The grief process, for adults as well as children and teens, is like sailing across a stormy sea. When we first experience a great loss, we are launched into a tempest of emotions. We feel surrounded by darkness and heavy waves of anguish. Comforting words are drowned out by howling winds of sorrow. We feel lonely and out of control as we are swept toward a new destination in life.
These feelings intensify during the Christmas season. Our spouse, our child, our siblings, our mom or dad, are not with us to celebrate as in years past. We feel alone, we feel no one understands, we struggle or just give up altogether from pure emotional exhaustion, at attempts to try to convey our thoughts and feelings, to seek help, to find a light in all the darkness.
Jesus is the reason for our season…our season of grief, loss, and sorrow. He, and only He, is the one true light to follow and who will guide us through the seasons of our grief.
This journey through grief, like life created by God, has four seasons:
• Shock – In the days and weeks immediately following a devastating loss, common feelings include numbness and unreality, like being trapped in a bad dream.
• Reality – As the fact of the loss takes hold, deep sorrow sets in, accompanied by weeping and other forms of emotional release. Loneliness and depression may also occur.
• Reaction – Anger, brought on by feelings of abandonment and helplessness, may be directed toward family, friends, doctors, the one who died, or even God. Other typical feelings include listlessness, apathy, and guilt over perceived failures or unresolved personal issues.
• Recovery – Finally, there is a gradual, almost imperceptible return to normalcy. This is a time of adjustment to the new circumstances in life.
These seasons vary in duration for each person, so we should not impose a timetable upon anyone. Some people need a year or two, while others may take less time. Holidays, anniversaries and birthdays can trigger intense grief, especially the first year, for adults and children who have suffered the loss of a parent.
Healing a broken heart is similar to healing a broken leg. Rushing the process can actually hinder our long-term recovery, like removing a cast before the bone is strong enough to bear weight. Grief that is left unresolved may trigger depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, or other serious problems.
Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 says “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.” Many Bible stories demonstrate how God comforts His people in times of sorrow and loss. Job clung desperately to God, despite catastrophic loss and unhelpful friends. David, a man after God’s own heart, openly grieved the death of his son.
Jesus is our best role model for combining faith and grief, as revealed in John 11:1-45. When He saw Mary and Martha in anguish over the death of their brother Lazarus, He wept and groaned. Although Jesus knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, He still allowed Himself to feel – and express – the depths of human sorrow.
We can take comfort in knowing that Jesus has experienced all our pain, including loss, rejection, betrayal, and dying. As our Savior and Redeemer, He took all our sins to the cross and forgives us when we ask. As our Good Shepherd, He leads us safely through “even when I walk through a dark valley” (Psalm 23:4).
Deep faith in Christ does not prevent grief when a believer dies, but it infuses grief with hope! For Christians, death is a passageway to eternal life (see John 5:24). Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He also said, “I want you to know what will happen to the Christians who have died so you will not be full of sorrow like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus comes, God will bring back with Jesus all the Christians who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
Well-meaning people may say, “Jesus took your loved one away,” but that can cause people – especially children – to be angry at God. 1 Corinthians 15:26 says death is our last enemy. Therefore, we can say, “Death took our loved one away from us, but Jesus took our loved one away from death!”
If we don’t know whether our loved one believed in Jesus, we must simply trust God. The Bible says, “The Lord ... is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). The thief on the cross turned to Christ in the last hours of life (see Luke 23:39-43). We do not know what happens in a person’s final moments between life and death, but God does – and He decides who enters His heaven.
The Holy Spirit – also called the Comforter (see John 14:26) – can give us God’s peace, even in the midst of suffering. Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The peace of God does not come from our circumstances, but from drawing close to Him.
Jesus promised, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). God beckons us into His loving arms so He can heal our wounded hearts.
Grief can affect our thinking, behavior, emotions, relationships, and health. People may experience sleeplessness, exhaustion, indigestion, lack of appetite, or memory lapses. Recognizing that these are common reactions to grief can help us minimize them by reaching out to friends, joining a prayer group, or asking a pastor or Christian counselor for assistance.
One of the most difficult tasks for a bereaved person is adjusting to the new environment without the loved one who has died or moved away. When is it appropriate to put away a loved one’s things, make lifestyle changes, or form new relationships? We will find the answers as time passes and recovery progresses. God will show us His timing and His direction as we seek Him.
Here are three steps to recovery
• Grieve – Though grief is bitter, we must let sorrow run its natural course. Isaiah 53:3b describes Jesus as “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Denying or repressing pain can lead to emotional problems. This is especially true for children who have difficulty in times of great loss and sorrow of knowing how, or if, they can express the loss in their hearts.
• Believe – We need to put our faith in God’s promises, trusting that our Heavenly Father knows best and that His understanding is perfect. Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
• Receive – God desires to give us comfort, but we must reach out and accept it. Through prayer and meditation on His Word, we can find a place in God’s presence where He will wrap His arms around us as a loving father would console a hurting child.
JoMarie Grinkiewicz is facilitator of Seasons of Hope, a Christ-centered adult grief support group at St. Catherine Catholic Church.