Grief comes in many forms and hits at various times. We must choose our words carefully and not assess another’s grief too closely. They may truly be behaving in an unhealthy way, and if that is truly evident, we should intervene. Still, what may seem to us as unhealthy may actually be just the opposite. Part of what informs our interpretation of healthy is how we ourselves deal with our emotions.
Even those of us who have experienced significant loss cannot possibly know the exact best way for someone else to grieve. And for those who haven’t experienced loss, it is extremely important to recognize the limits that places upon knowledge and understanding. A good friend of mine demonstrated perhaps the best response I have ever seen in this regard. That friend admitted to me: “I have never gone through any big losses; I have no idea how to be a help. But I want to be a help and a support.” This person did not even try to assume any knowledge by observation and openly accepted my advice on how to help the person who was entrenched in grief at that point. After that conversation, this friend and I prayed together for wisdom, and I have been so privileged to watch as that conversation and those prayers brought about opportunities for growth and blessing in both of us.
We struggle to see other perspectives; it’s part of who we are as human beings. To acknowledge that, though, really helps us look past how we deal with things to see other possible ways to handle grief. My husband and I approach grief very differently, and at times, I will admit, I have been concerned that he wasn’t doing a good job dealing with his grief. As I learn about him though, and as we grow, I find that his way is just different than mine. It is no more or less healthy than my way. We both could probably improve in some areas, but by and large, we have found what works for us as individuals and as a couple.
This is all particularly important in the unexpected moments when grief hits. If we expect someone to grieve in a specific way, we are most prone to unnecessary worry for them when the fresh wave hits. We think they have started to show progress and then all of a sudden they are low again. That feels like a step backward. Believe me, to the person who is grieving, it feels like a step backward to them too. “I thought I was over this,” often comes out of someone’s mouth.
You don’t get over grief. You accept the change loss brings, you learn to live a new normal, but you that hole is still going to be there. We don’t like that. Especially because we have a mindset that all pain is bad. We have an ever increasing supply of drugs for every imaginable discomfort because we cannot stand to be uncomfortable. Sometimes, that really is a need. But more often than we would like to admit, the pain serves a good purpose. Often to let us know something is wrong. Grief reminds us that this world is not our home. It’s broken. It’s filled with sin. Grief doesn’t just tell us someone we love is missing from our lives; it also anchors us in the reality that if this is all we long for, then we are on a very sad trajectory indeed.
Those reminders hit far more unexpectedly than we would like. We assume that anniversaries, holidays, and birthdays are predictable times when the grief will hurt the most. Not true. Absolutely, those are likely days for grief to hit. But sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes the fact that it didn’t is what brings a fresh wave of grief later. That moment we realize that someone’s birthday didn’t make us cry this year can make us cry. There’s a moment where we feel we have betrayed them. The truth that we haven’t doesn’t hold as much power in our hearts as we wish it would.
Sometimes that unexpected round of sadness, anger, or other emotion associated with grief comes with no connection to an important date. It may come from a smell that reminds us of grandma’s apple crisp, a rose that looks like one grandpa gave us as children. It may be a song on the radio. It may be a colloquialism that you last heard from your best friend. Sometimes, it’s such a subtle thing, you can’t really pinpoint it. You’re just having a sad day.
The major dates are, in a sense, easier to prepare for. You know it’s coming; you can pray for strength, go someplace special, etc. The unexpected moments are just that: unexpected. So how are you supposed to prepare for them?
Well, first of all, consider what preparing for the big days has done. It probably hasn’t taken away the grief of those days. It hasn’t made them hurt less. The biggest thing it has probably done is allowed you to give yourself permission to grieve. That right there is an important part of the unexpected moments. When you give yourself permission to grieve, you acknowledge that there is a missing piece and that wound hurts. It doesn’t say: “Go ahead! Eat a whole gallon of ice cream. You’re sad; you need this.” That is giving yourself permission to be unhealthy. Grief is not unhealthy, but you can take it to an unhealthy place.
Let yourself cry. Let yourself tell God how much it hurts. Let yourself need a hug. It really is okay and normal to have these recurring moments of pain. Remember, they remind us not just of the person who is gone but the fact that there is something so much better than this life out there. There is something wrong: sin. We live in a sinful, fallen world. That doesn’t mean every death is caused by a person’s specific sinful behavior. But when we experience the absence of sin in heaven, we will also experience the absence of death. Death came into the world because sin came into the world. It’s not pretty; it’s unpleasant. And most people don’t want to hear about it. But to discuss hope without talking about the darkness kinda negates the need for hope.
Death is horrible. But we can know for sure we have eternal life where there will be no more sorrow or pain or death. That is great news, and the best way we can help anyone deal with grief is to share that hope with them.