Grieving brings healing

Grieving brings healing

Throughout our lives we have to learn how to deal with loss. We must say our goodbyes and leave behind familiar situations, treasured possessions or even loved ones, and then start afresh. This is part of life. It also makes out part of the path we follow to greater maturity. Whenever we enter a new phase of life, we also say goodbye to a way of living, to friends, to safe ports in order to take up our new life tasks. But sometimes the losses we encounter are huge and have radical consequences in our lives. Dealing with these losses asks much more of us; it demands time, courage and emotional energy. This process we could also see as a grieving process. To grieve or to deal with loss is good, it is necessary, it heals.
It is also good to try to understand the process. It may make it less traumatic. It does not take away the pain and sadness, but it does bring the peace of mind that I am going in the right direction.

A unique process to everyone

We must realise that everyone goes through the process in a unique way; there is not a recipe or rules. Just as other life experiences are different to every human being, so will every grieving process be different, following a different order.
We grieve because we have lost someone or something precious. But that is not the full extent of the loss. Our grief is not only about one loss, but about many losses that we experience all at once. When my husband dies, I lose for example also the status of being married and I get the new status of widowhood. And to all the losses I react differently. Grief is not three or four tasks that I have to accomplish, it is rather a process of growth that happens for everyone at a different pace. During a period of growth impatience causes a sense of frustration. We want to get it over and want it to pass as quickly as possible. But it demands working at it and it demands time.

What does grief ask of me?

It demands a variety of strategies to deal with various issues, such as: How do I deal with my anxiety? How do I handle the absence of a loved one? How do I deal with all the new challenges? Some things will come easily, other things I will handle with difficulty.

1. Saying goodbye

The initial task that I am confronted with is that of saying goodbye. The problem is that I am not ready for it and I don’t want to do it.
I resist doing it. Everything is unreal, unjust and my whole being rebels – I simply don’t want to say goodbye.
We also do this by engaging in wishful thinking: ‘If only I…’ or: ‘It will change again…’
And then we are also confronted by feelings of guilt: ‘How could I miss noticing that?’ ‘Why didn’t I force him to go to a doctor?’
Anger can become your companion: ‘Look at the situation in which he left me now!’ – anger at God and at yourself.
It can also happen that one falls into despair and see no way out.
Or the world we live is a place where we pretend nothing happened. We just go on with our lives.
All these challenges ask for a confrontation and breakthrough to finally get to the point of saying goodbye. ‘Saying goodbye’ means to admit to myself that someone has left for ever, and then to take responsibility for my own life, my own happiness and joy.

2. It affects our whole life

A loss affects all levels of our life.

Our emotional life is affected: feelings of guilt are commonly experienced. There is sadness. And anguish, usually due to everything that needs attention, manifests itself in a variety of ways. It can be because I am afraid to die as well or because I am scared to continue with life on my own. A numbness may descend on me, I can become short-tempered, experience a loss of warmth in relationships. Emotions can see-saw and change quickly from one extreme to the other.

My primary task is to grieve. People around me feel uncomfortable and nervous about my big loss, and then come with advice. Some say: ‘You must praise the Lord and be grateful for…’ or ‘Don’t cry in front of the children – it will only upset them’ or ‘Now you must be strong for the sake of….’ All this ‘good’ advice just slows down the grieving process. People who express their sadness get more quickly to the phase of adaptation. The Bible gives us very good examples of people who grieved sincerely over their losses. Read Job again and see how he gives utterance to his emotions.

I may express my feelings of sadness, anger, anguish or depression in a socially acceptable way without any guilt. We have been made to give utterance to our emotions. Tears are not just there to wash my eyes clean, but also to communicate messages to my fellow human beings. Losses also cause one’s stress levels to rise, and this must also be communicated and expressed in order to unload. Stress taps energy and can cause listlessness or feelings of not being able to face things. One of the issues death confronts us with is control. I suddenly feel as if I have no control. ‘I can die tomorrow, and I don’t have any control over it.’

We also experience a strong need for emotional support, where people show that they care about us, or are there for us. This is communicated through words or actions – touch, for example, or facial expressions, a gesture or a meal.

Some people feel very vulnerable or exposed. Everyone comes with their condolences, they ask questions, they want to know what has happened and ask what you are going to do now. But you yourself don’t even know yet.

There are physical reactions: you struggle to swallow, your mouth is dry, you are short of breath and have a tightness in the chest, there is a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach, you cannot eat. Stress can give you a feeling of fearfulness so that every little thing frightens you and you feel without energy and force.

Our thoughts are also affected: disbelief – I cannot understand this, things look unreal, I tell myself others won’t understand, thoughts mull round and round the events and cannot get past the loss, there is a lack of concentration, I can even get confused and lost in a familiar environment or experience illogical thought processes.

Behaviour: one can become aggressive, or timid and begin to avoid people – restless and walking up and down are signs of this. Sometimes one cannot get started with activities, one can find it difficult to order things, experience sleeplessness or is sleepy the whole time, one can dream more and remember the dreams, be tearful.
Feelings of depression – should we take medication or not? Anxiety and everything it entails, complaints of all kinds of aches and pains, abuse of substances (pills or alcohol) can come to the fore.

3. Changes and adaptation

Grieving can also be seen as a passage from point A to point B. There are a lot of changes and adaptation to be made now and this will of course differ from person to person. To adapt means to go on with my life without that precious person.

Adapting to a new status – I was married and now I am single, I was the parent of a child, and now the child is gone. I must develop or find a new identity for myself. Who am I now?

Changes in the environment are often necessary. Cupboards are emptied, rooms are rearranged and sometimes it is necessary to move house. But here we should not be hasty. Moving house is advisable only after the grieving process has run some of its course.

These changes can also have social implications. My husband’s friends no longer come over.

New responsibilities can pile on – now it is I who must pay accounts where it was previously my wife who took care of that. I must see to it that the car is serviced. My role in the house has changed. Even though I can’t really be a dad to my children, I am now ‘forced’ to take on this role to a certain degree.

My routine can change completely.

4. A new beginning

• A very important task of grieving is the reinvestment of energy. When sports people can no longer play their sport, they have to channel their energy into another activity – they have to do something else, for example, go into business. After the death of a loved one I must also direct my energy that I invested in this person towards something else. You can do something like taking on a new profession or getting involved with charity work.

• There is a strong search for meaning in what has happened. Some people will say immediately that there is no meaning in death; it is senseless. That may be true, but we also look at the meaning of these events in our own story. Loss is only possible if the person did form part of my life, was part of my story. How does everything fit into my story now? Why now? How is my life now going to continue without this person?

• Grieving is also not a steady upward path, but it is more like a process of advancing a little and retreating again. We brave it going out and then we have to retreat back in again. Later on the outward movement becomes stronger.

• Loss also challenges us to look at our values and beliefs. Suddenly things that were always important are no longer so important. Guilt about things we have left undone but that look important now troubles us. What I always firmly believed in now becomes the object of my doubt. Is God truly a God of love? That which was meaningful to me and gave me purpose now seems meaningless. The world suddenly appears to be a dangerous place, and not a friendly place, like before. I have doubts about the goodness of people and of God.

• I must create my own religious meaning out of all this. Some say to me: ‘God picks the most beautiful flower from his garden.’ ‘God needed her.’ ‘God draws a line and we have to accept it.’ ‘It is better where she is now than here on earth.’ What is my answer to God’s involvement in all that happened?

• Every person grieves at their own pace. It is possible that problems develop between parents who have lost a child, because one can reproach the other for having progressed further in the grieving process.

• Some people do not want to grieve, because they have misconceptions about it. ‘I do not want to grieve, because I can never forget my child or husband.’ Such a person thinks that grieving means to bid the loved one farewell and to forget altogether. Grieving is not about forgetting, but about a process of internalising. The person who was always ‘outside’, who could be seen and touched, is now taken ‘inside’ and is ‘carried inside me’. When I take such a person ‘inside’ me, I can love someone else who is ‘outside’ again without there being any conflict between the two.

Grieving can be a lonely path, that we must naturally take on and finish alone. Do not isolate yourself, but reach out to others, talk to others and, if necessary, look for help. Go and speak to your spiritual leader or with people who have walked the same path before you. Look on the Internet to see if there are support groups in your area, for example a support group like the Compassionate Friends <www.compassionatefriends.org.za> for parents who have lost a child.

You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:11)

May it become true for you too.

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