A surprising but unwanted path of emotional healing growth opens up for you every time you experience a loss. Like the Chinese symbol for “crisis,” it’s both a danger and an opportunity for good grief.
We all go through losses in life. Someone you love dies. Your special pet dies. Your adult child moves out of your house, or worse, you have an unresolved conflict that creates distance. You go through a divorce or there’s a divorce in your family. You lose a job. You lose money. You lose a good opportunity. Your health declines. A loved one’s health declines. A relationship with a friend ends. How do you react to losses like these? What do you do with your emotions?
Bad Grief vs Good Grief
Many people try not to feel their grief by staying busy or focusing on the positive. Others use food, alcohol, work, or helping people to distract themselves from their pain. Some get depressed. They don’t want to feel sad or disappointed and they don’t want to be vulnerable and share their tears and fears and frustrations with a caring listener. Maybe they think it’s “feeling sorry for themselves” or “wallowing” or will cause them to “get stuck.”
The true comfort that we all need in times of loss comes through engaging in a good grief process. Good grief is to respond to a death or other loss by feeling sad, and feeling all your emotional reactions, and sharing these emotions with a safe and caring person, someone who helps you to experience God’s loving presence. Learning to ask for and receive empathy in this way is essential to your personal well-being, capacity to love others, and energy to be effective.
The process of good grief is model for all types of emotional healing, psychological development, and spiritual growth. Understanding this is essential for our personal well-being and our ability to care for others well.
Responses to Grief Are Learned in Childhood
The way you respond emotionally to grief situations is something you learned as a small child. Before you could talk you experienced loss — repeatedly. Imagine yourself as a child in these typical situations:
- You want to eat or to be held but your mom isn’t available.
- You want to play with your dad but he’s busy.
- You don’t want your parents to leave you with a sitter or at school.
- A friend stops being your friend.
- You don’t get the part in the play that you want.
- You strike out with the bases loaded.
- Your family moves away from your friends.
We all experience these disappointments or hurts. Eventually we also are affected by tragic losses like death, divorce, abuse, or abandonment — if not in early childhood then later on. How we react in these huge situations of loss is largely predicated on what we learned as children from our parents or other caregivers when we experienced the smaller losses.
All losses, whether big or small, trigger a natural response of sadness or grief — IF a parent or other care-giver is emotionally present, tuned into you, and offers empathy. To receive empathy is to be validated for what you feel and how big it is for you; it’s to feel understood and to receive patient listening and gentle compassion; it’s to be emotionally held. Empathy provides you with necessary soul nourishment and encouragement.
But if when you’re disappointed, hurt, or sad there is no one who moves toward you with empathy then eventually you’ll shut down your emotions and needs, at least the deepest and truest ones. In the absence of empathy repressing emotions becomes a habit that you’re not conscious of. Without realizing it, you’re putting your grief and sad emotions into your body. This causes things like tiredness, depression, angry reactions, unhealthy coping mechanisms like missing alcohol, or physical illness, even terminal diseases.
The Window For Emotional Healing
Each time you experience a loss a new window of opportunity opens up. If it’s a small disappointment the window may seem to only last a few moments, but if it’s a major loss, like the death of someone you’ve dearly loved and depended on then you’re likely to experience many waves of grief, especially in the first year afterwards. It’s wise to decide now how you want to react the next time you experience a loss.
The Lament Psalms of the Bible model good grief for us. They train us in how to grieve and are resources for us when the unwanted window of grief opens up to us. When we experience the death of a loved one or any painful loss we can pick up one of these ancient prayers like:
- Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?… But I trust in your unfailing love…” (vv 1, 5)
- Psalm 6: “Turn, O Lord, and deliver me, save me because of your unfailing love… I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping…” (vv 4, 6)
- Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, let me cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress… ” (vv 1-2)
The Psalmist’s expression of emotion helps us put words to what we feel in our grief and his faith in God’s loving presence (even though he is unseen and our circumstances are lousy) strengthens our hope and confidence. In time if in our grief process we keep trusting Christ and his ambassadors to connect us with the spiritual and real presence of our loving God then we’ll be able to sing with David: “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 31:11).
Good grief like the Psalmist’s is an emotionally healing process. It facilitates personal growth: increased joy and energy, increased peace, increased capacities to receive and give love. Key to understanding grief is to understand the stages in a natural grief process.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ Stages of Good Grief: DABDA
In 1969 the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross did extensive research on grief and famously identified five stages to the grief process and reported these in her watershed book, On Death and Dying. “Stages” is somewhat of a misnomer according to David Kessler, who Kübler-Ross taught in her later years (see grief.com, which is the source for some of the insights in this article). The stages are not linear, but rather they are messy, seemingly random, emotional reactions that many people experience, often in a back and forth sort of way. We may be in one stage for a few minutes and then another. Or we may generally and mostly be in one stage for weeks or months.
There is not one typical grief response because no grief is typical, each is as unique as the person suffering the loss. Similarly, there isn’t one “right” way to go through the grief process, as everyone needs to find their own way to heal personally and recover their life. Nonetheless, we can learn a lot from other people’s experiences with grief and we can use Kübler-Ross’ stages as a general model, like light posts to guide us as we walk through the dark progressing along the path of good grief.
It’s often said that after a loved one dies we need one year to go through the stages in the grief process. Indeed, the first year is very significant as the mourner experiences birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and special events or places without that precious family member or friend. But the memories and feelings of loss will recur — often in unexpected waves or bursts — for longer than a year, perhaps for a lifetime.
Loved ones who are lost simply cannot be replaced. But we can seek empathy and comfort from other friends and family members, also from helpers like pastors and support group leaders. Furthermore, grief is an opportunity to learn and grow personally and to be spiritually formed to become more like Jesus.
Kübler-Ross named the emotional reactions of grief and she laid out the general progression of the path of good grief that facilitates emotional health and maturity. The primary context of these stages is experiencing the death of a person you were close to, but as we’ve said, they apply to other personal losses as well, even if far less poignantly.
The five stages in grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As distressing and messy as these stages of grief are, there is a healthy progression to them that we need to learn. The acronym: DABDA helps me to remember these stages as emotional places that we’re likely to visit on the journey of grief. When I’m responding to a situation of personal loss or responding to a loss that someone else is going through DABDA shines a light on what to look for and empathize with.
Painful losses of all kinds are difficult to accept. Death of a dearly loved person is the worst — it’s brutal. We don’t want to live without him or her. We refuse to look at their picture or go into their closet. We feel that we simply cannot live without him or her.
So our first reaction to grief is to go into shock. We can’t believe this has happened. We won’t believe this has happened! We become numb and find ourselves going through the motions of our life like a zombie. Our life doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s hard to get through even one day.
We may have mental or verbal conversations with the deceased. We may have dreams that they’re still alive. We may “forget” that they have died and find ourselves expecting them to come home again or to be at some event or situation in which they always were present.
The shock of denial is natural. It’s a God-given cushion to help us absorb the gut-punching blow of grief. It’s a grace that helps us to cope by pacing our emotions, giving us time to begin to settle into this new, unwanted, painful reality.
Slowly you start to cognitively accept the reality of the loss. You start asking questions about what happened and what it means for your life. Then you begin to feel your emotions more intensely. Participating in a funeral or memorial service helps us to move out of denial and begin to feel — as does looking at pictures and sharing memories with family or friends who knew the deceased.
Often the first thing you feel when a family member or friend dies is anger. It’s probably the most uncomfortable feeling to have. It seems wrong to be angry. It feels out of control, even random. All of a sudden you may lose your temper at the barista who makes your coffee the wrong way, the driver who cuts in front of you, or even a friend who is just trying to be helpful. You may get angry at a doctor or someone connected with the circumstances of the death. You may get angry at a family member or friend who has changed in their relationship with you since the death.
You may get angry at God. Death just feels wrong and unjust. If God is the sovereign Lord then how could he allow this? Your anger is likely to be especially prominent if your loved died young, in an accident, or in a painful way.
You may even get angry at your loved one how who has left you. Even if a death is natural or expected due to old age it’s still experienced as an abandonment.
It’s important to be willing to feel your anger. Don’t expect it to make sense. Learn to accept that it’s natural to feel angry after a loss and it actually can be helpful in getting you started with doing the deep and ongoing emotional work of engaging in a good grief process that facilities personal healing and recovery. Ironically, by accepting your emotions of anger — which requires receiving empathy from a safe person — they begin to dissipate. Then you can get underneath the anger to deeper, more vulnerable emotions that need attention and gentle care.
The stage of bargaining is sort of like moving back into denial, but without the shock or as much numbness. We want to go back into the past to our life with our loved one. “What if he hadn’t died? My life would be so much better!” “If only the medical treatment would’ve worked.” “If only the cancer hadn’t come back.” “If only he hadn’t been driving on that road.”
The “What ifs” and “If onlys” can seem endless. We may go through this kind of bargaining with reality or God even while a loved one is alive but is ill, or we fear they might die. “Please, Lord, I will treat my wife better if you let her live!” “I will give my life to serve you if only you’ll heal him!” “This can’t happen — she’s too young.”
In the face of death we feel helpless and out of control. We feel so vulnerable. The loss feels too painful to accept. So we keep bargaining with reality, wishing that we could be in charge and not have to face life without the one who is so loved and so important to us.
Eventually bargaining to change the past gives way to experiencing the brunt force of the present reality: your loved one is not coming back. Life will never be the same. How can you live without your companion? Why go on living alone?
Grief is depressing. Life without the one you love and need is empty. Darkness closes in on you. You’re walking in a fog, slogging through a muddy bog — you can’t see and you can hardly lift your legs to move forward. You start to lose hope, feeling like you’ll never be happy and lively again. The depression is in your body, weighing you down, and at times it’s hard even to get out of bed and face the day.
Survivors of tragic loss often feel survivor’s guilt, which is a false sense of responsibility and a false guilt that “He died, but I didn’t.” The Grim Reaper’s death toll seems so haphazard and unjust, why some die, but not others.
Part of the depression of grief may be feeling bad about yourself, “What’s the matter with me? Why can’t I move on? I don’t have much to offer anyone. It’s no wonder that people don’t like me anymore.” Self-condemning, even self-hateful thoughts, are part of depression. This is called shame and it’s exceeding painful and furthers the experience of emptiness because it pulls us away from people, away from trusting and being vulnerable and asking for the empathy we need.
Normal grief is a reactive depression, not a mental disorder. Although the depression of grief may come on top of a pre-existing or underlying depression of personality that is a clinical disorder that needs treatment. Even if you don’t have a history of depression or a biological basis for depression, when you’re grieving it’s important to seek help, if not from a psychotherapist then from a grief support group, prayer partner, or compassionate friends.
This is the critical stage in a good grief process. Here we see the wisdom of the Chinese symbol for crisis really come into play: going through this loss is dangerous and it’s an opportunity. Some people in grief get stuck in the bog of depression. Their depression becomes bad depression or bad grief (meaning it’s unhealthy). But others move out of isolation, resist shame and hopelessness, feel their emotions, accept their needs, and seek warmth, understanding, and help from kind people. In this way their depression can become good depression or good grief that fosters emotional healing and growth.
Coming into the good grief stage of acceptance doesn’t mean that you feel like everything is fine now. Life without your beloved is not something to feel fine about — the empty chair remains and this is very sad. You have precious memories, but your dear one is not with you anymore. Acceptance means that you’re learning to accept the reality that your life does not include the physical presence of your loved one and your learning to live in this new normal.
Your sadness is a sign of endearment and respect for the one who is gone and the relationship you shared. It’s because you loved this person that you’re sad. That sadness may not go away, but it can lessen in severity and frequency as you receive emotional comfort and have new, positive life experiences.
In the stage of acceptance we’re ready to sort through our loved one’s belongings and decide what to give to who and what to do with their room or closet. Perhaps you’re a widow and your husband always handled the finances, but now you take on this responsibility. Or your parent was always there to support you in times of personal or financial need, but now you have to turn to someone else.
You realize that it is possible even without your loved to enjoy your life again, to give and receive love, to accomplish important things. This is up to you. No one can do this for you. It’s an attitude adjustment. It’s asking for help. It’s putting one foot in front of the other. It’s trying new things and forming new relationships.
When you find yourself feeling happy again you may feel like you’re betraying your loved one, as if it means that you don’t really miss him or her. That’s because your grief has been keeping the two of you connected, but you must find other ways to stay connected, like by reminiscing and being grateful.
A Christian Perspective on Good Grief
Thankfully, Christians do not have to grieve like people of the world have no real and lasting hope. Through our faith in Christ Jesus we can grieve with hope by anticipating a bodily resurrection for our loved one and ourself and a sweet reunion in heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). This is a real and substantial future. Paul says, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
The Christian’s hope in mourning is not only for the future — it’s also for today and the rest of our life on earth. First of all, we can hope for real comfort. The God who will one day wipe every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4) is today ministering his empathy to us, most tangibly through the Body of Christ in compassionate, love one another relationships. This is why Paul exclaims: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
As we’ve said, grief often comes in unexpected waves that can be overwhelming if we don’t have adequate support. We may feel afraid of being overtaken by our grief in public or with people that we don’t feel safe with — especially if we already tend to judge ourselves negatively for being emotional or needy. Read God’s promise is a lifeline: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:2).
A favorite Bible promise of mine is that when we approach our life as apprentices to Jesus, loving and trusting in God with us in all situations, then he works for good even those things that are bad, painful, or evil. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We and our loved ones can experience this redemption through Christ — now and for eternity.