FFF#28–When things don’t go as planned.

In the last two months, our two oldest boys have had plans that haven’t gone quite as expected.  They weren’t little plans.  Spanky was going to be married and his plans fell through.  Slim’s graduate school attendance has been put on hold.

copyright:  Karen Larsen photography

My friend’s plans (in this post FFF #26) changed drastically when her husband was killed.  They were making plans to have another baby.

My friends in this post (FFF #25) never planned on their husbands having cancer and having to fight that battle.

We all have times when life throws us curve balls, where things happen to us that were unexpected and unplanned.  Those are difficult times.

We had been married a year and just had a brand new baby when we found out our baby would need emergency surgery, maybe not live through the surgery, ended up being in newborn ICU for a month, and had a colostomy for two and a half years, and during that two years had another 3 major surgeries and 7 minor ones, during which time we also found out he had would go into anaphylactic shock when exposed to peanuts.  We had a new baby, who was born with a heart murmur and spent a night or two in the hospital, and we were both in school during that period of time, too.  It was a crazy, crazy time.  I think back to those days and it just appears as a big nightmare, a bad dream.  It doesn’t seem real that we did those things.

But, whenever I am faced with some one’s tragedy, whose is similar to what I experienced, the feelings come back.  I know what they need.  I know what they are thinking and feeling.  I know what I can do to help.

My thought with this post is what can we do when our plans completely fall apart and life is drastically different than we thought?  How can we emotionally handle the difficulties we are facing?  It is very normal to go through the grief process when anything unexpected happens that causes us loss.  It may be loss of a spouse, friend, or family member; loss of an opportunity; loss of hopes, dreams, or plans.  Usually the major loss (that of a person or things falling through) is accompanied with smaller losses (our plans, hopes, dreams with that person or opportunity) so loss is not just one thing, but it is multiple losses.  Our grief may surface many times as we are managing the day to day and ‘new’ loss comes to our attention.

copyright: Karen Larsen photography

So let’s talk a little about the grieving process.  I am going to list them as steps, but don’t think you can just choose which one you want to be on.  It doesn’t work like that.  Those going through the grieving process will usually pass through each stage on their own.  Unfortunately with grief, there is no time table.  You also do not get to pick and choose.  It is a process.  Social scientists have been able to document the process and study it.  They believe it to be fairly universal, though not everyone gets to the acceptance stage.

The first part is Denial and Isolation.  It is normal to deny the reality of what has just happened to us, or the loss we have just experienced.  It is also normal to want to avoid other people.  You are struggling to manage your own emotions and the current and unexpected reality you are facing.  Having to think about other people or their problems and managing your behavior in the current state is stressful and added ‘stuff’ for you to try to manage in your already difficult emotional situation.  Give yourself permission to isolate yourself as you come to terms with your feelings.  It is OK.  If you have small children who need your supervision and love, see if a friend or family member can take them to play or do something fun so you can have a few hours to grieve.  If, however, your children are also grieving, be extra sensitive to the fact that if your push them away, now they have added grief because of your emotional struggles.  Grieve together.  Pull them out of school so they can be isolated as well and not have to face the questions of others.  They are having a similar experience to yours.  Their loss is just as real, and because small children do not always know what they are feeling, they may not have any idea or words to give you to express their needs.  But recognize they are there and they need you to help them meet their needs.

Anger usually follows denial.  When my friend’s husband died unexpectedly, she would tell me that she spent the evening  yelling at his photo.  She was so hurt and so angry that he just died unexpectedly and left her to manage everything all alone.  She was angry at others and the things they said about the accident and about her family.  I just listened to her when she wanted to vent.  She needed to know it was OK that she was angry.  It was also alright for her to let others know she was angry.  She needed to choose a safe place to put her anger.  That was me.  It would not have been appropriate or healthy to vent at her children.  They would not understand or know what to do with that.  They may internalize it and think she was mad at them because their father died.  What would that do to their little self-esteem?  They will have their own anger in their own time because their father is gone.  When that happens, their mother will need to be patient with them and help them to know that their anger is OK.  She can give them appropriate ways to show their anger.  For example, “when you are angry because your father is gone you can go and punch the punching bag, or write him a nasty letter, or go out and paint the fence!”  If you give them positive places and behaviors to manage their anger, they will learn how to appropriately manage their anger in the future.  If you do not want them, for instance, hitting people when they are angry, maybe you wouldn’t want to allow them to punch the punching bag (or teach them to hit things when they are mad—different people will have different philosophies about what would be appropriate behavior when they are angry).  And if you are at a total loss for thinking of an appropriate behavior, then pray about it.  The Lord knows you and your little person.  He knows perfectly how he/she is feeling and what behaviors would help your little person through their grieving process.

copyright: Karen Larsen photography

Step three is called Bargaining.  The idea is basically that you second guess yourself or the circumstances or situation.  If you had just done things a little differently, this tragedy would not have happened to you.  Or for a pending tragedy (terminal illness of yourself or a loved one), if you (God, or the powers that be) will just take this away from us, I will…….(fill in the blank).  This is normal.  None of us want to do things that are hard for us or painful.  It is not a sign of a healthy person to want to inflict pain on ourselves.  We want to be in control and sometimes we are willing to make a deal in order to avoid pain or think that if we had only (done this) then (our tragedy) wouldn’t have happened.  But the truth is, we are not in control, as much as we would like to believe we are.  Someone else is.  I believe and know He is our Father in Heaven, who loves us, understands us more than we understand ourselves, and has a bigger perspective than we can really know.  What is the scripture, “For my thoughts are not thy thoughts, nor my ways thy ways….”  something like that. (Isaiah 55:8-9)  His plan is what is best for us, even though we may not have the same understanding or perspective.  We can have faith in His plan, even when it hurts.  Here is a talk about putting our trust in Him during times of trial.  Elder Anderson, October 2012, Trial of Your Faith. 

As your shock, anger, and second guessing subside, the reality of your situation and circumstances sets in.  (My linear description is apparently not completely accurate.  Grief is not necessarily a linear progression. The stages can occur in any order.)  Some people label this step as Depression.  I prefer to label it Mourning.  It is just deep, deep sadness where you feel your loss profoundly.  Again, there is no time-table here.  Each person will experience their loss uniquely.  Others may want those experiencing loss to ‘snap-out of it’ or ‘get on with it’.  But those experiencing their loss just need time and understanding and support.  Sometimes you may think you are doing well and moving on, and then your mourning may over-take you again.  That is alright and just a part of how you or others are managing the grieving process.  My sweet friend had a dream one night that life for her was like it was before her husband died.  She woke up in the morning to face the reality of her situation, again.  That was a really, really hard day for her.  But you know what?  It showed that she was moving through her grief.  She was able to dream about her life and what she thought it was going to be.  It did make the next day hard, but those are the same feelings she will have when she crosses the veil and sees her sweetheart again.  He is not gone forever.  He is just gone for mortality.

The last step is recognized as Acceptance.  This stage is characterized by continuing to build your life in light of your new circumstances, either without your loved one, or without your original hopes and dreams.  Some people never make it here.  Some are so sad and so upset that maybe they do not ever leave anger, or they get stuck in mourning.

copyright:  Karen Larsen photography

Each of us will respond based on our understanding and knowledge about mortality and our purposes here on earth.  When our oldest son was so sick and so little, the people who had the most difficult time with his illness and the possibility of his death were those who did not share our faith and understanding of the plan of salvation.  For example, Drew and I knew that if our Slim were to die as an infant, he would be saved in the Celestial Kingdom, which meant that one of our children made it!  Then our job would be to do all that we could to be worthy to be there with him.  We would see him again one day.  We would rejoice in his mortality together even though it would have been cut short.  And if he didn’t die, we would get to keep him!!  (Personally, with as difficult as he was for us to raise, I was often reminded that I had prayed for his life and now it was time for me to do my part—double edged sword, that kid!)  Those were our thoughts during those days.  They were filled with plenty of tears, plenty of prayers, and a lot of loneliness, even though it was a short period.

copyright:  Karen Larsen photography

I do not want you to think that I am equating Slim’s illness with other people’s greater losses.  I guess the point is that we each have loss, to one degree or another.  We experience the grief process, to one degree or another.  I went through the process when my grandparents were unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident when I was 13.  I went through it again when my parents divorced, though I kind of stuffed all of that inside and it has been a lot of years coming out.  Spanky experienced it with his broken engagement.  My friend who lost her spouse and her children, and my two friends with terminal illnesses and their sweet families are going through it now.

Life is not meant to be easy.  It is to minister to our growth and development.  Sometimes, we only learn certain things, by the trials and loss we face.  But when we do so with faith, and we have an idea of what is happening and how to put things into perspective, we can eventually be made whole again, through the miracle of the atonement of our Savior.

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