The Big Epic

Connecting with Nature - One Adventure at a Time

Tag: Grief

Blessed to be a Blessing

Like everyone, we have had many challenges in life. Through counseling, comfort from God, and encouragement from others, we have learned how to walk through difficult things. It is always inspiring when we can pass these blessings on to others we meet who are struggling.

God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others who are also suffering.  — 2 Corinthians 1:4

As I’ve mentioned previously, our most recent AT adventure was very hard emotionally. Both daughter and I wanted to quit multiple times. Looking back, I realize we would have missed opportunities to bless others and to receive blessings if we had given in to those negative emotions and left the trail early. Here are stories of blessings which occurred after our breakdown moments:

Daughter Andowen has worked with a therapist for many years to gain coping skills to deal with severe anxiety and suicidal ideation. A key technique is “reframing” negative thoughts. One afternoon at a shelter, Elizabeth* shared her struggles with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Before I could say anything, Andowen jumped in and talked about how significant reframing has been for her. She explained the process step by step. It was exciting for me to see my teen daughter teach her hard-earned coping skills to an older adult.

Another day, some first time backpackers showed up at a shelter we were at for a night. They were tired and discouraged. They were baffled as they tried to set up their new tent and use their fancy stove—things they had neglected to practice before leaving for the trail. Andowen went over to introduce herself, and then proceeded to calmly teach them how to use their gear. When I wandered over a little later, they raved about how helpful Andowen was, how wonderful it was that she was so skilled in the woods, and how grateful they were. Because of her encouragement, they said they plan to return to the trail for more adventures in the future. Way to go, Andowen!

One night another hiker and I stayed up late, talking about some of the profound challenges our kids face. David* shared his heartbreak that his young adult son was often in self-inflicted crisis. As is often the case, the anonymity of sitting with a stranger around a campfire allowed deep sharing. I mostly listened, occasionally encouraging David with stories from our family’s life. The next morning, I grabbed a private moment to explain what I’ve learned about grief. We can’t help others or dream of new things until we recognize and acknowledge challenges, and then grieve losses and disappointments. This process allows us to truly accept present realities even as we hope for change. Sharing these things with David reminded me of the progress we have made in our family…and sent him on his way, pondering how these ideas could begin to heal his own broken heart.

Twice on this trip, we were able to attend local church services. Both times, we were accepted, prayed for, and encouraged. Both times, it felt like some of the teachings were exactly the words we needed to hear. God used the people in those little churches to bless us as we headed further down the trail. At the same time, in both settings, the congregations were facing challenges that we have had experience with. I was able to privately encourage leaders by telling stories about what God has done in our own lives in similar situations. Warren Wiersbe, a noted theologian says, “True worship should lead to…the kind of spiritual strength that helps the believer carry the burdens and fight the battles of life.” In these little small town churches, we experienced the mutual blessing of true worship!

Sometimes being blessed and blessing others takes far less effort. Small words can echo for days: “I love spending time with your daughter.” “You have the most beautiful eyes, so full of life.” “You are doing a good job, mama. Keep it up!” Simple actions can encourage: “I picked up two wild apples, would you like one?” “I’ve got some extra water, do you need it?” “This is a tough spot. I waited to give you a hand, if you want…” When we stopped for rest-breaks, I often found myself remembering these little kindnesses.

Occasionally I am reminded of the importance of bravely sharing the lessons we learn as we walk through dark places. We never know where those bits of light might shine. After writing a blog post about “Hard Days” (you can read it HERE), a friend across the country told me the following story: Stephanie* volunteers monthly at an outreach for homeless people in her town. She found herself listening as one man poured out his desperation, telling her of his plans to kill himself after he left the park, too discouraged to reach out again for help that never changed anything. Stephanie grew more and more upset as she struggled to find any words to respond. Suddenly she remembered the closing words from my blog post that morning. When she told the man “Never quit on a bad day,” he burst into tears, and then allowed her to get him to a psychiatric emergency room where he checked himself in for treatment. Wow!

As we in American have just finished Thanksgiving Day, it is a good time for all of us to ponder:  How have I been helped in my own life, especially as I have walked through hard things? But let’s not just stop with gratitude for ways we have been blessed. Let’s start a chain of encouragement as we pass those blessings on to others!

*These stories really happened, but names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

Don’t Know What to Say (to a grieving friend)

The Holiday Season is looming. For those of us who are missing a loved one, this time of year can feel like being flattened by a runaway truck. Everywhere we look, there are stories and images of (mythical) happy families celebrating together. In the midst of grief, this can increase feelings of isolation and despair. So…what can you say or do to support a grieving friend? Here are some things to remember, whether their loved one died last week or last decade:

“Showing up, in whatever way you can is what really matters most.” – Jodi Whitsitt

You probably don’t know what to say. That’s okay. There really are NO “proper” words for dealing with death. Simple acknowledgement of that fact is helpful. I recently discovered a CD about grief by Olivia Newton John and others. They perform a song about this uncomfortable lack of words. You can listen to it HERE. (The rest of the songs are excellent reflections on grief, as well.) Just BE with your friend. After our son died, I have a special memory of a dear friend who came over a few weeks later and just sat in silence with me on my couch, both of us curled up under cozy blankets, drinking mugs of hot tea.

It might make YOU feel better to spout platitudes: “he’s in a better place;” “God works everything for good;” “she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Don’t do it! Find ways to make yourself feel better on your own time. When you are with your grieving friend, it is better to say something like this: “I have no words to say” or “I’m so sorry.” It might feel inadequate…but you really can’t “fix it” so don’t try! I have forgotten what most friends said after my son died…but I always remember the co-worker when I finally got back to work who said “there are no words” then gave me a long hug.

Wanna help in practical ways? Please do not make the vague statement, “if there’s anything I can do…” Folks who are grieving have foggy brains. They have no idea what they need help with! Pick a specific task that fits that friend, then do it. THIS ARTICLE tells a story of the significance of polishing shoes. For me, the friends who took turns picking up my younger kids for playdates were an invaluable help. Bringing a meal for the family is traditional…and helpful. But one friend thought of something others hadn’t. She brought us bags of useful paper products: TP, Kleenex, and paper plates/napkins.

THIS ARTICLE makes suggestions for 13 practical ways to help a grieving friend. As she says, “Just Show Up!” Awkward is better than disappearing. Remember to continue reaching out to help in the months and years after the funeral. More than just asking how we are doing (which at least acknowledges that we are not forgotten), give opportunities for us to talk about our loved one. We long to know they are not forgotten. I treasure the occasional photo or anecdote about my son that my friends continue to share with me (like this one, posted on fb eight years after his death).

There aren’t many resources for using art and words to process grief. From my experience, I have written a few online classes. Consider sharing this information with a grieving friend—or check it out for yourself! The first class I wrote is relevant right now: “Hope for the Holidays.” You can find a link HERE including a description and a code for free access for the first month.

As I have written in previous blog posts (HEREHERE and HERE) death and grief are perhaps the greatest (unwanted) adventure. Please reach out and encourage others who are in the midst of a life-changing grief-journey, especially now as the holidays approach.

The Last Adventure

Life can be filled with adventure. Or it may be spent quietly at home, in a gilded cage of routines and responsibilities. We get to choose how we live. Eventually, however, we run out of choices. We face the last adventure: Death.

The mighty tree has fallen…new life begins…

I haven’t written any blog posts in the past six months. It felt like I had little to share. I wasn’t pursuing epic adventures nor was I making much art. I was staying involved with my folks as my Dad’s time here on earth was coming to an end. His heart beat its last rhythm on April 28, 2017

It felt like this was a time of small deeds, of simple words, of loneliness and isolation. Looking back, however, I realize these same things are elements of what makes an adventure “epic.” It is in overcoming obstacles large and small that humans are stretched beyond daily routines. According to the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, an epic adventure is “any task of great magnitude.” Looked at through that lens, these past six months have indeed been a big epic! What can be greater than helping a loved one move on to the next world even while helping oneself and others grieve that loss here on earth?

My dad lived a life filled with adventure. He traveled many places around the world, both for pleasure and to help others. He adventured on the water and on long road-trips across the United States. He finally fulfilled his dream of taking epic motorcycle trips—to all four corners of the USA and even in the back country of The Gambia, West Africa!

In the past year, Dad gradually lost mobility. Other health issues limited the time he could sit in a plane or in a car. His last trip was to visit family in Montana (my son and his brother) and in Idaho (his nephew). He treasured the memories of that adventure, even in his last few weeks.

Although his health was declining rapidly, Dad enjoyed a family gathering at the end of the year. He was “tickled pink” to welcome a new grandson-in-law to the family and meet the fiancé of another grandson. A few weeks after the party, Dad realized his prayers had been answered: he had the opportunity to see his family members all together one last time.

During the winter, Dad’s world continued to shrink. He could no longer go to the airport to say hello or goodbye to traveling family members. With the cold weather and his limited mobility, Dad enjoyed the few days that were sunny enough to sit outside. Eventually, even getting to church became too much for him.

I sat with Dad weekly through the winter and early spring. Talk meandered here and there: sometimes reminiscing, sometimes talking about practicalities of medical issues, sometimes just sitting together in silence. I treasured those times…and so often I cried myself to sleep on those nights. How can you bear seeing your dad struggle more and more with life? How do you say goodbye to your dad?

In the last ten days of his life, Dad’s world closed in around him, even though he was still at home. He was confined to bed. He needed help to eat or drink. He couldn’t even move without assistance. My siblings stayed at the house twenty-four hours a day, helping Mom to care for Dad. I came in each day, to give the caregivers a break. During this time, my sister and I spent hours playing his favorite hymns. He took comfort in the music just as he found moments of calm in prayer.

And there was waiting, lots of waiting. Dad dozing and crying and begging for the waiting to be over. His family staring out the window, taking walks, seeking the comfort to be found in nature. All of us asking God for hope and comfort and a peaceful passage for him into the next world.

At one point, near the end, Dad asked “When will this trip be over?” Finally, he took his last breath, and started his new journey. We are still grieving his loss…but this photo summarizes the last adventure quite well:

The mighty tree has fallen…new life begins…

Surviving Epic Tragedy

We tend to think of an “epic adventure” as something life changing; something we dream of for years; something worthy of being included on the “bucket list.” Sometimes, however, the big epic that changes our lives is a tragedy. No matter how prepared we like to think we are, we will never be ready for certain experiences. It is impossible to control every aspect of life and guarantee safety. In the aftermath of epic tragedies, it is often the small things that help us survive.

(Stick with me here…there are fun discoveries at the end of this post!)

Eight years ago, one of our teen sons died unexpectedly. Yes, that rocks one’s world (and not in a good way, of course!) I’ve learned a few coping skills: focus on the next breath, and the next breath, and the next one. Interact with God (or beliefs that are bigger than yourself). Find friends who will sit beside you in silence and let you grieve. Listen to the stories of others who have survived similar losses…and eventually share your own story with the world. (I have most recently written about this HERE and HERE.) James n Jill_the Rock_silly

It is a challenge each year to figure out what we want to do on the anniversary of James’ graduation to heaven. Looking back, it has been different each year. Since our son was full of mischief, loving to tease and make others laugh, we usually choose to pursue small things that bring us pleasure and that will make us smile. We want to focus on his colorful life, not dwell on the agonies of our grief.

This past Friday was a good example. Hubby took the day off work. We knew we couldn’t bear to sit at home and stare at the walls. So we hopped in the car, with youngest daughter in the back seat, and took off for a long, meandering drive. We enjoyed discovering old houses in older towns, relishing those that have been well-cared for, saddened by abandoned, falling-down shells. We cranked the music and sang along. (Gut wrenching but also made me laugh when a song played at son’s funeral unexpectedly came on.) We talked and we rode in silence. We ate fast-food supper, and then started a search for dessert. Oh my! Just LOOK at the wonderful place we found in a small rivertown.

There was a little sign by the side of the highway for Griffith & Feil’s Soda Fountain. We went on a search for it. And found this gem in the historic downtown area of Kenova, KY.  The atmosphere was delightful. The history was intriguing. The staff was friendly. And the treats were “dee-lish.” old-time drugstore_checking out history

old-time drugstore_soda fountain

old-time drugstore_soda fountain2

Old-time Drugstore_historic

We will certainly visit this little treasure again. Now we have happy memories to layer onto this oh-so-difficult day on the calendar. Sometimes it is indeed the small things that move us from survival to thriving again after an epic tragedy.

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