I received a rather urgent letter from a longtime friend whose wife died. They both seemed quite well the last time I saw them together. Her sudden illness, rapid decline, and death were a shock to her family, especially to her husband. From a place of deep distress, he asked for a recommendation on what he might read or do to get over his grief. The tone of his request was intense, the outpouring of his mind and heart read as agitation and chaos. In the letter, he did not specifi his problem, but clearly he was trying to speed grieve. He wanted to know how to make the pain stop hurting. He wanted to be done with grief—right now.
My first thought was this—slow down and take a breath. Grief will not be rushed. In truth, there is no such thing as speed grieving. Poet Henry Taylor wrote, “He that lacks time to mourn, lacks time to mend.” Even if we never completely heal from the death of our loved one, to get better, to mend, and finally to recover from grief we must do the work of grief. Grief is lonely and at times very arduous work. For some, it is work just to get through each day. Grief is anything but once-over-lightly, get-it-done quickly work.
While sitting in my reading chair a few days after my husband died, I realized that I was in shock. I was dazed by the full force and effect of his death. In that moment I knew that I was going to have to go through grief. I knew as well that there was no way around grief, and that the road ahead would be long and hard. I had no idea that pain and sorrow could be so deep or last so long. Over several months that slowly turned into years, I worked at grief. It was hard work, thankless work, yet work that was critical to my own survival.
Grief forces us to sort through the emotions that overwhelm us after the death of one we love while at the same time we work to reconcile ourselves to permanent loss. There is nothing speedy about this daunting challenge. But if we take the time—or make the time—to experience our grief, to wrestle it down and understand it, we get through grief even as we go through grief. This is the reward of our labors for doing the work of grief.
Some who have experienced the death of a loved one choose simply to hang on mindlessly until grief is over. This is a passive form of grieving. Yet whether we like it or not, in some way, on some level grief enters into us and stays with us until we do the work of grief. It becomes a unique power and presence in our life that comes and goes, ebbs and flows. Yet imperceptibly we learn to live alongside grief as we work toward adjustment to life without our loved one. This happens gradually, over time, never in a burst of willful speed. Ultimately we incorporate grief into our life. It becomes a part of who we are even as the death of the one we love and now grieve changes the landscape of our heart and soul forever.
And so, dear friend, the answer to your letter is this—slow down, breathe, pray, grieve, listen to your heart, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NRSV).
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Psalm 43:5 NRSV