Updated: Mar 9, 2021
My mom had been crying all morning. My dad was doing his best to console her, but nothing could stop the tears from flowing. As we walked toward the small, one room, country church I couldn’t help but notice my mom wasn’t the only person crying. It seemed everyone had a tissue in hand with which they continually dabbed their eyes. At nine years old, I was too young to fully understand what was going on. All I really knew was that after that day, I wasn’t going to see my grandpa anymore. The thought of never being with him again made my heart ache as tears welled in my own eyes.
As we entered the church the view in front of me exploded with color. I’d never seen so many flowers. At the front of the church, in the midst of the profusion of flora, I saw a large bronze casket and my grandfather. We made our way forward to pay our last respects. The closer we got to the casket the more violently my mother wept. Her legs seemed to falter under the weight of her grief. I was physically feeling her anguish along with my own. With all my heart I wanted to make the pain go away - to wave a magic wand and suddenly have my grandpa back with us. In reality there was nothing I could do to make it go away.
Over the past two weeks many in our church have experienced such physically intense grief. The loss of two young lives in a tragic accident has pushed us into that place of grief. How do we deal with what we are experiencing? How do we get through it?
Grief is a very real part of life. The intensity of our grief may vary based upon our closeness to those who have passed away, or the circumstances surrounding their death. Regardless of the reason for our sorrow, or the intensity of our heartache, we must not be afraid to grieve and to allow these responses to run their course.
We must, however, guard against allowing our grief to slide into a state of depression or despair, which we’ll define as loss without hope. The book of Ecclesiastes says there is, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” (Ecclesiastes 3:4 KJV). Grief is a complex emotion usually accompanied by a myriad of other emotions such as anger, bitterness, self-pity, guilt and fear. Because of its complexity grief can take considerable time to work through. Some studies have shown that the average length for serious grieving is two to four months. The average or “normal” length of time to mourn is, however, difficult to define because every situation is different, and every person is unique. As you go through your grief journey several steps are crucial to enabling you to grieve your loss without slipping into despair.
1) Recognize Grief is a Process
Grief is a process or journey. The key is to keep moving forward without rushing yourself through your grief. As C.S. Lewis once said, “We do not get over grief, we get through grief.” When we become stymied in our grief, we run the risk of slipping into despair and depression. In Psalm 23:4a David says, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,…” David is walking “through” the valley. He doesn’t set up camp in the valley of the shadow of death. We must keep moving forward through the grief process without rushing ourselves.
Others may categorize the stages of grief somewhat differently but here are four distinct stages that I’ve observed during grief. We’ll call the first stage traumatization. This stage is characterized by a feeling of numbness and confusion. In this stage one may also experience anger and fear accompanied by a deep hurt. The second stage is bereavement, characterized by a deep feeling of loss which can be accompanied by fatigue, loss of appetite, isolation and weeping. The third stage is coping. In this stage we come to accept our situation and our life began to move toward “normalcy”. The fourth and final stage is renewal. This stage is characterized by a renewed commitment to God and the life He’s given us to lead.
2) Focus on the Right Actions
A proper focus can help maintain a healthy progression through grief. Growing up, I was a sprinter on the track team. One of the fundamentals I was taught was to stay focused on the finish line: Don’t become preoccupied with the runners in the lanes next to you or the portion of the track behind you. Press toward the finish line. Focus on what is in front of you. That’s great advice for those struggling with grief. The slippery slope from grief to depression can be navigated successfully by keeping our focus on the right things. Keep your focus on Jesus and the race He has for you to run (Hebrews 12:1-3). During grief we live through a time of great loss, have many unanswered questions, but ultimately realize God is still on the throne. We must decide to make Him our focus rather than our situation.
3) Be thankful for the time you had
When we find ourselves slipping into despair because we miss our loved one, we must shift our focus to being thankful for the good times we had with them. Don’t lament the opportunities that were lost but rejoice in the time you were giving. Cherish those precious memories. Philippians 4:8 challenges us to shift our focus to things that are honest, just, pure, lovely, good, virtuous, and praiseworthy. Think on those things!
Grief is sometimes accompanied by regret. We are remorseful over opportunities we missed with the loved one who has passed away. Unfortunately, these lost moments cannot be undone. They can, however, fuel our future relationships. Rather than allowing regrets about your past to pull you down into despair, let them lift you up to a renewed commitment to do things differently moving forward. Follow the example Paul gives in Philippians 3:13-14 “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Being a believer in Christ does not exempt you from grief, mourning, or sorrow. However, it is not a hopeless sorrow. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 “But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” In Christ we have the hope of eternal life. We can take great comfort in knowing that we will one day be reunited with our loved ones and spend eternity basking in the glorious presence of our Savior, Jesus Christ.