Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Handing Out Permission Slips

The older I get, the more suffering I see.

I got a pie-full in the face the last time I was home.

Friends my age with incurable, progressive diseases. Lost loved ones. Divorces. Kids in rehab.

So much pain.

Now the truth is that when you’re not currently in a state of active pain yourself, you might not necessarily want to hear about the pain of others. Of course there are exceptions. But a lot of people want to avoid the acknowledgement that we live in a precarious world in which pain and suffering are inevitable components. Desiring no reminders of mortality, they avoid people who are suffering like the bubonic plague. Fiddle while Rome burns. Eat, drink, and be merry, buy a new pair of shoes…for tomorrow…who knows? I could lose the cosmic lottery. Tragedy could show up on my doorstep. It is best not to think about such things. Doing so might make it happen.

The human instinct to avoid pain at all costs can make us impatient with those who are in the middle of it. Unknowingly, we make their burden even harder to bear. Because it takes time to process loss.

In a multi-tasking, frenzy-paced world, those of us undergoing the process are not always given a great deal of grace. After a certain period, we are expected to get over it and get on with it. We are viewed as weak if we cannot. As a result, the grieving process is aborted.

I read an account of a plane that crashed into the ocean. With no bodies to bury, the families were creative in their memorials. A witness wrote:

“Some family members chartered helicopters to fly over the actual crash site; many survivors participated in impromptu candlelight vigils; literally hundreds joined together for a more formal ceremony that culminated in throwing wreaths of flowers onto the water at sunset. One broadcast journalist covering this particular event was overhead saying, “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they just go home and get on with their lives?””

This impatience is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout history, mankind has established elaborate grieving rituals. Although there are cultural differences, most practices involve giving the mourner the gifts of time and space. Lots of time.

That’s why Scarlett caused such a scandal at the ball by dancing with Rhett in her widows weeds. In the 19th century, “official” mourning lasted at least a year.

In the 21st century, the Jewish way seems most gentle. Lori Palatnik writes:

“Judaism provides a beautiful, structured approach to mourning that involves three stages. When followed carefully, these stages guide mourners through the tragic loss and pain and gradually ease them back into the world. One mourner said her journey through the stages of mourning was like being in a cocoon. At first she felt numb and not perceptively alive, yet gradually she emerged as a butterfly ready again to fly.
The loss is forever, but the psychological, emotional, and spiritual healing that takes place at every stage is necessary and healthy.”

I think that is the key. A grief that is not allowed to be fully felt and expressed remains unhealed.

But grieving does not pertain only to the death of someone you love. There are many losses in life…losses of relationships, health, reversals of fortune, the loss of youth, loss of sanity. The empty nest. The loss of a dream that dies. All kinds of losses need to be healthily grieved before moving on. Stuffing the emotions back inside only makes them linger longer. Maybe fester. Turn into something worse than grief, like bitterness or cynicism or depression.

In “Missing Katherine,” I wrote of my own struggles in dealing with the loss of the pre-AVM Katherine. In some ways, I have lost a child…as I knew her then. It is very painful.

The comments I received on that post were among the most meaningful I’ve read. Brave women shared their own stories of painful loss. Cheryl wrote,

“Dear Kim, I have read your blog, and in many ways understand what you are feeling. Just before his 50th birthday, my husband was diagnosed four years ago with a very rare form of dementia called Fronto-temporal dementia. He has Progressive Non-fluent Aphasia which means that he cannot communicate, nor can he completely understand us. I am watching my husband, my best friend slip away before my very eyes. Our children are having to parent their dad, their hero. It is heart breaking, and yes, I miss him. I look at him, and see him, and yet it's not him. The only thing I can think of is that we have had so many blessings. God has been so good to us. I try so hard to concentrate on that.”

Susan shared her story:

“We moved to Atlanta in 2004 and one year later -- November 19, 2005, our son and daughter were involved in a horrible car crash which took the life of their friend and left our daughter in a coma. Every bone in her face was broken, teeth and bone knocked out and worst of all, the doctor said her lungs were beyond repair --"prepare yourselves. your daughter will not make it through the day." She is a miracle and God gave her new lungs. Yet she has had many other issues.

So we do understand, to an extent, how your family has suffered, yet no one suffers the same. Four years later our girl continues to have more reconstructive surgeries and endures chronic headaches. Life is serious and sad quite often. I too miss her carefree spirit, her symmetrical face, her confidence and on and on. Some days it just hits me, and I'm sad for all that's been lost. So thank you, Kim, for aiding in my healing today -- giving me permission to be sad for my little girl.”

Wow…thank you…for reminding me that we can help each other in that small way.

So for anyone out there who is suffering any kind of loss, large or small…today, right now, I give you permission to grieve, to cry, to question God…to rant and rave…to curl up in a ball on the couch…

To do absolutely whatever it takes to get it OUT. (Or to do nothing at all.)

Not because I’m any kind of special permission-giver, but because sometimes we’re much tougher on ourselves than on anyone else. And we just need someone…anyone…to give us the freedom and grace we seem unwilling or unable to give ourselves. 

It might as well be me.

And while I’m handing out permission slips, how about if I also give you permission…

To be imperfect…

To slow down…

To stop trying so hard to look good…

To stop comparing yourself…

To accomplish nothing…

To let it all hang out…

To not make up your bed…

To eat in bed…

To have a big fat bowl of ice cream. Or a glass of wine. (In bed!?)

To be who you really are.

To be real.


"Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep." (Romans 12:15)


  1. That was very beautiful. When my aunt passed away from breast cancer it took a long time for me for me to move on. It was incredibly hard to watch such an amazing and important person in my life fight for her life. When she passed away, I felt as though people expected me to move on quickly and forget it in a few months. It's strange how your mourning a loss can seem like an inconvenience to others. We were so close. I still miss her.

  2. thank you so much for encouraging and inspiring people to grieve. my husband is a chaplain for a hospital in montgomery. in my opinion, he is amazing in every aspect of his job but most impressive is the honesty he brings to patients and their families. he tells them that it's ok to be mad. it's ok to be scared. and most of all, it's ok to grieve. he tells them that God doesn't want them stuck in anger or fear or grief but that, if anyone "gets" those emotions, God does. a couple of years ago, i started dating this amazing man. he gave me permission to feel those feelings, too. not for a physical death, but an emotional death. i had divorced. it was painful and public. and i had been carrying on for my four sweet children like we mommies do. i had never given myself permission to grieve my family that would never be again. and he gave me the permission i didn't even know i needed. together, we have walked the grieving process- for me and for the children he is helping me to raise. he is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me and my children. this is a needed reminder to so many. so thank you for sharing it with all of your readers.

  3. I'm passing a permission slip back to you.

  4. This reached through to exactly where I am today and deeply touched my heart. Thank you for so generously sharing your wisdom and insight.

    I'm sure many of us needed it today.

  5. Thank you so much for the "Permission Slip". I am passing this particular blog for today to my daughter-in-law Annie. Her 3.5 year old son Ian(my grandson) has Leukemia and we all miss the little boy he used to be, he doesn't even look the same. I find myself digging out old photographs (pre-Leukemia) so I can remember his beautiful curly brown hair and long eyelashes. I appreciate this Permission Slip so much!!!!

  6. I promise to be a better friend to those who are suffering. I want to be more patient and kind. Thanks for the good word. Very good!



Thank you so much for taking the time to write.

It helps to know we're not alone.