Grieving and Bereavement
By Dr. Brian Allison[addThis]
How do you minister to someone who has lost a friend or loved one? How do you cope when you have lost a friend or loved one? Bereavement may be quite burdensome because of the intensity of grief and the extensiveness of mourning. In order to more effectively minister to those who are bereaved, and to cope more effectively with bereavement ourselves, we must first understand the dynamics of grieving-mourning. Admittedly, most people do not understand grieving-mourning, and thus are ill-prepared to cope with it. In this paper I will address, first, understanding grieving-mourning and, second, treating grieving-mourning.
A. Understanding Grieving-Mourning
1. The Nature of Grief
Grief is a painful emotion which results from the experience of loss, disappointment, or separation (e.g. Job 2:13; 16:6), which often leaves one feeling helpless. It is the ‘soul’s sorrow’, consisting primarily of the feelings of sadness/depression (e.g. dejection, emptiness, melancholy, boredom, etc.) (cf. Prov 14:13; Psa 107:39; Eccl 7:3) and displeasure/anger (e.g. bitterness, irritability, frustration, resentment, etc.) (cf. Prov 17:25; Lam 1:4; Zech 12:10). Grief is a natural (i.e., innate) emotional response to either deprivation, the removal of a source or means of some needed, valued, or desired object (e.g. 2 Sam 19:2); or to distress, the psychological pressure and anxiety which result from misfortune, tragedy, or threat (e.g. Isa 53:3,4). It reveals ‘heart’ disequilibrium and disturbance. Accordingly, as Eloise Cale said, “Grief is the natural and necessary response to recovering emotional equilibrium following a significant loss” (Eloise Cale, “Guidelines for Aiding the Bereaved through Death or Divorce,” unpublished paper). With respect to the category of deprivation (of which bereavement is a specific example), the failing of a final exam in a course may cause grief (the loss of reputation, or the loss of further opportunities, or the loss of positive self-image, etc.). The rejection by a desired and potential lover may cause grief (the disappointment of being unloved, the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams, the disappointment of anticipated physical exchange, etc.). The moving away of a close friend may cause grief (the separation from a valued confidant, the separation from a source of encouragement and sensitivity, the separation from a desired security, etc.). As Gary Collins writes, “Indeed, whenever a part of life is removed, there is grief” (Collins, 1980, 411). The grief-experience of bereavement may feel like falling into, and being swallowed up by, a deep ‘black-hole’.
2. The Reasons for Grief
Grief may result through physical reasons, such as disease, injury, or lifestyle (e.g. overeating and gaining weight may cause grief—the loss of self-dignity, or the disappointment of an unattractive appearance, or the separation from more athletically-inclined friends). Grief may result through social reasons, such as prejudice, rejection, or abuse (e.g. ridicule for a personal idiosyncrasy may cause grief—the loss of self-worth, or the disappointment of disapproval and failing to conform to expectations, or the separation from desired associates). Grief may result through psychological reasons, such as intense jealousy, obsessional thinking, or agoraphobia (e.g. excessive shyness may cause grief—the loss of perceived fulfilment or happiness, or the disappointment of lacking self-confidence and being expressive, or the separation from a popular group of peers). Grief may result through spiritual reasons, such as the guilt and shame of laziness, hating a fellow-Christian, or failure to progress in sanctification (e.g. continual succumbing to lust may cause grief—the loss of self-respect, the disappointment of being disobedient, the separation from God and His felt-acceptance). There are different reasons for grief, but the emotional dynamic and experience of grief remain constant; only the intensity and effects differ. Vernon Gunckel insists, “If you do not understand your grief, many physical and emotional difficulties may persist over a long period of time. Only when you begin to understand and express your grief naturally will healing begin” (Gunckel, 1983, 5). Bereavement involves the deepest kind of grief because bereavement usually concerns the deepest kind of loss, disappointment, and separation.
3. The Relationship Between Grief and Mourning
Grief and mourning are intricate, correlative behavioural dynamics. They comprise two sides of the same experiential phenomenon. Grief is the ‘inner side’ and mourning is the ‘outer side’ of the one reality of personal hurt and suffering. We may associate grieving with the covert, emotional side; and mourning with the overt, behavioural (i.e., visible) side. Accordingly, the Psalmist bemoaned, “I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning, as one who sorrows [grieves] for a mother” (Psa 35:14). Mourning is simply the natural, and observable, extension and expression of grieving. Accordingly, grieving involves the emotion of sadness; mourning involves the physical behaviour of crying which signifies and reveals that sadness. Mourning channels grief. Loosely speaking, we grieve in our hearts; we mourn through our bodies; though grieving itself effects physiological symptoms and physical maladies (see Psa 6:7; 31:9). Thus, on the one hand, the apostle Paul disclosed, “I have sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart” (Rom 9:2; cf. 1 Sam 30:6; Prov 15:13; Isa 65:14; John 16:6); and on the other hand, we read concerning Jacob, “Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, ‘Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.’ So his father wept for him” (Gen 37:35; cf. Deut 34:8; 2 Sam 3:31; Job 30:28; Ezek 24:16,17). This grieving-mourning correlative dynamic simply underscores the organic, unitary nature of the human being. The human being is a holistic, ontological entity, consisting of two interdependent existential dimensions (i.e., inner/psycho-spiritual and the outer/physical).
4. A Specific Demonstration of Mourning
With respect to bereavement, lamentation is a specific kind of mourning. It is mourning aloud. It is verbalized mourning. This verbalization ventilates the pain. Lamentation assumes the form of speaking a dirge or uttering an eulogy or rehearsing memories. It is the articulation of the inner grief. For instance, we read, “Then Jeremiah chanted a lament for Josiah. And all the male singers and female singers speak about Josiah in their lamentations to this day. And they made them an ordinance in Israel; behold, they are written in the Lamentations” (2 Chr 35:25; cf. Jer 22:18; Ezek 26:17; Amos 8:10; Luke 23:27). Unfortunately, the prominence of this ancient practice (apart from the funeral service) in the grieving-mourning process has fallen into general disuse today. Lamentation (‘grief-talk’) is an essential component involved in the healing process (see below).
5. The Necessity of Grieving-Mourning
Inner pain and hurt must be duly acknowledged and directly addressed or psycho-emotional disturbances and physiological problems may ensue. The grieving-mourning dynamic comprises the person’s native management mechanism of processing and disseminating inner pain and hurt. Grieving-mourning restores health to the heart (and body). Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 reads, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Grieving-mourning has medicinal effects. John James and Frank Cherry, bereavement specialists, affirm, “Most of the stress and pressure in life have to do with grief, yet grief is what we’re least prepared to cope with. Keeping grief inside is the cause of the majority of the pain you feel…The pain doesn’t go away on its own” (James and Cherry, 1988, 118).
Repressed or suppressed justified grieving-mourning (e.g. grieving-mourning over the loss of a significant other) is self-destructive (e.g. psychosomatic illnesses, organic disease, eating disorders, alcoholism, drug addiction, phobias, mental confusion, social isolation, sleep disorders, etc.). Grieving-mourning is right, good, and necessary in response to the experience of significant loss, disappointment, or separation; and thus should be expected, and even encouraged, especially with respect to bereavement (cf. 1 Thess 4:13). Again, it is the heart’s innate way of diffusing and minimizing the suffering. As Miriam Neff writes, “Grief is not evil. It hurts; it is unwelcome. We would prefer to live without it. But none of us have that option ….Grief could not be a bad emotion. Jesus experienced it. The Holy Spirit experiences it” (Neff, 1983, 163f.). There is an appropriate “time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl 3:4). Well-meaning caregivers or supporters of the bereaved who make the following statements reveal their ignorance of the necessity for healthy grieving-mourning: “Get a hold of yourself;” “You can’t fall apart;” “Keep a stiff upper lip;” “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps;” “Be strong for the children;” etc.
The painful character of grieving-mourning derives not from within itself, but from the inner painfulness or hurt of the loss, disappointment, or separation experienced. During the process of grieving-mourning, many even feel that they are ‘going crazy’. Neff further states, “Grief is a stressful event ….Grief is hard work. It is giving up emotional dependence on what we no longer have. I have often been told that time is the healer for grief. I disagree. Healing depends on what happens during that time” (Neff, 1983, 165f.). It should be noted that the healing process is not a smooth upward progression, but rather an unpredictable ‘up and down’ one. Healing often assumes a ‘spiral’ path (i.e., one may experience depression cyclically, or loneliness cyclically, etc., but at a different level, during the healing process. He may feel stronger as he advances along the spiral path, but he may still be greatly affected). Practically speaking, the bereaved should usually (not necessarily) avoid making any major decisions at this fragile time in his or her life. Furthermore, the bereaved must make sure he or she receives the proper rest and sleep, exercise, and diet. Because there is a tendency to neglect one’s health during traumatic periods of this nature, a medical checkup shortly after a loss may be wise. The grieving-mourning process itself normally precipitates and promotes physiological reactions and physical problems (e.g. tightening of the throat, palpitations, gastrointestinal disturbances, blurred vision, headaches, lethargy, etc.).
The depth of grieving-mourning in bereavement is proportional to the severity of the loss experienced (i.e., the depth of personal attachment to the needed, valued, or desired person). The sense of severe loss occasions the experience of extreme grief. Extreme grief, as with repressed or suppressed grief (the dynamic of extreme grief simulates that of repressed or suppressed grief, simply because of its ‘pervasiveness’ or intensity), results in psycho-emotional and physical disturbances. Concerning Job, we read, “My eye has also grown dim because of grief, and all my members are as a shadow” (Job 17:7; cf. Psa 6:7). Extreme grieving-mourning is debilitating. Moreover, extreme grief typically results in bizarre, irrational, and extreme behaviour. For instance, when David and his men returned to Ziklag and discovered that the Amalekites had overthrown that place and had burned it, and also had taken their families captive, the men “spoke of stoning [David], for all the people were embittered [i.e., grieved], each one because of his sons and his daughters” (1 Sam 30:6).
B. Treating Grieving-Mourning
1. The Process of Grieving-Mourning Work
Grieving-mourning, particularly in bereavement, is a process which requires time (cf. 1 Chr 7:22). One cannot really control and determine his grieving-mourning process; he can only facilitate and promote it. Clearly, the more severe the perceived loss, disappointment, or separation, the more prolonged the process. The average time for pronounced grieving-mourning over the loss of a loved one is about two years, though one will always feel the loss, and periodically experience momentary abreactional grieving-mourning (i.e., re-experience the pain of loss by an incidental triggering of a memory). Yet we must be careful not to impose too rigid a time framework to this grieving-mourning work, to which we expect people to conform. People grieve-mourn differently, and in varied ways. Some grieve-mourn more quietly and reservedly, while others grieve-mourn more expressively and demonstrably. Differences in grieving-mourning are dependent upon many factors (e.g. personality, cultural expectations, coping mechanisms, previous experiences with grief, former training and education in the area of suffering management, relationship to the deceased, etc.). James Miller writes, “Usually grief is a self-limiting process. It will end when it naturally comes to a conclusion” (Miller, unpublished paper).
Strictly speaking, grieving-mourning is a process, rather than a progression through specifically defined stages, though the notion of stages is helpful in understanding the actual process. Practically speaking, the beginning of bereavement should consist of a specific, even publicly stated, period of time for grieving-mourning; for instance, one week, thirty days, etc., depending upon the severity of the loss. Tradition has reduced the initial period of grieving-mourning to about three days (i.e., up to the close of the committal service). This practice of a stated initial period for bereavement would facilitate the actual grieving-mourning process, rather than curtail or pre-empt it. This particular practice has fallen into general disuse (with rare exceptions; e.g. recently Deng Xiaoping was officially mourned six days), but its value cannot be overestimated. With this practice, the bereaved thus has a sense that the deceased has been duly honoured and remembered. Guilt becomes less of a complicating factor in the actual grieving-mourning process. For instance, we read, concerning the death of Jacob, that Joseph, and his company, “observed seven days mourning for his father” (Gen 50:10b); again, “And when all the congregation saw that Aaron had died, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days” (Num 20:29; cf. Gen 50:3; 2 Sam 11:27). Collins remarks, “In the American [and Canadian] society, for example, there has tended to be an intolerance of prolonged grieving. In a country which values efficiency, intellectualism, rationalism and pragmatism, death often is seen as an inconvenience or embarrassment” (Collins, 1980, 415).
Of course, the first official act of grieving-mourning is the funeral service. Self-evidently, this service is important and absolutely critical in the grieving-mourning process. The service ratifies the death, countering any psychological denial, and honours the dead, helping the bereaved to resolve psychological guilt. It communicates a note of finality; and as a result, facilitates the grieving-mourning process. The funeral service clearly precipitates, crystalizes, and promotes this process.
2. The Stages of the Grieving-Mourning Process
Though we may talk about the stages of grieving-mourning, in reality the relationship amongst these stages is not strictly and invariably chronological and linear, but often are concurrent and overlapping; but for the sake of understanding, we view the stages successively. In actual experience, the process does not unfold so neatly. Notwithstanding, the general stages of the actual grieving-mourning process are: 1) Shock. The bereaved is initially overwhelmed emotionally and incredulous. He is rendered emotionally numb and unresponsive; 2) Denial. The bereaved finds it impossible to accept the reality of the tragedy. Wishful thinking dominates, and he may expect the deceased to reappear alive; 3) Depression/Anger. The bereaved becomes sad at the reality of the loss or separation, and even angry at the disappointment brought about by it. He may blame and criticize the doctor for not being able to do more for the deceased, or the minister for not being more available for guidance. At this point the bereaved is usually emotionally unstable and disorganized; 4) Loneliness. The bereaved has a sense of being abandoned or left behind. He feels isolated, detached, empty, and unconnected; 5) Acceptance. This final stage presupposes an effectual working through of the various painful, and even confusing feelings (e.g. hostility, guilt, fears, etc.), and resolving them. C. M. Parkes in his Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life outlines four major phases of bereavement: 1) shock and numbness (up to two weeks); 2) searching and yearning (from 2nd week to 4th month); 3) disorientation/disorganization (from 5th month to 9th month; 4) reorganization/resolution (from 9th month to 2 years). The process of grieving-mourning really never comes to an end (for the loss is never adequately and completely compensated for or perfectly replaced); these dynamics simply lose their intense emotional force and impact.
As mentioned, in bereavement, the grieving-mourning work necessitates the release and diffusion of the inner hurt or pain, resulting from the significant loss. The bereaved should be encouraged, not forced, cajoled, or pressured, to freely express his feelings; however painful the experience may be. Cyril Barber and Sharalee Aspenleiter instruct, “The important thing for you to remember is not to stifle your feelings. As far as possible you should remain maturely in touch with your emotions” (Barber and Aspenleiter, 1987, 30). Miller affirms, “Above all else, what usually helps the most is being able to talk with at least one person about one’s feelings—all the ups and downs, the sadness and the fear, the memories and the hopes ….However one chooses, one needs to get one’s feelings off one’s chest” (Miller, unpublished paper). The two main healing variables of the bereaved are typically talk (though writing is also effective) and tears. As Neff remarks, “Tears are part of the healing process…God gives us tears to express this physical and emotional pain…Usually healing is incomplete without tears…Another part of this healing process is talking…Talking releases tension…Talking can bring to the surface feelings that should be faced” (Neff, 1983, 167f.). Therefore, he who would support the bereaved should endeavour to be a good, sympathetic, and patient listener. The bereaved must be given the opportunity to talk about their memories, and unless this occurs “a feeling of utter worthlessness and despair, together with guilt and sleeplessness, may follow” (Howard, 1980, 25). Paradoxically, the sharing and expressing of the pain helps to release and reduce the pain. The tears of pain are the tears of cleansing. As Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief” (King Henry the Sixth, II, i, 85). Donald Howard rightly asserts, “God gave us our emotions and we are foolish to ignore them. Rather than tears indicating a so-called nervous breakdown, they are often a safety valve to reduce the pressure that might otherwise cause a collapse” (Howard, 1980, 26). The bereaved must have the courage to face his fears, guilt, regrets, and ‘unfinished business’, and be prepared to hurt in order to receive healing. As Gunckel notes, “Instinctively we try to avoid the painful, but in bereavement pain is often the path of healing. To refuse to accept the hurt of loss is to postpone the healing ….Only by facing your grief ‘head-on’ with all its pain and hurt can healing begin to take place” (Gunckel, 1983, 8). Accordingly, relying upon sedatives, tranquilizers, and antidepressants to lessen the trauma of the loss interferes with, undermines, and complicates the healing process, though these medications may bring temporary relief, which is but a temporary (and even cruel) reprieve from the pain which inevitably must be dealt with and resolved. Marcel Proust (1871-1922) insightfully wrote, “We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”
3. The Healing Stages of the Grieving-Mourning Process
The fundamental healing stages through which the bereaved must pass are: 1) accepting of the death. Typically, the survivor may deny the reality of his loss, or the depth of his pain. Subsequently, the grieving-mourning work is obstructed, stalled, and even reversed. In this connection, Howard states, “There is frequently a need to review and talk over aspects of what is now irrevocably past. Such a review of the lost relationship is a vital psychological aspect of the mourning process; it is only when the process progresses satisfactorily that the loss is ultimately resolved” (Howard, 1980, 25). The bereaved is responsible for himself and his healing. He cannot be childishly dependent upon others, nor should the caregiver or supporter of the bereaved encourage such a dependence. The bereaved must determine to seek stability and personal, emotional resolve (certainly trusting in God). Hence, the bereaved must be ruthlessly honest with himself and with his situation. The caregiver or supporter must validate the bereaved person’s feelings, regardless of their intensity, though carefully monitoring extreme or abnormal manifestations. John Evans rightly asserts, “While we might not want to return to wearing black, we still need to have others acknowledge our pain and to accompany us during the difficult period of transition to a new life, or through the grieving process” (Evans, 1996, 2); 2) saying ‘good-bye’ to the deceased. Typically, the survivor fails to sever the emotional ties with the deceased, endeavouring to hold on. As Robert Buckman observes, “It is those ties that cause us pain. Grieving normally reduces the hurt ….If you don’t acknowledge the amount of pain and hurt, you probably won’t get strong” (Buckman, 1988, 108, 110). Saying ‘good-bye’ may be an incredibly painful transaction, for one is starkly confronted with the finality of the former relationship. Saying ‘good-bye’ is often misconstrued as a betrayal by the bereaved. Consequently, if one fails to ‘let go’ or surrender the former relationship, and thus readjust to present and future circumstances, he may create a self-destructive fantasy world. The bereaved must realize that to say ‘good-bye’ does not mean forgetting or dishonouring the deceased. It is simply an honest acknowledgement that life has changed and that the former relationship no longer exists in its original form, and that one cannot hold on to the deceased. Barber and Aspenleiter observe, “As painful as the process is, once this point has been reached, you begin to come out of your depression” (Barber and Aspenleiter, 1987, 38). The bereaved may have to be especially helped through this stage; 3) resolving to press on and be open to future experiences. The bereaved must realize that life is still worth living, though the loss will always be felt; that life can still be enjoyed; that his life still has purpose and meaning; that he must assume responsibility for his own growth and living.
4. Dealing with Grieving-Mourning
The primary response to, and management of, grieving-mourning is providing and applying comfort. We read, “She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers” (Lam 1:2); and again, “And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console [i.e., comfort] them concerning their brother [who had died]” (John 11:19; cf. 1 Chr 7:22). Comfort results from the experience of peace, hope, or joy. It is the emotional disposition which arises from a sense of relief or encouragement. It entails an inner strengthening. Comfort naturally quells and mitigates grief, for comfort counter-affects and ‘swallows up’ grief. Psychologically speaking, for negative feelings and moods to be addressed and assuaged, they must be confronted and substituted with positive feelings and moods. This may sound elementary and self-evident, but this ‘force-counter-force’ dynamic is not generally admitted or understood. Negative feelings and moods remain (in some form) unless they are substituted with at least equi-potential positive feelings and moods. This dynamic was evident in the bereavement of Isaac over his mother, Sarah. We read, “Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death” (Gen 24:67). Replacing the lost, deeply cherished object with a new equally cherished object often extinguishes and resolves deep grief, though it does not fully compensate for the loss.
Of course, from a Christian perspective, God Himself is the Source of comfort. We read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3,4). God’s very presence, and the conveyance of grace, communicates real healing comfort. The Christian’s confidence is that “even though [he] walk[s] through the valley of the shadow of death, [he should] fear no evil; for [God is] with [him]; [His] rod and [His] staff [will] comfort [him]” (Psa 23:4). God communicates this divine comfort particularly through prayer and the meditation of the Scriptures. Yet God also communicates comfort through practical means, as the following section outlines.
5. Practical Steps in Dealing with Grieving-Mourning
Practically speaking, the means of comforting assumes different forms. First, timely, supportive, and meaningful words communicate comfort—”This is my comfort in my affliction, that Thy word has revived me” (Psa 119:50; cf. Job 16:5; Psa 119:52; 1 Thess 4:18). For the Christian, the Scriptures provide the greatest source of comfort, with the hope and encouragement which they offer (cf. Rom 15:4). Of course, faith must be the response to these comforting words. In the act of faith-appropriation, comfort is experienced. Faith, coupled with hope, is essential in bringing the grieving-mourning process to resolution. Paul Balson affirms, “Faith also assists mourning. Knowing that God’s hand is in all things allows the mourner to accept appropriate new areas for placement of his or her emotional energy. Faith allows for a rapid change in the mental image of the loved one to that of a member of the blessed throng of faithful departed souls” (Balson, “The Dying and Those who Help Them,” 3).
Second, sensitive, understanding, and supportive friends and companions, who can genuinely commiserate, communicate comfort. The presence of people (especially with compassionate touching) is crucial for the bereaved to work through their grieving-mourning. Bereavement, naturally so, fosters a deep sense of loneliness—a real vacuum—which only the presence of people can begin to fill and counter. We read, for instance, “For these things I weep; my eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter, one who restores my soul” (Jer 1:16; cf. 1 Chr 19:2; Job 2:11; John 11:31; 14:18; 2 Cor 7:6). Larry Richards and Paul Johnson state, “To be a caring person, to develop a one-on-one personal relationship in which we can be truly supportive, is both a goal and a problem [because of unfaithfulness] for the Christian” (Richards and Johnson, 1980, 21). Usually the bereaved cannot heal or recover alone. They need caring people who provide unconditional love and meaningful exchange (not pointless platitudes). Yet a supporter of the bereaved should not always feel that he or she must always have something to say. Silence can be powerful, and even sacred. Many times the bereaved simply needs your company, not your ‘wisdom’. Further, sensitive supporters can be a tremendous aid to the bereaved, particularly in practical ways (e.g. providing meals, doing the grocery shopping, picking up the children at school, etc.).
Third, the provision of physical support and aid, which convey concern and care, communicate comfort. There must be tangible evidences of love. For instance, concerning Job, we read, “Then all his brothers, and all his sisters, and all who had known him before, came to him, and they ate bread with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought on him. And each one gave him one piece of money, and each a ring of gold” (Job 42:11).
Fourth, encouraging and positive situations communicate comfort. Good reports or news, happy or celebrative events, satisfying or fulfilling circumstances help counter the force and effect of miserable and tragic experiences. We observe this dynamic in the apostle Paul’s own life. He affirmed, “And not by [Titus’] coming only, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more” (2 Cor 7:7). Accordingly, the bereaved should endeavour to foster and promote a positive and uplifting environment during this fragile time of grieving-mourning (e.g. taking that long-desired vacation, engaging in an enjoyable hobby, enrolling in an course of interest, etc.).
6. The Possibility of Pathological Grieving-Mourning
Admittedly, sometimes the inner pain or hurt through a loss is so intense (because of the strength of the components of desire, need, or value) that the resultant grieving-mourning initially is impervious to comfort. Hence, we read, “Thus says the Lord, ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer 31:15; cf. Gen 44:3). At this point, the normal grieving-mourning process may become pathological. Pathological grieving-mourning is pervasive and pernicious, and apparently is not amenable to resolution. This adverse state results in persistent psychological and physical complaints (e.g. clinical depression, headaches, etc.). Balson observes, “In rare instances, a person is not able to go through normal grief or mourning. When the natural process of loss is blocked, the underlying cause can usually be understood as follows: fear of loss of emotional control, guilt about a real or imagined transgression against the loved one (especially during the final phases of his or her illness), or unexpressed, long-standing anger. Some fear that strong emotions could be overwhelming or make them behave in unacceptable ways” (Balson, “The Dying,” 2). Those suffering from pathological grieving-mourning require professional help and counseling. Hence, patience and the investment of time and energy (in comforting) for the bereaved become continually necessary. Admittedly, people react to, and handle differently, the experience of bereavement. As Collins notes, “Grief…is an individual experience in which each person copes in a unique way” (Collins, 1980, 417).
Balson suggests some steps that should be followed in order to cope with loss, which will facilitate a normal grieving-mourning process and avoid major problems: 1) prepare in advance (though one is never fully prepared) – anticipate the inevitable and begin to plan; 2) learn the normal process of grieving and mourning – knowledge provides direction and security; 3) predict how you will react – rehearse your previous experiences to grief, and make adjustments accordingly; 4) ask for advice, counseling, or support in advance – this minimizes possible problems and fears; 5) participate fully in all the religious, family, and cultural rituals when the loss occurs – coping should not be a private, isolated experience; sharing is medicinal; 6) watch for signs of abnormal reactions – normal grieving-mourning can imperceptibly degenerate into pathological grieving-mourning (Balson, “The Dying,” 4f.).
7. Practical Ways to Cope in the Grieving-Mourning Process
In addition to (and re-emphasizing) what has already been said, the bereaved may better cope with their loss and pain by: 1) understanding the dynamics and process of grieving-mourning, by reading or seeking counsel; 2) being honest with himself, his situation, his pain, his faith, his loneliness, etc.; 3) being courageous enough to share his feelings, memories, regrets, etc. to a trustworthy and respected person; 4) finding a sympathetic, understanding supporter or counselor who can provide feedback and input as he sorts out his hurt, confusion, feelings, etc. and moves toward resolution; 5) having a strong support-system consisting of caring people; 6) reducing his responsibilities and restricting his commitments in order to minimize the stress-load; 7) attempting to engage in productive, contributory activities (e.g. visiting the elderly, providing meals for the sick, etc.); 8) endeavouring to minister to others who are grieving-mourning. James and Cherry, in their The Grief Recovery Handbook, teach a fivefold practical program for coping with, and recovering from, grief. First, the bereaved must gain awareness that an incomplete emotional relationship exists (i.e., the bereaved did not fully and emotionally give himself to, and become actively involved in, the development and enhancement of his former marital relationship, resulting in satisfaction and happiness for his spouse and himself). The bereaved, along with the loss of a relationship, has other losses (e.g. rejection, abuse, etc.) which are still causing grief. These losses are emotionally incomplete, and thus are still causing unhappiness. They have not been identified, acknowledged, and resolved. Thus, bereavement grief may be perniciously complicated. James and Cherry state, “In order to resolve an emotionally incomplete loss, we must complete it. If you complete your emotional relationship, it does not mean you’ll have to forget your loved one” (James and Cherry, 1988, 107). Emotional incompleteness (i.e., the ‘if onlys’; “If only I had been more sensitive;” “If only I had talked more;” etc.) usually entails either the need to make amends (i.e., incidents for which one is sorry), or the need to offer forgiveness, or the need to express significant emotional statements (e.g. “I love you,” “I was proud of you,” etc.). Through a new awareness that an incomplete emotional relationship exists (e.g. the loss of a spouse), one acquires a new perspective, and, hopefully, resolves to change.
Second, the bereaved must accept responsibility that, in part, he is the cause of the existence of the emotionally incomplete loss—”This is absolutely the most difficult state to move through” (James and Cherry, 1988, 126). Though the bereaved may not initially accept responsibility, he must, at least, evidence a willingness to accept it, or recovery is circumvented. Third, the bereaved must identify recovery communication that he did not deliver concerning the incomplete emotional relationship, as well as other losses (assuming that the bereaved is openly communicating with a trusted confidant). The bereaved must determine and articulate the communication which would have been appropriate and right with respect to making amends, offering forgiveness, or expressing significant emotional statements with respect to the incomplete emotional relationship, as well as other losses.
Fourth, the bereaved must take action to communicate the recovered communication concerning the incomplete emotional relationship. The bereaved, of course, must commit himself to truthfulness, remembering that his goal is “to complete [his] emotional relationship with a loved one who has died” (James and Cherry, 1988, 149). For James and Cherry this communication must be spoken to someone (public), rather than written to one’s self (private). They insist, “In order for an emotional relationship to be complete, it must be communicated. The impact of the spoken word on the mind of the listener is absolutely necessary for recovery to be achieved” (James and Cherry, 1988, 153). This communication may be viewed as the “last conversation” in order to complete “unfinished business.” Fifth, moving beyond the loss through sharing with others. This last step involves sustaining the new perspective which has been acquired. The new perspective implies, and ought to accompany, an internal change. Moving beyond the loss “consists of creating and maintaining an environment that reflects [the] completion of the loss” (James and Cherry, 1988, 160). This completion should result in aliveness and spontaneity.
Briefly, the caregiver or supporter of the bereaved will himself cope more effectively, during the grieving-mourning process, if he or she: 1) understands the various aspects and dynamics of the grieving-mourning process. He or she should read extensively on the topic, and even consult those who are knowledgeable; 2) understands that the behaviour of the bereaved may be unpredictable, inconsistent, and erratic. He or she should not be alarmed. He or she must be patient, adaptable, and sympathetic; 3) lowers expectations and makes no unrealistic demands on the bereaved. He or she must realize that the bereaved may not always respond in the ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ way, and that healing and recovery may take time; 4) offers support and help in conjunction with other caregivers or supporters. Participating in the grieving-mourning process can be emotionally draining and exhausting; 5) remains alert to the signs of abnormal or pathological grieving-mourning. He or she must not assume the role of the ‘rescuer’ or ‘saviour’, but seek professional advice and help if necessary; 6) takes recesses or breaks from his helping role in order to become personally refreshed. The caregiver or supporter must watch out for his or her own health.
The grieving-mourning process is not a pleasant one, but, if handled properly, often proves to be a strengthening and growing one. The human condition inevitably entails suffering and pain, and thus entails grieving-mourning. We must be prepared to deal with it, and prepared to help those who must deal with it; but, as Christians, we must constantly remember, and be encouraged that: “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa 53:4,5).
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Barber, Cyril J. and Sharalee Aspenleiter. Through the Valley of Tears. Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1987.
Buckman, Robert. I Don’t Know What to Say. Toronto: Key Porter Books Ltd., 1988.
Cale, Eloise. “Guidelines for Aiding the Bereaved Through Death or Divorce.” Unpublished paper.
Collins, Gary. Christian Counseling. A Comprehensive Guide. Waco: Word Books, 1980.
Evans, John W. “Death and Bereavement.” Unpublished paper.
Gunckel, Vernon. Your Grief – The First Painful Days. Toronto: Ogden Funeral Home, n.d.
Howard, Donald. Christians Grieve Too. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980.
James, John W. and Frank Cherry. The Grief Recovery Handbook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1988.
Miller, James E. “Frequently Asked Questions About Grief.” Unpub lished paper.
Neff, Miriam. Women and Their Emotions. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
Richards, Larry and Paul Johnson. Death & The Caring Community. Portland: Multnomah Press, 1980.
© Brian Allison, 2010[addThis]