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Lessons Learned in Grief | Part 2

This month marks one year since we lost dad.
We’ve officially made it through all the firsts — Father’s Day, our first trip back to the beach, Thanksgiving, his birthday, Christmas and many more events and holidays. Not a day goes by that my heart doesn’t feel the pang of sorrow when I want to call and share a success with him, when a photo on my timeline pops up, when I hear one of his favorite songs, when I smell a steak cooking or the scent of ocean air — the list goes on.
I feel like I’ve grown tremendously in these past 12 months because of the tough lessons I’ve learned about grief, life and love. And it’s been hard. It’s not an experience I would have chosen but I’ve learned that me and my family can do hard things — and grow from them.
Over the past year I have connected with SO many of you who are on a grief journey. I’ve learned so much from those of you ahead of me and I’ve shared so much with those of you behind me. All of us at some point in our life will encounter grief. And my hope is this post will help you feel not so alone.
(Don’t forget to read part 1)

Grief During the Holidays

If you knew my dad, you knew just how massive his personality was. He really was the life of a party — loud, funny and just a blast to be around. So we all deeply feel the deficit of his presence during family holiday gatherings.

For me personally, creating new traditions and changing locations during the holidays helped ease some of the pain. We hosted Thanksgiving in our home this year and while we still felt the absence of dad, I also felt relief sitting at a new table together — one that didn’t include an empty seat silently marked as “dad’s chair.”

Dad always said the blessing in our family too so we’ve missed that a lot. Thankfully, I had the foresight to record him saying the blessing before he got too sick. We all braced ourselves at Thanksgiving when I played the recording for our first holiday meal without him. To everyone’s surprise, there was immense comfort in hearing dad bless our food and it was a beautiful way to include him in our gathering.

Grief With Kids is Hard

The other day Thomas found a shirt that was too small for him to wear anymore and declared it was time for the shirt to “pass away.”

Grief has forced us to have a lot of hard conversations with our kids about life and death — and there is no manual for how to do this. We’ve fielded an insane amount of difficult questions and wiped away many tears after explaining Grandpa is having so much fun in Heaven with Charlie that he is going to stay up there.

Every child experiences grief differently, but a few things that have helped our kids over the past year:

  • Books: There are two books that we’ve really loved for helping our kids process loss — The Invisible String and Grandad’s Island.
  • The Red Bird: A few readers immediately reached out to me after my dad passed to share the meaning of the cardinal bird. A cardinal spotting is a reminder of your loved one who has passed and often shows up when you need or miss them. I’m not going to lie, I immediately dismissed this idea at first. And then a few days after dad’s memorial service I was looking out of my kitchen window while doing dishes in a very fragile state — and there it was, a red bird. In fact, there were two of them. With fresh wounds from his passing, the appearance of the red bird served as a God Wink to me. I so desperately needed that little “message of hello from heaven” (which I’m convinced was a wink from both my dad and mom together). I decided to share the red bird with my kids and it brings us all immense joy when they spot one and get excited and shout “Grandpa says hello!!!” And you know what? We see red birds everywhere now.
  • Balloon Release: The kids really loved sending balloons up to Heaven on dad’s birthday.
  • Recordable Storybook: During our last Christmas with dad, he and mom surprised each of us with a copy of The Night Before Christmas, a recordable story book read by dad. This has been such a gift to us that we will treasure forever.

Grief Taught Us New Ways To Show Up for Others During Crisis

Grief is deeply personal so it can be difficult to know when to send a card and when to show up with a casserole. For me, I prefer to cry alone in the shower or in the car on the way to work instead of on someone’s shoulder. However, I couldn’t have predicted just how beautifully people would show up for us in ways we didn’t even know we needed. When you’re grieving, people want to help but often don’t know how. In the weeks that followed my dad’s passing, I was so physically run down and stressed out that it was impossible to think clearly enough to ask for help with laundry, or feeding my family, or stocking items I didn’t care we were out of.

Here is just a sampling of ways people in our lives showed up that blew us away and we have since passed on to others:

  • Send flowers — on delay. Our home was filled with the most gorgeous flower arrangements in the days that followed my dad’s passing. I love flowers so each arrangement felt like a hug. However, it wasn’t until months after the last arrangement had been tossed in the trash that we received a potted peony bush on door step. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect as the reality of our new life without dad was just starting to sink in and people were checking in less and less. The thought had never occurred to me until this experience to calendar flowers on delay — one month out, one year out, or on occasions you know will be difficult like their birthday, Father’s Day, the anniversary of their passing, etc.
  • Stocking our home. I will never forget the surprise we returned home to after saying our last goodbye to dad and making the grueling drive back from Florida. We were physically and emotionally exhausted. When we arrived home we discovered a group of my close girlfriends had been in our home just a few hours earlier to stock our fridge and our pantry with food for the week. They had also left wine, flowers and dinner for that night. Talk about ugly tears.
  • Play Dates. We were very fortunate to have friends offer to come grab our kids for play dates during those first few weeks. This was such a blessing and gave them a sense of normalcy during such a difficult time.
  • Uber Eats Gift Card. We received a generous gift card for Uber Eats from my Supper Club girls for when we ran out of frozen lasagnas. And I cannot tell you how helpful that was. It was in the weeks and months that followed that I would have a particularly hard day and pulling a meal together for my family felt impossible.
  • Holding the space. I honestly had no clue how to “hold the space” for my grieving friends until someone did it for me. Everyone grieves so differently that you never know if you should bring it up or avoid the depressing topic when you’re together. “How are you doing?” can be an awkward question to answer, and almost always my response would be “Hanging in there. Thank you for asking.” However, I noticed that one of my friends would ask it a bit differently with “How are you feeling today…since your dad passed away?”…and then hold the space. She wouldn’t rush past the awkwardness to the next conversation. She would let the silence simmer just to see if I needed to talk about it or not. And most of the time, I did want to talk about it but it’s hard to know when it’s appropriate to really unload. Holding the space and offering a more direct question may not work for everyone, but for me it has been really helpful.

The Pain Gets Easier to Carry

After dad passed away, I became a member of a club that no one wants to join — the “I’ve Lost a Parent Club.” Many of you already in this club reached out with big virtual hugs, shared your experience and every single club member said “I promise the pain becomes easier to manage with time.” I didn’t believe them. But one year later, I’m starting to understand. And I do believe there will be a day when his birthday is more powerful than the day that we lost him.

Several of you also shared the ball in a box analogy with me. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it was advice from a therapist that went viral a few years ago and goes like this…

The Ball In A Box

There’s a box with a ball in it. And a pain button.In the beginning, the ball is huge. You can’t move the box without hitting the pain button. It rattles around on it’s own in there and hits the pain button over and over again. You can’t control it. It just keeps hurting. Sometimes it seems unrelenting. Over time, the ball gets smaller. It hits the button less and less but when it does, it hurts just as much. It’s easier because you can function day to day more easily. But the downside is that the ball randomly hits that button when you least expect it.

For most people, the ball never goes away. It might hit less and less and you have more time to recover between hits, unlike when the ball is still huge.

God Doesn’t Waste Your Pain

This isn’t a lesson I learned right away and for many of you it may be too difficult to consider God’s purpose in our suffering — especially when the wounds are fresh and you are dealing with the unthinkable hurt. And please hear me, I am not saying “everything happens for a reason!” I am definitely, definitely not saying that.

With suffering came a morbid but helpful perspective that my life is moving fast and this earth is not my home. Pain has set me on a different course in many ways and is helping me become exactly who I am meant to be. Through this experience, Matt and I have been forced to have difficult conversations. We have reassessed life in many ways and count our current blessings more than ever. My siblings and I say “I love you” more often and squeeze each other a little tighter. We have prioritized family time. We have learned how to be better friends to those grieving. I’ve learned to practice more kindness, judge less, and am more empathetic to strangers because you never know who is grieving next to you in the cereal aisle.

*ball in a box printable version below for sharing with others or keeping somewhere handy for yourself.

Don’t forget to read Lessons Learned in Grief (Part 1)

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Saturday 27th of March 2021

I was looking on your site for design ideas (more of a distraction right now for me) after suddenly losing my mom in August at the early age of 72. Right when I felt 2020 had left me with no surge capacity left I got a call from my dad in upstate NY, mom had a major heart attack and it wasn’t looking good. My husband and 3 kids (triplets who are 16) jumped in the car from Charlotte to drive to Corning, NY. I drove through the night because I just couldn’t be an passive passenger. We arrived at 8am, I drove with my dad and sister (45 minutes each way to the hospital) There were only 8 Covid cases in the county so we were allowed to see her in the Cardiac ICU.She was awake and I was with her through many painful procedures. Then she progressed out of the Cardiac ICU and we would be able to transition her to a care facility while we got their house prepped for her. She had a Vtac episode and was intubated before we were able to get to the hospital. The next 24 hours we were ping ponged back and forth from the hospital (as we were not allowed to stay due to Covid) Our final call came at 1am after we had just arrived back home. She had coded and as we drove to her we received a call saying they had been doing cpr on her for 45 minutes and the nurse said that they had broken several ribs and if it were her mom she wouldn’t want that happening, my dad, sister and I said in unison, ‘let her go, stop’ This has been a “life-quake” of severe magnitude, really. 12 days in Cardiac ICU, my mom was going to be discharged but things took a radical turn. She was intubated and things spiraled downward within 24 hours. I don’t know this world without her yet I will find ways to continue to honor her and move forward and find joy. It’s just going to have it’s ups and downs. My nervous system is so screwed up, after trying to advocate for her with the cardiology team, be a loving daughter and then ultimately writing her obituary and cleaning out her clothes for my dad. These past few months have felt like years. She was married to my dad for 51 years, so proud of her grandchildren and I ache for her every day. We’ve tried to make Thanksgiving dinner without her and we were all exhausted. How did she do it all so gracefully? I see that I have her hands now, I’ve purchased a ring with her fingerprint on it as a physical reminder of her presence with me. God gave my dad, sister and I those long car rides to begin our own support network before taking her home. I do hope this pain minimizes, I don’t think grief was modeled for us in earlier times, the en and flow of grief. It comes in waves at times. I want so much to be in the present and ask God to keep me in the moment each day. Thank you for sharing your story, thank you for providing THIS space for me. I just had my first birthday without her, the significance of that and know she is looking down upon us all with a divine abundance of love, trying to place peace in my path.


Saturday 27th of March 2021

Oh friend, thank you so much for pouring out your heart and story. I wish I could give you the biggest hug in the world right now. XX


Tuesday 18th of February 2020

Christina, I lost my mom 14 years ago to cancer and I typically put myself forward as an "expert" member of this club no one wants to join, but you shared insights that took my breath away and I had to write them down because I've never heard it framed quite that way:

"With suffering came a morbid but helpful perspective that my life is moving fast and this earth is not my home. Pain has set me on a different course in many ways and is helping me become exactly who I am meant to be. "

This verbalizes something I've always felt but couldn't articulate-- that the only silver lining to losing my mom at 24 is that loss has molded me into a person I'm proud to be. A better friend, a better wife, a better mother, someone walking through life with a healthy perspective on what truly matters, and someone who is able to be a support for others navigating pain and loss because of my own experience. In my experience, you never get over it, you just get used to it. But it does rear up when you least expect it-- two weeks ago I had a terrible day at work and then my 4 month old baby was up literally all night... and I found myself breaking down in tears because I just wanted my mom so badly. Thank you for sharing your life so openly with us, and I will keep praying for healing for you and your family.


Friday 14th of February 2020

The fact that your website was down at first yesterday sort of made me chuckle. Context: After my grandmother passed away last year, my aunt's psychic (yes, I know) told her that our family's electronics might act up for a little because that's how the recently departed try to get back in touch with us. Strangely enough my phone had been glitching a lot for a few days - weird glitches that I've never seen before or much since. Even now when my technology is really acting up I take a moment to think maybe she's just saying hi ;) So who knows, maybe that's what your dad did yesterday too ha


Thursday 13th of February 2020

One of my brothers died suddenly a couple of years ago. We lived in different states but spoke by phone at least once a week. After he died I still had a lot to tell him and talk to him about - not always serious or important- for instance we both loved a couple of TV shows and liked to discuss. So I “talk” to him journal style. Every time I think of something I want to tell him, I write it down as if I am speaking to him. This really helped get through the worst of the first months. Also, the cardinal thing is real.

Susan Foster

Thursday 13th of February 2020

Thank you for sharing! My dad has been gone for 16 years, and I miss him every day. Today is his birthday 😢. The cardinal thing is real. The day of my breast cancer biopsy, there was a cardinal on my porch, and I knew that my parents were with me ❤️❤️