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What’s so great about grief?

by: Andy Gear, PLPC
                  

I remember those first moments after the accident as if everything was happening in slow motion. They are frozen in my memory with terrible vividness. After recovering my breath, I turned to survey the damage. The scene was chaotic. I remember the look of terror on the faces of my children and the feeling of horror that swept over me when I saw the unconscious and broken bodies of Lynda, my four-year-old daughter Diane Jane, and my mother. I remember getting Catherine (then eight), David (seven), and John (two) out of the van through my door, the only one that would open. I remember taking pulses, doing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, trying to save the dying and calm the living. I remember the feeling of panic that struck my soul as I watched Lynda, my mother, and Diana Jane all die before my eyes. I remember the pandemonium that followed—people gawking, lights flashing from emergency vehicles, a helicopter whirring overhead, cars lining up, medical experts doing what they could to help. And I remember the realization sweeping over me that I would soon plunge into a darkness from which I might never again emerge as a sane, normal, believing man.

–Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised

I remember a time when I experienced loss. As I walked home that evening, I remember telling myself this isn’t going to ruin me. I made a vow that I wouldn’t let it affect me. I wouldn’t be weak. I wouldn’t feel. I would forget; pretend it never happened. And then it wouldn’t hurt me. Then it wouldn’t touch me. I would ignore the wound; pretend it wasn’t there. Then it would go away.

But it didn’t go away. Neither did my memories. I started watching more TV to try to divert my attention. I had trouble concentrating on work, my mind wandering back to that event. To that pain. I had to distract myself, numb myself. I mustn’t think about it ever again. It was too painful. If I thought about it, something bad would happen . . . I had to avoid it at all costs.
None of us want to suffer. But none of us can truly avoid it.

We all have reason to grieve at some point in our life: loss, mistreatment, rejection. In the end it affects us all. But how we approach it influences how it forms us. As I see it, there are two basic options: we can ignore it or we can grieve it. And the path we choose determines how we come out on the other end.

On the surface, ignoring it sounds like the safer option. Just ignore it, don’t let it affect you. But it doesn’t work that way. When we ignore it, it continues to grow inside us. We waste away from the inside out.

It affects the way we approach life; we shut down parts of our selves. We shut down part of our mind. We shut down part of our heart. We become less than a whole person. Our relationships become shallow and stilted. There are parts of us that are shut away, irretrievable, unreachable to the closest people in our lives. We find ways to distract ourselves: TV, hobbies, work, porn, busyness. They may seem harmless enough. But they begin to own us. We live with eyes half open. We live with our heart half closed.

But we choose to ignore it because we feel overwhelmed and powerless. We want some sort of relief, any relief to get us through the days and nights. We keep ourselves busy to avoid our tortured thoughts. We numb ourselves to avoid the unbearable pain.

When we notice the pain less, we think we are out of the woods. We have survived the grief unscathed. But we have merely pushed it below the surface. And it will pop up again: in anger, in addictions, in unhealthy relationships. We have not saved ourselves pain; we have merely stretched it out, separated it from its source, and allowed it to dictate who we become. The irony is that in trying to escape the pain, we have given it the keys to our heart and allowed it to blindly drive us—as we simply pretend it isn’t there.

So what about the second option? The scarier option: facing our pain head on. Admitting the hurt. Acknowledging the loss. Processing the damage. Mourning what once was and will never be again.

This is the way of healing. We can choose to face it squarely. To meet it head on. To enter it honestly with our eyes wide open. It is a long and painful journey, but it can be a journey of growth not destruction.

But this requires facing reality for what it is. We cannot ignore it and hope that it goes away. A wound will not heal with lack of care; a bone will not mend without being set. We cannot heal by denying that something has been broken. We are made to share our stories, to experience our pain, to feel deeply, to mourn fully.

We must allow ourselves to grieve. This is not something that happens overnight; it takes time and community. It is not easy. It takes sharing our hurt, expressing our pain, acknowledging the damage done. Grieving does not make us weak; it makes us courageous. It is facing life as it is, not as you wish it were. There is hope in authentic suffering, but only false-hope in denial and distraction. Loss does not have to ruin us. In fact, if we face it honestly, it can grow us.