Grief hits us all at different times in life, in different circumstances, and in a variety of ways. I am blessed to have married a woman who is incredibly wise, and nowhere is this more obvious than in that she has grieved well the enormous loss of her first husband to brain cancer. She would never admit it, but she continues to navigate grief with wisdom and grace. Here’s a few things she is teaching me about grief and the grief process:
1. Everyone is grieving something.
While some losses are catastrophic, like the loss of a loved one, others are smaller, less monumental. Maybe you are grieving the loss of a life you expected to live, or the loss of your singleness (!), or the loss of a relationship that ended, but we have all experienced losses, and if you haven’t, just wait a little bit longer in life. That’s because life is a series of losses. You could even argue that what binds us together most strongly as human beings are the losses we carry. No doubt God works through our losses and we gain other good things, but that doesn’t negate the value of what we lost. We ought to treat people with kindness, understanding that grief hits everyone, and each loss affects us all differently.
2. Grief comes in waves…learn to surf.
You can never predict when its going to happen. It will hit sometimes at the most inopportune or unexpected moments. We went and saw the movie Ford vs. Ferrari (2019), and (spoiler alert) at the end of the movie, Carroll Shelby is sitting in his car outside his friend Ken Miles (Christian Bale) home, after Miles died in a car crash. My wife grabbed my arm as the camera zoomed in on the breathless face and tear-filled eyes of Shelby, remembering his lost friend. It was such a poignant depiction of the sudden ache of loss, that neither of us could help but be reminded of our losses. Grief often comes in waves that crash on the shore of our minds in a moment, and then subside, not knowing when they will return. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling. Find a trusted friend to process with. Surf the waves. Some may throw you to the ground, but some you may learn to surf, leading you to a deeper gratitude for life.
3. It’s okay to cuss.
I remember an interview where Eugene Peterson on the Psalms of Lament where he said something like “the reason the Psalms are so important is because they give us a way to cuss without sinning” or something like that. We need permission to be honest with God. We need permission to feel the things we are feeling, be it sadness, fear, anger, depression, or frustration. Unfortunately often the clichés of Christian culture can leave people feeling pressure to read from the “Christian script” when they’re dealing with grief – saying things like “God’s got a plan in this,” or “you’ll get through this,” or even quoting bible verses like “we grieve, but not as those without hope.” But such statements, while often true, are unhelpful for folks trying to navigate the complicated emotions of the grief process. Thankfully the Bible is full of examples of lament – the language of anger and tears – that gives God’s people permission to express our anger to God. My wife says “its possible to have questions and be angry with God and still have a strong faith.”
4. It’s possible to hold both BIG grief and BIG joy at the same time.
We are living a surreal reality in our household. My son was born in May, and he is one of the greatest joys of my life. Yet behind that joy, deep down, I know, that the only reason he is here is because someone else died. Someone else’s baby. Someone else’s dad. Someone’s husband. It’s a surreal thought. It occurs to me that life is like that – we hold both sorrow and joy at the same time. J. R. R. Tolkien, in the book Silmarillion, reminds the readers summarizing the tragic saga of the lost glory of the elves: “If joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomable at the foundations of the earth.”
Jerry Sittser, who wrote an incredible book called A Grace Disguised about his grief process following the loss of his wife, mother, and daughter all at the same time in a car crash says that underneath grief is great love. The reason we grieve is because we loved so strongly. So closely related are sorrow and joy, but often its hard to see the happy when you’re in the middle of grief. My wife says “make a list of 3 things you’re grateful for every day.” As hard as it can be, it reminds you of the joy and beauty that still surrounds you in the midst of your loss. She also says “No feeling is bad. God created them all.”
5. Don’t compare your grief with other peoples’ grief.
Immediately following the accident that took the lives of his mother, his wife, and daughter, Sitters writes:
“We tend to quantify and compare suffering and loss. we talk about the numbers killed, the length of time spent in the hospital, the severity of abuse, the degree of family dysfunction, the difficulty and inconvenience of illness, the complexity of details during a divorce, or the strings of bad luck. I have done so myself. After the accident I found myself for the first time on the receiving end of this process. The newspapers covered the story for several days running. I received hundreds of telephone calls, thousands of cards and letters. I became an instant celebrity—someone whose loss could not be imagined or surpassed. consequently, I often heard comments like, “three generations killed in one accident!” or, “all the important women in your life gone, except for poor Catherine!” and most frequently, “I know people who have suffered, but nothing compared to you. yours is the worst loss I have ever heard about.” but I question whether experiences of such severe loss can be quantified and compared. loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. all losses are bad, only bad in different ways. no two losses are ever the same. each loss stands on its own and inflicts a unique kind of pain.”
All of us have losses, and its useless to compare them. Loss is loss. Some is catastrophic and permanent, and others are temporary but still painful.
6. You’ll never get over it.
The losses of our lives will stay with us forever. We will never “get over” them. It may change and soften with time, but it will always be with you. Learn to befriend the memories of loss. Invest in counseling to help you continue to develop ways of navigating grief in a healthy way. You will never get over your grief, but my wife says “wait until you’re ready, and then one day you are able to look into the future and not be completely terrified and that’s when you can start to dream and make goals.” We are not promised that our pains will be healed any time this side of eternity. But, as Christians, this is why we stake all of our hope on the resurrection of Jesus – who conquered death once and for all, and who has gone to prepare a place for his followers. A glorious future awaits where tears will be wiped away and every loss will be made right, and will be better for having once been broken. While this sounds cliché and ethereal to those in the midst of loss, without Christ, only sorrow awaits. So we wait, and we hope.
The Grief Process Explained:
Luke is a pastor at Legacy Christian Church in Kansas City. Luke is committed to telling and retelling the story of Jesus in a way that captures the wonder of God and moves people towards amazement at His crazy love for them through preaching, teaching, and writing. He is married to the love of his life, Shanna. For nearly two decades Luke has been in ministry and has watched God work powerfully in his life and in the lives of others, and continues to draw great joy from sharing the good news of Jesus with people that have never heard as often as he gets the chance.
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