How does that word make you feel? Uncomfortable? Confused? Is it difficult to grasp? Welcome to the club.
Grief is an emotional experience. Perhaps because of this, most people don’t understand it clearly and certainly want to avoid it. But this avoidance is why, often, grief remains unresolved for most of our lives, looming in the back of our minds. If it’s uncomfortable and we don’t understand it, we cannot resolve it. And so it is swept under the mental rug. Ignored.
The problem with this unresolved grief is that it’s cumulative. Leave it unresolved long enough and it will come back to haunt you. For example, if grief is not processed after a divorce, it may dictate fearful choices in the future: the affected person may become hyper-vigilant with self-protection to avoid further emotional pain. This, in turn, limits them from being open, trusting, and loving, dooming their next relationship to failure.
In this series, we’re going to work toward understanding the grieving process. This understanding will include learning not only how to walk through your own grief, but also how to address the grief of others. In the church, especially, we need to understand how to recognize when someone is grieving, so we can give support appropriately.
In order to begin dealing with grief, we must learn to recognize it. Many of us relate grief to death alone. But take a closer look at how we move through life. You will find grief in selling a home, changing jobs, losing friends and family, pets, financial security, health, and youth. Name a life experience involving change, and grief is a part of it. In some cases, the loss is more abstract, like losing your childhood to alcohol or drug abuse.
But grief even includes things that seem positive on the surface, like the wedding of your child, sibling or close friend, the long-term success of raising healthy adults who leave to establish their own lives, or the excitement of starting college or a new career or buying your first house. What wonderful occasions! Yet these occasions can cause a confusing mix of thoughts: “I should be happy and yet, I have moments of real sadness.” You may find yourself drowning in the questions and nostalgia: How did we get here? Where did all those years go? Remember when…
Some of the examples above may seem irrational to you. That irrationality is a good place to begin.
The first truth about grief is this: it is processed through our emotions, not our intellect. And a mistake many people make when trying to comfort a griever is addressing their head (logic) and not their heart (emotions).
That’s why comments meant to encourage at a memorial such as, “well, he is in a better place,” fall short. Though the statement may be logically true, it doesn’t help a grieving person process through their emotions. They may be angry, sad, or just want to cry—whether their loved one is in Heaven or not.
“…a mistake many people make when trying to comfort a griever is addressing their head (logic) and not their heart (emotions).”
In the end, though these comments may seem “helpful,” they often stem from a place of trying to make ourselves feel better, rather than ministering to the person in pain. The reason we are typically not comfortable with a grieving person is because we want the person to be “back to normal,” so we try to fix them with logic. Next time you’re confronted with someone in grief, pause. Ask yourself, “If this person just needed to cry and have someone sit there quietly, am I comfortable with that?”
This principle applies to our own grief too. When we are grieving, we tend to question ourselves. “What is wrong with me?” we ask. “Why can’t I get back to normal?” We yearn to return to a time before grief, to relative comfort and security so that we can function normally in society again. We try to reason with ourselves.
Once you’ve identified grief, whether from death or another cause, stop to acknowledge that it is an emotional process first, not a logical one. After grief is identified and its emotional nature acknowledged, the next obstacle will be overcoming the way our culture treats grief and the lies we’ve adopted because of this. They are delineated below.
The Six Lies of Grief
It’s no secret that the idol of comfort is prominent in America. It’s not surprising that something as uncomfortable as grief is suppressed in diverse ways—from questioning ourselves to shutting down others. As we look at common perceptions of grief, a pattern emerges. This is where the six lies regarding grief come into play. Most of you have heard these passed around our culture (usually feeding off each other). The lies stated below will not only suppress your own grief, but they will also hurt those you are trying to help.
- Don’t feel bad.
Usually, this message comes after one of the overlooked grief-events we covered above. I’ve heard it often in cases of divorce, based on the suggestion that, “someone else will come along.” It can be as simple as an “oh, cheer up, you’ll be fine,” or as blatant as a “don’t cry.” But communicating to someone that they shouldn’t feel bad after a loss, no matter how the sentiment is phrased, shuts down the griever’s emotions, rather than allowing those feelings to be processed in safety.
- Replace the loss.
A good illustration of this grief-lie can be seen when a child loses their first pet. Often, parents rush out to replace the pet to cheer the child up. But replacing a pet immediately for a child does not help the child process the emotions and connection he/she had to the first pet. Just as, in our divorce example above, getting remarried won’t repair the damage of the previous divorce.
- Grieve alone.
This lie usually rears its ugly head when we are uncomfortable with the emotions someone is displaying (or vice versa). It can even have a delayed reaction, with friends being supportive up front and then progressively becoming more and more withdrawn to avoid facing pain or discomfort. (It can especially be fed by or lead into the fifth lie too.)
- Just give it time.
This advice is often accepted as truth because it is subtle. The problem is that only giving grief time, and not putting any work into processing those emotions, will worsen the state of the griever. Time doesn’t heal. Work + Jesus + time does.
- Be strong for others.
This is a gut-reaction for some people. They put themselves on the shelf and tend to others’ needs (see the next lie for the reason). Telling yourself or someone else to be strong for others is just another way of shoving emotions aside to make everyone else feel okay. And that will lead to unhealthiness down the road.
- Keep busy.
Finally, some people will advise grievers to “keep busy.” As you’ve probably guessed, keeping busy does not help process grief. It is a distraction that puts off the healing.
Allow yourself and those around you the freedom to grieve as individuals, not conforming to the unrealistic standards of the world.
If any of these lies has hit home with you, from either the giving or receiving end, good. Awareness is a beginning. Living with loss in our lives and the lives of those around us is difficult. People do change. But remember that Jesus felt every human emotion. He was compassionate and met people where they were at. The Lord can and does help us to move on when we understand how the grief process works. We need to be aware of how to minister to those who are grieving and deal with our own grief, and knowing the lies the world has fed us about grief is a vital step in understanding it.
As you come to understand how important it is to process grief, and how to address it in others, another danger arises. When we feel we’ve come to understand grief, our first impulse may be to try to speak into others’ pain. We may come to feel that we understand the loss of another person because we have processed a similar loss. Keep in mind that your advice is from your perspective: how you felt, how you healed, etc. While we certainly can empathize with the person experiencing loss and show compassion, we need to remember we are all different, complex human beings. Loss hits us all differently. That is why in grief groups formed around a specific subject, like losing a child, although the loss is common to the members, the experience and the way each person processes their grief is personal.
In sum, no one is you. You will process grief differently than anyone else. Allow yourself and those around you the freedom to grieve as individuals, not conforming to the unrealistic standards of the world. Give grace.
For this section of understanding the grief process, please take time to reflect on the often-overlooked sources of grief, and consider whether you have unresolved grief in these areas. Are you uncomfortable with it? How have you dealt with grief thus far?
Next, reflect on the six lies listed above. Have you adopted any of the grief lies? If so, which ones? Have you used them to speak to others in grief?
We will continue to understand more about the process of grief next month.
By Lisa M. Woodworth, M.A.