Grief is the word we use referring to the variety of emotions we feel when dealing with loss. There are generally three kinds of events that can cause grief: The first is when someone close to us dies; the second is when we lose anything at all; the third is when we don’t receive something we were expecting. The most obvious cause of grief is when someone dies, but it also happens when our pet dies, we lose a job, fail a class, don’t get picked for a team, or realize our child is growing up. Any time we suffer a loss, we experience grief.
Some might notice that I included “realizing our child is growing up” in the list of things that we experience grief over. That’s because growing up means leaving the past. And leaving the past involves losing the past. When children grow up, they leave their parents’ home. That is a time of loss in the home, causing a type of grief. This means that we can experience grief when anything new happens. The Bible tells us that when new things come, old things pass away (1 Cor. 13:10). And when old things pass away, we can experience the collection of emotions we call grief.
The intensity of our grief is determined partly by our personality. What I mean by this is that some people are more emotional than others. Some wear their emotions on their sleeve. We know exactly what they are feeling at any given moment and when anything unusual happens they react with very strong emotion. Other people don’t react to changes in the same manner. They simply take them in stride and continue on as usual; as if nothing happened. When these two people experience loss, they both experience grief, but their reactions are different.
There is another determiner of how people react to loss. This has to do with the spiritual state of the one who is grieving. As I said above, Grief always accompanies loss, but how one lives through the grief changes depending on where a person’s hope, trust, and faith lies. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her bookDeath and Dying, listed five phases or stages that people go through in the process of grieving.
Denial is the first stage:
At first people can’t believe the loss has occurred; denying that it has happened. They say things like, “I can’t believe it happened”, or they try to live as if nothing has changed. They continue on with their life, ignoring or trying to ignore the empty room.
The second stage is anger:
When in this stage, people get angry with God or anyone else they think is responsible for their loss. They might say or think things like, “I can’t believe you did this to me?” “Who do you think you are?” or “Why me? Why now? I don’t deserve this kind of treatment?” If they aren’t careful, this anger can turn into lifelong, debilitating bitterness. If “stuck” in this stage, these people may spend the rest of their life bitter and angry.
Kubler-Ross’ third step is bargaining:
Someone in this stage would be tempted to say, “If you’ll give me back my life, I’ll do this or that for you.” The goal of this stage is to try to get back to ‘normal’ by any means possible. People think God or the responsible person can “fix” the situation and the sufferer tries to coerce, or arrange some kind of deal to give them back what has been lost.
Stage four is depression:
When the reality of the situation has finally sunk in, it brings great sadness. This sadness can be accompanied by despair and hopelessness. When sadness actually becomes hopelessness, depression is the result. Depression left alone, can cause all kinds of physical, mental and spiritual changes, including more depression and ultimately suicidal thoughts and actions.
Finally, stage five—acceptance:
After all is said and done, this person finally acknowledges the loss, moves beyond the sadness, looks to the future and calmly goes on with life.
It should be pointed out that according to Kubler-Ross these stages are not distinctive stages. They are fluid and overlapping. A person living in grief, can experience any one of these stages in any order and sometimes they might live with or in more than one at a time. And everyone acknowledges that grief comes in waves, rolling over us, knocking us around, messing up our hair. For example, one minute a woman might deny that her husband died, the next she is trying to fix things by going through motions meant to bring him back, the next she is angry that he left her, and then depressed because she misses him so much. It comes in waves, and fits and starts.
It is good to note that Kubler-Ross was observing mostly non-Christians who are struggling to overcome grief. Non-Christians view everything from their own personal, self-centered perspective. They view everything as necessarily happening to them—everything is a personal affront to them. For the person who knows nothing about forgiveness, mercy, hope, and love, there can never be a complete recovery. For the person who does not know God, they will be caught in a quagmire of conflicting emotions from which they can never completely recover. This is why when bombarded by loss, people retreat further and further inside themselves. They lose their zest for life, their spunk, and their joy of living. But, there is a better way.
Christians believe that all things work together for good for those who know God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). We know that God is in everything. Nothing happens outside of his knowledge and outside of him actually doing it (Gen 50:20). We have lost what we lost because God took it away from us, for his reasons. This needs to be the base or the foundation for all of our lives. God is God. God gives and God takes away (Job 1:21). God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). God does what he does for his glory and our good (Heb. 13:21). God is a loving God, doing what he’s doing for a good purpose (Rom. 8:28).
When we live with this basic understanding, we are free to react to loss and the sadness of loss in a different way than those who do now know God.
First, when things are taken away from us, or not given to us, we can freely acknowledge the loss. We can say, “Yes, I had a great and wonderful mother, but God thought it better that she go to be with him than to be with me and I am happy with his choice. I will miss her terribly, she was a great mother and loved me well all these years. I am sad, but I know that God was in it for his glory.” This understanding and acknowledgement of the reality of life does not mean that I am sticking my head in a hole. It simply means I am recognizing the way God made the world and he is actively involved in the world. I am not God, God is.
Second, this foundation also does not mean that I don’t get to ask about what is going on. The Biblical characters cried out to God for answers all the time. For example, the psalmist said, “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember, as I pour out my soul…Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you” (Psa 42:3-6). “Where are you God? I’m suffering here. Things have been taken from me.” Or consider Job. He cried out to God asking why this was happening to him. And God came to him with an answer (Job 40ff.). Psalm 88 is a psalm of complaint. It even ends with the famous phrase “darkness is my closest friend (v. 18, NIV).
A third response to loss for a Christian is to go ahead and ask God for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking God using the emotions we are experiencing. We don’t need to try to bargain with God, what’s done is done. But God wants us to come to him, to seek him out, with our complaints, longings, and feelings. God can handle our anger, our shame, our guilt, our fears, and our sadness. God loves us and wants us to come to him with our concerns. To those who are needy, burdened by loads too heavy to bear, sad beyond life itself, Jesus said “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30). When we experience loss it is the exact time we are supposed to bring our cares and concerns to Jesus.
A fourth response we should have is to gladly receive the help God gives. Let God give you comfort. Let God bring his saints alongside you and give you peace. Let God’s people be near you in your time of need so that their joy in knowing and loving God can “rub” off on you and lift you up. A good bearer of God’s comfort will not say much if anything to you, they simply need to be there; to feed you; to care for you; to do for you what you are too weak to do for yourself. Let them – let God work through them.
One of the primary temptations that accompany sadness is to despair and to embrace hopelessness. Let God turn your sadness into dancing. Let him turn your hopelessness into hope. You know, as your foundation, that God loves you and loves your past and your future. Whatever he has taken away from you he took for good. Believe that, put your hope in that, trust in the one who loves you. Ask God to give you the same mind that Paul had when he realized that God’s answer was the right and best one. It may be God’s answer to you as well.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Once you believe in God’s love and his hand in your life, you can turn your gaze away from the loss and look forward to the next act in the story that is your life. Your hope will be restored and your joy will be renewed. And this is the fifth response; take your time with this one, but not too much time. You’ve been through a great deal. You’ve lost something or someone that was special to you. You’ve acknowledged that the God who loves you, the God who created the universe, has given you this predicament as a gift to you. You probably do not understand it, you didn’t want it, you are still saddened by it, but you know that God is in it and your soul is satisfied. Now you can turn to ministering to others. Now you can share your life with others. You can remember with joy the thing or person you lost, but now do something with this experience. Turn and share your new life with others who are suffering in the same way you are or were, just the other day. Now you can invest your life in others who are struggling to walk with God. You can, by your experience and practice, carry others along with you to the throne of God and rejoice with them there.
I hope this helps.
The first four Biblical responses were borrowed from Robert Kellemen, Soul Physicians p. 291ff.