In the Midst of Grief
Mourning Our Losses
Grief is no stranger to those of us affected by chronic illness, pain, and suffering. While there are no rules for grieving
chronic loss, there is a road map and there are fellow travelers ahead of and behind us on the journey.
Grief often precedes growth.
“Grief is a holy madness.
It is not a puzzle to be solved,
a problem to be overcome,
or a situation to be managed.
It is a wilderness we wander in search of the sacred …”
Patricia McKernon Runkle
GRIEF IS UNIVERSALLY SHARED AND UNIQUELY INDIVIDUAL
Grief is a universally shared human experience, both unavoidable and uniquely individual. Life on this spinning blue planet is replete with loss – loss of relationships, loss of community, loss of health, loss of independence, loss of memory, loss of mobility, loss of sight or hearing, loss of employment, loss of financial resources, loss of hobbies and recreational activities, loss of home, loss of educational opportunities, loss of serving in ways we enjoyed or to which we felt called, loss of those we love and hold most dear.
Every loss results in grief, though we don’t often recognize that anger, denial, depression, and guilt can be further losses of unresolved grief in chronic illness. These unrecognized losses are known as infinite losses, chronic sorrow, and disenfranchised grief.
Mila Tecala, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who founded the Center for Loss and Grief in Washington, DC, writes, “For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.”
GRIEF IS A JOURNEY
The word grief is derived from the Latin word gravis meaning heavy, and from which we get the word gravity. Grief is a journey into the depths, heavy and unavoidable, but it is also a precious reminder of our love persevering. We grieve deeply the people we loved, the things that brought us joy, the pieces of ourselves and of our lives that we held most dear.
“Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint,” writes David Kessler, “but what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining,”
No matter what kinds of loss we experience, our grief is valid, and we long for the presence of others with us as we process it.
When we search the Bible, we discover we are not alone in our grief:
- Jacob grieved the loss of his son Joseph. Genesis 37:34-35
- Job grieved for his children, his reputation, his wealth, and his health. Job
- David grieved the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, Abner, and Absalom. 2 Samuel 1
- Naomi grieved the deaths her husband and her sons. Ruth 1
- “Jesus wept,” over the death of his friend Lazarus, John 11:35, and the faithlessness of Jerusalem. Matthew 23:37-39
There are, and always have been, fellow travelers in this valley of grief with us – some ahead, some behind, and some beside us — and God’s Spirit is in us, as near as the beating of our very own hearts.
He is with us in every tear, with us in our anger and denial, with us in our sadness, with us when we are beyond words, with us in every moment of our grief. “… the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” Romans 8:26 NIRV
THE PARADOX OF GRIEF
Grief is not a denial of the hope we have in Jesus. Instead, it is part of our humanity and proof of our love persevering.
“If I want to feel the depth of joy, ” writes Rachel Wright, ” I must also sit in the heartbreak and pain. If I numb one, I will in turn be numbing it all.”
Tim Challies adds, “Christians experience grief but without despair, sorrow but without defeat, sadness but without hopelessness. It’s true sorrow and true hope. These things don’t cancel out one another. We feel the great weight of sorrow and the great thrill of hope. In moments of deep sadness, we feel both.”
THE UNEXPECTED HARVEST OF CHRONIC SORROW
“Chronic sorrow is heavy,” writes Andrea Foster. “It shows up boldly and uninvited … Circumstances vary, but the moments of inexplicable grief that suddenly grip us are a common bond.”
Chronic sorrow is defined as: “A cyclical, recurring, and potentially progressive pattern of pervasive sadness that is experienced by a parent or caregiver, or individual with chronic illness or disability in response to continual loss, throughout the trajectory of an illness or disability.” Medical Dictionary, 2009 Farlex and Partners
Ken Doka calls this kind of loss disenfranchised grief: grief that is unacknowledged, invalidated, minimized, or misunderstood by others, contributing to anxiety, depression, diminished self-worth, insomnia, shame, and substance misuse.
“Grieving is hard, but disenfranchised grief can be traumatizing,” adds Daja Mayner, MSW, LCSW.
Yet God gently reminds us that grief is also the precursor of hope: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains [just one grain; it never becomes more but lives] by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest.” John 12:24 AMPC
THE CYCLE OF CHRONIC SORROW
- Loss and grief are a difficult, yet normal part of life. Acknowledging how we feel as honestly as possible is a necessary first step. As our symptoms wax and wane or we cycle into and out of remission, we become familiar with the cycle of sorrow.
- As we recognize familiar patterns, we’re reminded that we’ve felt this before, that we’ve navigated this cycle and survived.
- Rest is very important. Both illness and grief are physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. Sometimes the most beneficial thing we can do is rest.
- Reach out. Call, text, email, or write a #PenToPaper letter to a loved one. Shifting the focus for even a few minutes can reframe the day and give our heavy hearts and weary minds a respite.
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned after falling ill,” writes Rachel Tait, “was that allowing myself to grieve was key. I had to give myself time and space to feel all the complex emotions that come with grief and loss of health. There was no rushing myself to feel better. I learned to give myself permission to cry and that it was okay to have days where I felt like I couldn’t go on anymore. Sometimes I just needed to feel that despair before I could process it and move past it.”
Culturally, we make space for grief following the death of a loved one, but rarely recognize that same need in chronic illness.
“… secondary losses,” writes Katrina Zulak, “can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.”
Frances Weller adds, “We cannot grieve for something that we feel is outside the circle of worth. That is our predicament; we are chronically sensing the presence of sorrow but we are unable to truly grieve because we feel … that this piece of who we are is unworthy of our grieving over.”
Yet losses that are not recognized as worthy of acknowledging don’t just slip quietly away. They smolder beneath the surface, bubbling up into anxiety and depression, spewing into anger and frustration, or slowly burning away our sense of self, leaving behind the barren ashes of insecurity, shame, or worthlessness.
God offers us a better way.
CREATIVELY EXPRESSING GRIEF
When we lean into Jesus and begin to bravely recognize and express our grief with Him, He guides us on His journey for us, compassionately, gently, patiently, and creatively.
So often, the world looks colorless and grey through the lens of grief. In art, grey is a neutral, balanced color midway between black and white. In science, black is the absence of light (therefore of visible color) and white is the blending of all wavelengths of light (therefore of all color). Metaphorically, if white represents love and black represents the absence of who or what we love, then grey is the mixing together of God’s infinite love (We love because God first loves us.) and of our finite loss (who or what we love here on earth).
Seen in that way, grey is God’s holy presence with us in every loss.
More than 500 years ago, Shakespeare wrote, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’erwrought heart and bids it break.”
Creativity helps us to see our grief differently, to look a little deeper, to discover beauty in unexpected places and surprising strokes of color in our own landscapes of loss. Grief invites us to pour our sorrow into poetry, scrapbooking, pottery, painting, music, metaphor, baking, exercise, allegory, photography, journaling; serving creatively can also be a wonderful activity.
“Creativity in grief, loss, and trauma helps us express and release feelings that otherwise have no outlet, feelings we ourselves may not understand until we see them before us in a different form,” write Karla Helbert and Jamie Fueglein.
ART AFTER LOSS
“After a traumatic loss, the arts allow what can’t be spoken about to come into form,” says Sharon Strouse. “One night, I was looking to God, saying ‘Help me.’ A little voice inside of me said to make a collage. I turned a light on in the kitchen, gathered magazines and art paper and I began … The experience was life changing … I was able to sleep for the first time is a year.”
Author and poet Priscilla Long adds, “Art beholds the beloved, remembers the beloved, makes the beloved visible. And art laments. art comforts … art refuses to forget … Art recognizes the grief … holds it, expresses it.”
CREATIVE WAYS TO EXPRESS GRIEF
- Sketch your emotions in pencil, pastels, or ink
- Begin a Tribute Scrapbook
- Start a Grief Journal
- Piece together a Memory Quilt
- Craft a Grief Mask
- Sculpt clay
- Paint a Grief Canvas
- Plant a Memory Garden
- Bake and share a favorite dessert
- Do a 365-Day Photography Project
- Start a 365-Day Gratitude Journal
- Knit or crochet Prayer Shawls
- Express grief through dance
- Lean into music – sing, play, or listen
“Sometimes great sorrow drives us to silence,” writes author Marilyn McEntyre, “but even in that silence we may find ourselves wanting to find words. As we move beyond the first shock of grief, sorrow may become story, or poetry or prayer. Sometimes in a season of loss we discover a voice we didn’t know we had … Words can do sacred work.”
LAMENTING IN GRIEF
Lament is a compassionate and grace-filled invitation from God to pour out our grief over the many and often sustained losses of chronic illness, over our prodigal children and broken relationships, over lost jobs and lost homes, over loss of independence and loss of mobility, and over the death of our loved ones. We lament because sin ushered brokenness and pain into the world. Yet as we lean into this authentic expression of our pain, our capacity for joy also grows.
Pastor and author, Mark Vroegop writes, “Lament wrestles with the tension that God is good, but bad things still happen. Lament struggles with the promise that one day there will be no more pain, tears, and death (Revelation 21:4), but that day has not yet come. Lament acknowledges the ultimate cause of suffering and longs for the promised resolution.”
LAMENT IS A LANGUAGE OF PRAYER
Lament is a song of sorrow and a language of prayer. Jesus lamented and He wept. He understands our pain, because He is with us in it. Often in grief, we just want someone to quietly listen with compassion. The word compassion is derived from the Latin roots, com and pati, meaning with and suffer. To suffer with is its literal translation.
Missionary Craig Thompson writes, “If only we could all acknowledge each other’s grief—however we label it. Then we could share openly and honestly. Then we could listen with compassion. Then we could sit down next to someone, with empathy—or sympathy—and ‘mourn with those who mourn.’ Then we could give and receive the community we need.”
Author, speaker, and Bible teacher Whitney Wollard adds, “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: “Why did this have to happen?” “How could you allow this?” “Where are you in the midst of this?” It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.”
THE POETRY OF GRIEF
In a few lines – or even just a few words – poetry can help us express what might be too difficult, too raw, or too vulnerable to say aloud.
In his poem, Grief, poet and novelist Stephen Dobyn writes about his experience with loss:
Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere
people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.
Often in grief, we want time to stop so we can process, or to slow down so we can breathe, or to turn back and give us a chance at a different ending, anything but to simply march on. In his poem, Funeral Blues, W.H. Auden expresses it like this:
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone / … Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun …”
In his poem Bereavement, Kevin Young describes this same juxtaposition:
Grief might be easy
if there wasn’t still
such beauty – would be far
simpler if the silver
maple didn’t thrust
it’s leaves into flame,
trusting that spring
will find it again.
Poet Patricia McKernon Runkle calls grief a “holy madness.”
And poet Mary Oliver writes about the weight of grief in her poem Heavy:
It’s not the weight you carry
But how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it
when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.
“ … Eat the fruit of sorrow even if it is bitter,” writes John Piper. “This fruit … has nutrients in it that you can’t get any other way … that are strengthening to the bones of our faith and sweetening to the marrow of our faith …”
WHEN YOU MEET SOMEONE DEEP IN GRIEF
Patricia McKernon Runkle
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound.
let the candles
Patricia values the quiet work of listening to one another and building community. She has volunteered at a peer-support center for grieving children and their families, worked as a writer and editor, and directed a church choir. She has published poems, songs and collaborative choral pieces, and a memoir on grief. She lives with her husband in the New York area, and they cherish their two grown children.
PROCESSING GRIEF WITH THE EMOTIONS WHEEL
The Emotions Wheel is a tool designed to help us better identify and communicate our emotions instead of moving through our days without recognizing or thinking about what we’re feeling or why.
“In the years since getting sick and becoming disabled, I’ve learned that a whole range of emotions is just as much a part of my illness as my physical symptoms,” writes Angie Ebba.
Grief is complex and can make it difficult for us to identify what it is we’re actually feeling. “Sometimes just knowing the right emotion can bring a surprising amount of relief,” writes clinical psychologist, Kevin Gilliland. Identifying our emotions can help us communicate more effectively, verbalizing what we need and better interpreting others’ feelings as well.
HOW TO USE THE EMOTIONS WHEEL
Begin at the center of the Wheel and choose one of the six core emotions (angry, bad, disgust, fearful, happy, sad, or surprised). Follow that color out to the second tier and choose one of the more specific emotions there. Continue on to the third tier and identify which of the 82 more nuanced emotions you are feeling.
We’ve designed Emotions Wheels for adults, teens, tweens, and even a special Wheel for children featuring both words and faces.
God created us with a complex range of emotions which can be difficult to identify and explain. The Emotions Wheel is a tool designed to grow our emotional intelligence thus strengthening our relationship with God as well as our compassion and empathy for others.
Emotions Wheel for Teens
God created us with a whole range of emotions, some that can be difficult to feel and even riskier to talk about. Learning to identify our emotions helps us grow in our understanding of God and of others. The Emotions Wheel is great place to begin!
Emotions Wheel for Children
The Emotions Wheel is a resource designed to help children learn to recognize and name the emotions they are feeling as they learn a larger emotional vocabulary, then grow in their ability to effectively communicate what and how they feel.
Emotions Wheel for Tweens
As tweens learn to identify and label their emotions, they not only grow in emotional intelligence, but also take an important step in learning to identify the feelings of others, which forms the foundations of empathy and compassion.
COPING WITH GRIEF ON THE DIFFICULT DAYS
“People experiencing deep loss are navigating a new normal and developing a way to deal with grief’s profound questions, unexpected moments, and complicated scenarios,” write Whitney Akers and Sara Giusti.
WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFICULT DAY BETTER
- Make Time for Tears – Tears are cleansing, but can sometimes feel as if they’ll swallow us whole. Setting a timer can create a protective boundary for overwhelming emotions.
- Tell Your Story – Expressing grief can be done through words — or we can paint, sculpt, sing, dance, bake, journal, knit, carve, craft, build, garden, or sketch. There are many ways to express grief.
- Permission to Ask – It’s okay to ask for what we need, even if it’s asking others to please just listen, offer a hug, or steer clear of helpful clichés.
- Challenge Yourself to Move – All movement counts, including getting out of bed, folding the laundry, making dinner, dancing to a playlist, walking around the block or up and down stairs, stretching, or even taking a shower.
- Splurge on Soft Tissues – A little softness is comforting when we’re grieving.
- Cuddle Up – A soft flannel, a favorite sweater, or warm blanket can help us feel warm and protected on a difficult day.
- Favorite Foods – Stock the cupboards with healthy food that is quick and easy to prepare.
A FEW MORE.
- Spend a Little Time Outside – Fresh air offers a change of scenery and a new perspective, reminding us that God is still in control.
- Shower or Take a Bath – Feeling clean makes a difference, even if all we do is put on fresh pajamas and crawl right back into bed.
- Share a Good Laugh – Calling a friend or loved one who can make us laugh in the messy midst of grief is a precious gift.
- Nourish the Mind – Keeping a list of books, podcasts, and TED Talks offers an easy distraction for grief-weary minds.
- Thank God for One Good Thing – Gratitude can be difficult to feel during grief, but there is always something to be thankful for: sunshine through a window, a phone call from a friend, a handwritten card, a warm sweater, a great cup of tea, or really good chocolate.
- Stay Connected – Time with others on the phone or in person can make a big difference on hard days.
- Being Good to Ourselves – Treating ourselves to a beautiful hike, lunch with a friend, a great cup of coffee, or a new book might be a perfect pick-me-up on a difficult day.
MOVING FORWARD WITH GRIEF
“We don’t move on from grief. We move forward with it,” writes Nora McInerny
Jennifer Williamson adds, “When grief is part of your life, you learn how to start all over again – over and over again. And that builds courage …”
Continual, sustained loss (and the grief that follows close on its heels) is one of the most energy-depleting aspects of chronic illness and pain. In the face of constant loss, we begin to ask: “Who am I?” “What is my purpose?” “Where and how do I find new meaning?”
GRIEVING WITH HOPE
God doesn’t condemn our grief and sadness. He knows they are a part of our human experience in this fallen world, but He gently reminds us that through His Son, we grieve with hope.
Grief is a journey requiring steady sips of hope, plates filled God’s unbroken promises, the comfort of community, replenishing rest, fresh air and sunshine, and the unexpected surprise of a blue-winged butterfly.
In this world, we will experience pain, loss, separation, and death, but a better day is coming, a day when death and brokenness no longer have sway. That is our bright hope as we experience grief and sorrow on this long and winding journey Home.
But in the midst of all this pain, there is a strange, shocking, yet very surprising voice. It is the voice of the One who says: ‘Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.’ That’s the unexpected news: there is a blessing hidden in our grief. Not those who comfort are blessed, but those who mourn! Somehow, in the midst of our tears, a gift is hidden. Somehow in the midst of our mourning, the first steps of the dance take place. Somehow, the cries that well up from our losses belong to our songs of gratitude. Henri J.M. Nouwen
Because we are assured of eternal life in heaven, we can endure anything in this temporal life on earth. When we know our end is glorious, we can joyfully and willingly live for him no matter what our circumstances. This is true comfort, and it is unchanging.
Facing traumatic loss is about keeping our sanity and taking care of those who depend on us, all the while deciding how we are going to face this new unwelcome reality. I learned at so many points that I had to look straight at the loss or I could not find comfort.
Grieving is chronic, though not a disease. It doesn’t just come once and disappear. When you lose someone, you experience a grief that will never completely go away. Grief also comes to those with chronic illnesses. They have had to grieve many losses including some of their dreams.
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