Grief is often manifested by crushing, suffocating, debilitating anguish. Confused thinking or pathological reasoning may be present. This is intensified when the grief comes through bereaving for a loved one who has recently died. People experiencing this kind of grief need help, hope and often counseling.
Lists of causes of grief are many and easily obtained. These lists are sometimes helpful. Dr. Gary Collins, in his Christian Counseling, published by Word, makes an excellent summary of causes when he stated, “Indeed, whenever a part of life is removed there is grief.”
Dr. Jay Adams, in his Christian Counselors Manuel, published by Baker summarizes the causes of grief this way, “Those who have suffered life-shattering experiences need hope. Grief over the loss of: 1) a person by death, moving, adultery, divorce, 2) possessions or, 3) position (status, job, one’s good name) may experience grief and need hope.” And they need help. And help is available.
The emptiness and pain of being forced to let go of someone we love, sometimes isn’t softened even by our firm belief that we will see them again. Belief in the resurrection brings comfort to Christ followers, or Christians, but it is still painful. It is hard for the grieving to comprehend, much less accept, the fact that they are now absolutely, inflexibly, irreversibly separated from their loved one.
As Dr. Collins points out in Christian Counseling, “The Bible is a realistic book which describes the deaths and subsequent grieving of many people. In the Old Testament we read of God’s presence and comfort as we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23); we read descriptions of people grieving in times of loss and trouble (Ps. 6:5-7, 137:1,5,6, 2 Samuel 12). We learn that the Word of God strengthens grievers (Ps. 119:28), and we are introduced to the Messiah as a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Surely our grief He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried (Isaiah 53:3,4).”
Those who grieve are one of two kinds of people. Those who are believers in Christ, The One who claimed, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25) are of one group. Those who do not believe in Christ and do not believe in the resurrection make up the other group. One thing that these groups have in common is that their loved ones who have died want their survivors to know that Jesus desires to be their Redeemer. It is important that the grieving realize that the loved one they have lost would choose for them to continue with their new life. It is a new life because their loss has changed everything.
It is equally important that the grieving know how to continue. When they are vulnerable and the sting of their loss is still fresh they may need more than comforting friends. They may need someone who is impartial, like a counselor, to help them regain direction and momentum.
Dr. Collins quotes C M Parkes’ Bereavement: Studies in Grief in the Adult Life (New York: International Universities Press, 1972), that there are four stages of grief. In the phase of numbness there is shock and a period when the reality of the loss is partially disregarded. In the phase of yearning there is an urge to recover the lost object and the permanence. In the phase of disorganization and despair, both the fact and permanence of the loss are accepted and attempts to recover the lost object are given up. Finally there is a phase of reorganization of behavior.
At times, society’s mandates, perhaps especially in western countries, make it hard to spend prolonged amounts of time in grieving. Society doesn’t slow down and wait for the griever. Society expects the griever to cope with their loss and soon, sometimes very soon, move on to resume routine responsibilities. This can be very difficult. We must caution ourselves to not think the grieving person is fine just because we see them going through the motions and functions of life. It isn’t mentally or emotionally healthy to deny or suppress our grief.
Many models have been created delineating various stages of grief. The information is helpful because the griever may be able to recognize emotions and thoughts they have experienced and understand that these emotions and thoughts are normal. These models may even give the griever hope as they see they are progressing along an identifiable path. The griever may have a sense of commonality with others who have suffered loss. This is important and I’ll say more about commonality later.
Grief, however, is individualistic. Caution should be exercised when anyone may be trying to categorize progress, or lack of progress, in the grieving process. Each person has distinct needs and therefore must be counseled or ministered to singularly.
Grief is not the same for everyone. It is probably not the same for any two people. C S Lewis illustrates this when writing about his own grief experience in A Grief Observed.
“Tonight all of the hells of young grief have opened again, the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For grief doesn’t “stay put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?”
C S Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam Books, 1961), pp 66,67
Time does not heal. It may help create numbness, but time alone does not heal.
When counseling children who are bereaving remember they must go through the grief process, too. Let them ask all of the questions they want to ask. They need assurance. This is especially true if the deceased is closely related. Children need to know they will not be neglected. They are not to blame. They need to know that it is normal to be sad, feel confused, afraid and need support from others. Allowing, even encouraging, discussion and questions is conducive to sound mental health and healing for them.
Death is never harder to accept than when someone loses a child of any age. The intensity of pain and sorrow is sharp, deep and numbing. Confusion, denial, hopelessness, anger and even terror can be present at any time in a parent who has lost a child. The surviving parent may ask, with cognizance or not, “Why should I go on?” If a counselor, friends or family dare to speak any words of comfort then this is a time when those words must very gentle, discerning, patient and full of wisdom. A parent who has lost a child is frequently the best counselor in this case. Mutual pain and grief go a long way in qualifying someone to counsel a grieving parent. 11 Corinthians 1:3,4 gives substance to this concept. In this situation commonality is of great value.
Regardless of whether we have the courage to speak at such times, the scriptures compel us many times to be ready to encourage and comfort our brothers and sisters and we must do so, but with great caution and discernment. Proverbs 12:25, NASB, says it this way. “Anxiety in the heart of a man weighs it down, but a good word makes it glad.” Again, Proverbs 25:11 NASB, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” Proverbs 15:23 “What a joy it is to find just the right word for the right occasion!”
I especially like the promise in The English Standard Bible in Psalms 30:5; “For His anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Right circumstances? When is the right time to give counsel for the bereaving? The best answer is when they ask for it. We should be ready with wisdom and knowledge so that we can help someone who is grieving. During the early stages of grief, listening is usually better than talking. But when the time comes we must be ready to help. However, they never cliches or sermonizing.
Here are some things to consider.
Encourage discussions about death. If a loved one has a terminal disease encourage discussion about death with those who will survive the patient. If it wasn’t possible to discuss death before it occurred, gently encourage it as soon as it appears the survivor wants to say something about it.
Be available. Continue to include them in your fellowship activities.
Don’t pressure the griever to share their feelings but make it known that expressing feelings is all right.
When anger, denial, crying, sadness and fear are present in the griever, accept it. It isn’t necessary to correct or admonish.
Pray for the bereaved. If they want you to pray with them, do so.
Provide meals, child-care, transportation and other help whenever you can. House and car repair and lawn maintenance are practical ways to help the bereaved. This is a good opportunity for a small group of friends to circle the bereaved with support in many ways.
“Grief tends to move toward despair, but hope holds it back in proper balance.”
Heb 6:18, “we have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us,
Heb 6:19, ” which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast,
Hope is the anchor that stops the drift. Bereavement counseling can help the bereaved take hold of the anchor. Counseling can help the bereaved take hold of the anchor of hope and hold on with both hands until hope is fulfilled.