Grief and Loss Recovery
Jeanette Lockerbie, former editor of Psychology for Living magazine, tells about a minister friend whose wife died suddenly. With her husband, she had been very active in the church and was dearly loved by all the church members.
"I remember so well the church announcement of her funeral service: 'Come, and wear your brightest colors as we celebrate her homegoing,'" Lockerbie reported.
"Fine. This congregation was just following the teaching this minister had given them for a score of years. Everyone did the 'right' thing: the minister bore up admirably and 'celebrated' with his people the death of his life partner.
"Months later, I happened to be a guest in the home where this minister was also visiting. I scarcely recognized the ghost of a man he had become. His deep sorrow at the snatching away of his loved wife, suppressed in the interest of 'Christian' expectations of him, had worked its devastation in his life, both physically and emotionally."1
His "brave front" was nothing but a mask to hide his true feelings. Such masks are deadening.
Some time ago in an article in The Reader's Digest, John Kord Lagemann tells about another minister's reaction to death: "Recently the minister of our church had to carry tragic news to the parents of a twelve-year-old boy. Their son had drowned on a school outing. Later, the parents told me, 'The minister didn't preach or tell us to be brave. He broke into tears and wept with us. We will always love him for that.'"2
To hide behind a brave front in
times of deep sorrow is to set one's
self up for greater trauma ahead.
It is obvious to see which of the two ministers acted in the healthiest manner. Emotions are God given. In denying them we rob ourselves of spontaneity and seriously affect our emotional and physical health as well as damage our relationships. As John Lagemann put it, without emotions life would be like "playing a trombone with a stuck slide!"
In giving us emotions God also gave us ways to express them. He gave laughter to express joy, words to express anger, and tears to express sorrow. At the grave of his good friend, Lazarus, Jesus wept openly and unashamedly. "Weep with those who weep"3 is God's practical and healthy advice.
Grief can be caused not only by the loss of a loved one, but also by the loss of a job, a home, one's savings, a loved family pet, or anything of value. With any of these losses, the natural response is to grieve—which may include a mixture of reactions and emotions, all of which need to be worked through and resolved. Grieving is not a quick-fix simple event, but a process that can take weeks or many months depending on the significance of the loss. The following are stages that need to be worked through to bring resolution:
First, accept the reality of what has happened. At times of deep loss there is often denial. This couldn't have happened to me. It's just a bad dream, the mind reasons, and blots out the reality of the situation. As difficult as it may be, to resolve grief it is essential to accept whatever loss has occurred.
I know one man who was divorced 20 years ago. His former wife has long since remarried, but he is still living in a fantasy world with the dream that she is going to come back to him. As much as God (and the rest of us) hate divorce, and while miracles are possible, the likelihood of this woman coming back to this man is highly unrealistic. Until he accepts the finality of his situation, he'll stay stuck in the place where he has been for the past 20 years!
Second, realize that it is normal to hurt deeply at a time of loss. Give yourself permission to cry. It is one way of draining the pain of sorrow and loss. As long as our feelings are bottled up, we can't think clearly, we numb out, and get stuck—that is, we can't get on with our lives. Only after we discharge our painful emotions in healthy ways are we freed to pick up the pieces of our lives and return to meaningful living.
Some societies are much healthier when it comes to grieving. The Dani people in Irian Jaya, for example, says former missionary Elise Wight, weep and wail openly for several days when a loved one dies. We, too, need to weep out our pain. It is absolutely essential for healing. As Jesus taught, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."4 Only as we mourn our loss do we find comfort.
Third, accept feelings of loneliness, fear of being alone, and a sense of hopelessness as normal following the loss of a loved one. What is there left to live for? some feel. Forcing yourself to stay involved in former activities you enjoyed and going out and mixing with friends as soon as possible is very important. Equally important is to join a support group—with others who are also suffering loss. None of us can make it alone. We all need the support of loving, understanding friends, especially during times of grief and sadness. As the Bible teaches us, "Bear … one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."5
Fourth, there may also be feelings of guilt, especially if there has been a suicide or some kind of preventable accident. Why didn't I do more for her/him? If only I'd been more understanding. It's my fault? All are thoughts that can haunt.
I talked with one man whose wife committed suicide six months earlier. This man felt he was to blame. Like all of us, I'm sure he could have done some things differently, but he wasn't responsible for his wife's action. Suicide was her choice. His guilt was false. He may need professional counseling to help him see and resolve this.
Fifth, another common emotion in grief is anger. We may feel angry at the person for leaving us, or at our boss for firing us, or at God for allowing our loss to happen. Anger can be difficult to admit, especially when directed at someone we loved very much—or at God! If there is anger, it is essential to acknowledge and express it in healthy ways. If it's repressed, full recovery isn't possible and can lead to depression and/or physical sickness.
Give yourself permission to cry.
It is one way of draining the
pain of sorrow and loss.
I read about one woman whose two sisters died tragically. She announced to the rest of the family, "There is no God. I don't believe in Him anymore." This woman was understandably angry at God, but instead of telling Him how she felt, she rejected Him. God doesn't get upset when we are angry at Him. He knows it anyhow and He understands. The healthy thing to do is to tell Him how we feel so we can resolve these feelings. Otherwise we will stuff them and become physically ill, depressed, bored, withdrawn, or take out our hurt on others.
In Psalm 109 David expressed his angry feelings to the Lord against those who were accusing him falsely. He prayed, "O God, whom I praise, do not remain silent, for wicked and deceitful men have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues. With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause."6 And then he poured out the bitter feelings he held toward these people, after which he prayed, "Help me, O LORD my God; save me in accordance with your love."7 It can be very helpful for us to do the same.
Finally, give yourself time to heal. After accepting and dealing with your painful feelings, which may take weeks or even months, refuse to keep living in the past. Live for the present and the future. Do something that will help others.
Remember, it is God's will that we recover and use our pain as a means to promote growth. This can better equip us to minister to others who grieve. He wants to help us—and will—as we open our life to Christ and daily commit and trust ourselves to Him. As His Word says, "Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you."8
1. Source unknown. 2. The Reader's Digest, August 1967. 3. Romans 12:15.
4. Matthew 5:7, (NIV). 5. Galatians 6:2, (KJV). 6. Psalm 109:2-3.
7. Psalm 109:26. 8. 1 Peter 5:7, (NKJV).
By Richard (Dick) Innes