The lost art of grief

Loss.  It’s a difficult word but one that might come to mind as the holidays approach.  Many of us relive the pain of lost loved ones in this season as memories are unavoidably rekindled.  For others, the last year or two have been a context of loss for us.  Pandemic life has led to a loss of friendships, income, security, momentum, and dreams.

Grief can be defined as the process by which a person experiences and recovers from loss.  It is a natural emotion.  However, we live in a culture that often has no place for grief and mourning.  It is uncomfortable and awkward to sit with a person whose life has been destroyed.  We don’t know what to say or do.  If we are the one grieving, it is all too easy to medicate or avoid grief because it is too painful.  The good doctor will prescribe you and I plenty of things to numb our brains so that we don’t have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

As difficult as it is, we must grieve.  To not is to stunt the healing process that this experience allows.  The Bible gives you and I permission to grieve.  Jesus wept for his dead friend and agonized in the garden.  Moses wished he were not alive.  David wanted to fly away like a bird.

In the Bible a man named Job, perhaps the “poster child” for grief, was unashamedly miserable.  He did everything right and still lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his health.  Through studying his life we see a pattern that might serve as a guide as we too encounter loss and grief.  His experiences match the modern named stages of the grief process.  They are: The event, shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and recovery.

The grief event is, simply, a loss.  Job lost his sons, daughters, friends, farm, and health.  Most of us can relate in some way.  Perhaps we recently lost a family member.  Divorce, retirement, bankruptcy are all loss events.  Moving from one’s home of many years brings a sense of loss.

Shock and denial are next.  Job’s wife told him to curse God and die.  His friends did not recognize him in his grief.  This points to the power of loss in our lives – it alienates us from those we love.  In our shock everything seems to be up in the air, and nothing makes sense.

Following shock is a stage of anger and intense emotion.  We might be angry at ourselves, or others, or God for the things that have unexpectedly come upon us.  Job becomes so emotional that he curses the day of his birth.  Emotions are good and normal at this stage, and God is not scared of them.  Job even blamed God for his trouble, something which I doubt bothered God much at all.

Next comes guilt and bargaining.  Job wondered what he did to deserve his horrible plight.  We might rehearse the past over and over, trying to make sense of our new normal.  But in grief, all bargaining seems to lead us nowhere except back to our pain.

A large part of the grief experience finds us sitting in the next stage – depression.  Misery and loneliness are our only companions here.  This is where it is critical that we do not abandon the grief process.  Job lamented, “Just let me die.”  That might be a normal response to the pain of loss.  Depression sets in when all of our arguments are nil and we run out of attempts to cope.  All we can do is accept and surrender to our circumstance and loss.  C.S. Lewis says it plainly in his masterful work on this subject titled A Grief Observed: “All you can do with your suffering is suffer through it.”

But there is light ahead.  After forty-two chapters Job reconciles that he will live with a question mark over his life.  He tells God, “I don’t understand, and I am okay with that.”  For him and us, acceptance means that rather than “get over” or “move beyond” our pain we have allowed it to become part of who we are and are ready to accept that reality.

From this recovery a new person emerges – quieter, more resolved, perhaps limping.  Pain is a great teacher.  It allows us to appreciate what is.  It creates compassion in us for others who are hurting.  It produces in us strength we did not know we had.

In this season, may you find comfort in your grief as you look to the God who bears all our sorrows and offers us new strength in our times of weakness.

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