Here are some specific practical things grieving parents can do to help themselves during those first couple of years.
Some of these things you will immediately think, “I could never do that!” and that’s okay, even expected. But there should be at least one or two things that give hope and seem doable.
There are no shortcuts to this; only ways to help ease the burden of it at times. But before you get to the list of thoughts and suggestions, here are a few things that are helpful to know:
- Anything under five years for the death of one’s child is considered fresh grief, so it’s okay to be a mess for the first few years.
- The death of one’s child is considered a trauma (and many parents also have PTSD). Give yourself lots of grace, especially when others around you don’t.
- You must go through this; there is no way around it. Sorry…
- There is no timetable.
- Moving forward does not mean you are leaving your child behind.
- You will survive.
- You are not alone!
After sharing those things that are important to know, here is the list of practical things to consider doing, to help you see light in the darkness and hope when you feel hopeless.
- Perspective – Ask God to give you His perspective on something that is plaguing you with fear, anxiety or panic because of your limited view. God has done that for me so often, and it really helps to see these intensely painful thoughts through His infinite eternal eyes instead of my own limited earthly ones.
- Do your best to stop the “What ifs” and “Whys” – They serve absolutely no purpose, they won’t bring your child back, and they can send you spiraling down further into that suffocating pit. These thoughts just bring torment.Instead, start asking God “How?” How is He going to help you get through this? How is He going to get you to want to live again without your child? How is He possibly going to take something this horrific and bring even remotely good from it? (Those are the questions He likes to answer.)
- Start a thankfulness journal – What we focus on will consume us. Allow yourself to start seeing what is still around you. Every night, make yourself write down 3 things you can be thankful for.It could be as small as I noticed a bird chirping today for the first time since my child died, or I walked by the bakery and it smelled really good, or I didn’t start crying today until I got into the shower instead of when I first woke up.
- Forgive – When our child dies, there are so many people we need to forgive from the person who caused it, people around us who are hurting us in our grief, ourselves, our child for leaving us, and yes, God. Unforgiveness is extremely heavy baggage we carry around. Forgiveness is not for others, to let them off the hook, but to release ourselves from them, lightening our load. (The Grieving Parents Sharing Hope Podcast has an entire series on forgiveness and those we may need to forgive. Go to www.gpshope.org/podcast episodes 1-8.)
- Laughter – You will probably feel guilty the first time you laugh. “How can I possibly be happy when my child died? What kind of an awful parent am it?” It is important to get yourself past that, by thinking about the fact that your child is beyond happy where he or she is! They are full of joy beyond what we will ever be able to experience here on this earth. They are HAPPY, and it is okay for you to be happy again while here on earth. This separation, as painful as it is, is only temporary.
- Music – God created music to be a pathway to our soul. I spent hours and hours soaking my soul in music that reminded me how big God is, how faithful He is, how much He loves me and my family, and sometimes just instrumental music as I sobbed, allowing God to comfort my shattered heart. Make sure the music you listen to isn’t about despondency, depression and darkness. That isn’t what you should be feeding into your soul and it will keep you in that suffocating place much longer.
- Pick up an old hobby or start a new one – I know someone who got the equipment and went back to the days when she used to make pottery. Another friend started refinishing furniture and making wood signs with sayings and now has her own indoor booth area locally to sell them. Find a hobby that will help take your thoughts off of your loss for a while. (Yes, the sadness will still be there, but it is helpful to be able to have your thoughts occupied with something that your hands are doing.) Sewing, gardening, get back to stamping, coloring, do paint-by-numbers, start a collection of something, take an auto mechanics course… the options are endless!
- Get out and walk or do something active – I know we have such a huge lack of energy that even taking a shower can wipe us out for the day. But we need to take care of ourselves and get moving, even if it is just to walk up and down the block each day. I know of at least two parents who started running marathons after their child died. Our physical health affects our mental, emotional and even spiritual health. Being in deep grief has gotten our bodies majorly out of whack, and the sooner we can do things to help our physical health (like move around instead of just sitting in a chair staring all day), the sooner it will trickle to the other areas of our emotions, our mental health, and help our spirits to be more easily strengthened.
- Eat healthy and drink lots of water – Even if food has no taste and you have no appetite, you need nourishment. I admit, I am one to run to comfort foods and am still paying the price with the extra weight it gave me. Even if it is one small healthy meal a day, and several small glasses of water, it will start taking an effect and you will be better equipped to handle the grieving process.
- Volunteer – Help others. This one is a key that many grieving parents find successful. There is something about helping others that lifts your heaviness a bit and opens your heart to warmth and goodness. Serve in a soup kitchen, volunteer at the local animal shelter, help at a local food or clothing bank. Help raise money for an organization that has a special place in your heart because of your child. There are so many great organizations that need feet on the ground to keep their doors open.
- Get a pet – I know of several grieving parents who got a pet to help comfort them and bring some joy into their lives after the death of their child and just can’t say enough about how much it has helped them, both emotionally and physically. (Most of them got dogs – I am a cat person, myself.)
- Be aware of your self-talk and your thoughts – His light is still in us, His peace is in us, the seed of Hope is in us. Your mind is active all the time. It is either thinking positive thoughts or negative thoughts. Do your best not to let it become the devil’s playground with fear, doubt, lies and anxiety. When you find yourself struggling with so much overwhelming darkness and negativity, look at the things above and pick something that will pull you out of that place. If that doesn’t work, pick something else. Do what you can to try and not to stay in that place for days and weeks on end.
- Think of heaven – our future to come and where our child is. Heaven is a wonderful place! And now that our child is there, we want to skip the rest of our time here and be there with him or her! (Jesus told us that where our treasure is, our heart will be also, so it makes sense that our heart is in heaven with our child.) Books are great for this! There are several great books that bring the reality of heaven closer, which brings our child closer. Fact: God gave us the gift of imagination. We can either imagine the horrible things that keep us in darkness and panic, or we can imagine the joy and fun our children are having right now. It’s our choice. One keeps us in chains, the other can set us free.
I want to end by sharing what may be THE most important practical thing you can do, which is to urge you to connect with others who are ahead of you on this journey.
I know you may feel like you don’t want to be pulled down even more by being around a bunch of other people who have lost their children and are a mess like you. That is exactly what I thought, so it took me three years to meet up with other bereaved parents. And when I did, I wish I had done it sooner, because it did the exact opposite. It was a relief and so healing to be around a bunch of other people who had also lost their child and were a mess like me!
They got it. I didn’t have to wear a mask or explain any emotions. I didn’t have to feel guilty for laughing at something or stupid for crying. I didn’t have to apologize for wanting to talk about my daughter, or for not wanting to talk about her. And I found out that so many things that I thought were me going crazy and losing it for so long, were all a normal part of grieving the death of my daughter, Becca.
So, I encourage you to look for those who have found their way out of the darkness and are willing to go back in and walk with others in their place of darkness; those who will not only give you hope, but will be that hope for you, until you find it for yourself.
If these tips were helpful, you may also be interested in getting a PDF of Thirty Suggestions to Help Bring Ourselves Comfort and Take Care of Ourselves. Just let us know where to send it.
Expressions of Hope is written by author, speaker and singer Laura Diehl. She and her husband, Dave, are the founders of Grieving Parents Sharing Hope (GPS Hope). Dave and Laura travel full time in their Hope Mobile (a 38-foot motor home) to be more easily available for speaking and ministry requests, including being invited to hold one-day GPS Hope & Healing conferences.
If you would like more information about Laura as a speaker for your next event or want more information on hosting a GPS Hope & Healing conference, click here.
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