Fording the River of Grief

By Jonathan Olford   •   January 24, 2005   •   Topics:

I am a psychologist, and I’ve trained many people in how to help people who have lost loved ones or suffered a traumatic event of crisis proportions. In addition, I have walked through the grieving process with many of my own clients after they have experienced a significant loss. But having recently suffered the loss of my own father just a few months ago, this matter of grief and grieving suddenly became very significant to me personally.

We each experience losses like this at some point in our lives. For some, the experience is repeated many times over. This may be the case in your life. Perhaps you are in the throes of grief as you read this.

Suffering, loss, dying and death all have been a part of our life experience since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. The suddenness of death, regardless of the warning, is encountered by Christians and non-Christians alike. But it was not God’s intention to incorporate suffering and the pain of loss into His perfect world. Sin is to blame for plunging us into a maze of confusion, pain, suffering, cruelty and death. Now we must learn to cope with it.

Sometimes simply understanding what grieving is about can offer a measure of solace. Grieving is a normal and natural (albeit painful) emotional reaction to loss. It is as though we have been traveling on a path and have come to a river. At some point each of us must negotiate the river of grief. For some of us, fording the river is relatively inconsequential. It is as though we are fortunate enough to find a series of sandbars that allow a relatively easy passage through the river–we hardly get wet. Others step off the bank into the river of grief and immediately find themselves submerged, overwhelmed and gasping for breath. Still others lower themselves gingerly into the river, making headway through thigh-deep waters, only to step into a hole halfway across–caught in a current that threatens to overwhelm their strength and to carry them away.

The pain of grief comes in many forms because it is an internal response to an external event–one that even our Lord experienced. Even though Jesus knew, as God in the flesh, that He was about to call Lazarus from the grave, He still stood and wept with Mary and Martha over the loss of their brother.

Emotional pain is the pain of the heart. This internal pain revolves around the experience of the loss of something or someone precious. Grieving can be extremely difficult because it reflects a multitude of complex, intermingled emotions. A variety of emotions such as love and hate, fear and anger, relief and bitterness, panic and calm can all descend upon us. Yet no one person’s grief experience is exactly like that of someone else. For those of us left behind, grief is inextricably linked to our awareness of our unfulfilled dreams, unrealized aspirations and unaccomplished goals.

I remember a young man whose father died during his junior year of high school; the young man had just made the varsity team and the choir for the first time. The phrases he uttered repeatedly throughout that time were: “Dad will never get to see me play” and “My dad would have loved to have heard me sing.”

The symptoms of grief can begin before, during or after an event. Therefore, these reactions can sometimes surface in the process of preparing for the loss. Other times our grief simply catches us off guard and threatens to overwhelm us. Grief tends to carry with it a set of unexpected but identifiable ingredients. This is why a loss sometimes proves to be somewhat easier to manage when we anticipate it. Regardless, as the Psalmist reminds us, strength and comfort are available to us as we bring our grief before our Lord (Psalm 71:20-21). The Prophet Isaiah also reminds us of the promises of the deep comfort and the encouragement of a loving God–these are gifts to each of us who grieves and suffers.

Immediately following a loss, we often find ourselves thrust into a state of surrealism or non-reality, sometimes called denial. “How could this have happened?” we think. “I can’t believe this! Am I dreaming?” These and other similar thoughts are what we often ask in an effort to make sense of something that has just bombarded our senses with more than we can contain. Fred, a man who was a stickler for details, had just died. On the day of the funeral, his wife was found feverishly dusting the house before her family and friends came over later in the day. Why was she so worried about this? “If the house is messy,” she thought, “Fred will be so upset.” She still hadn’t grasped the reality of her loss.

The awareness of loss is often accompanied by intense and overwhelming contractions of grief. During this phase of recovery–often referred to as the “anger phase”–sleep can be fitful. Weeping can threaten to overpower us. For a time we may feel a sense of panic. We may think, “Am I going crazy? I feel as though I am losing my mind.” We may become forgetful, wander aimlessly, never feel as though we can finish anything and be unable to maintain our concentration or to stay on top of things. Physical symptoms, such as stomach upset, headaches, migraines and fatigue, often accompany this phase. For some people guilt is a significant battle. “I wish I’d …” and “If only we’d …” are common thoughts.

Hostility and anger also can surface during the next phase–the bargaining phase. Perhaps anger is directed at the “cause” of the death or the loss; perhaps it is directed at an offending individual. Perhaps it is directed at God for allowing this to happen; perhaps it is directed at one’s self. “Why didn’t I …?” or “Lord, why didn’t you take me instead?” might be common thoughts during this phase.

Our ability to “get back to business as usual” often seems so limited that we think we will never return to normal. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that our return to normalcy occurs little by little, much as one returns to life following a significant surgery, an amputation or a long-term illness.

But there is hope! As we reestablish hope, the pain begins to lessen. There is also truth to this statement: “Life will never be the same again; it will get better, but it won’t be like it was before.” We cannot recreate the past, nor are we supposed to. Grieving, in a sense, is the process during which the Lord allows us to integrate the experiences and memories of the past along with the significance of loss so that we can move forward with hope, belief and commitment to the future. As we emerge on the opposite bank of the river of grief, we now are ready to continue the journey.

So, recognize that it is OK to cry in front of people; it still hurts. It is OK to miss your parent, son, daughter or spouse; you still love that person. It is OK to ask for help; we all need to experience the comfort of the Holy Spirit as expressed in the empathy, compassion and tenderness of His people. Don’t worry that others are uncomfortable with your grief. They likely don’t understand fully because it has not yet happened to them. Be forgiving of others, but be sensitive to yourself. Bring your grief to the Lord daily. He will see you through this experience because He loves you and He promises us His comfort in the midst of the pain.

These truths have been deeply felt by my family this year. Life will never be the same without the exuberant presence of my father, but we are getting better. The pain is not gone, yet at the same time, the Lord has been an ever-present comfort as He has waded through the river with us, and we have brought our grief to Him.

I pray you may experience His comfort as you walk through your deep waters with Him.

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  1. Nancy Tannenbaum says:

    Thank you for this article. Your words help my aching heart as I cope with the approaching death of my elderly mother, who I love with all of my heart. I pray continually for God’s peace. Thank you again.