Good grief

Here's an article I wrote recently for our college women's magazine.

I was 19 and on the phone to my mum when she told me my aunty had died suddenly at the age of 50. I remember my knees feeling weak, a breathlessness and then an overwhelming urge of of tears that seemed to tear up my body. I remember repeating ‘no, no’, as though somehow mum must have been mistaken. For days, weeks and months the tears reappeared out of nowhere. Even now, many years later, at family gatherings, many of us carry around lumps in our throats.

Facing grief is one of the most painful things we do on this earth. We all struggle with pain, loss and questions. And at some point we will all watch our neighbours wrestle with their own grief, and wonder how we can bring comfort.

What is it?
Grief is the emotions and feelings that follow a loss. The first stage is protest. Many people say, as I did, “No, no!” Others may go numb and internally deny it.

Next comes bargaining, where we try to change reality. This is often seen in people who are recovering from serious illnesses: “God, if you heal me, I promise I’ll be a nicer person/ give all my money away/ pat the dog every day etc…”

The third stage of grief is despair or giving in. We understand that reality is not going to change and we hit bottom. Often we will try to ward off this despair by going back to more bargaining or protest.

The final stage is letting go and saying goodbye. After many many tears we become available for new things. We say, “I will never have it, so I will let go of the wish.”

Type of grief
The most obvious and extreme loss in life is death. However, grief is extremely versatile. Loss is broader than we might think.

Loss of innocence and trust can come from abuse. Loss of vulnerability or a sense of self might come from emotional suffering. Losses are part of moving and miscarrying. You can experience a loss if your child is sick, disabled or just struggling in life. You can experience a loss if you are disappointed by others. Single people may carry around a pervasive sense of loss at not having their expectations of marriage and family fulfilled.

Even joyful things can have associated griefs. In marriage you gain a spouse, but lose some independence. In parenting you gain a child, but lose your sleep and free time. With every choice you make, you lose the options you had previously.

Is expressing grief ok?
Expressing grief at losses of these kinds may look ‘unchristian’ on the surface. A mother with a new baby who is finding it incredibly hard 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no respite may not understand herself at all. On the one hand, she is happy and thankful for her child. On the other hand, as she experiences the natural stages of grief - protest, bargaining and despair – she may think she has a sinful, selfish heart. But if she understands the need to grieve the loss of her former independence, she is far more able to embrace the joy of the baby.

Many people are uncomfortable with grieving. They think that to feel the pain is somehow to not trust God. It can be hard to realise that grief and faith are completely compatible, but just read the Psalms! Grief may make it harder to vocalise that God is good, but it doesn’t stop you knowing it is true.

Grief may be the answer to the rut we sometimes find ourselves in. Perhaps we are still denying or protesting something we lost long ago. Maybe it is time to give it up and mourn so that our hearts can be made happy again.

How do we grieve?
Part of the way God allows us to grieve is to provide us with people. Grief can only be accomplished in the context of relationship. If there is not enough love to sustain us, inside and out, then we cannot let go of anything, even something bad.

The Bible says to ‘mourn with those who mourn’ (Rom 12:15). It is the reason tear ducts are in the corner of the eyes. Grief is expressed best as we look into the eyes of another person.

There will be many times we will need to comfort our grieving neighbours. Start by acknowledging that other people’s losses and griefs hurt. It’s too easy to minimise their pain by saying, “At least he’s gone to heaven,” or, “You’ll feel better tomorrow”. Those things are true, but sometimes they stall the grief process.

We need to give others the permission to cry and feel bad, and to not necessarily cheer up immediately. We need to give them permission to express themselves in ways we may not be comfortable with. Let’s look in their eyes, and as they shed tears, give them the time, the support and the love they need to be able to move on.

Grief lasts for a period but the point of it is to allow us to move on. We won’t forget what we’ve lost, but we’ll be able to accept with joy the new gifts that God has to give us.

Some ideas for this article were pinched from the very fat tome, How People Grow, by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.

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