The Grief Process: Three Steps to Making Progress
Emmanuel (Noel) Villarivera
As I explained in the first two articles of this three-part series (see Part 1 here and Part 2 here), a lot of people are stuck in their grief because they don’t know how to get past the pain. They don’t know how to move on in spite of the terrible losses in their life. If you want to get unstuck and make progress in the grief process, you’re going to need to do three things.
Three Steps to Making Progress in the Grief Process
1. List the losses that you haven’t grieved over.You need to go back and really take a little inventory of your life. You need to look at your life and reconsider, “Where have I had major losses in my life?” Maybe you went off to war. Maybe you’ve experienced rejection. Maybe you miss some loved ones in your life, or you suffer from long-term illness. Perhaps you lost your home or your job.
What are the losses in your life that made you say, “I’m going to put my head down and I’m not going to think about it. I’m not going to grieve it; I’m just going to move ahead.” If you can pinpoint that occasion or event, that’s where you got stuck. You start by listing the losses that you’ve never grieved. In other words, “I can’t get past it until I acknowledge it.”
Jesus said grief is one of the keys to blessing. Notice this verse from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Who gets comforted? They. And who are the they? Those who have the courage to mourn.
What is Jesus saying here? Cover-ups don’t get comforted. If I cover up the pain, if I ignore the pain, I deny the pain, I pretend it doesn’t exist, I’m too afraid of my emotions, then I don’t get comforted. And if I don’t get comforted, I don’t get blessed. Blessed are those who mourn. You want God’s blessing? You’ve got to learn how to grieve clean. How to grieve good.
It’s like if you have a wound. If you had a wound, a bad wound, and it got dirty, you would not think of letting a doctor simply put a Band-Aid on it without cleaning out the wound. If you don’t clean out the wound, it’s going to fester.
Yet you’ve likely tried to do that with many things in your life, where you thought, “That was painful. I just felt rejected. She just walked out on me; he just walked out on me. I’m not going to think about it anymore.” What you did in that situation was to put a Band-Aid over a wound that’s just festering. You didn’t clean it out. You didn’t have clean, good grief.
My guess is that in your life your unmourned losses are all still waiting there to be mourned. They’re all still waiting.
Why don’t we allow ourselves to grieve? One word: FEAR. We’re scared. What are the fears that you are still holding on to? “If I really go back and think about the losses in my life and I allow myself to grieve over them, I might be overwhelmed with emotion.”
Yes. It’s not going to kill you. It’s like a wave. It’ll come and then it’ll go. So what? You’re afraid of your own emotions? Really? Then you’re afraid of yourself. That’s not very healthy.
“I’m afraid that if I really grieve about that loss, I’ll never recover.” You will recover. However, you won’t recover if you keep it a secret. That’s like shaking up a Coke bottle. You keep pushing it down.
You say, “I’m afraid that I’ll lose my mind.” You won’t lose your mind. You might if you keep it a secret. You might if you keep pushing it down. But if you let it out, the Boogy Man isn’t that big anymore. You bring him out into the light.
If you’re afraid of the grief process, you need to claim the Psalm 23, the most famous psalm in the Bible. Psalm 23:4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Though it’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible, I want you to look at it like you’ve never seen it before. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow…” Circle the phrase “walk through.” You’re walking through it. You’re not going to stay stuck there.
What I’m asking you to do is to consider the things maybe you’ve never grieved. And you walk through them. You’re not going to stay there. You’re not going to stay stuck there the rest of your life. You’re going to walk through the valley.But you haven’t walked through it yet, so you’re stuck on the other side. That’s why you can’t grow. That’s why you can’t get rid of those habitual patterns in your life that are holding you back. You still have to walk through it.
Then circle the word “shadow.” Walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
As children, many of us feared shadows, particularly at night time. Why? Because shadows make things appear bigger than they really are. But nobody ever died from a shadow. You’re not going to die in the valley of the shadow of death. You’re not dying. You’re still alive. The grief process is not going to kill you. On top of that, you’re going to walk through it. It’s a shadow. And God is with you.
So why am I afraid? Not once in the Bible are we told to “weep not,” or are we told to “sorrow not,” or are we told to “cry not,” or are we told to “grieve not.” But we are told to “fear not.” In fact, 365 times in the Bible we’re told “fear not.” Why? That’s one for every day of the year, because grief doesn’t paralyze, but fear does.
What you are afraid of is actually paralyzing you more than the grief process itself. Your fear of your emotions is actually paralyzing you, not your grief. Grief doesn’t paralyze. Grief gets you through the valley of the shadow to the other side. Then you can grow and you’ll be more mature and you’ll be richer in spirit. It’s the fear that holds you back.
So the first step to make progress in the grief process is to list the losses that you’ve never grieved.
2. Identify what you’ve really lost.
I go back and consider, what did I really lose in that childhood? Then I go deeper, beyond the obvious. What did I lose by having an alcoholic dad? What did I lose by being laid off? What did I really lose when my parents divorced? What did I really lose when my family moved so often as a child? Did I lose stability? Did I lose security? Did I lose identity? Did I lose encouragement? Did I lose my credibility when that happened? Did I lose trust?
You need to look past the obvious and ask, when that happened to me, that painful thing or when that loved one died or when that person walked out of my life or whatever happened, what did I really lose? The answer to that question is what you need to grieve. Make a list of the losses you’ve never grieved and ask yourself, “What did I really lose there?”
3. Have the courage to lament.
Lament is not a word that we use much today, but it’s a Bible word so I want to deal with it. It’s also the kind of action that you must do in order to be healthy emotionally and spiritually, and to make progress in the grief process.
What is a lament? A lament is a passionate expression of grief to God. To lament means to have a passionate expression of grief to God. It may include crying out to God, shouting to God, weeping, or yelling. A lament is an act of worship. It is an act of worship that can actually include arguing with God and complaining to God.
You might be thinking, “Wait a minute. Complaining to God can be an act of worship?” Absolutely. You complain to God – that’s an act of worship. You complain about God – that’s an act of rebellion.
We usually do the second. We complain about God. That’s a sin. But God says you can complain to me all you want. God can handle it. God can handle your rage. He can handle your resentment. He can handle your regrets. He can handle your complaining. He can handle your accusations.
It’s like a parent with a little child grabbing at your knees having a temper tantrum. You can handle the temper tantrum of somebody less mature than you are. God can handle your pain. You can tell Him anything you want. Why? Because He already knows it. He just wants you to get it off your chest. He wants you to admit it.
The Bible is full of laments. Complaints to God. Prayers of complaint and accusation and grief. You know what I love about the Bible? It doesn’t whitewash any negative emotion. It’s all there; it’s just all there. If a guy says, “God, I think this sucks!” it’s in the Bible. “God, I think you’re being unfair right now. You just cheated me. You broke Your promise. You need to fix that, God.” And God just puts it right there in His book.
God isn’t afraid of negative emotions. We are, but God isn’t. I love it because life is not all sunshine, roses, rainbows, and unicorns. It’s not all picking flowers and talking about peace and love. Life can be rough. And just like the Bible says, there’s a time to weep and there’s a time to rejoice. There is time to party and there’s time to cry. This is part of life.
God says to be fully alive, to be fully human is to accept it all. If you only accept the parties of life and not the grief, you live half a life. You’re emotionally stunted because you’re living only the good parts. And there’s no depth, there’s no color to your life. The depth and the color comes in the grief, in the tough times, in the shadow of the valleys.
The Bible is full of laments. In fact, there’s an entire book in the Bible called Lamentations. If you’ve ever read the book of Lamentations, it’s an entire book of Jeremiah complaining that God got it all wrong. And it’s in the Bible. And God just says, “Have your say, Jeremiah. Go ahead. Just spout off.” What he was grieving was the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
Most people think the book of Psalms is about thanksgiving and praise. Of the 150 psalms in the book of Psalms, 65 of them are psalms of lament. If you go read them, it can be pretty shocking that there’s that much negative stuff in the Psalms.
And David and a whole bunch of guys say, “God, this is bad. I don’t like this.” And God says that’s an act of worship, too. Saying, “Right now, God, I don’t like You,” is just as much an act of worship as “Thank You, God, praise You God,” because you’re talking to God about God.
Christian Counseling for the Grieving
If you’re feeling stuck in the grief process, I encourage you to reach out for help. Feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors in the counselor directory, or reach out to a trusted friend or pastor. Help is available; you don’t have to grieve alone.
“Alone”, Courtesy of Jude Beck, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Longing”, Courtesy of Kristina Tripkovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “White Flower”, Courtesy of Arisa Chattasa, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Candles”, Courtesy of Irina Anastasiu, Pexels.com, CC0 License