God cares and suffers with us when we grieve. He grants grieving as a grace to help us deal with personal loss and to prepare us to comfort those experiencing loss.
Grief as a Gift
Christians grieve even with our hope in life beyond death. Losing a loved one brings great pain and indescribable sadness and loss. It is insensitive, unrealistic, and unbiblical to suggest that Christians do not need to grieve. Pretending one does not need to grieve is unhealthy.
God designed the grieving process as a way of coping with the death of loved ones and other tragic losses. Mourning and expressing one’s grief can facilitate healing. Minimizing or refusing to grieve delays healing.
Grief is the mental, emotional, and spiritual pain and sorrow enabling us to cope with serious loss. The depth of our grief depends on the intensity of our love for the person or thing that is lost. When the loss is anticipated due to extended illness, grieving takes a different shape than in cases of unexpected loss. In divorce, the hurt is permanent but it lacks the closure and finality of the death of a mate because conflicted consequences continue.
When a tragic loss occurs, grief is more consuming and devastating than we ever imagined. Words fail to express what we feel. Shock leaves us half-numb, making it difficult to comprehend what others say or to formulate our own thoughts in coherent sentences. However, the shock helps us survive the early hours and days.
Grief as an Adjustment
Grieving is a process of adjusting to the death of a loved one or some serious loss of health or great tragedy. In grief we deal with the changes that bereavement and loss bring. Grief is not a problem to be solved or something to get over and then all will be well. Grieving the death of a loved one involves a process of adjustment where we learn to live in the world without him or her.
Considering mourning as immature, some counsel survivors to detach themselves from the memories of their departed loved ones. But according to licensed counselor Sharon Hart May, “The grieving process is a natural, innate, God-given means for humans to accept, adjust to, and live on in the light of the death of loved ones.” It helps the family restructure a new life in light of the death of a loved one.
Grief is not something we get over like a sprained ankle. It helps us adjust to the new set of circumstances. One does not soon get over and forget the amputation of a leg.
Adjusting to the loss of a loved one requires daily coping with the new realities presented. In the days and years after a loved one dies you face situations that are different because the person is now absent instead of present.
After his wife died C. S. Lewis said, “The act of living is different all through. Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” Even years later something will trigger a flashback bringing a strong emotional sense of loss. Grieving represents more of a journey than a destination.
Grief as a Process
The intense aspect of grieving may last one to three years but the sense of loss continues. Every person’s experience of grief does not follow the stages of grief outlined by some. Shock, crying, disbelief, anger, guilt, sleeplessness, disorientation, and depression may be present at different times with different people. We all grieve in our own personal way. Individual mourners need a supportive environment and must be allowed to express their grief in their own way.
Certified trauma specialist Norman Wright in Will My Life Ever Be the Same? (Harvest House, 2002) describes “being ambushed by grief” after a significant loss. “It’s an ongoing onslaught of grief that hits you suddenly when you least expect it. You may choke up or cry, your chest may feel constricted, and a wave of sadness may overwhelm you. This is a normal response, but when it happens you need to stop everything else and deal with your feelings.”
Grief as Relearning
Thomas Attig listened to countless grieving persons in over 25 years. In How We Grieve: Relearning the World (Oxford University Press, 1996), he describes grieving as “a process of relearning the world that requires that we relearn physical surroundings and find a new place including fellow survivors, the deceased, and (for some of us) God, and relearn ourselves, that is, our ways of being who we are.” When we grieve we must “relearn our selves as we adjust our daily life patterns, redirect the stories of our lives, and establish new patterns of connection with the world.”
Norman Wright explains some of the adjustments encountered in bereavement:
One of the tasks of grief is learning how to function without this person in your life. You won’t have the interactions and validation you were used to experiencing with that person. The loss of their physical presence in your life means that your needs, hopes, dreams, expectations, feelings, and thoughts will change. Slowly, over time, the reality of separation begins to sink in and you realize, ‘For now, I exist without this person as a part of my life.’
Death only ends your physical relationship with the person.
Thomas Attig in The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love (Oxford University Press, 2000), describes grieving as a transition from loving the lost loved one in their presence to loving that person in their absence. Love does not quit loving (1 Corinthians 13:8). Grieving does not mean a forgetting or complete letting go of the person who has died. Grieving helps us transition to a lasting love that acknowledges and appreciates that person.
We should not hold on to a departed loved one to an obsessive degree, but we don’t want our loved one to be forgotten. Even though not physically present, our relationship with that person continues through memories, caring about what they cared about, and appreciating their contribution to our lives. As we hold on to the good they did while here, we maintain a healthy connection with the past and can proceed to regaining wholeness in our lives.
When one is taken from us, everything changes in our relationships with our family and with others in our communities. Through the process of grieving we have to relearn and reshape our lives in a new reality without the lost loved one.
Some relationships include both constructive and destructive aspects. We continue a relationship with another person in spite of some things that disappoint us. The good in the relationship outweighs the bad. You may have had a difficult relationship in some aspects with the person who has died. In their death, as in life, we need to hold on to the good and let go of the rest.
As we face life without the loved one, we must deal with changes in feelings, habits, and expectations. This process may be painful. But we can move beyond hurt and anxieties and cherish the good memories of the past. Attig says, “Our journey in grief can bring us to lasting love that honors those who have died, enriches our lives in survival, and takes a place alongside our other relationships with fellow survivors and new people who enter our lives.” We need to give thanks to God for his grace in giving us the grieving process so we can relearn the world and live productive lives after our loss.
Grief as Learning
Experiencing loss and grief does not make us expert counselors who can tell everyone else how they will experience grief. In my own life those who explained to me how I was feeling did not help. However, I did find great comfort from those who had been touched with grief but said little. They knew the pain of loss. They said, “We’re sorry for your loss and we care.”
Comforters do not lecture us on grief. They grieve with us, being supportive and caring. Experiencing grief can help us be sympathetic and caring for those who are hurting. Journeying in the valley of grief can prepare us to comfort others who grieve. The sympathetic listening ear and caring heart of trusted friends can help grievers navigate the jumbled maze of the early stages of grief.
Grieving is a God-given process for coping with and adjusting to the new reality left when we experience serious loss. The experience of grief endows us with a stewardship of grief. We should be more sensitive to the hurting, recognizing and empathizing with their loss. Having grieved and been comforted, we should be caring comforters.
The Lookout, August 27, 2009