I want to thank Lori and Amanda for inviting me to be here today where my own healing journey began. It is my honor to be given a chance to share part of my journey with you and to perhaps have some of my story help you to find hope and healing within your own journeys.
Some Definitions to begin with:
Hope: A feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.
Grounds for believing that something good may happen.
Healing: The process of becoming sound or healthy again.
Wellness: The state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal.
In our grief journeys, what we are looking for, I believe, is healing; not to be healed. Healing implies an ongoing process, a change through time where an unwell aspect of our lives moves toward wellness. Healed implies a completion of the process.
An important thing I try to remember is that our grief journeys are always a time of change. They aren’t a destination, they are a movement towards a different state of being. We may not ever reach that end place, we may never be healed, but we may learn, we may grow, we may reach a new equilibrium and find a peaceful place to live within ourselves where we may find wellness. But do we ever fully heal? That’s a “TBA” we have to first take the journey to find out.
So, what is healing in this sense. What are we trying to accomplish?
Based on my own grief journey, I believe that what we are looking for is a place we can move towards and reach that allows us to hold the memories of our lives with our spouses or partners in a place that becomes less painful as time goes by, that honors them and the love and lives we shared with them. I think healing includes finding an equilibrium between our past lives with our loved ones and our new life without them. And I believe that when we are ready, healing includes surrender to and acceptance of what has happened and what has changed in our lives.
As time goes by and we come to be more willing and able to surrender to our grief and accept the changes in our world, we start to live more in the present and dwell less on the past, we come to allow life to take over and grief to recede and we become more functional and comfortable in the new life we have been creating. When we do this, it is us reaching a state of wellness that includes our grief but where we are no longer controlled or debilitated by our grief.
How long does it take?
It takes as long as it takes! There is no timetable or calendar. Grief and healing progress at their own pace, differently for each of us. Also, healing and grief appear to be fairly non-linear, sometimes we go forward and sometimes not but we are always changing in some way even when it isn’t obvious.
The one thing that may be constant is that our grief does indeed change through time and by our growing surrender to it, most times, it becomes less severe, we learn and grow and move forward through time, each in our own way and at our own rate, towards healing and functional living again. Again, maybe this is what wellness means.
What I want to talk about mostly are some things to think about when you are ready to choose the path you take on your own unique journey towards wellness.
Todays Topic – Struggle vs Surrender:
From Amanda at Pathways:
The topic of “surrender” often holds a negative connotation. By definition, surrender means “to yield to the power or domination of another” and we often think of surrender as an aspect of wartimes or intense conflict.
In the context of grief support and process, surrender can take on another meaning.
“Surrendering to the grief” means allowing yourself to be where you are at without judgment (as best you can), to allow your emotions to be felt (after all feelings just want to be felt in the end), and to accept (in small steps) the reality of your life.
Surrender, in this more positive sense also means not fighting against your grieving. Surrender then becomes a process through which each person can find their own unique way.
It is very common in the early weeks and months of grief, even years for some, for a person to “fight” and “struggle against” their grief, vying for control to defeat the overwhelming reality of their loss.
Surrendering can bring about a sense of fear – “If I let myself feel the depth of my pain, it will swallow me forever, I will never come out of it or feel better”. Ironically, the opposite is usually true, when one confronts and feels their grief head on, it is a step in processing their loss and helps them to accept the changes in their life and move forward little by little.
Notice any resistance that may come up in yourself as you hear these words. Again, it is normal to resist what is painful, but by surrendering and feeling your grief, you allow yourself to be where you are rather than wishing you were somewhere else, which usually is not a healthy way of coping for the long term. Being here for group is a recognition that you need more help or a larger support system and in its own way is a part of surrendering to your own needs and honoring them.
I also want to normalize that, as I said before, we usually see in the earlier months of grief more difficulty in taking steps towards surrender, vs further on in one’s grief where it often becomes easier. If you are not ready to try this out, that is ok and you need to honor that need.
Hiding your Grief, Expressing your Grief or Hiding from your Grief:
We all have choices, conscious or not, about how we will deal with our grieving even if we feel out of control, especially early on. We can be seemingly strong and stoic and try to hide (struggle against) our feelings of grief, not express them, try to control them and keep them to ourself, locked inside. Or, we can choose to express our grief (surrender to it) as and when it comes over us.
We can also hide from our grief, get super busy and try to put the feelings off because they hurt so badly. We may even think they have gone away…
When we do any type of avoidance, like struggling against our grief, my experience and that of others I’ve talked to, is that the feelings of grief don’t really go away. What we’ve done is just let the feelings and emotions become hidden and because we are not dealing with them, they remain unresolved and can build up inside us where they still remain even if we don’t think so.
They may get even more intense tucked away inside us until they find a way to come out sometime later down the road. Sometimes they explode as anger, sometimes they just build up and return with even more overwhelming pain than before.
So, here’s what I would like us to consider during this meeting: Should we fight grief (struggle) or not fight grief (surrender) and go with the flow?
Waves of grief:
One of the most commonly expressed statements I’ve heard about grief from people who are grieving and things I’ve felt and written about in my journal is that rather than being a constant feeling, feelings of grief rise and fall and crash over us like waves at the shore.
Three images from an old Oceanography Instructor:
1. If you’ve ever stood in the water on an ocean beach, especially after a storm when the waves are strong and high, the waves can knock you to your knees, they can put you on the ground and even roll you over and over as they wash back off the shore. When that happens, their strength is so much greater than yours, all you can do is let it happen, roll with it and as each wave recedes and leaves you breathless on the sand, stand and become ready for the next wave.
It’s the getting back up that is the challenge, especially when wave after wave knocks you down and you become fatigued and start running out of strength and breath. But of course if you’ve been knocked down and are lying on the beach, you have to find a way to get back up and brace for the next wave.
2.If you are washed out to sea in a riptide, a seaward moving current that goes away from shore, it is usually way stronger than you are. If you fight it, you will eventually tire and run out of energy and by fighting, sometimes people don’t have enough energy to make it back to shore.
But, if you let the current take you, don’t fight it, surrender to it and let it carry you with its energy and take you out towards the sea (even though that doesn’t seem to be where you want to go), eventually, the current will run out of energy. Once it does, you can use the strength and energy you didn’t use fighting it to swim to the edge of the current and then turn shoreward and swim back to shore.
3. When I first moved to Florida, I thought that if I lived on the coast, I would want to have the strongest reinforced concrete pilings I could find to build my house on so they would survive the winds and waves of a hurricane if it occurred. I was surprised when I went to the coast that many of the homes built at the back of the beach had been and still were being built not on concrete pilings but on wood posts, much like telephone poles, that were driven deeply into the sand.
When I started trying to find out why, because it didn’t make sense to me to use a less strong material, I found out that because concrete is not only strong but also rigid and inflexible, in the wind, they were actually often too resistant, they were not going to bend much at all, they were just going to rigidly stand there and eventually break and collapse because they couldn’t be flexible.
Wood pilings, however, are like palm trees, they flex and bend in the wind and while a house built on them may sway and shift, the pilings don’t usually fracture or shatter, they just bend under the force of the wind and waves.
Especially early in our journey, grief will take us were it will. It is its own strong current carrying us away from the shore of our familiar lives out towards the sea of a life unknown. It is a hurricane of emotion blowing through our life.
It is always my personal inclination to be flexible and to try to go where the current takes me and to husband my strength for the learning and the growth the swim back to the shore of a new life as a widower will require of me.
Some reasons I chose to Surrender to my grief:
I want to share that my wife Andi survived stage-four breast cancer for 8 years. She decided early on that she was not going to be her cancer. She was going to be herself living with cancer and she was going to go on living despite it and be herself as much as possible through it all.
And she did. With grace and courage and an amazing strength I still look at with awe, she got up every day and took the time to do her hair, put on makeup, dress nicely and then face the day with as much grace and clarity as she could no matter what was happening inside her as the war between her cancer and her chemo treatments went on and on.
So with Andi as my example, in the depths of my devastation, I came to my own realization:
From my journal sometime early in the first few months of my bereavement:
“You don’t fight to the end as hard as Andi fought only to have your husband wimp out and give up or run away because it hurts to have lost her. The message to me is to also fight to the end of my strength in my own way against my own pain and try to honor Andi’s fight by doing mine with as much grace as she did hers.”
I decided that in my own way, I would not be my grief, I would be me living with grief. But instead of fighting it as if it was an illness like cancer, I would surrender to it and let it wash over me. I would face it head on and experience it as it was happening but still remain myself within it.
This is just what happened to me and I know that not everyone’s spouse got to fight to the end. Some were taken quickly or suddenly but i believe the lesson still applies. At some point, when we are ready, we will all need to move forward. At some point we will need to “stop drowning in our sadness”, to have what I call a “phoenix moment” and begin to rise out of the ashes of our grief. We can honor our spouses and ourselves by the courage, strength and manner in which we face our grief and build our new lives.
Another reason I surrendered to it:
The first year of my bereavement, as it is for everyone, was a year of firsts. First birthday, first anniversary, first holidays… Especially for the first Christmas, my kids really wanted me to come to Florida to be with them so I wasn’t lonely and didn’t have to face it alone. That was a really confusing time for me, I knew they really were concerned for me and wanted to help me but inside I really wanted to just stay home and experience it, to just see what happened and how I felt and in a way, to still be home and spend the time as Andi and I had usually done.
I ended up having to schedule a meeting with a Counsellor at Pathways to help me talk it out and figure out what the right thing for me to do was. And I chose in the end to not go to Florida and to stay home and face and experience what grieving though the holidays felt like. I did the same on Andi’s birthday and on our Anniversary.
I learned something from those experiences:
The first time these important things happen and in a sense each day of our grief journeys as well, is the only time we will experience these feelings and emotions in their full, raw and unfiltered nature.
They will probably cause you to hurt, maybe more than you ever have before. They will most likely cause you to change but if you face them head on and let them wash over you, if you surrender to them, you will know without a doubt what it was like and you will have had the experience. And when they have passed, like the waves, you will know that you were strong enough and that you are still standing.
If you choose to run away from the experiences, if you deny them or try to avoid them you won’t do that. And that’s an ok choice to make if it’s what you need to do. But, if you don’t deal with them the first time around, then the next time around, like the second Christmas for example, you will probably still have to face them but at a year remove and your reactions and your experience and what you may learn will be different then they would have been had you done them the first time.
We only get one “first time” for each moment and each event in our lives as well as in our grief journeys. Each first time experience is unique and a unique opportunity to grow and learn even if it is a painful and disorienting experience. If we choose surrender, in the end we will have done it and not have to wonder later what it would have been like or fear it yet again the next time it comes up in our lives.
Though they were very difficult and painful, my memories of those events have since turned into treasures for my having been there and gone through them and seen what the strength and breadth of our love brought me in the depths of my grief. I wouldn’t trade a single experience now, difficult and painful as they were at the time.
From all of the lessons I learned during my own grief journey and from talking to others about their journeys, it seems to me that it’s always okay to do our grieving in our own way, to do things how and when they feel right to us in our hearts and our emotions. In the end, this is each of our own grief to experience. It is uniquely ours by the nature of our love and the life we shared with our loved ones. No matter how difficult it seemed, I found that if I surrendered to it and did it my own way, from my heart, it had great power to help me on my road to hope, healing and wellness.
A core part of surrender is acceptance. I believe that one of the most difficult but also one of the most important parts of the healing process is finding acceptance. Coming to gradually and slowly understand that our loved ones are not coming home, that the place they occupied in our material lives is going to be empty of them forever and nothing we do or wish or think is going to change that. Coming to accept that reality is going to be one of the hardest and most painful things we do during our hope and healing journey.
Acceptance though, is also almost essential to building our new lives, to start looking for and finding ways of thinking, of acting and of living that both honor what was and create what will be as we transition from us, into me living here alone. Until we accept what has happened, it is difficult to want to even look for alternatives isn’t it?
As with so many parts of grief, there is no timetable here either. We each reach acceptance in our own time and in our own way and when it happens for us, that’s when it happens.
A final thought:
Honoring our loved ones by trying to grieve with purpose and intent:
What would our loved ones want us to do or be as we grieve? Can we honor our loved ones by giving them the gift of us grieving and learning and growing as graciously as possible, with as much strength as possible, with as much courage as possible, however that looks for us?
Since we grieve because we love, as we grieve then, we have an opportunity to do it as another act of love. When we are ready, we can choose to face our grief with purpose, we can choose to experience and face it in ways that honor our loved ones. We can accept it and surrender to it and move through it to honor our spouses and partners and the love we shared while we learn to stand again on our own.
Think about how you might want to respond to the pain of your grief. Is it better for you to be rigid and inflexible (struggling against and/or denying your grief) and possibly fracture or is it better for you to be more malleable and bend under the force that is applied to us by our grief (surrendering to your grief). Is it better to surrender or struggle.
Can you think of other places or situations where surrender is a positive force that you might use as a model for applying it to your grieving?
Where are you at in the process of learning to accept what has happened?
Are you struggling against what has happened and against your grieving or beginning to find acceptance of what has happened and the grief it has caused you to feel? Have you begun to surrender and face (accept) the changes in your life and your grieving?
What coping skills, social skills and life skills do you think you need to learn to move forward?
Thank you for letting me share part of my journey. It is how I chose and was moved to act during my grief journey. I am here today, after 5 years, still standing, functioning and continuing to built a new life that honor’s Andi and is much more rich in friends and giving than I ever would have expected.
I believe much of that is due, for me, to the early choice I made to surrender to my grief and face it head on, to allow it to knock me to my knees and to learn, slowly, to get back up and stand, ready for the next wave to break.
From that surrender, I was able to build a strength within myself that has allowed me to move forward, to move through my grief and begin to find wellness in my life. Rather than squandering my strength fighting and struggling against it again and again, I believe that facing it allowed me to move through it more easily (although not less painfully) and more gracefully because I wasn’t resisting it.
From a song we wrote this year: “I remain here standing, though I am lonely, I’m still living, and I’m still me!”
It’s your journey. When you are ready to take some control, how will you choose to grieve? Will you choose struggle or surrender or maybe choose a little bit of both?