Enlarging the Soul through Grief
By John Stumbo
A friend of mine in Nebraska says, “Grieving well enlarges the soul.”
I don’t claim to be an expert on this subject—as in someone who has studied the subject thoroughly and has scientific/psychological/serious data behind what I have to say. I’m no expert, but I am a veteran. And, if you aren’t a veteran yet yourself, you will be eventually as well.
THE HONEST TRUTH
None of us get too many trips around this planet without loss. We lose people, friends, health, jobs, homes, money, opportunities, youth, hobbies, strength, memory, respect, and a therapy office full of other things. I spent an hour or more a day, five days a week for over a decade, keeping my body in excellent physical condition…to have it completely devastated in a few weeks’ time. Others have built their lives with credibility, only to have their reputation demolished over one foolish decision or false accusation. A lifetime of careful savings can be wiped out—or at least seriously damaged—by one foolish decision. We had an opportunity—it was ours for the taking—but we let it pass and it doesn’t look like it will ever come again. The family member we were just beginning to value with deepest appreciation is suddenly taken from us by a tragedy. These kinds of stories have filled my office—and my journal—on more times than I care to remember.
These are all losses of things we once had. Equally as painful, or perhaps even more so, is the “loss” of what we never had. We always thought we’d be married and have children. As another year passes, it’s looking quite sure that will never happen. We always thought we’d get the break, the promotion. We believed that someone above us would recognize all that we have to offer, but years pass and others much younger than us climb the ladder we can’t seem to even get on. The specifics vary but I’ve watched it happen over and over—good people living with disappointment.
Loss. It shows up in a wide variety of forms, but none of us get through life without it.
Grief is the human response to loss. It is right, legitimate and healthy that we grieve. To do any less is to be dishonest with ourselves. To grieve is to be human.
Then my friend comes along and tells me that my soul will be enlarged if I grieve well. This implies that grief is a skill…or at least something I can do poorly or in a healthy way..
Again, no expert claims here, but I do think I can recognize some signs of grieving poorly and some of the signs of healthy grieving.
SIGNS OF GRIEVING POORLY
#1: CONVINCE MYSELF I AM NOT IN PAIN
I grieve poorly when I try to convince myself that I’m not really in pain. We were told, “Big boys don’t cry” and “No pain, no gain” and lots of other words of “wisdom” that subtly taught us to suck it up and pretend it didn’t hurt in the first place. I think I know why teachers, parents, coaches and countless other adults have said these kinds of things through the decades. We actually had a good reason for it. We tell kids these things because kids don’t know that their pain will go away. A kid falls and bumps his knee—it hurts like crazy at the moment of impact. He has no way of knowing that in just two minutes he’s going to only have the slightest limp and in five minutes he’ll have completely forgotten that it ever happened. He doesn’t know this, but we—the all-wise adult do know it—so we falsely tell him it’s no big deal. At that very second it is a VERY big deal. Denying that the pain exists doesn’t help us. It didn’t then. It doesn’t now.
#2: LETTING GRIEF GIVE WAY TO FEAR
I grieve poorly when grief gives way to fear. It is common to believe the lie that grief will never go away. Something in us says, “I don’t want to always feel this way, so I won’t let myself feel this way now.” Have you noticed that the most common metaphor people use for grief is “waves?” There is good reason for this because the emotions of grief do feel like they wash over us and saturate us when they come. However, some of us flee from these waves, falsely believing that they will drown us. It is possible for us to accept grief while resisting fear—healthy grief will lead to healing while fear will work against us.
#3 TRYING TO SET TIME LINES
I grieve poorly when I try to set a time line for it. I’ve thought it and likely so have you, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” Many of us who have struggled with grief have also struggled with guilt. In Genesis 50 we’re told that when Joseph’s father, Jacob, died they mourned for him for seventy days and THEN they had the funeral which required a very long trip and then they had seven MORE days of public sorrow (“a very solemn ceremony of mourning.”) In our American culture, people die, are honored with a service (sometimes) and are cremated or buried in five days or less. We’ll send cards for a week or two after, but then if you refer to it much more the attitude feels like, “Haven’t you gotten over it yet?” Grief shouldn’t have a time line and if for some reason it does, it should be a really long one. It’s been often said before, “Grief is not a speed sport.” The goal isn’t to “get in and get out” as quickly as you can.
SIGNS OF HEALTHY GRIEVING
#1: IT’S HEALTHY AND I BELIEVE IT
I grieve well when I believe that grief is a necessary and healthy response to pain.
Doesn’t the New Testament model this well for us? Mary, Martha and Jesus grieve unashamedly at the loss of Lazarus. Jesus pre-grieves his crucifixion. Paul grieves the condition of some of the churches. I wouldn’t wish any pain or loss upon you, but I would hope that when these come you’d accept that grief is a healthy response.
I just re-read the above paragraph and I admit that this sounds simplistic, but please don’t miss the point: We have permission to grieve. Properly handled, grief is not a weak, unspiritual or unwise response. Strong people grieve. Godly people grieve. Let your heart hear the permission. You hurt. It’s okay to feel it.
I first heard this permission from Joanna my wife. When I exited the hospital in January of 2009, I had hope that my trajectory of healing would be a steady course. However, when month after month passed with only incremental improvement, I had to face the reality of my loss. On more than one occasion, as Joanna drove me to yet another doctor’s appointment, I would look out the van window only to see someone eating or jogging. She would survey the situation quickly and say, “It’s okay. Go ahead and grieve.” Simple words, but permission was granted. Tears flowed and a kind of healing began that I hadn’t even thought about. While I eagerly anticipated a healing of my body, God used that season to work on a healing of my soul.
#2: NO MORE SELF-PITY
I grieve well when I refuse to slip into self-pity. Grief is slippery ground. It’s easy to lose our footing. One moment I’m walking along honestly experiencing the sadness of my loss and without realizing it I soon slide into a muddy pit. Sadly the mud can feel good—even soothing—to wallow in, yet we know it’s not where we belong. We need to get back on the trail and quit replaying all the “poor me” messages in our head.
I don’t know if I can give you a good definition of self-pity, but my hunch is we all know when we’ve slipped into it. One indication of self-pity is that I really want—or even demand—sympathy from others. “Can’t they see how much I’m hurting? What’s wrong with all those people!” Healthy grief senses the slippery slope and doesn’t let the heart linger there.
#3: LOOKING LONG TERM
I grieve well when I look for the long-term good that will come to my soul.
One mental picture I have of grief is that it is a deep plow cutting new furrows in my soul.
This is one of the most important things I can tell you about grief: I believe that when we grieve well—when we don’t resist the work of the plow—it increases our capacity for joy. I can’t measure these things, but it seems to me that I have laughed more freely and fully—I’ve laughed from a deeper place—after my crisis than I ever did before. Can pain actually increase our capacity for pleasure? From my experience I’d have to say, “Yes, grieving well does enlarge the soul’s capacity.” This is just one of the many benefits that can arise from the hard experience. I’m sure you can list others.
#4: LEARNING TO FORGIVE
I grieve well when I learn to forgive along the way.
Whenever there is pain, there is a cause. Usually this cause is identifiable…or at least we think we know who caused it. To say it differently, there is often someone to blame when we’re in pain: a spouse, friend, employer, ourselves … even God.
Perhaps “forgive” isn’t the best word. To grieve well we have to get past blaming, and the only way I know how to get past blaming is to release it…to live with the “I’m not going to hold this against you” attitude.
The month of February is the anniversary of my father’s death. Reckless teenagers killed him in a head-on collision. I can live the rest of my years angry at them or I can forgive them—letting go of my emotion toward them by accepting the fact that I did a lot of crazy things through the years too, and could well have killed someone myself. When I do this (i.e. release them), my emotion is released to feel sad about the real issue: Dad’s gone. He’s not coming back. It hurts. Staying on task—dealing with the real issue of grief rather than forever being mad at someone—keeps my grief from degenerating into bitterness. This is big. Nothing can rot the soul like bitterness.
ONE NOTE OF CAUTION AND SOME HELPFUL SUGGESTIONS
One note of caution: Please don’t pass this along to someone who has recently had a tragedy. I can just imagine a well-intentioned friend making copies of this or forwarding it to a friend who is carrying a fresh wound and it not being well-received.
The ideas I’ve suggested are best shared months after a crisis. During the opening days and weeks of grief, the wounds of the heart are too raw to be able to process the kind of material I’ve presented. If someone is fresh into grief, they rarely are helped by counsel or instruction. During the opening stages of grief they are often more helped by acts of kindness, silence, your presence, proper hugs and touch, items of beauty, opportunities to nap, selected music, etc. There will be plenty of time for instruction. There’s no need to rush to this kind of material.
John Stumbo is a pastor, husband, author and leader with the Christian Missionary Alliance. At age 47, life suddenly “turned” for this pastor and ultra-marathon runner. A mysterious illness left him bedridden for 77 days and unable to swallow for over a year. Stumbo, who now lives and works in Wisconsin, and also has written about his journey. His first book is titled “An Honest Look: At a Mysterious Journey.” His second book is titled “In the Midst: Treasures from the Dark,” a collection of many of the blogs, poems and prayers that he wrote “in the midst” of his health crisis and a companion to his first book. For more information about John or to buy his books visit www.johnstumbo.com To isten to John’s extraordinary journey: www.johnstumbo.com/messages