Grief Work

There are many misconceptions about grief, one of the most prevalent is the idea that grief is strictly passive. Grief comes upon us and overwhelms us when we experience loss, its outside of our control. There is truth to this, but there is more to it. Grief is also active, it is work that we can and must take into our own hands as we process through the pain of loss.

Dr. William Worden introduced the concept of “grief work” in his book Grief Counseling and Therapy originally published in the 80’s. His model looks at grief work not as emotions or stages to be experienced but rather, as tasks to be worked through. These tasks are:

  1. To accept the reality of the loss
  2. To experience the pain of grief
  3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  4. To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

Dr. Christina Hibbert, psychologist and grief specialist provides some helpful insights on these four tasks of working through grief.

1) Accept the reality of the loss

Accepting the reality of the loss can come instantaneously for some, but for most, will take time. Telling one’s “story” in a safe environment—letting oneself think, talk about, and process what has happened—can help. Sometimes we have to repeat it over and over to ourselves: “They’re really gone”. But it’s letting ourselves feel the emotions of grief that really solidifies our acceptance of what we have lost.

2) Experience the pain of grief

This is the task people seem to have the hardest time with, and the one most are referring to when they ask me, “How do I grieve?” Many of us fear that if we start feeling the intense mix of emotions inside, we may never get back out of them. Yet, this task is at the core of completing all the others. Letting oneself feel pain is not easy and yet, allowing emotions to arise, to express themselves in healthy ways, is at the core of mourning. As I said before, through is the only way out, “…grief requires us to turn inward, to go deep into the wilderness of our soul…. There is usually no quick way out.”

To encourage this turning inward, and facilitate feeling the emotions of grief, I have created a model I call TEARS. This model shows us how to let ourselves experience grief through 5 different options, each of which is equally helpful in our healing.

 TEARS

  • Talking:  While it is natural to want to isolate oneself during the intense pain of loss, most will find healing in talking or even just being with family, friends or other support people, sharing the burden of grief and knowing they are not alone.
  • Exercise:  Physical activity can be a powerful aid in the release of the difficult emotions that accompany loss. Adults and children will find that exercise “allows for a reduction of aggressive feelings, a release of tension and anxiety and a relief of depression” related to grief.
  • Artistic expression: For many of us, grief is best expressed creatively—through art, music, dance, and so forth. Tapping our creative outlets allows us to process the emotions of grief in a subconscious way that can be powerful and deep. Creativity is particularly valuable for children who are grieving. Encouraging children to express feelings through drawing pictures, creating a collage of photos and written memories, or other creative activities can be a powerful tool for healing.
  • Recording emotions & experiences:  Creative expression and/or recording one’s emotions & experiences through writing or journaling can help release emotions and free the body and soul of them. When we write the things we have seen, heard and feel, we are better able to gain insight and understanding, for it allows us to capture and revisit our experiences, ensuring we do not miss the important lessons being taught.
  • Sobbing: The bible tell us, “Be afflicted and mourn and weep”. There is healing power in allowing our tears to flow for the loss in our lives.  As Washington Irving once said, “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness—but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of over-whelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

3) Adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing

Using the TEARS method to experience our emotions is key in helping us adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing. Adjustment takes time and comes as we continually work through the grief emotions that arise. Eventually, we find that we can talk about the deceased and fondly remember them as we engage in new life routines and experiences. Adjusting involves allowing ourselves to adjust, learning to let go, and being willing to move on when we feel ready.

4) Withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

Eventually, we will feel ready to reinvest in other relationships. This doesn’t mean we are “replacing” our loved one; rather, it might mean becoming closer to our living family members, bonding in new ways with old friends or making new friends, or creating new intimate relationships that help us feel healthy and healed. We begin to see that life continues after loss, and hopefully we choose to invest in our new life and relationships even while we carry those we have lost in our hearts.

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Types of Grief

Reaction to loss is complex and diverse. Professionals in the field of counseling have identified some helpful categories for grief trends that have been commonly observed. These are helpful when thinking about the various ways loss is handled in our lives. The following summaries are borrowed from the website What’s Your Grief.

Anticipatory Grief

As its name suggests, ‘Anticipatory Grief’ is the reaction to a death you were able to anticipate such as when an individual dies from a long term illness. As soon as you accept and understand someone you love is going to die, you begin grieving.

Complicated Grief

Refers to grief reactions and feelings of loss that are debilitating, long lasting, and/or impair your ability to engage in daily activities. Other types of grief such as ‘Chronic Grief’, ‘Delayed Grief’, and ‘Distorted Grief’ all fall under the blanket of ‘Complicated Grief’.

Chronic Grief

Strong grief reactions that do not subside and last over a long period of time. Continually experiencing extreme distress over the loss with no progress towards feeling better or improving functioning.

Delayed Grief

When grief symptoms and reactions aren’t experienced until long after a persons death or a much later time than is typical. The griever, who consciously or subconsciously avoids the reality and pain of the loss, suppresses these reactions.

Distorted Grief

Extreme, intense, or atypical reactions to a loss – odd changes in behavior and self-destructive actions. Anger and hostility towards oneself or others are common.

Cumulative Grief

When one experiences a second loss while still grieving a first loss.  This is also referred to as “bereavement overload” or “grief overload”.

Prolonged Grief 

(Similar to ‘Chronic Grief’) Grief reactions that are prolonged and intense. The griever is incapacitated by grief and daily function is impaired on a long-term basis. The griever spends much time contemplating the death, longing for reunion, and is unable to adjust to life without the individual.

Exaggerated Grief

An overwhelming intensification of normal grief reactions that may worsen over time. Characterized by extreme and excessive grief reactions possibly to include nightmares, self-destructive behaviors, drug abuse, thoughts of suicide, abnormal fears, and the development or emergence of psychiatric disorders.

Secondary Loss

When a loss impacts many areas of one’s life, creating multiple losses stemming from the “primary loss”.  Though it is easy to think our grief is solely the grief of losing the person who died, our grief is also the pain of the other losses caused as a result of this death.

Masked Grief

Grief reactions that impair normal functioning however the individual is unable to recognize these symptoms and behaviors are related to the loss. Symptoms are often masked as either physical symptoms or other maladaptive behaviors.

Disenfranchised Grief

One’s grief is ‘disenfranchised’ when their culture, society, or support group, make them feel their loss and/or grief is invalidated and insignificant. This can occur when the death is stigmatized (suicide, overdose, HIV/AIDS, drunk driving), the relationship is seen as insignificant (ex-spouse, co-worker, miscarriage, pet), the relationship is stigmatized by society (same-sex partner, gang member, partner from an extramarital affair), the loss is not a death (Dementia, Traumatic Brain Injury, Mental Illness, Substance Abuse).

Traumatic Grief 

Normal grief responses experienced in combination with traumatic distress suffered as a result of a loved one dying in a way perceived to be frightening, horrifying, unexpected, violent and/or traumatic. Distress is extreme enough to impair daily functioning.

Collective Grief

Grief felt by a collective group such as a community, society, village, or nation as a result of an event such as a war, natural disaster, terrorist attack, death of a public figure, or any other event leading to mass casualties or national tragedy.

Ambiguous Loss

Losses that lack clarity and can lead to different views of who or what has been lost. Individuals and those around them may question whether a loss has occurred or if this is a loss that should validate deep emotional responses (such as with disenfranchised deaths).

Inhibited Grief 

Occurs when an individual shows no outward signs of grief for an extended period of time. The individual inhibits their grief, eventually leading to physical manifestations and somatic complaints.

Abbreviated Grief 

A short-lived grief response. The grieving process often seems shorter because the role of the deceased is immediately filled by someone/something else*, because there was little attachment to the deceased, and/or the individual is able to accept and integrate the loss quickly due to ‘Anticipatory Grief’.

Absent Grief

This is when the bereaved shows absolutely no signs of grief and acts as though nothing has happened. Characterized by complete shock or denial, especially in the face of a sudden loss. This becomes concerning when it goes on for an extended period of time. This does not account for differences in how we grieve and it’s important to note that just because you can’t tell someone is grieving doesn’t mean they aren’t.

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Broadening our View of Grief

Grief is tethered to loss, making it inevitable in this life. One definition of grief captures this: “Grief is the normal and natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind. Of itself, grief is neither a pathological condition nor a personality disorder.” Grief is normal and natural in this world because loss and change are normal.

Loss and change are broad categories—pushing us away from a narrow understanding of grief. Working within these categories would require us to develop a broad spectrum of change/loss events that may be catalysts for grief.

The Grief Recovery Institute has identified more than forty potential grief events—each of which include some dimension of loss and change. Here is the list they provide.

  • Death of a spouse
  • Divorce
  • Marital separation
  • Imprisonment
  • Death of a close family member
  • Personal injury or illness
  • Marriage
  • Dismissal from work
  • Marital reconciliation
  • Retirement
  • Change in health of family member
  • Pregnancy
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Gain a new family member
  • Business readjustment
  • Change in financial state
  • Death of a close friend
  • Change to different line of work
  • Change in frequency of arguments
  • Major mortgage
  • Foreclosure of mortgage or loan
  • Change in responsibilities at work
  • Child leaving home
  • Trouble with in-laws
  • Outstanding personal achievement
  • Spouse starts or stops work
  • Begin or end school
  • Change in living conditions
  • Revision of personal habits
  • Trouble with boss
  • Change in working hours or conditions
  • Change in residence
  • Change in schools
  • Change in recreation
  • Change in church activities
  • Change in social activities
  • Minor mortgage or loan
  • Change in sleeping habits
  • Change in number of family reunions
  • Change in eating habits
  • Vacation
  • Christmas
  • Minor violation of law
  • Loss of Trust, Loss of Approval, Loss of Safety and Loss of Control of my body

Some of these grief events are counterintuitive. We don’t normally identify exciting new life change with the potential for grief. However, most change includes loss of some kind—there is always a transitioning from something to something. Being aware that grief may be one aspect of change equips us to better face transitions

Exploring Grief: A Look at Grief Models

I would like to spend some time this month exploring grief. I will explore it from different angles with the aim of developing a healthy framework for conceptualizing grief, practicing grief and helping others grieve. To start off, let’s talk about three models of grief.

Brenda Mallon’s book, Dying, Death and Grief explores various models that attempt to capture the grief process. It is a helpful read that drills down into the roots of common North American perspectives on grief. Here are two of the most influential models.

Bowlby and Parkes (1970) presented four main stages in the grief process:

  1. Numbness, shock and denial with a sense of unreality;
  2. Yearning and protest. It involves waves of grief, sobbing, sighing, anxiety, tension,loss of appetite, irritability and lack of concentration. The bereaved may sense the presence of the dead person, may have a sense of guilt that they did not do enough to keep the deceased alive and may blame others for the death;
  3. Despair, disorganization, hopelessness, low mood
  4. Reorganization, involving letting go of the attachment and investing in the future.

In the 1960s Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born physician and psychiatrist, pioneered death studies. Her seminal book On Death and Dying (1970) was based on her work with dying patients. She adopted Parkes’ stages of grief to describe the five stages of dying experienced by those who were diagnosed with terminal illness:

  1. Denial – the patient does not believe he has a terminal illness.
  2. Anger – Why me? Anger towards family or doctors because they have not done enough.
  3. Bargaining – The patient may bargain with God or some unseen force, to give him extra time.
  4. Depression – The patient realizes he is about to die and feels very low.
  5. Acceptance – Given the opportunity to grieve, the patient may accept his fate, which may lead to a period of quiet reflection, silence and contemplation.

Kubler-Ross’ model has worked its way into the American thought process on grief. Ask most individuals about the grief process and they will likely have a version of the five stages of grief. It is intriguing how influential this model has been considering it was never intended as a model for individuals grieving the loss of someone else. It was originally research on individuals facing their own deaths.

Another way forward in this discussion is a framework called the Dual Process model. The Dual Process Model of Grief and Loss was introduced in 1995 by Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut and was the first to state that there were no defined stages of grief.

They described two types of coping processes. ‘loss-oriented coping’ deals with the loss of the deceased person, and ‘restitution-oriented coping’ deals with specific problems and the development of new activities. People oscillate between these two as they go through grieving. Current thinking on grief encompasses both the letting go of bonds and the holding on to the attachment (Klass et al. 1996).

This Oscillation Model, going in and out of grief, remembering and forgetting, focusing on the past and paying attention to the present, seems to reflect the actual experience of the grieving process. Grief does not cooperate with our boundaries or processes. As some have said, “grief takes as many forms as there are grieving people.”

The Command to Weep

“Jesus wept,” two words that change everything (Jn 11:35). God hurts. God grieves. God weeps. Jesus is proof. When the Triune God meets pain he does the opposite of flee, he absorbs. He enters the fray. Paul urges followers of Christ to take the some posture. When we encounter those who weep we are commanded to weep (Rom 12:15). Weep is an imperative in this verse.

In striving to mimic the compassion of Christ we must grow comfortable walking the road of pain with others. We need to be students, ever developing a framework for engaging grief and honing tools to help our neighbors.

Dr. Alan Wolfert, founder of the Center for Loss, developed a model for grief engagement called “companioning.” The model is insightful and aligns well with the spirit of biblical compassion. Humility is the foundation of the eleven principles that guide the framework.

  1. Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away the pain.
  2. Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
  3. Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
  4. Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.
  5. Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.
  6. Companioning is about walking alongside;it is not about leading or being led.
  7. Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling up every moment with words.
  8. Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
  9. Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.
  10. Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
  11. Companioning is about compassionate curiosity; it is not about expertise.

A Personal Reflection on the Flood

I spent a good amount of time studying the story of Noah recently for a research project. I tried my best to utilize my imagination as I turned the narrative over and over again. I was stirred by two main thoughts as I read and wrote. First, I was made to pause when I read over the phrase, “And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen 6:6). What could be so horrific that our Creator would express pain at the very sight of our existence? What in the world could cause the God who declared all things good to state that he wished he never made any of it? For me, this was a mack truck moment. I was bombarded and smashed by the terrifying nature of my rebellion and sin. I was undone by the fact that my existence could be grievous to my Maker. How does a creature do anything but unravel at such words from his Creator?

As I kept reading the story, I made a connection between two things that I had never recognized before. I saw the link between God’s grief and God’s wrath. God’s justice and wrath are the rightful response to sin’s rebellion. But this wrath is not calculated and heartless, it is laced with tremendous grief and sorrow. God is invested in his creation and the creatures he has placed here. His judgment is never distant and detached. The flood is a mighty demonstration of just power, but it is also an expression of great pain. It is the grieving God that sends the deluge on the earth. To me, this fresh perspective inserted a new picture of God in my mind: a Judge with tears in his eyes.

The second thing that stood out in the study was healing to this unraveled soul. I observed the kindness of God in a new way. The grief of God in the narrative was all inclusive. He was saddened by every moving, breathing, and existing thing (Gen. 6:7). He desired to blot it all out. The fact that Noah was not judged with the rest of the world is the result of one thing: grace. The text makes it clear that God showed mercy to Noah (Gen. 6:9). [1] In reality, the grace of God is the reason the world was created in the beginning. It is also the reason it continues to exist to this day. It is the same reason we live. God could have shut the book on us for good in the flood event.

Put yourself in Noah’s shoes. What would it have been like to watch the destruction of the world? What would it have been like to watch the waters rise and observe your town destroyed? What would it have been like to watch hundreds of people drown and realize that you deserved to be outside of the boat?  Noah had one of the most vivid firsthand views and experiences of the radical nature of God’s grace. I wonder what he felt, what he thought, and what he said during that time in the ark. The event must have changed him. We know he was tremendously grateful because the first thing he did when they hit dry land was build an altar, make sacrifices, and worship God (Gen. 8:20-21).

This narrative pushed me forward into the work of Christ for us, as it must. It caused me to step back and recognize that judgment, grief, and sorrow are all intermingled in a climactic way in the work of the Son. He was drowned in the waves of God’s indignation that we might walk the shores of God’s grace. Wave after wave of God’s sorrowful wrath pounded upon the Christ and ultimately swallowed him whole. This deluge of God’s judgment resulted in a torrent of mercy toward us. The flood has helped me grasp that God is very kind.


[1] Ross, Allen. (1998). Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. (185). Grand Rapids: Baker Books. “A close study of the word grace will support the idea that it signifies unmerited favor. If the word is given its proper meaning, it means that the recipients of grace actually deserved the judgment too…No one escapes divine judgment apart from grace.”

The Gift of God in the Book of Lamentations

The presence of Lamentations in the canon points us to the kindness and graciousness of our God. The simple fact that you can open up a Bible and find this book there testifies of a God who deeply cares about us. It is God’s voice toward us and our voice toward him all at the same time. It is an inspired account of an anguished people voicing their pain to God. As we listen closely we discern the voice of God in their cries and laments. This is God’s word to us about how God would have us communicate with him. It is a gracious invitation to engage with a gracious God in the midst of horrific circumstances. It’s divine inspiration and placement in the canon is a gift. We are the richer for its solace and voice. Where would we be without such a companion in our darkness? What would we do without such rigorous expressions and metaphors to articulate our deepest emotions?

This book gives us voice. It instructs our voice. It emboldens our voice. It testifies to us that though we lose everything we never lose our voice. All else may be stripped away from Israel, but they still have their voice to cry, petition, and lament. This he will never take away. He has bound himself to us by a covenant that guarantees his ear. He will hear. He must hear. He has bound himself to do so. Thus when all else is removed—possessions, vocations, health, friends, family, and freedom—one thing remains: voice. We see this in Israel, the slave in Egypt. We discern this in the shrill cry of Job. We recognize this in the exiled people of God. The loss of all things except voice is manifest most clearly in a carpenter outside the Jerusalem wall. Stripped of everything but his voice. The cry of forsakenness is a bold refusal of silence.

Do you see the gift of God in authoring such a book?  He knows our frame. He knows our limits. He knows our needs. He instructs us in the way of pain and suffering. He invites us into a bold dialogue with himself and he gives us the words to speak. Pain is inevitable in this earthly sojourn. The pathway through pain to peace and rest is not inevitable. Bitterness, callousness, faithlessness, and despair are very real ending points for our experience of pain. Lamentations is a canonical declaration of God’s commitment to walk with us through the pain. This is a commitment I am thankful to be on the other end of and a gift that I am very glad to receive.