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Chances are you've experienced grief on some level.
Just because you haven't experienced loss, doesn't mean you haven't experienced grief. In fact, grief can be the result of a wide array of situations we face in life:
betrayal in marriage
a child's advancement into a new stage of life
the end of a specific season of life (singleness, a job, pre-kids, etc.)
fostering or adopting children
an injury or medical illness
divorce or separation
gaining a new family member
changes in your financial state
trouble with in-laws
changes in residence
The best definition for grief I've found is this: a reaction to loss or change of any kind; conflicting feelings caused by the change or end in any familiar pattern or situation.
The irony is that while most of us experience grief at some point in our lives, it still remains as one of the great taboos of our culture. We just don’t talk about it, or welcome it, or make room for it. There seems to be some sort of unspoken agreement that grief is better left swept under the rug. Which leaves us unskilled, uninformed, and unready when we, or someone we love, face(s) pain and grief. For most of us, if we're being really honest, we'd admit that our only line of defense against grief is simply to hope and pray it doesn't happen to us.
Until it does.
I first met grief on September 12, 2011. It came like a thief in the night, stealing away a lot of what I thought I knew of the world. It evasively greeted me in that dreadful phone call in which my Dad blurted out in despair and sorrow, “Lauren’s dead.” My beautiful, talented, 28-year old sister was gone.
There was no tip-toeing around grief in a moment like this. I fell head first into that uncharted territory with cries of agony, accompanied by shouts of denial, “NO! NO. Please, God, no.”
Just hours after she passed, the "moving van of grief" promptly pulled up to my curb and began unloading box, after box, after box — without my permission and despite my denial. Boxes of what I could have done, boxes of what she could have done, boxes of images, memories, and a future without her, were all unloaded onto my weary, tattered soul.
What do you do with all of the boxes of grief when you were planning on just sweeping them under the rug? What’s a girl to do when she’s lived most of her life being strong, “OK,” and happy? What then?
I quickly learned that grief wasn’t going anywhere. Sweeping it under the rug was not a viable option, unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life numbing my pain in some way. I knew that in order to come through this tragedy alive, I would have to eventually face the grief and process through it. I would have to somehow find my way out of the miry pit before it swallowed me up whole.
I begrudgingly began trying to face grief, treating it at first like an unwelcome and unwanted visitor: You will not disrupt my life. You will not control me. You will not become a part of me.
It’s funny now, realizing that I honestly thought I could control grief. Lesson number one: grief is wild, erratic, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. It will wash over you in a moment’s notice and leave you wrecked. Like in a movie theater, or a meeting at work, or in a simple conversation about current events with your friends (all personal examples, fyi). You can’t prevent it, and you can’t plan for it.
After just one of these unplanned visits with grief I decided that I had to learn how to get along with grief, how to live with it, and how to embrace grief as a part of me: lesson number two. Embracing grief allowed me to see that it really did have my best interest at heart. Grief helped me understand that my emotions were valid and real, and that instead of sweeping those boxes of emotions under the rug, grief reminded me that true healing was only going to come from unpacking each and every box.
Lesson number three was what enabled me to confront every painful box, and that lesson was this: it’s ok to not be ok. And I was not ok for a really long time. I cried unexpectedly, I cancelled plans, I rarely called people back, I was moody and agitated at seemingly everything. And amidst it all, I reminded myself that messy is ok. Facing down my emotions and feelings instead of pretending I was ok was likely to cause some havoc in my life. Grief is messy which can scare people away from facing it. But if we remind ourselves that the mess is ok, normal and necessary, I think it makes it a whole lot easier to process our grief and pain.
A year after my sister passed away, there was this unspoken pressure that a year should be enough time to grieve and that after those 365 days were up I should be ready to move on. Except I wasn’t. Which leads me to lesson number four: the time frame of healing is different for every person. To be honest, it was about 2 1/2 years until I noticed a new season of healing, and the first and slightest desire to continue living. Being immersed now in the community of grievers, I have heard a wide variety of time frames for healing; 1 year, 3 years, 6 years, a decade.
Which brings me to the last lesson, lesson number five; don't shortcut the process. So many of us want to jump past the pain and get to the part where our tragedy is used for good. We feel as if we can't cry one more tear, or "go there" one more time when a memory is triggered, or talk out our feelings...again. But, we must remember that grief is a process. Each and every time an emotion bubbles up, it's simply an opportunity to be healed just a little bit more.
Someone asked me once, “How did you know how to journey through grief?” My response was this: “I didn’t.”
About four months after losing my dear sister, I was sitting on my couch in despair. I was tired, worn out, and in the greatest need of healing, but I thought if I accepted healing that would mean I was moving on and I wasn’t ready to do that. As I sat there something prompted me to talk honestly with God. I told Him that I was mad and angry at Him and that I wanted my sister back. I yelled and cussed and raised my voice. I told Him I didn’t understand and that everything hurt so bad. And eventually, after pouring out every feeling that was within me, I remember saying, through broken cries, “Ok…Ok, God…I don’t understand her death, but I know that I want your healing…I know that I want something good to come from this…will you heal me?” And thus my journey of grief began.
I think a lot of people resist God in grief. And I get it. It’s difficult to make sense of a good God when we experience such pain. What people often times mistake, though, is thinking that God is the source of our pain. What I found in my experience through loss, was the exact opposite. God was the (only) source of my healing, my hope, and my newfound vibrancy despite my despair. The very moment I invited God into my pain, was the very first moment since my sister passed away that I felt something good, something healing, something comforting.
It has been almost six years since my sister passed away. Over the past several years, grief and pain have become a part of me. And although I would take my sister back in a heartbeat, I wouldn't trade this journey of grief for anything. It has changed me in the most profound ways. Not sinking into that miry pit, but instead coming through grief has actually given me a deeper and more authentic life. I have felt the deepest sorrow, yet on the flip side, I have also experienced the greatest joy. Grief does that. It has no patience for surface-level connection anymore, it demands true, soul-connecting intimacy and because of it I have experienced the deepest relationships in my life — the ones that see my ugliest parts and still love me anyway. I have grief to thank for all of this.
I guess if I had to wrap this up in someway I would say this: whatever pain you may be experiencing, lean into it, feel it and process it with God, don’t run from it. Instead, embark on the journey of grief laid out before you and trust that God has plans to take all of the junk and pain and grief you are experiencing and bring something good from it.
R E S O U R C E S:
Angel Catcher (Journal)
Blog Post on How to Support Someone Grieving
Choosing Real (Book)
Tear Soup (Storybook)