Do you ever have bad dreams? Dreams that are so real, you wake up thinking the world shifted? That’s what happened to me one morning, when it felt as though the sun would never rise. But I discovered that when overcoming grief, daylight is sure to come.
I was at a busy party. Lots of friends, laughter and loud music. My friend John said something over the din, but I struggled to take it all in.
He patiently repeated his startling news, a little louder this time: “There was more information about your mother than you knew.” Well, that was unexpected news.
I looked at him blankly.
He sighed. “If things had been properly done, she may not have died.”
The awful truth enveloped me like an empty parachute settling over me, making it hard to breathe.
“I can see it’s hard to understand,” he said. “I’ll come back in a minute with a bit more info.” And just like that he left.
I think I was in shock.
Her Life, My Life
John is a friend of mine, and I believed him. Plus, as he’s a medical professional I trusted him with this news. But I struggled to understand what he seemed to be saying. More information, he’d said. What did he mean by that? My mother died decades ago, so what else could possibly make a difference now?
My rational brain tried to catch up, and I attempted to reason my way through it in the middle of the party’s bustle and noise. Of course, this makes no difference I reminded myself. She did die when I was 16. There’s nothing I can do. Her life is over.
And my life? How do I cope now? One thing I do know: Jesus has walked beside me all these years, and I can lean on him now too, in this haze of new grief. Overcoming grief happens in stages, but like proverbial onion layers, there is always more.
I waited for John to return, awkwardly making conversation with friends at the party. But my mind was racing, and I was close to tears. I wasn’t ready to tell anyone this devastating news. Because it was too fresh. Too raw. Questions hung in the back of my mind, unspoken and only half formed.
Would Mum have lived longer if we’d known what John knew?
Would she have died by now anyway?
Why do I have to wait for John to come back?
Where is he anyway?
I gasped and woke up with a jolt
It was 5am, and even though it was summer, it was still dark.
I was overwhelmed with relief to realize the party was just a dark nightmare. But I struggled to breathe as the message of the dream seeped its darkness into my real-life. Disturbed and upset, I lay there, my heart beating fast, my emotions continuing to wash over me. It had all felt so real, so true, so perplexing.
John was right – when my mother died of breast cancer, my younger sister and I didn’t have all the information. As teens, the youngest in our family, we weren’t told much. For all good reasons, we were kept in a shadow of unknowing.
Half-asleep, I could not think clearly, and I dozed fitfully – too upset to sleep; too sleepy to wake up. And I waited. Somewhere, deep in my soul, I knew the darkness doesn’t last forever. I just had to hold on.
I knew daylight would surely come.
As my dream shows, all these years later, my mother’s death is something I will never fully recover from. And there are still many unanswered questions. I know deep down, I still treasure her. But thankfully her death doesn’t hold me in its grip. My friend Jesus does.
The road is dark, sometimes. Often it feels like an endless tunnel. But if I keep on pushing through, if I keep on pressing into the dark, I know this to be true: when overcoming grief, there is hope, because the daylight is sure to come.
Five Hard-won Insights About Overcoming Grief
While people sometimes observe 5 Stages of Grief, in its various forms, I’ve learnt there is not necessarily any pattern or order to overcoming grief. Everyone experiences it differently, but whatever happens, it’s important to work through loss and grief. However, personally I’ve come to understand at least five concepts as I’ve come to grips with my mother’s death.
1. Grief surfaces at unexpected moments
This is one of the worst things about overcoming grief: When finally, it feels like you’ve got it out of your system, at the most unexpected moments, it comes up behind you. And clutches your heart. Again.
It’s not just having occasional dreams. Grief has caught me when I’ve been out shopping; looking through photos; and cooking a meal my mother used to make. It doesn’t happen every time. That would make it predictable, and grief isn’t anything like that. It happens rarely. And when it does, it’s gut-wrenching.
2. You can never go back
While you might wish life will be the same as it once was, it’s taken me a long time to realize it never will. My mother’s death shaped me, and I’m now a different person to the one I would have become if I hadn’t faced her death. This is my “new normal”.
Sadly, this is where grief throws you another low blow. You not only lose your loved one, you also lose a piece of your own life. It’s a double whammy. This is another reason why overcoming grief is not simple.
3. Death Just Isn’t Fair
The terrible truth is, death was never meant to be part of the human experience – and intuitively we know it. This separation from loved ones just is not fair, and this is another difficulty when overcoming grief. It always feels so wrong when a loved one dies.
The Genesis story in the Bible explains why: before Adam and Eve rebelled with their terrible act of disobedience, they had access to two trees. The Tree of Life. And Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And they were desiged to live forever.
Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
And here are the instructions about the trees:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”
The implication is, that if he is obedient then Adam will experience no death – life forever. However, if he chooses to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, he will die.
This means death was not God’s first option for mankind. You can read Genesis 3 to read how Adam, and his wife Eve, were tricked into disobeying God, and suffered the consequences. This put into action God’s Plan B: that his Son, Jesus, would come and take the punishment, death, that we are all owed. You and I, all of humanity, are capable of doing wrong things, and this level of imperfection is not acceptable. Sadly, it all stems from this first act of disobedience by Adam and Eve.
Some people believe the story in Genesis truly happened, others do not.
But whatever you believe, there is no doubt that whoever wrote it provides an understanding of concepts that are complex, and a massive insight into the human soul.
The idea is that Death was initially unknown to Adam and Eve. It was not part of their existence. And the story implies it should be unknown to us too. Intuitively, we all know this. “Life evermore” has been sought by people as varied as Egyptian kings and Chinese emperors.
So, it’s not surprising there’s something in us all screaming, “Death is not fair! It’s not right!” Because it isn’t. It’s all wrong. It grates against us with its ragged teeth gnashing. And it’s only natural to want to put up defenses against its horror. To block it it’s darkness out, so we don’t have to face it.
And it’s when in that darkness that you and I have to remember that daylight is sure to come.
4. Grief Compounds
Years later, over 30 years after my mother’s death, when my father was an elderly gentleman in his late 80’s, my family celebrated our last Christmas with him. We knew it was coming and we were all relieved his difficult days would soon be over. In the end, he didn’t quite make it to the following May.
I was naive enough to think, “I have this grieving thing down,” all because I’d got through the death of my mother at such an early age. How wrong was I!
Because, when Dad died, it was like my mother died all over again – this time I grieved as an adult. For both of them at once. That was the surprise. It was so much more difficult than I imagined it would be. We don’t much talk about being orphaned as an adult, but let me warn you, it’s a sad day when you lose the older generation. The only description I can give you as you manage overcoming grief associated with being an orphan is that it’s like all the fence posts of life seem to shift.
Because grief compounds.
5. Choose to Stay Soft
I’ve worked hard not to allow my mother’s death to harden me. It’s been a sad journey at times, but I want to remain soft and pliable, open and loving, not just for myself but for those close to me and for my children. Especially for my children. The trouble is, it hurts to lean into the grief and roll with it. And it seems easier to shield yourself from the pain, and put walls up. But I know hardness brings bitterness.
And I do not want bitterness to be my destination.
This suffering, this tragedy, this living of life after someone’s death, is the refining thing that changes me, you, everyone. If you let him, God will walk closely with you through it, and show you the path of overcoming grief.
Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.
Psalm 110:105 NIV
God no stranger to suffering. He leads your steps from here onward, and he holds your hand. Your suffering smooths over dark and ugly places in the back-blocks of your life. Just as precious metals are refined, the stress and pressure squeeze out the bad, and make you into someone with more compassion, more kindness, and more love for the broken and hurting.
The paradox is that staying soft to death and its horrors, hands you life in all its richness.
If I had allowed my mother’s death to harden me, this would have been its victory. But I know God brought Jesus to life again. There is such a thing as life after death, and it’s called resurrection.
But don’t just believe me.
Read what Jesus said about death when he was encouraging his friend Martha, whose brother had died:
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do YOU believe this?
As you go through the process of overcoming grief, don’t forget there is Hope. Daylight will eventually come.
These are the building blocks for every single person.
What are your grief experiences? Do you have a story to share?