Don’t let anyone tell you how you should grieve your loss.
Thirty years ago my Mum died suddenly after a short stay in hospital. She was 57 – too young to die.
Later that same year my Dad suddenly died of cancer. He was 57 – too young to die. Not so much like having the rug pulled out from beneath you – more like the whole floor falling away.
A couple of years later, our son died during a heart operation shortly before his third birthday. He was nearly 3 – too young to die.
The first arrow never kills you. It’s the second arrow that kills you. Incidents and tragedies happen, that’s the nature of the world. A tragedy won’t kill you. But the second arrow – how you respond to the tragedy – that can kill you. Perhaps not physically, but emotionally and spiritually it can kill you.
Here’s the thing.
People tell you there are five stages to grief and that you’ll need to work through them in order to recover from your loss. The stages are:
Can I just say – that is a load of bovine manure. Excuse my French. No doubt you will experience some or all of those things during a time of bereavement. Unfortunately, psychobabblers have taken a helpful observation and turned it into a series of hoops to jump through. This was never the intention of its author.
The stages of grief were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago, as she listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses. Since the publication of her book On Death and Dying, the ‘stages of grief,’ as they are known, have become the gauge by which all grief is measured.
In her later years, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that she regretted writing the stages the way that she did, that people mistook them as being both linear and universal. Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, she identified five common experiences, not five required experiences.
The important thing is to find a place of peace and healing. For decades my grief felt like a block of concrete I had to carry everywhere. It weighed me down and affected everything I did. It drained the energy from me everyday.
My experience was mostly anger, but an anger I never wanted to express so I kept it bottled up. I numbed the pain by over-eating, over-drinking and escapism.
The thing is, no matter how far you run, you can never run away from yourself.
This year, thirty years after my son died, I think I am finally coming to terms with it.
The thing about emotions is they are like little boxes that turn up to the warehouse of your body and mind. We need to process them. If we don’t the new boxes of emotions keep turning up and soon we run out of room to store them. At some point, the warehouse will collapse and all these unprocessed feelings will explode into the outside world.
How did I come to terms with my grief? You may well ask.
Firstly, I’m still in that process. I’m not sure it’s all worked through.
It was on hold for twenty-eight years, so excuse me if I’m a little confused about what is the effect of the grief and what is the effect of the ups and downs of life generally.
I don’t really know.
But here are a few things I observed over the last few years.
1. I decided to be intentionally thankful for what I do have – even saying a little prayer of thanks sometimes at the end of the day.
I have a nice home, a loving and patient wife, two great daughters and a cool grandson. I have some friends who really care about me, even if they don’t always say so. I don’t live in a war zone. I am not crippled by poverty but I can help those who are.
2. I decided not to be a victim. There are too many people walking about banging on about what a bad hand life dealt them and all the ‘poor me’ stuff. They throw a pity party and are disappointed when they are the only ones who turn up.
I am not a victim. Bad stuff happens to good people everyday. That’s the first arrow. That won’t kill you. How you respond – that’s the important thing. I chose to get on with my life while I worked out what to do with the heavy load of grief that attached itself to me. I don’t want to be ‘under the circumstances’ I want to be over the circumstances of my life.
3. I decided in January this year to change my life and habits. I lost a stone in weight and took more exercise. I quit alcohol all together. I gave up caffeine. I am working on giving up sugar and losing a bit more weight. All that makes me feel healthier, happier and more able to cope. I’m not sure if that came first or I came to terms with grief first. I think they went hand in hand.
4. I decided to value myself. I put a higher value on myself even when others didn’t.
5. I decided to start saying No to things and people I found unhelpful or draining.
But here’s the other thing. That’s what I did. It will probably be different for you. Try some stuff. Keep chasing your healing and wellbeing.
Did I pray? Yes. Through all the years of loss, I did pray but sometimes praying for things doesn’t always give us the answers we want.
When the prophet Isaiah foresaw the coming of the Jewish Messiah, he described him as
‘ A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’
Book of Isaiah, chapter 53
That tells us that joy and sorrow may be two sides of the same coin.
The four seasons, that visit every year, speak of the miracle of birth, growth, flowering, decline and a death that sows new seeds of hope for the future. I need to fully learn what that tells me. Still working on that.
So my advice if you have lost someone – grieve in the way that works for you. Don’t think there are five steps to work through, but know that what you feel has almost certainly been felt by others before. You are not alone. Get help. Talk about your loss.
Some days are a bit poo. Nothing really works, someone yells at us, someone else doesn’t bother to turn up to an appointment you made.
Some days are devastating. A relationship breaks down, you lose your job or your house.
So here are two steps to improve your life:
If today is just a bit poo, embrace it – the day not the poo! Some days are a bit like that and we all have them. Don’t waste too much emotional energy being frustrated by things. There’s a new day coming tomorrow and it probably won’t be as poo as this one was. In fact, it could be one of those days when everything goes right. So, do your best and know that tomorrow is a new day.
If today is devastating, that’s a different thing. Years ago I was chatting to a man whose wife had left him. The kids stayed with him but all he could see was that everything was finished. It was all over. The pain of his situation told him so. I didn’t know him that well so I wasn’t emotionally attached but I did empathise with his situation. It was awful.
But from where I sat, this was only a half-time defeat. He was young, good looking, motivated and a great Dad by the sound of things. He couldn’t see a way forward.
I said to him, ‘No one remembers the half-time score.’ He thought for a moment and hope seemed to flood his face. He repeated the saying.
‘That’s really powerful!’ he said.
That was years ago. He’s doing really well now. His marriage was over and that was devastating, but everything wasn’t over. He moved on to a better life after that day one step at a time.
I don’t know what you are facing right now, but no one will remember the half-time score in your life either. Until the final whistle blows, there is a new day to make a difference.
Make a few plans to improve your future. That’s a much better use of the limited emotional energy we get each day. Don’t waste that energy on frustrations and regrets.
The best is yet to come.
‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?’
Last night I dreamt about being back at high school. That could have been a nightmare – I hated high school. There was a brutality about it that really disturbed me. Whenever I watch the movie The Shawshank Redemption about a brutal prison in America, I am reminded of high school – though in reality, it wasn’t quite that bad!
In the dream, I was the age I am now but back at the old school. Some of the old faces were there. Some were not. There were strangers of all ages sat in a really large class all in our uniforms. We chatted with the teacher and even sang a song together.
Maybe it was something I ate before bed. I don’t know.
But I woke up thinking about it. And the phrase ‘never stop leaning.’
The day we think we know it all is the day we die inside.
The late Steve Jobs, Co-Founder of Apple Computers, gave a speech at Stanford university commencement in 2002. He closed by quoting something he’d seen on the back of The Whole Earth Catalogue.
‘They put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’ It was their farewell message as they signed off.
Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.
And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.’
Stay hungry – always keep wanting something more, something new. Stay foolish – always keep an open mind, never think that you know everything.
This is a simple step that will improve your life.
The Principal of my old college used to always ask students, ‘What are you reading?’ He expected us to always be reading some book or other. It didn’t really matter what it was. Reading involves learning. Even if we read a novel it may teach us something about a place, a group or community, or simply how to write a novel.
One of the plotlines in The Shawshank Redemption is one of the characters trying to get books for the run down prison library. It takes years but eventually he transforms the library because he believes books will enrich the lives of the inmates.
At the time of writing, I’ve just finished reading The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemmingway. I read that because someone said that if you want to be a writer you should read that book, because it will help you understand more about writing. And it did.
Whatever you want to be in life, read a book by someone who excelled in that area, or a biography of such a person. Once you get in the flow new books almost suggest themselves.
So my question to you is: What are you reading this week?
What other ways do you learn? Do you read books and articles by people who have a different outlook to you?
My recommendation: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’
Most of my life I have said Yes to people when I really wanted to say No. I said Yes because I wanted people to like me. I thought if I said No then people wouldn’t like me.
This thinking was flawed because lots of people say No to me and I still like them.
In fact, some of the people who say No most often are the people I admire the most.
I saw No as my enemy because I assumed saying No would cause people to dislike me.
But here’s the thing.
The fact is people don’t change. Right now in your life a third of people who know you really like you. Saying No to them will not stop them liking you.
Another third of people hate you. Saying Yes to them will not make them like you.
The other third of people you know couldn’t give a damn about you either way. They are not going to change either.
So saying Yes when you want to say No will not make you more popular.
Saying No will not make you less popular.
Saying No will bring you more peace because you will avoid spending time doing things you really don’t want to be doing.
You have a right to say No.
Some people say ‘Jump!’ and we ask ‘How high?’ We should be saying No. We are not going to jump.
You have a right to say ‘No, I can’t answer you today and need a few days to think about it.’
You have a right to say No to bullying.
You have a right to say No to people who use you or give nothing in return.
Recently I have tried to stop saying Yes when I mean No.
Sometimes I phrase it like this: That wouldn’t be helpful at the moment. I just need some space.
Saying No has brought a new peace into my life.
When we are always available to everyone, to do what they want us to do, we are making ourselves of low value. Anything that is in free supply is always cheap.
But when the availability of something is restricted the value increases – people will always pay more for something that is rare.
As we roll into the Christmas period later this year, I can guarantee that there will be some new toy or gadget that will be in short supply and it will be the ‘MUST HAVE!’ item for Christmas. Watch the price go through the roof. People will pay any amount to have it because of the short supply.
You need to reduce the supply of you. You need to let others know that you are not available as much as you used to be. You need to say No.
When you say No, you will end up doing more of what energises you and brings you peace and life.
No is not your enemy.
No is your friend.
No watches out for you.
No gives you space to be you.
Saying No today releases us to say Yes to the right things later on.
The answer is No.
What’s your question?
‘Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.’
When did you last play? When did you last paddle in the sea or build a sandcastle?
As we get older, we can easily think of play as a childish thing and assume that adults who still play like children are immature. But if you think that, you’re wrong.
For six years, back in the 1980s, I worked with under 5s, with the pre-school kids. One of my tasks was to encourage toddlers to play. I spent my mornings in sand and water trays, built things from duplo (baby lego) and assisted little people as they painted works of art or played with dough.
Play has lots of benefits for child development – much more than occupying kids so they don’t get bored. The benefits of play are many:
- love of life
- release of energy
- tension reduction
- abstract thinking
- mastering new concepts
- anxiety reduction
- conflict resolution
- self-help skills
- learning to experiment and take risks
But when we stop playing, and start taking ourselves too seriously, we can stifle those aspects of our adult development.
I like to play. Sometimes my friends will ask me sarcastically ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’
We shouldn’t be immature – as in throwing a tantrum when we don’t get our own way or when someone criticises us. But I believe play continues to be a healthy pastime for adults. Sometimes we only think of sports as valid forms of play for grownups.
Last week we were on holiday. The sun was shining and we went to the beach. When the kids were little, I used to help them build sandcastles and tunnels in the sand. But now they’re grown up and left home, it’s just us two grownups on holiday.
One afternoon I found myself absorbed in trying to divert the water flowing across the beach by building banks with pebbles and sand. I found it very relaxing and therapeutic. Soon an hour had passed and the water curled round my diverted earthworks. I watched as the new direction of water-flow eroded a new channel as the stream flowed out to the sea.
Did I make money with my creation? No. Did it solve a problem in the world? No. Did it achieve anything? Yes.
It left me feeling relaxed and full of new creative ideas. It tuned me into nature and it’s gentle persistence. It rekindled that awe of the wonder of the creation in which we live. In some ways, it was a healing experience.
A little playtime on the beach, listening to the rhythm of the sea, fired up all the things on the list above.
If ever you feel stale, stressed or trapped, get to the coast and play on the beach for an hour or two. I guarantee you’ll feel better for it.
‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’
Have you ever read a Bible story and struggled to make real sense of it? Most of us have at some time. Back in June, I was having one of those moments. As I meditated for a while, a strange thought came to me – What if God lived near Oldham?
You see, I grew up in North Manchester, not far from Oldham. If God had lived near Oldham and all the Bible stores happened in the Manchester area, I think I would understand them better.
I began to wonder what would have happened if the Garden of Eden had been located in Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of Manchester… So I wrote a little story about that.
Then more questions came to mind. What if Noah lived in Clayton Vale? What if Jesus lived in the park I used to play in? And where would such a God go on holiday?
The result of this meditation is a new book – a story that traces the Bible narrative but locates all the events in the Manchester area.
It’s an easy to read exploration of the Bible located in a more familiar environment. It is a bit Northern and has moments of comedy, while exploring the profound subject of God’s grace towards humans.
As I wrote this story, I felt drawn closer to God. My hope is that those who read it will feel the same. The book – The Chronicles of Godfrey – is now available in Paperback and on Kindle from Amazon and also fromRSVP Trust.
May you live loved in the Father everyday.
How do we get a breakthrough into our next season or into our ‘promised land’? Here are a few things I’ve noticed over the years:
1. Hear from God
We can spend ages going round in circles using our own reasoning. But if we are trying to find God’s direction and leading, we need to hear from him. Everything of value, including creation, begins with a word from God.
The good news is, he is speaking and you can hear him. He said his sheep would know his voice.
“And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” – John 10:4
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” – John 10:27
2. How do we hear from God?
It is not with our ears or running about listening to this person and that person, it is listening directly to the Spirit which we do with our heart, not with our head.
“Today, if you hear His voice, Do not harden your hearts …” – Hebrews 3:7, 8
3. The crossing of the Jordan is a key lesson in breakthrough.
The Jordan represents the last obstacle to the promise of God.
Notice that it is not enough to hear from God about what to do, we must seek his guidance as to timing. Joshua camped out for three days before crossing the Jordan.
“Then Joshua rose early in the morning; and they set out from Acacia Grove and came to the Jordan, he and all the children of Israel, and lodged there before they crossed over. So it was, after three days, that the officers went through the camp;” – Joshua 3:1-2
God’s vision for your life has an appointed time.
“For the vision is yet for an appointed time.” Habakkuk 2:3
Next we must let God lead – don’t rush ahead of him. Trust his covenant.
“and they commanded the people, saying, “When you see the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, and the priests, the Levites, bearing it, then you shall set out from your place and go after it.” – Joshua 3:3
The ark of the covenant represents the presence of God. When we see God begin to move, then we should follow. When it comes to God, we are followers not leaders. Don’t rush ahead.
Don’t assume this breakthrough will be like the previous one.
“… for you have not passed this way before.” – Joshua 3:4
Trust God to do his stuff, don’t assume you have to do everything.
“And Joshua said to the people, “Sanctify yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you.” – Joshua 3:5
When the time comes – act! Step into, and across, the Jordan. The first book after the gospels is not called ‘The excuses/ policies/ procedures/ theories of the Apostles’ – No. ‘The Acts.’ Do something!
All significant breakthroughs have a Jordan to cross. Why did Jesus not start ministry at 25? Because that was not God’s appointed time. But when the time came, even Jesus had to cross the Jordan.
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him… When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17
What is your Jordan? What is the obstacle standing in the way of you entering your promised land today?
When Neil Armstrong died on the 25th August 2012, I was taken back in my memory to 1969 and what should have been an English lesson. Mr Millington, our English teacher, wheeled the big school TV into classroom and showed us the first moon landing.
The pictures flickered, were in black and white and of poor quality. The sound was crackly and uncertain. We watched as the moon grew larger on the screen.
Then there seemed to be a thud and all came to a standstill. The radio crackled… then we heard the first words from the moon’s surface.
‘Tranquility Base… The Eagle has landed.”
When I watch that video today I am moved by it – that men reached out and touched the moon. Creation never ceases so amaze me. The detailed smallness of it – the ants nest discovered when a paving slab is lifted; The beauty of it – when we walk in the Lake District and reach a mountaintop and take in the view; The largeness of it – when I look up into a clear starlit night sky.
“When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” – Psalms 8:3-4
The vastness and the detail of creation convinces me that we are not alone. Nature is not just some cosmic accident. God’s hand can be seen, if we are willing to consider the possibility.
St Paul said that we could even understand something of God’s attributes through nature.
“…what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” – Romans 1:19-20
And when we are seeking an answer to prayer that doesn’t seem to be coming, sometimes we need to be still and consider the heavens and the work of his hands. And trust the One who made all things well.
This week I read an article titled Top five regrets of the dying.
An Australian nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, as she worked with them in the last 12 weeks of their lives.
I was surprised but delighted to see that lots of people wished they’d had more silliness in their life. Silliness comes in at number five.
Here are the top five regrets of the dying, as witnessed by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
This one surprised me because silliness is often seen as being childish or frivolous. It is seen as wasting time.
Yet it seems, because it causes laughter, silliness is good for us. I find I need a good dose of silliness everyday just to keep on an even keel. One of the hallmarks of our family getting together is that we do tend to go into silly mode quite often.
Sometimes we equate silliness with foolishness but I think there is a distinction.
Foolishness is warned against in the Bible, though it tends to be foolish actions.
Silliness is more of light relief – finding the humour in life, even in serious moments.
I know a lot of people who are very earnest in their work and their life. But sometimes I want to tell them to lighten up. Chill out for a moment. Have a silly moment. It is good for you.
When was the last time you dabbled in silliness?