Effective ways to manage the grieving process
By Brooke Stacia Demott
Sorrow is a powerful undercurrent to those who tread the waters of grief; and while death is normal, it’s far from natural. Every day becomes a struggle, and every night, fitful sleep pleads desperately with tomorrow for relief. The fog of morning blurs the sharp edges of yesterday’s pain. But as the mist clears, it leaves you staring helplessly at a loss that will forever redefine you.
Gasping for breath in these troubled waters, you will encounter three sorts of people.
The first, the vast majority, coast along on cruise ships. They are numerous, lively, enjoying the fruit of life’s celebrations. They see you as they pass by, perhaps offering a polite smile and a nod of sympathy, but they pass by all the same. You cannot go where they are; they certainly won’t come to you.
The second are beached lifeguards. These folks blow whistles and shout instructions, but never learned to swim beyond the shallows. Troubled waters have yet to overtake these well-meaning but inexperienced shorelings. No matter how loud they are, you can’t hear them. Frankly, they’re just too far removed.
But then, there are a few waterlogged rafters who have severed the anchor of despair from their heels and remained at sea, searching for those like themselves, extending sympathetic hands to the drowning.
They have tasted the bitter waters and know full well what it’s like to be immersed. These people are sent by the same man who once walked across the stormy Sea of Galilee, reaching down to a drowning Peter as he struggled beneath the undercurrent of faithlessness, to pull him from the roaring billows, with just one question: “Why did you doubt?”
Loss is inevitable. No one escapes the pain of goodbye. Yet, we often remain silent and alone in private anguish. Why?
Secular humanism has powerfully overtaken our culture, and as a result, we ignore the reality that this life will end. Nevertheless, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” (Ecclesiastes 7:4) A wise person considers the reality of death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.
Not that it’s wrong to enjoy good times; blessings are intended to be received with gratitude. But a fool is someone who willfully ignores the truth; the fool here is one who shrugs off his own mortality, focusing instead on lighthearted distractions. He plans more for summer vacation than eternity. But a person forced to reckon with the reality of death, gains wisdom by his sorrow.
“No one told me grief felt so like fear.”
— C.S. Lewis
We aren’t comfortable expressing deep emotions. True intimacy makes people uneasy, and there is no greater intimacy than sharing one’s grief. We prefer to step over it with clichés, words of comfort, and encouragement to move on (as quickly and quietly as possible).
Face to face with reality
But dodging reality won’t change the fact that life is temporary. When we experience devastating loss, how do we cope with the grief that follows?
We must take our broken hearts to the Lord. Only he can navigate the enveloping darkness and spark a light of hope. Jesus bound himself to human flesh in order to experience grief, anger, and deep sadness as we do. He wept over the death of his friends. He knows, deeply and intimately, how we feel.
“For he is a high priest that can identify with our sufferings,” (Hebrews 4:15). He watches over us with tender concern. “You have taken account of my suffering, and collected my tears in your bottle.” (Psalm 56). God is our comforter, our defender, and our salvation. When we pour out our sorrows before his attending ear, he promises to lift our heads to the hope we have in Jesus Christ. Although we will suffer loss in this life, for those who put their faith in Jesus, the next will be a place of comfort, rest, and reunion.
Fight the urge to isolate yourself. Grief is private; and so for a time, it’s right to be alone. But we can’t go on indefinitely this way. Isolation leads to despair — the belief that there is no hope for a better future. Despair tempts us to self-destruct. Separated from community, it’s easier to give ourselves over to the secret vices that will destroy our souls. We absolutely must grieve in the context of community.
Keep moving. Get out of bed. Get dressed. Brush your teeth. Go through the basic motions of routine to give life a sense of normalcy, well before your heart is in it. People are creatures of habit, and the more you can force yourself to maintain normal habits, the more quickly you will begin to feel normal.
Finally, resist the urge to take shortcuts through the grieving process. Grief is profoundly spiritual, and relying on physical crutches will halt your ability to heal. Anti-depressants, drugs, alcohol — even food or sex — only distract us from the pain. As a result, we never fully recover. Facing the sorrow head-on and sober-minded will allow you to walk the path of true healing.
If you know someone suffering a loss, don’t ignore them. No one ever says the right thing, but most people don’t say anything because they’re afraid to say the wrong thing. Ask questions, bring meals, or stop by with a word of encouragement. Let them talk.
Don’t be afraid to reminisce about their loved one; remembering them together can be incredibly validating and healing. If you have experienced the same kind of loss, it’s your privileged responsibility to reach out. They need you more than anyone right now.
Most importantly, remember, grief is a season. The pain will change you, but it will subside; and we needn’t grieve without hope. One day, Jesus will return and set all things right. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” (Revelation 21:4)
• Brooke Stacia Demott is a columnist with In Good Health newspaper. Got a question for Demott? Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.