The Mystery of Grief


by: Mel Erickson (3/31/2014)

 Grief is certainly better understood and more talked about than it was just half a century ago.  Yet it retains aspects of mystery.  How can deep emotional pain and anguish yield to peace, joy and purpose for living?  Though it is especially difficult to grasp from the depths of despair, the process of grieving is actually healing.  Grief is a mind-set and a series of experiences and emotional exercises that contain the potential for more than surviving: for healing, personal growth and thriving.

Hard to grasp?  You bet!  Is it really possible to heal from profound loss?  A “yes!” answer must be followed by a big “IF” which defines the mindset and willingness to do the painful work of grief by the griever.  The “yes!” answer is not automatic.  It is a goal to be patiently worked towards and painfully experienced over a much longer period of time than anyone would choose.  There is no quick fix.  But there comes the day when the heart ache has diminished, when a person can remember without overwhelming pain, and when a person has energy to invest in living and loving again.  Sounds impossible.  The truth of the mystery remains.  It is possible.  But, it is work.

A closer look teaches us that grief is our internal response to separation and loss.  Carl Jung taught that every change is a loss and every loss must be grieved.  When you think about it, you realize that at every life transition, expected or unexpected, small or tragically overwhelming, when one thing ends, something new begins.  Small changes – positive or negative — we take in our stride.  Large and complicated change can knock us for a loop, pulling the rug out from under us and turning our world upside down. Small or large, we make the choice to adjust and heal – or not.

So, what does this healing grief process look like?  Not pretty.  Especially in the beginning.  There may be shock, numbness, disorientation, anguish, confusion, anger, guilt, fear and physical symptoms like appetite extremes, sleep extremes, head or body aches, surges of pain and tears, memory loss, brain fog and many others.  (Finding a good list of “normal” grief experiences can be very helpful to a grieving individual because so many symptoms are not thought of as a part of “normal” grief.)

It is essential to educate oneself about the healthy grieving process.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the reality of profound loss, some of the symptoms of our grief response would be cause for serious concern.  The context of grief, however, means that we are most likely in a process that will evolve given time and intentional focus.  This kind of self-education solves some of the mystery of grief by removing fear of the process itself, enabling one to lean into the process rather than resist it.  To deny or resist the grieving process adds to its timeline.

Initially, after profound loss, it is imperative to make the conscious choice to heal e.g. to not stay in the profound grief mode indefinitely.  This choice reflects a mindset of hope and intentional effort to reach the goal of “grieving clean.”  This is not a place where we have forgotten lost loves or stopped loving them.  As mentioned, the goal is to remember without overwhelming pain and have energy to invest in living and loving.  The mystery is that healing is a choice, not to be taken for granted.  If we think of grief as a wound, it needs tending to heal well.  It might need the expertise of a professional when the loss is beyond the experience of our normal every day existence.

We choose to heal.  We choose to educate ourselves about grief through reading or joining a group.  Everyone needs a “chicken soup friend.”  We are social beings.  Studies show that we function and cope better when we are in relationships with a small community e.g. family, support group, friends.  Although we have choices in the journey of grief, we really have to do the hard “work” of grief for ourselves.  No one can do it for us.  Yet we need people in order to do it well.  It is important not to isolate ourselves for too long.  This is another aspect of the mystery of grief.

Specifically, the choice to heal means setting about the business of (1) self-education and (2) exploring ways to express or externalize your grief story and your personal responses.  This is mourning. It means finding a non-judgmental listener so that you can tell and re-tell your story.  It means talking at length and repeatedly about your loss.  Journaling and prayer are constructive ways to accomplish this.  It means finding creative ways to express your love for what and/or who is lost through creative expression, giving and ritual.  It means choosing to forgive: a loved one for leaving, yourself for the “should haves,” a perpetrator, or even God for allowing tragedy and suffering.  Herein lies another mystery, a tough requirement of healing.

Another mystery is the uniqueness of grief to each individual.  There is no formula or one specific “right way” to grieve.  Each of us has our own unique story, history, personality, coping tools, support systems and contemporary alligators to wrestle.  (Grief does not make us exempt from the on-going challenges of life.) Therefore, it would be impossible that we would all grieve the same.  Yet, the potential for healing is attainable for many different styles of grieving.  For example, “instrumental grievers” literally work out their grief, while “intuitive grievers” are more likely to use language as their dominant tool for externalizing grief.

The greatest mystery of all may be the role of faith in the grieving process.  In the aftermath of profound loss, sustaining belief and trust in the sovereign and loving God of creation is literally a lifeline.  God’s promises in scripture have stood the test of time.  In the book of Psalms, David cries out his anguish, giving us words to express our own.  The Holy Spirit is within us to comfort and direct.  The cross and resurrection of Christ validate that there is a reunion of loved ones and quality life in the future of believers.  The value of faith’s role in healing is indeed a supernatural mystery, for which we can only be thankful.

Embrace the mysteries of grief.  Choose to embrace the mindset of healing and of intentionally working through the grieving process.  Educate yourself on exactly how to do grief work.  Mourn.  Embrace your faith.  Seek support in your journey. Know that as you experience the pain, you are working towards freedom from it; you are building a more sensitive and compassionate self.  The day will come when you can celebrate the mysteries of grief.