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A Grief Observed

reprinted from the Summer 2003/2004 edition of Essentials


   In an era where we hold happiness as the ultimate goal, grief is out of place. Uncomfortable and difficult emotions are regarded as "bad", things to be avoided and overcome. Easier and more pleasant emotions are what we search for. Yet we can be certain this roller-coaster of life will offer us a myriad of experiences - both difficult and pleasant. Claire Livingstone ministers at All Saints Greensborough where here husband Andrew is vicar
   Grief, commonly only linked with death, can be experienced with any change or perception of loss. Even changes that have been planned and are perceived as "good" can bring with them unexpected times of grief. What is our attitude to grief? Is there a "normal" way of grieving? Does our faith in God make any difference in the face of loss?
   Recognised and Unrecognised Grief This article originally appeared in Ishah ( and is used with permission.
   From our infancy we learn that we don't always get what we want. So many different events can introduce us to grief and loss - watching your parents argue; failing to achieve a goal; changing schools; being teased; the death of a pet or person we love.
  Loss is a very personal experience. What I perceive as loss, someone else may not. My loss may not even be visible to anyone else. Some losses are obvious: leaving a job; moving house; illness; the death of a loved one. Others, though, are less recognised: an unrealised dream; miscarriage; loss of youthfulness; a wayward child; singleness; childlessness; menopause. Often grief is unrecognised because it's associated with events that are regarded as part of the normal cycle of life: giving up a career to raise children; an adult child leaving home; retirement.  
   One loss can be linked with others. Although the birth of a child is usually a welcome event it can lead to losses – such as a paid job and a drop in income; a sense of identity or autonomy; a sense of achievement or confidence. The end of a relationship, moving house, changing jobs, conclusion of a holiday or dealing with illness can all include loss on many levels.  
   We like to think grief ultimately has an end, but for many people grief is something they face each day. Mental or physical illness, abuse, addiction, disability and shattered dreams all have something in common – they can cause those affected, whether directly or indirectly, to face long-term grief.  
  Expressing Grief  
   Given that there are many different types of loss, is there a "normal" grieving process? Are there "right" ways to express grief?  
   The deepest loss I've ever known was the birth and death of our third child, Janna, ten years ago. One of the best analogies I've heard about dealing with the death of someone close to you is that it's like losing an arm or a leg. You have to learn to live without it. There are days when you don't even notice it's gone, but there are other days when you're all too aware of the loss.  
   Giving birth to death is the most surreal experience I think I'll ever have. The people who were the most comfort for me were those who wordlessly cried with us. Their tears validated my tears. Tears said that this wasn't the way it was supposed to be.  
   For me, the next twelve months were a black hole of desperate pain, both emotionally and physically. In the beginning my arms literally ached from wanting to hold my baby. I felt as though a part of me had been ripped from within and physically felt a deep void within my body. I experienced stomach pain, jaw pain, headaches, appetite changes – and an incredibly deep despair and sadness. I felt a desperate loneliness that no one could bridge. I felt angry, powerless and hopeless.  
   The nights were unbearably long. Many times my husband found me on the lounge room floor punching myself, crying and moaning from someplace deep within. But the mornings brought no relief – there'd be a fraction of a second when I first woke when I'd feel okay, then I'd remember and the pain would envelop me.  
   One of the hardest things was still being a mum to two young boys: caring for them in their grief; being patient when they fought; taking care of their practical needs; loving them in the midst of my darkness. There were times when I was alone and I wanted to drive the car into a power pole – but I was stopped by the thought of my sons.  
   I tell my story to illustrate one person's experience of grief, and only part of that journey. We are all so very different that we can't even begin to compare our experiences of loss and grief. There may be some similarities, some shared emotions, but the expression of those emotions will be unique to each person.  
   My husband's experience of grief was quite different to mine. When he first heard the news he went into what he calls "intellectual mode". Andrew understood the news that his daughter wasn't going to live, but he had no idea how he'd feel. He says it was like trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without knowing what the pieces or the picture looked like. Thirty hours later Janna was placed into his arms – still breathing and kicking. "The pieces suddenly snapped together," he said "and not only did I sob, but I howled from a depth within my very being. There was deep joy at her life, but deep grief at knowing it would end at any minute".  
   Andrew's tears stopped after a few days, to be replaced by lethargy, depression and a lack of patience. It took him a while to realise that was his way of expressing the deep grief he felt.  
   I found many active ways of expressing my emotions over the months – journaling, drawing, reading literature about grief, attending a support group, making a photo album, crying, yelling at God, talking with friends who could sit with me in the midst of my pain, cuddling a soft toy, washing and hanging out the baby clothes I'd unpacked, before packing them away again.  
   There are two sure things about grief: it lasts longer than you want it to, and it hurts deeper than you want it to. For many people there will come a time when a moment of happiness appears, when another day brings an hour of light. One evening they may go to bed realising they had enjoyed the whole day. For others, grief will be something they learn to adapt to, without it defining their whole being.  
   As carers we often find it difficult to be with those who grieve because their pain causes us discomfort. We feel powerless. It challenges us to look at uncomfortable aspects of ourselves. Learning to walk with someone who hurts isn't easy, but it can be done. We can't "fix them", but we can love them. Offering platitudes is unhelpful, but we can ask them what they need. We can ask them what they find difficult. We can listen patiently over and over again. In our caring we can reassure those in pain that they are more than their pain – we can treat them as whole people.  
   Faith & Grief  
   Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms…But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away …  
   So wrote C.S.Lewis after his wife's death (A grief observed). Lewis gives us an insight into the reality of living through grief, and how he grapples with what he knows in his head, and what he experiences in his heart.  
   The psalmist had similar feelings. "My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Why are you so far away? Won't you listen to my groans and come to my rescue? I cry out day and night, but you don't answer, and I can never rest" (Psalm 22).  
   Struggling with God in the midst of pain is not new. In the Bible, Job spends time trying to understand why God allows his suffering to continue. When God finally speaks to Job he doesn't offer any answers to his questions. He simply points out that He is God – and Job is not!  
   There are many parts of Scripture where people rail against God, where they cry out in lament. In doing so, God's sovereignty is being acknowledged. He is in control of this world. Ultimately, the buck stops with him. So yell at him your questions, cry out to him your pain, tell him of your confusion. Then, sit with him in silence.  
   The question I kept hearing was, "Will you serve me no matter what?". The first time I heard it I cried back, "Even if it means you take my daughter?". The quiet answer was yes, "Will you serve me simply because I'm God?"  
   God is God, and we are not. He hasn't promised constant happiness in this life – that's a lie of this world. He has promised he has a plan for this world and he is fulfilling that plan. God is faithful to his promises. Christ is proof of that. Until his return we live in the "now and not yet" of his Kingdom. God's Kingdom is here, but not fully. This world is still in pain – but as God's people we know there will come a time when God will reign completely – when there'll be no more tears, and no more mourning (Revelation 21).  
   God is the majestic Creator of the Universe. He rules over all things. He is to be feared and held in awe. Yet our Majestic Creator also knows how many hairs are on our head! He chose us before the creation of the world to be his children in Christ (Ephesians 1). He knows and loves each of us intimately. In restoring a sense of awe within us, God can increase our sense of intimacy with him.  
   Our purpose in life is to bring glory to God – even if that life only lasts four hours. We can learn to be satisfied in God, even though we may not be satisfied with our circumstances. We need to be careful that our desire for a comfortable life is not greater than our desire to know God. We can hold firm to the hope of Christ's return. We can experience the roller-coaster of life and know God is to be trusted.  
   Grief is not something to "get over", but a human experience through which we can grow together as God's people, and through which we can find a deeper relationship with God.  



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