If you are reading this and you are in a hurting place, please know that there are people who care about you and want to support you at this time.
Losing a loved one is a universal experience. And yet this loss is the most intensely personal event. We can feel the absence of our loved one as an actual physical sensation: like a punch in the stomach or a literal ache in our chest that mirrors our heartbreak. We call this pain grief.
The Five Stages of Grief
If you have been reading about loss and grieving, most articles will likely refer to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s concept of the five stages of grief. These stages are known as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Denial is often the most immediate response to losing a loved one. We are shocked into disbelief by the suddenness of death. We want to deny the reality of the situation before us. You may have found yourself speaking your denial out loud: “I can’t believe he’s gone. I was only talking with him yesterday afternoon!”
Anger comes in part because we feel helpless when confronted by death. If we can blame someone, even our loved one, it allows us to process these uncomfortable feelings churning inside us. We resent the pain that our loved one has caused by leaving us. This often leads to feeling guilty for these feelings, which in turn ends up making us angrier.
Bargaining is an attempt to regain control as we grieve for our loved ones. It often comes with “if only” statements like: “if only we had gotten a second opinion… if only he had seen a doctor sooner… if only I’d called more often…” We try to regain a sense of balance through regret.
Depression associated with mourning falls into two categories: sadness as a reaction to the immediate practical implications of the loss and the sadness we feel is the separation as we bid our loved one farewell. This sadness can leave you numb, feeling like your life is filtered through a blue-grey blanket. In one sense, it seems as though the love we once felt has turned against us.
This stage is sneaky. It says, “No one really cares. No one cares about what you’re going through.” Depression curls around your shoulder and whispers in your ear, telling you that you’re alone, and that it’s pointless to go on. Please, if you are depressed and feeling that self-harm or dying is an option, please seek help. If you feel like no one is listening, keep asking for help until someone does.
And know this, friends: depression is a liar. Your Heavenly Father cares deeply and He knows your pain.
Our Father understands loss. He gave His Son over to death on a cross for our sake. Talk about someone who didn’t deserve to die! Jesus’ sacrifice is precious because He was without sin. Jesus’ sacrifice gives us the hope of eternal life.
Jesus himself experienced the loss of His friend, Lazarus. When Jesus met with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, he shared in their grief and mourned the death of his friend, despite knowing that He would be raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44).
Acceptance is not experienced by everyone who grieves. It takes time to move beyond the feelings of anger and denial which make prayer difficult and increase feelings of isolation. Remember that your personal experience in coping with loss will be different from your siblings, your spouse or your friends. Don’t listen to people who express surprise when “you’re still not over it”. Whatever feelings you are experiencing, they are part of your process. No one else can tell you when you “should” stop feeling sad.
Grieve the Way You Need to
Reading the five stages of grief might give you the impression that each emotional stage progresses in order, the way we might advance through grades in school. “Now that I have lived through denial,” you might think, “Next I will feel angry at my loved one and once that is complete I will be halfway done!” Although we might be tempted to pursue this illusion of control over our grief, it is not possible to bundle these feelings into convenient portions.
It was a terrible discovery to learn that the stages of my grieving process did not move like the stages of a bad case of the flu. Some days I found myself unspeakably sad, almost paralyzed by the thought of having to attempt another day alone. Some days I was resentful and angry. I would think, “How can these people be so happy when I am living a tragedy?!” Grief is not especially logical at times.
Some people would tell you that Christians are supposed to move straight to rejoicing when a brother or sister in Christ has been promoted to glory. While it may be possible in certain cases, I think this attitude puts unnecessary pressure on the person experiencing loss. Saying farewell to the grandfather who passed in his sleep is not the same as losing a child in a drink-driving incident. Be kind to those who are experiencing loss.
As Christians, we have a stage beyond acceptance: hope. Don’t listen to the lies that depression tries to feed a broken heart. Trust in the God who counts our tears (Psalm 56:8). We have hope because Christ gave His life for us. Choosing to trust God is a conscious act you may have to do on a daily (hourly!) basis, but I encourage you not to give up.
“Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5).
Actions You Can Take
As God brings you healing as you journey through your own grieving process, here are some actions that you can take to help yourself cope:
- Write down your dark thoughts in a journal. If praying to God seems difficult right now, try writing Him a letter.
- Remember that if “one day at a time” is too hard, focus on one hour at a time.
- Be kind to your body. Eat well, choosing healthy foods, and keep active. Be diligent about a normal sleep pattern as much as possible (depression can present both as insomnia and as excessive sleeping).
- Build routines into your day. Make your bed every morning, wash your dishes every night. Start your mornings with prayer. I was blessed with a friend who walked with me for an hour every day for six months as I was mourning the loss of my daughter.
- Watch a funny movie. Listen to music with a positive message. You are re-wiring your brain to receive hope and joy.
You will get through this one day at a time. There will come a day when you will feel like you can start living again. You will make it through this with God’s help. Trust Him and He will see you through.