Have you wondered how you would respond if any of your nightmares about your child came true? Do you think it would be the end of you, that you wouldn’t be able to handle it? I’ve had conversations with many parents about this. Some don’t know what they would do. Others say they’d run away or turn to a form of comfort (alcohol, prescription drugs, etc.). A few said they might take the ultimate form of escape and end their lives.

Discovering your child is using drugs, has a drinking problem or same-sex attraction, is self-injuring, has an eating disorder or a mental illness or a brain disorder, is suicidal, is pregnant outside of marriage, was arrested, has an addiction, or any other heartbreaking, life-changing problem brings deep sadness. Maybe you’ve found yourself living in the middle of one of your nightmares.

Grief: An unexpected response

Did you know you were grieving? I didn’t know I was. I first heard the concept at a seminar for hurting parents. An experienced father of an addict told us that our feelings of sadness were a normal, healthy, emotional response to a significant loss. He explained that we grieve when we lose a job, have financial problems, learn we have a health problem, lose a baby through miscarriage or a spouse through divorce, or when we have a child  who struggles with potentially life-altering issues.

Grief is a brutal, gut-wrenching, energy-sapping process that takes time. Everyone experiences it differently. But across the board, it affects every area of your life: emotional, physical, social, and spiritual.

How do you continue to work, manage finances, live your daily life, pursue family activities, and carry out your responsibilities? I had no idea. I was so lost. Attempts to follow my typical routine, even the spiritual disciplines that had helped in the past, failed. With poor focus and no energy or motivation, I couldn’t do it. And, I didn’t care. My emotions flatlined as sadness overflowed. It’s my birthday? So what? Go on vacation? No way. Out to dinner with friends? Some other time. It didn’t feel right to have fun.

Conversations with a counselor helped some, but I still hadn’t met anyone who could really understand my loss. Most of my friends had ideal families. You’re so lucky, I’d think. You haven’t got a clue. None were going through the kinds of things we were. I was so jealous. Envy began to gnaw at me. To my surprise, some of my closest friends pulled away. Our situation was too much. Is that your story?

Tension builds in your marriage. You don’t always understand each other’s responses, process your emotions the same way, or agree on what to do. You can’t think about anything except your son or daughter. The strain does its damage. All your relationships suffer. Your health might too. Struggling with a digestive disorder that flares up under stress, I lost 20 pounds in two months. That’s not how you want to lose weight.

You wonder if you’ll ever laugh again. When will you be able to get through the day without humiliating yourself in front of strangers, crying at the most unexpected times? What happened to the child you once knew? Where did they go? You want them back.

How can you ever be the same?

You can’t.

Don’t let suffering take your spirit

When we discover our precious children have been affected by a host of troubling, destructive behaviors, it can have the same impact as though they had died (their age doesn’t matter). They will never be the same and neither will we, but we can feel whole again. Enjoy life again. Not let it destroy us.

Enjoy one moment at a time. Rejoice in small victories.

In his book, Parents With Broken Hearts, William Coleman says, “Pain will rip out whatever it can and destroy it. But smart parents will not let suffering take their spirit.” If you do these things, with God’s help, suffering won’t take your spirit:

Accept that your pain is real and you’re grieving.

Don’t minimize it. In the suffering you’ve been through with your child, you’ve lost something significant and important and can never get it back. Your life has been altered.

Give yourself permission to be real about your suffering, to feel the pain.

You can’t avoid it. Don’t stuff it, deny it, or try to escape from it by sleeping a lot or self-medicating. This can make you sick and lengthen the grieving process.

Find healthy ways to express your hurt.

Whatever you’re feeling is okay, whether it’s anger, numbness, guilt, shame, sadness, or any other emotion. Don’t let others tell you how you should feel. Talk to a trusted friend, journal if you like to write, paint if you’re an artist, take up kickboxing, or play music. Find a healthy way to release these negative emotions.

Be thankful for today and don’t look too far ahead.

This only causes more fear and anxiety. You can cope with right now, and that’s all you have to do. Stay in the present. Start a gratitude list and add to it daily. Notice little things.

Admit your need for help.

Search the internet, call counselors, clergy, churches, police departments, or the local hospital until you find what you need. Your community has resources and can assist you and your child.

Adjust to the new normal.

Shift your focus to healthy activities. Try to keep doing typical daily tasks.

Simplify as much as possible.

Less activity is best for a season. You need to conserve your energy just to survive.

Take care of yourself.

You deserve a lot of TLC right now. Eat healthfully, get adequate rest, drink lots of water, try to exercise at least 15-30 minutes three times per week, and take a nap when needed if you can.

Don’t let your child become the sole focus of your world.

Look for someone else in need. Send a card or an e-mail, take flowers or a meal, invite the person out for coffee, or make a phone call. Getting your mind off yourself and your problems is always a good thing. ”As we have opportunity,” Scripture says, “let us do good to all people” (Galatians 6:10).

Trust God with what you can’t understand.

As much as you want to, you don’t need to know why things happen the way they do. Choose to rest in a sovereign, loving Creator, and be content with not knowing how He can use it for good in your life.

Most of all, remember: You are not alone.

You can’t hear this enough. God, our heavenly Father, will never, ever abandon you. He understands your grief and loss. He cares. He weeps with you. You can count on Him to keep His promises.

The people I know with the strongest faith are those who’ve suffered most yet never turned away from God. They dug in deeper. One of them made this comment to me during a recent visit: “These last five years in my battle with cancer, as much as I would never have wanted it, I can honestly say that as a result, my faith has grown richer and sweeter. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”

It was rough when I accepted the losses, left denial behind, processed the shock, began to cope with anger, and faced my fears. I had to do a lot of hard work. But it all helped. The pain of grief can rip through your life and destroy you. Choose to start taking steps for your healing today. Instead of running away from God, run to Him, dig in deeper, then suffering won’t take your spirit.

Adapted from You Are Not Alone by Dena Yohe. Copyright © 2016 by Dena Yohe. Adapted by permission of WaterBrook. All rights reserved. No part of this adaptation may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Listen to Tom and Dena Yohe on FamilyLife Today® as they talk about how they handled parenting a prodigal and what they did to keep their marriage strong.