In memory of the day my world turned totally upside down, I thought I’d write a post of how to love someone dealing with a grief they don’t understand. First of all, we all experience grief very differently, and there is no one way to expect people to go through the stages of grief.
In case you don’t know me, here’s a little background of my story. At 7:00am on February 11, 2014 I called my grandmother to wish her a Happy 80th Birthday. During the call she told me that mom hadn’t called or stopped by that morning to wish her a happy birthday. Knowing my mom, I knew something really wasn’t right, but I tried to brush it off. At 7:30am my mom called to tell me she had gone to the ER because the cold she’d had for 3 weeks was keeping her from breathing. She of course tried to convince me that she was really fine, but they were going to admit her to drain some fluid off and get her back in no time. Of course she insisted I didn’t come home. Of course, I didn’t listen to her. My gut told me there was much more to this. I threw some clothes in a bag and headed out the door, and made it to Mayfield in record time. One thing led to another and mom was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and viral cardiomyopathy. I took one look at the scans they were doing, and I knew she was in big trouble. I should have insisted at that moment she be transferred to a heart intensive hospital. I didn’t, and they assured me with a lasix drip she’d be fine. Fast forward to 2:00am the morning of February 12, 2014. I was “resting” in mom’s room when I noticed she was seizing and coding. I pushed the nurse button and went into the hallway screaming for help. Nothing like hearing a code blue over the hospital speakers, and knowing it is for your mom and there is nothing you can do to save her. As they were shocking her back to life and doing CPR, I just stood at the end of the bed begging God to save her. Within 30 minutes, she was back, wide awake, alert and talking. She even got up and went to the bathroom. A miracle. I thought we were in the clear….. for 2 hours until it happened again. And, once again, they were able to bring her back to life. At this point, I was pretty sure I would lose my mom. It’s just a gut feeling you have. But, I couldn’t focus on that. I just focused on those moments I had with my mom. Around 7:00 in the morning, she coded for the 3rd time. Paddles, injections and 45 minutes of CPR couldn’t bring her heart back. The electrical signals from the brain were full force telling her heart to work, she was fighting to survive, but she just couldn’t. It was the very worst thing I have ever witnessed in my life.
I went months without sleeping. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see in vivid detail what happened in the hospital that night. To this day I can still tell you exactly what every nurse and doctor that came into the room the entire night was wearing. I can see blood shooting all over the place and hear the sounds of her ribs breaking as they did CPR. Months of therapy got me to a place of accepting I had PTSD- post traumatic stress disorder. I wasn’t really eating, but I gained over 60 pounds, and my body wasn’t functioning. I mentally couldn’t process relationships. I had several friendships fall apart and my marriage struggled. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get my shit together. And, if you know me, I’m a “I’ve got my shit very together kind of girl.” I was always the type of person who felt like you couldn’t control what happened to you, but you could control how you reacted to it. I’ve had several “crazy” life events, but I refused to let them make me crazy. And, honestly, I thought I could do that with my mom’s death. I wouldn’t be that crazy girl who lost her mom and fell apart. Except, I was. People asked me what they could do for me, how they could help, how they could love me, and I didn’t have a clue what to tell them. Now, that the fog is starting to settle, here’s a list of how I think you can love someone dealing with a grief they don’t understand.
1) Understand that it isn’t about YOU. This is especially hard for us “Southern Ladies” who like to “DO”. YOU need to bring the casserole, visit, send flowers, hug them and hold them. YOU want them to eat and be happy. They may need to lay in bed with a bowl of ice cream and wine. Don’t write them off if they just don’t feel like seeing anyone, hanging out, hugging, or being social. For me, all those things were things my mom taught me to love. And, doing them, even with people who loved me deeply, just hurt. So, I stayed home.
2) Accept the fact that they’re going to have some very unlovable moments. I did things and said things to the people that I love very most in this world that were very hurtful and painful. Not intentionally of course, but it was almost like the “misery loves company philosophy”…. Hurt people, hurt people. No way in my right mind would I have done and said some of the things I did, but I know they happened. I forgot special events of very special people. I could not spend Mother’s Day with my kids or my mother in law. I broke trust in some very important relationships. I had many, many very unlovable moments. I am thankful for some pretty strong family and friends who weathered the storm and loved me when I was unlovable.
3)Understand they can’t tell you what they need from you, because they don’t know. People kept asking me what I needed. I would say nothing because, honestly, I didn’t have a clue. If they had come in my house, they could have figured out some things pretty quickly, but I was in a daze. I didn’t know what I needed or wanted. Except, I both needed and wanted my momma back and I knew no one could do that for me.
4)Be there, even when they don’t seem to want you around. I told people not to come, and if they came, I am certain I acted like I didn’t want them there. But, I do know that as the numbness started to wear off, I was very lonely. I found myself wishing friends would come by or call, but I would never ask them to.
5)Let them check out for a minute- or a month- but always check in with them and be there when they’re ready to come back. This is very similar to some of the facts above. I know this is hard. But, again, it isn’t about you in this season of friendship. Your friend is grieving, let them write the play book. And, they’ll eventually need (and want) you again. Despite them being unlovable, and acting like they don’t want you to be around.
6)PTSD is very real, and very common for people who are grieving. I really didn’t understand this. I thought PTSD was something military people had, and I didn’t really understand what it was. But, I spent thousands of dollars at therapists and doctors, on running many different tests, and many different medications to realize that losing someone close to us, especially if we witness their death, triggers PTSD for many people experiencing grief.
7)If they’re on your mind, let them know. It’s probably because God knows they need to hear from a friend. Just shooting them a quick text, phone call, email, or dropping a card in the mail. Just, hey, you’re on my mind, you’re important to me, I’m thinking about you.
8)Let them know it’s okay for them not to have their crap together. Heck, maybe even scoop it up for them- but don’t tell them you did. This may not be as big a deal for some as it is for others. But, for us type A, OCD, control freak personalities— having our crap together is very important. And, when you’re in crisis you’re crap comes out your pants and goes all over the place. I had some friends that were fabulous at picking up the loose ends I left straggling all over the place. I had another friend that loved to remind me of all the things she fixed that I’d left hanging. Of course, in the nicest most southern girl way you’d expect to hear. “Hey, sweet girl, just wanted to let you know that you forgot to fix your kids lunch for the 7th day in a row. But, it’s no big deal. I’ve taken them a 5 course all organic meal to school each day and sat with them during their lunch period.” For the record, that isn’t a real scenario, but was about that petty. If something they would have normally taken care of, needs taken care of, just do it for them. And, no need to even mention it. There’ll come a point they realize someone else covered their ass, and they will be all the more grateful.
9)Understand that the death of a loved one probably isn’t the only relationship loss they’re grieving. Loved ones dying often changes multiple relationships. For example, in my situation, I was suddenly faced with a changing dynamic with my step-dad. He practically raised me, he and my mom were married when I was 2. Now, all of the sudden we had no “legal” bond. At first I told myself it was no big deal, things would be the same between us. He loved me, I loved him, all was good. But, things did change. He got all new friends, he even got a girlfriend. He totally changed as a person, starting a new life that he could feel comfortable in after losing his wife. So, I was grieving the loss of the identity of a person that was still living. It was weird, and it was hard. And, we don’t really know how to communicate those things. We realize this type of grieving and hurt sounds selfish and totally irrational, but we can’t really get over it either.
10)Accept the fact that we probably won’t ever be our normal old self again, and learn to love us as we are now. For me, it was a total culture change. What I had always thought was important became pretty irrelevant. We were finally “living the life”. After surviving the housing market crash with 2 incomes based on the housing industry, Jeff and I were finally “making it big time”. We had just come out of a year making the most money we’d ever made. And, pacing to make even more the year mom died. I had a plan in my head of what that was going to look like for a family. And, suddenly, I would have given every penny of it away. Actually, I did give a lot of it away, and completely wasted a good chunk. I forced myself to do “normal old self” things, and it made me miserable. What I expected out of life, out of people, and out of friendships really changed. I went from the 30 good friends model of life, to the 5 great friends. I just couldn’t emotionally keep up with tons of people anymore. There are lots of things I used to love to do, that I just can’t do anymore. I was always the “doer”/“giver” in the friendship, and I learned to be more of “taker” in a friendship. I don’t lean as heavily on people now, as I did last year. But, I still actually let people help me. And, I am less likely to volunteer to carry all of your load too. It’s okay. I’m not exactly the same person I was 2 years ago. I’m older, wiser, more grounded, and I certainly know what is important in life.
Losing people we love is hard. We know God is real, He is for us, He will walk along side us. But, it still sucks. Dreams and visions come crashing down in an instant. What we need most is those who are left around us to carry us through until we learn to walk again. And, if you happen to be a person in this stage of grief, please do a couple things for me: 1)Seek professional help. Trust me, you need it. 2)Surround yourself with a community that understands what you’re going through. I was blessed to have a support group of young women at church who recently lost a parent. And, had a couple really good girlfriends walking this road at the same time. I don’t wish this on anyone, but I know I wouldn’t have survived without those girls that knew what I was feeling. 3)Don’t turn away from everyone that loves you. It is so hard to let yourself be loved, but find a way to let at least a couple people in. We need it, and they want to give it.