I've been thinking about what it was like to go through the process and what was helpful to my soul. I guess the question is - what would I recommend to someone who is grieving, no matter what stage they are at?
Before I list some thoughts, I should also say that everyone grieves differently and you may find that some of these items don't apply to your situation. However, I also think it's important to read different opinions and prayerfully consider what God may be telling you.
Here are some thoughts.
1. Spend time in God's word every day.
I had been in the habit of reading and praying in the mornings before Emily's death. After her death, it was so important for me to continue this. Usually it was the only time that I was completely alone. I could read and pray and cry. It forced me to see what God said in His Word and gave me time to express how I was feeling to Him. I also read several books through this process. Sometimes I'd only get through a few pages before I couldn't read any more but other books I read helped me to face up to what I really believed. See #5 for more details.
2. Listen to music that can express what my mouth cannot.
Music was such an important part of our grieving process. I remember standing in church while the congregation sang Blessed Be Your Name and other songs like it and saying to my husband that I was singing on the inside but I couldn't sing on the outside. We listened to Come Weary Saints and The Valley of Vision many times. Our girls had those two albums playing every night when they went to bed, particularly in the first 2 months when we were dealing with such fear about who the perpetrator was. Even now, our girls turn to those albums when they need extra comfort. Hymns were also important because of the truths they express both about our life in Christ and about our future hope. Have you ever noticed how often the 4th verse of a hymn points our attention to heaven?
For me, exercise was very important. Walking, going to the gym, running with friends - all got me out of the house and moving. By the time I got home, I was ready to tackle the day.
4. Grieve as you need to. Cry when you need to.
Everyone grieves differently and at a different pace. I found that after the first few months had passed, I wasn't crying as much or as often. But every once in a while, I needed a good cry. Sometimes a drive alone gave me time to listen to music, pray and weep as I needed to. Or a good walk - everyone finds what they need to find.
5. Read books that focus my attention on who God is. Feel free to argue with the books, to put them down when it is too overwhelming but pick them up again soon.
Spurgeon was so helpful during this time. I was given a copy of Beside Still Waters, a collection of daily readings that really challenged me and comforted me at the same time. Streams in the Desert was also helpful. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God was the most challenging book I read during the first 6 months but it was also helpful to make me think through what I really believe.
6. Ask God to heal your soul.
Terry & I were invited to go to the Sovereign Grace Leaders' Conference in April of 2009. We went out to Virginia with the family and then spent 3 days at the conference. I look back to a moment at that conference as a pivotal moment in our healing. There was a large congregation there but CJ Mahaney asked that if anyone needed prayer, they should put up their hands and a small group around them would pray for them. We are not people who normally would expose ourselves in that way but we did and a small group prayed for us. Although we didn't experience a bolt of lightning in feeling like we were healed, I look back on that experience as a time that I feel like we turned a corner in our grief and I firmly believe that God used that prayer time and indeed the whole conference as a significant part of our healing. Even being able to cry through each song without feeling like everyone was looking was important to me.
You may not go to a conference or have a specific experience to look to but part of our prayers should be to ask that God would heal our souls from the soul-numbing grief that can come. Everyone's time frame will be different but God will be faithful to heal you.
7. Do the next thing.
Elisabeth Elliot quotes this poem. I had read it before Emily's death and sometimes that was what I had to tell myself when I didn't know what to do next. It often wasn't in relation to big decisions but instead related more to the day-to-day steps.
Do The Next Thing
"At an old English parsonage down by the sea,
there came in the twilight a message to me.
Its quaint Saxon legend deeply engraven
that, as it seems to me, teaching from heaven.
And all through the hours the quiet words ring,
like a low inspiration, 'Do the next thing.'
Many a questioning, many a fear,
many a doubt hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from heaven,
time, opportunity, guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrow, child of the King,
trust that with Jesus, do the next thing.
Do it immediately, do it with prayer,
do it reliantly, casting all care.
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand,
who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing,
leave all resultings, do the next thing.
Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
working or suffering be thy demeanor,
in His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
the light of His countenance, be thy psalm.
Do the next thing."
8. Wrestle with God and His word.
When you read the Psalms, pray them. Pray that He would comfort you, give you faith, help you to understand who God is. When the Psalmist cries out to God, do it with him. But very few of the Psalms are pure laments - most come back in worship at the end. Let the Psalms express both your faith and your doubts.
Other passages about God's sovereignty are challenging. Think about them. Wrestle with them. Ask God to guard your heart against unbelief. Look at what He has done for you.
9. Begin to understand that faith is active, not passive.
This was a huge step for me. I think I had always thought of faith as being more passive - it's just something that happens. However, what I learned through this time is that faith has to be active. Sometimes I had to hold on tight to the little faith I had. Sometimes I had to pray for faith. Sometimes I had lots of faith but I still needed to actively express it. At first, music and books could express it for me but I still had to grasp on to it and affirm what I really believed. Sometimes it felt like a fight to get to that point but it was worth it. I knew God was holding tight to me the whole time but part of my job was to "work out my salvation in fear and trembling".
10. Find a few safe people to talk to when you feel like you need it.
Don't feel that you have to answer everyone's questions in a detailed way. Some things are none of their business. Do what feels right to you on that day. There are times when it's easier to talk about how we are feeling and there are times when it's not possible. Sometimes we need to push through our emotions and talk about what we are feeling but sometimes it's better for us to not to, especially to particular people. Giving yourself the freedom to not talk to everyone who wants to talk to you is important. I'm not talking about being rude but simply about keeping your soul open and available only to the people you feel safe with. This partly depends on personality but I'm sure even the most extroverted extrovert feels sometimes that he can't possibly talk to another person about a particular subject.
11. Don't dwell on the "what-ifs".
I was thinking more about this and realize how important it is. No matter what the circumstances of a death, whether it is sudden or not, we can all torture ourselves with the "what-ifs". What if I had done this or not done this? Or our minds can keep going back to to particular pictures in our minds.
We found that we couldn't let ourselves go there. Both my husband and I have had to work really hard at not letting ourselves dwell on the circumstances of Emily's death. Even now, I have to make my mind turn away from certain thoughts or images. If I let myself dwell on those thoughts, I will quickly descend into despair.
Ultimately, this is rooted in my understanding of God's sovereignty. If I continually question His sovereignty through my doubts in expressing "what-ifs", I am doubting His sovereignty. This is not an easy thing to work through but ultimately, it's the only way to handle the "what-ifs".
12. There's a difference between "stuffing" and "submission".
Recently, I was talking to some friends about the marriage relationship and we talked about the difference between stuffing our feelings down and submitting our feelings to God and to our spouse. Stuffing our feelings down generally leads to problems later on because we haven't dealt with the core issue. On the other hand, submission to our Heavenly Father and to each other may look on the outside like we are ignoring the issue but in reality, we have submitted it to His holy will and we are waiting, sometimes more quietly than others, for His wisdom and guidance.
I think dealing with grief is a lot like that. It doesn't help to just stuff it away and hope for the best. But what is helpful is to submit our grief and our loss to God, to cry out to Him when we need to, and to rest in His promises and His grace.
Grief is hard work. You will go through stages of grief (not necessarily the Kubler-Ross stages) where sometimes it will be sudden and raw, even years later, but sometimes, maybe most of the time, it will just be in the background. Personally, I think I found the first year hardest but I've talked to others that found the second year the hardest. I know I usually did better when I could prepare for an upcoming event; it was the surprise grief that took me off-guard and hit me the hardest. But God is so gracious and has brought us through. I pray that those reading who have experienced painful circumstances and times of grieving will also be able to point to God's healing hand upon their lives.