What Is Grief? And How Can I Learn To Be Thankful For It?

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It has been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes.

I think we should add grief to that list.

Live long enough and you will experience grief.

And yet, even though we will all experience grief, it is one of those things that no one likes to talk about, much less consider. As such, there is not always a consensus about what grief actually is. It’s troublesome that we don’t talk more openly about something we all face and it’s even more troublesome that many of us are unable to define such a common experience. One of the first things I do is just try to write out a couple of different perspectives. When I began counseling people through grief as a Hospice Chaplain, one of the first things I did was piece together some basic definitions and try to distill them down to as few words as possible:

Deep sorrow, sadness and a mix of other emotions, especially caused by someone’s death.

Grief is the conflicting feelings, possibly including relief resultant guilt, caused by the end of or change in something familiar.

Grief is the normal/natural emotional reaction to loss or change of any kind.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change.

Grief is the natural response to loss or change. This seems like a pretty fair and straightforward definition which also accounts for the fact that grief will not look the same for everyone.

I don’t know how you begin to think about such topics, but once I narrow down a definition into my own fewest words as possible, I like to look at other people’s words. I like to look at quotes. They’re like different sides of a prism. Since everyone is different and, no one grieves the same (though there will be similarities), understanding how other people process grief can help us process grief ourselves.

“Grief is never something you get over. You don't wake up one morning and say, 'I've conquered that; now I'm moving on.' It's something that walks beside you every day. And if you can learn how to manage it and honour the person that you miss, you can take something that is incredibly sad and have some form of positivity.” (Terry Irwin)

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” (Anne Lamott)

“the way I think about grief is that it is the great tug-of-war, and sometimes the flag is on the side you don’t want it to be on. And sometimes the game has exhausted all of its joy, and all that’s left is you on your knees. But, today, even though I am sad, my hands are still on the rope.” (Hanif Abdurraqib)

“Every one can master a grief but he that has it.” - (William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing)

“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” (Anne Roiphe)

“Grief is the price we pay for love.” (Queen Elizabeth II)

Every once in a while, you come across a quote that just stops you in your tracks. Grief is the price we pay for love.

Everyone wants love but no one wants to grieve. Grief is the price we pay for love. No one wants to think of love as a trade-off; and it’s not really, not in the strictest sense. But grief reminds us that we care. Grief reminds us that our feelings are alive and that, we are still in touch with life; with relationships; with thankfulness. Grief is proof that we are human.

Grief is the result of losing something that was important to us; a job, a spouse, a position in life, a loved one; whatever it is. Grief is the act of trying to adjust to the “new normal” after a loss. Grief is the process of moving on with life when we don’t want to.

It does not mean forgetting what we’ve lost.

It is far too common to hear people say things like: “You’ve just got to move on.” This is not helpful or true and I may explore why in future posts, but for now, let me just say that grief is one of those things that must not simply be faced but embraced in order to move forward. It must be passed through.

Of course it changes us, and that’s part of the point.

I hope to write more about the idea of grief and the process of recovery, but for now, I’d love your thoughts. Have you experienced grief? How would you define grief? How did you move through it (or did you?)? Did it change you? What did you learn?

May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord's Prayer by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson

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My friend Justin McRoberts and his friend Scott Erickson have provided one of my favorite spiritual resources: Prayer: Forty Days of Practice. Combining practical spiritual suggestions with short but not simple prayers with simple but not profound illustrations, Prayer: Forty Days of Practice was originally designed to accompany the Lenten season but is recommended for everyday use.

The pair are releasing a follow-up and it is every bit as meaningful, challenging and encouraging as the first. May It Be So: Forty Days with the Lord's Prayer releases 09/24/19. Here’s the pair telling you about the book:

WaterBrook & Multnomah says:

“Combining prayers in two languages--words and images--this contemporary prayer guide will help you spend time in conversation with God.

As people of faith, we all struggle at times to sustain a flourishing prayer life--a loss felt all the more keenly in these times of confusion, political turbulence, and global calamity. This unique book offers a timeless solution for the spiritual and skeptical alike.

Combining story-driven reflections with visual and written prayers, this simple 40-day prayer guide will help you reconnect with God as you rediscover your own ongoing conversation with Him. Using the familiar refrains in the Lord's Prayer as a guide, this groundbreaking resource invites you to reconnect with God creatively and organically.”

  • Visit the book’s official website.

  • Purchase the books at Amazon.

Distilling Prayer

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Part of my role as a Hospice Chaplain is to help people distinguish between spirituality and religion. I know there is lots of debate about the topic and the point of this post is not really to mine that can of worms, but in order to proceed, here’s my working understanding of the terms:

Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning in life. It involves questions of identity, security, belonging and purpose.

Religion is the external form of spirituality. Church. Books. Rituals. Religion seeks to put spirituality in order. It seeks to define spirituality and religion uses boundaries and often identifies itself by excluding others. Many religions claim that their particular approach to spirituality alone holds exclusive truth.

In other words, Spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and Religion is the form that pursuit takes.

I say all of this to give you a little understanding as to what I deal with in my role helping patients and their loved ones face end of life. I don’t know that it’s like where you live culturally, but here in Arizona, a lot of my hospice patients and their families will accept Chaplain visits only if I agree to not proselytize. I know younger people often get the blame for the whole “spirituality vs. religion” conversation, but in my experience, this issue began with the Boomer Generation. I can’t tell you how many older people I talk with who are jaded by growing up in the Midwest or the South and want nothing to do with “religion.”

Enter the Chaplain.

Hospice care neither hastens nor hinders death and we strive to provide people with the best possible quality of life for whatever time remains. Part of this means finding spiritual balance, whatever your existing belief structure. One of the most common conversations I have is when I encourage people to pray, or assure them that I will be praying for them. The most common response is something like: Thank you, but I’m not a religious person.

This is where the distinction between spirituality and religion becomes important. If spirituality is the pursuit of higher meaning and religion is the form that pursuit takes, then it is possible for even people who do not consider themselves to be religious to pray. I am a Christian. That is my religion. But when I encourage my patients and their families to pray, I’m not necessarily saying that they must adopt my understanding of religion or prayer.

Prayer is one of those spiritual exercises that transcends religious boundaries. Nearly every religion advocates some form of prayer. Prayer transcends religion. What then, is prayer? Before we can answer that question, let’s back up a minute and consider the idea that, as Indian philospher Krishnamurti says: Attention is the most basic form of love.

The deliberate act of paying attention on something/someone means that we are narrowing our thoughts to them/that alone. It shows that we care. It is an act of love.

At its fundamental nature, prayer is taking that act of love (focusing our attention) and throwing it out into the universe, often accompanied by the cryptic note in the bottle HELP ME! Prayer is simply the recognition that we need help and that there is something beyond ourselves. Because I love, I focus my attention and admit that I am not ultimately in control and that there must be meaning to whatever is happening. Understood from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to me to be a stretch to say that everyone prays. After all, isn’t this just the summary of the first two steps of the famous 12 Steps?

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This sounds like prayer to me. We need help and somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there is Someone or Something that can help me. This helps us place ourselves in the care of humility and guards us from arrogance. This also helps us pursue meaning in suffering and comfort in distress.

Prayer transcends religion but finds its fullness within it. I believe that Prayer is strongest when the Someone or Something are defined, but that that is not necessary to pray. When explained this way, many people who initially rejected my offers of prayer have suddenly found themselves on their knees. If “prayer” seems intimidating or off-putting to you, I want to encourage you to free the practice from the bonds of religion and to get on your knees.

Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).