I have been thinking about the way grief has moved into my life, a permanent, unwanted resident.
I have been trying to figure out daily how to navigate life with this new occupant who, whether I want to accept it or not, has decided to stay. I have been leaning hard on faith, which, in turn, has carried me faithfully (even when I haven’t fully appreciated it).
I have two things to offer you in light of the losses suffered in this life. In light of living with grief and sadness when they come knocking, bags in hand, to stay. Or when they kick down your door, push past you, and make themselves comfortable glaring at you from your living room couch, the unpleasant couple’s visit you hadn’t anticipated. To those who receive, I offer a poem. For those who fear saying the wrong thing (which you most likely have already done anyway, as I have) I offer some words of guidance, and I hope empowerment. For those of you who will squirm over my candor, I assure you, yes, this does need to be said. Shall we get on with it then?
I have heard the second year of grieving is harder than the first. Many people in a group for child loss my husband and I attend attested to that reality. But, I was not prepared for the thrust of sadness which has recently taken hold of me over the loss of our only child two years ago.
First, I pray that my sharing, though uncomfortable perhaps for some to read might somehow help bridge this gap between what’s ok to say and not ok, and why. I understand some people have great graciousness in every situation, the right word, and how to respond well, even in the most awkward of moments. I have known people like this. Two come straight to my mind. Women who I know I could turn to for wisdom and advice, who always seem to know and manage well the subtle social expectations regardless of how awkward or painful the circumstance. I have certainly not been this person. Instead, I have come to my lessons and conclusions in a way none wish. Experience. So I do hope you will hear me out, despite your discomfort.
We have made it through all the “firsts” after our daughter’s death in January 2021. And seconds of some. Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Two birthdays have been “celebrated” in her absence. Maybe “acknowledged” is a better word choice, though depending on my gratitude level on any given day, it could vary. Also, the dreaded, dreadful day itself: January 9th. The day she left us. I thought we made it through all of these milestones, which I was warned about, and had read about the topic in preparation extensively. But when the day came and passed, though sad, as it will be every year hereafter, I muddled through by taking to my chair for the whole day with a book forgoing the long list of To Do’s noted in my planner. I was sad, it was expected, I grieved and got through.
Life goes on…
and that’s where it gets nauseating. The truth is life goes on, it does. (Please never say this to a grieving person, or worse, “This too shall pass”- for the record- NOT HELPFUL!) But for those of us who have suffered the loss of a child especially, there is a cruel mockery in the truth of it. Our lives are forever changed in a way that merges our minds with our memories. Maybe this happens with any close relationship, depending on many factors, as each loss is unique. But for me, it has happened most significantly and powerfully in this loss. This is very hard to comprehend and communicate. I want to try, so you might understand a bit of how this has played out for me and perhaps someone you know. I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak for myself.
Often in casual conversations, children are discussed. Whether memories grandparents have of their own children growing up, or their current grandchildren. Naturally, parents also regale over their children’s latest behaviors, adventures, and challenges. This is not problematic for the most part for those who have lost their own children, as long as those speaking don’t shun the shared memories of the person who has lost their child (or children). The same thing happens for married couples too, conversations of our spouse’s shenanigans are shared. This is the stuff that makes up our friendships and conversations. Here’s what you need to know…
My Double Life
I live a double life. I don’t know if it’s normal, but I am pretty sure it’s partly why I can get through the days. On any given day, my mind is like a computer screen. Multiple tabs are open. I click the tabs as needed. Did you know that research has shown the average person has a range of 6000-60,000 thoughts a day? I promise you that I am on the higher end of that range. I am not saying they are all productive thoughts! Phew. It’s a busy place, let’s leave it there. My personal conviction is that I need to be careful with what and how much I take in because like a sewage system, taking in too much stuff to an already overloaded system leads to serious problems. Ironically my dad was a Master Plumber. I think he’d be proud of my analogy. (I digress…) The double life refers to my computer mind which at any point of the day, one or ten of those tabs opened are of my precious child. Memories are prompted by anything at any time, and generally, it’s a way I keep her close- for memory is all I now have.
It is hard to have felt kicks in my belly from the little life within for 9 months, rocking her colicky small body to sleep night after night, nursing and nurturing her eventually to a young adult only to, 20 years later, hold her ashes in an urn against my chest in the funeral home.
The fact is none of us can sever ourselves from the precious memories we have of our loved ones, nor should we. For better and worst, we cling to what’s left of them, as one who clings to the dust. We remember them. We cherish their memories. Our society too long has suffered at the hands of those who are disquieted by the thought of death, grief, and sadness. Worse still, the stigma associated with certain circumstances continues to cause irreparable damage to relationships and the healing journey of those who travel paths, not of their own choosing. God has a place for both living and dying…even in the saddest tragedies. We need to give place to the things which He has ordained. We suffer, and we do, because of our continual waywardness, forever doing it our own “better way”, encouraging others to brush their grief under the carpet, to “get on with their lives”…when all they have and hold is dust. It’s shameful to do this and consider ourselves wise, enlightened, or compassionate.
From Both Sides
I can remember my own times grappling with the losses of others. Having now experienced the loss of too many friends and relatives to count, both my parents, grandparents, and my parents-in-law, one could say I know a little about loss. Not to mention, but I will, many beloved pets. It is an unwanted education, I assure you, yet I can say, I have learned a thing or two worth sharing. If you retain nothing else from this open sea of words, keep these.
One, please no matter what, if you know someone has lost someone close to them (spouse or child especially) acknowledge it. No matter how long it’s been it will always be a reality for the person suffering the loss. And let’s acknowledge that loss of a child will always be the loss of all losses. Somehow it just is incomprehensible. I don’t care what etiquette police say (nor do I know) but for me, it is never too late to say the words, I am sorry for your loss. If you haven’t seen the person or you’re an old friend or acquaintance and you find out well after the fact, saying something and risking offense trumps saying nothing at all especially if you are in the regular company of the person. Or if you have had a close relationship in the past. I can tell you those who did not acknowledge my daughter’s death, and it hurt and caused more pain, than those who said something they struggled to find the words to say. People who I had not seen nor heard from in 30 years appeared to offer a word of condolence. Of course, one can give grace and make excuses for another. However, those who for whatever their rationalized reason failed to say anything at all, though they were fully aware of the significant loss, said all I ever wanted to hear from them. That may sound harsh, but I said I would tell it like it is. We can’t forgive what we forget. And we can’t deny our authentic responses. We can choose to forget once we have forgiven. But again, acknowledgment is key in one way or another. My advice, “I’m sorry for your loss” is an easier sentence to say, than say, losing the life of a son, or daughter. I have made the mistake of not saying anything for fear of offending. As one who has stood on both sides of this fence, I can tell you this is painful as I know my awkward silence has hurt others. I would add, some people may find out years later – whenever you come to the knowledge, no matter when, in my opinion, it is ok to say the words I am sorry for your loss. It will bridge the gap, it will be a healing balm, but withholding when you are aware… is just gross. Not sorry, because I am speaking the truth and want you to know so you have no excuse going forward to do the right thing.
If we focus on the other person’s pain instead of our own awkwardness we are less likely to offend. The heart speaks what the mouth fumbles. Most often open arms convey what one is afraid to say. That’s not always possible. But, affirming another is always possible in the multitude of ways we can communicate. Withholding acknowledgment of a significant loss says a lot. Mostly, it communicates this: you are not important to me. OR my personal discomfort is more important to me than your actual loss. If you are good with that then go ahead and withhold your words. I had one person, say “What can we say?” I found this to be comforting. It’s ok to acknowledge you don’t have words. So much can be conveyed with body language, a shaking of the head, and a sincere straight look in the eye. These can acknowledge much. We are here to see one another. To walk with one another through these sadnesses. But for me, the most painful responses were the few who turned the other way. I share in the hope you won’t be that person. I pray to guard against being that person in the future.
But, Maybe Not This
My second piece of advice is don’t be stunned to silence when we who have lost our loved ones share memories of them. Unless we are struck with amnesia or Dementia – which is another sad way of losing precious memories, we can’t forget our lives raising our babies, living day after day, or sharing a lifetime of holidays. We who have lost babies who became adults, or we who have lost babies in the womb, or while they were yet in our arms. Don’t shush us. Our children’s memories, like those children who are still living, are alive in our minds, sometimes more real to us than the reality where we now stand. I have heard more pain poured out over well-meaning people telling those grieving what to do. Or not do. Don’t share your advice or your criticisms and conclusions. Don’t diagnose them or their loved ones, with them or with others! These responses are not only unnecessary but harmful. These responses to another’s pain make the friends of Job look sinless by comparison. And Job’s friends were sinless in their own eyes weren’t they?
If each individual is an expression of God’s being, is created in His likeness, and belongs to Him, we who claim to know Him ought to honor our loved ones always- as He wills. As He has shown in His own account in the text of the Holy Scripture. Their lives and memories are precious in His sight. Don’t doubt for a moment His incomprehensible but faithful, merciful, gracious, lovingkindness towards us, even in the temporary time of knowing our loved one(s). Even in tragedy, darkness, and pain, He comes to us. He upholds His very own creation, each one and He ultimately holds the keys to eternity, life, death, and all that is and will be.
Please walk gently in the land of the living toward those whose lives have been impacted by loss and don’t project a timeline of your own understanding to a circumstance you have not experienced. I am too, still learning. As I experienced a wave of new unexpected grief at a recent event. We had a women’s event at my church. The speaker was excellent, and the setting was lavishly decorated. My dearest friends were present. I enjoyed myself, yet something was off. Terribly off. The whole night, I had this sense that something was inexplicably off. Everything appeared fine.
The next day as I prayed and sought the Lord, I realized the last time that the women’s event had been held in that place, Katherine, my precious daughter… was alive. As I further brought all before the Lord, it dawned on me, this was also the date of the memorial service we had for her (January 16th, 2021). In the same place. I do not completely understand my response, but it was also physical. The next day, I went about my usual business but I felt physically disturbed, and, again, off. Fortunately, I am blessed to have good friends who love and pray for me. I have a supportive, loving church family. We also are involved with two different monthly groups for those who grieve. I feel God has hemmed me in on every side with love. But, I also have been leveled by this journey. I had no idea when others stated that the second year of grieving is harder. I think I am just coming out of shock and denial. Who knew these things take so long. So you see, though it was two years ago, I am surprised to find myself immersed in a sea of tears again, sucker punched by grief coming through my body, like a swimmer in the ocean pummelled by waves, thrashed about in open water.
Just Let Me Be…Real
All that to say, once you have acknowledged someone’s loss, you next let them grieve. Let them be sad! If you are a friend and they feel safe enough to open up, allow yourself to be present with them. Give them space to be sad with you. Or just speak about their loved one. Don’t hand them rose-tinted glasses and force their authentic and valid emotions or experience into the dark. Don’t brush off their tender moment of openness or rush them through it. Be brave, and welcome their vulnerable willingness to risk honesty about what they are experiencing now- because it will change over time, as they change. Give them the gift of your very real self, being present with them in their very real pain, or memory of the moment, whatever the context. Just let them be real. Let them talk, or not talk. Let them remember their loved ones with you. They remember their loved one(s) when they are alone, so why not be the person who ushers in light by letting them share the memories. Or even work through the details of processing their new reality. You don’t have to have known the person they lost, and you don’t have to be afraid of their sadness. You just have to allow sadness to have its place. It is not about indulgence but about authenticity. Whatever is repressed will be expressed…eventually. Why not be the channel which facilitates the opportunity to do it well. This is what is needed to best support grieving people.
One More Thing?
I guess being the one who wants to support someone who has suffered loss is not an easy thing, right? Because the hard part is knowing when it’s ok to invite that person to talk about the hard stuff. For me, I need to choose who I speak to and when. And often (remember the computer tabs?) I am not sure when that might occur. Or when I might have an outburst of repressed tears. But, I am blessed with good friends who God has given me who uphold me, who are willing to listen, and who wade into deep waters when the tides come in with me, keeping me from being swept completely away. I have only (most recently) regretted speaking to someone too impulsively and too freely. The recoil in these situations is subtle but real. Mostly, I know who is safe to talk with openly and who isn’t. Some people are willing to step up in your life in these difficult seasons, and some, like the receding waters, dry up and disappear. I’m learning to go with the flow, embracing the new, and releasing the not-helpful. I am grateful for those who have stepped up and leaned in a few of my unanticipated, spontaneous sharing moments. I am even grateful (by God’s grace) for those who have taught me hard lessons through their responses- or lack thereof, despite the temporary pain.
None of us invites sadness or grief into our lives. But, the fact is whether this couple has busted in suddenly, or crept in slowly with long-term illness, they come. We are human and we will experience these things. Maybe the best thing we can do for one another is to give them the place they need to do the work they must do in each of us. Maybe we need to learn to be better humans with regard to those who are grieving. Maybe instead of forcing someone to swim or letting them drown in unspeakable sorrow, we need to help them stay afloat until they can swim again.
The Poem I Promised…
All I Know About Grief and Sorrow
by Dawn Paoletta
Sometimes I’m full
Some days the dark
Some days rain won’t
Those days the crying’s
Some days I dream
The place my hope sits
by my Savior, it’s been won
and by Him alone
I am assured.
I hope to address the stigma associated with death by suicide in an upcoming post. Where there is darkness, I pray to bring light. Do not gloat over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. Micah 7:8
Dawn Paoletta refuses to mince words. She loves to ignore rules and often confesses her transgressions while driving. She believes caffeine enhances her personality, and is self-admittedly, the only living expert on how to conduct one’s vehicle at a 4-way stop sign. The author of Journaling for Discovery and Delight, her writing is included in several local anthologies. Her poems have been included in the Wickford Poetry and Art Exhibit and Books (2017, 2020-2022). Dawn shares poetry and prose on her blog and for local community events and workshops. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
6 thoughts on “All I know About Grief and Sadness”
Thank you, Dawn. This is an exquisite writing on how to be with grief, one’s own and others’ grief. Your honesty is appreciated.
Much Love, Mary
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MJ, Your presence continues to be appreciated! Thank you for taking the time.
As one who has also experienced the grief of losing a precious child, our middle son Matthew, going on now 9 years (how can that be?), I can attest to the fact that grief never totally goes away. It may change form, or it may come rushing back like it was only yesterday, but it is always there, under the surface, ready to pounce when we least expect it. The only way I totally cope is in knowing where Matthew is, busily serving the Lord he loves and Who loves him so tenderly…and helping to prepare the place for us where we will meet again one day. I do believe that. He’s being kept very busy in a very happy way, and I do believe that he’ll be right next to Jesus to welcome me home some day. That keeps me going, picturing him there…which really isn’t all that far away, you know? It’s only a breath away…and then we will have all of eternity to share the joys of heaven and this time on earth will just seem like a blip on a screen that came and went like a comet. When I focus on heaven, all the sorrows of this earth just don’t seem so great…even though they can still come at us and hit us like a ton of bricks when we least expect it…but my resilience is getting stronger, and I can bounce back and sock it in the eye and not let it keep me down. This only comes by keeping focused on Jesus and heaven…and remembering this life is not our real home. Our dearly departed loved ones are the ones truly “at home”, experiencing all the joys we have been promised, and that makes me smile and gives me peace in the sorrowing moments. And as for those who don’t know what to say, or who seem to ignore the subject altogether, I feel sorry for them. Most likely they haven’t experienced such great loss yet and they truly have no clue of how it feels, but their day will come in one way or another, and then they will understand…and maybe they won’t be as strong as you are…and they will really and truly need some strength from those of us who have already been there before them. I pray for those who seem clueless and dumb in the face of grief, because it will hit them even harder when it’s their turn. May God be merciful to them and help prepare their hearts for the inevitable. Thank you for your honesty and open heart and soul. May the Lord continue to speak through you to a world that is hard of hearing and lacking in compassion. And may we have grace and wisdom when it is time to show them compassion, because they will truly need it. Sending you (((hugs)))…sometimes a hug is the only language we can fully understand when there just isn’t anything else that can be said. Love to you my friend. God is with us.
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Pam! The words “how can that be?” sum it up well. I am sorry for your loss with Matthew. I feel I have been guilty of all that I have seen in others-maybe that is why I can see it clearly? You continue to be an inspiration. Thank you
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I have followed your blog for years, after I “met” you online through planner stuff. I’ve always appreciated your poetry and posts. I’m sorry to say I’ve not read many of your posts in a couple of years, as we all worked through the world’s new normal. I knew about the loss of your mother, but I had no idea about the loss of daughter until right now. I AM so very sorry for your loss. Words fail us mere humans at times; and I wish I could hug you.
I think of the story of a very young boy who was supposed to be saying his prayers before bed. He had recently lost a close playmate to an accident and was very sad. The boy’s father went into his room and heard his son singing the alphabet song when he was supposed to be talking to God. When his father asked him why, the boy told his father that he WAS talking to God. He told God he didn’t know what words to say so he would give God the alphabet and let Him make the words for him.
I pray God makes the words from me to you and that He continues to cover you with peace and comfort as you need it.
I’ll be praying for you.
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Thank you, dear Connie for your words and thank you for that beautiful story…God is giving me words even just today, thank you…and I covet prayers for them in the days ahead!
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