Debbie Sims, GriefShare

“Grief is the price we pay when we lose someone we love,” said Debbie Sims, GriefShare support group leader. Debbie’s recent losses include her father in 2018, and her brother and mother, a week apart in December 2020. “It still hurts,” she admits. “There will always be triggers. There will always be emotions. Anniversaries of death, or the smell of something baking, or aftershave on a man, or perfume… there will always be triggers and emotions that come with it. But God is by our side, and He walks with us on the path to help get us through it.”

Debbie, a nurturer by nature, defines herself by her relationships, which makes the loss of one especially hard. “I see myself as a teacher. I enjoy teaching, even though I’m retired. I see myself as a grandma and as a wife, and as a Christian, a lover of Jesus. I am truly grateful for that.” 

Debbie taught special needs children, served as the director of a preschool and children’s ministry, and directed a weekday preschool. She taught kindergarten, served in administrative capacities in a number of elementary schools, and eventually became a principal. Her caring nature impacted many children, their families, the teachers, aides and staff. Even her hobbies are nurturing: gardening, cooking, baking and spending time with her family, which includes her husband, a son and daughter, and 6 grandkids. And now she cares for people who are grieving, as she leads a local chapter of GriefShare.

“My first experience with GriefShare was with my sister,” Debbie explained. Debbie’s sister, who had lost a daughter at age 6 to a brain tumor, was involved with a GriefShare group, and invited Debbie to attend. The sister then approached the Minister of Education at Debbie’s church and asked if she could begin a chapter there. “He was waiting for someone to do that, to step up to the plate and take the leadership role,” Debbie said. “You can’t do that all by yourself, so she recruited me, so I helped her. It has just been a good program to help me through many grief experiences myself. I am on the same journey as the participants are, and I feel fortunate to use the resources that are there. I love the program. I can’t say enough positive things about it.” 

“Grief work is hard work,” Debbie said. In GriefShare, there are weekly homework assignments reinforced with Scripture verses that may be new to some of the participants. These verses offer comfort, promises, insights and hope. “People that are hurting are searching for answers. They want help. They want to get past the trauma,” Debbie said. “Do your homework every week. It will be helpful for you to do that. If you are really sincere about getting help and finding a program, GriefShare is a great place to go.”

“The very first lesson is God + my hard work = healing. You are on a journey. You can’t go around it, or over it, or under it. You have to go through it to get to the other side. It’s not easy. We remind them of that every week, and we ask, ‘How’s your journey coming? What have you experienced this week?’ There’s always something,” Debbie said. 

“With the holiday season coming, it’s very hard for some people, especially if their loss happened around Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s an anniversary that is hard. It won’t ever be the same. Their holidays will be different, so it’s time to think about starting new traditions that will help them heal. There are lots of things to do to help people get through,” Debbie said. “Make a list. Ask ‘What can I do differently, or what can I cross off my list, to help my grief not be so burdensome?’

Here are some ideas that Debbie found helpful in her own grief:

  • “Put a candle or a picture at the table at the spot where they normally would sit. As long as they are with me I can trust the Lord that they are looking down, and they know that we are thinking of them.
  • For Thanksgiving, write memories or things that you are thankful for on decorations like pumpkins or orange pieces of paper. I write their name, and things that I am thankful for, like, ‘Thank you, Mom, for teaching me how to sew, for teaching me how to bake.’ ‘Thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to be patriotic’. Write anything you want to write.
  • Write an open letter to them.”
  • Make and dedicate simple homemade crafts. “Just this past Saturday, we made ornaments with names of our loved ones on them to hang on the Christmas tree this year. We did little pumpkins that we can use for place setting holders of our loved ones too.
  • Hang a stocking for a loved one that passed. You can even put something in it, if you want to.”

“Some people will be comfortable with keeping things the same. Some people need change. So don’t do a turkey [for your big holiday meal]; do a lasagna or an Italian theme instead. If there are some painful memories attached to that, then change is good,” Debbie offered. “Holiday invitations will come. People will want you to come over. Sometimes you’re not quite ready for that. Some people crave being alone and having time to reflect. People are different, so give yourself grace.” Buy more time to consider your options by saying, “Thank you for the invitation. Can I get back with you on that?” Maybe you’ll want to drive yourself so you can come late, or leave early. Maybe ask, “‘Am I even able to do this?’ Or ‘Would I be uncomfortable, or make others feel uncomfortable if they don’t know what to say to me?’ Sometimes we have to step back before we can move forward,” Debbie said.

“No one’s grief journey is the same,” Debbie said. “Your relationship and my relationship [to the deceased] are different. Even if we’re grieving the same person, your experience and mine will not match because our journeys are different.”

“Grief is the celebration of a good gift of God, oftentimes through tears,” Debbie said. “Is it intense? Yes. Is it chaotic? Often. Do you feel like you’re losing your mind? Certainly. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a fog when you’re on a grief journey. Imagine you’re at the ocean. You’re waiting for the waves as you lean in, and you feel the ebb and flow of the water. That’s kind of how the grief journey is. You’re leaning into it, but at the same time God is helping you. Oftentimes it’s very difficult and oftentimes you feel like, ‘I’m drowning here.’ God gives you stability when things are difficult. Lean into it and allow it to help you move forward and move through it.” 

“Pain from the grief journey lessens, but it’s always there; it’s always a part of you. It’s like a tree that’s been wounded: the bark heals around the wound. The wound is there, but it’s different. The pain is there, but it’s different. As you travel the journey, and get further down, then it’s not so intense as when it first happens.”

Debbie suggests reaching for these goals:

  1. “Accept there’s been a loss; that it is real. I’m in the here and now, and that person is not coming back. It really did happen.
  2. Turn to God, whether you are a believer or not. God is there. He made our emotions, and He definitely understands. Even though you may be angry and hurt, God is there and He’s not going to leave. Just lament to Him and say, ‘God I’m hurting. I don’t understand this. Why did you do this? Why did you let this happen?’ God doesn’t promise us answers, and what we expect may not be what He gives. We just have to remember that God is not going to take a person away from us that we can’t live without. It’s Jesus we need–not the person–to go on and move forward. Prayer is essential.
  3. Be able to express your emotions, whether happy or sad, or whatever you’re feeling. Be open with yourself. Jesus wept, so it’s ok to cry. Give yourself permission to have those emotions.
  4. Establish a new identity. You are a person who is going to be a person without them being there by your side. You have to be willing to accept that. 
  5. Move forward. Don’t get stuck. In GriefShare we are moving from mourning to joy. Eventually joy will come.
  6. Store your memories in whatever way you find helpful. Whether it is through writing or putting pictures together and making a scrapbook, find some way to have those memories. (Debbie’s mom liked to dress with pretty clothes and matching jewelry. After her death, Debbie and her sister used the jewelry to make collages for themselves and their daughters.) At Christmas time have family members talk about their memories, jot them down, and put a book together. Those memories may fade. If we don’t write them down, or capture them in some way, how will we remember them? Make an audio or video recording, especially if you have aging parents. Have them record a message or write their story down. Have them record themselves telling a story about their life, or their testimony, or something that’s meaningful to them.”

Debbie also suggests these practical tips:

  • “Thank God for that person. Thank God for the opportunities He gave you to have the person with you and the memories you share together.
  • Find someone else who needs help. Whether you volunteer for an hour at a food bank or an animal shelter, or make a blanket for Project Linus, find a way to volunteer. Read a book at school, if they loved children, and plug into the memories of your loved one doing that. When you are able to focus on someone else, instead of focusing only on yourself, it brings you a ‘boomerang joy’. When you throw out joy, oftentimes it comes right back to you. When you help others it eases your pain.
  • Make a memorial. There are lots of easy things to do that would be honoring to your loved one and can bring those memories fresh to you. 
    • Buy a tree or plant and plant it in your yard. 
    • Create a scrapbook, collage, quilt, or wood project. 
    • Find something simple, but meaningful to put in your home like a vase, a single rose, a candle, or a poinsettia. 
    • Buy or make an ornament with their name on it. You can put their birth date and end date on it, if you want. 
    • Visit the cemetery and decorate the grave with flowers or a wreath. I volunteer with Wreaths Across America. 
    • Sit around the diner table at Christmas and talk about your loved one; share memories or lessons learned. 
    • If your loved one had a favorite cookie, cake or meal, make it in their honor. 
    • Have a candle lighting ceremony with close friends. 
    • Have everybody share a picture of the loved one, or have a night of remembrance.”

“We’re all on a journey,” Debbie said. “I’m thankful the Lord is with us on the journey. He brings us comfort and hope, and He’s ready to help us along the way.”

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