As someone in the throes of sorrow, I have regularly had to ask myself, What is healthy grief? I would imagine this question may also arise in the minds of others who are experiencing grief or on-lookers to someone in the process.
In seeking to understand healthy grief, I often find myself asking, What level of grief should someone be experiencing at this stage in the process? I want to know if the amount of sorrow gripping me at the moment is appropriate. Yet, I am becoming convinced that such a question is based on a faulty premise: there are no “shoulds” in grief. Grief is what it is—the very strong emotions that emerge because something held dear has been ripped away. Bereavement is a natural process; it may be long, with multiple layers that look different for each person, but it cannot be controlled (I can only control how I respond to it). If this is the case, then the health of my grief should never be measured by the amount of sorrow experienced at any given time. I also cannot expect myself to fit into a cookie-cutter level of sorrow that others may deem acceptable or not acceptable at certain stages of my loss.
In fact, it seems our cultural perception is that grief after a certain period of time (arbitrarily decided) is actually considered bad, as if it is a disease that requires treatment or a cure. This has been detrimental to me, the grieving person. I do not need to be cured of my grief; it is not, in and of itself, good or bad—it just is. Though it will vary from person to person, sorrow is an expected emotion and an appropriate symptom in loss. It is a necessary. My grief may be dark and painful, but it is not an evil to be extinguished. I frequently feel the pressures of living in a society that wants to numb everything that is hard, but I do not want to be numbed. I do not need a cure for my grief, nor do I need to be fixed. I just need to walk through it, however intense it may be.
And as I walk through it, what I have found that I need most is space, space to struggle. It has become apparent that after losing Judson, I have migrated to relationships with those whom I feel the freedom to wrestle with my loss, to hurt, and to express my feelings openly without judgment. I am fortunate to have a few pockets where I experience complete acceptance in my grief; they may not understand it, but they reassure me in the midst of my emotions rather than critique them. These friends and family are truly a gift and have been indispensable on my road to wholeness!
I have also noticed that the greatest role our grief counselor has taken is to continually validate our sorrow, knowing we live in a world that does not. He regularly reminds us that suffering and loss will result in grief…the more severe the circumstances, the more severe the grief. And when he validates our feelings, particularly as one who is especially knowledgeable about bereavement, it significantly encourages our broken hearts. He reminds us that our grief is not bad, it is natural.
Therefore, instead of being concerned about the “shoulds” of sorrow, healthy grieving has to do with my response to my grief. I need to be asking myself, What direction is my sorrow taking me? What is my posture toward my grief?
As one walking the relentless path of grief, I am not surprised that people turn to substance abuse, engage addictive behaviors, and experience severe relational hardship in loss. It is such a hard journey! But how we engage and cope with our sorrow, however severe it may be, is probably the best indicator of health; the important concern is whether it is leading to growth or destruction.
I will be the first person to admit that I have in no way cornered the market on healthy grief. I have made many blunders along the way and surely have multiple tweaked perspectives, some which are clearly evident to me and others to which I am probably blind. But overall, I have made every effort to grow through my grief. Though tempted at times to stifle my emotions, I have rather tried to engage them openly and honestly while seeking to love and honor God in my pain.
I want to be healthy in my grief.
As I take my actual feelings that exist and ask the Lord to help me live well in the midst of them, I pray that I will find myself further down the road to health and that he will pleased and honored by my process.