We are created for connection. From the beginning, solitary existence was never a viable option (genesis 2:18). We have been designed for intimacy, closeness, community. Through meaningful attachments, our individual stories take on deeper meaning and greater significance. These become the reference points for our lives. When these connections are severed, broken, or lost, it produces an inhuman level of pain, and it’s that pain that produces grief. “Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love . . . It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance but the next figure.”1
Expect confusion. C. S. Lewis described his struggle with grief this way: “In grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down?”2
This has been true for me, and I have seen it in the lives of those I’ve counseled. The journey can at times be undefined and disorienting, leading grievers to question their path. No one progresses through the stages of grief in the same order or at the same pace.We don’t need to be alarmed when things don’t make sense or seem to be recurring. If we know confusion is coming, we’re better prepared to face it. The process of grieving is far from orderly. It’s messy and, at times, it may feel like you’re losing your mind. You’re not. There is no universal pattern for grief.
Shock is normal. It is to be expected after the news of a loss. It’s our initial defensive response that enables us to carry on under unbelievable circumstances. God designed shock to cushion and protect us, helping us survive when it would otherwise be impossible for us to function under the emotional overload of grief. Shock should be allowed to take its course.
Don’t pretend. Resist denial. Be real. Attempting to outdistance the pain of grief by “being strong” is futile. It will only impede your progress. Frederick Buechner recognized denial as a problem in his failed attempts to deal with his father’s suicide. Buechner said that while steeling yourself against the harsh realities of life may protect you from some pain, that same steel can become bars that keep you from being transformed by “the holy power that life itself comes from.” He goes on to emphasize the necessity of allowing that power to work in you: “You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”3 A grief denied is a grief unhealed.
It’s vital for a grieving person to acknowledge the reality of what has been lost head-on. Call it what it is. This helps stave off denial and is a big step on the journey through grief.
Be Honest About Your Feelings
God grieves too. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost a son in a climbing accident, said that it’s “through our tears we see the tears of God.”4 When we grieve, we join God in lamenting beauty that has been broken, and we grieve in anticipation of the day when all will be restored.
The longing for restoration, for all things to be made new (revelation 21:4-5), and the awareness that renewal is yet future, are at the heart of all of our grief. The world is beautiful, but we are often reminded that it is also broken. It’s when we lose some of the beauty in our lives and experience this brokenness that we grieve, longing for a better world.
Feel what you feel. At some point in our struggle with grief, someone may say, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Or we ourselves may attempt to stifle our emotions. But we feel deeply because God has given us a profound emotional capacity like His own. A fellow counselor once said, “You can’t heal what you can’t feel.” A painful loss can make us want to stifle our emotions. But feelings open us up to depth and richness in all our experiences.
After a loss, grief triggers an emotional avalanche that can sweep us off our feet and bury us under a heap of emotions we don’t understand.The list of things grievers feel seems endless: shock, pain, disbelief, disorientation, disconnection, denial, anger, injustice, unfairness, fear, abandonment, loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Before the healing process can begin, we need to sort through the emotions that well up inside us.
For example, anger is not unusual, even anger toward God. This anger can stem either from feeling that God didn’t do something He should have done or that He did or allowed something that resulted in our pain. I remember how angry I was when a dear friend was killed in a climbing accident a decade ago. I screamed at God. It made no sense that He would take my friend’s life when he was faithfully serving Him. It felt cruel and terrifying. But God is big enough, strong enough, and loving enough to handle our emotions, even when we lash out in severe pain after a tragic loss.
Sleeping, eating, working—just plain living—can become labored under the emotional bombardment of grief. Confusion, sometimes called “the fog of grief,” is normal. Daydreaming, being unproductive at work or home, starting something and then forgetting mid-action what you were doing, and feeling like you’re losing your mind are all common experiences. You’re not crazy. You’re grieving.
Describe what you’ve lost. Telling yourself, God, and others what you’ve lost is a practical exercise that solidifies acceptance of your loss. Many find that writing it down, either in a journal or in a letter (perhaps addressed to God) helps identify and clarify feelings that have been vague or elusive.
Job, a man who suffered multiple losses, described the loss of his children, his wealth, and his health in terms that many have identified with: “The thing I greatly feared has come upon me, and what I dreaded has happened to me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, for trouble comes” (job 3:25-26). And King David, who lost his kingdom and was betrayed by his own son (2 samuel 15), encouraged his few followers to “pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge”(psalm 62:8 niv) . These two men, dealing with terrible heartache, discovered that putting words to their grief helped them begin to accept their loss.
I meet regularly with a group of men for support and encouragement. This has been a safe place for me to talk my way through my losses. Over many breakfasts, they’ve listened to my struggles and pain, giving me hope that I would eventually make it through my grief. They not only allowed me to be honest about my feelings, they encouraged it. Those times of sharing and honesty have been steps toward healing.
Become comfortable with your tears. It’s okay to cry; in fact it’s important that you do. Tears are an emotional and physical release vital to the grieving process. Internal pressure builds and must be released. Having a good cry is healing for both body and soul.
Some well-meaning people advocate maintaining “a stiff upper lip,” saying or implying that tears show a lack of faith in the power and promises of God. But tears are not a sign of weakness, they are a gift from God.Don’t be afraid to express your grief honestly to God. It’s okay to bring the tears of your broken heart to Him. He understands.
The apostle Paul makes it clear that while followers of Jesus still grieve, we do not “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope” (1 thessalonians 4:13 niv). Instead, we grieve with hope—hope that is anchored in the resurrection of Jesus and that reminds us of a coming day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (revelation 21:4 niv).
But grieving with hope doesn’t lessen the emotional upheaval or the intensity of our pain. The absence of pain isn’t one of the benefits of following Jesus (john 16:33). Jesus Himself experienced grief and shed tears. He was “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (isaiah 53:3). He openly wept at the tomb of His dear friend Lazarus (john 11:35). Despite the knowledge that He would soon raise Lazarus, Jesus shared the pain of His grieving friends over the death of a loved one.
Jesus will walk with you through your jumble of feelings. Trust Him to understand and offer the comfort that only He can provide.
Open yourself to being comforted. “Talk is cheap.” That can feel especially true when we are grieving. The attempts of friends and loved ones to comfort, though well-intended and offered in love, can feel hollow in our sorrow. But it’s important that we don’t allow grief to isolate or insulate us from the comfort that can be found in the presence and words of friends and family. Allowing yourself to be comforted keeps you connected to others and can, at the right time, provide needed encouragement and direction for navigating your pain.
On the night of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (matthew 26:38 niv). He asked His disciples to stay with Him as He poured out His heart to His Father. Their presence during His time of agony was a comfort to His troubled heart. The same was true for Job’s friends who came to offer comfort in his sorrow. They simply offered their presence as they sat with him for seven days as he grieved (job 2:11-13).
Opening your heart to the comfort offered by God and others will, in time, help you find a renewed sense of strength and perspective.
Live with Your Loss
Accept the new normal. Loss changes us. It’s unavoidable. How will you change? That depends on you. A significant loss becomes a marker in our lives. Phrases like “before the accident,” “after the divorce,” “before Mom got cancer,” or “after Dad died,” are common ways to describe the “new normal.” It’s the way we acknowledge the reality that life has changed; the old normal is gone and a new normal is here.
Richard Dershimer describes this as “gaining perspective on the loss, the time when the pain is softened and replaced by a sweet sadness . . . The acute sense of loss changes at this time from a moment-to-moment preoccupation . . . to an episodic sadness evoked by special circumstances.”5
Four months after my dad died, I spent the afternoon hunting, an activity my dad and I enjoyed together.
As I sat alone in the woods, I was overcome with emotion and began weeping uncontrollably. I’m losing it, I thought.
What’s the matter with me? Then I realized: Dad isn’t here to share this, and he would have really loved it. That’s my new normal. Although I’m moving on with my life, I’m never far from the pain of lost loved ones. Sometimes it catches up with me when I least expect it, and it reminds me of how much I miss them.
Stay connected. Feelings of alienation, aloneness, and abandonment are common during the period of adjustment to the new normal. It’s natural to want to isolate yourself while you wait for the pain to subside. The new widow or widower realizes for the first time how lonely it is to attend school, church, and even family functions as a single person again. No spouse plans on parenting solo. But when death claims a mate, the financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of the family suddenly all fall on the shoulders of the parent who is struggling simply to stay afloat, let alone care for a family.
The best antidote for the isolation of grief is to stay connected. It won’t be easy. You will feel vulnerable. But going it alone never works. When you stumble and fall on your journey through grief—and you will, we all do—having someone who knows where you are and who can reach out and help you up is life giving.
For some, grief groups can be helpful. Connecting with others who have suffered loss allows one to gain insight, understanding, and comfort from others who may be further down the path of grief. The realization that you’re part of a healing community has restored new hope to many.
For those who are struggling to make progress in their journey of grief, or for those who don’t have a supportive community or are dealing with complex forms of grief, the intensive care of a counselor may be needed. Don’t be afraid to seek help. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Two are better than one . . . if either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (4:9-10 niv).
Give yourself the freedom to enjoy life again. Yes, life will be forever different without your loved one, but different does not have to mean bad. Moving on with your life will be difficult and may bring conflicting emotions. But you are not betraying your loved one if you laugh again, go out to dinner with friends, take a vacation, or even love again.Your loved one would not want your life to stop; they would want you to enjoy life. Life will be played in a minor key for a while, but happiness often catches us by surprise. When it does, let yourself soak it in.
The first time you laugh again may feel awkward. But it’s a sign that enjoyment of life is reemerging. Sorting through my parents’ home with my brothers, our wives, and our children was a bittersweet experience. What would have been overwhelming and depressing for any one of us was instead therapeutic for all of us. We laughed, we cried, and we told stories as we sorted through their 61 years of life together. Life, while different, was still good and should be celebrated and shared.
Reinvest in Love
Enjoy living today. Willingness to once again connect with others is the best indicator that you are grieving well and moving forward. Resistance to investing in relationships indicates that we’re too afraid of the risk of losing someone else. No one looks forward to the pain of loss, but faith in the One who will never abandon us will help us love again. All relationships carry with them the possibility of pain and loss. John Branter writes, “Only people who avoid love can avoid grief. The point is to learn from [grief] and remain vulnerable to love.”
The summer after my parents died, my son married a lovely woman. It was a joyous occasion, yet we were all aware of how much Mom and Dad would have loved celebrating with us. Two birch trees graced the venue to honor my parents—my son and his bride’s idea. They are now planted in our backyard to remind us that life goes on, is good, and to be shared.
Share your comfort with others. Dealing with grief equips us to reach out more compassionately and wisely to others who need the same comfort we received.
Remember my breakdown in the woods? I had taken the risk of enjoying something—travelling to Kansas and hunting with a new friend. I had a wonderful time. However, I also felt the bitter sting of my dad’s absence. Sharing the story with my friend back at camp that evening stirred both the joy of living and the anguish of loss. As we drove home the next day, we talked about hunting, life, and loss. His only son, his hunting buddy, had died 20 years earlier of heart failure, leaving a young wife behind. Our conversation was comforting for both of us as we talked about our loves, our losses, our pains, and how they fit into our story of faith in Jesus.
The comfort that God gives us in our sorrow and grief isn’t for us alone.It’s meant to be shared. Paul made that abundantly clear when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 corinthians 1:3-4 niv).
Empathy and compassion are born of painful encounters with loss. When we see others through the tears of our own grief, we have a different perspective that uniquely qualifies us to minister compassionately to those who are in pain.
1 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 58-59.
2 Ibid., 67.
3 Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), 46.
4 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 80.
5 Richard Dershimer, Counseling the Bereaved (UK: PPI Publishers), 22.