He was . . . a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).
On Thursday, June 6, 1985, near Lansing, Michigan, my maternal grandma, Beulah Allen, passed away. It was a sad day, but it was not a surprise. Grandma was 83 years old, and her health had been declining for three years. My kind, soft-spoken grandpa once complained to me, “Your grandma has forgotten how to say three words – ‘I feel fine.’”
Our family was grateful that near the end of her life, grandma was well cared for in a private home by a lady who treated her like family. The primary difficulty, however, at grandma’s passing was that my mom was in Massachusetts at my brother’s graduation, and my uncle lived in California. So, while they rushed to get to their father’s side, my sister and I, as representatives from the next generation, drove to grandpa’s home to support him.
As a 30-year-old pastor with only a few years of ministry experience, this was an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with grief; to learn in a deeply personal way how people grieve. This was not a parishioner; this was my grandma. And now I watched helplessly as my fun-loving, faith-filled, dairy farmer grandpa sat in his chair, overwhelmed by grief. I was grieving, but I was also learning.
In the intervening thirty-seven years since my grandma’s passing, one of the greatest privileges of my pastoral ministry has been walking alongside hundreds of families as they've wrestled with grief and gathered to pay final tribute to a family member whom they loved so dearly. I am well acquainted with grief, both personally and pastorally, and I would like to share with you three insights I have learned along the way.
1. The Depth of Grief
In her recent book, The Anatomy of Grief, Dorothy P. Holinger, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, wrote, “Grief is inextricably bound to love. It looms as large as the loved one we lost, and it is the price we pay for love.” When we lose someone or something we genuinely love, our world is turned upside down and our ability to cope with daily living is drastically challenged.
It is normal, even necessary, to grieve. We often quote John 11:35, “Jesus wept,” to demonstrate that it is okay to cry. But the next verse should also be included, “Then the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him (Lazarus).’” The tears of Jesus were connected to his love.
Some think tears are a sign of weakness or indicate a lack of faith. However, when people apologize for their tears, I respond, “It is natural to grieve. I would be much more concerned if you showed no emotion.”
The way that my grandpa initially demonstrated grief was numbness and confusion. All he wanted was for his children to be with him to help make decisions. He was paralyzed by grief. This response is quite usual, and the grieving person needs the presence of calm, loving family members and friends. Don’t talk a lot, don’t try to cheer or to explain, just “be there.”
When someone is troubled by their continuing grief, I often say, “You cannot avoid grief, you should not delay grief, and please do not think you can just ignore it. You cannot go around it, but rather you must go through it.”
The deeper your love for the one who has died, the deeper your grief. Give yourself permission to grieve and to be sad. Grief is not forever, but it is a normal expression of our humanity.
2. Being Prepared for Grief
Our modern culture seems to deny or ignore the ultimate reality of death. Scientists report their research which suggests that the aging process can be slowed and that we will all live longer and longer. There is no doubt that better healthcare and nutrition have lengthened life expectancy, but we all still face the reality of death; not fixating on it, but neither denying it.
There are two things that prepare me to better respond to grief and loss – a mature Christian faith and healthy family relationships. When both are firmly in place at the time of loss, I can navigate these fearful waters more effectively. Let me be clear, faith and family will not eliminate grief, but prepare me to process grief in a healthier manner.
The worst possible scenario is to deal with grief all by yourself. Family and close friends can diminish the intensity of my pain as they gather in support. But when I let family squabbles turn into estrangement and brokenness, the number of people I have to support me is significantly lessened. Don’t wait until times of loss overwhelm you with grief. Repair, restore, and maintain good family relationships so they immediately step up when you need them.
In a comparable manner, do not cry out to God only in your times of difficulty, but maintain that daily practice of communicating with him through prayer, Bible study, and Christian fellowship.
Being active in a church and a Small Group, and reciprocating with Christian brothers and sisters in the give and take of life, better prepares you for times of loss.
If you are looking for a church home or a Small Group, you are more than welcome to check out Berean. We have a number of groups to help you share life together, serve together, and grow in your faith together, and we'd love for you to be a part of one.
3. The Uniqueness of Grief
One of my most difficult funerals involved the death of a 12-year-old boy in a freak ATV accident. The grief was overwhelming! Years later the mom told me, “The best advice you gave us was that my husband and I would grieve in unique ways and at various times. And that we should not expect the other to always feel exactly like we do.” Their experiences and expressions of grief were wildly different, but both were deeply genuine.
Just like scientists tell us that no two snowflakes are exactly alike, so we should expect that our grief will vary. Here are a few factors that may aggravate or mitigate our grief:
- Was the death sudden and unexpected, with no chance to say “goodbye”?
- How close was I to the one who passed? (daily contact vs. seeing them once a year).
- Do I also feel guilt because of unresolved issues with the person who died?
One other key factor is the unique way that God created our personalities. With some folks, you never have to wonder how they are feeling because they are so verbal and expressive, while others hold their thoughts, feelings, and emotions very “close to their chest” and only share when they feel safe.
Please never let anyone tell you how you should or should not grieve.
One more part of my grief story that I have not shared yet
On Tuesday, June 11, 1985, as family and friends were planning to gather for my grandmother’s visitation service, my grandpa had a fatal heart attack. His death was as unexpected as grandma’s death was expected. It set our family into a whirlwind of additional planning as we gathered for a double funeral instead of one. Grandpa’s death was my first encounter with someone dying from a broken heart. Researchers still explore the area where the physical and the psychological intersect. I will save those thoughts for another blog.
If you are grieving, help is available.
Remember, you don't have to go through the grieving process alone. If you feel trapped or overwhelmed with grief, it is good and appropriate for you to reach out for help – from a pastor, a trusted friend, or someone else who has experienced a similar loss. And please know that support groups like GriefShare at Berean are available to help you as you process your grief and loss.