Grieving–Part 1

Grieving a loss is a universal experience. We all suffer pain at the loss of someone we love. And no matter how ‘prepared’ you might be (illness, service in war) you are never really ready for the actual experience and ‘finality’ of death. Why does death affect you the way it does? Although you cognitively know about death, you react to the emotional ‘cut off’ of the relationship—that reflection and exchange of love is no longer there. And it feels devastating.

Even animals react to death in surprisingly emotional ways. There are examples of elephants and gorillas showing incredibly ‘human’ attitudes towards a deceased infant or parent. In one case I saw on a PBS special, a mother elephant risked losing the herd (because they moved on) by staying 2 days with a dead baby. In this case, a sibling of the dead baby elephant went back and forth, trying to decide whether to stay with the mother and dead baby, or move forward with the herd. You could actually see the indecision, the looming sense of loss, and the battle within. The mother elephant was restless and ‘lost’ in her behavior. She nudged the dead baby, and behaved in what I would call a ‘distressed’ way.

If animals are capable of these kinds of behaviors, it should be no surprise that the death of someone you love would have a tremendous effect on you. Life changes completely. The closer someone is to you—the more intimately connected you are to him—the deeper the sense of loss you experience. It is no wonder then, that the death of a parent, a child, or a spouse can feel devastating.

The intimacy in a relationship affects the depth of loss you feel. When we have emotional intimacy with someone, the exchange of love and life experience gives you a predictable, safe, and positive reflection about yourself—who you are, who and what you love, what you experience in life. A certain amount of your own significance is found in the person who will no longer be in your life. Naturally you will miss that person. But involved in that ‘missing’ is also the reflection of who you are. This is why people can feel ‘lost’ and disoriented. You have to learn a whole new way of ‘being’ without this person in your life, understanding who you are without that particular exchange, without your role identity with that person. This is why this task can feel so overwhelming for a spouse who is widowed: after so many years of being ‘connected’ and sharing life through the lenses of a spouse, learning to see life without the ‘other’ feels totally foreign.

There is a fairly predictable process of grieving you experience, because you are part of the human condition—being a fallen creature of God. In this world, when a connection with someone you love is disconnected, you must find a way to live in this world without that connection. A ‘standard’ in the therapeutic community for understanding the process of loss comes from the studies of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. This theory of loss was actually intended to describe the steps for someone who is dying, someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, and whose task is to accept what is happening beyond her control. Therapeutically speaking, these stages have worthy application to the process of grief for one who is losing someone to a terminal illness. I will save the actual description and process of these stages for another blog; right now, I want to explain that there is a process, and some generalities about that process.

The process of loss involves the task, over time, to integrate the loss into your life. One theory describes it this way: prior to the loss, your life is Organized; with the loss, your life becomes Chaotic and Disorganized; over time, through the grief process, your life will become Reorganized, returning you to a homeostasis of being. Note that your world after you process your grief is Reorganized. That is, it is and will not be, the same as it was prior to the loss, but it will be reconfigured so that your world is ‘stable’ despite its being unhappily different.

So how do you process through grief? I will speak to this on the next blog. But let me say this to start: you confront in depth how you relate to God when you go through a deep loss. I once held God at arm’s length in my experience of a sudden loss. I was so hurt and angry, I couldn’t (or was it ‘wouldn’t’?) even talk to Him. I withdrew from instead of reached for Him, which made my sorrow prolonged and isolated. And when I finally confronted Him in helpless desperation, it became clear that I had made it harder, because He was there all along. That didn’t change the hurt, but it allowed me to lean on Him and cry my heart out. I discovered He could be trusted, even though something had happened in my life which broke my heart. Those two things don’t feel right together, but as your love and relationship with Christ grows, you realize no matter what happens, He is the same trustworthy God, and He sustains you through it all as you allow Him.

In the next blog, I will talk a bit more about this process of grief. May He bring comfort to you if you are suffering a loss.