Losses, losses everywhere… large and small. They pile up on us and weigh us down.
Which is why we need to do our grieving. The “large” and significant losses (like a loved one or a job) we know affect us. But a friend moving away, or the loss of freedom that occurs in quarantine add up on us too. The size of the loss doesn’t matter—if it gets to us, if we feel it—then we need to mourn it.
Mourning allows us to recognize the full impact of a loss, understand what it costs us, absorb the pain…and gradually find comfort.
In case no one ever gave you a lesson in how to mourn, here’s how:
First of all—make time. Contrary to what many assume, effective mourning does not just happen. We need to intentionally engage in mourning, like a task—like homework. If we don’t then the grief stays with us, eating away at our energy and joy, making us subdued or irritable.
So make time—preferably time alone. Solitude is what most of us need for grieving. Some of us, though, are “external processors” who need to think out loud; who understand our thoughts only as we express them to someone else. Make time for whichever you need: expressing yourself to a confidant—or solitude.
Invite God into your grieving. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit,” says Psalm 34:18. God is always with us and wants to provide comfort, but He respects our free will and won’t intrude on our thoughts, unless invited. So invite Him. “Prayer is thinking in God’s presence,” said Tim Keller; so invoke God’s presence as you process your grief.
Once you have carved out time to grieve, don’t worry if you don’t “feel much.” Grieving is primarily a reflective process: one needs to think and ponder and pray: to ruminate. If feelings and tears surface, good. But tears are not necessary for a time of reflection to be profitable.
As you reflect, choose a way of expressing feelings that works for you. For many people that is writing or speaking. But some express their feelings more effectively using music, painting, sculpture, or dance. Use whatever works for you. Remember that the writing, dancing or artwork is not for anyone else: it’s only for you. So if you write—don’t worry about spelling or grammar—just get the feelings up out of you and onto paper. If you dance or draw don’t worry about doing it perfectly–no one needs to see or judge.
Another tool that can help you grieve is analyzing the different levels of your loss. Here’s an example:
Andy lost his job and is currently unemployed. He feels overwhelmed by this loss—it engulfs him like a dark cloud. Gradually he realizes that different parts of the loss bother him in different ways.
- What looms over Andy most is the loss of income. Andy and his family have probably 1 month of savings to live on if they are frugal, so he urgently needs a way to provide for his family.
- Another part of the job loss includes an end to health insurance: the loss of income and health insurance make Andy feel vulnerable and afraid.
- As he ponders his loss, Andy also realizes that although he didn’t always “like” his job, it gave structure and purpose to his life. Without the structure his work provided, Andy finds it hard to get himself motivated.
- Andy also realizes that his job gave him an identity: he knew he could introduce himself as “Sales Manager” for a reputable company. His family and friends thought of him as successful. Now Andy is not sure what his identity is; he feels like a failure.
- Andy is somewhat surprised that he misses his colleagues. Even though he didn’t like everyone he worked with, now Andy realizes he misses the joking around, the comradery, the knowledge and special lingo they shared. He had had a sense of belonging and teamwork he misses acutely.
- Andy even misses his commute! He used to think he hated it: the traffic, the time away from home. Now he would love to have anywhere purposeful to go, and would love the time alone in the car to think or listen to music.
If Andy had lost his father, he would need to think about his dad in the different roles his dad had had in his life: as a mentor, a financial backer, a fellow sports fan, as a doting grandfather, a repository of family history, an honest critic. If Andy’s dad had had negative roles, such as being cold or critical, then Andy would not miss those aspects of his father, but he would need to think it through and bring out all his feelings as he grieves.
You get the picture. If you have lost a pet, a person dear to you, a place you loved, a way of life—take the time to think through all the different aspects of that loss.
Name the feelings—all of them. It is easy to come up with “sadness,” but often there is anger involved in processing a loss—perhaps anger at being fired, or anger at the person who “left you”—even though they had no choice about it. Sometimes, along with sadness, relief is present. We are complex people—so our feelings are complex and sometimes contradictory. That’s okay. It’s important to recognize, name, and accept every feeling.
You may find that your loss sometimes grabs you suddenly with a lump in the throat, or tears stinging your eyes, or sobs. If you are in private or among trusted people when the feelings surface, you can let them out—no problem. But sometimes it’s not appropriate to express your grief and you’ll hold the feelings in. That’s fine as long as you make time for grieving later.
When you finally make time for grieving later you may find the strong sense of loss comes back, perhaps with tears—but sometimes not. That’s okay, too. Go ahead and do the reflective part of grieving: think about what made the tears come, what caused the lump in the throat. Name the feelings, remember the memories, give it all to God.
If you make time to do your grief work, you will find that the burden of loss gets lighter. But, especially for large and significant losses, you may well have to make time for “doing your grief work” over and over. In time, you will have less grief work to do; do it as much as you need to until the burden lightens.
As you grieve, continue to pray. Realize that mourning is a fundamentally spiritual process because we often hold our pain against God. After all, He is sovereign, right? He could have prevented our loss—and He didn’t. Therefore, we must bring our feelings of loss and pain and resentment to Him. The psalmists, you may remember, were very open with God about their feelings, and He didn’t mind a bit.
As we bring our pain and anger to God, He can help us accept our loss as part of what He is asking of us right now. We can begin to accept this loss as our current assignment—and if it is an assignment then it comes with His strength and comfort attached. He may not take the loss or pain away, but He helps us bear it. “This High Priest of ours (Jesus) understands our weaknesses, for He faced all the same testings we do. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4: 16 NLT)
The value of doing our grief work is not that it makes grief go away, but that it lightens the load, reminds us of our true source of comfort, and allows room in our hearts for emotions besides sadness and pain: emotions like contentment and gratitude and joy.