We are all aware of the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified. In truth, the Swedish born psychiatrist was speaking of the grief she recognized as she worked with terminally ill patients. It was later that these were attributed to those grieving a death of a loved one. I don’t believe a person must go through each stage (I’m guessing she didn’t either), but it does give us a platform for discussion.
William Worden came up with another method for framing our grief, he called it the Four Tasks of Mourning: accept the reality, work through the pain, adjust to your new environment and find an enduring connection.
I have been leading workshops and retreats on grieving for over 30 years. When I first began, I framed it as Death and Dying. Later, I found it helpful to use the movement of Loss, Change & Growth to facilitate reflection and conversation.
Experiencing loss will always be a part of our lives. Sometimes we choose it…sometimes it chooses us. We say goodbye to loved ones, to jobs, to relationships, to nurturing communities, to bodies that once were strong, to dreams unrealized, to treasured possessions, to security and even sometimes to memories.
The big goodbyes, like death or divorce are easily recognizable, other losses may seem innocuous but can have a crippling effect on our lives. Reflection gives us sacred space with our thoughts and emotions and brings us to a place where we can live side by side with our loss.
Many find comfort in their Faith; in prayer or worship. The familiarity gives one something to hold on to when everything around them is seemingly falling apart. But for others, the emptiness and abandonment are real. Too often the case is, when we most need to feel the compassion and presence of God, is when we feel the greatest distance. The blessing is, we are given space to grieve and even to be angry at God.
“Keep believing in the greening, in the springtime of your heart. I know that it feels as though I (God) am far away from you, but I am closer to you than your next breath. On your weary days, just come and sit by the well of life with me. I will stay with you. On your discouraging days, remember that I yearn to fill your life with joy. I will return to you in time. On your days when you feel the ache will never go away, press your pain against me and know that I will surround you with an everlasting love. Draw your strength and energy from me. I will sustain you in this wintry, dark time.” (Joyce Rupp)
We are told to find comfort in the cross; in Jesus’ pain and suffering and the knowledge that his compassion and love surrounds us. But grief often blurs our vision and that is when we can ask, “What do I see?” “Where am I being comforted?”
Much like the two men walking along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), we don’t always recognize Christ in our presence. His love and comfort may come to us in the form of a kind word spoken, the peacefulness of a sunset, floating on the ocean, or the quiet presence of a friend.
The term ‘Journey’ has always been a scriptural theme. Not only in subtle ways, but literally as well; the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem and Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem for the journey to the cross.
The term journey is used to talk about movement from one experience to another. We are growing and learning everyday and when it comes to grief, we never stay in exactly the same place. Somehow, we move from extreme grief and pain into a place where we can live with our grief; it becomes a manageable part of our lives.
Lives change. Recognizing those changes…naming them, is a positive step in the healing process. Sometimes the word ‘acceptance’ is used which implies agreement or approval of what is happening. But, acceptance really just means you acknowledge your reality. You are beginning to engage in a this new way of life and your sorrow is right there with you.
Sometimes the event or death causes us to change the path we were on or explore different ideas. Friends of mine lost their daughter when she was a young adult. Their daughter was doing missionary work in Japan and after her death, her parents connected with families there and continued her work. Often people will start giving to medical research after a loved one dies from cancer or heart disease. These are ways grief can incorporate itself into our lives.
After a loss we find ourselves with different roles or have the need to take on new tasks. We are forced to adjust to our new environment. My dad learned to cook when he was 90, after my mother died. He did so out of necessity and he started slowly. He could fry an egg and ’burn a steak’ as he used to say. This task of readjustment takes time and it is helpful to ask for support along the way.
It is important to give ourselves to the journey…to the grief. It is there, we can’t deny the anguish, so facing it can be empowering. But it will also be painful. There will be good things that come too—look for them. Try to embrace your new role and the things you are learning. Most importantly, give yourself grace along the way. It is your timeline and your unique journey.
At some point in our grief process, we acknowledge that we need to move on; to allow for new memories, to restore abandoned relationships, to create a new life. The fear for many, is that this means we no longer miss the one we lost or are saying the event didn’t matter, but nothing is further from the truth. To let go of something or to move away from the pain, does not negate the depth of our grief. Instead we are redirecting our energy into other areas of our lives and grief journeys with us.
At some point you may find it helpful to observe a Letting Go Ritual. We are drawn to rituals, actions that are repeated and meaningful are powerful. Rituals have power because they give us a sense of identity and stability. A ritual becomes a milestone we can measure that somehow, encourages us to move on.
These rituals for letting go, are important because they draw a line between our past, who we are now and make room for who we are to become. A change is clearly marked. Dwelling on the past prevents us from fully participating in the present and often keeps us from envisioning a different future.
When words are inadequate, a ritual can be a symbolic activity that helps us, together with our families and friends, express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life's most important events. That is why when someone dies, we plan a service (ritual) where we can gather and people have the opportunity to grieve as a community.
Other rituals may follow. Cleaning out drawers and closets. Creating a scholarship in honor of someone who’s died. Buying flowers every spring for a burial site. Or having a special dinner on a birthday or anniversary.
“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.” ― C. JoyBell C.
As we grow into our new reality, we are never far from our loss. There will be brighter days. There will be laughter and plans made for the future. After years of tragic losses and struggling with how to cope, I finally decided that what I was looking for was a safe place to keep my grief and I was surprised to find that peace was the perfect dwelling companion. Peace will come. It will not be overnight, but peace will come, and your grief will reside there.
Horatio Spafford lost his infant son to scarlet fever, then several months later lost almost everything in the Great Chicago Fire; two years later he and his wife and four daughters were going to England on a luxury liner. It ended up that he couldn't go right away so he sent them on ahead, four days into the trip they were broadsided in the fog and the ship sank in less than 12 minutes. His wife somehow survived, but now all of his children were dead. He was on his way to join his wife and when they were four days out the captain said they were crossing the place where the ship had gone down. It was then that he wrote this poem which was later put to music.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Not everyone can say ‘it is well with my soul.’
Blessings to you wherever your "soul is."