Grief: Coping and emotions

Denial seems like such a safe state to be in. Perhaps this is why the body goes into a coma when a painful physical injury occurs, so it isn’t fighting with itself in order to heal.

For the first few months after a husband’s death, it is common and somewhat necessary to walk in denial instead of reality. Around the 6-9th month, however, the “shell of denial” will begin to break off leading the grieving one to make a choice – stay in the coma of denial, which would eventually lead to emotional death or wake up and begin to deal with the pain.

One morning during my quiet time, God took me back to my labor and delivery days. I heard God tell me repeatedly, “Embrace the pain!” Every time I would hear this admonition I would ask, “What?! Did I hear you right?” and “How?! Can I embrace the pain without it hurting?” Because He knows me, He gave me an illustration that was easy for me to relate to – childbirth.  Moms, remember back to the last weeks of your pregnancy. You were ready to pay any price and do anything to deliver that baby, right? You are elated when you feel the first contraction! Your heart jumps and you’re overwhelmed with excitement. The time has finally come! You readily embrace the first few contractions because you know that you will soon hold the fruit of your efforts.

Now remember the delivery, three or four hours in, or even minutes for the fortunate ones, you are still ready to do what it takes, but the experience of labor is beginning to lose its thrill. You cringe when each contraction comes along, and at times, you even may want to resist the contraction. Your body goes through transition and the pain becomes intense. You really aren’t sure you are going to make it.  It is at this point the doctor or midwife comes along and gently, but firmly says, “You need to embrace the pain to deliver the baby. Relax and give into each contraction and that will bring forth your child!”

“What? Embrace the pain?!” At the moment, embracing pain seems impossible, but the reward ahead moves you to do your best to “relax and give into the pain.” At that point, your body is free to do what it needs to do and before you know it, you are holding the fruit of your labor!

Emotionally, the grief experience is similar. We could deny something has happened and that God is at work. We could continue to walk in an empty shell (or impregnated one), but God has encouraged us to go ahead and relax, embrace the pain and watch Him bring forth life.

For me, this meant accepting the reality of my huge loss, and yes, that hurt! Much like the doctor or midwife though, God can be trusted. When He calls us to accept the pain and press into the new life He wants to bring, He is trustworthy. In the “birth pains” you now feel, focus on the promise of God that He is with you even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). I know it might not feel like it today, but God is at work and will bring forth the fruit of your labor in the land of suffering.

“God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Genesis 41:52

 

 

Another tragedy saturates the pages of our news feed causing us to gasp, mourn, wonder and question, “What’s this world coming to?”  Many people share their answers to this question with gun control leading the polls in the solution to the depravity of the human heart.  While school massacres might not have taken place in ancient days the root of the problem remains, we need Jesus.  We desperately need Jesus to give us new hearts.

One article sub-titled, “How one school teacher took time to look out for the lonely,” caught my attention as I was working on this blog addressing the topic of loneliness.  Weekly, a 5th grade teacher took requests from her students for seating in her classroom for the upcoming week.  By secret vote, she also asked for nominations of the most exceptional classroom citizen. She wasn’t trying to create a new seating chart or highlight the student of the week, but rather to discover the lonely children in her class.  The article shared how the slips of paper with information submitted by the students uncovered patterns that would highlight the lonely children and those struggling to connect with others.  “Who is going unnoticed in the social life of the class? Who is being bullied and by whom? Who is not getting requested by anyone else? Who can’t think of anyone to 
request? Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated? Who had a million friends last week and none this week?” Apparently, this teacher experienced the heartbreak of Columbine and determined that “all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness.”  https://www.rd.com/advice/parenting/stop-bullying-strategy/

God created us to need community or companionship.  In fact, His response after creating Adam was that it was not good for him to be alone, so He created a helpmate suitable. We were made for relationships. There are times in life where we are alone, yet we don’t feel lonely, and then there are other times where we may experience loneliness even in a crowded environment.  What makes the difference?  The emotional response to our circumstances.

Rick Warren shares four causes of loneliness:

  1. Transitions – when change brings about a loss which brings on a twinge of loneliness: 1st day of school, graduation, a new job, fired or laid off from a job. Life is a series of transitions.
  2. Separations – when we are isolated from those we love.  During travel, illness, or death.
  3. Oppositions – when under attack by others you fall prey to loneliness.
  4. Rejection – when you feel that you have been betrayed or forsaken.

As widows we are now alone in many ways:  physically, socially, emotionally. There is no longer a warm body by our side or a cheerleader in the stands.   Over time, our community changes or disappears causing even the most independent person to experience feeling alone as never before.  You may be alone in raising children, alone as the breadwinner, alone in making decisions, and living alone, but you are not completely alone.  God promises in Hebrews 13:5:

“I will never leave or forsake you.”

Danger comes when the normal, uncomfortable emotion of loneliness becomes negative or bitter as it attaches itself to our situation causing on-going pain in being alone.  It is common to feel lonely and sad without the companionship of your husband. However, Elisabeth Elliot who experienced widowhood twice offers this challenge,

“When you find yourself alone, there is potential to be lonely unless you have an awareness of being a part of something grander and greater than yourself.”  She goes on to confirm that being in God’s arms does not exclude suffering.  “We must trust that even our suffering is under God’s control.  In fact, love revealed on the cross does not exclude but must include suffering.”

Loneliness is real, and it hurts. Suffering is a wilderness experience–that’s the purpose. In your walk through this valley there are practical lessons to be learned one of which might be to consider how to handle loneliness.  We cannot do anything about our suffering in the season of loneliness, but there is something we can do with it…

How to Handle Loneliness

  1. Accept it as a gift from the Lord – this time of solitude may only be for a season.  We don’t know the purpose for the pain but give purpose in this season. Get to know the Lord in ways you never could or thought possible. “Peace comes not through the removal of the pain, but in the acceptance of it.” (Elisabeth Elliot)
  2. Embrace it as a gift to yourself – There are things you can do alone that you cannot do with others.  In marriage, you were created to be a helpmate suitable to your husband.  When this responsibility is removed, enjoy a season of spending time doing what you could not do easily when your husband was by your side:  read, write, sleep, spend time with others, or spend time getting to know the Lord in a way you have never experienced before.
  3. Give it away as a gift to others – reframe your lonely days and re-direct your focus.  Don’t spend time thinking of your aloneness.  Look for ways to give your time away.  If you are a busy widowed-mom, invest in your children.  Enjoy being the one to make decisions with your children and lead them well.  Encourage another single mom or the elderly. The widow with the last coin gave her all away. The widow with the last oil surrendered in obedience to the Lord.  Yes, her only son died in the process, but she witnessed his resurrection from the dead in the end. (1 Kings 17)

“Now she who is a widow indeed, and who has been left alone has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day.” 1 Timothy 5:5

“A Father of the fatherless, a defender of the widows. God makes a home for the lonely . . . only the stubborn and rebellious dwell in a parched land.” Psalm 68:6

Perspective makes a difference in your loneliness: Alone = physical status vs lonely = our mindset.  God’s word teaches that He makes a home—a shelter—for the lonely, and only the stubborn and rebellious live in a parched land.  You don’t have to be alone in your loneliness.  Choose today to come into His shelter for the lonely.

When someone you dearly love dies, the world doesn’t stop. Although, for the one grieving it certainly seems it should. While you’re focusing on taking your next breath to make it through the motions of the day, the outside world looks like nothing and nobody has missed a beat. Everyone still goes to the grocery store, they pay their bills, kids go to school, and adults keep working. The earth keeps spinning and life just keeps going. In the beginning, it’s utterly annoying, but now looking back on that painful day of loss and the minutes, hours, and months that followed, I see what a blessing it is that life keeps going.

Oh, how awful it would be if everything did stop. There would be no spiritual growth and grief would be stagnant and unrelenting. I don’t necessarily believe that “time heals all wounds.” I believe Jesus does. But, I do believe that time makes it better, and it’s different for each of us. So, if you’re in the very early stages of grief, just know that, yes, it will be challenging, but you can look to the future with hope. It won’t always be like it is now (Praise God!).

We can definitely look forward to our future, but we can’t live in our future; we must live in the present. Along with that, our future won’t even be good if we aren’t learning to see what’s good right now. Six to nine months into widowhood was probably my darkest time—besides the very beginning, of course. But this was different. I think the shock and chaos were beginning to wear off and I was realizing, Oh my…this really IS my life…and I need to accept it.

I knew I needed to accept it, but I didn’t want to accept it. This was a pivotal time where God heavily laid on my heart for me to set my mind on Him, on the good. It wasn’t a harsh, “Okay, Emily, time to get over it!”  Instead, I felt my Heavenly Father gently nudging me to stand up with some much needed encouragement, “I see your pain sweet child, I know you and I know your hurt. I want the best for you, and the best for you is to set your eyes on Me, not this world.” James 1:17 (ESV) says, “Every good gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” So not only was He asking me to set my eyes on Him, but to praise Him in every good thing, no matter how small, because it is a gift from Him. That fact that God freely gives of Himself, which is already enough, and still gives us more is amazing to me. At the time though, I was severely longing to be launched into the future away from the pain, but God was teaching me that if I couldn’t see the good now, I wouldn’t see it later either. If all I see is bad now, bad will be all I see later. He was training my heart towards gratefulness to Him and away from self-pity.

Sometimes we may think we have the right to self-pity because something awful has happened in our lives. But do we? The right to mourn, yes. The right to self-pity, no. So what’s the difference? Self-pity says, “Why did I deserve this? This isn’t fair. My life is way worse than so-and-so’s.” Mourning says, “This really hurts and it’s the result of a broken world.” In mourning we have the right to acknowledge our pain while also acknowledging the good in our lives. We can also understand that we are not the only ones hurting in this world. Self-pity steals our joy and tells us that the bad will out-weigh the good. It tells us that everyone else’s life is better than ours and a lot less painful or difficult. With that outlook we begin to not only hurt ourselves, but those around us. Self-pity is destructive, not healing. Self-pity is a lie from Satan intended to hurt us. We have to pray for a shift in our perspective, be aware of it, and work towards aligning our minds with Christ.

This is why I said time doesn’t heal, and Jesus does. If we make the choice of self-pity, whether subconsciously or not, we aren’t going to heal. Our wound is going to fester as we find more negative things to add onto it, and time will only be against us. On the other hand, if we choose Jesus, seeing His goodness, and trusting in God’s sovereignty in the midst of our pain, we will experience healing and joy unexplainable.

Can you believe we’re already coming to a close on the first month of this new year? Time on earth is going to keep ticking and life here is going to keep moving until that day we enter into eternity. How will we choose to use it? In thankfulness or self-pity? In growth or decline? In relationship with God or casting Him aside and doing life alone? I can assure you the latter of any of these will not lead to an abundant life. Our lives are not determined by our circumstances, but rather by where we put our trust. Let’s trust in the One who loves us so much He sent His only Son, Christ Jesus, to die for our sins and rose again so that we wouldn’t have to live an eternity separated from Him. God is good. He doesn’t want us “stuck in time” with our grief. If we allow God to use this time on earth to deepen our relationship with Him, He certainly will. He desires us to have His healing and joy and He will faithfully provide.

Father, thank You for Your love for us. Help us to keep moving forward with our eyes and hearts set on You. Adjust our perspectives to be more like Yours. Help us to be aware when our thoughts stray to negativity, so we can go to you to set our minds on things above. Help us to be eternal minded, and not to dwell on things that will only matter temporarily. Give us the faith to trust You to comfort us and heal us. Strengthen our desires to know You more and spend more time reading Your Word. You know us better than anyone ever could, and You love us still. Help us to rejoice in You even when our circumstances hurt. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.