Understanding Grief

One of the most painful times in my life occurred when I lost my mother. She and I were very close. After her stroke, I watched her die a little each day. It was as if a Band-Aid was being pulled off an open wound a bit at a time. It stung beyond anything I'd ever known. I dreaded losing her, and the thought of doing so made me feel physically ill.

Although I was sixty years old when she died, I felt orphaned. I learned that's a common feeling when any child—younger or older—loses a parent.

The emotional wound was deep and hurt for many months. When well-meaning friends remarked, “We’re so happy your mom is in heaven!,” I became angry. Without their realizing it, they were trying to short-circuit my grief.

It was then I realized grief was a necessary part of emotional healing. I recognized it was hard work, and no one could circumvent it.

No two people grieve alike. A couple who cared for a disabled child for many years noticed the strain the care put on their marriage. They finally realized they were grieving differently. Each needed to give the other room to work through personal pain the way each needed to. The wife thought it was insensitive for her husband to go hunting, and the husband couldn’t fathom how walking through a mall and eating a hot dog could soothe his wife.

We cannot be critical of how someone hurts. The intensity of pain is different for everyone, as are the variety of coping skills.

A loss need not be a death, though some seem to be far worse than death. There are job losses; a move to a different city, which means loss of relationships and familiarity; an empty nest; loss of promotion at work; loss of a dream as your child becomes rebellious; loss of a child in miscarriage; loss of youth or good health; loss of a pet; and loss of a spouse in separation or divorce.

The process of working through the loss is the process of grief. It's hard work but a necessary part of healing—and no one can do it for another, although we can be there to listen to someone who needs to talk. The process can be a lengthy one with the time varying from individual to individual.

The first stage is shock or numbness. This is one reason the hurting person cannot assimilate advice or much Scripture at first. The mind is dulled. The emotions overloaded.

As the numbness wears off, the second stage begins. The person remarks to his or herself—and sometimes to others—”This can’t really be happening.” This is denial. It seems significant the most often used response to bad news is, “Oh, no.” This is a verbal response to a soul saying: “No, this just can’t happen. It happens only to others.” Sometimes the denial gives way to bargaining, such as, “Lord, if You will ease the pain, I will . . .”

When the bargaining doesn’t seem to work, anger becomes predominant. This is the third stage. Frequently, widows or widowers will be angry with the one who died and made them such. Or some are angry with the doctor for not saving a friend. Many get angry with God since He could've prevented the hurt in the first place. Although a lot of the grief is irrational, it needs to be verbalized and not trivialized by those who hear it. There will be time for explanations.

The fourth stage of grief is guilt. “If only” or “I should’ve” hits the wounded heart. This is common for someone losing a loved one in death and not being able to be with the person when he/she died. The grieving person feels he “should have” somehow known. There is no limit to guilt: Loss of health—“I should’ve eaten better, exercised more;” loss of a child to rebellion—“It’s all my fault. I should’ve been a better parent;” divorce—“I should’ve been a better partner;” loss of job or promotion— “I should’ve worked harder.” Even though some of these might have an element of truth, in grief, the guilt is totally out of proportion to reality.

Finally, the grieving person works through to resolution or acceptance. He or she is able to acknowledge the loss did occur. And no matter how painful the loss was, he or she will live on.

The unhealthy part of the grieving process is getting stuck in one stage for a long time. Although it is normal to fluctuate in emotions and hit different stages randomly, it's not healthy to get bogged down in one. For instance, staying numb for six months and denying your son is on drugs are not working through a process. Total denial is no help to you or your son.

One of the things I have discovered since my mom died is that grief hits at the most unexpected—and inconvenient—times. Last year I lost two of my dear friends in death on the same day. I preached their funerals within hours of each other. I was overcome as I walked into the pulpit on Sunday and saw the pews where each man had sat. Thousands of others were sitting there, but that could not compensate for the two I had lost. My sad reaction took me off guard.

A mother who lost her child said her most difficult part of grieving was done in the grocery store. Food was about all she could buy for her sick child for many years. She commented to a friend she met at the checkout counter, “I’ve come a long way. I just made it through the cereal aisle without crying!” But that was months after the child’s death. She said she still has a twinge of hurt when she sees moms with little boys playing with Matchbox cars. She feels, in time, the pain of that will lessen but may never be totally eradicated.

I thought one thing she said about the loss of her child was revealing. She said, “People would say to us, ‘Well, you know that’s only a shell in that grave.’ But what they’d forgotten, in their desire to be helpful, was that ‘shell’ was precious to me. I had carried that ‘shell’ in my body. I was there when that ‘shell’ breathed his first breath. I taught that ‘shell’ to walk and talk and ride a bike. His daddy baptized that ‘shell.’ I bathed that ‘shell.’ I loved the way his hair curled and his feet were shaped like his dad’s and his long eyelashes gave the ‘shell’ an impish look. I stood over that ‘shell’ in an intensive care unit for months. And then I kissed the forehead of a cold ‘shell’ before his daddy pulled the sheet over a ‘shell’ he and I helped to create. So saying it was just a ‘shell’ was no comfort. Theologically, I know what they were saying, but maternally and emotionally, I wanted to scream, ‘I did everything for that precious “shell” I knew to do and it stopped breathing and it’s now in a grave. That hurts.’”

Just looking over the grieving process, we can see it is necessary, complicated, and hard work. But recognizing the stages and giving ourselves, or others, permission to grieve are parts of healing. If we understand that no two people grieve exactly alike, on the same time schedule, much less in the same stage at the same time, then we are on our way to healthier relationships in a hurting situation. And we will be more prone not to be discouraged when we understand we may bounce from one stage to the other before acceptance finally finds a home in our hearts.

A non-Christian psychiatrist told a grieving woman that he was amazed at her coping skills. She had explained to him that she was a Christian, and while she grieved, she did so “with hope.” He explained that “talking out loud to anyone—even God—is helpful when you are hurting.” The Christian woman smiled and explained that praying out loud was not her last resort but her first option. The doctor was not sure what to do with the information, but he could not deny the results were wonderful.

Discussing each why in your heart and each feeling of dismay with the One who loves you and understands is the most healing thing you can do. This Friend will never say, “Snap out of it!” This Wonderful Counselor will listen to every feeling. He is not shocked by anger, even if it is directed toward Him. He understands every human emotion and is never tired of repetitive laments. He is unchanged through every changing emotion you experience. He understands your need to grieve better than you do, but He longs “that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13 nasb).

Adapted from Charles Stanley’s Handbook for Christian Living, 1996
Related Topics:  Grief  |  Grief

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13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.

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