What Does Healthy Grief Look Like?
by Rhonda Robinson
My new friend leaned across the table so the woman walking past wouldn’t hear what she was about to say. “She lost her 10-year-old daughter in a car accident,” she half-whispered, “it’s been two years, and she’s not doing well.” I watched the bereaved mother take her coffee and sit down with a friend just a couple tables away. She wrapped herself around the steaming paper cup, as if she was trying to warm her soul. She kept dabbing her eyes with rough coffee shop napkins in a futile attempt to keep her tears under control. Two years. Is two years a sufficient time to grieve the loss of a beloved daughter?
The short answer is no.
Two years after the loss of a child just means the shock and accompanying numbness is just beginning to wear off. If she had just endured open heart surgery, and the anesthesia faded, the new wave of sharp pains would be understandable. There would be no question by friends, family, and outside onlookers like us, if her pain was healthy or not. In many ways, it’s the same with a life-altering loss. When death tears a child from a parent’s arms, their heart is ripped from their chest, leaving a child-sized gapping whole in their soul. Grief can cause an unbearable physical pain.
So, why do we, as a society, think that the succumbing to the pain of grief, the deep sorrow of loss, is unhealthy? Why do we assume that healthy grieving is tearless?
Perhaps it’s because our American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality runs deep. Or it could be, we are not as well acquainted with tragedy as generations past and other parts of the world. In many ways, we have lost our respect for the grieving process and the lessons it teaches us. Not so long ago, that same mother in mourning could still wear black, hide her red eyes behind black lace or netting. She would be granted the grace of withdrawing from the normal gaieties and social obligations without concerned friends and family trying to pull her back to normal.
The truth is most of us are not comfortable around someone who is grieving. We don’t know what to say or how to help. We want to fix it. We want to say the right thing to help them feel better. For the person who is mourning, they just need to grieve.
Mourning, grief, and sorrow are all natural responses to loss. Healthy grieving consists of tears. It invokes deep reflection on what truly is important, and what is not. Healthy grieving is exhausting. Your body requires more sleep. There is a numbing effect. When the unthinkable strikes your life, it takes a while for your mind to understand the new reality. This is a process.
Grief is often described in stages. However, these are not boxes to check off and then a person is ready to “move on.” The process of grieving is a progression of learning how to live in a world without a loved one. It’s learning to accept the future is not what you thought it would be. It’s piecing together your internal shattered world. There is no timeline.
Unhealthy grief is grief not acknowledged. It is pain stuffed down deep inside. This is where we can mistakenly believe that someone is “doing well”—simply because they are functioning. Everything seems to have gone back to normal. They are “moving on” with their life. While life does go on, for the person who is deeply grieving, their inner world has stopped. The future no longer looks the same. Their world is different, void of someone they loved. To ignore this, to hide it, is to deny the impact they have just suffered. Grief is not unhealthy, simply because the loss is still painful many years later.
Grief changes us.
We don’t always recognize the grief in our lives. Nevertheless, grief is a very common part of everyday life. It comes in on a lot of different levels. Just as joy is the reflection of positive gain, so too, grieving is the reflection of painful loss. The loss of a job, the death of a marriage, or a diagnosis are all losses of the future we thought we had. When we grieve a loss, it is in direct proportion to the space in our life it was given. The greater the loss, the deeper the sorrow.
Healthy grief is a refining fire. It can shine a light on the areas of your life that must be changed. It can burn away trivial pursuits that bring no meaning to your life. Grief can pull you into the Father’s arms where the peace that surpasses understanding is found. Psalms 34:18 tells us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
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