Sometimes bad things happen; tragedy comes without invitation or preparation. And when it comes, it leaves you numb and in a place of fear and confusion; a place without direction; broken. For me, it came on August 28, 2013. On that day, I found my brother after he had taken his life. My life changed in that moment, my heart shattered into millions of pieces. Those first few months after were the most difficult of my life. To be able to share what I did to start on a path of healing, I must first try and describe where I was. This has not easy for me to write and especially to share, so I pray that you will read this with a gentle heart. If, by reading these words, one person who is new to grief will feel less alone and find a bit of hope, a bit of direction, then it will be worth it for me.
The first four months after my brother’s death I can only find one word to describe my life; hell. All I wanted to do was stay in bed, pull the covers over my head and pretend that my life wasn’t my own; that it was all a bad dream and that I would wake up to find my world back together again. But this nightmare was my life. And with four small children, I wasn’t able to stay in bed. I had to get up. Those first four months were months of surviving rather than living, four months of trying desperately to repair my broken heart.
I’m falling apart, I’m barely breathing
With a broken heart that’s still beating
In the pain, there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on, I’m holdin’ on
I’m barely holdin’ on to you
“Broken” by Lifehouse
For many weeks, I used movies as a way of escape. For a few moments I was able to be numb to the pain. But this offered me only a brief distraction instead of any real healing. Some people say “time heals all wounds,” but I disagree. Without finding healing, time can infect and cause anger, resentment and bitterness. Without pursuing healing, time only brings more pain.
I wasn’t sleeping well. I felt haunted and tortured by Satan in the dark of night, attacked with images that my mind never wanted to see again. It was in dim fluorescent light that I found my brother and I found myself afraid of the dark but even more so, terrified of dim light. We slept with the lights on in our room for almost five months, Joey, my husband never complaining.
I have never been an angry person, but my brother’s death triggered something inside of me. There were moments after where all I wanted to do was throw myself on the floor and kick and hit, throw things, and scream… It was more than anger, it was fury, it was rage. There were times I found myself yelling and screaming at my husband and children, the people I love most in this whole wide world. Remembering these moments devastates me. The pain I caused them breaks my heart. I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t feel angry with God or my brother. I still don’t really understand where the anger came from or why it came. My therapist wanted to put me on medication, but Joey and I didn’t think that was the right choice for me. So when I found this anger welling up inside, I would go into the garage and hit my punching bag. Over and over and over while I would cry, until I was too tired to hit or cry anymore. Thankfully, with healing, this anger has subsided.
During the first few weeks after his death, I was also dealing with an unhealthy relationship that I can only describe as one that was holding me under water, barely allowing for breaths. I was so absorbed in dealing with this relationship that I wasn’t even able to deal with the death of my brother. Friends and my therapist urged me to end the relationship. Ending this relationship was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. It took me six weeks, but when I did, I found myself able to begin dealing with the pain of my brother’s death.
If there is one thing I have learned from grief, it is that everyone handles it differently; in their own time and in their own way. And everyone finds healing differently as well. There is no formula you can follow to find healing. Each one’s journey is different. But today, I will share how I found healing in those first few months. Maybe there are pieces of my journey that will be helpful to another.
A colleague of mine texted me these words just hours after, “one breath at a time”. And I remember repeating this phrase over and over to myself in the first few weeks. Just one breath at a time. I can do this, one breath at a time.
I found a suicide support group. I desperately needed to find other’s who knew what I was going through, someone who had also lost a loved to suicide, someone to help me find healing. I didn’t know what to do or even where to begin.
I accepted help. Friends and family surrounded our family with their love and support. I don’t know what we would have done without the food, the phone calls, the cards, the flowers… all of the love that was showered upon us. It meant so much.
Since I wasn’t sleeping well I would read and I would pray in the wee hours of the morning. I read my Bible and started reading books on finding healing, on prayer, and on how to find joy. I also began to journal. I wrote out my thoughts and feelings, unedited and raw. And I started counting my joys. Starting my day with Jesus was and still is essential for me in getting through my day. Jesus gives me hope. Without Him, there is no healing.
I would look up. Anytime the sadness would overwhelm I would literally place my hands under my chin and force myself to look up. Instead of a slumped over, defeated posture, this would force me to stand up straight and strong. For some reason, this posture alone helped me to readjust my attitude, readjust my gaze. I truly believe there is something about taking the focus off of yourself and placing it onto Christ that changes your direction and allows healing.
My children were also suffering. There was no easy way to explain to my two oldest children (ages six and eight) how they lost their uncle to suicide. Suicide shouldn’t be a word in their vocabulary; it shouldn’t be a word in anyone’s vocabulary. While I wish we could have spared them this detail of his death, we wanted them to hear the truth from us. To watch my children grieve and to hear them cry was excruciating. I relied on my husband a lot during this time, but I was the one who was home with them all day. The one who was depressed herself, battling post-traumatic stress and barely holding on. We watched for signs of depression in them. While they were sad and devastated over his loss, they grieved appropriately.
In some ways it would have been easier for me to send the kids to school or preschool. It would have given me the time alone, the space I desperately needed to begin healing. But I also needed the kids close and they needed me. Their presence wouldn’t allow me to sit on the couch, stare off into space and sink into a of place of depression. They forced me to interact and to be present; they forced me to find healing. We would spend hours snuggled on the couch reading books together. I needed their hugs, their flowers, and cards, I needed their bodies next to mine. Their touch brought me such healing. My baby, who was then two-years-old, stopped taking naps in her crib during this time, but she would take them on me. And while I was “stuck” with her on top of me for 1-2 hours every afternoon, her touch was some of the best therapy that I received. There is something about a sleeping baby on my chest; to feel her breath on my neck and to watch her body rise and fall brought such healing.
A pastor friend of mine gave me this advice; “In an emergency on an airplane, a parent must first put on their own oxygen mask before placing one on their children.” That advice was so true and what I needed to hear. I needed to find healing for myself before I would be able to be of any real help in the healing of my children. I found help through a respected Christian therapist who came highly recommended from someone I trusted. He dealt with patients suffering from PTSD. He also helped me to understand suicide a little better and helped me in dealing with the unhealthy relationship.
I got my hands in the dirt. I had been to a conference on homeschooling that had told a story of war veterans suffering from PTSD. Part of their therapy (horticultural therapy) was getting their hands in the dirt. So the kids and I began gardening. Being outside in nature brought such healing for me and for my children.
I had a friend suggest singing Rock of Ages aloud at night when the images would come. I had another friend suggest reading the Bible aloud, specifically Psalm 91. Satan will not stay in the presence of Jesus. I believe these suggestions, along with therapy, were instrumental in my being able to turn the lights off and begin sleeping in the dark.
Better sleep was the key to my healing. It got me out of my hamster wheel of grief. With better sleep, I was able to function instead of living in a haze. I was able to cope.
Once I started sleeping, I was able to begin exercising. I started running in my hills again. This was my God therapy. I would pray and I would listen, I would sing and I would cry. This was my time to truly be alone with God.
I have discovered the best way to find healing, is to keep my focus always on Jesus, to keep looking up. When my focus is on Him, my eyes are taken off of myself, my own grief and pain, and put onto others… in looking for ways to serve and to help. This has been one of the best ways I have found healing. I believe there is nothing that can heal you more than helping another.
It’s so easy to read these neat little words all packaged together, but my healing wasn’t like that. It was messy and it was hard. But I am healing and I know that Jesus is walking beside me. “You are not on a journey to God; you are on a journey WITH God” (Steve Maraboli). I still have bad days. Days that I just cry… but they come fewer and farther between. Those are the days that I find I need to focus even more so on falling into the arms of Jesus and just abiding in Him until the storm of sadness passes.
I am now over a year and a half into my healing and I can say that as long as I am living on this side of heaven, I don’t think I will ever be healed. I believe healing is a journey, not a destination. It is a daily choice I must make. “Grief never ends… But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, not a lack of faith… It is the price of love” (Author Unknown). But, I can say it is well with my soul. I am living a life filled with peace, with hope and with joy. If you are new to grief, know that you are not alone. There is hope in Jesus, because of Jesus. And because of hope, there is healing and there will be joy for you again.