Several years ago now, not long after my father’s death, I stumbled across a copy of Jerusha Hull McCormack&Rsquo;s little book Grieving: A Beginner’s Guide. And for several years now, I’ve thought, I probably need to read that. But until quite recently, I could’t bring myself to open the cover. I knew that if I did, I would be opening more than a book; I’d be opening up something I didn’t think I could survive.

There’s something uniquely terrifying about naming and facing the reality of grief head-on, honestly, for what it is. Maybe because death is an experience we aren’t capable of really understanding.

So we find ways to avoid it. In fact, one of the personality typing systems that is most popular today, the Enneagram, bases its approach to personality on how each person defends themselves from grief. Unlike most personality typing systems, which offer a set of fairly neutral facts about differing personality tendencies, the Enneagram model emphasizes the potential dark side of the personality types, the “false self” each constructs to protect itself from its pain, deepest fears, and grief. (It’s often said that you will likely have found your “type” when the unflattering yet painfully accurate description makes you want to throw the book across the room; that was pretty much my experience.)

But, much like a hard conversation with a good friend, I’ve found there is value in being willing to take a longer, harder look at ourselves, to take the risk of seeing the person hiding behind our masks—and maybe even learning to see that smaller, more vulnerable version of ourselves with compassion instead of rejection.

That’s a different way to think about human brokenness than what many of us learned growing up. I, at least, got the impression that the goal was to “be good,” implying we should either conquer or hide those less-than-perfect parts of ourselves. But if the concern is whether we are becoming our most authentic, honest, and most fully human self, then it seems it may be far more dangerous to rely on a false persona of invulnerability and control than it is to be “bad.” Because it is our false selves, hardened from the vulnerabilities that make us human, that most distance us from God’s love and grace. We might recall Jesus’ words—“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31)—as a stern warning of the danger of pursuing the illusionary goal of “being good.”

Thinking about our pain from the perspective of the way it can shape our growth towards either our true or false selves, towards being either more or less fully human, can offer us new strategies for responding to our pain. It’s a perspective that reminds us of the importance of asking ourselves questions like, How am I hiding from my fear and pain? What masks might I be wearing or lies might I be telling myself to protect myself from pain?

For me, in Enneagram lingo, learning about my tendencies as a Four (aka “Individualist” or “Tragic Romantic”) opened my eyes to my ambivalent relationship with pain and grief in a way I’d been blind to before. The general description of the “Four” personality profile is that of sensitive, introspective, and creative types who are drawn to, even fascinated by, the darker experiences and emotions of life. (We can even take a certain pride in our awareness of life’s dark side, looking down just a bit at people who we suspect project a vacuous, superficial happiness.) But as aware as Fours are of our pain, they tend to be equally terrified of facing its depths—because of our deepest fear, that we are fundamentally, irrevocably damaged, too broken to ever experience joy and wholeness in the way we long to. Since we “know” healing is impossible for us, yet cannot forget our pain and shame, we tend to manage the grief by absorbing it into a persona of melancholy or brooding cynicism.

In that way, a bit paradoxically, even as we construct an identity driven largely by our pain, that persona can actually be a way to keep it at arm’s length, to avoid actually facing and feeling the pain for what it is. Because that, we’re pretty sure, would destroy us.

But that kind of pain-avoidance isn’t unique to “Fours.” As human beings, we’re all master pain-avoiders, able to use even self-edited versions of our pain to protect ourselves. What differs is merely how.

But what if there is a better way to respond to our pain than evasion or minimization? What if our pain is important and has things of value to teach us?

Which brings me to what I’ve been avoiding speaking about directly so far, grieving the death of someone we love. Although there’s value in talking about grief more broadly, as above, there’s also a real need to speak into the uniquely shattering experience of the death of someone close to us. For most of us, those experiences of grief will shape the rest of our lives.

Yet honest engagement with grief, is not, as Jerusha Hull McCormack describes, something our culture particularly encourages. Sharing her own experience, she writes:

“After the first year [of her husband’s death], there was little public recognition or even patience for my grieving, although I realized that the pain I was in was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I knew instinctively it was also one of the most important, that how I handled that suffering would either make or break me; it would determine the quality of the rest of my life. And yet it seemed that all everyone else wanted me to do was to ‘recover’ as soon as possible. . . . A century ago, I would have been wearing black for a year, ensuring that my loss would have been publicly acknowledged and thus honoured . . . But in this day and age, I was expected to return to full-time work within months. (pp. 1–2).

That description, of journeying dazed and unguided through a crippling experience that others seemed to neither understand nor remember resonates with my own experience. Even now, more than three years since my father’s death, grief and its symptoms often feel as raw and debilitating as they did then. And like Jerusha, I haven’t sensed much space socially for an ongoing journey through grief years after the initial loss. Jerusha writes, “It was as if society wanted to forget—not so much me, as the kind of pain I represented.” In my experience, that “forgetting” was sometimes literal; on several bewildering and frankly traumatic occasions soon after my dad’s death, I found myself in conversation needing to remind someone of his death with whom I’d already recently shared this. I get it; death is the last thing most of us want to focus on, and I’m as guilty as anyone to inattentiveness to the grief and pain of others. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so alone as during those moments when I realized that the most traumatic experience of my life was easily “forgettable” to others.

What might it look like for us to find better, more honest ways to engage with grief? To, as Jerusha puts it, honor our individual and collective experiences of grief so that their “value [is] not diminished”?

If we think back to the relationship between pain, shame, and our attempts to hide behind a false self, I think we can at least find a place to start. Because the simple but powerful truth is that it’s in knowing we are loved that we can find the courage to begin to let go of shame and our need to hide behind a false self. As Chuck DeGroat puts it, “Dismantling the . . . false self is an act of dying—dying to illusion, to control, and to fear. And it’s also an act of resurrection—to truth, to vulnerability, to creativity, and to connection. As we trust that Love desires the best for us, and not our downfall, perhaps we’ll all tire of the masks we wear and come out of hiding” (When Narcissism Comes to Church, p. 11).

In my own experience, despite those difficult moments when I felt abandoned and isolated in my experience of grief, there have also always been experiences like Chuck describes, times when I experienced in the gentle compassion of others a love so powerful I knew I wasn’t as alone as I felt. I think of the very unexpected gift of meeting my (now) husband during the same year that my dad died. Our first years together haven’t really been the stereotypical whirlwind of romance and joy; they’ve been really hard, years during which we’ve both been grieving.

But if it’s in knowing we are loved that we find the courage not to hide, maybe the best way to explain the kind of person my husband is and has been for me during the past several years is the simple fact that time with him has gradually given me back the ability to cry. Not just because Ben’s the first person I’ve ever trusted enough to cry in front of, but because of the kind of person he is on a daily basis. There are very few people whose hearts are big enough to see and hold others’ pain without fear, without trying to fix or minimize it, and he happens to be one of them.

These are the kind of people whose patience and grace can point chronic grief-avoiders like myself to begin to believe that our wounds really can be something we can attend to and care for rather than causes for fear and shame. And they are the kind of people whose compassion and grace can point us to the reality of an even-bigger Love, strong enough to hold and heal us even through death.

Monica La Rose

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