Grief: God's Way of Healing the Heart

by James White

The Patterns of Grief


We like to have things in our lives well organized, and when speaking of something that we are experiencing, we ask of our doctors or counselors specific information, sure facts that we can operate on. Yet, grief defies such easy categorization, and instead forces us to operate on general principles. Despite this, we will see that it is possible to identify certain patterns in our experience that will serve to remind us yet again that we are not alone in our sorrow, and that many have trod this path before us.

Grief is not linear. You don't "start" at the loss, and then proceed in a nice straight line through "phases" like "anger" or "sadness" until you reach the "end" of the line and the end of the process. That would be nice, but God didn't make us that way.

At times grief seems, especially to those who are experiencing it, as if it is a circle. A person goes through the "resentment/bitterness/ bargaining" stage, and thinks, "Well, there, I've gone through that, and I'm glad I won't have to go through it again." But then, lo and behold, a few weeks later they realize they are smack dab back in the middle of the same feelings they had before! Many are tempted to give up at such a revelation, since it seems like grief is a circle that cannot be broken, and one thing is for certain, no one wants to stay in that process for the rest of their lives!

The grieving process is not a line, neither is it a circle. Instead, we might best describe it as a spiral. From one viewpoint, a spiral looks like a circle, but from another you can see that progress is being made in one direction or another. That spiral can be headed "up" or "down." In either case, a person traveling along that spiral may visit one "stage" of grief more than once, but, if progress is being made, one will have learned from that stage before, and, if healing is taking place, one will not stay in that stage as "long" as before. Each time we meet those feelings, we are a little better able to handle them, a little better able to go on with our lives.

I should note at this point that not everyone experiences all of the "phases" of grief. Not everyone, for example, struggles with anger. These categories are based upon the general experience of those who have lost a loved one. Every situation, as we have said, is unique, and therefore "exceptions to the rule" are to be expected.

The "spiral of grief" can either lead us upward and, eventually, out of the process, or, if we refuse to face our grief, and engage in self-destructive behavior that denies the reality of what has taken place in our lives, it can lead ever downward into despair, loneliness, and bitterness. I have, sadly, met more than one person who was still in the process many, many years after a loss. They were bitter, unhappy, and unable to function in a normal way, all due to their unwillingness to face the necessity of working through grief. We will talk more about the danger of this kind of situation later on. For now, we might see the two spirals of grief like this:

The Upward Spiral:

  1. Numbness/Shock
  2. Emptiness/Solitude
  3. Anxiety/Guilt/Shame
  4. Anger/Irritability
  5. Sadness/Grief
  6. Acceptance

On the other hand, note the small, but important differences in the opposite:

The Downward Spiral:

  1. Numbness/Shock
  2. Emptiness/Isolation
  3. Fear/Anxiety/Guilt/Shame
  4. Anger/Animosity
  5. Resentment/Bitterness
  6. Sadness/Despair



It is helpful to contrast the stages of the process between the upward and downward spirals:
Upward Spiral
Downward Spiral
Numbness/Shock
Numbness/Shock
Emptiness/Solitude
Emptiness/Isolation
Anxiety/Guilt/Shame
Fear/Anxiety/Guilt/Shame
Anger/Irritability
Anger/Animosity
Sadness/Grief
Resentment/Bitterness
Acceptance
Sadness/Despair

Note how these "stages," which are based upon the common experience of people as they deal with their loss, are similar but very different.

Shock

Everyone goes through numbness and shock: it is in reality God's gracious way of helping us to cope with those first few days and weeks after the loss itself. Our minds are not allowed to process fully what has happened. We handle things in an almost mechanical way. Many are tempted to think that we are being so "strong," so "courageous," when the simple fact of the matter is we are on "auto-pilot," going about the many tasks we have to accomplish without really being aware of everything that is going on around us. Some are concerned about the accompanying "numbness," the lack of emotion that some exhibit. But during the first two weeks or so after a loss, such a lack of feeling is probably much more related to emotional shock than anything else. Sadly, our society often gives us only a few weeks to "adjust," so that right as the shock is wearing off and the full force of the loss is hitting us, we are expected to put this all aside and "get back to business."

Solitude versus Isolation

Next we have, in the upward spiral, emptiness and solitude (the order of presentation is not meant to indicate a particular order that these stages will follow). Everyone feels a tremendous sense of emptiness and separation, and for good reason: a large portion of their world has just disappeared, and we very much want things to be what they once were. But those on the upward spiral experience solitude, while those on the downward spiral, isolation. What is the difference?

Solitude is necessary for us at times during the grieving process. We need time to ourselves to think, reflect, and mourn. This is fine and proper. But there is a difference between solitude and isolation. With solitude, you have periods of quiet interspersed with normal interaction with loved ones and friends. Isolation speaks of a person pushing others away, making an active choice to sever relationships and refuse consolation and comfort. People who isolate themselves cut themselves off from positive, healthy input from outside their world of hurt, and they do so to their own detriment. As much as we might want the world to "go away," we still live in the world, and cannot isolate ourselves from others. Cutting yourself off from family, fellow believers, and friends, is the first step toward embarking on the downward spiral of grief rather than the upward track.

Anxiety

Next, we have anxiety, guilt and shame. Most people who grieve feel anxious for many reasons. We are always reminded of our own mortality when someone close to us dies. Christians should experience this less than unbelievers for the simple reason that we should always be reminded of the death of our Lord. We should have a very realistic view of death, including our own, and should live each day in light of the fact that we are but a mere breath that, someday, will pass from this earth (Psalm 39:5). But no matter how often we think of it, the passing of a loved one reminds us that we, too, are destined for death as well.

Anxiety also comes to us when we were dependent in any way upon the person who has gone. Wives who lose husbands are often anxious about many things, how they will live, how they will care for the house, take care of things the husband always did, etc. Parents who lose one child become anxious about the welfare of other children. Children who lose one parent become anxious for the other who is still living. Another term used today for "anxiety" is "stress," and we all know how much of that we live with every day. Believers have the promise of God that we can cast our cares (our anxieties, our "stress" if you will) upon Him, for He cares for us (1 Peter 5:6-7). Such is a precious promise for the Christian who is grieving.

Guilt is a tough issue to deal with. Yet I have seen it tear apart many a person who was struggling with grief. "If I had only seen the signs earlier" the wife says after her husband dies of a heart attack. "If I had only driven that night" the husband says after his wife dies in a car accident. "Second guessing" is another way of describing this common activity. We are always looking to lay blame somewhere, and often, even if we don't do it openly, we lay it upon ourselves.

Again, the Christian has the wonderful comfort of knowing that all his or her guilt, including guilt that comes to us in grief, is carried to the cross in our Savior. We know that second guessing God will accomplish nothing (though we can't avoid the questions that come to our minds), and, though at times it is very hard, believers who go through the process come out with a firmer trust in the sovereignty and goodness of God. We will discuss the "tough questions" about God's goodness later.


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