Everyone must deal with grief in his or her own way, but because of all that I have been through, I can offer some ideas for surviving—and even thriving—after great loss.
In the space of a decade, I lost several members of my family, including my husband, brother and son. Some days it felt like a battering ram of grief was aimed directly at my gut; others, like I was a bowling pin, barely reset only to have another ball knock me down.
As a chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, with years of experience working with grieving families, I thought I should be able to handle this. But I couldn't—not without seeking help and spiritual reflection, as well as connecting to other people through a grief recovery group.
Coming back to life
Here are a few things that rejuvenated my soul and helped me find my way back to living fully again.
1. Read something positive every morning
It might be scriptures, poetry or just something funny, but I find that starting the day with positive input helps my perspective. Waiting until afternoon or night doesn’t have the same effect. Jump-starting the day with something energizing or inspiring helps me focus on what I have, not what I’ve lost. I end every reading session with a prayer for strength, and that seems to help, too.
2. Make some major changes
During my recovery, I had to take some time for myself and take care of myself. In my case that meant taking time off from a stressful job and admitting I could not continue working as a chaplain focused on people near the end of life and their loved ones. It meant learning to accept that occasional waves of tears were natural healing agents to be welcomed, not avoided. It meant there were days when I would lapse back into deep sadness. Eventually, I sought out professional counseling, which proved invaluable.
3. Find a grief recovery group that fits you
I stumbled upon the book The Grief Recovery Handbook by Russell Friedman and John W. James. First, I worked through the handbook’s method informally with a friend, then I trained at The Grief Recovery Institute with Russell Friedman to be a certified group facilitator. I began to offer an outreach program in groups at work and church. The method worked for me because it helped me look at all my life's losses, my patterns of dealing with them and the points at which I was getting stuck.
4. Find a recovery method you trust
Using the Grief Recovery Outreach Program method, I identified the relationship that was causing me the most emotional pain, and learned that I needed to complete any unfinished communications with that person in order to move on with my life.
I was able to make peace with the suicide of my brother partly by writing a letter to him that included all my pent-up feelings about our relationship and his death. Surrounded by the love and support of our group, I read the letter aloud and felt a remarkable wave of release and pure joy. I was finally able to disassociate from the pain of his suicide, and be thankful once more for his life.
5. Suspend disbelief
It helped me greatly to imagine that I would stay spiritually connected to those who "lift off," as my son Jonathan described his impending death. I noticed not long after my father died that when I was feeling dejected and missing him, a cardinal would fly over or pause on a branch above me. It happened so frequently I came to see cardinals as messengers from my father.
Jonathan knew about this and promised that, once he was gone, he would send a blue jay as his messenger of love and encouragement. (There are two blue jays playing in my birdbath this morning as I write this.)
6. Find fun again
During my grieving, I spent several months being a morose couch potato. That could have continued indefinitely, because people assumed I might not be ready. And they were often right. But I needed to get out, and I really appreciated the ones who let me invite myself to join in whatever they were doing. For example, I put myself “up for adoption” for the first Christmas after my husband died, and I had a lovely time in Birmingham, Alabama, with a best friend’s extended family.
7. Embrace life
C.S. Lewis wrote, "To grieve is to know you have loved and loved well." That is true, and grief is, as the Grief Recovery Handbook defines, "the normal reaction to loss." But living happy is, I would add, the normal reaction to life...one that is possible to achieve even during times of grief. One graduate of the grief group said it perfectly, when we were all sharing our main takeaway from the program: "I learned that I didn't die—he did, and I want to live again! " I claimed his theory for my own, and life is good.