Grief is a deep emotional response to a great loss. It is important that we allow ourselves the human experience of grief in response to real losses, such as the death of a loved one, divorce or separation, breakup with a significant other, loss of anything meaningful to a person, or other considerable losses in adulthood or childhood. Losses might include loss of innocence or virginity, loss of safety, loss of possessions, loss of friends when making a move, postabortion syndrome, miscarriage, loss of a job, children growing up and moving, losing friends and teachers, loss of control, or losses related to retirement.
Grieving a significant loss takes time. Depending on the circumstances, it will be necessary for those in supportive roles and those grieving to be gentle with themselves, as the process can take weeks to years. Grieving helps a person gradually adjust to a new chapter of life. Full awareness of a significant loss can happen suddenly or over a few days or weeks. While expected loss (such as a death after a long illness) can take a shorter time to absorb because it is anticipated, a sudden or tragic loss can take more time. Similarly, it can take time to grasp the reality of a loss that doesn’t affect one’s daily routine, such as a death far away. During this time a person may feel numb, seem distracted, and may obsess or yearn for the lost loved one. Funerals and other rituals may help one accept the reality of one’s loss.
Everyone Is Unique
A person’s way of feeling and expressing grief is unique to them and the nature of their loss. Some may feel irritable and restless, while others are quieter than usual or need to be distant from or close to others. Some feel they aren’t the same person they were before the loss. Don’t be surprised by conflicting feelings while grieving. For example, feeling both despair (about a death or job loss) and relief is expected.
The grieving process does not happen in a step-by-step, orderly fashion. Grieving tends to be unpredictable, with sad thoughts and feelings coming and going like a roller-coaster ride. After the early days of mourning, one may sense a lifting of numbness or sadness and experience a few days without tears. Then, for no apparent reason, the intense grief may strike again. It is important to note that mourning that brings healing doesn’t bypass any part of the grief process. It calls forth anger and sorrow and prompts hard questions and gut-level honesty. It takes the person into and through each wave of grief.
While grieving may make one want to isolate themselves from others and hold it all in, it’s essential that they find some way of expressing their grief. Talking, writing, creating art or music, or being physically active are all helpful ways of dealing with grief.
There are several gifts associated with going through a grief process. The greatest gift is receiving God’s comfort. A person who chooses to stuff or ignore their grief misses out on that greatest of gifts. Another gift that grieving brings is a person gradually getting to the place of letting go of what was taken from them or what (they now realize) was never theirs to begin with.
The Grief Process
Several years ago Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, described grief in stages. While we have learned more recently that grief does not always occur in easily definable stages, it is helpful to know the typical process that most people experience when they grieve.
Denial, numbness, and shock: This stage protects the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss. It may be helpful when the grieving person must act (for example, making funeral arrangements). Numbness is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with a lack of caring. As the individual slowly acknowledges the impact of the loss, denial and disbelief will diminish.
Bargaining: This stage may involve persistent thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss. People can become preoccupied with ways that things could have been better. Intense remorse or guilt may interfere with the healing process if this stage is not adequately resolved.
Depression: This stage of grief occurs in some people after they realize the true extent of the loss. Signs of depression may include sleep and appetite disturbances, a lack of energy and concentration, and crying spells. A person may feel loneliness, emptiness, isolation, and self-pity.
Anger: This reaction usually occurs when an individual feels helpless and powerless. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment through a loved one’s death. An individual may be angry at the person who died, at God, or toward life in general.
Acceptance: In time, an individual may be able to come to terms with various feelings and accept the fact that the loss has occurred. Healing can begin once the loss integrates into the individual’s life experiences.
Adjusting to a new reality: A person moves forward to a life in which what or who they lost is no longer present, and adjusts to enjoying other relationships. The mourner and their support system need to be willing to practice empathy in navigating a “new normal.”
How to Be Helpful
It is essential to allow a person to have their grief process and not try to “fix” them. Often the most helpful thing to do is simply to listen empathically, that is, with all your attention and focus, as if that person were the only person in the world. The “ministry of presence” can be helpful. Just being there with them helps to soothe feelings of loss and loneliness.
Be attentive to providing support after the immediate loss, as it will continue to be needed. Show respect and honor to the deceased (in the case of death). Examples might include tying a black ribbon where the person may have routinely sat in church, or remembering “firsts.” Firsts refer to significant first holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries related to the loss. Anniversaries can be full of bittersweet memories. Also, pay attention to practical needs, such as meals, shopping, or mowing the lawn. The most important way that a grieving person can be helped is through sincere, heartfelt prayer. God is the God of all comfort who comforts people in their pain (2 Cor. 1:1-4). As we are with grieving ones by both our presence and prayer, God moves powerfully in their lives to soothe their pain. Another powerful biblical reality is described in Isaiah 63:9: “In all their suffering he also suffered” (NLT).* Jesus gives the ministry of presence and also of feeling the person’s pain, experiencing their loss with them. He is the ultimate source of empathy, the one who never fails to soothe as we open our hearts to receive what He alone can give.
* Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.