Growing through Grief: Why Grief and anything that “grounds” us could be good
(An excerpt from Cultivating Love: When Secrets Surface by Dr Ken McGill)
“Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up” — James 4: 9–10 (NIV).
I wrote this paragraph during the Christmas Holidays of 2012, and I wrote it with a heavy heart, as there were many within the United States and probably throughout the world that were grieving and mourning the tragic, evil, senseless and unexplainable death of 26 people connected to the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders. It is possible that some of the parents, and those within our nation may have asked “Why?” Why did the children have to die? Why did such a horrible and evil act occur against humanity? Perhaps when you heard about the tragedy, it may have triggered thoughts, feelings and grief about your own devastating loss. Outside of the devastation that comes with losing a child, it is possible that learning that your spouse has been unfaithful could be the second most painful and devastating discovery that you could experience, immediately catapulting you into grief, and asking the question, Why?
Often times, I preface my thoughts by saying “I am just a drop of water trying to describe the ocean,” meaning my thoughts are but one among many that seek to understand and explain any particular subject, and in this case, the subject of grief. What follows are a “few drops” from my perspective, on the subject of grief and loss, humbly offered to you with the hope of shedding light on what sometimes feels like a tidal wave of emotion that just won’t go away.
A few thoughts on Grief:
1. Please understand that you were not subjected to any of the traumas and losses you experienced because you were a “bad person,” or because you “had it coming to you,” or “because God is trying to teach you something or is trying to get your attention,” or worse yet, because you are being punished for something that occurred in your past. God does not work this way. Evil behavior happens because there is an Author behind the evil behavior; this is the real enemy (John 10:10). In light of the loss of the adults and children referenced above, and in light of my own personal losses connected to trauma and grief, I take solace and comfort in knowing what God conveys in Lamentations 3:33: “God does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men,” as well as what the Psalmist conveys in Psalm 10:14: “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you…”
2. Grief is like an “unwanted passenger,” that shows up unexpectedly, that you cannot avoid and unfortunately, is a hitchhiker that you have to pick up. At times, the presence of grief feels like a 400 lb. weight that is overwhelming and unbearable, and at other times, it feels like a bag of feathers; noticeable, but tolerable and bearable. Solomon was correct as he wrote in Proverbs 14:13, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief,” as you may be feeling great in one minute, and horrible the next. As you engage in the work of grieving and mourning your losses, hopefully, you will notice that the intensity of your feelings connected to picking up your unwanted traveler will diminish, and his visits to you will be farther and fewer in between.
3. There are predictable stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, written about extensively by author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On death and dying (1969). Although not linear in process or experience, as we wander, weep and work our way through these stages we may be encouraged, and eventually may experience hope because we see ourselves getting better. James 4:9–10 encourages us in that as we “grieve, mourn and wail,” we will “drive through the tunnel” of these stages, and one day exit the tunnel into the experience recorded in Jeremiah 31:13: “I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” For me, I describe the stages of grief like a pinball, which randomly bounces off of the different stages, racking up varying “points of intensity” connected to each stage of grief. When the ball returns into the slot prior to “another round” though the stages, we have a moment of respite. Eventually, one day, because of our grieving, our mourning and our growth, we will realize that we are “bouncing” through the stages less and less and have experienced more moments of serenity because our resting periods become longer and more frequent.
4. Grief is an indication that a heart is broken, due to experiencing the loss of something valued and valuable, and mourning is the natural response of the body, mind, soul and spirit to not only make sense of one’s loss, but to also help you to “recalibrate” and recover from your loss. With grief, it feels like something has died within us, and at times, we are dying right along with it. The natural and (eventual) resting place of things that die is the soil (Genesis 3:19). As I consider the natural laws of our Earth and the spiritual parallels that accompany them, I wonder if God created gravity to illustrate the process of grief, and the process of growing through one’s losses as well. What I mean by this is overwhelming emotions connected to trauma and grief often drives us to the ground, either in prayer, or because of a loss of energy and will. In addition, the experience causes or compels us to pause, seek rest, and to remember and reflect upon our situation. Our brokenness (like soil that has been freshly plowed and is ready for seed) opens us up to receive explanations and answers to what has occurred in our life. Just as the elements of water, minerals and sunlight come from God to ignite the growth of the seeds, it is God’s spirit that reaches deep into the crevices or valleys of your heart, beyond human words and experiences, to convert your suffering and pain into clarity, resilience, inspiration, empowerment and more than likely, a renewed passion for life, and a desire to become a “wounded healer.” Geology reminds us that the structure and composition of the soil at the valley floor provides the opportunity for the most fertile growth. In the same way, your growth during this “season of suffering” may provide you and others with the mature and sweet “fruitfulness” from these tragic experiences. Although it may take many “micro-seasons” to grow and experience this level of productivity beyond your current experience with your grief, be patient with yourself, your process of transformation and recovery, and with God (Psalm 23:2, 4; John 12:24; Romans 8:26–27; Matthew 5:4; James 1:21; Isaiah 61:1–3). Engaging in any spiritual discipline (praying, journaling, study, walking, fellowship, silence, solitude, etc.) could be beneficial to you during this time and tend to serve as “fertilizer” to your growth.
5. In addition to being comforted by God, it really helps when others notice your pain, validate your suffering, grieve and mourn with you, and tenderly, empathetically, sympathetically and compassionately extend their hands “to touch and understand your wound (Romans 12:15). Hopefully these safe people will honor your experience by doing nothing more than sitting with you, and validating your pain. Paradoxically, Dr. Janis Spring in her book How can I forgive you? reminds us that if “the offender” is able to get past feelings of guilt, shame, insensitivity and entitlement, then he or she may be the person who may provide a significant amount of healing to you. Often it is helpful to take this person’s hand and guide him/her to the exact physical, mental and spiritual places in your life that hurt the most. If you have the opportunity to help and heal a wound you may have created, by all means show up with the spiritual equivalent of oil, a basin, a towel and a patient and willing heart to possibly engage in experiences that heal. This is the beginning of the “Wounded Healer” behavior that helps and heals (versus the “Unhealed Wounding” of addiction).
6. Speaking of addiction, participating in addictive behavior interrupts the grief and mourning process. It causes one to anesthetize or block their hurt, pain and sorrow, probably due to their unresolved experiences of personal and/or complicated trauma, loss and shame. Interrupting your grief process means that opportunities to consciously invite God into your suffering experience to see how He could transform your suffering into passion, and passion into achieving His purpose will be interrupted also. Jeremiah 29:11 provides this insight: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Many people in recovery who have embraced their shame, grief and losses have realized that the pain of working through their issues is inevitable, but unnecessary suffering from the self-medicating effect of the addiction is optional.
7. To the “Offender,” I say: You have an opportunity to partner with God and as a result of your diligent and consistent work in your spouse’s life, to see the broken shards of glass in your spouse’s heart transformed into a beautiful stained glass existence. Undoubtedly though, this transformation will take time. A renewal is possible, but only with the arduous work of restitution, above and beyond a level that is convenient and comfortable to you. Right now, you are at the heart of the phytoremediation process, where your planting of seeds into the marital garden to grow humility, sympathy, empathy, compassion and safety, along with your spouse’s work with God, is crucial. The character traits, values and behaviors that you practice will reach deeply into the crevices of your spouse’s heart and transform grief, suffering, hurt, pain and anguish into what Paul reminds us is a process and a formula for growing hope (Romans 5:3–5). Do you remember the faith, hope and joy you both had on the day you exchanged vows with each other? Do you remember the light that was exuding from the eyes and soul from within each of you? Right now there is a clarion call that asks you to consider how you are going to live the remainder of your days, one day at a time. In light of the vows you took, how will you live? In light of the trauma you have caused and are now learning about, how will you live? In light of the mission statement you wrote as a result of inventorying your trauma, how will you live? In light of the “unconditional surrender” you will read about and are called to execute, how will you live? In light of the pronouncement you will make that “It is OVER,” how will you live? In light of the opportunity to cultivate love, how will you live? Will you partner with God to work in the soil of your spouse’s heart to see a resurrected life sprout from the tomb of grief and death? The choice, and the reasonable work of restitution, is yours.
To the “Offended,” I say: You did not ask for, nor chose to have this devastating experience of grief visited upon you. However, you know that you have to grow beyond this current experience of grief. After reading my few thoughts on grief and the grief process, the challenge and choice to engage in the process of allowing God to heal you is given to you also. At times, you may have to remind yourself that your spouse is more than the sum total of the behavior that he or she committed against you, and that it will be critical to your healing to allow your spouse to minister to you; this behavior humanizes both of you, and it may begin to be the beginning of something that has escaped you both for many days, weeks, months and possibly years: Love. Along with God, are you open to allowing your spouse to contribute behaviors that may sooner or later, help you to heal from your grief? When you are capable, what steps do you implement, after you have grown through your grief? The choice, and should you choose to seriously consider it, the reasonable work contributed toward reconciliation, is yours.
8. Finally, the obvious is that both of you are going through this season or grief. You both have lost something(s) very valuable, and more than what is obvious to the eye, and it hurts each of you deeply. Engaging in the destructive game of “hurling your hurt” or your anger or more appropriately, your grief at each other only serves to create more hurt and complicated grief. If this occurs, use your communication tools to immediately cease these actions and to begin to “clothe yourself (and each other) with compassion” (Colossians 3:12). In doing this, you are humanely offering the necessary help and assistance that each of you need but are finding it difficult to verbalize and ask for. As you are moved, inspired or empowered by your God, by all means help each other to grow through your grief. May God grant you peace, hope and love as you engage in this part of your growth process.
Please forward this article to anyone that you know who is currently experienceing grief connected to unfaithfulness — Dr McGill
For more information about Dr McGill’s books in the Cultivating Love series, click here.