Learning to Grow in a Season of Grief
- January 9, 2018
- Categories: Depression
Written by Cyndi Wagner
Barren. Dark. Depressing. Lonely. Isolating. Harsh. Severe. These words describe the season of winter. The leaves disappear from the trees, grass and bushes die, the sky is gray, and the ground is frozen and impenetrable. There are days and nights when winter is hard and ugly, when temperatures plummet and the howl of the wind threatens our sanity.
These words also describe grief.
Grief slows us down–our compulsion to “do” dissolves, and “being” is all that is possible. Our life as we knew it disappears, dreams are shattered, and our hearts are ripped from us in the blink of an eye.
For years, I used to resist the “season of winter” in my soul. This meant avoiding pain and sorrow at all costs by numbing my emotions. I would jump right to springtime in my soul and deny the reality of suffering and pain.
I would jump right to springtime in my soul and deny the reality of suffering and pain.
My family was faced with my father’s diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease many years ago. The average length of someone’s life after diagnosis is about 8 years; my father’s journey lasted 18 years. He quickly progressed to needing care outside of our home and then this began a journey of countless facilities ending in the last years of his life spent in a geriatric psychiatric hospital. The harsh reality was that there seemed to be no place to care for my father.
At the same time, our family and church community were silent. No one came to visit and few calls were made to our family–it was almost like he didn’t exist. Meanwhile, we were walking through multiple losses on a regular basis. Some of the silence was that people didn’t know what to do or to say and some of it was that our family failed to ask for help.
Imagine watching someone you love being transformed into someone you don’t recognize, who doesn’t recognize you, and who is slowly losing the ability to communicate–my father didn’t walk or talk the last 7 years of his life. At the same time, you have to prioritize your energy around a myriad of items that need to get done. Life became so much smaller and less cluttered with trivial concerns.
Learning to Heal
During the early years of my father’s illness, I was introduced to LCI’s lay counseling ministry training workshops. It was one of the first places where my soul began to thaw. It gave me time to step back and begin to acknowledge the impact of the ongoing grief that accompanied my father’s long-term illness.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, lost her husband in 2015 to an unexpected death. In her book, Option B Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, she shares that, “the bereaved are often treated like those to whom something unnatural or disgraceful has happened. People avoid them, don’t invite them out, fall silent when they enter the room. The grieving are often isolated when they most need community.”
Even though Sheryl Sandberg’s words represent her own experience and ring true with thousands of others she connected with, I believe that when people suffer, we long to help. The Bible scholar, W.E. Vine says that paraklesis—the Greek word translated “comfort” means “a calling to one’s side.”
What does it look like to “be called to one’s side” in our communities when someone is facing a season of loss? Some thoughts come to mind:
- To recognize that your involvement means that you will be changed by another person’s loss.
- To be present with no words
- To not make assumptions or compare one’s grief to another’s grief
- To ask what they need and listen to their response: ask often because these needs may change
- Respect one’s “no” and “yes”
- To be inconvenienced
- To sit unhurried in the sorrow and tears.
- To remember—write down important dates; our scars will never go away, so a timely word or deed at these times can be healing
- To help someone name the sorrow and meaning of the loss at the appropriate time
- To be patient, persevere, and pay attention
- To continue to do your own grief and loss work
- To just show up—be available, vulnerable and present
Loss comes in countless ways besides the ongoing losses of a long-term physical or mental illness. There may be a disability, a death of a dream, divorce, abuse, unemployment, crushing disappointment, the dashed hope of another infertility treatment, declining health, the impact of addiction, disease, and growing old. Just by being alive, we will experience loss.
As we come alongside another, it is important to help someone acknowledge the grief and to be reminded that God is present in the midst of the pain; He suffers with us and suffered for us. “He was despised and forsaken of men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)
Dr. Dan Allender reminds us that “the gospel story nudges all other stories toward a different trajectory. It parallels and intersects our story without eclipsing our suffering or joy. The gospel doesn’t replace our story; it actually gives it even greater meaning” (Healing the Wounded Heart).
The gospel doesn’t replace our story; it actually gives it even greater meaning.
God can use suffering to expand our view of Him, to give “greater meaning” to our stories, and to offer a hopeful perspective on death and resurrection. In loss, the reality of darkness and chaos sits uneasily with the truth of God’s love and power. And, for now, they are not yet reconciled. Until that day, there will be more unspeakable losses that we will go through in our lives.
My soul still longs for spring more than the rest of the seasons. But God used this particular winter season to help me grow. I have also been reminded of how God created seasons: despite the plants looking dead in winter, creation needs this season. During this frosty time, the trees and plants are storing up nutrients, growing and maturing. The plants are getting ready for the season in which they have been appointed to bear fruit.
My pastor often says that we are living in the now rather than the anticipation of not yet. While we are waiting for the “not yet,” may we continue to be honest with our own pain so that we are ready when we have the privilege to be “called to one’s side.”
Here are some additional resources that you may find helpful.
A Grace Disguised, Jerry Sittser
A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis
A Place of Healing, Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain & God’s Sovereignty, Joni Eareckson Tada
Hope Heals, a true story of overwhelming loss and an overcoming love, Katherine and Jay Wolf
The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller
Learn how to deal with your season of grief by attending The Glorious Mess – a workshop about who we are and how we relate. The next session is January 20, 2018. Click here to learn more.
Cyndi Wagner, LPC, LCPC