“I’m sorry, but there was nothing we could do…she’s gone,” the doctor stated in a professional tone of voice on that life-changing Thanksgiving morning.
I felt as though my stomach and heart had been knocked out of me, then after the initial shock, as though I couldn’t breathe at all.
It felt as though grief and life had knocked my breath out of me and took all of my oxygen away.
I was only 19 when my 22 year-old sister, Melody, died on Thanksgiving Day, but I wasn’t new to grief. I had already experienced the devastating deaths of my dad, grandparents, boyfriend, other family members, and several friends while growing up.
Our family was also currently in mourning at the time of Melody’s death, because my other sister’s fiancé had just died three weeks before.
Everybody has a grief story that begins the very moment death or loss hits them, as they are catapulted into a grief experience they didn’t sign up for. After being told that my sister died, her death catapulted me into a heartbreaking grief experience that has been one of the hardest grief stories to unfold in my life.
My sister had been in the hospital for only a few days (after having what seemed to be severe allergies), so we were genuinely shocked by her death.
After her doctor told us the news of her dying, nothing could have prepared my family or me for the excruciating grief journey we all were about to take.
The very first step of my grief journey began as I made my way to see my sister one last time. As I began to process the new, unwelcoming reality of her death, my heart sunk with each and every step I took on the way to her hospital room. The pain was unbelievable as I walked in, realizing she wouldn’t be alive…knowing she wouldn’t respond…realizing I would never have another conversation with her…and I’d never feel a hug from her again.
I would never have the opportunity to do anything with my sister ever again.
All of our future plans were now just a vapor.
It literally was more than I could take.
I dreaded the grief, and survivor’s guilt, I felt from my sister’s death. The fact she had recently saved my life made the survivor’s guilt even worse. I fell into a deep depression and became desperate to find any way to feel better.
The depression was there when I woke up in the morning and remained there when I’d fall asleep at night—if I could sleep at all. I began to feel unbalanced and didn’t understand how to stabilize my broken heart or find relief.
While going through the heartache of my sister’s death, it felt as though grief had ripped my heart out and was holding it hostage. I began to hate and resent my grief to its very core.
I found that the worst part of grief was it was in control—grief wasn’t something I could shut off or simply decide not to go through. There was no escape from the deep heartache. I knew from past experience it would have to play out in its own time…but this time felt different. I knew right away this was going to be one of the most challenging times of my life and it was going to take a toll on our family.
How do you heal after a devastating loss? How do you find a “new normal” as you try to live life again…without a treasured loved one?
When the storms of grief overwhelm your heart and soul, how do you find your way through the complicated maze of grief to once again find your way?
How do you help your family and loved ones who are also in pain?
I know when I asked myself these questions, I wondered if life would ever truly be good once again.
Healing takes time, as well as a lot of self-reflection and work. I had never done so much working on my self, my heart, and my spirit as I had to do after my sister’s death.
Although I felt like my world had ended and felt like majorly isolating myself, I still had loved ones who needed me and depended on me. I had a baby, and my sister’s three children came to live with us, so I had to find a way to navigate through my grief.
Grief had knocked my entire breath out of me, and my depression was thick. I knew I had to find a way to get as much oxygen back as I could so I could carry out my daily responsibilities…and, hopefully, deeply breathe in life once again.
Every griever has to answer the above tough questions, and all the other questions grief brings to the surface, for their individual self.
Through my personal grief experience, I found 10 things that personally (and tremendously) helped me to fully live life again. None of the 10 things were instantaneous; all took time. Many of these 10 things took more time and work than I ever could’ve anticipated, but all were worth the time, energy, and hard work.
I felt as though many of the following 10 “oxygens,” and my grief experiences of losing each loved one, were like a giant ball of knotted strings. I had to work through unknotting each string, so I could see the true condition of the strings. After unraveling each string, I could finally make a tapestry out of them to honor my treasured loved ones and grief experiences…making something of great value out of my grief experiences.
These are the 10 things that helped me to get my breath back most:
1. I realized the importance of grieving in my own unique way. I gave myself the freedom to feel what I needed to feel and grieved in a way that was best for me and my family without any unsolicited outside influence. I also allowed my family to grieve in their own unique, individual way without any expectation from them.
2. I sought out ways to regain my hope. I felt such an incredible void of hope that I quickly became despondent. I had to look for ways to build hope back into my life each and every day.
3. I sought out the encouragement I so desperately needed by attending church and grief groups. Majority of the experiences were great, but unsatisfied by some, I eventually started my own grief ministry so I could create a better way to help others and be the encouragement I knew others so badly needed, too.
4. I began to better understand the importance of all of my relationships and I intentionally invested in my relationships with my remaining loved ones. My sister, who lost her fiancé three weeks before our sister’s death, states this very well, “When you lose a treasured loved one, it’s like someone cut off your arm. When you no longer have one limb, you deeply miss it and become extremely appreciative of the remaining three limbs you DO have.”I go out of my way to treasure my family and closest friends and try to love each of them very well.
5. I learned how to work on my heart and spirit, and developed a treasured relationship with God. This was tough because I was upset with Him. I had to work through many spiritual issues to escape major bitterness, so for me personally, this step was of great importance.
6. I chose to purposely resolve any bitterness, regrets, and guilt I held in my heart. This was very challenging because I was very upset. Upset with my sister’s doctors who had given her the wrong treatment…upset a drunk driver killed my dad…upset my boyfriend died over Christmas…upset about a lot. I also had to forgive myself for not making it to the hospital in time to see my sister when she was alive and tell her how much I love her.
I had to work through all of the bitterness, guilt, and regrets that go hand-in-hand with grief, and there were many buried grief, guilt, and regret issues from the past that came to the surface after my sister died, too. I had to thoroughly deal with this avalanching snowball of grief, bitterness, guilt, and regrets before it hit me worse than it already had. Instead of succumbing to guilt and regrets, I chose to learn from past guilt and regrets. Realizing that if I knew better, I would’ve chosen and done better, made a big difference in letting go of the past. I now use guilt and regrets as a signal to do things differently. I choose, also, to live a life of mercy and forgiveness by being the grace to others today that I hope to receive tomorrow.
7. I chose to understand that my grief, life, relationships, and spiritual journey, all have a unique timetable—and I choose to allow each to play out in its own unique timing…without trying to rush or control God, my life, my relationships, or my grief. Ultimately, I fully embraced my grief, life experiences, relationships, and God.
“The treasure you seek is in the cave you most fear” is a quote a friend shared with me one day. I most feared my grief, losing other loved ones, and the timetable of my grief…I didn’t think my grief would ever get better…so I finally learned how to let go and realize I couldn’t control my grief. I also found there are treasures in grief as I embraced it fully. Grief is one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever learned from. Instead of fearing, I make my time in life, time with God, time with loved ones, as well as my grief, count—and make all four something of great value—every single day. I try to find the treasure in each as much as I can. I don’t want any of these facets of my life to be wasted, and I don’t want to experience any of these in vain.
8. I chose to develop the qualities of gratefulness, thankfulness, and praise into my everyday life. I purposely think of five things I am grateful for every day when I wake up, and I purposely think of five people I am very thankful for every night as I go to sleep. Gratefulness and thankfulness have proven to be very powerful in helping me to heal.
9. I decided to pursue wellness and enjoyment. I also chose to honor traditions and my loved ones memories—even though most holidays were very challenging the first few years. I realized that my loved ones would not want me to be sad all the time, so I continually choose to spend time with my remaining loved ones and pursue the things in life that previously brought our hearts joy. I also look for new hobbies to try and new education opportunities to better myself. I still miss my loved ones, but it’s been very healing to honor their memory and the traditions we always enjoyed together, as well as creating new traditions and facets of life as I press forward through in days of grief.
10. I chose to purposely create a fuller, more purpose-filled life, which includes intentionally living life to the fullest and investing in the grief community. I enjoy helping others through my grief ministry, Grief Bites, and count it as a privilege to offer encouragement to others. For me, life feels much more fulfilling when I am helping others to find life again through their grief. This has been the most healing “oxygen” of all.
I hope this article encouraged you in your personal grief journey. You may have found some of these 10 oxygens helpful, while others may have been no interest or help at all.
No matter where you are at right now, always hold on to the hope that life can be better.
This week, consider coming up with your own list of 10 “oxygens” that can help you to get the breath back that grief and life have knocked out of you.
Your grief experience is unique to you, and you alone, so your list will be as unique as you and reflect your individual grief experience.
What’s most important is that you discover and find oxygens that personally help you throughout your grief journey.
Gratitude and blessings,