Learning to Grieve Well

grieving well

One day, years ago in a previous church experience, Frank (not his real name) came up to me concerned about a woman in the congregation.  The woman, Daphne (not her real name), had recently had a miscarriage when just beginning her third trimester.  Frank proceeded to tell me that it had been a few weeks since the terrible event of Daphne’s miscarriage, and he had never seen her cry.  Frank was uneasy with this and wanted to go tell her that something was wrong that she wasn’t bawling over her tragedy.

Although I think Frank’s heart was mostly in the right place to have concern, there were a couple of things off about his thoughts.  These few things I’m going to highlight are important to keep in mind.  Whether you are grieving yourself because of some trauma or hard situation, or whether you want to be there to encourage and help another person going through trouble, there are two realities to keep in mind through the hard road of grief.  The first reality is this:

Grief is personal.  No two people grieve in exactly the same way.

Part of Frank’s concern was that he himself had gone through the death of a child, and he had cried much over it.  In fact, he had tears in his eyes just talking to me about something that happened many years ago.  Frank had found that his crying and emotional expressions were a central part of coming to terms with his own child’s death.  So, when Daphne was not responding in the same way as he had, he quickly assumed she was in denial and was not grieving.

The truth was that I was close to Daphne and her family enough to know that she and her husband were very much in grief, and were certainly working through their awful ordeal.  Daphne had never been much of an emotional person, and she found that lots of talking with girlfriends and other women was an important path of healing; and, that having her pastor pray for her and her family and just be around in a spiritual presence reassured her that God was with her.

A few weeks after Daphne’s miscarriage, she was clearly still in the throes of grieving.  I knew her well enough to know that eventually she would have that big cry session.  Daphne was a more reflective person, and her grief was buckets-load more cerebral than Frank, who tended to wear his feelings on his sleeve.  As it turns out, sure enough, two months down-the-road, Daphne’s emotions caught up with her and she had her own very personal big cry session.  This brings me to my second important reality that we must keep in mind….

You cannot put a timetable on grief, especially someone else’s.

Another part of Frank’s concern was actually his own anxiety coming through.  He knew firsthand how hard it is to go through something that you never saw coming and forever changes you.  Through Daphne’s tragedy, Frank was reliving his own nightmare.  If Daphne could get through her grief, hopefully by having a good cry and getting over it, then Frank could move on and not feel so damned uncomfortable himself.  This was, of course, not a conscious reality for Frank.  But that’s what makes grief so complicated.  Other people’s grief really does affect our own lives.  If we are not in touch with our own emotions and the deep hurts within that can be triggered at a moment’s notice, then we project our anxiety and our desire for tidy resolutions onto others who are not ready to be done with their bereavement or their grief.

When we put timetables on others’ grief, it says much more about us than the person grieving.  Statements like, “It’s been two weeks, and she should be over it,” and “When is he going to stop being so depressed?” come from a place inside of the statement-maker that cannot live with other people’s pain and would like it all to be better.  My bet is that such statements belie unresolved grief and hurt from the person making them.

Wise people sit with the emotions of others, and let them feel the full brunt of their feelings.  They don’t try to push emotions off, make the grief-stricken person better, or fix them so that they aren’t unhappy anymore.  The sage person knows that you cannot hurry grief along any more than you can make a turtle do a 4.6 second 40 meter race.  Besides, last I checked, the turtle ends up winning with his slow, yet deliberate pace.

When his good friend, Lazarus, was sick Jesus waited three days before he went to him.  In the meantime, Lazarus died.  Jesus was pressured to get there immediately, to take the fast track, to stop any sort of bereavement that might take place.  But Jesus didn’t let the anxiety of others dictate his Father’s agenda.  Because he operated on his own timetable, a miracle of resurrection proportions occurred (John 11:1-44).  And even when Jesus knew what was going to happen by raising Lazarus, that didn’t stop him from slowing down even more by taking the time to grieve and sit with others’ in their grief.  “Jesus wept,” was a genuine heartfelt response to the folks around him, as well as an authentic display of his own personal grieving over his friend’s passing.

jesus wept

What’s more, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, never responded the same way to circumstances.  Whereas Mary wanted to be close to Jesus, Martha chose to work-out her frustrations in the kitchen.  Trying to pigeon-hole someone into a nice-and-neat grief to-do list never ends well for anyone.

So, how are we to grieve well when tragedy or trauma happens?  I’ve already hinted at it, but I’ll now give it to you plainly with two more realities….

You need to sit with your emotions.

When hard times come, our natural human reflexive response is to want to get away from the grief.  Feeling hard stuff hurts.  No one likes pain.  But feel we must.  Ignoring how we feel only puts emotions on hold – it doesn’t take them away.  Emotions must be felt deeply, usually over a long period of time for most people.  No one ever just “gets over” the death of a child or any other trauma.  It forever changes you.  Feeling angry, out-of-control, powerless, depressed, mentally and/or physically pained, and a whole host of other emotions can come flying at you like razor-blade arrows aimed at your heart.  Go ahead and feel them, feel them all.

Also, let others feel them, as well.  It isn’t anybody’s job to fix another person in grief.  You and I don’t heal people – that’s God’s job.

Your emotions will make a comeback in the future.

Just like the example of Frank, your emotions can get triggered by another’s grief, or even when you least expect it with seeing, hearing, or smelling something that reminds you of what you have lost.  Just because you grieved, and even grieved well, back there in the past doesn’t mean that it is a one-and-done affair.  Nope.  Not even close.  The feelings associated with that hard thing in your past can come back at the drop of a hat.  It’s okay.  Go ahead and feel them again.  Don’t short-circuit the emotions.  Coming to grips with trauma and hurt takes a lifetime of dealing with.  That’s not a popular message today; but it is certainly a true one.

I myself have had to learn the hard way that having a detached Mr. Spock-like approach to trauma only compounds the trouble.  I might not always be in touch with my emotions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel deeply.  Sometimes I need to slow down and stop long enough to feel, instead of running away from my heart.

Trauma, tragedy, and hard circumstances forever change us.  We can never go back to the way things were.  But, over time, we can learn to pay attention to our emotions, acknowledge them, and live with them as guides and friends rather than as unwanted guests.

Luke 19:41-44 – The Lament of Jesus

“As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it.  He said, ‘If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.  The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides.  They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.’” (CEB)
 
            There are Christians who believe in as much withdrawal from the world with its earthly political and cultural realm as is humanly possible this side of heaven.  There are yet others who believe in as much accommodation as possible to the world in it’s structures and society.  And, there are others who believe that the two, the world and the church, are simply two distinct realms which Christians simply move back and forth within, like taking one hat off and doffing another.
            Let’s leave that all aside for a moment and just observe the pathos of Jesus.  He came to the city of Jerusalem, a city which was both very religious and very worldly.  Jesus stood and looked affectionately and longingly at the city… and he wept.  This was not a quiet shedding of a tear.  No, the word “wept” means that Jesus openly cried aloud over the city.  Think of the kind of crying which takes place when a person is in the throes of grief.  These were great heaves of loud weeping.
            The reason Jesus was lamenting with so much feeling was that the city did not recognize they had a gracious visit from God.  The Lord looked at the city and saw all the future disaster which was coming.  He knew that it could be different, and he was emotionally undone by the city’s inability to see God right in front of their own face.
            Now let’s return to our view of the world and our involvement in it.  Taking some cues from our Lord Jesus, the first and foremost posture we are to take toward the worldly city is not separation, accommodation, or dual citizenship – it is, rather, to grieve and lament.
            The longing Jesus had in his heart was to see the city of Jerusalem annexed and incorporated into the kingdom of God.  The way of peace, of shalom on this earth, is to bring all things and all the world under the benevolent reign of God.  It is as if there are Twin Cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, who exist side-by-side but have different municipal structures.  The kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God exist next to each other.  Jesus wanted to bring the earthly kingdom into the peaceful and gracious realm of God’s kingdom.  But the people would have nothing to do with it.  Both the religious and the secular persons of the city wanted their own municipal conceptions of how things should go – and they both rejected the Christ who could bring them all true harmony.
            We are about to enter the season of Lent.  It is a time set aside in the Christian Year for repentance and preparation to receive King Jesus as our rightful benevolent ruler.  Let us lament the world full of both religious and secular people who do not recognize the time of God’s visitation.  Let it be a time to journey with Jesus and follow him in his Passion for this world and all its inhabitants.

 

Blessed Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the holy Trinity whom I serve – the world and even sometimes the church is estranged from grace – they have not recognized your gracious coming and presence.  I lament such a state of things, and ask that you, blessed Spirit may draw all people to the Savior, Jesus Christ, in whose name I pray.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:14-18

            Perhaps you feel as though you must put on a good face, a decent front for others to see.  You don’t like other people seeing you upset or cry because it can be embarrassing.  Sometimes you might even put up a front with God.  Maybe you think God wants everyone to be perpetually happy and always come to Him with joy and gladness.  That would not be an accurate view of God.
            One of the most faithful people in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah, freely and unabashedly lamented before God – to the point of wishing he were dead.  That’s right.  Jeremiah, the incredible prophet of God, was so despondent and ashamed that he wished he were never even born.  “Why did I have to be born? Was it just to suffer and die in shame?”
            To say that Jeremiah had a difficult ministry is an understatement.  He had the ministry from hell, ministering and prophesying to people who neither liked him, nor his message to them.  In the middle of it all, Jeremiah through up his hands and let out his complaint to God.  Jeremiah was in such misery doing his ministry that he wished he was stillborn.
            Jeremiah, however, is not alone in the Bible.  David had no scruples about letting God know how he felt about his dire circumstances.  Job, likely the most famous sufferer of all, spent time doing nothing but lamenting his terrible losses for months.  What all three of them have in common is that they openly grieved with great tears, but never cursed God and did not forsake Him.
            Lamentation is the sacred space between intense grieving before God without blaming Him for our losses.  I would even argue that lamenting and grieving before God is a necessary spiritual practice which needs full recognition in the Body of Christ.  Please think about that last statement, and consider how it might become a reality in your own life and context.

 

God of all, you feel deeply about a great many things.  As your people, we also feel a great depth of emotion when our lives go horribly awry from our dreams and expectations.  Hear our lament as we pour out our grief before You; through Jesus, our Savior, with the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 20:7-13

            The prophet Jeremiah had a tough gig.  God didn’t give him much choice about his life’s work.  Jeremiah was commissioned by God with a message of doom and destruction.  If that weren’t enough, God promised him that no one would respond, nobody would repent, and not one person would listen to what he had to say.
            The reality of Jeremiah’s life-work is what makes his response in our Old Testament lesson for today understandable: “Sometimes I tell myself not to think about you, LORD, or even mention your name.  But your message burns in my heart and bones, and I cannot keep silent.”
            Maybe you can relate in some small way.  It isn’t always easy talking about God to others, let alone talking about some subject pertaining to Him which other people really don’t want to hear.  Yet, as the people of God, we discover it is much more painful to keep it all inside than it is letting it out and taking the consequences as they may come.
            Or, it could be that you resonate with Jeremiah’s trying to distance himself from God.  You were hurt, wounded in some way, and no matter how hard you run away from him God is the hound of heaven that tracks you down and won’t leave you alone.
            Don’t keep silent.  Speak.  Let out what is important to you.  Ignoring it, wishing it would go away, or thinking God will eventually give-up isn’t going to happen, my friend.  Let the message burn in your heart.  Do something about it… today!

 

God Almighty, you have your ways in this world and they don’t always make sense to me.  Sticking my fingers in my ears trying to pretend you’re not there isn’t working – my heart burns within me.  So, enable me to speak with all the confidence of the message I have; through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit.  Amen.