Driving down Interstate 79, you speed right past your exit leaving you in a frenzied state as you notice the time and realize you are almost late for your job interview. All at once you hit a patch of ice. Giving in to your reflex reaction, you turn the steering wheel away from the direction in which your car is sliding. As a result, you veer across the median strip, narrowly escaping an oncoming semitrailer, and finally come to a stop after bouncing off the back bumper of another car.
The above is a typical reaction even for those of us who learned to drive in the hills of West Virginia and have been taught time and time again to steer into the slide rather than away from it. This is also a good lesson in dealing with grief. Your reflex reaction after a loss is to turn away from this painful process. But the healing decision is to meet grief head on —to turn into it, rather than away from it.
Some misled people believe the half-truth that “time heals all wounds” and often find themselves with unresolved grief years after a loss. I heard a bereaved mother give the account of losing her 3-year-old child to cancer and thinking she had walked through her grief adequately. Instead, 10 years down the road, she began having rages. She would rage in anger and could not seem to discern the cause of her anger. Thankfully, she had the wisdom to seek professional help and learned she had not grieved adequately and her grief was coming out in angry explosions. After “doing her grief work,” the rages ceased.
We need to give ourselves permission to grieve as long as we need. Many well-meaning people may urge you to get back to normal, but what they do not realize is that “normal” has changed for you. I remember after losing three babies by miscarriage, people encouraged me to “try again.” But miscarriages need grieving time, too. One who has a miscarriage has lost a baby, not just the dream of a baby, but a real baby. And unless week 20 in the pregnancy has arrived, there is no real closure such as a funeral or memorial service. Therefore, the grief work is left to the individual or couple alone.
Grief takes work and it is some of the hardest work you will ever do. One needs to literally carve out time for grief. How long? You might ask. There is no universal timetable for bereavement. The length of the grief process depends on many factors including the relationship with the deceased and the survivor’s willingness to do his grief work.
How do you do grief work, you might ask. Here are some helpful thoughts:
• Carve out a schedule to do your grief work by setting aside time daily or several times a week for intentional grief work. Consider using this time to look at pictures or play music that reminds you of the one you are missing. Watch videotapes and keep a journal about your feelings. Visit the gravesite. Write a letter to God expressing your thoughts. Remember: Tears are the boy’s relief valve for the emotions of grief, which can be physically destructive if “stuffed” inside. Tears are one of God’s healing balms.
• Learn about the normal grief process. There is usually a time you feel alone, abandoned and experience a wide range of emotions, including sadness, emptiness, relief and regret. Elisabeth Kubler Ross believed that there were five stages to grief: Shock and disbelief, denial, anger, depression and acceptance. Know that grief comes in waves. You will be going along fine and then another wave hits. This is normal. You must “ride the wave” in grief to get through it.
• Understand if you are in complicated grief. Complicated grief comes from sudden or violent death or multiple losses. Complicated grief also comes when you become “stuck” in one of the stages of grief. The difference in this case of your having a great life and a mediocre one is a little counseling or as much as needed for your particular case. Reaching out is a sign of strength, not weakness.
• Know that you have a hope and a future. As you continue to grieve, hold on to hope. Sometimes you may be “hoping for hope,” but keep looking for it. God and time heal our wounds. He will “bind up your broken heart” and “heal your wounds.” The process is painful, but beauty is born out of pain. “Letting the Deep Pain Hurt” is an article I wrote many years ago and it states that pain is imperative to healing in our grief. Samuel Johnson said, “While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert it only irritates.” One cannot go around grief, but one must go through grief.
• It is normal to feel anger and abandonment not only toward your loved one, but toward God. Choose to tell him about your anger. Bitter people talk about God, but better people talk to God. You say, “Kim, how can you say you are angry to God?” I say, “God can handle it and he is waiting to heal when you are honest with him. Tell him about your anger, and healing will come.”
• “Whys” are often a normal part of grieving. Also choose not only to ask “why,” but ask “what now?” I remember when one of my losses was new I read of a missionary who had came off the mission field after years of service. She was using some farm equipment and her arm became severed instantly. Instead of asking “why did you take my arm, God?,” she held up her stub of the arm and asked, “What now, God? What now that I lost my arm?” She went on to start a home for homeless people at her farm and served many years. Now, asking why is normal, but do not stop there. Ask “What now, God?” You will find beauty, usefulness, healing, empathy, compassion and hope is born of your pain.
Kimberly Short Wolfe, MA, is the bereavement coordinator and grief counselor with Mountain Hospice and has a master’s degree in counseling from Liberty University. You may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.