Not a fun topic and certainly not one I like writing or thinking about. Loss is unavoidable and we all need to grieve. Death, illness, tragedy, hopes crushed, people hurting, our deepest desires, the life we envisioned for ourselves, heartbreak, abuse; the list can be long. We feel powerless, out of control and often overwhelmed.
Each of us will deal with our feelings differently. I’m not good at processing them, I try to compartmentalize them. They each have a box and I like to think that I can take one box at a time, open it, deal with it and put it back nicely.
But grief is different. It’s messy, it’s painful, I find it impossible to deal with it alone.
So, I bury it. Close the lid quickly so nothing falls out, shove it to the back of the closet and pile stuff on top. If it doesn’t fit in a box then I avoid it. I’m learning to address it but it’s definitely not easy.
My family has had a few significant losses this past year and I thought I was handling it fairly well. That is, until I was asked to speak on grief and nearly broke down. It took everything I had to hold it together. That’s how I knew that it was time to finally take this box out, dust it off and deal with it.
My sister-in-law died of breast cancer last year at age 36. At the time, her son was 8 and her daughter was 6. Just like that, two children and a father missing their mom and wife. I’m hurting for them but my hurt is nothing compared to what they’re feeling. They have years of grief ahead of them as they not only mourn her, but also their own changed lives and many of life’s special moments that will never come.
I can’t get my head or my heart around the depth of their pain. My own feelings are too much. When I learned of her terminal diagnosis I was also in the midst of some personal struggles. My problems weren’t nearly as serious as hers but in addition to sadness, I also felt guilt. I was caught up in my relatively petty issues while she was facing death; I wished we lived closer so we could help; I wanted to take away the disease. But I was powerless.
Many of you have felt that tremendous weight of grieving a loved one.
It can be overwhelming and all-consuming. I remember feeling that weight in my chest, like no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get a full breath. I remember gulping air hoping it would release the vise grip around my chest. Standing at my desk, hunched over not knowing whether the pressure would release or if I’d just pass out. It got so bad I thought I was having a heart attack.
That scare forced me to address the grief—at least enough of it so I could quickly close the lid of that box and hide it away.
A month ago, my cousin’s son died of brain cancer. He had just turned 14. His mother and younger sister watched him decline from that day he stayed home from school feeling sick, to the terminal diagnosis a few days later, to his death 9 months after. The sweetest, most gentle soul you could ever encounter was gone. He didn’t have a chance.
More grief, more pain, more heartbreak than I was capable of processing.
There are some deaths I can rationalize—not that death is okay but sometimes it’s easier to accept. If I can find a way to understand it, then it’s easier to put away. But these two? No way. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel okay with them. It’s unfair, it’s tragic, it’s so deeply painful that the despair is just as powerful as the sorrow. It was impossible for me to say or believe that ‘God is good’.
If you’ve experienced grief, whether the loss was minor or major, you can relate to this rut. Some call it the valley, some call it the pit, the desert, the rut—it’s a place where you feel hopelessly stuck. You can’t see a way out and you don’t know how long you’ll be there. All you know is the place you’re currently at is awful and you can’t see over the hill to know if there are better days ahead.
Two people I love died far too young. It made me question, “What’s the point of life when some don’t get to fully live it?” While some of us fret about pointless things, collect useless junk, and waste our time on things of little importance, others don’t have that chance. I’m really struggling with that. It’s left me completely undone and without answers. Some things in life are just unfair.
I can’t reconcile the fragility of life with the finality of death, while trying to find meaning in the time between.
That’s where I was and honestly, parts of me still feel stranded there. As life goes on—as it does for everyone else—some areas of my life progressed. But part of my soul still feels stuck in that desert. The grief was so overwhelming I became numb. The feelings were too intense so I suppressed them when I should’ve addressed them.
Death, disease, disasters. Whatever it is, you have to grieve it, feel the shock and anger over it, and maybe question God for the injustice of it. I think that’s normal and healthy and desperately needed to heal.
I love this quote from Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary:
“Here I can experience a little bit of the desert and realize that it is not only a dry place where people die from thirst but also the vast empty space where the God of love reveals himself and offers his promise to those who are waiting in faithfulness.”
Waiting in faithfulness. In the midst of pain, confusion, anger, sadness, the God of love will reveal himself and offer His promise. Not only is my valley a place of spiritual stagnation, but it can also be a place of spiritual renewal. I’ve felt stranded there for some time. My head knows that God will see me through this but some days my soul doesn’t feel as hopeful. I want to believe that what Nouwen wrote is true. That the desert or valley can be a place of transformation and growth.
But I think it starts with calling the desert the desert.
Too often we gloss over the pain or minimize it—or like me, bury it—or we look only at the future, ignoring the current reality. I think it’s important we stand firmly in that place and call it for what it is. It’s when we’re completely honest with God and self that we demonstrate our faithfulness to Him.
For a long time, I struggled with how to do that. In Christian circles I heard different approaches to struggles, some biblical like “Consider it pure joy…” and some not biblical like, “Fake it ‘til you make it…” But neither of those address the magnitude of emotions in that place and the challenge facing our hearts in those times.
I found comfort and reassurance in the Psalms. Many of them are David’s cries and complaints. They’re honest, emotional and full of pain; he questions and challenges God in ways I didn’t think Christians were allowed to. But one thing that stood out clearly was that they are so much more than laments; let’s look at Psalm 13.
1 How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
You’ll see that David doesn’t end these prayers in lament. He starts with calling out his struggles (v 1-2). Then calls on God (v 3) for His promise. And it’s the last two verses that change his heart in that place (v 5-6). David’s cries of pain turn to affirmations of God’s love, God’s salvation, God’s mercy.
This is divine grief. This is an invitation to be at peace in the valley—in the darkest of times when the grief is too much to bear. As God does His healing work over time, you begin to see that even this can be a place of potential.
Wait in faithfulness.
As a church family, I believe we are called to support each other through those challenging times. We need to stand together as we wait on God’s promise. It’s hard to do but it’s so important. And I think it’s something we don’t often do well.
Grief is different for each of us; it shows up differently and we move through it at different paces. But grief is easier to deal with when we aren’t doing it alone. It’s important that we allow people to be in that place.
Don’t push or pull them out before they’re ready; instead, join them in the valley.
Here are a few helpful hints I’ve learned along the way—both as the one grieving and as the person supporting people in grief.
For those of you grieving:
- Invite people in. That doesn’t mean you tell everyone but find people you trust—it doesn’t have to be at work—and give them the opportunity to walk with you. You don’t need to air it out in chapel but find at least one person.
- Call it what it is. The desert is the desert; it’s not easy, it’s not enjoyable but it’s unavoidable. Follow David’s lead and be honest with yourself and God; let your prayers be true to your struggles but also true to who God is.
- Allow yourself the time and space to grieve. Sometimes that means taking time away from work or seeing a professional, but whatever you need to process your feelings you need to face them. If you try to hide it, Misty will find you. Seriously, let it take the time it needs to run its course and don’t rush it.
If you want to be a support:
- Prove that you’re trustworthy. This is so important, and the truth is, you’ve already started to demonstrate whether or not you can be trusted. Do you gossip and criticize, or do you listen and love? Supporting someone through grief is a privilege—it’s holy ground.
- Join them where they are. Instead of pushing them forward or trying to pull them out of the rut, meet them in that place. What took you 6 months may take someone 2 years, and that’s okay. It’s not your job to set the pace but to just be with them and encourage them to keep walking—regardless of the speed.
- Ask, don’t tell. Resist the urge to offer solutions and instead ask what they need. Sometimes it’s silence, a shoulder to cry on and sometimes it’s a good laugh to distract them from pain. But please ask how you can help instead of assuming you know what to do.
We will all suffer loss and be forced to endure grief at some point in our lives. We can’t ignore it and we can’t hide from it. We are called to stand firm in that place trusting God will meet us there. Can we stand together?
I’d love to hear what you’ve found helpful as a person grieving so we can add to the lists above. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s see how we can better support each other through grief.