This account of grief and finding hope, is written by DeAnne Appleton, leader of the REBUILD grief ministry at Willow Creek Community Church.
On July 13, 2020, after seven months of fighting a fast-growing rare sarcoma cancer that he was supposed to conquer, our healthy, full-of-life 28-year-old son left earth for his Heavenly home.
We were stunned. As the primary caregiver, I was exhausted. We were the definition of catatonic: appearing mentally frozen, unresponsive, and motionless, or almost so; seemingly unaware of our environment. My three sisters and our small group from church took over our home, handing us food, fielding phone calls, and accepting the flowers and food that were brought to our front door.
Six days later, fully masked, we stood in the funeral home greeting close to 300 fully-masked people, repeatedly hearing “I have no words”—we barely had any ourselves. By the end of the wake, my husband, daughter, oldest son, and I were only able to repeat: “thank you so much for coming, thank you so much for coming, thank you so much for coming….”
When we came home, I sat down in my chair and barely moved for months, utterly paralyzed by what had happened. My husband returned to work, our daughter returned to New Hampshire, and our son headed out West. A dark, consuming fog wrapped itself around me. I’m a naturally cheerful, optimistic woman of active faith; I’ve counseled people through the roughest of waters and prayed for dozens of people by name. And yet, here I was, completely stuck. The fog was so heavy that I couldn’t find the strength to even ask God for help. I had followed Jesus for decades, yet I didn’t speak to Him for months—I didn’t want to. I barely recognized myself in the wake of my loss.
The trauma of grief owned me.
Over time, the shock started to wear off, and we began taking small steps toward healing. A friend recommended we check out REBUILD, the grief ministry at Willow. The first week we heard the words, “You are not alone.” “Your grief is safe here.” After the main teaching, we sat around a virtual table with our leader and six others, all of whom had lost a child. Through sobs, we told our stories to each other; I learned others were experiencing the same deep fog I was living with. Before the evening ended, we were given a “tool” to practice for the week. We marveled that our leader, who had suddenly, without any warning, lost her daughter 15 years earlier, was living a full and active life. Could we really thrive again, as well, we wondered?
For the next nine weeks, we attended REBUILD, learning a new “tool” each week that we could put into practice in this uninvited journey called grief. We learned grief causes brain fog, then discovered a tool to help overcome it. We heard that it’s normal to get stuck in the “should-haves” and were equipped with tools that taught us not to ignore the should-haves but to process them. We learned what happens to our bodies, minds, and emotions when we experience the trauma of grief, how to pre-grieve so that we wouldn’t fall apart at inopportune times, and how to coexist with our new reality. Each week we were presented practical content by a grief therapist, law enforcement officer, pastor, or teacher, all of whom had been in the grip of grief due to their losses at one point in their lives. They had also learned to navigate the grief terrain, how to live life again–not ignoring reality, but how to hold both grief and life simultaneously.
Two weeks ago and two years after his passing, we stood by our son’s grave, pausing to honor his life and legacy. The brain fog still rolls in and the depression still walks in my shadow. Our family is not the same as it was–we’ve been broken by our loss and are learning how to put ourselves back together again. But just as Jesus who, by the breaking of the bread was able to take that same bread and feed a multitude of hungry people, we are learning to take our brokenness and offer it to others who have also been broken by the loss of their loved one–we’ve been given the gift of rebuilding.
Here are some of the tools that have helped us find some hope in our new reality:
REBUILD – Find a safe space to grieve while gaining the practical tools to navigate your loss. REBUILD meets twice a year for ten consecutive weeks with in-person or Zoom options available. You will be placed at a table with a leader who has either the same or a similar loss as yours. The Fall 2022 session begins Wednesday, September 14, and runs through Wednesday, November 16. REBUILD also holds in-person, one-night presentations at various points in the year. Learn more and register here: www.willowcreek.org/rebuild
Grief therapists/counselors – Sometimes, we need more help, especially when we cannot shake the depression that is a close companion to grief. Find a grief counselor to journey with you—many specialize in areas of loss, so you can find the help you need. See here for a guide to finding a counselor and what to expect, and here for helpful websites where you can search for counselors.
Compassionate Friends began to support parents who have lost a child but has grown to include sibling and grandchild loss. They have virtual groups available.
The Stephen Ministry is offered at many churches to provide compassionate listening and the presence of a trained volunteer who can walk alongside you for a period of time.
Grief Share support groups meet weekly across the world to help those grieving find help and hope.
Loss-specific books can be a source of healing:
- For all loss types: A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss by Jerry L Sittser
- For parents who have lost a child: Colors of Goodbye by September Vaudrey
- For those who have lost a spouse:
- And Life Comes Back: A Wife’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope Reclaimed by Tricia Lott Williford
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, et al.
- For loss due to suicide: Grieving a Suicide by Albert Y Hsu
- For children: Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen
For information on the REBUILD ministry at Willow Creek, go here: REBUILD.
Find a grief counselor with our list of helpful resources here.
For more practical ways to deal with mental health issues, and stories of others who have been there too, go here for our full list of resources.