Rev. Bekkering is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa.
Grief is the keen suffering that one goes through because of an affliction or loss. It can be looked at as God’s way of healing a broken heart.
Grief is universal and natural. Sooner or later everyone has a time of grief in his life. We want to explore the pattern in grief, our dealing with grief as Christians, and God’s work in our grief.
Most people who are hurting, no matter what the cause, go through a similar grieving pattern. On the other hand, each person’s loss and style of coping is unique.
Grief is usually thought of only in terms of a loss through the death of a loved one. However, any significant loss may cast one into grief even if one does not expect it. Some other losses that may be followed by grief can be mentioned. When one finds out that he or one close to him has a terminal illness such as cancer, the process of grief may begin. Serious injury that has long-range effects on one’s life can cause grief—for example, if one is badly injured in a car crash, so that disfigurement or paralysis occurs. The loss of one’s job, or a forced retirement, can cause one to go through grief. Loss of property, such as a house fire, a car theft, or a burglary of one’s home can cause grieving. Divorce is another loss experience that usually causes grief.
We do not want to look at these losses and grief apart from God’s gracious work in our lives. Affliction is for our benefit, even though it hurts. In our great need, as Christians, we flee to our heavenly Father for help. God commands us inPsalm 50:15, “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”
We are going to look at grief as having three stages (though others have broken the grieving process into six or more steps). And we want to stress from the outset that the stages are indistinct. Not everyone moves through them at the same rate or with the same degree of intensity. Grief is as personal and individual as we are. We also want to stress that there is a pattern in the grieving process, a pattern which, if it is known and recognized, can be helpful and reassuring to the one going through grief. Sometimes those in grief can fear that they are losing their mind or their faith.
The first stage of grief is the initial shock, especially in the case of a sudden loss. Usually the shock, with numbness, lasts for a period of minutes to a day, but sometimes longer. During this time one may say over and over, “Oh, no…I cant believe it.” One ought not to be embarrassed by his inability to function properly during this shock stage, but he ought to see God’s provision in this shielding us from the intensity of a painful loss.
We must recognize that grief is a major trauma in our life and in the lives of others. A broken heart is a serious wound. It is equivalent to or greater than a broken leg or major surgery. Grief must not be minimized or ignored, but it must be allowed to take its course in our lives. The child of God recognizes God’s work in grief. The psalmist says in Psalm 39:9, “I was silent, I opened not my mouth, because thou didst it.” The child of God also expects and finds comfort m his deepest grief. David records one such prayer in Psalm 61:1, 2: “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer…when my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”
The second stage of grief may be called the painful, longing stage. It overlaps the first stage, or it can begin days after the death or loss, and reaches its peak between the second and the fourth week. It subsides gradually after that. The manifestations of this stage are intense for about three months, progressively declining over the next six to twelve months.
The most prominent aspect of this stage is the recurrent, wavelike experience of tearful longing for the deceased, associated with thoughts, memories, or mental images of him or her. These waves are of ten triggered by any reminder of the departed one. Special occasions, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and anniversaries frequently provoke such episodes. These wave-like episodes tend to be especially intense and painful at night, when the distractions of the day are removed. In addition to preoccupation with memories and visual images of the deceased, about half of mourning spouses and parents have illusions of seeing or feeling the presence of the departed one.
During this second stage there is the intense struggle to come to grips with the reality of one’s situation after the loss, and to be reconciled with God’s way. The pain of grief often produces anger—anger against the circumstances and causes of one’s loss. Sometimes Christians are angry and disappointed with God. This ought not to be taken as a loss of one’s faith or as committing the unpardonable sin.
Job, the man who was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, was brought to grief by God. In Job 2:13b we read, “…that his grief was very great.” In Job’s great grief he cursed the day that he was born and asked why he had not been born dead (Job 3:1-11). God patiently and powerfully answered Job in chapters 38-41, where He recounts all His wonderful works. Job’s humble and submissive response is recorded in Job 42:1-6.
Another example of a godly man, who in the midst of grief misjudged God’s work and way, is found in Genesis 42:36. Jacob had sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain because of the famine in Canaan. They returned with the grain, but without Simeon and with a message that Benjamin must come back to Egypt with them. “And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me.” Jacob was wrong. These things were not against him; but he did not know all the good that God had purposed for him, even through the way that caused his grief.
One more example, from the Bible, of a godly man who was disappointed with God and thus became angry is Jonah, who did not like God’s direction to go to Nineveh and cry against it. After a detour, and after being rescued by a big fish, he went to Nineveh and preached as God had commanded him. Much to Jonah’s dismay, the people of Nineveh repented because of God’s word against them. That displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. He besought the Lord, ‘Take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” God challenged Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry?” Jonah was looking at his life and situation only from his own viewpoint. God used the gourd vine, and Jonah’s pity for it, to help Jonah to see God’s viewpoint, and God’s pity for Nineveh.
God graciously helps His grieving people come to an acceptance of their painful loss. There is help and hope for those who grieve. Even though we sorrow; we sorrow not as others who have no hope (I Thess. 4:13).
The third stage is the time of reconciliation and recovery. This usually takes about a year, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. During this stage there is a gradual regaining of interest in the ordinary activities of one’s life. The gloominess of grief’s night gives way to the dawning of a new day in which there is again pleasure, joy, and smiles. There will, of course, be occasional bouts of painful longings and memories, but they will gradually fade.
God’s work in our grief is powerful. Through the situations that have caused us grief, God teaches us things, about Him and us, that we could not learn in any other way. He tests our faith in Him. He tries our trust that His way is good for us, even in the deep way of death. God puts us before the question, “Do you love me more than these?”
One Christian lady testified that she had learned some very important things through her grief at the loss of her husband. She learned a new appreciation for the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ is the very ground of our faith and hope. Since Christ is risen we have the blessed assurance that we and our believing loved ones will be raised unto life everlasting. Secondly, she gained a new interest in heaven. Heaven, she said, now seems nearer and dearer, because her husband was there. Thirdly, she learned something new of the reality of God’s presence in her life. In the time of grief God was there. Now she is without her husband, but not alone.
Finally, a word of caution to us who would help and comfort those who grieve. First of all, recognize that when our friends and family are hurting, we are hurting also. The danger is that we will find things that help us, and then say them to the grieving ones, without first asking ourselves the question, “Will this be a help tothem?” The truth is that our hurt is very small compared to those with the loss.
What our grieving ones need is for us to be there with them in their great need. We need to listen. If they want to talk—we listen. If they want to be silent—we listen. Listening is done not only with our ears, but also with our hearts. Our listening will sometimes tell us it is better to say nothing to the grieving one for a while. Being there to support them may be enough. Our love and concern can be communicated with a handshake or a hug.
We often feel so inadequate to help others in grief that we may come to the conclusion that it may be better if we don’t visit them. Sometimes close friends of those in grief stay away for selfish reasons, such as, they are hurting also, they are too embarrassed to meet their friends in great distress, or they don’t know what to do or say Be assured of this, that those in grief need the presence of friends and family for support! Go to them for their sake! Here is where the selfless character of Christian love is shown.
Remember that death is not the only source of grief in our lives, or in the lives of our friends and families. We need to be sensitive to others’ losses as well.
Remember to remember those who have suffered loss. We have seen that the grief process usually takes about a year. During this time, words of encouragement help. A phone call or a visit, a card or a letter, will be appreciated. The written word is often best because it can be read and reread. Cards are alright, but a handwritten note is best to express your love and sympathy. One man said that when he got cards he only read the name at the bottom, but he read every note or letter. Part of God’s work in our grief is to move others to show His love to the grieving.