“Choosing to nurture joy does not mean turning a blind eye to pain or difficulty or injustice. It means holding positive possibilities while looking deeply into pain. Deep truth about what is and recognizing joy can exist side by side.” ~Circle Forward
I read those words and I was reminded of the phrase finding joy in the mess. And then I was reminded of the times in my life when there wasn’t much to be joyful for, yet, somehow opportunities to choose a moment of pure joy would sneak in, despite the current state of messiness. A sudden eruption of pee-your pants laughter in the depths of unfathomable grief, a beautiful ray of sun appearing from the clouds when all hope seemed lost, a heartfelt hug from a dear friend in a moment of despair. Life-saving snippets of joy in the midst of struggle. Joy and pain. Side by side. How can we know one without the other? Kind of a mind blow, right? Always the paradox. Always the struggle. How can they co-exist? Yet . . . how can they not?
Choosing to find joy in the midst of difficulty is one of the most courageous acts a person can take–although we rarely give ourselves permission to do so. What if, in the midst of your struggles, no matter how big or small, you gave yourself permission to choose joy for just one day, or for one hour, or for even one minute or one second? It’s SO okay to take a break from your pain. Choosing to nurture joy does not dismiss or diminish our hurts, but instead creates space for hope to seep in. And with hope, all things are possible.
Let yourself choose joy and then nurture it. Let it live side by side with your sorrows. Let hope create the space.
I’m resisting the urge to write volumes on the subject.
Because I could.
It’s that powerful.
It’s that game-changing.
It’s that essential. . .
To all that’s good in life.
But, I promise to keep it short and sweet.
Because the truths speak for themselves. . .
Four simple truths about gratitude
Gratitude is a choice. Living life with a grateful heart doesn’t always just happen–especially when life sucks. You may have to choose it-over and over and over again–even if it hurts, even if it doesn’t make sense. Because eventually, it will make sense. It will become part of your DNA. You’ll wonder how you could breathe without it.
Gratitude is self-pity’s kryptonite. Try feeling sorry for yourself and being truly grateful at the same time. It simply cannot be done. I know this because I’ve tried. More than once. And I’ve failed. Every. Single. Time.
A joyous life is absolutely impossible without gratitude. So is a peaceful one, or a content one, or a loving one, or a courageous one, or an abundant one. . . And you get the picture.
Practicing gratitude will save your life. I know this because it’s saved mine.
So what is stopping you,
Despite where your life may be at this moment,
From living your best life?
The one that includes you with a grateful heart. . . and a joyous soul.
As somebody once said, “There is always, always, always something to be grateful for.”
It was the fall of 2012, a couple months after the crash. For the past month or so, I had been reading a daily devotional that I had found on my mom’s bookshelf. I had given it to her for her last birthday and I had been reading it faithfully since finding it. The passages had become a source of comfort for me and I looked forward to the brief moments of solace from my intense pain and grief that reading those words every morning brought to me. The devotions seemed to fit everything that was going on in my life at the moment, just like they had for my mom when she had started reading it.
Then, just like life can suddenly go from beautiful to broken in the blink of an eye, the devotions on those pages did the same. In an instant, I was frustrated and angry at the words I was reading. Why, you ask? Well, I can sum it up in one word. Gratitude.
The devotional had themes and that week’s theme was gratitude. Because, really, how dare a devotional that is meant to be healing and uplifting, share a message of gratitude? Right? Didn’t they know that grieving people would be reading this book? What do people smack dab in the grips of intense pain need to know about gratitude? I’d be lying if I said a few choice words didn’t fly out of my mouth.
Day in, day out. The message of gratitude seemed to drag on F-O-R-E-V-E-R. I argued with the devotional every morning. “Surely, this wasn’t meant for grievers” was the core of the one-sided argument I had become engaged in. “Really,” I would think. “Easy to be grateful when things are good. Surely, you can’t expect me (or any others that are hurting) to be grateful after experiencing profound loss.” And on and on it went inside my head. Finally, after a few days of the reading about gratitude, I had had enough. I read the day’s passage and in a fit of desperation, I looked to the heavens (from my bathroom mind you) and screamed (yes, out loud)–“FINE! I FUCKING GET IT! I’LL BE GRATEFUL!” (Yeah, God has gotten to witness some stellar moments from me over the years. Gratefully, he is patient, kind, loving, and forgiving.) Another gut-wrenching moment of surrender had befallen me (one of many in my life) and I vowed–half-heartedly, of course–to give practicing gratitude a try. Long story short. . . it worked. Even in my deepest moments of hopelessness and despair, I began to find moments of comfort and peace when I viewed the world through a lens of gratitude and not my own pain. Go figure. Maybe God was on to something here.
Some thoughts on service
Some time later the devotional moved to a theme of service. Yeah, cue the first part of this story here. “Really,” I thought. “You want me to serve others when I’m grieving. Surely, you can’t be serious. I can barely take care of myself at the moment and you want me to help somebody else?” Again, on and on it went. Although slightly less dramatic this time around, I experienced another moment of surrender in my bathroom and vowed (yes, half-heartedly again) to find some way to serve others. I wasn’t capable of much, but I dug deep and did what I could–I said a prayer for somebody other than myself, sent words of encouragement to somebody in need, or donated money to causes I supported. Again (surprise, surprise). . . it worked. Viewing the world through a lens of service had given me small moments of reprieve from my grief, just like practicing gratitude had. Through each new moment of comfort and peace that I experienced, I began to gain some hope that healing would be possible. I remember thinking how good God was at this stuff.
A few more thoughts
I’d like to say that it was my grief-fogged brain that kept me from listening to those first few messages in that devotional, but I don’t think that would be entirely truthful. Besides my own stubbornness in not always listening, I came to learn that much of the traditional literature out there surrounding loss and healing doesn’t always talk about gratitude and/or service as part of the arsenal of tools that we have at our disposal as we begin to move forward. After all, it seems paradoxical to practice gratitude and serve others when we are suffering from incredible pain ourselves. Or does it?
Since those darkest of days in the beginning of my grief journey, I have learned more about the power of gratitude and service than I ever thought imaginable. And. . . I’m still learning. I’d like to tell you that my grief journey is done but I really feel like in some ways it’s just beginning. The numbness of the first year slowly faded and life got very real for me in year two. VERY REAL. I still find myself feeling like I am going backwards some days even though I know in my heart that I am always slowly inching forward. It’s in those real times, those painful times, those times when I feel like I am heading down the rabbit hole of despair that I focus even more on being grateful, for everything. I have found that as time has gone on, gratitude and service have become innate functions of my very being. I have been so transformed on the inside from these practices that I can’t imagine not viewing life through the beautiful lenses that I have been given–even on the worst of days.
Start simply and grow
If you are reading this and you are in the early stages of healing, it’s very important to note that you might not want to hop right in and tackle things new things right now. Those first few weeks after a loss are so extremely difficult. Just getting out of bed (or not) is hard enough, let alone trying to add anything else to your plate. In time, though, you will want more. You will want more than simply surviving, you will want to thrive. That’s when gratitude and service will eventually come in. Start simply where you are at and grow from there.
As we head into November you will see an explosion of all things gratitude–challenges, journal writing, Facebook memes etc. If you aren’t practicing gratitude regularly, now may be the perfect time to start. If you are already mindfully practicing gratitude (or trying to), think about how you can move your gratitude practice into one of service. If you are already practicing both, I challenge you to kick it up a notch or ten. The most important thing to remember is to do what you are capable of. Some days, it still takes all I can muster to get through the day. Other days, it would take kryptonite to bring me down. Remember, even on our best days, we can’t do everything all of the time. Learn your limits, use your gifts, and serve accordingly. . . all the while giving thanks. Then, be prepared for your life to change. God is really good at this stuff.
A friend and colleague shared an article recently about the things grieving people often experience. More specifically, the stuff nobody tells you, the messy stuff. You know, the stuff you really need to know that isn’t always in the neat little pamphlets that you get. It’s straight-forward, easy to read, and brilliant. The entire article,”64 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Grief,” can be found here–http://whatsyourgrief.com/64-things-about-grief/ and it is WELL worth five minutes of your time to read, whether you are grieving or not. Any human being on this planet that lives long enough will experience loss and the subsequent grief that ensues. I highly recommend taking a look. You can never be too prepared to enter into the world of grief, trust me on that one.
So often society seems to get caught up in the “if onlys” and the “shoulda, woulda, coulda’s” when it comes to grieving. For instance, “You should, be over that by now” or “You would be over that by now if only you would _____,” or “You could be over that by now if only you could just let go.” And while most people are not ill-intentioned when trying to offer help, to a grieving person (well, me for sure) those comments often sound like the adult voices on Charlie Brown, you know, “whah, whah, whah. . .” (Sorry to digress, but humor now and then is essential when grieving. Here’s the link to check it out if you aren’t sure what I mean or just want to reminisce http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss2hULhXf04.) Grief is simply not that simple. You don’t just get over it. You don’t just let go. Closure doesn’t automatically happen because a socially allotted amount of time has passed or because a perpetrator goes to jail. Everyone grieves in their own time, in their own way. Grief cannot not be put into a neat little box. We each have to figure out a way to weave the pain of our losses into the tapestry of our life stories, even if it is only one tiny thread at a time. Then, we need to figure out how to move forward or as #58 on the list says “get used to it.” I couldn’t agree more with that terminology because “getting used to it” is about all we can do some days. In fact, there wasn’t a single thing on the list that I couldn’t relate to or agree with on some level. . .
#2- Stop avoiding and be present. Being present is ABSOLUTELY one of the hardest things to do when you are grieving. Being present means you have to acknowledge your pain and quite frankly, that sucks! BIG TIME. Unfortunately, healing can’t take place in the past or in the future, it has to happen in the now. FYI: This one becomes harder to do as the numbness of early grief wears off. Work on staying present in small doses at first because it is difficult. But, keep trying. Work on it. I make staying present an intentional part of my day, every single day.
#9- Death and grieving make people uncomfortable, so be prepared for awkward encounters.People will avoid the subject and maybe even you. I am ashamed to say that I have done this in the past to others when I should have reached out. It is totally okay if you don’t know what to say. Most times just a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” and a hug will do.
#16 and #17- There is no such thing as closure. There is no timeline for grieving. You can’t rush it. You will grieve, in some form, forever. Not much to add here except that, it’s okay to not close that door. Loss is part of life. We don’t expect closure on the good things in life, so why do we expect it when life’s difficulties arise? We don’t need to worry about closing those doors, we need to figure out how to make our losses part of our story without continually living in the past. It’s SO hard to find the balance between the memories and moving forward. It takes work to arrive at some form of acceptance. Do it in your own time.
#23- Grief doesn’t come in five neat stages. Grief is messy and confusing.LIFEis messy and confusing. Why would grief be any different?
#27- However badly you think it is going to hurt, it is going to be a million times worse.All that I have to say to that is AMEN! Wowsa. So true.
#33 and #34- You grieve your past, present and future with that person. Big life events and milestones will forever be bittersweet. The word bittersweet has become a regular part of my vocabulary. It’s these bittersweet moments (graduations, holidays, and wedding planning currently in my case) that have proven to be difficult to navigate with grace.
#63- You will never go back to being your old self. Grief changes you and you are never the same. And that is totally okay! So don’t try to be the same person you once were because that would be impossible. That very moment that your loved one was lost, you were forever changed. It’s okay to be your “new” self, whatever that new self may be, as long as you are not being self-destructive. (See #60.)
It seems every time I read this list, something else jumps off the page at me. In a nutshell, whatever you are experiencing as you are journeying through grief, is quite possibly normal— even if it seems weird at the time. If you feel that what you are going through isn’t normal or if you have questions, seek help from a professional. It’s totally okay to do that (see #53). We aren’t meant to walk through grief alone.
“As I started to picture the trees through the storm, the answer began to dawn on me. The trees in the storm don’t try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go. Those trees and those branches that stand up strong and straight are the ones that break.” ~J.B. Hill
For all of you reading this that are desperately trying to fight your way through a difficult situation by “being strong,” please, STOP IT NOW. By saying this I don’t mean that you should give up the battle, I mean that you should give it up to God. Let it go. Let it go to Him. It is only through surrender that we find our true strength. Trust me on this one, I’ve learned the hard way too many times.
There have been some desperate and terrible periods in my life when I mistakenly thought being strong was my only choice. You know the sayings, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only option,” or “You were given this life because you were strong enough to live it.” Although there was a time where I would have been all “hell yes!” to those sayings, I now call bullshit. The only place being strong has ever gotten me was down hard, to my knees, crying out in desperation to God to fix my broken life. Being strong is never the only option we have and we are never strong enough alone to make it through all the difficulties that life will throw at us. Being strong is so overrated.
My biggest lesson in surrender came about five years ago. Life had been difficult for a long time, on many levels. I had been the poster-child for what “being strong” was supposed to look like and I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was pretty obvious that my way wasn’t working and life could not continue the way I was trying to make it be. Something had to change. I had to give it up, which I eventually did–in a screaming, crying, desperate fit.
I was driving to work one morning when the tears began to uncontrollably flow. It was through these blinding tears that I looked to the heavens and screamed out loud (yes, literally) for Him to fix the brokenness that had become my life. I swear He was waiting for that moment because as soon as I let it go, a feeling of calm enveloped me. I knew immediately that things would work out–maybe not the way I thought they should–(obviously not working for me anyways) but that things would be okay. I also knew in an instant that I had been foolish in thinking I could just “be strong” and things would work out. Being strong for so long had blinded me to accepting the truth of my situation and kept me from reaching out to others that could help in my times of need. Being strong kept me from realizing that the things we often think are most important in this life, really are not. Being strong had kept me from pursuing an authentic and courageous life. Being strong kept me from taking care of myself and had kept me from turning to God when I needed Him most. Being strong had gotten me absolutely nowhere. Besides, I was SO tired of “being strong.”
I’d like to say that I immediately learned the the lessons that my big surrender brought. It took me a while longer to figure it all it out, but thankfully I did. I can’t imagine living through the last 15 months without leaning on God every single moment, of every single day. I can’t imagine where I would be if I had tried to “be strong.”
True strength comes only when we have the courage to give it up to God continually, not just when we are forced to our knees in broken surrender. And even though I still occasionally try to do it my way, it usually doesn’t last long. Strength comes when I am simply being patient, listening for the whispers, and learning to accept that life is the way it is. My strength comes from learning to bend in the storm. My strength comes from my surrender.
As I was waiting to fall asleep on Halloween night, a sense of holy-crap-what-just-happened-in-my-life-over-the-last-ten-months washed tidal-waved over me. Thank goodness that wave was immediately followed by a tremendous sense of calm (or I quite possibly could have had a severe meltdown.) It was if I could almost hear God whispering ever-so-gently, “It’s okay, you can breathe now. . .”
2013 has been a whirlwind of amazing things happening in my life. SO MUCH GOOD has happened in the first 10 months of this year that I often struggle to wrap my head around everything I have seen and experienced. Propelling everything to a total mind-blow stage for me is the fact that I have been witness to so much good arising from the worst of life’s circumstances. Because of that, life has become an everyday battle to stay the balance between joy and heartache. It’s a paradox that I have become accustomed to; one that I never could have imagined or even thought possible. It’s also one that I know won’t last forever. I thank God everyday for the good because I can’t imagine the pain without it.
So far November has been filled with friends, fellowship, worship, spurts of creativity, and even some time to rest. Quite frankly, I am exhausted on many levels but in a way that I am okay with. I know that life is slowly moving forward with a healing grace that soothes my soul. Despite the ever-present heartache, I am slowly beginning to feel like I can breathe again. Throughout it all, I have learned that without fail God always knows what we need before we do, we just need learn to listen. Without fail, He has our hand, even when we are hanging by a thread.
“The journey of healing is often painful. It requires much effort and endurance. . . It is hard work, but along the way we learn that there is a place in the journey where we are able to celebrate. This celebration comes from knowing that all of the effort is worth it. It is from this place that we can begin to feel hope and we can begin to glimpse joy. We are no longer driven by desperation but by determination.” ~ adapted from A Healing Celebration