The Grief Journey: How to do it well
Pastor Anne Iuliano
Whether I’m at the Victorian Bushfire front, the Tsunami devastated shores of Sri Lanka, sitting quietly at the bedside of the dying, providing a shoulder at the courthouse after a marriage annulment, or with executives who have just been retrenched, I see it……people embarking on their personal new journey. It’s a journey that none of us desire, yet we can’t escape from it. From a very young age we begin to experience this journey, over and over again, throughout our entire lifetime. It’s the challenging journey of GRIEF!
Grief is what we feel when we experience loss of any kind. Remember as a child, the heartache of losing your favourite toy, or your first pet? And the losses just keep on coming, whether it’s your health, job, finances, loved ones, security, relationships and more. Whenever you lose anything of significance, you grieve. And the more significant the person or thing you have lost, the more you will feel it. So as we navigate through life, we have to go through multiple journeys of grief, some overlapping.
But God has placed within us humans an amazing tenacity to survive. Even when overwhelmed with a devastating grief journey, most people will eventually come through……although each journey will take as long as it takes! There are many examples of Bible characters who walked their journeys of grief. Some did it well, such as Joseph (Genesis 37-50), David (2 Samuel 12:15-24); sadly, others did it badly such as Naomi, the widow who changed her name to ‘Mara’, meaning ‘bitter’ (but the story eventually ends well!). Jesus Himself is described as “a man of sorrows, acquainted (meaning ‘very familiar’) with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He experienced much grief such as bereavement (John 11), rejection (John 6:66), betrayal (Luke 22:47-48), pain (Luke 22:44) and thus understands the grief journey and helps us through it. Psalm 147:3 paints a wonderful picture of God’s compassion in the Grief journey: “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” This paints the scene of a wound being protected by bandages whilst in the healing process. So too, God protects us through the emotional grief journey (which cannot and should not be avoided) and can help us emerge wiser, stronger, and a new ‘you’.
Although grief is unique to each individual, there are similarities in our journey. William Worden’s grief model describes four stages. These are:
Firstly accepting that a loss has taken place. If we reject the bad news or deny that there is any effect on our emotions, we won’t even leave base camp. Pretending everything is okay is not helpful at all.
Secondly, we have to work through a myriad of emotions. These can include shock, numbness, anger, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, guilt, depression, hopelessness, confusion, loneliness and so much more.
Thirdly, we have to adjust to a new lifestyle without the thing or person we have lost. Each time a loved one is deployed, the family has to navigate a grief journey and adjust to life without that loved one present, even for a season. The more help you can get to adjust, the easier it will be….so don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who are there for you.
Fourthly, being able to move on in life with a new ‘normal’. This means that you can accept the ramifications of the loss, laugh and cry at the memories (which you now can control) and that you have the inner strength to create a new lifestyle. Knowing what the grief journey looks like will certainly help you as you have to navigate it. There are some great books to help you.* Also, learn from other people. I recently
introduced a widow of 5 months to a widow of 14 months. It was incredible to see the latter speak words of hope and life to the new widow – because she’d been on the same journey and is surviving well. I personally get great comfort when speaking to other parents of ADF personnel. They understand my mother-heart! So no matter what you’re going through, others have been through a similar journey to you, although no two journeys are ever exactly the same. It will help to chat with such ‘survivors’. Reach out to a Chaplain or Counselor and ask them to link you with an individual, a group, a program or someone to help you in your journey. Please don’t do it alone, your life is too precious for that.
What is the desired result from our grief journeys? To come through with a sweet (not bitter) spirit, with much experience under our emotional belt, with wisdom to impart to others, with a strengthened character and the ability to create a new ‘normal’ which brings us hope for the future. Grief is one of the toughest journeys in life….but look around you, there are multitudes of heroes who have survived their own nightmare journeys and come through well. You can too.
SOME GUIDELINES FOR HELPING OTHERS IN GRIEF.
A. TAKE YOUR CUES FROM THE GRIEVING
• If they want to talk, let them talk.
• If they are aloof, they may just be overwhelmed and need some time.
• If they are asking for help, try to assist in whatever way appropriately
B. DON’T SAY CLICHES OR GLIB STATEMENTS.
• If you don’t know what to say, say very little, except “I am so sorry”, ‘what can I do to help?’
• Don’t say “I understand exactly how you feel”. (you don’t!)
C. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN!
• Which could include them venting all sorts of ‘ugly’ emotions – this is grief/ pain talking.
• Let most of it go in one ear and out of the other (they will feel different over time)
• If they say anything which really concerns you, consult with someone experienced such as your supervisor.
• But most will feel better just by venting and not being judged.
D. DON’T TAKE THEIR REACTIONS PERSONALLY.
• Put yourself in their shoes. It will help you understand some of their feelings.
E. BEWARE OF TRANSFERENCE (picking up and feeling their emotions).
• Help as much as you can.
• But take care of yourself in the process.
Growing through Loss & Grief by A. Pearson (London: HarperCollins, 1994).
The Anatomy of Bereavement by B. Raphael (London: Routledge, 1994).
A Grace Disguised by Gerald Sittser (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995).
Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy by William Worden (Great Britain: Springer Publishing Co., 19991).
Anne Iuliano is an Ordained Minister with the Australian Christian Churches, Founder of Chaplaincy Australia, Disaster Chaplain, and teaches on grief in both Christian and secular environments.