For godly grief produces a repentance
that leads to salvation without regret,
whereas worldly grief produces death.
(2 Cor 7:10)
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
About half of the patients I visited with in the emergency room during my time at Providence Hospital suffered physical maladies as a consequence of unresolved grief. Presenting diagnoses, such as backaches, strokes, heart attacks, failed psychiatric medicines, suicides, addictions, obesity, and head aches, often resulted from unresolved grief over the loss of a close family member. In such cases, treating the presenting ailment proved secondary to helping them cope with their loss.
American society does not cope with grief adequately. In a strong sense, we mask our grief with physical ailments to garner support that would otherwise be withheld. Supporting the grieving in their mourning can therefore promote both their emotional and physical well-being.
The tension that we feel within ourselves when we mourn forces us to make a decision. Do we lean into our pain or turn it over to God? Standing under the shadow of the cross at Gethsemane, Jesus had to decide whether to be obedient to the will of God and proceed to the cross or to seek another future (Matt 26:42).
Because of the ubiquitous nature of pain and the decision it poses, our response over time to grief defines our character—who we become. It is interesting that grief is the only emotion that appears on the list of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matt 5:4).
Widening Our View of Grief
Our grief arises out of the loss of the things that are important to us. In writing about the second Beatitude, Graham (1955, 20-26) identified five objects of mourning:
- Inadequacy—before you can grow strong, you must recognize your own weakness;
- Repentance—before you can ask for repentance, you must recognize your sin;
- Love—our compassion for the suffering of our brothers and sisters takes the form of mourning and measures our love of God;
- Soul travail—groaning for the salvation of the lost around us; and
- Bereavement—mourning over those that have passed away.
Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 36-45) widen this list to identify six major types of loss, including: 1. Material loss; 2. Relationship loss; 3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream; 4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy; 5. Role loss—like retirement; and 6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin.
What is surprising about this list is that each loss must be separately grieved. Elderly people find themselves experiencing many of these losses and grieving them surrounded by loved ones who may be completely unaware. But we all face losses in our daily lives that challenge the assumptions that we live by. With each of these events, we find ourselves in a “Gethsemane moment.” Do we surrender ourselves leaning into our pain or do we surrender our griefs at the foot of the cross and stay the course as disciples of Christ?
Ministering to Those in Pain
Do you give grieving people permission to grieve? Or do you try to sweep grief under the rug? VanDuivendyk (2006, 12) observes:
So many well-meaning friends and loved ones may try to cheer us up rather than just be with us in our sadness. Rather than help us grieve through and talk out our pain, they may attempt to talk us out of pain. Rather than be sojourners with us in the wilderness, they may attempt to find us a shortcut. Jesus openly cried over Lazarus and the widow’s son, and raised them both from the dead even though no words of faith were spoken (John 11:1-46; Luke 7:11-17), suggesting that we have permission to mourn rather emulating the stoics with their stiff upper lip.
Worden (2009, 39-50) sees the process of grief as divided into four tasks:
- Accepting the reality of the loss,
- Working through the pain,
- Adjusting to a world without the deceased, and
- Finding connection with the deceased while moving on.
The first task is to get beyond denial—a funeral with an open casket helps mourners get over the denial. The second task has to deal with the pain that may be accompanied by anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. The third task is to account for all the activities that the deceased shared with you and to find alternative arrangements. The fourth task is the re-evaluate your relationship with the deceased while moving on.
Unresolved grief—getting stuck in one of the tasks above—results in anxiety attacks and physical ailments when people refuse to honor their pain and are forced to pretend that it does not exist. American culture is complicit in promoting unresolved grief because co-workers, neighbors, and friends often give a grieving spouse or parent about two weeks before signaling that something is wrong if you are not over it. This is why it is important to give the grieving permission to grieve in the funeral to signal to their support group that two weeks is unlikely to be a sufficient period to complete the tasks of grieving.
Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.
Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
VanDuivendyk, Tim P. 2006. The Unwanted Gift of Grief: A Ministry Approach. New York: Haworth Press Inc.
Worden, J. William. 2009. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practioner. New York: Springer.
Other ways to engage online:
Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.