On March 12th I was speaking in Mom to Mom with the topic: Tools to Help in Hard Times. We really had no idea what the next six months would bring as the realities of this pandemic sank in. Kids home from school, businesses closing, church not meeting. All sense of ‘normal life’ was put on hold. Retreats were cancelled, field trips, summer camps, outreaches, international summer teams, deaths, births, marriages, etc.
My mind goes to the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 as they were reflecting that things didn’t go at all like they were expecting them to. They didn’t know it was Jesus they were talking to and even thought him a bit ignorant for not knowing all that had been going on, but He invited them to share their story. They shared what had gone on then said, “But we had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.” Something shifts in our hearts when we can put words to the things that wound us. They articulated the heartache, disappointment and even despair as they looked to their future. Jesus didn’t reveal it was He they were talking to until after they were back at the house, but He had given them the gift of listening to their story of loss.
I think of my friend Peri who put so many hours towards the women’s retreat only to have it cancelled. Other friends, The Mormance’s, arrived back from Slovenia on home visit excited to connect with people only to be quarantined with their father for 3 months. These are losses that we must give ourselves permission to grieve.
The risk of moving forward and not grieving is dangerous. Unprocessed grief can cause stress in our body, which will process the loss in ways that don’t contribute towards health (high blood pressure, ulcers, etc.). I think Jesus gives us a good model for this in how He shows the pattern of withdrawing with His Father in solitude after significant events. Jesus was a man of sorrows and as we follow Him we can expect to endure as He did.
So, what is grief? It’s the psychological response to loss. It the sorrow, pain and behaviors we have while we are adjusting to a loss of something that served to define us. We can grieve the loss of people, places, work, position, role, identity, belongings, predictability and even stability.
What does it look like to grieve well? “Grieving well means remembering well.” It’s honoring every story that comes to mind about that loss. By sharing the stories of our sadness, disappointment and despair we can feel God’s comfort. This concept is why memorials are so sacred as family and friends gather to remember the life of the one lost. There is no timeline on grief and often it comes in waves that are strong. They may subside for a while then kick back up again. That is expected. A key to this is to lean into the waves when they come. To feel, to share the stories and allow them to wash over you. Tears are healing and sacred to the Lord.
Culturally, we don’t have the outward clues we once did – like wearing black – which let us know that this person has suffered something deep and is changed because of it. Careless words can be said to someone grieving that can imply that their loss ‘should’ be worked through and they can move on. Grief actually dips into a place that is slow. It’s an emotional process, a cognitive and spiritual experience. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” The invitation is giving ourselves and others permission to grieve so that it can move us towards freedom and beauty out of our brokenness.
What are the different types of loss?
Here is an explanation of seven different types of loss from the website ‘What’s Your Grief ’. It gives language around the different types for us to engage with.
1. Non-death loss: The loss of anything significant to ones physical, psychological and spiritual lives. Some will feel minor and manageable – while others feel devastating and life-altering.
2. Secondary loss: After experiencing a devastating loss, grieving people are often surprised to find there is often a ripple effect of subsequent losses. The primary loss causes such significant fractures that there is a domino effect of losses related to things like finances, friends, worldview, faith, and sense-of-self.
3. Ambiguous Loss: This happens when you’re not entirely sure who or what you’ve lost. It’s different than the grief you experience when someone you love dies. That kind of loss is finite and certain, and there’s no question you should feel plain. Ambiguous loss happens when something or someone profoundly changes or disappears. A person feels torn between hope things will return to normal and the looming sense that life as they knew it is fading away.
4. Cumulative Loss: This refers to the experience of suffering a new loss before you have the chance to grieve a first loss, or suffering multiple losses in quick succession. Grieving the death of a loved one is never really ‘done’, and it’s common for new losses to bring up memories about past losses. Some amount of this grief is almost always a given.
5. Nonfinite Loss: From childhood, people form ideas about how they hope their lives will turn out. People work towards the future they think they want and in some cases need, but many things are out of one’s control. When someone doesn’t have the child, partner, job or life they want, they many experience nonfinite grief. Nonfinite grief is something a person may carry with them for a long time as they struggle to achieve their hopes and dreams, but continually find that life falls short of their expectations.
6. Anticipatory Grief: This grief occurs before a potential loss. Anytime circumstances lead a person to think that death is a real possibility, they may start to grieve aspects of the loss. Anticipatory grief doesn’t mean that a person will grieve any less, but just process elements of the loss more slowly and overtime.
7. Disenfranchised Grief: This is when a person feels denied the right to grieve by family, friends, community members or society on the whole. When a loss is disenfranchised, it means the grieving person isn’t getting the support or validation they need. Where one person only needs validation from themselves, another person may feel they need the acknowledgement of their family or community. Regardless, the impact of disenfranchised grief is that the person experiencing it feels alienated, invalidated, ashamed, weak, etc.
I would encourage you to reflect through these different types of loss and make space to share stories from some you may have experienced or are experiencing. Journaling can help with this or sharing with a trusted friend.
The other invitation I have for you regarding grief is to write your own Psalm of Lament.
Our relationship with Jesus is the most important relationship we have in our lives. A helpful pattern for engaging deeper in our relationship with Him is to follow the ACTS + L acrostic: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication + Lament. Psalms of lament give words to our loss, grief, or despair. They are intended to move a believer from hurt to joy. This type of psalm expresses that God is present even when we cannot discern His presence due to our own sufferings. Psalm 42 and 43 are beautiful psalms of Lament. Write the stories of your specific grief and loss using that template to articulate your pain and focus on the truth of who God is.
Give yourself permission to engage in your stories of loss so you can live in the freedom Jesus already died to give you. In Matthew 11 Jesus invites us, “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”