How can we navigate life after someone we love dies? Here are three things that I’ve found beneficial in my own grief. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful too.
The gel felt cold on my first trimester belly. I was too excited to care, though. We were about to eavesdrop on our fourth child and listen to his or her tiny heartbeat for the very first time.
As my nurse, Kathy, expertly moved the Doppler across my skin, my ears strained to catch that “galloping horse” sound among the static. It was the same sound we’d heard during my last three pregnancies, each of which had resulted in a full-term, healthy baby.
A minute passed, then two. There was nothing but empty noise.
“The heartbeat can be hard to find this early,” Kathy assured us.
My concern grew as the minutes ticked on and she continued to seek the elusive gallop. Ted and I exchanged glances. When our obstetrician finally ushered us into the ultrasound room to “take a look,” I knew something was wrong.
It was estimated that our baby, whom we later named Noah, had stopped growing at five weeks’ gestation. That meant for thirty-five days, I was unaware that I was a walking tomb. I avoided caffeine, exercised with care, and jotted down lists of potential baby names, not knowing the youngest Slater’s tiny body had ceased to grow within mine.
Life as an Amputee
Noah’s death isn’t the only goodbye our family has said since Ted and I married in 2002. We’ve also mourned the passing of several grandparents, a few friends, and, most recently, Ted’s dad.
If there’s anything I’ve learned as I’ve grieved over the years, it’s this: death permanently changes us. It never leaves us as it found us, nor does it politely refrain from affecting those things we hold as “normal” in our day-to-day life. Death demands that we adapt and adjust to continue on without someone we love.
In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis vulnerably writes about his life after the death of his wife. In it, he compares himself to an amputee:
To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop.
Presently, he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has “got over it.” But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting back up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed. . . . At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.
Lewis captures well the fact that death isn’t something we’ll simply “get over” with time. Rather, we’re required to painfully endure the changes it brings as we slowly learn to live with our loss.
Because grief is something you and I have to learn to live with, how can we come to navigate life after the death of a loved one?
While not all approaches may work for everyone, here are three things that I’ve found beneficial in my own grief. Perhaps you’ll find them helpful too as you mourn.
1. Determine to Trust the Author
To rely on God requires that I actively choose to do so. The death of someone I love makes this more painful because it’s natural amid loss to question whether God sees me and cares about me. After all, if He does, why would He have permitted my loved one to die and why is He allowing me to experience such despair? Is He really writing a good narrative for me?
Trusting God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions, and it certainly doesn’t mean I can’t voice them. God can handle my “whys.” Following the miscarriage, I had doubts about the purpose and effectiveness of prayer.
Before Noah was conceived, I had prayed for another baby. After the pregnancy test revealed a positive result, I asked regularly for a healthy, full-term infant. Objectively, my prayers didn’t work. They were ineffective. So why should I bother to pray? Did it really matter in my life?
I shared this with Ted and he responded with something I’ll never forget. “Prayer is about relationship,” he reminded me. As hard as it was to accept this, I knew he was right.
Being unafraid to wrestle with these questions served to deepen my relationship with God. I was reminded that trust isn’t about my character or who I am. It’s about God’s character and who He is. I can decide to base my trust not on the pain I experience, but on the fact that God loves me and promises to be “near to the brokenhearted” and those “crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
For me, determining to trust the Author of my story, even when it’s devastatingly hard, has been an important step in learning how to live with loss.
2. Allow Others to See the Real You
I don’t have to courageously present myself as strong or hide the real me as I mourn. Jesus Himself grieved the pain of death openly, and His example frees me to do the same.
In John 11, Jesus receives word that His friend Lazarus is ill. Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha beg Jesus to come quickly and heal their brother. Yet Jesus delays, and by the time He finally does arrive, He’s informed that Lazarus has been buried for four days. His beloved friend is dead.
Mary and Martha are beside themselves with grief and asking why He didn’t come sooner. What is Jesus’s response?
Scripture tells us, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Here’s the interesting thing, though, Jesus had the power to quickly turn His friends’ sorrow into joy. He could have skipped the tears, told His friends to “get over their grief,” and moved directly to the raising of the dead.
But He didn’t.
Instead, Jesus takes a moment to publicly reveal an important part of who He is: His empathetic nature. This is what we see Jesus express as He weeps in this moment.
In doing so, Jesus also models that allowing ourselves to feel the sting of death and to disclose it without inhibition is not a shortcoming. It is not a weakness. He gives me permission to show the real me as I mourn.
Freely expressing the weakness and brokenness I feel may not free me from sorrow, but it does help lighten my burden as I navigate a “new normal.”
3. Seek Outside Counsel and Help
For over twenty years, my dad has worked as a hospice chaplain. Through his work with those left behind, he’s demonstrated for me that I don’t have to learn to live with loss on my own. It’s okay to seek out others to help me navigate life as I now know it.
What can this outside counsel and help look like for me and for you too?
One, it could be a close friend. One or two individuals whom we trust and who allow us to speak without censorship and cry without rebuke.
Two, many churches have ministries aimed at helping people process grief. You can call your church office or talk to someone on staff to see what your church offers.
Three, there are professional counselors who specialize in grief. They can offer you and me a safe place to vulnerably share, as well as help to expertly guide you through the loss. If you’re not sure where to find one, websites like FocusontheFamily.com offer counseling referrals.
As We Mourn
Determining to trust the Author, allowing others to see the real me, and seeking outside help are three ways I’ve slowly made sense of life after the death of a loved one. They may be helpful to you too as you mourn.
This article is adapted from my new book, Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life Is Hard from Moody Publishers, 2017. Used with permission.
About Braving Sorrow Together
How do you cope when life is hard? Is there a way to grieve so that seasons of loss become seasons of growth?
Braving Sorrow Together: The Transformative Power of Faith and Community When Life is Hard is about where to turn when life is hard. Ashleigh Slater weaves together Scripture, personal stories, and guest entries to comfort the suffering and encourage hopeful grieving.
Whether your trials concern health, employment, relationships, or even death, grief can turn into growth when we lean on Christ and others. Braving Sorrow Together provides solace for hard times and advice for getting through them with grit and grace.