[A previous version of this article focused on the losses and grief Missionaries’ Kids experience. It can be found here. This version explores the same topic from the perspective of a broader population, as life can be brutal and none of us are immune to pain.]
This article is not a nine-step plan detailing how to move on from grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer that to you, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of our grief that understanding and growth reside. That “center” is intimately known by so many of us. Life is full of small-t and big-T traumas that cannot be avoided. Disappointment, injustice, betrayal, abandonment, neglect, failure, crushed hope, abuse, broken relationships, illness, death… They accumulate over time, and—left unadressed—they influence our outlook, our self-perception, our faith, our relationships and our ability to function.
Yet as Christians, we’re often in too much of a hurry to put the Hard behind us, maybe so we can get to those “acceptable” stages of praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.
Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find ways to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over us to increase.
When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the hardships we’ve survived.
So this article is not about methods for circumventing pain. What I’m offering here is a few suggestions for managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and consequences of our grief.
1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see grief as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience a shards of loss tear into us.
There is no such thing as benign pain. All pain leaves a mark. And pain, if not dealt with early, has a cumulative effect. It can be a haunting, destabilizing force that makes us feel off-kilter and incapable. Yes, grief can be debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love what we’ve lost. It is a beacon pointed at injustice. A roadmap to the deep places we still need to explore. A wound that will, in time, serve as a warning, a sacred remembrance, or the impetus to rescue those who face what we’ve survived.
Grief is both a wounder and a teacher. A severer and a connector. It may take a while for us to recognize its benevolence while we writhe in the center of its trauma, but knowing it will become benevolent in time can add a faint sliver of hope to our dark days of suffering.
2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.
We may think we’re being expedient when we try to ignore it or live above it. This allows us to function and move on more easily, but it also leaves the darkness of our losses anchored to our life’s perspective.
Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release.
If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.
3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.
What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” I picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting loosely on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision. It’s still there. I’m still aware that I will need to go back and pay attention to it. I’ll still hear it if it calls out. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach and breathing.
Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.
(Note: there may be moments, especially in the immediate aftermath of pain, when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved.” There is nothing wrong or weak about that. It is part of the process too.)
4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
We cannot process grief alone. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote, “Grief must be witnessed in order to be healed.”
But people around us—even those who dearly love us—may not know how deeply we’re suffering. That means in may fall on us, with the last ounces of fortitude we possess, to be the ones who reach out and ask to speak. The person to whom we reveal our pain needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.
Consider professional help too. Therapy can be something of a taboo subject in some circles—seen as evidence of weakness or lack fo faith. But here’s the thing:
Grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark water may not be able to extricate himself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.
That’s who therapists are. They’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need in order to overcome.
5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place.
God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of coping mechanisms.
His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances might have.
I need to add this: if you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t placed me there…” “If you had protected me…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into our tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.
There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis has passed, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for.
He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.
Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Jesus Christ.
6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost ourselves in the pain, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before abandonment, before the desertland of suffering alone.
You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in the aftermath of what has devastated you.
It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself regularly of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.
7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience to be found in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: read, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.
Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.
One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.
8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. Science has proven its beneficial impact on our brain function. It can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.
The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.
Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the Hard that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.
Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that there is “hope and a future.”
It may take a while, but as you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.
You’ll discover that though you may have lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your pain.
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