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  • Writer's pictureJim Moore

Essay One “Grief”


The following is written by Jim Moore. Jim is the pastor of the church I attend. We have known each other for 20+ years and share similar beliefs about life, integrity, and religion. Jim will be contributing his thoughts to this book on OVERCOMING LOSS, both from a spiritual perspective as a Pastor and from his experience as a Hospice Chaplain.


Grief occurs when we suffer loss.  For children, it may be something as simple as the loss of a toy. As adults, it is difficult to comprehend the emotional reaction from a child who has misplaced her favorite toy. However, the reaction from the child is one of open grieving. The child has suffered the loss of something that was dear to her and is now experiencing grief.  Unbeknownst to the child it will be the first of many in her life.


Grief can be the response of a child losing a toy, the death of a pet, the loss of a relationship, the loss of independence, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job and endless other losses. The main point is grief is the way we process the loss of someone or something significant in our lives.

In her groundbreaking book, ‘On Death and Dying,’ psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross presented the five stages of grief. They are:

1.     Denial

2.     Anger

3.     Bargaining

4.     Depression

5.     Acceptance

 

Dr. Kubler-Ross’s initial work and research were done with terminally ill patients.  It was her opinion that indeed they tended to follow a very sequential, linear path in processing their grief. However, she later came to understand that the remaining survivors did not necessarily grieve in such a linear fashion. Dr. Kubler-Ross then updated her findings by adding two more stages. With the additions the stages of grief look like this:

1. Shock

2. Denial

3. Anger

4. Bargaining

5. Depression

6. Testing

7. Acceptance

 

Shock refers to the impact stage of grief that brings about feelings of emotional immobility. Testing refers to that stage of trying new ways of coping with one’s new reality.


Again, referring to these as ‘stages’ is not meant to imply that grief is a linear process. What most counselors will tell you is that grief is much more of a complex, nonlinear progression. Grief does not always happen sequentially. Grief is not always (or even rarely) a tidy journey. As a matter of fact, it is often a messy journey. We can at times move from one step to the next but most likely we will vacillate back and forth between stages until at last we come to a place of acceptance. It is also worth noting that every person’s grief experience is unique to him or her. While some people may actually move sequentially from one stage to the next, others will skip stages and still others may experience the overlapping of stages.

 

Pain and Scars

We all face trials in life.  Some of those trials are trivial and of little significance and some of those trials are substantial with catastrophic outcomes.  Cataclysmic trials and challenges are always life altering.  Adversity of a cataclysmic nature does not leave us unaffected; it always changes us. No matter how well we navigate the trials and difficulties of life, we are forever changed by them.  We are all products of our experiences, whether those experiences have been positive or negative.  You are who you are today because of where you have been and what you have experienced.

If you have ever needed stitches for a busted lip or cut on your hand or a blow to the head, you likely have a scar. There is hardly a human being alive who doesn’t have a scar on his or her chin from falling down on the sidewalk as a child. The scar may have faded over the years, but it did not completely go away. It might be a small scar but nonetheless it is now permanently a part of who you are and will always be a reminder of a painful life event.  It is forever part of your story.

Scars in life serve as reminders.  They remind us of a more painful time in life.  The question is, what do we do with those reminders?  What do we do with those painful experiences?  How do we get through them and move forward?

 

Toxic Positivity

          We have all heard and likely shared words of comfort with someone who was hurting. Without much thought and in an attempt to be supportive we often say something cliché.  Clichés and platitudes tend to overpromise and underdeliver.  They also rarely bring comfort to the hurting and often times do more harm than good. 


Clichés such as, ‘everything happens for a reason’ sound good but in reality, are just empty words. These types of cliches are an example of what is referred to as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity rears its ugly head when we insist someone stay positive even in the midst of agonizing pain.

Someone has experienced a traumatic event or is suffering from a great disappointment and without fail, out of the crowd someone says, with the sincerest of intentions, ‘it could always be worse’.  That is toxic positivity.  It dismisses the hurting person’s pain.  It may bring relief to the encourager, but it rarely brings relief to the hurting.


More times than not comforting platitudes stymie a person’s need to verbalize and process their pain. It does not matter whether things could be worse, what matters is someone is hurting and needs comfort not cliches.


I was attending a funeral one time when a well-meaning lady attempted to comfort the grieving daughter.  The well-meaning lady approached the grief-stricken daughter with what she thought were comforting words.  She offered that dreadful cliché, ‘your mother is now in a better place.’ Through streaming tears and a crackling voice, the daughter replied back, ‘what could be a better place than right here next to me?’


Toxic positivity is just that, toxic. Just keep your head up is not the right thing to say when someone needs to hang their head for a few minutes and lean into their pain. Telling someone to look on the bright side is toxic positivity if what that person needs to do is sit in the darkness and grieve. 

One of the great misrepresentations often shared with people is, “time heals all wounds”. This particular cliché gives the false impression that if we just stick it out, life will get back to normal.  It implies that there is a tried-and-true method for dealing with pain.  This platitude leaves us to believe that if we will just give it time our pain will go away.


While it is true that all wounds need time to heal, time does not heal all wounds. Time can have a healing quality about it, but it is not a magical elixir guaranteed to relieve your suffering. The biggest danger with this platitude is that it gives people a false hope that things will automatically, in due time get better.  It can also unintentionally serve as an excuse for someone choosing not to work through their grief.  If all they have to do is ‘wait it out’ then why step into the difficult task of self-reflection and grief work?


As a fan of Country and Western music, I am reminded of the old George Jones song about unrequited love, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’  The song is about a man who never stopped loving a woman who left him. No matter how hard he tried he never got over her and not only did he not get over her, he never learned to live with his loss. The opening lyrics of the song are,

 

‘He said, "I'll love you till I die"

She told him, "You'll forget in time"

As the years went slowly by

She still preyed upon his mind’

 

The song goes on to tell the story of how he just couldn’t get over her. Everything he encountered was a painful reminder of lost love. Even though he got on with his life, the pain never subsided.

The chorus of the song is a reminder that sometimes we have to learn to live with our losses in life because the sting of those losses never leaves us. The chorus is also a reminder that we can become completely immobilized by our loss, which is acceptable for a little while but not forever.  If we don’t eventually take on the painful and arduous task of working through our loss, then it can paralyze us until at which time they carry us away. The chorus says,

‘He stopped loving her today

They placed a wreath upon his door

And soon they'll carry him away

He stopped loving her today’

 

We would love to think that dealing with pain is as easy as believing time heals all wounds, but it often takes more than time, it takes honest reflection, it takes sitting in the muck of your pain, it means replacing wishful thinking with hopeful self-work. It is giving yourself time to be distraught, sans the cliches.  It is making a decision to step forward into the next chapter of your life.


There is no magic bullet when dealing with a devastating loss. Injuries can stay with us until they ‘carry us away.’  The question is, how will we utilize our time to heal and move forward in life?  It is true that we are not the same after a crushing loss. The hope is that through hard work, honest self-reflection, perseverance, and the support of those around us we will become a stronger, better version of ourselves.


If life has left you with a few scars, wear them proudly and let them be a reminder that you may have been knocked down, but you have not been knocked out (hopefully that doesn’t sound too cliché).

 

Peace

Peace is the ultimate goal for all of us.  Whether we realize it or not peace is what we are all looking for in life.  Of course, peace can be elusive, therefore we often find ourselves on the chasing end of things. We can chase and chase and chase only to find chasing after peace is like chasing the wind.

We will try just about anything in the hopes of finding peace. We will follow the rules if we think the rules will bring peace in our lives.  We might break the rules if we think breaking the rules will bring us peace. We search for peace in many places, like work, money, hobbies, competitions, relationships, religion and many other places.  However, peace isn’t as much something we find as it is something that finds us. It is not something we can will to happen and it’s not something you can wrangle up on demand. I once heard someone say, ‘Peace comes when we accept what is and are able to use our energy to live into what’s next’. 


Peace starts with acceptance. If you remember acceptance is the final stage of grief.  Acceptance is the goal because until we accept what has happened or where we are in life, peace will continue to elude us.


The late American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what we now refer to as the Serenity Prayer. It has since become the anthem for Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups.  It is understandable why recover groups would use this mantra as they step onto the path they hope will lead to peace.


Dr. Niebuhr’s prayer says:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

 

          The prayer is first and foremost about acceptance. It is about accepting that there are things we cannot control or change in this world.  Control may not be the opposite of peace but thinking we can control everything in life is a sure path to lack of peace – it is a sure path to distress.


          I believe we are all spiritual people.  We may not all be religious people but at some level we are all spiritual. There is misconception that spirituality and religion are the same thing.  They are not. Religion is a human construct that attempts to explain the unexplainable.  Religion attempts to explain the mysteries of the world and of life.  Things like the creation of the world and suffering.  Humans are not generally comfortable with mystery and one of religion’s objectives is to explain mystery. Whereas religion is a human construct intended to explain mystery, spirituality is a divine construct that allows for mystery.  I would be willing to say it actually invites mystery.


          So allow me to tap into something both religious and spiritual. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah received a prophetic word from God to share with the people of Israel.  These words were meant to be both words of instruction and encouragement.  Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah wrote,

‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ Isaiah 43:2

 

Isiah shared that the promise from God was that God will always be with you – even when you are going through difficult times in life. The promise isn’t that you won’t pass through the water, the promise is that you will not be alone when you do. The promise is not that you won’t go through the rivers but that you will not be overwhelmed by them. The promise is not that you won’t go through the fire, the promise is the flames will not consume you.


We have all likely found ourselves in the metaphorically in deep water feeling like we might drown.  We have all stood (metaphorically) in the fire and felt like we might be consumed.  Water and fire and hurt and pain and suffering are all part of life.  Spiritually they cannot be explained.  It we become consumed trying to explain them we will move further not closer to finding peace.  The way to peace is ‘through’. When it comes to grief, we cannot avoid it or go around it, but we must go through it for on the other side lay the possibility of peace.


There is an old folk song we used to sing around the campfire, a song I now realize speaks to this very thing.  The song was, ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’.

‘We're going on a bear hunt

We're going on a bear hunt

I've got my binoculars

I've got my binoculars I'm not scared

I'm not scared

Ooh, look at that tall, wavy grass

It's so tall

We can't go over it

We can't go over it

We can't go under it

We can't go under it

We're just gonna have to go through it

We're gonna have to go through it’

 

          The subsequent verses follow the same sequence of events of going through a big river, going through the mud and going through a dark cave.  The point of the song is that you can’t avoid the obstacles in life but must deal with them by going through.  As the song says, you can’t go over them and you can’t go under them.  There is only one way to the other side and that is through.



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