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How to Grieve When Someone You Love Dies

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“Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.” –Megan Devine

Someone I love died this week. My sweet friend, Julie McGill Bauman. 

Because helping other people deal with grief helps me deal with my own, I want to share some of my thoughts and feelings as I wade through this process, and while it is fresh on my heart and mind.

I’ve written on grief in a broader sense a few times, but because I believe it’s something we all should do regularly and a thing no one does very well, I feel like it’s a topic I’ll come back to again and again. I generally use “grief” in a pretty broad sense (meaning anything from grieving a job loss, to a break up, to a dream…etc.) but today we will exclusively be using the word as it pertains to death. Wretched, awful, impossible to resolve…death.

Sometimes grieving someone’s death starts before they die. This was true for me in regards to Julie, if only briefly. A few weeks ago, I spoke on the phone with her, when she found out that her first round of surgery and chemo had been effective in dealing with the cancer they knew about, but not in preventing new cancer from growing. At this point, she said, “they’re calling it ‘terminal’ but still acting like it could be treated for several years. I’ll just always be fighting it to some degree or another.” I took that to mean that there would be a difficult road ahead, but a road ahead nonetheless. I told her, “Well…no matter what happens, I want you to know that I won’t be afraid and pull away. So call me any time for whatever.” <Silence.> “Ok.”

This brings me to my first point of what to do when you’re grieving: Be brave. Even when you’re scared. Look your fear in the eye. You won’t regret showing up and being present.

I fully believe that the above comments between Julie and I was the reason she called me last Sunday night late. She could hardly speak but we connected one last time. At that point, I still didn’t understand how dyer the situation was. But she did, and I’m so thankful she knew I’d answer, even though I was afraid when my phone rang.

The second thing to do when you’re grieving a death: Don’t disengage to self protect. Of course you’ll want to disengage and at times you’ll need to. (I had to see some clients a few hours after learning of Julie’s death.) But return to your grief frequently and fully until the intensity subsides, and then regularly, to see it through. Your alternative here is to numb your pain. And truly, no goodness comes from that. You don’t do yourself or the one you love any favors by attempting to minimize your loss in any way. If you avoid it and stuff it down, it’ll crop back up in some way, and it won’t be positive. Weep and eat. This is the essence of grieving.

Mourning death happens in the midst of regular life. You’re processing in between loads of laundry and making lunch. Some moments are filled with grief and others look surprising like your every day life, in the midst of your heartache. This is normal. Processing death is incredibly non-linear. Do what you need to do, but return to the loss, rather than just daily tasks to disengage and distract yourself.

Some of you reading this may be closer to the epicenter of the loss, and therefore you find the idea of “mourning in the midst of regular life” impossible right now. I understand. Take your time. Be kind to yourself. Stay in the darkness as long as it takes until you feel like you can come up for air. There is no fixing this…only managing the loss. Each day that you’re able, do the next logical thing. Once the initial shock begins to wear off, the path forward will eventually emerge. I wish there were better news to tell you. I’m sorry.

The third thing to do when you’re grieving a death: Mourn your own way. Nobody had the relationship that you had with the person you lost. Whether you’re her mom, her sister-in-law, her niece, her coworker, her favorite checker at the grocery store, her friend who lived 10 hours away: you had a specific relationship with the one who died. So mourn in a way that fits your relationship with your loved one, and mourn in a way that fits your personality. Some people are “together” mourners. Other are “alone” mourners. Some need to “do stuff” and others need to sit shiva. Whatever is an authentic expression of your grief…do it. And don’t judge others for doing what they need to do. There is no prize for being the best mourner. There is no exclusion for being the worst. Just stay in your lane, honor your relationship and mourn your own way. Fully. And to the best of your ability.

Lastly, don’t minimize your pain or that of another’s with cheap platitudes. “Everything happens for a reason.” “Heaven needed another angel.” “She’s better off.” “God’s got a bigger plan.”

What a complete load of crap.

These statements are either meant to minimize the loss so that the speaker can feel more comfortable, and/or they imply intent, which is very shaky ground theologically. God sometimes brings beauty from ashes. However, this was not the intent of the fire, but rather in spite of the fire.

Death is awful. God knows this full well. Don’t try to fix it. Just learn to carry it.

This list is not exhaustive. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. We all just need to give it our best shot. May we all honor our loved ones as we learn to carry on with our lives.

Counseling with a person removed from your grief can be a helpful option. If ever I can be of assistance, please contact me here.

Julie McGill Bauman

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A Eulogy

In August of last year, I texted with Julie about what a total B her uterus has always been to her, and how glad I was that she was finally being evicted from Julie’s body. We talked and texted a handful of times since then, some about marriage & kids, but mostly about emotionally processing her having cancer. The genesis of our friendship was at grad school in the marriage and family therapy program in New Orleans. I met her briefly in 2005 before Katrina (the original B) came and swept everything away. And once the school got back up and running, we became fast friends.

I liked Julie right away. She’s the type of person who is good at everything she does. She’s very smart, capable and competent. You explain something once and it’s locked and loaded from then on out. She is very easy to be friends with. Funny and lighthearted. More than a little inappropriate…like me.

She’s a very skilled therapist. We basically “dug around” in each other’s lives, trying on different therapy techniques, and that’s how we got to know each other so well. That’s when I realized how amazing and beautiful of a person Julie was. When we weren’t being ammature therapists out of our depth, our conversations were full of witty musings on life, and deep heart talks about what it means to be an flawed, Image-bearing human after the Fall, and how to love King Jesus with our whole, whole hearts.

We often joked about opening a therapy practice together called “Straight Shooters, LLC” where we would wear western themed outfits like fringed swede vests and denim skirts, and “tell it like it is” to our clients. Because being a little ridiculous while maintaining our therapeutic integrity was the language of our friendship.

Our friendship was one where nothing was unsafe to talk about and nothing was left unsaid. I trusted her in every way. She could be counted on. My name was safe on her lips. My story was safe in her heart. She would always agree if I thought someone was being stupid or annoying, and then subtly offer a wise perspective. I had the comforting, unwavering confidence that I could hand off anything in my life to her, big or small, not give it a second thought, and know it was better off in her hands than mine. I know she took care of all her people this way.

I can’t fully describe what a deep gift to my soul she gave me: to be known, unconditionally accepted and fully supported…better than a good bra. I trust Julie. It’s a simple sentence but a profound truth that resonates to my core. And to lose a person who is that much of a safety net, even if you didn’t need them to come through all that often, is just a hard, hard blow.

I don’t know what to say about Nate. I don’t know what to say about the babies. My only solace right at this moment is that sometimes the harder things are in life, the easier it is to find Jesus in the mess. The rest of my heart is all jumbled up with questions that have no good answers.

I have lost a piece of me, but I am so deeply grateful and forever changed to have fully given you that piece.

May we take the lessons of Julie’s life and love for Jesus and incorporate them into the marrow of who we are.

The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.

Therapist Confession: The Worst Thing I Ever Said to My Husband

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I have a confession to make: my marriage isn’t perfect.

Often in session, a client will remark “I bet you never have fights like this” or “I bet your marriage is perfect.” My typical response to this type of statement is, “It’s hard being married to a marriage therapist!” We really do love our marriage but we have to work on it just like everybody else does…sometimes even harder because of my career. Nobody’s marriage is easy, but nothing worth it ever is.

Having a great marriage takes a village, and I talk through the points of tension in our marriage with my trusted friends, just like I hope you do. During one such conversation about “the division of labor” at our house, a friend of mine stated, “I never ask my husband to do anything for me that I can do myself.” Immediately, it was one of those ideas that rang true to me at my core. Somehow, I had convinced myself that I was being a good wife by being inclusive on things that I needed to just knock out myself.

I am naturally a very independent person, and was warned before we ever got married that I would need to be mindful to be part of a team and not do my own thing. That idea, plus the fact that I will always always always rope anyone I can into helping me with any chore I need to do so I can selfishly have a witness to my hard work (and because I just need to be social in order to be productive in all things “manual labor”) resulted over time in the habit of me asking my husband to do a lot of things for me around the house. Let’s change the wall color. Put this in the attic. Help me with the dishes. Help me fold the laundry. Hang this curtain rod. You know the type of thing I’m talking about.

I went home that evening and told my dear, sweet husband, that I was very thankful that he had been willing to help me in all those ways but I now understood how adding things like that to his “to do” list was unnecessary and unintentionally disrespectful. I relinquished him from duty and declared, “I’m going to stop asking you for help with things I can do myself.”

Big mistake. Huge.

My intention was to allow my husband more time to relax (together or alone) or work on his own tasks at home (on top of his full-time day job, he has 2 LLC’s). What resulted was exactly that…when I stick to it. Because old habits are hard to break, I hear a lot of “isn’t that something you could take care of yourself?” spoken by my charming husband with a twinkle in his eye. Suffice it to say, he’s taken to it more quickly than I have. But it’s still good for him…and for me…to get into this new habit.

The truth is that I had never even thought about doing things differently in this regard, but as soon as I did, I saw the positive implications right away.

  • It’s a blessing on your marriage. It energizes the marriage because it removes an unnecessary tax on the system.
  • It reduces the chance of an argument.
  • It removes the chance for resentment and frustration with unmet needs and an unaccomplished looming to-do list.
  • It honors our husbands’ time and energy spent in all of the other types of work they do throughout the day.
  • It signifies value and highlights their efforts in what they willingly give of their own volition.
  • Bonus: it makes you feel like She-Ra to wield power tools.

If you’re interested in energizing your marriage, try this different approach and see if you like the outcome.

Pro-tip: don’t tell your husband. Trust me, he’ll notice.

As always, if this brings up any larger issues for you, please feel free to contact me directly.

Counseling appointments available in Baton Rouge, Denham Springs and Walker, Louisiana.

Finding Joy When You’re Bent Towards Dread

I’m normally a pretty joyful person without much effort. Sometimes, however, during different seasons of my life, I find myself leaning towards the negative side. Like a moth to a flame, I find my brain scanning for things to be dreading. The ever-evolving list of “what if’s”. Potential financial or health crises. Temporary increase in stress at work or home. During seasons of increased stress, worry or dread, these are the things my brain likes to scan for potential risks and obsess over. Right now I’m stuck on our taxes and my husband’s car. My concern may not make sense to anyone else, but when I’m in one of these moods, my brain will wear a topic out. I know I’m not the only one who experiences times like this.

I’m intentionally not using the language of “anxiety” here because what I talking about isn’t at that level of intensity or duration. This is more like the little cousin of anxiety. (I’ve struggled with anxiety in the past and most of my clients have heard that story at one point or another, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.) For the sake of this conversation, I’ll say a “period of dread” is to anxiety as “feeling down” is to depression. Everyone experiences this sometimes and it’s normal for it to come and go a few times a year, typically based on circumstances, hormones or maybe even the weather.

So if it’s a normal part of being human to have a few days where you’re seeing the glass half empty or waiting for the other shoe to drop, you have two choices: just roll with it and wait it out or figure out a way to push back on it.

I tend not to fall into the “wait it out” camp because I think doing so can turn into anxiety and/or prolong the season. So that leaves me with figuring out a way to push back on it. It requires some extra effort but I really find it to be worth it. Primarily I think it’s worth it because “worry” isn’t an attribute of Jesus, so it’s not a true attribute of who I am in Christ. And I believe it’s always worth it to clear my mind of things that aren’t naturally part of who I am in Christ.

The two things I find to be most helpful in the process of pushing back dread and finding joy are: 1) taking things to their natural conclusion and 2) and asking one clarifying question.

  1. Take things to their natural conclusion. What if that awful thing totally happened as bad as you’re imagining? Then what? How awful would it actually be? Would you survive it? Would the most important people in your life still love you? Would it change anything about your relationship with God?
  2. Clarifying Question: 5,000 years into eternity, will this matter? Will you even remember it? What about 50 years from now? What would yourself in 50 years say about this concern of yours?
    Bonus question: what does the thing you’re dreading/fixated on mean about you? Generally speaking, things really only get to us if we interpret the circumstance as meaning something about us. If you can figure out how you’re letting this worry/concern mean something about you, you will be able to address it much more quickly and effectively. (Read this for more info on Making Meaning.)

For all of us out there who occasionally struggle with a sense of dread or worry, good news: you’re a totally normal human being. You’re not meant to be a superhuman, so you’re not missing the mark by experiencing these things. This point isn’t the dread/stress/worry itself, but that the circumstance provides an opportunity for growth if you make the effort to push back on it.

If you read this and think it sounds familiar but it’s a lot more complicated or severe for you, you may be more towards the moderate or severe end of anxiety. If that’s you, you may be interested in taking an online screening regarding anxiety. Additionally, I can be reached here for scheduling a therapy appointment. I utilize cognitive behavioral therapy which is has been repeatedly shown to have the best results in treating anxiety and depression (or even dread, stress, worry and feeling low).

Don’t let anything stand in the way of the life of fullness and freedom that you desire. Joy awaits.