Soul-Care Articles – Christ-centered, Spirit-informed, Clinically-sound

C.S. Lewis wrote, in A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?” From intense mental anguish to acute sorrow and deep remorse, grief is a unique human suffering. It has been described as an amputation of the heart, a never-ending pain that reaches to the marrow of one’s soul, a sorrow that leaves no part of the bereaved life untouched.

Jeremiah was a man deeply touched with such pain (Lamen. 3:1- 5). “I am the man who has seen affliction; He has made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely he has turned his hand against me, He has aged my skin and broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and woe; You have moved my soul far from peace; I have forgotten prosperity.”

While grieving is unavoidable, healing in and through grief is optional. We must learn to grieve, to prepare for grief, and accept-if not welcome-it into our lives for a season. The intensity of our grief depends on a combination of three variables: (1) our attachment to the person or loss (how close we were to them), (2) the way the loss came about, and (3) whether it was sudden, premature, or violent. Anyone who has lost a loved one may recall the harsh announcement of death, hitting like an avalanche, with heartache, shock, numbness, and disbelief.

Not long ago I (Tim) had to tell my children, Megan and Zachary, that one of their beloved ‘papas’ (Julie’s dad) had died of cancer. Oh, the hurt that sliced through them. There are few blows to the human spirit so great as this. At no other time in life are we so acutely aware of how fragile life is and having to put one foot in front of the other in order to get through the day. Life can move in an extremely painful slow motion and can feel like a horrifying nightmare from which we do not awaken.

Grieving involves sorrow, anguish, anger, regret, longing, fear, and deprivation. Physically it produces exhaustion, emptiness, tension, sleeplessness, or loss of appetite. If we fail to express our grief at the time of loss, the pain can remain constant, because it takes so much energy to manage our feelings. In order to begin healing, we must come to accept grief as normal, inevitable, unavoidable. As Barbara Baumgartner put it, “Grief is a statement -a statement that you loved someone.” When we allow ourselves to share our grief with God and others, we release our pain, fears, and heartache. As this occurs, our pain begins to subside. From time to time, grief will wash over us-sometimes surprise and catch us in tears of sorrow, but the healing has begun.

Dispelling Myths

“Jesus wept.” John 11:35 is the shortest and one of the most powerful verses in the Bible, for it reveals that Jesus grieved-He was well acquainted with it, in fact (Is. 53:4-6). Too many of us, however, hang on to various myths that block the healing process.

Myth #1: Don’t grieve. An especially harmful belief is that God doesn’t want us to grieve, or has saved us in order that we might avoid grievous suffering. We are led to believe that it’s morbid or even offensive to sorrow in loss or to talk about death, and therefore it should be an avoidable subject. Public displays of emotion are not considered appropriate in our society, nor is loss of composure. Although few people say it directly, many tend to think that we are to simply let go and move on quickly. This is contrary to our God-given need to express our emotions, and when we fail to do this it causes further stress.

Myth #2: Grief harms our faith. Another lie is that grieving and working through the loss of a loved one damages our Christian testimony, and diminishes our faith. It is a sign of weakness for those who falsely believe that they must always be strong, or at least look strong. Quite to the contrary, sharing with, giving our heartache to the Lord will build a deeper, sweeter, and more intimate relationship with Him. Our weakness becomes His strength (Phil. 4:13). Honest grieving that seeks and leans on God nearly always helps our faith to grow as we depend on Him to heal our brokenness.

Myth #3: Always be positive. Another Christian myth is that we should only express joy and positive emotions. But who better than our Father in heaven knows the anguish of losing a loved one. Jesus Himself was prophetically revealed as ‘a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3).

Myth #4: God is absent. If you grieve, Where is God? Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain. Some think they experience, however, a door slammed shut and the sound of bolting locks-after that, silence. What can this mean? Why is He so present as God in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? Not all who mourn feel this type of aloneness. Some individuals report a stronger sense of God’s presence following their loved one’s death. This clearly reveals that the grieving process -a lamentation of the soul in five movements-is as unique and individual as the person experiencing it.

The First Movement: Joining

Some people think God allots pain and suffering that He Himself doesn’t know or understand. The Bible provides a different view. Genesis 6:6 reveals that God was grieved in His heart. Pain and grief are found on the eve of our Savior’s crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then again later at the cross. Anyone who has lost a loved one has felt the same excruciating sorrow and pain as Jesus when He said to His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” And who in the midst of loss hasn’t begged our Father in Heaven, as Jesus did, “My Father, if it is possible may this cup be taken from me.” In our darkest hour, as we stood at the grave of a child, parent, or spouse, who hasn’t cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

If Jesus is our supreme example- the One who shows us best how to grieve-we must then trust that sharing our innermost pain and sorrow will bring us healing, as well as a deeper intimacy with God. Hiding or denying our feelings only suppresses our ability to heal and oppresses our spirits. It is completely normal to long for those you love, and weep over their absence. It reveals our Christ-like nature of compassion, love, empathy and concern for others. When Jesus arrived in Bethany following Lazurus’ death, death, He wept (John 11:35). 

Ken Gire beautifully describes this scene in his book, Incredible Moments With the Savior: “Jesus approaches the gravesite with the full assurance that he will raise his friend from the dead. Why then does the sight of the tomb trouble him? Maybe the tomb in the garden is too graphic a reminder of Eden gone to seed. Of Paradise lost. And of the cold, dark tomb he would have to enter to regain it. In any case, it is remarkable that our plight could trouble his spirit; that our pain could summon his tears. The raising of Lazarus is the most daring and dramatic of all the Savior’s healings. He courageously went into a den where hostility raged against him to snatch a friend from the jaws of death. It was an incredible moment. It revealed that Jesus was who he said he was-the resurrection and the life. But it revealed something else. The tears of God.” And who’s to say which is more incredible -a man who raises the dead or a God who weeps.” A God who weeps, grieves, and knows sorrow is a God who loves us so much that He subjected Himself to the cross, to the worst pain that we endure. He did this so that He could be there to take us into His arms, cradle our weak and emotionally lifeless bodies, and nurture us back to spiritual health with the assurance that He loves us and will never forsake us.

In the worst cases, it may be necessary to seek medical care to work through this stage. Some do wallow in denial, reinforcing it-sometimes for years on end- with drugs, alcohol, and addictions of various sorts. Many people who enter counseling do so because they have become stuck in grief, even when they present something that may seem entirely unrelated. It is important, therefore, that counselors query about death and grief in the intake process. Helping someone finish grieving a death that happened years ago is a case formulation that it too often overlooked by helpers. Some individuals rationalize that their pain isn’t really all that intense. This denial is fairly straightforward-it seems honest to those who work hard at it. When asked, “How ya’ doin’?” the stock answer is, “Fine, thanks.” If a person denies and rationalizes too long, however, they begin to believe it, and will angrily defend it if challenged.

Idealizing the dead is an additional defense against the harsh reality of death. Any flaw of the deceased is denied or easily overlooked. A woman who lived with an abusive spouse might say, “Harold was a really good provider for all of us, and in his own way he really loved us.” Sometimes idealization is so extreme that the grieving person will not allow anyone else to say anything bad, or even make a realistic assessment. Others will vividly dream about the deceased, as what we cannot deal with while we are awake is worked through in our dreams as we sleep.

Another defense is regression. We avoid pain by retreating to a previous, more primitive and less mature way of behaving, feeling, and thinking. The child who has been potty-trained may wet their bed, or insist on having a bottle when they’ve been drinking from a cup. The teen-ager may sulk and throw tantrums like a ten-year-old. A sober adult may start drinking again. But if regression takes hold, the pain is not eliminated. It is simply locked away.  

Soul-prayer on joining

Be still, O my grieving, hurting soul. Be still and know that God is near. Be still to tell Him we want-we need-Him to come near. O God, come near to me and still my aching soul. Come and soothe my broken heart, heal the awful pain inside. Please God, let me embrace you-know your presence -as I confess that I cannot face this alone.

Second Movement: Normalizing Stormy Emotions.

 The world-renown psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, defined numerous stages through which the bereaved must travel through in order to resolve their loss. In some cases, not all stages are lived; in others, they are experienced in different order, cycled in different ways.

Shock and denial are often the first stages of grief. Like the shock of physical trauma, the shock of first knowing the death of a loved one assaults us from top to bottom. Our denial of death is described as a dazed numbness that embraces a refusal to accept the loss. “No, NO! That’s not true. It can’t be true!” Denial is a common companion to loss and comes in different shapes and forms.  Many people try to return to a normal routine and intellectualize the loss. Many know intellectually their loved one is gone, but emotionally they reject that it’s happened. Another variation of denial is admitting the loss and feeling it, but behaving as if it had never occurred.

Denial is normal-it is not initially bad. It is a way we work to lessen the initial impact of the loss. Experiencing loss all at once could overwhelm and consume us. Author Joyce Landorf agrees that denial has a divine purpose: “We need denial but we must not linger in it. We must recognize it as one of God’s most unique tools and use it. Denial is our special oxygen mask to use when the breathtaking news of death has sucked every ounce of air out of us….” Denial can be sweet for a short time-it can produce a numbness that acts like a pain-killing drug to a broken heart. Eventually, as reality intrudes and the numbness fades, the intense grief of this early stage may produce physical symptoms such as chest pains or a sense of suffocation.

Fear and anxiety sometimes takes hold and can overwhelm, thus preventing growth and recovery.  Recovery occurs when we face our loss and give ourselves permission to grieve. Denial may be a necessary short-term strategy that helps us ease into grief without being crushed by it. As a long-term strategy, however, it is deadly. As we grow out of denial, it is common for people to begin asking questions. We search for answers and want to know details. We often ask to see an autopsy or police reports. As we search for answers, we suddenly come face-to-face with stark reality-with the factual details of the death. We sometimes find ourselves consciously or unconsciously looking for our deceased loved one in a crowd or a location where we often spent time together. We see someone who looks like the deceased and we’re transfixed by a flood of emotion. This is all part of the process of coming to terms with our loss.

Anger is also a part of grieving. Mourners typically experience anger as they grieve. The early stage of anger often feels like hurt. Sometimes we’re sad, other times we’re disappointed, or frustrated, and still other times we’re depressed. Anger is a response to our pain and it’s often directed at God. When we suffer, it is not uncommon to believe that God has forsaken us and broken our trust in Him. When others tell us to ‘trust in God’ during this time, the words suddenly make no sense. They sometimes sound absurd, like a huge cosmic joke. How can we trust God when our hopes and dreams with our loved one have been unexpectedly shattered? How can we trust the One who took our loved one away? How do we trust someone with the very power of life and death in their hands? These are common questions-questions we must eventually take to God. At some point we will realize that God wants us to trust Him even when we don’t understand why.

Since God is the only One who can fix the problem, He often becomes the focus of our anger. The more intimate our relationship with God, the more betrayed we may feel by the One who was supposed to intervene in our hour of need. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, is an excellent example. She was angry at Jesus when He failed to prevent her brother’s death. “If you had been here,” she admonished Him, “my brother would not have died!” We assume that Mary’s trust in Jesus had definitely diminished. Death makes us feel small, vulnerable, insecure-we come face-to-face with our own mortality. Grieving the death of a loved one challenges us-to our very core-to believe and trust that God’s eternal perspective is better, even superior to our own. We wrestle with the holes in our faith-Will God take me? Will I be privy to His plan? We wrestle with faith in God’s goodness- uncomfortable in the awareness that our faith is so weak in the face of such tragedy. Psalm 130:5 tells us; “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His Word I put my hope.”

Better or bitter

Grief forces us to face this dilemma-I am going to get better or become bitter. Too many get embittered. A long-term study indicated that the death rate of widows and widowers is 2-17 times higher during the first year, following the death of a spouse. Another study discovered that about 25% of those who mourn experience a dramatic decrease in the body’s immune system, six to nine months after their loss. This is one of the reasons why grieving people are more susceptible to illness. However if the grieving process in handled in a healthy manner-if the bereaved one pursues God’s design to get better-this immune deficiency is avoidable. And in order to believe Him, to put your faith in His Word, we are driven to search Him out in prayer, in the Bible, in the hands and faces of others. We are compelled to seek Him in order that He may reveal Himself more than ever before.

Soul-prayer on normalizing

O my soul, loss is inevitable, and grief wants to escape this, but I know deep inside that I cannot. O God, please let this cup pass; but if not, give me the courage to face this honestly, the strength to endure it until your light dawns again on the other side of this sorrow. O God, help me do what I know I cannot, what I don’t want to do.

Third Movement: Understanding

While you may be ready to accept that God is not your enemy because of your loved one’s death, you still may not understand why He chose to take them. Our questions may not find answers while we are here on earth. But we have chosen to walk by faith, believing that God was, is, and will be with us on earth and in heaven. And though grief is an inescapable part of the human condition, He demonstrates His love for us through His loving compassion. At some point we arrive at a partial understanding of grief: to grapple with overwhelming loss and eventually adapt to it.

During this time, necessary changes must be made so that we can live with our loss in a healthy way. This occurs when our questions changes from, “Why did this happen to me?” to “What can I learn from this and how can I best proceed with my life?” As we begin to grow again, we will experience days that are more difficult than others. Tears, fears, anger and confusion are still ahead, but God gives them to us to help release our feelings. We slowly begin to understand, to accept this death. We also realize that grieving is a two part process: the loss of a loved one, and the recovery of our spirit. It is natural to want to return to the life we knew before this traumatic event occurred, but it’s imperative we live a new “normal.” We do this by refusing to be locked away in a tomb of agony for the remainder of our lives, and instead, come to a place of surrender.

Soul-prayer on understanding

O my soul, do not blame God. He is not at fault for the evil of this world or the suffering of life. He is big enough to handle any blame, shame, confusion, and fear that I carry. O my God, help me cope, help me cry, help me learn, help me grow through this. Draw me close to yourself and fill my heart with your love, my mind with yourself. You are able; enable me, O God.

Fourth Movement: Surrender

God promises to deliver those who seek Him. Surrender comes when we finally accept that we could not have changed our loved one’s death. We accept that we are unable to turn back the hands of time-we cannot bring them back, nor are they coming back. We can get angry at God and remain stuck there. I’m sure you know some, still angry over events that transpired decades ago! On the other hand, we can surrender to God and seek His comfort, healing, and direction. In the midst of grief’s pain neither choice seems attractive or acceptable. However, it is inevitable as we choose one or the other. Most believers, at some point, surrender their grieving to the Lord. In so doing, He comes to our side and answers our cries. God comes to our rescue.

Surrender occurs when the bereaved accepts the loss of their loved one, re-adjusts their bond on a more spiritual level, and re-organizes their life. Death is a life changing event- one that alters our view of life, our priorities, our perception of God and His goodness, and every other aspect of our life. Additionally, there are secondary losses that need to be acknowledged. For the woman who suddenly becomes a widow, the loss extends beyond her mate to the hopes and dreams they had together. She has not only lost him, but dreams for the future, and his involvement as her friend, lover, encourager, confidant, prayer partner, protector, tax preparer, business partner, and everything else. She must find new ways to have these needs met. Trusting that He will provide, she must ask the Lord to give her strength to seek help from others, believing that He will provide for her.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.” Some people find that keeping a journal helps them work through their difficulties. “What we work out in our journals we don’t take out on family and friends,” is an old and wise saying. Another common healing step is to join a grief group in your church or community-bringing that pain to others who know and share the same grief. Resolving our loss and surrendering it occurs when we accept the hurt and the memories, but we can move on with a focus when we accept God’s promise: “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20).

Soul-prayer on surrender

O my soul, remember that our beloved one is merely asleep in death, and wild with joy right now in the presence of God. Remember that God wants touch my broken heart. In Christ, on the cross, He knows my pain. In His resurrection from the dead, He is my only hope. O God, let me know that your thoughts toward me have no harm in them at all, but that You are full of plans to give me a future and a hope. Deliver me from this unspeakable sorrow, heal me from this merciless pain. O God, into your hands, I give my life. Take it and do what You will with it.

Fifth Movement: Praise

Again Peter was a genius on suffering. He knew the secret of the power of praise. “In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7). How does one move beyond pain to the point of praise? It is impossible by our own strength; but miracles happen when we ask God to empower us. By now, we understand the loss, have surrendered to God, and have changed our relationship with our loved one. Unable to see or talk with them as we once did, we learn to develop new ways of remembering and relating to this precious person. Good and bad memories will remain. You now say, “Yes, unfortunately this did happen.” But you also don’t postpone the pain, you don’t deny it occurred, and you don’t minimize your loss.

The next step is to find new ways to exist and function. This involves developing a new identity, but without forgetting your loved one. You discover new ways to re-direct the emotional investments you placed in the person now gone. You learn how to take care of yourself, by yourself, and with the help of others, who become precious in your new life. Admit and accept you need the support, help, and comfort of other people during your time of loss. Isolation can be deadly. A friend or even an acquaintance can help you through this difficult time, remove your fear of abandonment, and assist with your depression. Other people can encourage you to continue to function. They offer you their hope and faith when yours has vanished.

Finally, open your mouth and sing again. Choose to praise and thank God as a spiritual discipline. Don’t depend on your feelings to praise, but do rejoice when your feelings reinforce such action. God is worthy of praise because He has poured out on you “the faith and love from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:5). Therefore “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col.3:1b-4). Imagine it-and stay with it until your imagination breaks through with the glorious views in your mind’s eye of being with Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom.

Imagine your loved one with Jesus right now-full of joy and peace and glory from the nearness of His glory. John envisions the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 as “the dwelling of God with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who is seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'” (vv.3-4). O wonderful day, come soon. O wonderful King Jesus, come quickly!

Soul-prayer on praise

O my soul, sing to the Lord! Praise his mighty ways. Shout out how great and wonderful is His love-there is no greater love. O God, bring me into your heavenly presence. Heal me of the darkness in my soul, the grief that crushes my heart. Thank you god, you are the captain of my soul. Nothing is impossible for you. In you, I truly can do all things, even this.

Concluding Thoughts

 There is no prescribed timetable for grieving. For most, it takes 2 to 3 years to work through the loss of a close loved one. Sometimes it is a lifelong journey. It encompasses peaks and valleys that are initially intense. The peaks eventually become less severe and the valley’s level out after time, but they do not disappear. Be extra kind to yourself during this time, and diligent about your health. It’s OK to go to bed earlier than normal, to take naps, and spend more time in a long bath. Grieving takes enormous energy, and your body needs more rest.

Setting goals for your future may be difficult at this time. You probably feel that part of you also died, but it will help you work through the grief. Answer these questions in a journal: What do I want to be doing this time next year? What is it I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to doing? Who is someone I’d like to visit that I haven’t seen in years? Goals are important because they force us to invest current energy in a long-term project.

Others around you may be uncomfortable with your grief, wanting you to return to “normal” as soon as possible. If you are not ready, don’t let others determine it for you. This is your loss and no one else’s. It is all right for you to take charge and let others know what you need. Consider telling others: “When I am crying, I don’t need to be fixed. Tears are necessary for me to work through the process of healing.” Tell them they don’t have to avoid mentioning your loss. Encourage them to call and see how you are doing, and not to be put off by your fluctuating emotions.

In the Beatitudes Jesus promised that the needs of the bereaved would not go unmet. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The word for comfort is taken from the Greek word, “parakaleo,” which means “one who stands alongside.” Mourning openly is a form of self-disclosure. We do not have to hide from God. He is walking along side of us right now as we experience our grief. We need to reveal ourselves to Him and He will strengthen us with His divine love.

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