“How in the world are we going to get through the holidays?”  The young mother agonized as she reminisced about past Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. For their family, the holidays had always meant wonderful reunions, delicious food, joyful gift-giving, and, most of all, just being together.  But this holiday season will be very different.  Someone will be absent.  The tears flowed as she recalled the late-night car crash which tragically claimed the life of her only daughter.  In mere seconds the meaning of all of her future holidays was suddenly and drastically changed.  On a larger scale, the meaning of all personal relationships was changed significantly and permanently.

Most people who have experienced the death of a loved one understand how holidays and special days are changed. They also come to understand the obvious and subtle changes that occur in their personal relationships. What about you?  What does the death of a loved one mean to you?  One person compared the sudden death of a family member to a tornado: “It came without warning, was completely unexpected, and left us in total devastation.  Everything was gone.”  Another grieving person thought about Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who had experienced a great loss.  Finding herself in a very strange place she was determined to find the Wizard, but first she had to face the lions, tigers, and bears.  Basically, Dorothy just wanted to go home.  Like Dorothy we usually want to turn back the clock and return to the “home” we knew before our loved one died.
Still another person in grief suggested that death is like a “passage,” both for the one who died and for those of us who are left behind.  As in a “passage” we experience a movement from one place to another, or we pass from one state, condition, or stage to another as we learn to live without our loved one. In our pain and fear we understandably wonder, “Is this really happening to me?”
The journey through grief is an unwelcomed journey, a “grief road trip” that usually seems very difficult to travel and impossible to complete. This type of “trip interruption” is usually unanticipated and probably unwelcomed. Yet we know from experience that grief is a co-traveler with us along life’s journey. How can we travel safely toward our destination when we hit this “roadblock” of loss and grief?

How can we develop a workable roadmap that will direct us safely home? Regardless of the comparisons we make to try to understand the meaning of loss, the bottom-line question for most of us is simply “How can I survive the loss of my loved one and stay on course in my personal and relationship journey?”  Let’s consider a roadmap in the form of four survival components, each word beginning with the letter “H.” As children, we may have learned some helpful survival tips and tools through our membership in a local 4-H Club. Because of our grief we are definitely qualified for membership in the “4-H Grief Club.”
Hurt:   Facing the Pain!

The first “H” stands for “Hurt:  Facing the Pain!”  “I don’t like grief.  It hurts too much!”  If you’ve lost someone you love, you can understand this person’s feelings.  The heart feels literally broken, almost as if you’ve been turned inside out.  The body may begin to “talk” to us through the tears, the lump in the throat, the heaviness in the chest, the frequent “butterflies” in the stomach, the constant fatigue, and numerous other manifestations of grief.  Perhaps you’ve felt like the four-year-old daughter of a colleague of mine.  The young girl went to her Mother and requested a Band-Aid. When her mother asked her, “Where do you want it?” the young girl replied, “Just put it anywhere. I hurt all over!”
Our hurt hits us in several ways.  Because we’ve lost someone dear to us, the sadness can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we feel very angry, perhaps at the person for leaving us, or perhaps at God for “allowing this to happen,” or perhaps at ourselves for something we either did or failed to do.  Our sense of failure often brings us guilt.  We “should” have done something more to help, or perhaps we think we contributed somehow to the person’s death.  Our hearts are made anxious by various fears which invade us.  The future seems uncertain.  "What will life be like without this person?  How will my relationships change? What changes will I have to make?  I just don’t feel adequate to handle it all.  I don’t know what to do."
Even a casual survey of the Bible reveals the prevalence of hurt during times of loss. We read about the pain David felt in the loss of his newborn son—and of his adult son, Absalom. We are touched deeply by Jesus’ tears at the death of his dear friend, Lazarus. On and on. . .again and again. . . people die—and those left behind feel the pain. 
A “Peanuts” cartoon depicted Charlie Brown being verbally assaulted by Lucy.  As she stormed off, feeling quite triumphant, little Linus approached Charlie Brown, dragging his blanket behind him.  “Charlie Brown, I hope she didn’t knock all the life out of you.”  “No,” responded Charlie Brown, “but you can definitely number me now among the walking wounded.”  Those of us who have lost loved ones certainly know what it’s like to be the “walking wounded.” 

Help:   Reaching for Resources!

The second “H” in the “4-H Grief Club” is the word “Help:  Reaching for Resources!” If the current loss is your first experience at coping with death, you probably feel as if you’re in uncharted territory.  You’re traveling a new and strange highway, and you don’t even have a map.  Your response may be like that of many folks in grief:  “I’ll handle this myself.  There’s no use involving others.”  This approach may work for you.  However, most of us could use some help.  The Beatles expressed it quite well:  “Help, I need somebody. . . Help . . . please, help me.”
The help we need in our grief journey may feel like welcomed “roadside assistance” and may come from two directions.  First, there is an inward direction: we look toward our inner self. Specifically, we choose to face the pain of our loss.  The temptation may be very strong to avoid the pain by staying busy, putting the grief “on the shelf,” or numbing out through alcohol or drugs. However, people who succumb to these avoidance temptations usually do not recover from their loss as well as people do who actively embrace the hurt.  Football fans would understand the language when we say that there are no “end runs”; instead, we do our best to run “up the middle”—right through the pain!  No one else can do my grief work for me.  I must become self-responsible for my own survival and recovery.  So, I need to look within myself and use all of the inner resources I’ve developed thus far: my strengths, my abilities, and my personal faith.  Specifically, I need to recall how I may have dealt effectively with losses in the past, and then try to apply those same coping methods to my current loss.  I make certain that my internal resources are working hard to assist me in my grief journey.

Secondly, there is an outward direction: we look toward external resources.  Asking for help may be hard to do, but we probably need the encouragement and guidance provided by others who have “been there.”  We can talk to family members and close friends and allow them to become our personal support system.  We can participate in a community or church support group designed for people in grief. Professional therapy could be an important resource, especially if we’re experiencing depression or anxiety.  If we become depressed to a point of feeling suicidal, we definitely need professional help in the form of hospitalization, medication, and/or therapy.  We can also read books or watch DVD’s written or produced by people who understand grief.  There is nothing weak or shameful about asking for help when we’re grieving.  If we need help, let’s ask for it!

Heal:  Getting Better!

The third “H” stands for “Heal:  Getting Better!” The phrase “grief recovery” implies healing, growing, moving forward, getting better.  People in grief learn the reality that there are no instant cures for grief.  They learn that healing takes time, perhaps several years, even a lifetime for some people. 
However, for us to achieve ultimate healing we must take the first step. That initial step is simply this: we accept the reality of our loss. A death has occurred.  I have lost my loved one.  My loss is real. It has happened to me. I try to accept the fact that a death has occurred—and the fact that my life will be different.  Other steps will follow as I try to move forward through my grief work. Successful travel through grief means that I will embrace the pain, explore my fears, resolve my guilt, manage my anger, and complete any “unfinished business” regarding my loved one.  These steps will slowly but surely bring healing, and the healing will allow me to move forward in my journey. 
Throughout this journey we must try to maintain a positive perspective, choosing to believe that we will survive the grief and that life will continue for us.  This perspective is an active process, requiring effort and energy.  We do not allow our circumstances (that is, our loss) to dictate our perspective; instead, we make a conscious mental decision or choice that we will survive. We determine our course (that is, how we will react to our loss), and we determine to stay on course. Our ability to manage our course was
once well-described in a poem written by Ella Wheeler Wilcox entitled “The Winds of Fate.”
 Some ships sail east, and some sail west,
 By the self-same winds that blow;  
 It’s the set of the sails and not the gales  
That determine the way they go.
We may not be able to stop the “winds of life” (or losses) which threaten us, but we can become “good sailors” and learn how to adjust our sails so that they will move us in the direction we need to go.  An effective healing process requires that we “set our sails” and redirect our lives in a positive direction toward our ultimate destination. 
How will I know when I’m healing?  Good question.  Most people believe they are healing when they experience less emotional pain and when they function better on a day-to-day basis.  One man thought he was finally healing from his father’s death when he could talk about his Dad without feeling that huge lump in his throat.  The good news is clear: when we do our grief work, we will heal.  We will get better!

Hope:   Looking Ahead!

The fourth “H” represents “Hope:  Looking Ahead!” When we’ve faced our hurt, secured appropriate help, and experienced some healing, then we can begin to look forward to our future.  Hope rises from the darkness of our pain.  That hope may begin as a mere flicker of light, but it grows steadily into a floodlight which will keep us on course and lead us forward. Faith will overcome the fear. The Christian will gain special strength from the hope he has in God; he will not grieve as one who has no hope.
The author Mary Fahy once wrote about a tree which was transplanted from the warm Nursery to a cold, barren hillside where it endured the harsh winter.  The tree was miserable during the cold, dark days of winter.  However, the spring came and the tree found itself turning green with foliage.  The changes of spring-time brought the tree to a clear realization: the tree was alive!  As it basked in the warmth of the welcomed sunlight, the tree celebrated and exclaimed to the world, “I have survived the winter!” [Mary Fahy (1989), The Tree That Survived The Winter.]
Right now you may still be in your “winter of grief.”  While your pain is still very real, try to see the hope that lies ahead. “Spring-time” will come, and, like the tree, you will be able to say, “I, too, have survived the winter!”

Concluding thoughts . . .

The grief journey is never easy.  If you’re hurting and struggling at this time from the loss of a loved one, perhaps the thoughts offered here have been of some encouragement to you as you continue your travel through life.  Just as the 4-H Club has helped thousands of young people in their journey toward adulthood, hopefully this special “4-H Grief Club” will be helpful to you as you travel forward in your journey toward healing and recovery.
Best wishes for a safe passage and a good journey!

(Grief Recovery #1001)

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*Unpublished manuscript Copyright 2000 by Bill J. Baker, Ph.D.


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