As I write this, looming as large as a pandemic of coronavirus outbreak, is a pandemic of grief. I’m not talking about the obvious grief of those losing a loved one who dies. I’m talking about the grief caused by more generalized losses. These may include sudden illness, public safety, home safety, necessities of life (food and shelter), physical health, life routines, peace of mind, emotional security, employment, business ownership, trust in people, privacy, social interaction, faith in science, faith in God, self-image, self-worth, and a host of identity issues and beliefs questioning who we are and where we’re going. There is no shortage of loss these days. I used to think of grief in terms of mourning the death of someone in close relationship, but have learned that grief applies to all types of losses and hurts. For loss to be recovered (large and small losses alike), loss must be grieved.
When things feel so out of control, as in these times, how should we respond? As a Christian, the obvious answer is to turn to God. But in our human condition, what does that look like? We see in the Bible that Jesus bears our grief and carries our sorrows for us (see Isaiah 53:1-6). Jesus came to redeem us from our sin and to bear the pain of the consequences of sin in our world. Although Jesus accomplished this work for us, it is often very difficult for us as individuals to surrender to His way of working it out in our humanity. Processing grief can be hard work, but it is essential for our well being. Grief is something everyone is going through in the midst of pandemic, whether they are willing to admit it or not.
Grief is the process of engaging loss, making adjustments, and recovering new hope for meeting life’s needs. Let’s briefly consider these three elements.
First, consider your losses. Identify them, and make a list. Name not only the tangible losses like job, finances, school, time, health, relationship, too much or too little personal space etc., but also name the intangible (emotional) losses that go with each tangible loss. Intangible losses may be things like confidence or competence level, sense of safety or security, degree of peace of mind, personal dignity, self-sufficiency, sense of control, beliefs about God, other people, or self, trust in people or institutions, and self-worth and values issues. Making this list may sound like a goofy idea, but it will have a huge payoff in the long run. If you don’t name, you don’t know what to reclaim. There’s no recovery without discovery. It’s that simple. An exercise in naming losses requires some time alone and free from distractions. It can be emotionally draining, so take a break if you feel overwhelmed.
With a written list, you now have something to return to as you go through making adjustments which is the core work of grief. Making adjustments involves stepping through at least four phases of re-orienting yourself to life. As many counselors do, when I explain grief, I usually draw an inverted bell-shaped curve on a blank sheet of paper. The curve slopes downward on the left side, and back up on the right.
Beginning on the left, the first, initial impact phase is the shock of it all, likely including some numbness, denial, and maybe even some erratic emotional reactions. Second phase, wrestling with reality, is where the anger and fear may kick in with searching for answers, and sometimes some panic feelings with an incident of high impact. A third phase, dealing with the pain, is at the bottom of the curve. This Is where the feeling and emotions need to be identified and worked through to resolution. Things like guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, depression, and confusion are normal responses and felt in varying degrees by different people. Resolving to a tolerable degree of pain may take time--hours, days, months, and years for deeper losses. Time periods for grieving losses are also unique to the individual.
This process is much too involved to completely describe here, but an important key is to permit yourself to feel. That might sound strange, but most of us have been taught to ignore, deny, or minimize, as much as possible, the emotional part of our being. Dumbing down emotions without first discovering the message they are trying to relay to us, is a perilous mistake. Be honest with yourself and name the feelings and emotions. This is the phase of grieving where many people get stuck. Even if you give up (intentionally or unintentionally) on grief, grief will never give up on you. Grief is real. If not processed through, it can haunt you the rest of your life. If the unpleasant emotion is too hard to work through, seek out a good counselor to help you to recovery.
Recovery is on the way when you can start to look back and see your quality of life returning in a positive direction to what it was before the loss. Recovery is a process of re-organizing your life and finding new hope for the future. After job loss, for example, a person may develop a new skill, or discover a hidden talent that helps them find a more suitable job than their previous employment. Recovery is being able to say, “If I hadn’t lost my job, I wouldn’t be in a better place today.” Things like new skills, new relationships, new beliefs, and ways of seeing things around you, all provide hope. Hope is what keeps us going. The journey isn’t always a smooth ride neatly progressing through the phases. There may be some degree of victory, and then another reminder, negative event, or trigger raises more concerns or things to process. Re-processing is not to be considered a setback, but growth. Growing involves periods of stretching.
As believers in Christ, our true hope is in the Lord, as our Bible tells us. God is at the center of this entire process and as we walk with Jesus, he transforms our heart along the way. The inner person healing journey is very similar to working through grief. New understanding and practice of forgiveness is often a part of this. Refer to my previous articles for more on pursuing transformation and sanctification.
Whether you work with God to respond to loss, or not, there is one more thing to consider. Unresolved grief produces high levels of toxic stress. When this stress becomes intolerable, very unhealthy things occur. One of three scenarios is likely--victim, survivor, or rescuer. A victim interprets life from a poverty mindset and acts out by rejecting (victimizing) self or others. A survivor stuffs the pain, and appears to have survived with a decent level of functionality, but losing control is always a threat. A rescuer turns to unwittingly helping others out of their pain to compensate for their own lack of pain processing. Examining ourselves to see where we may have tendencies of victim, survivor, or rescuer can make us aware of unprocessed pain.Although I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, please give it more consideration. If you are struggling, you are not strange and you are not beyond hope. Reach out to someone you trust today. If you want someone to pray with or discuss this more, give me a call. If I can be of help to your group (online or in person when we are allowed to return to gathering), please call. I have helped many people through this process, and I have my own grief to process as well.
My prayer is that we are willing to do the hard work of grieving losses, to become more resilient and better prepared to help as help is needed in our communities.
Note: Sometimes accumulated losses (many losses in a short period of time) can have a similar affect as a traumatic event. Trauma complicates this process and puts you at greater risk of doing harm. If you are having lingering thoughts of suicide or hurting someone else, call for emergency help immediately.
by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry