Lessons from Nana…Lean in

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I’ve been thinking about the last couple of months we had with Nana and am grateful that the Lord led us through those extremely emotional weeks, days and moments. I’ve grieved loved ones before, too many, and didn’t handle it well after they passed. I was a wreck after each one then and still feel the hemorrhaging in my heart over certain tender memories.

So why is this time different? Why do I still feel emotionally intact in a time of loss? Even with dealing with the stress of coronavirus all over the world (so far we are healthy, thank the Lord), I truly believe the peace and strength I have has a lot to do with preparing for her loss even before she died.

There are five stages of grieving in a time of loss be it a person, a job, a pet, a relationship, our health, a season of life, a sense of normalcy amidst our current coronavirus pandemic, or anything we value.

Loss = grieving. These are the five general stages of grief:
1. Shock and denial
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance

Yet, if only life looked so ordered. The reality is that in grieving these five stages we work through in our loss, they don’t necessarily follow this order. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions can bounce around; we may feel more than one of these stages at the same time; we can get stuck in one stage and perhaps never move through it. But these are five stages commonly known to people when living through loss.

However, I’d like to take it a bit farther. I believe there is the option for pre-loss grieving…if we take hold of it. In order to pre-loss grieve, we must be open to it. We must face our own limits and be willing to push ourselves past them to see the larger picture of what is happening even while the storm is still on the horizon.

This is easier said than done. For most of us, stage one – shock and denial – sinks our head and hearts like emotional quicksand. We simply cannot accept the reality of what is happening. “This can’t be happening!” are familiar words to us all. However, I challenge us to begin to consider the fact that it is, in fact, happening. If we let our minds and hearts be open to the notion “it” is happening, then we can start to process the remaining stages of grief.

Why would we want to grieve something before it’s even happened? Why not hold on to life as we knew it for as long as possible before it’s ripped from our hands? Why not put off the inevitable? Because if we can acknowledge what is really going on, that the storm does exist no matter how hard we wish it away, then we can maximize the moments in preparation for what’s coming.

We can do this over a loss of job, home, relationships, friends, our health, etc. I am writing in the context of pre-grieving Nana’s death. I’d like to offer some steps I intentionally took to help me pre-grieve her loss and that can be applied to any type of loss.

1. Shock & Denial – This stage is very important for a huge purpose: It buffers our heart and minds from the full weight and measure of reality that is slamming into our lives like a fiery asteroid. We’re left with an enormous crater in our souls and we have no idea how to begin to process what just happened. Shock and denial run interference between us and the situation. God built this first line of defense in us so we can continue to breathe while we’re stunned by this gaping, smoldering hole (the reality of impending loss) in our hearts, minds and lives as we prepare for the loss itself.

One way to work through shock and denial is to ask questions – Everyone is different and we have different thresholds of what we can endure and when. For me, it was very valuable to attend her doctor’s appointments. I asked a million questions and being able to talk to the doctors helped me process the nature of her health. It forced me to see her new reality and acknowledge its existence. It led me to wrap my head around the shocking prognosis that her cancer had returned and it was going to take her life.

Even still, aftershocks remained as the months passed. Moments of, “I can’t believe we’re at this point,” still broadsided me when I least expected it as her illness progressed. I allowed myself to have that moment but wouldn’t let my thoughts stay here. Forcing myself to have eyes wide open to what was happening opened the other doors of my heart and head to pre-loss grieving which greatly helped me take care of her.

There may be moments when we block out what’s happening altogether (which is okay unless you are responsible for the safety or medical help of yourself or someone else). Do what you need to do to have as few regrets later as possible; but do everything within reason.

If you’re having debilitating difficulty recognizing what’s happening, get help. Staying stuck in shock and denial robs you of the opportunity to prepare for the impending loss. It also robs you of moments that could otherwise be made to maximize time left to make memories, mend hearts, make things right and find peace with what we never wanted.

2. Anger – Anger is perfectly natural. It gives us adrenalin to energize us for the task of accepting what we do not want to accept. It helps us channel the physical and emotional responses to loss. Picture a frying pan on the stove heating on high. Without adding something to the pan, the heat would eventually harm the pan or worse burn the house down. Now picture adding butter, oil or water to the pan. Instantly the pan channels the energy from the heat to the element added to it. Anger over loss is the same. It’s our water, oil or butter. Releasing anger in healthy, productive ways diffuses the thoughts, emotions and physical responses to not only accept the loss that is coming, but also the loss that is already in play.

When my mom was dying of cancer when I was 16, we moved into my grandparents’ home so they could take care of her. I felt angry that she was getting so much attention. Did I mention I was 16? Most teenagers are extremely myopic on a good day, and factor in I couldn’t begin to accept that I was going to lose my only parent, yeah, I was a hot mess. One morning I opened the refrigerator to get something to drink. I reached for the carton of orange juice when a family member said to me, “Don’t drink that. That’s your mom’s.” I replied with sarcasm in an effort for much-needed attention, “Of course it is, everything is hers.” My words and attitude didn’t go over well at all and were sharply chastised. Looking back, I see two people who both weren’t handling her illness well and took it out on each other.

This time with Nana, I allowed myself to feel angry. Anger towards the disease; anger for the loss over moments we weren’t going to enjoy; anger about ways I felt her illness cheated us out of time and experiences; anger that she had to endure this horrific, awful type of cancer; anger at watching my husband’s (her son) heart break for her; anger at the constant needs cancer demands to have met.

Be real. Be honest. Be raw. Acknowledge the anger. If not, your pan will only keep heating up until it either melts, busts into two, or catches everything around it on fire. Be responsible in your anger. My husband and I agreed in the beginning of this journey that we may not always have patience or tolerance for life or each other. We acknowledged we were going to need grace for each other. Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin…” If you do, make it right. We’re not perfect, but we do have to own our actions and words.

Some ways to release anger:

A. Vent – There were times I had to get words out of my heart and head. I needed freedom to express all kinds of thoughts – empathetic and selfish – to a few trusted sources. Tell them first that you’re venting. Say, “I just need to say this. I don’t want you to fix anything or offer advice. I don’t need you to encourage me or tell me it’s going to be okay; I just need you to listen.” That helps them understand their role. They aren’t the fixer; they are the listener. Trust me, it will save you countless arguments. If you don’t have anyone you can vomit your thoughts and feelings to, look for a grief support group in your community or online that deals with your type of loss.

B. Journal – Need to say some thoughts that you don’t want anyone else to hear? Write them down then throw them away. Ripping them up gives even more satisfaction. Or keep them in a private place to revisit as you move through the stages of grief.

C. Physical exercise – is a great stress and anger reliver. Not only does it channel all that penned up energy, but it also releases endorphins that help boost our mood. Outdoor exercise is even better as fresh air and sunshine truly does a mind and body good.

D. Play music – Granted I may have given myself slight hearing loss over the course of her illness because I played my music a bit loud to drown out my thoughts, the music hit notes, kept the beat and offered a rhythm that struck a chord with my heart and head. It can be our voice in expressing emotions for which we have no words or energy to express them.

E. Know your limits – Need a minute? Take one…or two. Responsibly take more if needed. We all need an escape hatch for momentarily solitude, a time to collect our thoughts, clear our minds, and re-center ourselves. It is not selfish to take time alone. It’s necessary to maintain your mental and emotional health. Think of time alone as gas for the car. When you feel your tank is empty, you need to put some alone time in it or eventually the car won’t move until you do.

F. Pray – Last, but most important, pray. Yes, pray when you’re angry. There’s no one who understands what you’re saying better than the One who created you and understands you even better than you understand yourself. Praying when I’m angry isn’t pretty. It’s a word scramble of disjointed thoughts, opinions and feelings. It’s emotional. It can be downright ugly. My fits can rival that of a nuclear two-year old. But the best part about praying through anger with God is there is zero judgment.

Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” God wants to help us. He’s not looking for moments to strike us with lightning, but he does help keep us from going too far. When we give it ALL to him, the Holy Spirit acts as our guard rails to keep us from driving our mental car right over our emotional cliff.
Hebrews 4:15-16 reminds us, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one (Jesus) who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

3. Bargaining – This is when we try to make deals with life, God, ourselves, others, and even the situation to try to change the circumstance or outcome. Again, God built this into us to help buffer the weight of the reality that has broadsided our lives. It’s a coping skill for when we are trapped between shock & anger and depression & acceptance of what is happening. It’s the halfway point, if you will, of grieving. It is natural. It is normal. It is our mind’s defense mechanism to keep hope alive that there is another outcome other than the loss that is coming which in turn keeps us alive, literally. It keeps us fighting for the future, keeps us eating, sleeping and doing the next thing. Bargaining keeps us looking forward, and we need that when reality is screaming at us that there is no future or forward anywhere to be seen.

In this pre-loss grieving stage, we may scour the internet for medicinal and homeopathic cures and 100th opinions. We may seek other professional opinions in person. We talk to as many people as possible until they share a story that has the outcome we want for our own lives. “If it’s possible for them, it can be possible for my situation, too!” We may be willing to try anything on earth to stop or delay the inevitable outcome.
I asked for more than one conference call with our oncologist and family spread across multiple states so we could hear his input to help understand the options, or lack thereof, that Nana had in fighting her cancer.

We may cling to a “good day,” gains on Wall Street, new data to support our hope, or other positive markers that tempts us to believe things are on the upswing at the moment. That is normal. But so is the emotional crash afterwards when we realize it was only that, a moment. Bargaining can play with our emotions and put our thoughts into a tailspin. It almost seems cruel. But, this is the way we are, knowingly or not, working out the avalanche of loss that is just beginning to rumble. Go with it. Let yourself feel the emotions that come with bargaining. Embrace the ups and downs of the process. If your heart’s equilibrium becomes too imbalanced to cope in a healthy way, get help. Talk to someone. You’ll need to get right-side up again before the loss hits so you can begin the grieving process all over again, this time post-loss.

4. Depression – Now it’s getting raw. This stage of pre-loss can cast a trajectory on where the rest of our journey of pre-loss and post-loss grieving take us. Picture the ocean. You’re on a boat and your impending loss throws you overboard. That’s bad enough and it takes all the strength we can muster to keep our heads above water while waves of emotion and a million thoughts crash over us. Depression can feel like weights tied to our arms and legs as we struggle to breathe. Suddenly, we’re sinking to the bottom of the sea and have no way to resurface.

Depression is a beast. It has a unique way of simultaneously sinking us mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically – sometimes at the same time! It’s ruthless and unfair. Nonetheless, it’s a very important part of pre-loss grieving.
• It makes us pull our head out of the sands of shock and denial and look at reality.
• It makes us acknowledge where this road of loss leading.
• It drains the energy from being angry.
• It quiets the bargaining voice in our heads.
• It is, in fact, the preparation we need to accept that loss is indeed coming.

Depression can look like many different things. We can withdraw or overcompensate with out loud behavior. We may cry, or not. We may seem angry, moody or temperamental, or not. We may pick up unhealthy habits and behaviors to try to escape feeling depressed. Watch out for this!

We may feel more tired and sleepy which is very normal as our bodies shut down extra physical energy it doesn’t need to conserve it for the emotional energy we need, and will continue to need, in the days, weeks and months to come.
Depression can trigger anxiety and the two together are the perfect storm. They can spin us into a vicious cycle and many people, like being stuck in a house of mirrors, never find their way out.

Again, if you feel depression is interrupting your daily life and responsibilities, or makes you think about harming yourself or others, or causes your quality of life to suffer to a crippling extent, or you hear worried voices of friends, coworkers and family and see the worry on their faces concerning you, get help. Sometimes we can’t see the forest through the trees.

Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (free & confidential) @ 800-273-8255.

Call Focus on the Family Crisis line for free 8am-10pm EST @ 877-233-4455.

Call your home church. Call your insurance company to find an in-network counselor. Call the counselor. Call a friend. Call family. Call someone you trust. Call a support group or local ministry that deals with your type of loss. Just don’t buy into the lie that you must go through this alone. You don’t.

Here is some practical advice for dealing with depression on a daily basis:

* Get enough rest – at least 7 hours a day. But if you’re sleeping more hours than you’re awake, that’s a problem. Rest = repair. When we go to sleep, our bodies go to work to repair the wear and tear from the day. You need this to happen to have the strength to face impending loss. You need to be at your strongest, or at least not run down. Sleep = repair. Give your body time to repair every single night.

* Talk to your doctor about taking a vitamin B complex for more energy, better brain function (including mood lifter) and promoting healthy cell growth. My favorite is “Country Life Coenzyme B-Complex Caps.” Brain fog can be a sign of depression. If you are in a high-stress season of preparing for loss, vitamin B (preferably complex which covers multiple B’s) can be an awesome natural way to help you mentally function and maintain quality of life. It is water soluble and does not store up in the body.

* Talk to your doctor about having your vitamin D level tested. Don’t just start taking vitamin D as it is fat soluble and too much can hurt you if it accumulates in the body. But a simple finger stick blood sample can reveal whether you’re low, and 98% of Americans are low because we spend most of our time indoors and use sunscreen when we’re outdoors. Your doctor will recommend an amount that’s right for you.

Are there mental and emotional benefits of vitamin D? Among it being necessary for many key physical components, “Research has shown that vitamin D might play an important role in regulating mood and warding off depression. In one study, scientists found that people with depression who received vitamin D supplements noticed an improvement in their symptoms.” (Healthline.com)

* Hydrate! Drink lots and lots of water. Even a 1-2% reduction in total body water can make us think less clearly. It can flush out viruses, increases our digestive functions, and keeps our energy up. Our bodies are mostly made up of water, and seriously, if you don’t drink enough water in this stage of pre-loss grieving your mind and body will tell you. Try for 8, 8oz glasses per day.

* Exercise – See a pattern with some of these reoccurring options? Exercise is a mood lifter. It helps us purge excess nervous energy. It gives us something to focus on for a break from the stress we are enduring in a season of loss. It makes us stronger and healthier which helps us feel stronger to face the loss that is ahead. Exercise is like creating a savings account for your body. Treat your body well and when your loss happens, you can draw on your savings account, a healthy body, to give you strength to endure. Talk to your doctor about exercise that’s right for you.

* Reduce sugar – Sugar is the staple ingredient in many comfort foods, but it provides no real comfort itself. However, it can give heart palpitations, emotionally instability with euphoric highs and awful lows, as well as lead to weight gain which helps almost no one for all obvious reasons. Stress already plagues us with these symptoms, so why add more reasons to feel bad?

* Increase protein – Most American diets are high carb and low protein. Protein reduces appetite and hunger levels; increases muscle mass and strength; is a bone-builder for better skeletal health; reduces cravings and desires for late-night snacking; boosts metabolism and reduces blood pressure; helps maintain weight loss; and helps your body repair itself after injury (Healthline.com). All of these are beneficial in keeping depression from spiraling out of control.

* Find joy every day/Enjoy healthy vices – play with your pet, take a walk, practice a hobby, sign up for an online joke-of-the-day, watch a funny movie or tv show, laugh, think positive, humorous, silly, creative thoughts. Dream! Never stop dreaming. Play with your kids. Go to nature. Count your blessings. Put thankful and positive sticky notes around your house. Pray for peace and strength. My favorite Scripture for this is Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” I have it written on an index card by my keyboard, so it is in my peripheral every moment I’m at my computer.

* Allow yourself to feel depressed (Isn’t that what sad songs and movies are for?) as it’s a natural human emotion but be able to see red flags if they pop up, and take action. Depression can take us to dark places. Learn its potholes on your path so you can process feeling depressed in a healthy way (as a vehicle to take you to acceptance), without falling into the bottomless pit of depression. You’ll need to stay on your path of pre-loss grieving, without being stuck in depression, for when your loss comes and you begin the second leg of this race, post-loss grieving.

* Acknowledge your depressing thoughts. Be honest with yourself. Journal if that helps. Sit and stare at the sky. Allow empty space in your head and heart. If we’re always thinking, feeling and doing, we’ll never have time to just be. Create moments of quiet. It’s only then our bodies and minds can leach out the pain we’re holding in.

Almost every time in yoga, at the end of practice during savasana, tears stream down my face. Sometimes I know why and sometimes I don’t. But what I do know is that pain was stored in my body and giving myself time to be quiet and still, not thinking about anything, eyes closed, emotions I may not even be aware of rise to the surface of my heart and streams out in tears. I’ve talked to instructors about this and they say it’s normal and expected. The same is true with simply sitting with the Lord. Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know I that am God.” Try it today. Just be still knowing he is God. Start with 5 minutes.

* Help someone else – Sometimes the best thing to do to cheer ourselves up is to help someone else. It gets us out of our own heads. It reminds us there is someone else going through hard times, too. It helps us feel useful even when we can’t change our own circumstances. Whenever I’m feeling low, the first thing I think is, “How can I help someone?”

Helping brings optimism and positivity to the day, as well as literally helping someone’s else world be a little easier, brighter and cheerful. One of the best things we can do to recalibrate our thoughts is to realize that although OUR world may be crashing down around us, the rest of the world isn’t. Widen your lens to regain perspective and find hope for the future.

* Let others help you – We don’t always need to be the superhero in our story. Let someone else save the day. If they’re offering to help, let them. People care and everyone needs to feel cared for sometimes.

5. Acceptance – “This stage is about accepting the fact that a new reality cannot be changed. It is about seeing how the new reality will impact life and relationships.” (econdolence.com) Like we said in the beginning, stages of grief can bounce around, blur together and seem to feel utterly random. Although acceptance is the final stage, there are parts of our story we accept at different times.

Like pieces of a puzzle, we might find peace with one issue and how it fits into our lives while the whole puzzle may be far from completed. That’s okay because that is progress. And with pre-loss grieving, we are only accepting the point of the journey to which we have come. We haven’t even begun to digest the entire happening of the loss as it has yet to come. We’re only getting ourselves in position to be able to healthfully cope and grieve the loss when it does occur. Accepting our grief thus far. Accepting the pieces of loss thus far. Accepting our dealing with it, or not, thus far.

Pre-loss grieving through the lens of acceptance is a great heart checkup.

Ask ourselves questions like, “How am I doing so far?” “What can’t I let go of at this point?” “Do I need to seek the help of others?” “Am I coping in healthy ways?” “Do I feel red flags rising in my heart or head?” “What part of this journey has been the hardest for me so far?” “Knowing I am about to grieve the loss I’m anticipating; do I have the tools in my emotional toolbelt for this?” “If not, where can I find healthy resources to have at the ready when I need them?” “How is my world? My family? My coworkers? How are those who are going to incur this loss as I will doing?” “How can I help them?” “What are my biggest strengths and weaknesses in dealing with this loss?”

Accepting the reality of unwanted change, however it’s packaged, is sobering. Humbling. It makes us feel small and it all-powerful.

But acceptance can also make us feel strong! We can be encouraged that we’ve made it this far and can finish this journey to the end. We find we’ve discovered strengths we didn’t know we had. We’ve worked through issues and forgiven and asked for forgiveness. We’ve learned to let go of what wasn’t worth our energy and reconciled what we cannot fix thus far. We’ve made peace with ourselves and the fact that the looming loss will happen. We’ve learned God isn’t the bad guy; he’s actually good all the time despite the bad stuff happening. We’ve discovered our limits and how to respect them. We’ve picked up healthy habits through grieving.

All of these things give us the momentum we need to push forward and keep running our race when the loss descends on our lives and ravages our world. It may plunder everything around us, but we’ve come too far and worked too hard through grieving pre-loss and feel the tenacity burn within us to never give up; to keep pushing; to keep striving for a healthy new normal, no matter how long it takes.

Through acceptance, we allow new things about us and our relationships to bloom new buds. Yes, they may look different, but they are no less beautiful. I’ll never forget seeing a photo of Australia after the raging, devastating and all-consuming fires they suffered. It was a heartbreaking photo of a blackened and charred forest with absolutely no life left standing. It looked like hell had come to earth and breathed its curse on a once vibrant, active and gorgeous land.

However, in the middle of photo was the most spectacular, neon-green new plant that you’ve ever seen. It looked almost like a light was shining on it, it was so brilliantly colored. A dayglow green plant standing tall and healthy among the backdrop of charred death. It was magnificent. This photo is acceptance visualized.

We take all of the bad, the dead, the charred and the once-was and allow it to feed and fertilize the roots of something new and beautiful. We allow our landscape to change, knowing it will never look the same. But, because the new growth that blooms in our hearts and lives is fed by what was, and its sacrifice now nourishes the what-is, a new forest grows. A forest stronger and healthier than before. A forest where life will bud and bloom and seed and sprout, fed by the forest of what-was.

Accepting doesn’t mean we have to forget what once-was; erasing it like it never happened. It means we allow the root of the new buds to be forever fed by the what-was. Two timelines, two landscapes, working in tandem together so lovely only God could create such beauty from ashes.

Accepting isn’t forsaking what was, it is understanding how God can work it, and we can allow him work it, for the good of our lives going forward. The less we fight him on this, the quicker new buds can take root and we can make peace with, and even enjoy, the new landscape.

After all these things come to pass, the loss indeed happens. Like a game of Chutes & Ladders, we find ourselves at start all over again. Maybe the loss didn’t happen the way we expected. Maybe it was less horrible than we anticipated, maybe it was more.

Nonetheless, we shake off our running shoes, brush off our bruised knees and tighten our laces. Looking ahead, we rally a deep breath and take the first step in working the five stages of grief, post-loss this time. Godspeed in your journey, friend. May it be well with your soul.

7 thoughts on “Lessons from Nana…Lean in

    • Hi Maria, thank you! I am inspired and encouraged by your kind words and hope this post gives you and others peace.

      • You’re very welcome, Maria. I learned all of this the long, hard way over decades. Praise God if it helps lighten the load of a sojourner’s road. We may never get “over” loss, but we can absolutely get through it. Hang in there.

  1. Pingback: Lessons from Nana…Lean in — Real. Deep. Stuff. – Site Title

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