When tragedy and disaster cause the death of a loved one or destroy our home and property, circumstance usually allows little time to do the emotional and spiritual work of grief. We are in crisis mode: those who die are victims, those who survive are victims. Most are emotionally and physically overwhelmed by the basic tasks necessary to make it through even one more day of upheaval and chaos. Yet despite immeasurable loss, we get up, put one foot in front of the other, and do all we can to sustain life, even as we try to create some order or reason out of what has happened.
When someone we love dies, inevitably we feel the weight of loss that is grief. Yet often we shift the load and try to ignore it because at least for a while, our own survival must take precedence. Grief is an inescapable part of loss, whether by death, destruction, divorce, or any other life event that causes the pain of permanent separation. At some time, in some way, we must experience our grief.
How do we recognize grief? At first it may be the persistent ache of dull, relentless sorrow. Grief may feel like a shadow we simply cannot shake or a dark cloud that hovers above us all the time. We cannot eat it away, drink it away, or medicate it away. Grief is there, lurking in the emotional and spiritual background of our lives to remind us that we have not yet come face to face with the depth and breadth of our loss.
Grief can be delayed, but it will not be denied. If you are asking yourself with any regularity, “What is wrong with me?” or “Why do I feel so sad, lonely, angry, or fearful…?”, likely you are close to an honest encounter with your grief. Yet once we surrender to our need to grieve, there are no more detours, there is no turning back, “Behold, now is the acceptable time” (2 Corinthians 6:2 ASV).
One of the most faithful members of a grief group was a young man about thirty years old whose beautiful wife had died four years earlier of leukemia. Intuitively, he knew that he had not done the work of grief at the time of her death. For what seemed like the right reasons, he managed to avoid his grief for a while, but at last he was forced to give in to grief’s insistent hold on his life. Somewhere along the way he realized that he could not love another woman again with his whole heart until he had dealt constructively with his grief for his wife. For several months he shared his heart and persistent sorrow with the group. Over time, he actively engaged with his grief so that at last he felt that could move forward again with his life.
Sometimes we must delay our grief, especially when the non-negotiable demands on our life prevent us from responding to our grief—the urgency of our job, the demands of our children or grandchildren, the needs of aging parents, the necessity of rebuilding the physical infrastructure of our life while struggling with questions such as where to live or how to provide for our family when all seems lost.
If we are expected to function and cope despite our grief, we may be forced for a while to hardwire around our feelings so that we are at least physically present to the needs of others and to our own daily life. The outcome of our selflessness may be that we put our grief on hold for months or even years, well beyond the moment of our most immediate pain and sorrow. Grief is patient. It waits for our undivided attention. We may postpone our grief or defer it to some other time, but ultimately, we must surrender to its soul-searching power before we are able to live again in true fullness of joy.
At whatever moment we capitulate and fully enter into our grief, the presence of God is always at work, moving us forward along the path of life that leads to the restoration of our spirit and rest for our soul.
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
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