describe the state of my physical health. A crushed soul, leaking from pain, remains hidden from every diagnostic. 

 

That pain is called grief. Grief is that companion you never wanted. After you lose something you deeply love, it is like that annoying childhood cousin at a family picnic--everywhere you turn, he is there.  He sneaks into bed with you at night and jumps in the shower with you in the morning. On your drive to work, he sits in the passenger seat, playing with your radio knobs until he finds every sad song that will make you cry.

 

We often think we only grieve the loss of a person. Actually, we grieve the loss of anything we loved deeply.

A dream.

A job.

A home.

A marriage.

A relationship.

A pregnancy.

Health.

Feeling of security.

Financial stability.

Youth and beauty.

 

If any loss feels like it crushed a part of who we are, then we must learn how to grieve its departure and arise from it strong and healthy.

 

I know what grief looks like. In the beginning it is quite obvious. We wear it, daily, on the outside.

Puffy eyes.

Cheeks stained red from salty tears that burn the skin.

Wet pillow cases as you lay curled up in bed.

Empty ice cream containers consumed in an attempt to numb the pain.

Hollowness in your eyes from staring too long at the distant horizon—hoping something you love may just reappear.

 

Months pass, and then it is nearly impossible to find the external marks of grief even when the internal bleeding continues. Our one-time companions in our grief, along with their sympathy and condolences, move on. They no longer remember that relentless cousin riding piggy back on your life. You, however, feel its weight daily.

 

You start to worry: “Shouldn’t I be over this by now? I must be crazy or weak.”

 

One day you rise determined to move on. The following day, resolve wanes and you start to fear. How can you live without something you treasured so much? If you allow yourself to heal, it might completely disappear.

 

As a culture, we are obsessed with being one of the strong souls. When the process seems too long and painful, we bury it deep. Every attempt is made to move on quickly so we can be the stable pillar for our family and work place.  No one, including ourselves, knows what to do with that cousin that uninvitingly pops in at the most inconvenient moments. And believe me! No one wants to see you ugly cry.

Photo courtesy Nick Puccini's facetime chat

Photo courtesy Nick Puccini's facetime chat

 

We bury the pain and believe that once it is hidden under a pile of dirt, we can move on.

 

Our sadness may have been successfully buried, but it was never buried dead. It remains alive underground, and one day will emerge.

 

It can emerge years later as anger, depression, avoidance of intimacy, cowardice, anxiety, the inability to be vulnerable, or a complete lack of direction and purpose. 

 

We can’t bury our cousin alive. We must learn to live with that rascal. Wrestle with it. Talk to it. Heal.

 

Brene Brown, well respected psychological researcher, wrote this:

"Our silence about grief serves no one. We can’t heal if we can’t grieve; we can’t forgive if we can’t grieve. We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend. C. S. Lewis wrote, 'No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.' We can’t rise strong when we’re on the run."

 

Four years ago, at a low point in my depression {you can read more about my journey with depression here}, my husband’s life coach sat at our long, wooden dining table in Tallinn, Estonia. He asked me a simple question.

 

“Olivia. What things have you lost in life that you really cared about? I’ve heard it said that depression is often a result of unresolved grief.”

 

That day started my own personal journey. I realized I had a habit of toughening up and powering through loss. It seemed natural to grieve during the loss of my wonderful Grandma Grace. Now I am in the process of grieving other things I always deemed too simple to get emotional about. 

 

There is the loss of what I always thought my life would be {even though what I currently have is good; I still need to acknowledge that I loved the other dream too}.

The loss of my ability to perform.

The loss of education dreams.

The loss of beauty as I age.

The loss of some freedoms.

 

I can hear some of you already advising me to not get hung up on grieving such shallow things.

 

I agree with you, but I can no longer bury the truth. The truth is…for some reason, to me--they mattered. I must learn to say goodbye and accept they are gone, because everything within me wants to finally mend.

 

Six months ago, I scheduled a skype appointment with one of my favorite people on the planet--my therapist in Akron, Ohio, USA. It felt as if grief filled every corner of my mind and heart’s limited free space. That unrelenting cousin had made me so incredibly tired.

 

She advised me: "In counseling, we are taught that there are five steps in the grieving process. They don’t have to be experienced in order, and some don’t even experience them all, but it will help you understand the journey.

 

  • Denial: This cannot be happening to me.

  • Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?

  • Bargaining: Please make this not happen, and in return I will ______.

  • Depression: I am too sad to do anything.

  • Acceptance: I am at peace with what happened.

 

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it is helpful to know that your reaction is natural and that you will heal with time. On average, they say this takes about two years; but differs from person to person.

 

Don’t hold it in. There is nothing wrong with letting yourself feel these emotions. It is also important you process them with someone you trust--preferably someone who has also experienced grief. Little by little you move from thinking about it every second of every day, to a few times a day, and then one day you will wake up and notice that some days go by when you don’t think about it all. You are healing, but slowly. Don't give up hope. The end of grief will come.”

 

I guess our soul is not that different from our bodies after all.

 

Eighteen months ago, I jumped off a wooden box at Crossfit. I landed with all of my weight on my right ankle, twisted towards the floor. I felt a crack resonate through my tendons so loudly that our trainer even heard it. I remember crawling to the box, writhing in pain and tearless {I had to appear strong somehow}.

 

The ER doctor confirmed via Xrays that it was a very bad sprain. I begged him to let me get back to exercise in a few weeks. He looked at me, clicked his tongue, and replied in a thick Russian accent.

“Weeks? This is a bad one. I say months.”

 

I was determined that I could heal quicker. Within three days, my stubborn soul was back at Crossfit; pushing myself to do as much as I could. I secretly gained pride when my classmates “ooed and awed” as I removed my ankle brace to reveal my new natural sock consisting of black and purple bruises. I was one of the strong ones.

 

I kept exercising, but I was not healed. When I tried to run or jump, pain would shoot through my ankle. Months passed, and although no one could see the pain, it felt like my muscles were still limping on the inside. I started to believe that the pain would never go away. I had lost the health of that ankle; true recovery was not possible.

 

Finally I stopped fighting my inner ego and injury. I allowed myself to start the process of recovery. My sports therapist gave me exercises. Weekly visits to hot yoga allowed me to stretch the ankle to its max in deep heat.

 

One day, nearly nine months after the accident, without even really noticing it, the limp was gone.

 

The pain has disappeared, but the ankle is forever changed. It does not forget that it endured an incredibly painful tendon rupture and loss. When there is a sudden change in weather or humidity, that ankle starts to swell with a muted inner pain.

 

No matter how strong or stubborn I try to be, I still have a fear of those stupid wooden boxes at Crossfit. I’ve made myself learn to jump them again, but some days are better than others. Last week, I went to jump, felt the fear grip me, and landed square on the hard wooden edges with my shins. Bruises returned as a sign that I still bear a scar of fear.

 

When we surrender to the process of healing, our souls can learn to dance again. They may never be completely the same. On certain days, it may just have to be good enough to feel a little bit of the pain and dance with a limp. But we will dance.

 

I have my own personal “Liv Theory” that has not been researched or verified. It is this: one of the final signs of healing from grief is the ability to dream again.

 

We finally start to envision the possible future without that person.

We let go of our old goals, and begin to plan real adventures we can still accomplish with the life and circumstances we currently have.

We dream that maybe, just maybe, we can find a friendship or love that wonderful once more.

 

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love  and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. – C.S. Lewis

 

We were given the awesome privilege to love someone or something. We still miss them like crazy, but instead of growing into a hard fossil that once knew life, we allow ourselves to experience grief.

We acknowledge the love and pain.

We let go of all guilt.

We forgive ourselves.

We wrestle that steering wheel out of the greasy hands of that cousin, turn the radio to an upbeat song that makes us softly smile, and drive into a future that is both beautiful and bittersweet.

Photo courtesy of Heather Edwards - Book:  Bittersweet  by Shauna Niequest

Photo courtesy of Heather Edwards - Book: Bittersweet by Shauna Niequest

*********************************************************  Liv's Bonus Tips for Grief

  • Tip #1: The Healer of the Heart

I love the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, 

The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” 

Although I am still in the process of grieving some things, I am sure of one thing: I would never want to walk through this process without God.

Why do I need God? We have doctors who heal our bodies, but who can heal the inner person? God is the one healer of the true heart and soul--teaching me to mend, regain innocence and truly forgive the unforgivable.

I feel Him whisper to my spirit: Just keep your eyes on me. See me. I know what you feel. I hurt with you, and I will lead you home.

So, simply, every day I choose to see Him and hold on to His love above all else.

If you don’t believe in God, perhaps saying the above just discounted all the great things I wrote before. Let me explain. You can read why I believe something so unbelievable HERE.

  • Tip #2:

Complicated Grief

Sometimes you try everything, give time for healing, but still are so overcome with sadness. This is called "complicated grief," and may require some outside help to overcome. If you have been living with sadness far too long and it inhibits your life, please see your doctor or a mental health professional. Your life is worth living, and you must be able to dream again. Here is an article by one of America's best hospitals, the Mayo Clinic, about the symptoms of complicated grief. 

 

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Seven Steps to Overcoming Regret?

There is nothing like the pit you feel in your stomach when you barely miss something.

There was the time when I ran from one corner of the enormous Chicago O’Hare airport to the other. My heavy carry-on bag bruised my side, as it bounced repeatedly against my ribs for my nearly mile-long jaunt to catch my next plane. As I ran, I pulled off my coat and striped scarf that were collecting a pool of sweat- not the companion I wanted for my upcoming transatlantic flight. At least I hoped my heavy breathing and disheveled hair would gain me some sort of sympathy from the airline’s gate agent.

“Sorry. The aircraft door was just closed.”  The agent spoke matter-of-factly; all of her sympathy had disappeared years ago. She did not even attempt to be kind.

“But…but I can see the plane sitting right there. My other flight arrived late. Is there any way I can still get on?” I soon learned that once an aircraft’s door is closed, it is bound by an oath to remain shut until it reaches its next destination. And I was left- alone, sweaty and completely disappointed.

I just felt that same disappointment a few days ago. Nick and I were invited to a weekend get-away for Estonian pastors on the island of Saaremaa. We had looked at the ferry timetable, and thought we were arriving 20 minutes early. Our hearts sank when we approached the terminal to see the ferry just pull away from the dock. So, I sat in our car and waited for an hour with the icy sea and island firmly in view. And, with nothing left to once again fill the pit in my stomach, I decided to take my computer out, sit in my heated seat, and write a blog about something we all experience.

Regret.

There are the small regrets. For instance, I regret that I never took dance lessons when I was young. And since I love dancing so much, I regret that we did not have a nice meal and dance at our wedding. I would have loved a final tear-filled dance with my dad, dressed in his tuxedo. I could have treasured the memory of leaning my forehead against Nick’s, as we swayed amidst the onlookers, and started our new life together.   

The small regrets are disappointing yet easy to let go - like the missing of a ferry, plane, or a dance in white.  But the looming large regrets truly haunt you. These are the regrets that you never imagined possible as you embarked on your adult life as a hopeful, energetic  teenager.

The last week has not been my best. Despite my greatest attempts (and all my usual remedies), I’ve been pretty low as I’ve been letting regret and hopelessness fill my thoughts. There is nothing more lonely or miserable than recognizing your problem and, at the same instant, realizing you truly have no understanding on how to overcome it. So, I thought and remained silent. My sleep has been broken. I’ve prayed for God to somehow take all the regret away. I’ve pleaded for a change of heart – that I can be grateful heart for everything I have. But, with each passing day, the regret deepened.

I was 17 years old when I finished high school, and my parents held a party on my graduation day. I remember sitting on the porch of their Victorian home as I said goodbye to those who had loved me all my life. Tonight I was reminded of that day and my teenage, starry-eyed self. As a part of our nightly routine, I grabbed a book off the bookshelf to read to Ava and found a forgotten one that I had not read in years. It was a gift I received on that graduation day- May 26, 1996. I opened the cover to find my dad’s secretary’s writing as she reminded me of the great future I had ahead of me.

Dr. Seuss’

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

– a book vibrant in color and rhyme.

The book begins: 

“Congratulations!

Today is your day.

You’re off to Great Places!

You’re off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

Any direction you choose.

You’re on your own. And you know what you know.

And You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.

You’ll look up and down streets,

Look ‘em over with care.

About some you will say, ‘I don’t choose to go there.’

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,

You’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

But what happens when we realize we were too scared to travel the road that was meant for us? 

How do we reconcile the fact that we were too young to truly know ourselves and we chose the road we “should” have gone down instead of the road we “dreamed” of walking?

I am well acquainted with depression. I’ve seen it in my family and I’ve seen it in myself. It is an uninvited companion that likes to stay around. It changes every aspect of your life. You wake up with the wish you could disappear rather than roll out of your warm bed and into a dreaded day. Every color suddenly takes on a pale hue. You dream of doing the unimaginable – just leaving it all.

A wise counselor once told me that many people fall into depression when they never allow themselves to truly mourn the loss of a dream. The regret festers inside until it spills out in despondent sadness.

I have done that. I have allowed that. I am tired of having someone comment every single year about a sadness in my eyes.

I wish I could get up on my blogosphere pedestal and give you seven succinct steps on how to let go of those deep-seeded regrets.

I just can’t. I don’t have the answers, but I know that I am determined to try:

  • To be thankful for everything I have. There is character, beauty and strength to be found in the wrong turns of life. I will spend a few moments, laying in bed each night, recounting all the good (and I have a lot to be thankful for).

  • To let myself mourn the opportunities lost. I can spend a few nights listening to a dramatic song, praying and soaking my pillow case with a few tears. There is something truly sad about unmet dreams. There is a loss – time and opportunities we cannot get back. But then…

  • I focus on the dreams and the opportunities of the future. No matter how bleak and few our options may be, there is always a way to pursue a vision of who we are meant to be.

  • I will allow no room for excuses. There is only room for hope, discipline, hard work, and the joy of seeing a dream materialize ever so slowly; brick by brick.

  • And when I undoubtedly have a low day in the midst of the process, I will return to my God who says:

“I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen. When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed. God’s Decree. I’ll turn things around for you.” Jeremiah 29 – The Bible

Different, new, slightly altered (and possibly slightly better) dreams lie ahead of us after we emerge from the valley of regret. And there is no better way to summarize the journey than to finish with the words of the brilliant Dr. Seuss:

“Oh the places you’ll go!  There is fun to be done!

There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.

And the magical things you can do with that ball

Will make you the winning-est winner of all.

Fame!

You’ll be famous as famous can be,

With the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t.

Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that

some

times

You’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win

‘cause you’ll play against you. […]

But on you will go

Though the weather be foul.

On you will go

Though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

Though the Hakken Kraks howl.

Onward up many

A frightening creek,

Though your arms may get sore

And your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

And face up to your problems

Whatever they are. […]

And will you succeed?

Yes!  You will, indeed!

(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)

So…

Be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray

Or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,

You’re off to great places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So…

get on your way!”

            ****

I would love to hear your stories and tips of how you overcome regret!  Comment or e-mail me at nopuccini2(at)gmail.com.

The Counseling Sessions Part 1: "Stop shoulding on yourself and quit..."

“Stop

shoulding

on yourself and quit

musterbating

.”

I have been in counseling four times during my 36 year life-span. But, I had never heard those words from a counselor’s mouth before.

Nick and I sat on the couch across from our counselor – her feet resting on a stool. Her room was decorated with all sorts of silk flowers and deeply wise sayings

deemed worthy enough to frame and hang on the office walls.

We looked at each other and laughed as this petite Christian counselor gave us the sage advice we had flown half-way around the planet for.

“Seriously. Stop shoulding on yourself and quit musterbating. Remove the words ‘should’ and ‘must’ from your vocabulary.”

I guess I always saw "should" and "must" as good words. Words, that when repeated enough within our inner psyche, whip our lazy selves into shape and into some worthy action or discipline.

I’m sure there are times when these words have made me do something noble, but at what cost?

At the root of these words is a deep foundation of guilt and failure– that we are not good enough, that we should be different; that if we were the desired version of ourselves, these good deeds would flow from us automatically.

Although doing things out of guilt works for a while, eventually it leaves us gasping for some sort of freedom.

My entire life, I’ve had to fight hard to keep in a healthy weight range for my body. I have a lot of things going against me. Genetically, I am full and curvy. I have a slow thyroid. I have something called PCOS that has a side-effect of being overweight.

I’ve eaten healthy since I was 14. I’ve exercised, without fail, 3 – 6 times a week since I was a teenager. And all of that is barely enough to keep my weight within normal range. My life has been chocked full of inner voices that tell me what I should not eat or what I must do to get my weight under control.

The more I

should

on myself in regard to my eating, the more it produces the opposite of the desired reaction. I successfully finish 5 days of pure eating that I can be proud of, and then comes the binge day. All of the guilt and mental deprivation I have given myself eventually escapes in one wild fury of spoon to ice cream container – not even really enjoying or savoring the taste of each bite. Rather, I am drowning my guilt in an explosion of “freedom.”

A freedom that actually leaves me feeling horrible.

But, the opposite happens when I diet or exercise because I value the results. Rather than seeing it as a punishment I have to bear due to bad genetics, I eat healthy because I

choose

to believe that I am worth it, my future is worth it, and my kids are worth it. And miraculously, when I am motivated by this truth, I can approach the same container of ice cream with a small spoonful and the decision that my health is more than the temporary rush. I don’t feel like this is deprivation, but rather a gift to myself and future.

Dieting is an easy example. But, what happens when we should ourselves in the crucial areas of life?

I really should be this for my husband.

I must be a stay-at-home mom for my kids.

I should really try to be her good friend, even though we don’t click.

I should be further along in life by now – more influential, higher salary, more respected.

I must help them. If I don’t, no one else will.

True. There are some good statements listed above that are honorable – but only if done from a heart of true love and out of a well spring of who you were truly created to be.

Anything else is a fake. Just fake. Good works done out of a wretched heart.

People always sense fake.

People are always drawn to things done out of true love.

People run away from those they sense are not truly confident in who they are.

But, we are all drawn towards those who are completely secure in who they

are

and are

not

, and approach life with a humility and ease.

Free yourself. If you’re not the one who was meant to do, or be something that you “should” or “must” be, God created someone else in this world who is.

You were made to be you. They were made to be them. We are most valuable to others, to the world, and to God’s overall plan when we finally lay aside the heavy burden of guilt we have carried for so long, and just be ourselves.

Imperfect but accepting. Confident yet humble.

Others, who surround you and even love you, will also try to “should” on you. They may even have their own grown-up version of a crying, crazy-haired, feet-stamping tantrum; demanding that you become something they need or want. And in love,

always

in a spirit of love, we have to kindly turn, walk away, and be true to ourselves- the person God created us to be.  That is all He ever asked of us.  

Every night, I read a few books to my kids and watch them fall asleep. As I take one last chance to kiss their warm, calm cheeks I whisper a prayer.

God, help them to grow up to be confident, completely humble, and in love with You.

I don’t want them to live lives filled with shame,

or doubt,

or obligations.

Children, just be the complete beauty you were created to be. But be careful! Never find yourself staring in the mirror and admiring your own creation. May you always know where your true gifts originated. Love God, and He will teach you how to truly love others and the plan He made for you.

Big O and Little A, you were never made to remain seated in a messy pool of your own stinky “shoulds” and “musts.”

And neither were

you.

***

This is the first post in a series of posts entitled "The Counseling Sessions."  I have learned so many excellent life lessons and skills through my times in a therapist's office that have changed me.  In my opinion, acknowledging the need for help is always a badge of courage; a hope that we truly are meant to be better.  Perhaps something I've learned along the way can help spur you on as well.***