A couple of years ago I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car, one hand resting on my suitcase, on the way to the Seminary Wives in Ministry weekend retreat. It was April, and the bluebonnets were blooming in the fields between highway lanes, shooting bursts of purple into the warm Dallas air.
After dropping off our bags in the log cabin and claiming bunks, we walked down the hill on a white stone path that sprinkled our shoes in dusty chalk. I saw a list of breakout sessions in the weekend program and checked the box for “Helping others cope with death and dying” led by a former faculty wife. As an aspiring ministry wife, I wanted to prepare to help others through their pain. The topic also intrigued me as I remembered studying the stages of grief in Psych 101, the class that led to my decision to minor in Psychology.
About 30 of us girls sat on couches and chairs in the sitting area between two dorm-like cabins lined with bunk beds. Our teacher Kris stood in front of the fireplace and distributed packets of articles about the 5 stages of grief. She spent a difficult hour explaining the ins and outs of helping people grieve through loss and death. She shared her own stories of walking through her parents through their final days.
The mood was rather somber already but then things got really personal. One of the seminary wives piped up and mentioned what unhelpful things people said to her when she tragically lost her dad. Many well-meaning people didn’t know what to say or how to walk alongside her in her grief.
“Don’t ask your friend what you can do to help them. Just do it. Bring them food, clean their house, let them talk and cry and stop trying to fix them. Just listen!”
She was fiery hot, waving her hands, touching her moist forehead and breathing heavy. This was all so fragile to her, and we sat quietly, inhaling her honesty. We wanted to know what not to do. We were eager to be good ministry wives alongside our husbands studying to be professors and pastors and teachers.
I turned the papers nervously and adjusted in my seat. I felt unsure of my future as a ministry wife. What if I said the wrong thing? What if I was that person who just caused more damage than good? How do I know what to say to someone in grief?
That day opened my eyes to the reality of helping others cope through death and dying. And I have to admit, it was not my favorite breakout session. I have since experienced a shift in the way I think about grieving, and it doesn’t just apply to death and dying. That session was a springboard to understanding how to deal with pain and suffering in life.
It has become obvious to me that walking through the five stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance) isn’t just for those who have lost a loved one in death.
It is, indeed, for them primarily. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the model after working with terminally ill patients. (https://www.psycom.net/depression.central.grief.html)
But it is also for everyone else. For many suffering loss, it is helpful and important to work through the stages.
We can feel crushed under the weight of a worst-case scenario befallen on us and we must wrestle with the loss before we can accept our new reality. This could be a loss of good health, expectations, divorce, the ability to marry or have children, the shock of a job stolen from us, a child diagnosed with an illness, or even the disappearance of the hope to move back home close to family.
After we catch our breath, we must process through our emotions.
We painfully work through the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance- and not necessarily in that order. Acceptance is the goal. Although we certainly don’t feel it at first, contentment amid unforeseen circumstances is the anchor that will tether us to the ground. It may feel like a miracle when we feel the peace of acceptance after great loss, but it’s what we hope for. It’s why we do the hard middle work.
The only way out is through. It may take months, years, or it may never truly end. But the waves of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are a necessary process in surviving loss. The only way to get to redemption and wholeness is to grapple with the pain and loss first.
My grief is small potatoes compared to what some people go through. I don’t pretend to be an expert and I am grateful for those who focus on helping others grieve well.
But I am not immune to the struggles of our eternal souls raging against the fraying nerves of our humanity. I’ve walked across a green grass meadow only to find a roaring river, impassable and cold. I’ve fallen in that river, flailing and crying out and fighting the fear of drowning.
I’ve wrestled with anxiety, infertility, financial discouragement, business failures, marriage miscommunications and ministry difficulties. I’ve learned to grieve. To process. To allow myself to be human.
Not all stages of grief are created equal.
I confess that I have used the five stages of grief to deal with my pain, and I live in some stages longer than others. I bet every person grieves in his or her own way. The process is unique like the shape of the tear running down a cheek as it bumps along the skin, leaving a wet, sad trail behind.
Recently I have crawled out of many years in Denial of my husband’s and my inability to get pregnant. I pushed away every thought of planning a family because I knew if I let the despair of childlessness consume me, I wouldn’t be able to go to work or love on other people’s children. My life would pause.
It was easier for me to pretend it wasn’t affecting me than to pay attention to what was really happening .
Coming out of that phase, I allowed myself to mourn the loss, and the pain was unbearable at times. But in feeling the pain and welcoming healing, I could move forward.
Anger may be one of the strongest stages and I am no exception. I am compulsive when angry. I’ve snapped at my husband like a barracuda when feeling testy. I’ve bought too many things at the grocery store just because the wallet was in my hand at the unfortunate moment of me hating the world. This may sound funny, but I’ve rolled the windows down all the way and radio surfed to land on a weirdly inappropriate semi-rap song. I nudged the volume past 20 and nodded along. I just didn’t care.
I’ve taken long showers with water so hot that it turns my white skin pinkish-red like it’s July and I forgot sunscreen again. Water bill? Don’t care.
My actions aren’t all that radical but my attitude is. I cook whatever I want for dinner even if it isn’t healthy, I get 25 books out from the library even if I only have time to read 3, I shake Kevin’s shoulders and tell him how mad I was when the baby at the store was playing with a plastic bag and the mom was not paying attention. I know my husband will love me even if he is a verbal punching bag when I am hurting and fake-cursing and blowing off steam.
Feeling the anger lets me slow down later and consider why I reacted with such ferocity. I am teaching myself how to deal with the deep emotions instead of pushing them away. There is a proper way to grieve, and it is namely to feel the feelings.
Even if they are ugly.
Bargaining to me feels like, What if this isn’t happening? What if it is all a fluke and I will come back to this moment and laugh at how scared I was? What if this isn’t a big deal and everyone who says I will get pregnant is right? Is there anything I can do to reverse it?
I wonder if I did anything to put this trial in my path and if it is really my fault.
Depression is summed up in one thought: I am so sick of hurting.
I just don’t want it to hurt anymore. The pain is all I can focus on and it is a heavy club slamming into me. It is the stage I hate the most, and therefore would rather choose denial over embracing the immense weight of sadness.
After the many days or years of denial, the fierce anger and rage, the pounding of the fist on the shower wall, the spilling of tears from a red hot face, the collapsing on the bed in exhaustion, there is peace. Unexplainable peace. A quiet whisper that says, This is my life.
And it’s true.
I know I will get up the next day and face the moments in all their pain and glory. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, and nothing makes sense yet, but it’s important to move forward.
Not get over it, not push it aside, but move forward. This is Acceptance.
It’s like window shopping. You see what you want on the other side of the glass, but it will never be yours. The bad thing has happened, and a dream has died. A person is gone. A job is lost. Health is fleeting. The relationship failed. The grave is marked. The womb is closed.
I cling to my faith more and more during these times, not because I think God will give me all the answers but because I know He is the only one who can bring me authentic peace. He is the only one that can bring beauty someday from the tangled mess I have fallen into. His Spirit is nestled inside of me, his radiance pulsing out and warming the coldest, darkest parts of my pain.
He will be there when in a little while I need to cycle through the stages once again. And I will be kinder to myself because I know that acceptance is there waiting for me and I will find it again and again.