Is this grief?

The first time I was personally introduced to the concept of ‘grief’, it was almost seven years ago to the day.  I was sitting across the table from a dear friend in a coffee shop.  I was trying to wrap words around all the strange feelings I was having after coming back from a couple of weeks with my father – who was – at the time – dying of pancreatic cancer.  Dying, but not yet dead.

“Oh Fabs,” she said to me, leaning close with tears in her eyes, “you’re grieving.”

Oh.  Grieving?  He wasn’t even dead. The word caught me off guard.  Grief. I had forgotten about that. Never considered it.

I wasn’t, of course.  I wasn’t grieving.  That was, in fact, the problem.  I was hurting.  I was wounded. I was confused and disoriented; presenting a lot of the symptoms that accompany grief, but also – a lot of the symptoms that indicate you may need to grieve.  I was, at that time, reacting to loss, not grieving loss.

The following months would teach me the difference between reacting to a loss and healthy grieving. I learned that healthy grief itself is a process you get to choose to enter into.  For me, it wasn’t a hard choice, because not grieving felt awful, (and panic attacks were not a way I wanted to live.)

So I went to a counselor and I read a book or two (or ten) and I prayed a lot and I went back to get my Masters and I learned about grieving.

In the many years that have passed since that coffee shop conversation I have become intimately acquainted with grief.  It has become my dear friend.  Brokenness, disasters, death – these things are not my friends.  But grief –  grief whispers to me after these distorted fractures in the world we’re living in: there is hope and light for you if you will grieve, fabs. It may not be the fastest way out of the darkness, but it is the way to get out whole and alive. It’s the way to keep this present brokenness from defining me and having the last word on how I am going to move through this world.

I wish I’d known the importance of the discipline of grieving long before the cancer began eating my father from the inside out.

It’s funny, when our children break bones, we take them to the doctor, we have patience and expectation for the time it will take for that bone to set.  We anticipate that even after the cast comes off we will need to help them learn to move and use the limb as they once did.  None of us is satisfied with just ignoring the break and asking them to operate as if it never happened because they trust God.  None of us (well hopefully) would simply pray over the broken arm and pray “God, help Sam to trust you with this arm, and move in the freedom your Gospel offers.”  None of us would rebuke our children for their lack of faith when they complain that their broken limb hurts.

How strange that when it comes to emotional wounds we play by a whole new set of rules. We ignore, repress, outrun, attempt to heal with a soothing hug and never teach our kiddos what it looks like to treat them.

It’s no mystery then, that we are all walking around as adults with wounds that we have never been treated.

With the requirements of our grown up lives we have learned to function one way or another.  Some of us have lobbed off the emotional limbs that were hurt; shut down that section of our hearts.  We feel ‘healed’ because we no longer have symptoms of pain or sadness when we think about the injury.    We pride ourselves on our lack of emotional volatility, overlooking the fact that we also lack emotional vulnerability.

Others of us take a different approach – letting our infected injuries fester.  We are the walking wounded. Someone makes a small comment that brushes up against an unhealed injury and we react as if we have just been sliced open.  We accuse and blame; we must find a way to validate the incredible amount of pain we feel over what they insist was nothing.

And all because we have neglected the treatment that God has provided: the great gift of grief.

Grief is not the emotional reaction you have to a wound.  Grief is the active choice to enter into the wound, and pursue the painful process of healing.  It is a psychobiological experience that happens when you work through all the losses contained in a single wound, and process each one, in an attempt to make sense of that loss moving forward.

Grief is not just for death.  It is the way we set and treat any emotional injury. Each wound – however intentional or visible – is a slice on our soul, on our psyche that requires us to consider “what has hurt me?” as we feel and experience the sensations of the cost of that damage and make sense of it moving forward.

This, my friends, is what I believe God is talking about when He uses the word suffering.  Suffering is not just the emotional reaction to a bad thing happening to you, it is the optional and faithful process of facing the pain and loss associated with that bad thing.  It is working through the injury – that is the true suffering.  The choice not to shut down.  The choice to walk into the dark.  To feel the feelings there and wait on God to help you make sense of them.  It is grieving.

And it is this – this facing of pain and loss – that He promises will produce character and endurance and hope in our lives.

Find out more about how to embrace the gift of grief here.

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