I selected this photo to begin this essay because there is a whole lot of light behind those ominous clouds – and there is a whole lot of light behind grief, too.
I visited my eye doctor the other day. Part of my exam included a visual field test. I worried just a little bit about attention deficit during the test – wondering if I got bored or fell asleep for a second or two while waiting at the ready for any flash of light, however vague or sharp, to appear to the right, the left, above or beneath the center yellow dot that I was instructed to never lose sight of. It seemed like the test lasted forever, but realistically it was probably three minutes for each eye.
Yay – I passed – so attention deficit or sleep apnea aren’t a concern at the moment, at least.
How does this relate to accepting loss, you might ask? Well, I’ll explain.
If you want the cliff notes version of this essay – speaking of attention deficit; then, this is the paragraph for you. The whole point of acceptance of loss is to acknowledge it, even focus on the loss (like the yellow dot in my visual field test), while not losing sight of the periphery which is everything else (your entire scope of vision – all those vague and sharp lights appearing to the left, the right, above and beneath the yellow dot) that makes up one’s life.
Grief – its stages have been identified, even quantified and are well-documented; those stages being: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In fact, however, the manifestations of grief are most likely highly individual and somewhat chaotic rather than the supposedly orderly, sequential, progressive, nor so easily defined stages that are implied or stipulated in the scientific, clinical, or popular literature.
Awareness of grief and where we might stand in its possible stages might assuage our getting stuck somewhere, unresolved. For example, bargaining sounds familiar, as does denial. We often bargain with God, whether overtly or under the cover of prayer, reason, argument, or resolution to “do better.” And, one wouldn’t be considered a good Christian in some circles if you don’t spend some time in denial.
Grief is complicated. It comes not just at the death of a loved one, but at the death of a relationship; the loss of a job or the demise of an expectation, dream or hope for something imagined – or a combination of some of these means of loss. Grief also arrives at the doorstep of the loss of the healthy functioning of one’s mind or body or the decline of an ability that everyone, aging (and that’s everyone) must either grow aware of or live with its unacknowledged effects.
I’ve had issues with the stage of acceptance, in general. Having grown up under the Protestant work ethic, my learned and practiced response to any challenge to the hopes that were within me is, “I can work it out;” work, being the operative word.
“Accepting the things I cannot change,” control, or fix, is the hard part – the faith part, of the Serenity Prayer. It’s a conundrum and a paradox when I find that my work ethic, evangelical past is at odds with my fundamentalist, faith past – a dueling contradiction.
I get the Apostle Paul’s statement from Romans 7:19, paraphrased – “I don’t want to sin, but I keep doing it anyway.” In other words, I want to accept the things I cannot change, but I keep trying to change, control, or fix them anyway. Let me offer a simile that everyone who has dieted can relate to. It’s like when you determine not to eat something you’ve deemed against your diet, and all you can think about is that food. Can you say chocolate?
The grieving process is important – I’m not certain why. Point of fact, Jesus, in His Beatitudes of Matthew 5 includes among the Blessed – those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. So, there is something to be said for the process of mourning, for at the end of it is comfort – or as the stages of grief proffer: acceptance.Do you remember the biblical saying, paraphrased – red at night, sailor’s delight; red in the morning, sailor’s warning? Those red clouds at dusk seem overwhelmingly foreboding, but they point to a nice day tomorrow!
My observation and educated guess about mourning is, we are better served if we invite it not to pull up a chair and stay, at length. It’s best that, at some point, we accept the loss. Yes, we should welcome grief as a temporary guest; even immerse ourselves briefly in its embrace, and fully feel it. Then, bid it adieu.
I’m not saying this is easy and I’m certainly not prescribing any time frame for its process. In fact, I’m prescribing nothing, but I am certain that grieving people have to just hurt for a while; swim around in its pool and be saturated by it. No words, no scripture, no gesture will stifle the indescribable pain of loss – until that mystical moment when the veil is lifted enough to actually exhale. We must take advantage of that moment to step out from under grief, move away from it and free our personality and soul from its lingering effects.
Loss is universal, experienced by everyone, everywhere throughout time. Some have had more than their share of loss of loved ones; even the cruel, seemingly untimely loss of loved ones. Others have had to suffer the loss of dignity or self-esteem, maybe many times over. Most of us have lost dreams or expectations, hopefully temporarily only to develop new ones – easier said than done; spurring us toward the new and fresh blank slate of the future.
I’ve had some higher education in psychology, sociology/anthropology and family studies and I could cite some studies, theories and philosophies but my Gibbs-gut feeling (as in that of Leroy Jethro Gibbs of NCIS) is that some food, work, alcohol, drug, or sex addicts’ lifestyle choices are the result of grief having permanently camped out in their souls. The loss of who they hoped to be; who they were expected to be, can’t be reconciled with who they are or who they have become; so they soothe the source and succor the grief – never having accepted their loss.
Some of these gut feelings were confirmed in the first century Greek philosopher, Plutarch’s essay, “Consolation to His Wife.” As graciously as the author of Proverbs 31 commends his wife, Plutarch, in this essay, lovingly approves his wife’s comportment on the occasion of their two-year old, only daughter’s death. He compliments his wife’s conduct as one of “a noble woman and a loving mother.” She, apparently bore her sorrows honorably rather than splashing about in them, at length.
According to Plutarch, some things one might notice in an individual to whom grief has made its home are: pettiness, narrowness; and a confined, unsmiling and fearful soul. Everybody’s got their grief’s to bear. I along with millions of other church goers, have sung the hymn,
- “’What a Friend we have in Jesus,’ …
- All our sins and grief’s to bear!…
- What peace we often forfeit,
- O what needless pain we bear,
- All because we do not carry Everything to God in Prayer!”
This hymn goes on to laud Jesus as the perfect friend to share our sorrows, discouragements, burdens, weaknesses and I would add – complaints. Friends, as precious, forbearing, and well-meaning as they are, simply are not as well-equipped to contend with and ultimately dispel our grief as is our God. As friends, we don’t always know how to comfort or aid those who grieve. I know for a fact, I’ve made the effort poorly and certainly inadequately, at times.
Like Job’s friends, what we think we’re offering is comfort, sympathy, empathy, and relief; but our efforts might very well be felt as accusation, schooling, fear, blame, or defeat. Don’t get me wrong, friends, especially those who have gone through your particular circumstances of grief can be a godsend. Just knowing that someone else on the planet has felt the same way you do is a comfort; thus the success of support groups for various types of loss; from the death of a loved one, to divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, or suicide.
Plutarch warns his wife, however, against friends offering condolences. He cautions her not to overindulge flamboyant grief but to memorialize the one lost by “transpose(ing) yourself in imagination.” Plutarch says, “It would be a perversity for you to find fault with your estate and chafe at it when others would cheerfully choose your lot even with the affliction which now distresses us. Nay, this present sting should make you sensible of our numerous blessings which REMAIN UNTOUCHED…. Shall we meticulously search out faulty passages in our lives for condemnation and cavalierly neglect the mass of our blessings.”
He suggests we can either quench grief entirely or diminish its size and intensity by tweaking what we pay attention to. I’ve tried this. When I notice myself getting petty, my point of view narrowing, feeling fearful, with a complete inability to smile – I recognize the possibility that grief has attempted to make its home in my soul.
So, after entertaining it for a moment – some might recognize lingering grief as the inkling to feel sorry for yourself or have a pity party for one; I take it to God and together we un-invite all guests to my pity party and switch up the theme of the party – we’ve all heard of divorce parties, wakes, memorial celebrations; all converting the pity party to a psychologically and spiritually useful celebration of what remains intact in our lives, including our memories of the person or thing that is now lost.
In those celebrations we can focus our attention on:
- Recollecting the good things from the past about the thing/person that is presently lost: recalling the pleasure, delight, happiness the thing or person brought to our lives;
- Transposing and reshaping our reflections – focusing on what the relationship or memory brought to our lives; rather than on what its loss took away from our lives;
- Bringing to mind the essence of the lost person, memory, ability, dream, hope, job, or feeling – and treasuring that essence in absentia of the death of the concrete relationship or dream.
Through this process of mourning, we’ve transformed our pain of loss to the blessing of Matthew 5:4 – comforting memories. Acceptance allows us to live on in a measure of peace.See that blue hole in the clouds? That’s where the blessing is:)