Discombobulated is one of my favourite words to describe my state of being when I was going through deep grief. The state of being discombobulated is to be characterised by confusion or disorder. In other words, grief caused my brain to be scrambled. All the things I had taken for granted were now thrown into the mixer. My plans, my future, even my identity, were suddenly all up in the air. When we go through grief, we are reminded that life is fragile. This can cause a sense of fear and despair as we face a future we didn’t choose. It’s hard to come to terms with the uninvited interruption which is grief.
Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one, or a sudden change in circumstances (e.g. redundancy or ill health), being discombobulated is an innate feeling that things are simply not as they should be. Grief does that. It is a pernicious force that can destabilise and cripple us physically and emotionally. Grief is an exhausting bedfellow that, if unrecognised and ineffectually processed, can have a long-term detrimental impact on our sense of well-being and purpose. However, my reason for writing is not to add to your woes but to provide you with hope to courageously face the future. It is possible to find a depth of resilience that can enable one to persevere along the road of grief and, indeed, find joy once more. Discombobulation does not need to be your permanent state. However, grief is not something we simply get over. But it is something we can journey through. Thankfully, there are signposts that can help us on this journey. I hope that my own story can be a signpost for you.
On 9th August 2016, Laura and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary with breakfast at the Company Gardens in Cape Town. Over bacon and eggs, we reflected on the previous couple of months. Laura had been hospitalised twice but we were now grateful that she appeared to be on the mend. We were looking forward to my brother and his family coming to stay with us in just a few days’ time. A long-awaited holiday was an enticing prospect and a chance for us to recover from the stress of the previous weeks. I couldn’t have imagined that, within just 9 days and while on that very holiday, I would be sat by Laura’s side as she lay in hospital, unconscious, having suffered a brain aneurysm. She did not recover and 24 hours later I was instructing the doctors to switch off the life support machine.
I have described the details more fully in my book Grief and Grace. This uninvited and unwelcome interruption in my life was utterly devastating. As I sat beside Laura’s bedside on the night she died, I cried out to God in despair and confusion. Let’s face it, there is no explanation for why a 38-year-old mother of three is tragically taken from this world. My Christian faith means I believe that there is hope beyond the grave. But for those left behind on planet Earth, grief can be a cruel and dangerous journey. I was facing a future I would never have chosen or imagined.
In the weeks following Laura’s death, many concerned friends and family members counseled me that I would have to find my “new normal”. That expression became something of a cliché during the COVID years. But back in 2016, it was a phrase I had not heard before. However, I struggled to accept that anything about my new reality was normal. So, I started referring to my situation as a new abnormal. Grief had brought me into discontinuity with my previous life.
I subsequently came to refer to grief as my sixth sense as I navigated this new abnormal. And when in grief, the sixth sense dominates all other senses. I recently read Michelle Obama’s book, and her description of life after loss resonated with me:
“It hurts to live after someone has died. It just does. It can hurt to walk down a hallway or open the fridge. It hurts to put on a pair of socks, to brush your teeth. Food tastes like nothing. Colours go flat. Music hurts, and so do memories. You look at something you’d otherwise find beautiful – a purple sky at sunset or a playground full of kids – and it only somehow deepens the loss. Grief is so lonely this way.”Michelle Obama, Becoming, p. 144.
This is the sixth sense. The lonely journey of life in slow motion where every decision to keep going requires Herculean resolve. In times like these, the platitudes, clichés and greetings card poems don’t help. It is literally a case of survival and determining to put one foot in front of the other.
Maybe you can relate to some of this in whatever situation you are currently facing. Grief brings about an abnormal reality full of unexpected consequences that blindside us. C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed that sorrow is not a state, but a process. The process is not easy. But it is necessary.
I have always been careful not to express my journey through grief as a recipe for others to follow. I don’t believe there are sequential steps that can guarantee your recovery from grief and loss. Rather, the fact that I’m still standing after facing my personal experience, can hopefully provide encouragement to you in your own journey through grief and loss. Critically, I am not the only example of someone who is rebuilding their life following a loss. There are tens of thousands of such stories (some of which are contained in our Grief and Grace video series). In itself, this can be an incredible encouragement. Just as no one is immune from the vulnerability of life so, I believe, everyone can find the grace and strength required to endure and progress in life in spite of seemingly insurmountable challenges and heart-breaking sadness.
Although not a recipe, there are three pieces of advice I would give anyone going through grief.
The first is to recognise your limitations. Grief, of any kind, is exhausting. The sixth sense can drain your energy and emotional reserves. Recognise that your capacity has been compromised and be kind to yourself. Don’t just push through. Rest. Sleep. However, be careful of absolute lethargy. In the midst of the hardest moments of my grief, I still tried to make sure I got up each day, made food, got outside for walks… and even took up surfing (distractions can be necessary). I became an avid list-maker. This helped me feel a sense of accomplishment as I worked through necessary daily tasks. But still, I had to be gracious to myself and simply find ways to get through each day.
My second piece of advice is to try and find things to be grateful for. Author and motivational speaker, Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms and legs, writes, “one of the best ways to take the pain out of past experiences is to replace the hurt with gratitude”. This is certainly not easy, but I learned that I can be grateful even if I’m not particularly happy. I’ve always kept a journal. After Laura died I journaled vociferously which helped me process my emotions. In the journal, I started a gratitude list that included things I was grateful for about Laura and the life we shared together. It was tough. But it was incredibly helpful. I also read the Psalms in the Bible which spoke directly to my situation as the authors themselves grappled with the deep challenges of life. Over time, I began to find other things to be grateful for and, on occasion, having a grateful attitude began to spill over into times of joy. This wasn’t always straightforward as joy can quickly be juxtaposed with pain (I call it two sides of the same coin). However, it enabled me to occasionally lift my head above the cloud of the sixth sense and gain fresh perspective and, eventually, hope for the future.
Finally, don’t cut yourself off from community. If you’re going through a particularly difficult experience, your friends and family might not know what to say or how to help you. Sometimes it can be draining to have them around. But we cannot get through the quagmire of grief unless we let other people walk with us through the journey. Additionally, seek professional help when necessary. I was so grateful for medical help and counseling. The people who walked with me through my grief were gifts from God, able to assist me practically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Let’s be honest, grief sucks and is a tough reality that all human beings will face. However, all is not lost!
My own journey continues. I have remarried and we have a two-year-old daughter. This isn’t about finding my happy ever after but recognising that, as I continue to walk through grief, new chapters emerge. My story has shaped who I am becoming.
My hope and prayer is that, even if you are currently feeling discombobulated by your grief, you will find the grace, resilience and courage to move into the new chapters that God has for you.