Monday, November 17, 2008

When a friend is grieving the loss of a parent

Dear invisible friends,

My mom, who is in her 70s, and I have had several discussions recently about the stages of funerals. First, she said, her friends' parents started dying. Then it was their husbands. Now, she is attending the funerals of her friends themselves.

I am in the "parents stage" now, and I bet many of you are too - or will be soon. In the past few years, I have had to watch some of my dearest friends and many acquaintances grieve over lost parents. I haven't been in this situation yet, and therefore, don't really know what my friends need. I've done my best but I am pretty sure that mistakes have been made.

Leah is one of my dearest friends, sisters in Christ, and Aunt Weah to my babies. (She is also known as Saint Leah at this house, because she regularly emails with offers to babysit.) Currently, we are crying and praying for our friend JillAnn, whose dad died in August. I sent her a card. Big deal, right? Yeah. It is. I knew it was, because Leah had told me that sympathy cards really are a comfort. What else is? And, just as important, what isn't? Our discussions spawned this guest post.

Welcome my sweet, precious friend Leah to It's Almost Naptime.

Missy, thank you so much for asking me to guest blog – it is quite an honor!

My father died on December 15, 2004. Primary cause of death: cancer. Secondary: 5ish-year history of dementia due to a 30-year-old head injury. And then I began my journey through grief. It was full of unexpected emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual responses. Why unexpected? For one, I didn’t fully understand how all-encompassing grief was. Second, I had essentially “lost” my dad years before his death. The dementia robbed him of the ability to speak, reason, and to a certain extent, comprehend. So I thought dealing with the final loss wouldn’t be all that bad.

Boy, was I wrong.

One of the first unexpected feelings was a vulnerability, a sense of being unprotected. It took my awhile to figure out why, but I finally realized: Dads are supposed to protect their children. (Key word: supposed. I was very fortunate to have a dad who fulfilled this responsibility.) My God-given protection had been ripped away. I’m single, so I don’t have the “back-up” in a husband. (Missy's note: My mom was almost 70 when her dad died, but she said it still took her aback that she was now an orphan.)

For about the first three months, I was mostly okay. I would tear up every now and then. Being the stoic that I am (just like both my parents), I would successfully fight back the tears because I really hate crying. Also, these moments usually came on my way to work, and I didn’t want to mess up my make-up (vanity, thy name is Leah).

But then, while I was out driving on day, I saw a big banner on a hotel advertising Mother’s Day Brunch. Then I thought of Father’s Day. And that’s when it hit me that I would never, ever be able to celebrate Father’s Day again.

I, who (grit your teeth when you say this) hates crying was sobbing, SOBBING in my car. I didn’t even care about whether the tears would wash off my concealer or mess up my mascara. I managed to get ahold of a friend on my cell phone who prayed for me and helped me regain composure.

Later, I learned this was typical. God has clearly designed the grief process. In his book Life After Loss, Bob Deits explains that you are basically numb for the first three months after a loss. That gives you time to handle the administrative stuff after someone dies.

Then the unexpected symptoms (issues? responses?) of grief hit big-time. I thought grieving was just being sad. But it is soooo much more. Grief maxes out your system so that there’s very little room for anything else. I was more irritable than usual. I became forgetful. I had trouble concentrating at work. Any kind of noise drove me crazy. My office shared a wall with the group therapy room for the psychiatrist’s office next door (irony?), so trying to work during their sessions was next to impossible. I still occasionally have trouble concentrating and blocking out background noise.

Further, I was just “not myself” for about a year or so. For instance, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the summer after my dad died. Normally, I would have a full-on empathetic response. But even with the horrifying pictures and sad stories, I didn’t really feel much. I asked my cousin about this, whose dad died of Alzheimer’s about ten years before. She reassured me that my response, or lack thereof, was typical of one who is grieving. Essentially, my “feelings” were tied up in my grief. I didn’t have anything left over for anyone else. Not in a selfish way. Just in a “my system is overloaded” way.

The Anger Stage of grief hit seven months after my dad died when a coworker who was 34-years-old, married, and the father of a 3-year-old girl died. My heart hurt so much for this family. Then I got flat-out angry with God. This is not how things were supposed to go. Why did my coworker die? He was one of the good guys. Why did my dad die when I was fairly young?

I had absolutely no desire to read the Bible or pray during the Anger Stage. This, coming from someone who grew up in church and led BSF for years. Not that I’m a Super-Christian, I’m just saying it was huge for me not to want to even crack open the Bible.

My anger was due in part to the inconsistencies I saw in what God’s Word says and what I experiencing. Why does the Bible promise rewards for those who are faithful when it didn’t appear to happen in my parents’ case? Dad was a deacon at his church; he shared Christ with others. He was gentle, good, and kind. We found out later he gave away lots of Bibles. He was even posthumously awarded Veterinarian of the Year by the Memphis/Shelby County Veterinarian Association.

Exactly eleven months after my dad died, my pastor from home, Dr. Adrian Rogers, died. As I watched the DVD of his memorial service, I was reminded of how much he was in love with Jesus, and God began melting my heart.

I struggled with the ultimate irony: the God who allowed these wretched things to happen was the only One who could provide true comfort.

Then I chose to believe all those Scriptures that promised “good” things. For reasons I’ll never understand, God chose for me to suffer in this way. I’ll never understand why my dad died at the fairly young age of 67. I’ll never understand why those in their 20s and early 30s (or younger) lose a parent.

Grief sucks. Big time.

But I do know that the Lord has given me the opportunity to be a part of the “comfort chain” described in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Now I’m sharing this comfort with a friend whose dad died unexpectedly. It hurts to watch her struggle through grief. Her dad died after a complicated heart surgery and horrific two-week course afterwards. She is extremely frustrated with how some friends are responding.

Thus, the guest blog.

So, what do you do when a friend’s parent dies? What do you say? How much can you ask?

Tomorrow, Leah will share some practical tips on how to help a friend who is grieving the loss of a parent.  Click here for part 2.

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