Yesterday I was quite moved by an article I read about a children’s book that deals with grief. The Flat Rabbit is by Scandinavian children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson. A dog is taking a walk when he discovers a rabbit lying completely flattened in the road. He is quite disturbed by the find and is soon joined by his friend the rat.
“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her. “Do you know her?” “Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”
They imagine lying flattened in the road is no fun so they think they should do something for the poor rabbit. But they are not sure what. They go to the park for a while to sit and think. The dog finally has an idea and they return and collect the rabbit from the road. They work all night in the dog’s workshop and build a kite. They lovingly attach the rabbit to the kite and then, after many failed attempts they get the kite and the rabbit flying.
Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time. “Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog. The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there. “I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”
I was quite moved by the story because it gently explores the real messiness of grief and loss. Those left behind seldom know what to do, yet feel they must do something. Grief has been a huge part of my story and, watching the dog and the rat struggle to know what to do with the rabbit, I see a reflection of my own confusion about what to do with grief. I’ll be thinking about the flat rabbit and her friends trying to cope with their loss for weeks to come, I think. The Flat Rabbit is available on Amazon here.
The three short years of my son’s troubled life were torture. I thought the bad days would never end. His deformed heart would suddenly cause his blood pressure to drop and he’d pass out. He was in and out of hospital all the time.
Various medicines had to be taken several times a day to keep him alive. When we went out as a family we took a whole pharmacy with us wherever we went.
After he died, shortly before his third birthday, I entered a dark place of not coping that, thirty years later, is only just coming to an end.
When you are going through something frightening or unpleasant, it sometimes feels that this bad period of your life will never be over. Often it feels like the good times play out too fast and the bad times play in slow motion. Life doesn’t have a fast forward button.
Sometimes it feels like our ship has sunk and we are cast adrift, swimming in an endless ocean with no sight of dry land. How long can we go on? But I have learned to look for seagulls.
We may not see the dry land of hope yet, but seagulls never fly too far from the shore. Even a lone seagull can give us hope. Then a few more appear in the sky. Land must be near. Our trial will soon be over and we will stand on solid ground once more.
I don’t know what trials you may be facing today. But don’t give up. Look for the seagulls. Look for a small sign that something is changing for the better.
You may not yet have what you hope for but the seagull means you’re not far off. Hang in there. Dry land is coming soon.
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We all feel angry sometimes. That’s part of being human. Feeling angry isn’t a sin. However, we need to be cautious if it happens frequently. If we have made anger a lifestyle, we are in real danger.
I’ll hold my hands up – I’ve been angry for a long time about the death of my son. It was no one’s fault. It was just a serious health issue he was born with. Those who tried to help did miracles. For the three years he was with us, we are very thankful. But small children should not die. That is just wrong.
I was never sure what to do with those feelings of frustration and hurt. For the most part I tried to block them out. I can think of times when I felt really angry about things that really didn’t matter. I’m sure I was projecting my frustration and anger onto those petty situations.
The word ‘anger’ is one letter removed from ‘danger’ If you fly into a rage, you can be sure of a bad landing. When our emotions are out of control, so is our life. Anger makes our mouth work faster than our mind. We end up saying and doing things we will regret later.
Anger is like a theatre curtain ready to part for the first act of the play. Behind the curtain stand all our lonely feelings – the actors ready to perform – guilt projection, discontentment, discouragement, abandonment, despair, unending feelings of inadequacy. Anger is the curtain that hides all these feelings from the outside world.
It’s easier to be angry than to deal with the real feelings because then people won’t see how much you’re really hurting because anger keeps people away.
Getting into a rage doesn’t make us ‘big’ or clever. In fact, the opposite is true.
Anger and rage are really unpleasant for those around you. If you are just an angry person, who takes things out on your family and those around you instead of dealing with the real issue, you will soon be without friends and your family will look for ways to avoid you.
Anger never accomplishes what you want it to.
In addition to all of that, anger is actually dangerous for your physical health.
Emotional stress and anger trigger the release of stress hormone cortisol in the body. Small releases of cortisol can give the body a quick burst of energy.
However, higher and more prolonged increases can cause lots of negative effects.
Cortisol is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease. The list goes on and on.
Anger does kill. A study in the journal ‘Circulation’ finds that those who explode with anger are at a greater risk of strokes and sudden death.
Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy.
So what can we do?
If we don’t deal with the cause of our anger, we end up projecting that anger onto other people and situations.
After years of feeling overwhelmed by past hurts I think I have somehow come to terms with my grief and anger. Life is a bit poo sometimes. That’s just how it is. Time to move on.
Better to make some new happy memories with those we still have than waste our life with rage.
We do have a choice. We don’t have to be angry. We can change.
What is the root of your biggest frustration? Does it come out as anger to those around you sometimes?
If so, what are you going to do about it?
Whatever you do, do something! Don’t let anger become a lifestyle!
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There is a lot wrong with the world – that’s true. There have been a lot of wrong things in my life, things that really hurt me, not least the loss of three family members back in the 1980s. That is also true.
For the last twenty years, a big part of my work has been helping adults and children in Rwanda recover from the horrors of genocide. I’ve seen some horrors in that country in the aftermath of the killing.
BUT… and it is a big BUT!
There is a lot we can be grateful for in the world. It doesn’t deny the injustice or the suffering in the world, but it does help.
Here’s the thing:
One of the steps of my own personal healing has been to learn to be intentionally grateful and thankful. I’ve spent years being depressed by what I lost. But I can’t change the past. By focussing on what we no longer have, we often miss the many things we do have.
Something happens when we give thanks for good stuff – it enriches our lives and releases joy in our spirit.
Over the next seven days, I am going to write down something I am thankful for each day.
We may have moments when something good happens that we are grateful for. But I am talking about being intentionally grateful, everyday.
If you woke up in a bad mood today – give thanks that you woke up today. Not everyone did…
If we want to build our gratitude muscle we have to nurture an attitude of gratitude by listing the things we are thankful for each day. As it gets stronger, it will bring us joy and happiness.
I once heard about a man called Tom who was always thankful. When he had an accident and broke his arm, his friend commiserated with him about his broken limb. But Tom said it was the best broken arm he had ever had!
Perhaps that is a little extreme but here is a short video to get you started.
What are you thankful for today?
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.