“What happens if I don’t do the work of grief?” a newly bereaved widow innocently asked at a recent grief retreat. “It’s so hard and painful. I don’t think I want to do it.”
I suspect this sentiment voiced for many who have experienced the death of a loved one the very heart of their thoughts on grief.
To be honest, I don’t know a single soul, including myself, who chose to be immersed in the unchartered and tumultuous waters of grief. Not a single one of us had any inkling as to what grief entailed or how to go about navigating through it safely. I recall many moments in time following my husband Trent’s death those years ago when I didn’t think I could go on, didn’t want to go on. The pain and loneliness could be all but paralyzing during those times.
But I’ve learned that avoiding the hard work of acknowledging and expressing our grief only postpones the inevitable and prolongs our pain. And to dismiss our thoughts and feelings about our loss sets us up to experience the depth of the pain in other more insidious ways.
My response to this lost soul at the retreat was brief but focused. “Grief work is difficult,” I affirmed. “But to move on in life we must find our way through the pain and discover who we are without the presence of our loved one. Grief is a natural response to the loss of love and we must honor that in whatever form it presents itself. It is hard and painful, but avoiding it will only open us to a different kind of pain.”
Addressing the group then on this very issue, I reminded the ladies that the work of grief entails acknowledging our heightened emotions and their purpose, and finding healthy ways to express them. I acknowledged that every journey is unique and what works to express grief for one may not work for another. We move in and out of our emotions as our need takes us and it becomes trial and error as we search for meaningful ways to mourn our loss.
If we chose to avoid the work of expressing ourselves in meaningful ways we walk an entirely different path. I have witnessed those who immerse themselves in work shortly after they bury their dead to stave off the pain. Others choose to travel excessively away from the home where the memories bring tears and heartache. Some stuff the pain so deeply that they become an entirely different person than they were before their loss — frustrated and angry or introspective and lifeless.
Because we grieve as whole persons, we each may experience physical, emotional, cognitive and even spiritual manifestations of grief when we least expect them as we work to dismiss our pain. I have learned that grief has a very real physical feel to it. A noted malady experienced by many who have lost a loved one is physical pain in the back or chest area. Some experience pain in the stomach. Cognitively, some find that sustained memory loss or confusion is an issue, while others’ avoidance manifests in frustrated outbursts towards others or God.
So how do we face our grief?
The clearest path to healthy mourning is through grief education and support. When we understand the general aspects of grief we are better equipped to face the challenges that we encounter day to day. But it’s important to understand that we are not alone in our grief. Finding a safe person or group to meet with can be a life saving support as we tell our stories of loss — an important aspect of the healing process.
The sweet joy that bloomed on each face that morning as each retreat participant shared a little of what her loved one meant to her was priceless to witness. “He was so generous,” one smiling woman said, clutching her heart. Another told us with obvious admiration and pride, “He could fix anything!” Yet another said lovingly of her loved one, “He always put his family first.”
Those important memories are the fodder for the spiritual relationship we develop with our loved one as we do the work of grief.
The bottom line is that we were created by God to live and love. He gave us hearts and emotions that respond to joy as well as pain and loss. The process of grieving a loss, though painful, is built in to our very nature. It then becomes our choice as to whether we dismiss this natural response to loss or allow it, through our hard work and growth, to transform us into persons more fully alive with renewed joy and purpose.
It takes great energy to mourn the loss of a loved one. But as the pain softens over time as we face our grief and move through it, the healing outcome is well worth the effort.
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