Riding The Waves

Riding The Waves

In the end, time isn’t the key to healing. It can help, and in many cases does. But what you do with time is the real key to healing. Using time to actually deal with your pain and work through your grief is the key to healing.

I’ve heard it said that time heals all wounds.

The basic idea is that as time passes, the intensity of the pain initially inflicted reduces, thereby creating enough redemptive space for the experience of healing.

This can certainly happen. Time can help heal a wound. But there’s no guarantee that it will. Time doesn’t always make things better. Sometimes it can actually make things worse.

Time can help heal a wound. But there’s no guarantee that it will.

Some people, for example, become increasingly bitter and resentful with time by allowing the initial wound to fester and grow.

Time is neutral. It’s not inherently good or bad. It is how a person uses time that can be good or bad.

What a person does with time is the real key to healing. Using time to actually deal with your pain and work through your grief is the key to healing.

The waves of grief

My experience is that grief tends to come in waves.

One day you may feel like you’ve got the upper hand on grief. The pain that was once so intense seems to be subsiding. The hard work and time you’ve spent processing your pain and suffering seems to be paying off. Your outlook is good. You feel optimistic. The sun is shining and the fog of depression, the haze brought on by sadness, has lifted. You’re feeling good.

Then, in a split second, you get absolutely rocked. The fog returns and the haze feels thicker than ever. You feel down, depressed, and once again overcome with sadness and despair. 

And now, on top of the overwhelming sadness and despair that has returned, you feel frustrated because you sense you are back where you started. You thought you were making progress, and now you just don’t even know if progress is possible. You feel stuck.

Anyone who has experienced significant loss can perhaps relate.

Two steps forward. Two steps back. Stuck.

But there is a way forward…

Waves of grief DON’T come out of nowhere.

Noticing the waves

Those moments that knock you back into despair and sadness, while somewhat unpredictable, are actually gifts.

If you are willing to pay attention, you’ll notice that a wave of grief is most often brought on in response to some sort of trigger. 

  • Someone does something or says something that triggers something in you. 
  • A situation or circumstance prompts a reaction in you that sends you backwards toward despair and sadness.

These triggers often feel like sources of frustration. Man, I thought I was beyond this! The truth is that these triggers are our friends. They reveal to us exactly where we are still in need of healing.

It’s important to know that not everyone will have the exact same triggers.

When my wife Josie and I were first processing our son Griffin’s Down syndrome, Josie was often triggered when seeing other people with Down syndrome that were much older.

As she began to attend to that trigger, the reason behind the trigger became clear. Having a child with Down syndrome already feels overwhelming enough, let alone getting a glimpse of what life might be like 5-10 years down the road. Learning to take things one day at a time, trusting that God will give her all she will need, became transformative for Josie. That trigger led to greater trust.

Whereas Josie was first triggered when seeing adults with disabilities, my trigger centered more on developmental delays.

For example, one day I noticed that Griffin’s eyes were involuntarily darting back and forth in a rapid, side-to-side, flickering motion whenever he tried to focus.

I did what I know not to do. I went on WebMD.

Big mistake! What I read brought zero comfort and only increased my anxiety!

According to WebMD, the rapid involuntary eye movement I was noticing is known as Nystagmus. And it’s not good. It’s untreatable and significantly impairs vision.

Within a half hour of research, I was in a deep dark hole of despair.

"Connecting with Griff can already be a challenge," I said to myself. "Why not throw in some Nystagmus for fun?!" (I know, when I get upset I become negatively sarcastic!)

Shortly after self-diagnosing Griffin’s eye problem, we decided to meet some friends at the park.  When we arrived at the park, one of our friends took one look at me and asked what was wrong.

"I am tired," I replied.

I really did feel tired. I wasn’t lying! At this point, I just hadn’t realized how badly I had been triggered.

"Yeah, whatever Mac. What’s really going on?" she replied.

That’s when I realized my Nystagmus research had sent me into a fog of despair.

To make a long story short, we ended up calling Griffin’s ophthalmologist from the park to set up an appointment. But while making the appointment, the nurse told us NOT to read about Nystagmus online because it manifests itself differently in children with Down syndrome! Put. In. My. Place.

The earlier you can notice a trigger the better.

Not long after we discovered Griffin’s Nystagmus, we were hanging out with some friends. One of them was holding Griffin and trying to get him to laugh. His Nystagmus was flaring up, making it near impossible for meaningful interaction.

Within a few minutes, I could tell my friend was losing interest in trying to interact with Griff. They gave up interacting and handed him off to someone else.

That was a trigger for me. I felt tears welling up in my eyes watching his disability become an obstacle for relationship and someone giving up on him.

I started spiraling downward emotionally. Trigger. But catching that trigger made all the difference in the world.

Responding to waves of grief

People typically respond to waves of grief in one of four ways…

The first is to fight it.

When you’re hit by a wave of grief, you get angry at the wave. You get frustrated at the wave and start talking trash to it. You get irritable and edgy. The trigger causes you to put up your fists.

On the fight or flight spectrum, this is the fight option.

The second response to pain is to ignore it.

When a wave hits, you choose to run away from it.

In terms of fight or flight, this is your flight option. The inherent danger in this response is that you can’t deal with your pain while running away from it.

The third response to pain is to fake it.

This is what I unsuccessfully attempted to do when our friends arrived at the park. Oh, I’m fine. I am just tired. I wasn’t tired. I was experiencing a wave of grief brought on by a developmental trigger.

Typically, people who choose this option try to convince themselves and those around them that they are okay when in reality they are not. This is why it’s good to have friends that will call you out!

The final response to pain, and the one that is the best, is to face it.

You face your grief head-on. You square up to it. You look it in the eyes. And you conjure up the courage to work through it.

You face your grief head-on. You square up to it. You look it in the eyes. And you conjure up the courage to work through it.

Fight. Flight. Fake. All bad options.

The best option is to face your grief.

You lean into the wave of your grief and you ride it until the pain subsides, until you’ve worked it through as much as possible.

Triggers are what produce waves of grief. Once you’ve been hit by a wave of grief, the best way to move forward is to ride the wave.

You’ve got to see the trigger as your friend, graciously revealing areas in your life that are still in need of healing. And then you just hang on for the ride.

Initially, this might feel counterproductive, like you are going backwards, rehashing stuff you’ve already dealt with. Just remember, you may need to work through something several times in order to truly deal with it.

Just remember, you may need to work through something several times in order to truly deal with it.

Be patient with yourself. Leaning into a wave may also feel a bit scary. That’s normal too. Pain can be scary.

Honestly, pain is hardly ever any fun either. The truth is that pain is painful. It’s a total pain the butt! No wonder why most people would prefer to avoid it. But avoiding pain isn’t facing it.

Facing pain, leveraging your time to work through it, is the key to experiencing healing.

Ride on.

Mac McCarthy

Lead Pastor
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