Good Grief – We Can’t Escape It, Yet It Need Not Consume Us

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Understanding grief

Anyone who has lived long enough has experienced grief. We can’t escape it. The late professor and Clinical Pastoral instructor, Wayne Oates once wrote, “Bereavement is the universal human crisis, striking everyone sooner or later,” (Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Howard Clinebell). (

The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Unfortunately, and to our discredit, too often our culture grows weary of a grieving soul. There becomes a growing pressure, although usually a silent one, placed on the grieving one to move past the grief. Moreover, this pressure isn’t for the griever’s benefit; it’s so that others no longer feel the burden of your pain while in your presence.

However, be assured; your grief is personal. It is healthy. There is NO universal time limit on grief.

Grief is personal and individual, and every person experiences its nuances differently. Your personality, your support system, your natural coping mechanisms and many other things will determine how loss will affect you. There are no rules, no timetables, and no linear progression. Some people feel better after a few weeks or months, and for others it may take years. And in the midst of recovery there may be setbacks — this nonlinear process can’t be controlled. It’s critical that you treat yourself with patience and compassion and allow the process to unfold.

Stages of Grief

Most of us have read or heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief listed below. Let’s refresh:

  1. denial- This can’t be happening to me!
  2. anger – Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
  3. bargaining – Make this not happen and I will _____
  4. depression – I can’t bear this; I’m too sad to do anything.
  5. acceptance – I acknowledge that this has happened and I cannot change it.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this process was a neat, little package deal which we could make one pass through and be done with it? However, reality and experience has shown each of us that is not the case.

As noted earlier, we are individuals. Our grief responses are personal and individual, as well. For some, grief may last months; for others it may last a year. If the initial stages of grief are still in effect after a year, however, (continually feeling sad, hopeless; can’t function in daily activities,) it may have developed into complicated grief. If your emotional symptoms are coupled with physical symptoms such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Energy loss, exhaustion
  • Body aches and pains
  • Physical complaints similar to deceased

It’s time to seek outside help from a professional, a faith group, or support group. Seeking to walk this road alone is not working.

Ways to Avoid Complicated Grief

It’s not clear why one person’s grief develops into complicated grief and another person’s doesn’t. Nevertheless, there have been studies linking it to resilience, which is usually learned in – you guessed it – childhood. Regardless where we learned, or didn’t learn resilience, it’s never too late to begin implementing it into our lives.

Sadly, it is natural to want to isolate when we are grieving or depressed. However, that is one of the worst things we can do for ourselves. The following is a list of risk factors and protective factors for complicated grief.

  1. Having good social support, from close family or friends, can protect you from complicated grief when you lose a loved one.
  2. Being mentally healthy will also protect you, even if you have diagnosed mental illnesses. Untreated conditions, especially depression and trauma disorders, can put you at greater risk.
  3. Knowing how to manage stress in healthy ways makes complicated grief less likely. A great deal of stress that you can’t cope with puts you at risk.
  4. Trauma, including a very violent or unexpected passing of a loved one, can put you at greater risk for complicated grief. But, having processed trauma in productive ways can protect you.

Do We Only Grieve Death?

Whether we recognize it or not, grief encompasses more areas than the loss of a loved one. We find it much easier to heal when we can recognize that grief is what we’re feeling instead of (you fill in the blank).

For instance, when my husband and I left the church in which we had grown up, and raised our children, we were unprepared for the grieving process of no longer having that affiliation. We grieved our loss of identity.

A loss of identity occurs for a person

  • who loses a job
  • who has experienced divorce
  • moved to another city

It takes time to reestablish who you are in a new job, without your spouse, in another church or community.

Whenever a person loses a primary identity, they mourn a lost sense of self. They’re tasked with grieving who they thought they were and eventually creating a new story that integrates the loss into their personal narrative.

Loss, Loss, and More Loss

A second loss we grieve is a loss of safety. This occurs for people who have been physically, emotionally, or sexually assaulted. In addition, children of divorce grieve the loss of safety of an intact family, (though they may not verbalize it in those words.) Loss of safety can effect entire communities which have been mired by violence.

A third loss is a loss of autonomy. Examples of this include:

  • people with chronic or degenerative illness, grieving the loss of physical or mental abilities
  •  older adults no longer able to care for themselves who grieve their decline (this may also tie to a lost sense of identity as a contributing member of society)
  • someone experiencing financial problems and needing to rely on others for assistance, grieving the ability to provide for themselves

The truth is, every major life stressor involves some loss and therefore, some measure of grieving.

Laying Down The Burden of Grief

There is a story told in John 11:1-38, about the death of a friend of Jesus. His name was Lazarus. The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus that he was ill, but Jesus delayed His arrival, for reasons only He knew.

As a result, Lazarus died.

I don’t think Jesus was surprised by this, because…well, He is all-knowing.

Nevertheless, when He arrived and witnessed the grief of the sisters, Mary and Martha, and the weeping of all the gathered friends, Jesus was deeply troubled.

In fact, Jesus wept.

This verse warms and encourages me. His heart was broken over the grief of those who loved Lazarus, despite the fact that Jesus knew He would be raising Lazarus from the dead.

He is a compassionate God. He comforts us in our sorrow and grief, (2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV). Never do we need to carry our grief alone…

The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears,
And delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart,
And saves such as have a contrite spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
But the Lord delivers him out of them all.

Psalm 34:17-19, NKJV

And even if He doesn’t, Jesus will walk with us through every loss. Sometimes, He even carries us.

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