Some of us have attended seminars dealing with grief and loss. And so, some of this material may be familiar. Hopefully it will be comforting to those who are dealing with loss and serve as a reminder for those people who have dealt with these issues in the past.
When discussing loss we usually think of the loss of a loved one because of all loss this type generates the most stress and pain. But there are other "losses" that we experience that produce pain, grief and stress in the same way (perhaps to a lesser degree) than the loss of a loved one: loss of job, friends, marriage, business, freedom, health, home, security, money, self-esteem, idealism, etc.
When we lose any one or a combination of these, there is pain, grief and the stress that comes with these, usually experienced through the feelings of despair, loneliness, bewilderment, anger, anxiety, sadness, fear, guilt, worry, depression or hopelessness. So, in dealing with the stress generated by loss we need to understand the grieving cycle and have a strategy to help us find some answers to comfort us in our loss.
Grief and Loss
We need to understand a basic relationship:
- Loss of any kind produces grief and grief brings on stress.
- When we understand not only this relationship but also the "grieving process" we will be able to reduce our stress.
One factor that causes stress in loss situations is ignorance of what's happening to us in the grieving process.
Dr. Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the study of the effect of grief on people says that there are five stages that people go through when they grieve because of a loss of some kind:
- Denial - the feeling of being overwhelmed. "This can't be happening to me" feeling.
- Anger - at God, self, others for the thing that has taken place.
- Bargaining - the "...if only" kind of thoughts. Dwelling on the past, making promises.
- Depression - sadness, loss of energy, feeling of hopelessness.
- Acceptance - submission to the new reality. You are able to deal with the change.
I think many of us have heard of these stages or experienced them in our own lives. When we experience loss and the grief that comes with it, there will be stress. We can reduce that stress when we realize the following things connected with what we're going through:
A. We are never quite ready for the pain and stress caused by grieving over the loss of someone or something.
It helps lower our stress level if we see grief as a process and not just a singular event. It's not just for the gravesite. It goes on for months, even years. It is a cycle as we travel through one emotion after another sometimes coming back to one stage over and over again (i.e., repeated feelings of anger at the spouse who left or the parent who died without resolving conflicts). When it comes to grief it's better to think long term rather than short term. The hurry to get "feeling better" causes stress.
B. Grief Resolution is Necessary for Recovery
We need to grieve! There is no way to feel better without going through the grieving process! Grieving is not a disease or a sickness, it is the body's natural way of dealing with loss.
- Denial is like a psychological shock absorber that helps us to withstand the initial pain that comes with terrible loss.
- Anger is the natural vent for hurt feelings, confusion at the changes caused by loss. We need to learn to express anger in productive ways. It should be used as a vent that allows us to release strong feelings without creating damage and hurt.
- Bargaining is our way of reaching out to find a solution to the problems caused by loss.
- Depression is the natural reaction to the difficult new reality that loss has brought about. It's the point where we're allowing ourselves to feel the pain.
- Acceptance is the final balance we find between the old and new realities in our lives caused by loss.
The object of the grieving process is recovery. A lessening of the intensity and frequency of the pain and sorrow that we naturally feel from loss. This does not mean a total elimination but rather a gradual decline of the discomfort level.
It takes time, you need to work at it and you need other people to help you but eventually the sun shines again and the thought of the event doesn't hurt anymore (it's still there, but doesn't cause pain). With the decrease of pain there is a lessening of stress!
C. There's Not Always an Answer
People's main question when loss occurs is to ask why? They want to make sense of what has taken place.
- A happy young wife and mother is suddenly left a widow. Why?
- Hopes for a bright career are dashed because of someone's careless mistake. Why?
- Someone who is doing so much good for others is rendered helpless through a crippling disease. Why?
This questioning is painful and stressful when no clear answer is found. Many people think that the reason for the grieving process is to find the answer to the question why. This is not so. One important insight that the process does give us is that God doesn't always provide the answer to the question why but He always provides what we need in times of crisis:
- Comfort through the Holy Spirit, the church and the Word.
- He provides the assurance that there are some things we will probably lose (health, wealth, loved ones, life) but there are some things we will never lose.
35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36Just as it is written, "For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered." 37But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:35-39
I am reminded of the story of Lisa Coffee, a young mom who suddenly contracted cancer and subsequently died soon after her diagnosis leaving a grieving husband and two small children.
Don Coffee, her dad, told me at Lisa's funeral, that he didn't understand how people without faith could go through horrible ordeals like this and survive. We concluded that unbelievers do face terrible tragedies and come out:
- or in permanent denial..but they don't come through hopeful.
The pain and suffering are the same for Christians but what awaits them on the other side of grief is hope. Don was thankful that Lisa's suffering was over and he was hopeful that he would see her again in heaven. That hope keeps the spirit up, helps us to let go for awhile, gives us the courage to go on with:
- a loving heart
- a cheerful attitude
- a thankful spirit
- an enthusiastic approach to the rest of life
- and a greatly reduced stress level
Paul says that unlike those who have no "hope" when they grieve, Christians can look forward to a very specific event in the future that will reunite them with both their God and their loved ones after death.
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18Therefore comfort one another with these words.
- I Thessalonians 4:13-18
We have learned that stress is caused by the grieving process that necessarily follows loss of any kind. Over-stress (the bad kind) is created when:
- We are ignorant of the process and have no way of understanding and dealing with those natural feelings that come about as a result of loss.
- We remain too long in this process, refusing to move on from anger or depression to acceptance.
The world's answer is to understand the grieving process and get help to go through it in a normal time (i.e., counseling, medication, support groups). This is the best answer the world has to offer- accept what you can't change. Christ's answer doesn't circumvent the natural grieving process, it goes beyond the stage of acceptance to hope. Through Jesus Christ we have the hope of eternal life after death and so, for us, death is only a temporary separation that will be abolished forever when Jesus returns. This is what we look beyond death to, in order to lift our spirits and keep the link with the one we've lost alive. This is our hope and the promise that helps us end our grieving with a whole heart rather than with a hole in our hearts.
The resurrection of Christ is central to our faith and the promise of our own resurrection in Christ is central to our hope. It's what makes the death that surrounds us bearable.