From Gasping to Growing Through Grief
Part of mental health is how well the mind processes and understands information and experiences. In contrast, emotional health involves the ability to manage and express the emotions that arise from what we have experienced. By definition, grief is an emotional process of coping with a loss.
As Believers we know that “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21b). The same writer, the Apostle Paul, also encourages us “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:13b-14)”. And yet our faith in Christ comfort nor his resurrecting power was ever intended to prevent the necessary process of grief.
As an emotional process, grief can affect our thinking and emotions which in turn may affect our behavior and relationships. Memory lapses, anxiety, lack of appetite and sleeplessness may be common while grieving. However, grief reaches beyond our mental and relational health, it can also adversely impact our physical health. Exhaustion, chronic headaches, joint and back pain can also be common while grieving. As you see, and perhaps have experienced firsthand, grief is one of the most painful emotions any of us will ever encounter. It’s no wonder the Apostle Paul refers to death as our “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
During my From Gasping to Growing Through Grief interview, Reverend Donna Covington, conveyed her process of grieving the untimely and unjust murder of her beloved son. When a death is anticipated, such as through journeying with a loved one through hospice after a battle with illness, the grieving process may begin before actual death occurs. Unlike anticipated death, which is no less painful, Reverend Covington was not afforded grace to brace herself for the trauma of the death of her beloved son.
She spoke about the initial trauma of realizing her beloved son was gone and the finality of it. Though the human language lacks the potency of words to adequately illustrate the disorienting nature of grief, Reverend Covington illustrated the beginning stages as a temporary impairment rendering her bereft of speech to pray and cognitively impaired to read her Bible. Although a student in seminary at that time, there was no miraculous way around the process of grief. There would be no opening of the Red Sea. No. She would have to feel every wave. There would be no turning water into wine. Grief was what it was and it would be what it would be. There was no fiery chariot to carry her away. She would have to live through the waves and the reality of grief.
There is a movie entitled “Left Behind” regarding the state of the world after Believers have been raptured. The film illustrates, to the best of their imagination, the chaos and pandemonium which will ensue. As Reverend Covington spoke, I imagined a similar experience for those left behind when loved ones die. Rather the loved one is a child, spouse, mother or father, the scene she described was one of emotional and physical turmoil, an undoing of the heart, and a halt to the way her life had previously been lived. To never experience another call, visit, meal, laugh or embrace on this earth from a loved one because of death is a brute finality and regardless of the emotional or spiritual strength of the person, is a giant of truth to be reckoned with.
The Other Giant
Consider the aforementioned giant instigated by the enemy called death, which is formidable enough. Now consider something more, a giant created and spurred on by erroneous indoctrination. Throughout this pandemic I’ve counseled numerous Believers one-on-one and in groups and I have observed a theme of spiritual guilt which has somehow, to our detriment, been yoked to grief. “The disciples were filled with grief”(Matthew 23:17) at even the thought of Jesus dying and we passionately and rightfully reference Jesus himself as “A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), yet somewhere along the way some have believed the falsehood that grieving is a weakness or a lack of faith. This error compounds an already emotionally complex and challenging process which further adversely affects our mental health. This fallacy of faith is a giant of epic proportions because it uses our own faith as a self-destructive weapon when it was intended to be a comfort. While grieving, we already grapple with questions of “Why”, “Why now”, “Why him/her”, “Could I have prevented it”, “Did s/he know how much I loved them in that moment”, to then be compelled to feel guilty for feeling the sting of death at all is a salt to an open heart wound.
The Bible counsels us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) as grief is a God-ordered process. The grieving process is the heart of the 23rd Psalm wherein God illustrates that as we go through the process, the same God who prescribes grieving is the same God who will walk us through it. He never intended shame to be placed on a grieving heart. Rather the opposite is true, God’s will and intent is “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61: 2b-3a). The questions we toil with may never be answered on this earth, but the answers are not a balm to grief. In order to traverse from gasping to growing through grief, it is not about what we know, but who we know is walking with us through the process. God is for us and not against us. And with this truth, the giant fallacy of faith created as a weapon against our faith and mental well being must fall to the ground impotent, null and void. May it never be given a speck or shred of power over our grieving process again.
Reverend Covington’s experience of grief likely does not mirror yours as we all grieve just as uniquely as we are made. One person may openly reveal signs of grief through tears, others may do so while smiling. Another person may become angry, while someone else is numb to feeling at all. No one grieves the same; as such judgments made regarding how a person grieves is not only unsound and inaccurate, it is also unfair and unkind. Death is already an enemy, let’s resist the temptation to insert judgments, however well-meaning, and become complicit with the enemy as well.
Thank God for being a Shepherd in the valley! And yet God reveals the healing power of community from the Old Testament to the New. I especially enjoyed Reverend Covington discussing her circle of loved ones who surrounded her for support. Their goal was not to make her “hurry up and heal already,” but rather to simply walk with her through the journey. Rather it’s food, work or grief, anything rushed risks a lack of completion with quality. The food may still be edible and the work may simply need to be redone, but to rush the grieving process can be dangerous emotionally and physically. I had a hysterectomy several years ago. During that time I grew weary of the healing process. I had 3 young children, a demanding job, a church to shepherd and a loving husband. I wanted to hurry up and heal so I could go about my everyday routine for my family, my church and my work as a school psychologist. In an attempt to hurry up and heal, I attempted to go back to life as usual before my body healed. The result was devastating to my body and my healing process. In trying to put weight on what was not healed, I had a setback and had to start all over. Hurrying through grief can cause a setback, in which case, you may have to start over again.
Grief should not be rushed, nor should it be avoided. Trying to work nonstop, to sleep through it, to eat over it, or even praise and dance under it will not remove the necessary process of grief. Pain in the body prompts us to care for the problem causing the pain, be it from a chiropractor, exercise, a change in diet, or medication. If we ignore pain signals we risk further complicating a problem causing other areas of the body to be affected. Likewise, when we ignore pain associated with grief, other psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression may ensue. Grief has been likened to the song “Going on a Bear Hunt,” one of my granddaughters favorite songs. A few of the lyrics are: “We can’t go under it. We can’t go around it or over it. We have to go through it.” Likewise, if we are to transition from gasping to growing through grief, we must go through the process of grieving. Remember, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4) and take your time.
Reverend Covington was encouraged by the presence of God in a supernatural way throughout her grieving process. His presence was so evident that young men received Christ as their Lord and Savior while attending her beloved son's funeral. From gasping, not having the air to pray or read or function, to then growing to such a place that she ministered to others and currently is a support to those who grieve is nothing short of a grieving process walked through circumspectly with the presence and the Word of God as well as loved ones by her side. However, even as she has continued to live, minister, love others and grow, emotions associated with grief still rise on occasion. Grief is never one and done. The tsunami waves will reduce to waves you are able to ride; those waves will eventually become ripples, and the ripples may become even smaller still, but it is still grief - the longing for your loved one that never goes away.
Regardless if you find yourself on the wave of a tsunami or the evidence of a ripple, there are strategies and truths which will help to go from a place from gasping to growing through grief. Firstly, resist the temptation to isolate. Even in grief Jesus promises “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18). Comfort for the heart torn asunder by grief is not accomplished in isolation. To go through the grieving process in solitude may lead to implosion. So when the words are able to be formulated, talk. Talk to God, talk to your loved ones and talk to a therapist if necessary. Remember a part of emotional health is not just the ability to manage our emotions, but to express them. And in expressing them, we are better able to manage them. Through talking about the loss, we are brought to acceptance of the reality of loss. Acceptance is essential to the grieving process. Talking also prevents us from bottling up our pain. As unpleasant as our feelings are, they simply are; and they must be felt and expressed for the sake of relief and comfort.
Also of great importance is the maintenance of routine from as simple as taking a shower to going to work. As the death of a loved one is unpinning, routine helps ground us. Gradually going back to school, church, taking your daily walk or journaling as before will help bring those grieving back to a sense of normalcy where healing and comfort can take place. As you do, pay attention to the good things around you. It’s easy to see things darkly in the cave of grief. Turn the light on. Intentionally notice what’s blooming, the soft breeze, someone's laughter or the colors around you.
Finally, as there is an overabundance of emotional energy involved in the death of a loved one, gradually reinvest that energy into rebuilding your life and perhaps even volunteering (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4) both of which provide a sense of continued purpose and community. From gasping to growing through grief is not a magical scripted remedy, but rather a recognition of the Shepherd, an acceptance of community, a vulnerability of sharing through talk, a permission to heal, and a realization that I can grow and even as I continue to heal.
Dear Father, thank you for the gift you blessed me with. I loved what you gave me so dearly that the size of this grief matches the circumference of that love. In fact, this grief is evidence of a love so great and precious that it could only have come from you. Father, as I pray “My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word” (Psalm 119:28). Physically I feel as if my body has endured the full impact of loss and my mind the weight of it. But you promised to give power to the weak, and to those who have no might to increase strength (Isaiah 40:29). Strengthen my mind and body according to your Word. Father. I draw close to you as your peace is not predicated on my circumstances. You are my help, my song and my joy. I pray “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul” (Psalm 94:19). This journey is too great for me alone. Help me to receive the comfort of loved ones and to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit on this journey from gasping to growing through grief. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
***Psalm 23: 1-3 reveals the Shepherd as the ultimate guide to peace through dark places. For more information enjoy chapter 3 of The Gospel of Mental Health.***