Celebrating the Holidays with Grief

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When you’re grieving, the season from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day can feel like running through a minefield. Each holiday brings new challenges to your inner fortitude. Each special day involves dodging awkward comments, leaning in to sorrow, pulling back to search for perspective.

With Christmas just a few days away, I hope you’ve made plans to honor your loss in ways that feel meaningful. I hope you’ve released expectations and embraced new traditions. I hope you’re finding ways to let joy slip down the chimney too and land beneath your Christmas tree.

As you prepare to celebrate (or not), take a look at these helpful resources on finding joy in a difficult holiday season. Your grief deserves attention, even as the rest of the world celebrates Christmas.

25 Ways to Manage Grief During the Holidays
My friend, Lisa Appelo, knows a thing or two about managing grief at Christmas. This articulate Bible teacher and widow mom to seven shares practical tips that have helped her family navigate this season with tenderness and new joy.

How the Church Can Help Grieving and Broken Families During the Holidays
Our awesome pastor of youth ministries at church connected me with fellow widow and author Anna Meade Harris. Since her husband’s death, she’s served the church by opening our eyes to the hurting people who share our sanctuary each week. Here Anna shares from that well of wisdom to help you help those around you this season.

A Hope-Filled Christmas Gift Guide
It’s hard to know what to buy for a grieving person at the holidays. We know the presents we buy can’t replace their loss, and sometimes we wonder if it’s appropriate to give a gift at all. Sarah Hauser walked through grief as she watched her mom die of cancer, and I love her gentle Christmas gift guide this year. If you need a gift this week, these are great last minute options. But they’re also appropriate all year long to help your loved one know they are remembered in their sorrow.

Navigating Grief During the Holidays (podcast)
Dave and Nancy Guthrie have known their share of suffering. After the death of their daughter, they have served grieving families together, offering support and practical guidance on how to navigate the grief journey. Listen in here as Nancy shares her own story and offers help for those walking with a grieving person at Christmas.

Holiday Toolkit from The National Alliance for Grieving Children
If your holidays will be spent with grieving children, there are few resources as comprehensive and, frankly, awesome as the NAGC Holiday Toolkit. This downloadable PDF offers wisdom for families walking through grief as well as activities to do with kids who are processing loss. Adults, always be sure to ask a child first if she or he would like to participate in a grief-related activity with you. All kids have different needs, and your sensitivity in advance will show them you care!

Lisa Appelo: Shepherding Children through Grief

In our final installment honoring Children’s Grief Awareness month, guest writer Lisa Appelo shares her wisdom from shepherding her own children through grief after the unexpected death of her husband.

When I was newly pregnant, I bought all the books – What to Expect When You’re Expecting, the La Leche League handbook and more. I had dreams for my kids. I wanted to be the best mom I could be and give my children the best childhood I could. 

But we don’t get a say in all of life’s paths. One day, I was the happy wife and mom of seven kids and the next? A widow and single mom, thrust into a new path we’d never expected. 

My husband’s death affected every corner of our lives — every holiday, every milestone, every celebration, every struggle, every weekday dinner. 

Excruciating as my grief has been, seeing my children in pain has been harder still. This is not the childhood I chose for them. 

And yet, God has. While I was busy buying books and prepping a nursery, God knew this would be my children’s story. 

I’ve come to see our children’s grief isn’t something to be fixed but an experience we need to help them navigate.1

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Parents are essential to helping our children not just get through grief but grow in grief. Here are a few ways I’ve found to help shepherd my children in grief. 

Give each other grace to grieve. Days after Dan’s memorial service, the kids and I gathered on couches and chairs in the family room. It was our normal morning Bible time, but I first needed to address our churning emotions. We’re going to need to give each other grace to grieve, I announced. Grief looks different for each of us. Children grieve differently than adults, teens grieve differently than preschoolers and girls grieve differently than boys. 

I didn’t hide my sadness from my kids. They saw me cry as we did Bible time each morning, recalled stories of their dad and faced new tasks together. My children’s emotions often surfaced at inopportune times. My teen daughter would invariably need to talk just as I was dragging myself to bed and my four-year-old broke down every day for well over a year saying she missed her dad. Grace to grieve, I told myself, and each time I stopped what I was doing to enter the conversation on their terms.

It’s also important to create a safe space for hard questions. I was surprised when my three older kids approached me the night after my husband’s death, wanting to know if we had enough money. It was a real fear for them. Sitting down together, I gave them enough information to assure them we’d be okay without disclosing every financial detail. 

Grief triggers other hard questions and even young kids often understand more than we think. Will you die too, mom? Will I die young like dad? Why didn’t God answer my prayer? I answered honestly with the information that child could handle. We looked up scripture and trusted God with questions scripture doesn’t answer. 

Because children continue to grow into grief, I’ve tried to keep an ongoing conversation. After the first couple months, my kids rarely talked about their feelings or cried openly, though research tells us children think about their deceased parent daily. I’ve read kids don’t want to make it harder on the grieving parent but I also found mine wanted to feel like things were “normal.”

Telling stories about their dad is a great way to open a conversation. We’ve also watched a few grief videos at home and read books on heaven and loss together. I will sometimes put into words what is obvious in the moment – dad would have loved watching your game tonight or I know it was hard doing that without your dad. 

Finally, it’s important to give our kids a Biblical context for suffering. In a world obsessed with itself, our kids need to know this world is not our home. Suffering is a stark reminder that we live in a fallen world and our only hope is in Christ. Death reminds us that a life of any measure is short but that being about our Father’s business can make it deep.  

Suffering is not the childhood I would have chosen for my kids. My prayer has been that my children and I won’t just accept God’s will but that we will agree with it. That we will agree God is right and good and that he used what threatened to undo us to shape us as his own. 

1.National Alliance for Grieving Children 

Lisa Appelo is a speaker, writer and Bible teacher who inspires women to deepen their faith in grief and cultivate hope in life’s storms. Nine years ago, Lisa became a sudden widow and single mom to 7. She’s passionate about rich Bible study and teaches a weekly ladies Bible class. A former litigating attorney, her days are now filled with parenting, ministry, writing, speaking and running enough to justify lots of dark chocolate. Get your free 5-day Bible study on Flourishing in the Unexpected here and connect with Lisa on Instagram @lisaappelo.

Sara Coppola: A Lesson in Embracing Grief

I was honored to connect with writer Sara Coppola through Hope*Writers, a community of working writers. On this Veterans’ Day, Sara joins us to reflect on grief as a military wife and on turning toward your sorrow as a pathway to flourishing.

The year 2011 was a time of major loss for my husband Paul. Four of his good friends, young men with bright futures ahead and full lives waiting for them at home, lost their lives defending our country and the greater good of the world. There was no time to mourn. The guys had to press on with the mission and remain vigilant in order to stay alive. Paul was the target of a suicide bomb attack; after he called to say he got hurt, I went right back to work and to class that afternoon. Life went on without skipping a beat. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and, like most combat veterans, moral injury. War tears a soul apart like nothing else.

We were both unprepared for the effect his injuries and experiences would have on our life. Whether it was naïvety or optimism, we trucked on with life. My career grew, we bought a house, he went to the required therapies following his return, and we thought everything would be manageable . . . until his headaches became more pronounced. As he sought treatment for his pain, he was informed that he likely would not be allowed to reenlist and that he should start the process of medical retirement.

Instead of taking the time to mourn the loss of his career and the dreams he had, we forged on. I was always thinking, “What’s next? Where do we go from here? How do we move forward?” The way we chose to move forward was to leave North Carolina, both of our careers, friendships, church, and our new home that we adored. Back home in New England with family around to support us felt like the most natural decision to me at the time (though in hindsight I realize I never even listened for God’s wisdom to guide me).

My excitement to be back with family and to engage in whatever was next for us in life overshadowed any sadness I may have felt about leaving everything behind and the reason our life was changing. I wasn’t trying to run away from grief, I just didn’t recognize it as something that I would ever experience. It wasn’t until years later that it hit me.

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Through introspection, writing, and counseling, I’ve learned a few lessons about grief. I’ve learned that grief isn’t reserved exclusively for the death of a loved one. Grief isn’t just for the wife as she lays her hand on a flag-draped casket, wishing she could hold her husband one more time. Grief isn’t just for the mother whose heart sinks with the ring of her doorbell and a Marine in a polished dress uniform on her front steps. Grief isn’t just for the son who will hear stories of his dad’s heroism and love for his country but never get to toss a ball around with him.

It turns out, grief is for me, too, even while I’m holding my husband’s hand. And it’s for you. If you have breath in your lungs, you’re allowed to feel grief, and you will feel it, because it’s part of being human; part of being alive.

I’ve also learned that grief can walk alongside other emotions. Grief can, ironically, walk alongside things like joy, contentment, and eager anticipation. I can be joyful and grateful that Paul returned home alive and in one piece, while also grieving the man he once was and could have been. One moment my heart is glad as he makes a lighthearted joke and I see a glimpse of the carefree guy I fell in love with; the next moment I’ll remember our seven security cameras strategically placed outside our humble small-town home and grieve for that carefree guy.

I hear stories of other military caregivers who need to help their husbands bathe and feel thankful that Paul is mostly independent—until he calls me to help him off the couch. Then I feel sad, grieving our dream of hiking New Hampshire’s 48 4000 Footers. I daydream about summers with our future grandkids at our family camp, but I also start grieving those picturesque moments and feel fear for our uncertain future as I hear of veterans with traumatic brain injuries being diagnosed with early dementia. In hindsight, I should have given myself time to grieve our life in North Carolina as a military family, even while feeling excited to be home in New Hampshire.

As the whole world grieves in one way or another this strange year, my own grief, stifled and ignored for too long, has bubbled to the surface. Instead of continuing to turn a blind eye to this essential human emotion, I’m choosing to embrace it and let it run its course.

Whether your loss is fresh or it’s something you also have ignored for years, I challenge you to feel it fully, in all of its messiness, without judgement. Acknowledge that you’ve experienced a loss and it’s not a matter of simply staying positive or pulling up your bootstraps that will get you through it.

The wound will always be on your heart, but in my experience, the grace in accepting grief is like a balm that brings comfort to the tattered edges of my soul. Pick up a journal, find a therapist, or pour it out to a trusted friend. Embrace the grace that comes with grief.

Sara Coppola is a military veteran caregiver, wife, and mom to two girls. She lives in New Hampshire where a quick drive to the ocean or a trip to the mountains can refresh and revive her soul. An avid writer and reader from a young age, Sara is finally embracing her gifts and seeking God’s wisdom to refine her message for the readers who need encouragement the most. You can find Sara on Instagram.

Me Without You

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I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,   
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,   
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

Pablo Neruda, One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII

19 years ago today, Rob asked me to marry him. As he fumbled to unpin the diamond ring from the inside of his jacket pocket, I thought he was joking. We’d only known each other six months. Though I’d known for a while that I wanted to marry him, I was surprised when he popped the question.

For all the years that followed, I knew exactly who I was. I was myself, yes; but I was also Rob’s. I belonged to and with someone. Our marriage became part of my identity in an intimate, beautiful way. To borrow from Pablo Neruda, I knew no “other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you.” I loved our one-flesh life.

The death of a spouse is, among other things, a crisis of identity. I’m not single. That’s what I was before I met Rob. I’m not married now either. (Just ask my accountant or my attorney.) I’m not unattached because death doesn’t separate bonds of love. But I’m also free to form new relationships. Rob even encouraged me to do that if he died young. In a world that uses labels to organize reality, I find that only one really fits me now — widow. I still cringe when I say the word myself. I never wanted to be Rob’s widow. I wanted to be his wife.

I can’t fully express what it feels like to change your emergency contact because your husband is dead. I can’t adequately describe the tightness that fills your throat when you check the box “widowed” on a form, when only months or days ago you checked the “married” box beside it. I can’t begin to communicate the deep grief that floods your body and overwhelms your soul that first time you try taking off your wedding ring. When you look down and see your finger suddenly naked, abandoned. When you realize you no longer know even your own body without him here. You are now a stranger to yourself. When you start to realize what “widow” really means.

I said “yes” to Rob that night. When we sat down at a restaurant soon after, he proudly announced to the waitress right away, “We just got engaged!” Already, we knew who we were. No longer two, we were already one. An item. Together. We belonged to each other from that day on.

For the rest of my life I will wrestle with how to put words to this beauty and pain of loving and losing. I will grieve the pain of this unwanted change. I will sorrow over how Rob’s death has amputated, how part of me is gone forever. I will draw comfort always from the many ways he remains a part of me even though he is gone. How I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine is a truth that defies the grave. I will work to allow death to remake me in all the ways Rob always said it could. And, no matter what lies ahead, there will never be a me without him.

A Story I Cannot See

I’ve always been amazed at how quickly children change and grow. Nine months in the womb transforms a bunch of cells into a pudgy, giggling baby. Barely a year later, this helpless little angel throws her first tantrum, takes her first steps. The old parenting adage holds true that the days seem long but the years fly by.

A lot has happened in my children’s lives in the 16 months since Rob died. They’ve gained new skills in music and sports. They’ve matured in beautiful ways. One of my children has grown almost 5 inches. One has learned to read well. Another has braces now. Sometimes I look at my kids and think, “Rob would be so amazed and heartbroken to see how much they’ve changed — how much he’s missed — since he left.”

I sometimes worry about what my children’s lives will look like without this man who loved them so deeply. Rob was such a good dad. He wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination (kids are so good at pointing out your faults!), but he was really good. He was present for our children, deeply interested in their thoughts and committed to their growth. Rob was affectionate and gentle, rough-and-tumble and strong. You can say all the cliches like “You carry him in your heart.” But my kids know the hard truth — their dad is gone. He’s not here in the ways any of us want him to be.

When I think about all of the ways my children have lost their father, I can’t help but worry and wonder. But then I remember that in some mysterious way God wrote this into my sweet children’s stories. When Rob held them at their births, God knew they’d lose him young. When he played football with them in the backyard, when he hollered the loudest at the 4-H competitions, God knew one day they’d miss his strong arms and his enthusiasm for their successes. God knew the sorrow we’d experience, and in his beautiful goodness he gave Rob to us anyways.

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Every night, I read my children a novel aloud before bed. We’ve read almost 20 in the year and a half since Rob died. I love reading aloud the books I’ve personally read before. I know the plot, and I love seeing my kids discover it along the way. When the storyline feels boring, I encourage them, “Stick with me till the next chapter.” When the protagonist winds up in trouble, I reassure them, “It’s going to turn out okay.” I encourage them along because I see the full arc of a story they only know in part.

I trust that God has written good stories for my children, that the lines for them have been drawn in pleasant places. The sorrow they endure is being woven into a storyline more magnificent than I could ever imagine. Grief and pain are being transformed in the hand of a great Author. I can trust that the Writer knows what he is doing. That God’s plans for my kids have been and always will be filled with loving intention. I believe that, even in Rob’s death, God is working in my children’s lives for good.

Early in my grief journey, my therapist told me, “Your job is to learn to parent your children without knowing what is ahead.” I wrote those words down in my journal. I’ve gone back to them over and over again. In the face of loss, without my beloved partner at my side, that task often feels impossible. It terrifies me to admit I have no idea what lies ahead.

But then I remember that I parent in the strength of the One who knows exactly what is before me, who wrote each of my children’s days before any of them came to be. I may not know my children’s storyline, but God does. Even in the absence of their earthly father, my children’s lives are ordered by a good Father who knows the beginning and the end and every moment in between.

And so I receive those words of Divine encouragement.
Stick with me till the next chapter.
It’s going to turn out okay.
I am the Alpha and the Omega.
You are worth more than many sparrows.

On days that are hard.
On days that are good.
On days filled with grief.
On days ringing with laughter.
I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

Martha Black: Encountering Death as a 6-Year-Old

Today’s guest post is part of our month-long series honoring National Children’s Grief Awareness Month.

Growing up in small-town Arkansas, I was always a part of a tight-knit community. If someone wasn’t family, they still felt as if they were. My parents were even the leaders of the youth group at our small church. Such fond memories come flooding back as I recall all of the times that my brother and I joined the teenagers on numerous church outings. Needless to say, our entire family was extremely close to the teenagers in that small youth group.    

Life was wonderful until one dreadful September day that would forever shake our community. I remember that morning very vividly. Sitting on the floor while eating my bowl of Fruit Loops, my life would soon forever change. When I woke up that morning, I could have never known that I would soon have my very first encounter with death. The night before, on September 15, 1987, Jeanette Hunt, one of the most spirited teens in our church’s youth group, was tragically killed in a car accident. I remember the confusion I felt as I saw the pain in my parents’ eyes.  

As my parents broke the news as gently as they could to us, I remember the words that my mom said on that morning. “Jeanette would rather be in Heaven.” I was a six-year-old little girl, and these words upset me. From birth, I had been taught about God, Jesus, and heaven, but I was so confused about death at that moment. I couldn’t understand why Jeanette would rather be in Heaven. Did she not love me?  Why would she want to leave me? My life would forever be changed by this tragic loss.

Only a few short months later, I would experience a second loss. Our pastor’s son, Marty Deere, who was only one year younger than me, would die unexpectedly. Then, it seemed like a domino effect of one death after another. In February, my fishing partner Grandpa would pass away after a battle with lung cancer. In June, my very elderly great-grandfather would die. Then in August, a teenager who lived down the road from us would die tragically in a swimming accident. At the tender age of six, my life would forever be altered by experiencing five painful losses — all in less than a year. 

Fast forward to December 20, 2015.  My young son would experience his first deep loss when my Mama (his Granny) would die after only a four-month battle with cancer. Naturally, after Mama died, I walked through a dark season of pain and grief. When I recall this time, as a mother, I feel guilty. I was not as mentally or emotionally present for my son to help him walk through his own season of grief. I honestly couldn’t see beyond my own heartache.

This gave me perspective as I remember that year of losses that I experienced as a young child. I was reminded of how my parents did their best to help my brother and I walk through our first losses, even as they were walking through their own grief. God began to reveal to me the challenge set before a person who has suffered great loss and who has children. It is extremely difficult to guide children through their grief as we are grieving, as well.  

To this day, I wonder how much different things would be for my son if we would have had a plan in place on how we, as a family, would handle death and loss. A plan would have helped both my son and me as we walked through that dark season after Mama died. We prepare in advance for emergencies such as fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, but why not death? The chances of being in a house fire or even a tornado are far less than experiencing death and loss. Experiencing loss is inevitable.  

It’s not comfortable to discuss or even to think about death. However, grief and death forever impact our lives. Thinking back to my childhood, I wonder if how I would grow to view death would have been any different if we would have had a grief and loss plan in place. Could how my own child views death and loss be any different if my husband and I would have had a plan before his Granny passed away?

Martha is a wife, mom, elementary educator, faith blogger, and grief author with Martha Black Ministries. Her children’s book, You’ll Find Me At the Ocean explores grief through the eyes of a child. In hopes of helping others guide their children through grief and in honor of National Children’s Grief Awareness Month, Martha has created a “Family Grief and Loss Plan.”  It is her prayer that families will sit down together and intentionally develop this plan prior to a death. She believes this plan could forever change how your child views grief and death. 

In small-town Arkansas, Martha Black and her husband reside where they are raising their teenaged son. After losing her mom to cancer, Martha was led by God to walk alongside those who have experienced loss — making it her goal to break the silence about grieving. Visit Martha on Instagram and on Facebook.

National Children’s Grief Awareness Month

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Nothing challenges parents more than shepherding a child through grief. Translating the realities of death and grief into terms a child can grasp tests all of our powers of communication, all of our relational skills, all of our capacity for empathy and emotional maturity.

And yet, one of the greatest honors of my life has been to walk with my children as they make companions with their grief. We’ve found ways to remember the father they lost. We’ve learned to talk about death in ways that demystify it. Parenting my grieving children is incredibly hard work, but watching them flourish in the midst of sorrow is incredibly rewarding too.

Today marks the beginning of National Children’s Grief Awareness Month. I’m thrilled to host guest writers this month who will share their wisdom with us relating to children’s grief. I hope you are touched by their stories and inspired to connect more deeply with children in your own life!

Read more about walking with children through grief …

Bringing Up Boys
Since Rob died, I’ve wondered how I’m going to raise my two boys without him.

The Man of the House
Our friend carried a single, holy message for my sons’ hearts: You’re not the man of the house now. 

Crying in Baseball
Learning to live with loss means allowing it to be embodied. 

Binomials and the School of Grief
I may not be able help my teenagers with their math assignments anymore, but I will teach them everything I know about resilience.

Mercy for the Broken
I want to tell you what it feels like to hold a child as he mourns.

We Will Be Known

On the way to school, my 10-year-old muses, “I don’t want to die when I’m an old man, Mom.” I ask why, and he explains. “If I die when I’m an old man, Dad won’t recognize me when I get to heaven. Other people will say, ‘How could this be your son?'”

I grip the steering wheel a little tighter. Feel my throat tighten with that now familiar sadness. My eyes cloud with tears. Think, Mama. Pray, Mama. What to say?

I take a deep breath and begin to tell him the familiar story. The man who’s lost his Teacher and Friend. The One who appears unrecognized. The moment that sparks memory, affirms belonging, renews love. “See my hands. Touch my side. Believe.”

What will our bodies be like when they are transformed with immortality? I don’t really know. But if Jesus gives us any indication, I can be assured of this. We will know one another. Eyes will shine with recognition. We will be known, even if it is only through our scars.

“I have that scar on my head from when I fell,” he replies with relief. “Dad will remember the big pack of Oreos he gave me after we left the hospital. I still have the Snoopy he gave me too.” He’ll remember more than that, I assure him. How vast a memory has love.

4 Prayers When You’re Lacking Words

In my journey with grief, I have been grateful for the Scripture I committed to memory through the years. Over and over, it has come back to offer me comfort, encouragement and strength as I walked this difficult road. Many times, when I couldn’t muster my own prayers, Scripture has spoken for me.

I have also found comfort in praying ancient prayers. Their carefully chosen words and their timeless nature make them the perfect fit for a grieving person who can’t often hold her own train of thought, let alone articulate clearly.

Here are four prayers I have found particularly helpful as I pray my way through bereavement. I’d love to know — what Scriptures or prayers offer you words in a time of wordlessness? 

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4 Ancient Prayers for When Life Leaves You Speechless

Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict. Show me the course I should take. Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go. And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.
Basil of Caesarea, 329-379

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
Desert Fathers, 5th century Egypt

I pray, O God, that I may know you and love you,
so that I may rejoice in you.

And if I cannot do so fully in this life
may I progress gradually until it comes to fullness.

Let the knowledge of you grow in me here,
and there be made complete;
Let your love grow in me here
and there be made complete,
so that here my joy may be great in hope,
and there be complete in reality.

Lord, by your Son, you command, or rather, counsel us to ask
and you promise that we shall receive
so that our joy may be complete.

I ask, Lord, as you counsel through our admirable Counselor.
May I receive what you promise through your truth so that my joy may be complete.

Until then let my mind meditate on it,
let my tongue speak of it,
let my heart love it,
let my mouth preach it.

Let my soul hunger for it,
let my flesh thirst for it,
my whole being desire it,
until I enter into the joy of the Lord,
who is God, Three in One, blessed forever. Amen.
Anselm of Canterbury, c. 1033-1109

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Book of Common Prayer

5 Tips for Going to the Doctor Post-Loss

My doctor is on maternity leave, so when I headed in recently for a visit, I was nervous. I’d never met the provider I’d be seeing. And although she could learn my story from my records, I didn’t know how she’d respond once we were together in the room. I dreaded the visit and almost cancelled a couple of times because of cold feet.

When the doctor came in, her eyes met mine and they filled with tears. “I can hardly look you in the eyes,” she told me. “I can’t imagine what you have been through.” Suddenly, I knew I was in a safe space. She wouldn’t provide me with just good medical care; she would care for my soul as well. I could hear the tenderness in her voice. I could see it in her tear-filled eyes.

For the next thirty minutes we talked. She evaluated my symptoms, normalized my concerns, and commended my bravery in simply showing up. “After people lose their loved ones, they often avoid coming to the doctor,” she told me. I’m really glad you came in.” I could honestly say I was glad too.

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Going to the doctor after your person dies can be incredibly hard. Whether it’s having to relive the medical sights and smells and sounds or whether you’re just afraid of more bad news. Being vulnerable in that little exam room can feel overwhelming. If your person provided you with moral support, attending a doctor’s visit alone can feel even scarier.

But one of the ways you can love yourself and keep loving your person is by taking care of yourself. Scheduling the appointment, showing up for the test, sitting on the table in that chilly exam room when you’d rather run away. Rather than avoid the doctor, you can seek out one who will carry your story with gentleness, who will honor your heart’s pain even as she works to heal your body’s. It might take a couple tries to find the right fit, but those people are out there.

Here are five things I’ve learned as I’ve navigated healthcare post-loss. I hope they’ll be helpful as you plan your next doctor’s visit.

5 Tips for Going to the Doctor After Loss

1. Find a provider.

If you didn’t like your provider before your person’s death, now is the time to switch to someone new. More than ever you need someone who understands your needs and communicates in ways that are meaningful to you. The search can feel overwhelming, so ask a friend for a recommendation. People love to talk about the doctors who care for them well.

2. Schedule a post-loss visit.

If you have concerns about your own mortality, schedule a reassurance assessment. Doctors regularly offer this kind of care to bereaved people. You’re not the first patient who has worried he’ll have a heart attack or die of cancer after having watched his loved one die. You’re not the first individual who has been concerned about what the stress of grief is doing to his body. A basic physical can offer a baseline assessment of your health post-loss and provide you with reassurance. Your doctor can also recommend healthy practices and connect you to mental health services that will help you process your grief.

3. Don’t avoid your symptoms.

If you’re struggling mentally or physically, let your doctor know. Early intervention produces the best results. Grief wears you down, but you don’t need to simply accept feeling miserable physically. If something hurts, ask for help.

4. Start slowly.

Going to the doctor after loss can be scary. But you don’t need to do it all at once. Start with a telehealth visit that you can do from the comfort of your home. Remind yourself that this first step shows lots of courage. Next, schedule a time in your day to drive over to the doctor’s office and just sit parked in the parking lot. Watch the cars driving in and out. Repeat a phrase like, “I am uncomfortable, but I am safe” or “This step is taking me to where I want to be” or “I am choosing to take care of my body” to remind yourself that even showing up in the parking lot is brave.

When you’re ready, call the doctor to schedule your appointment. Ask them to mark your chart as a bereaved person and let them know you’re anxious about the upcoming visit.

5. Advocate for yourself.

Your first steps of appointment setting are a practice run in advocating for yourself. You can continue to build those muscles by writing out a list of your questions in advance. As you become confident in talking with your doctor, you’ll find you’re more able to articulate what you need, insist on the care you desire, and pursue answers that put your mind at ease. From seeking out a provider who treats you as a whole person to showing up in the office, you are showing you can know and do what is right for you.

This content does not constitute medical advice or replace the assessment of a doctor or mental health professional. If you have questions about your health, please consult your doctor.