Grief /ɡrēf (noun): keen mental suffering or distress over loss; sharp sorrow.
What is it? Grief is what we experience when we lose something we value. Sounds kind of clinical doesn’t it? How about this: Grief is that sharp, stabbing, disorienting pain that comes in overwhelming waves when we know something that was very very precious to us… is gone. Because the term is typically associated with a loss due to death, we can miss the impact of understanding that grief is a part of what we feel anytime we experience the loss of something we hold as valuable. Dr. Brene’ Brown describes the three most foundational elements of grief that have been identified in her research: loss, longing, and feeling lost (Brown, Rising Strong, 2015).
Loss: While some loss is easier to identify, other times the loss is difficult to name or describe. It may be a loss of identity, a loss of normality, the loss of what could be or might have been, the loss of what we thought we knew, loss of familiarity, loss of friends or relationships, loss of a season of life as in transition, empty nest or aging parents. All of these can be losses that lead to grief.
Longing: Brown describes this as “an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, or meaning, for the opportunity to regain or even simply touch what we’ve lost.” This is a very important part of grief and can catch us off guard by its strength and unpredictability. “These longings can come out of nowhere and can be triggered by something you didn’t even know mattered.”
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Feeling Lost: Since loss always means change, it requires a reorientation physically, mentally and emotionally; we can feel lost or even frozen – “not knowing what to do, what to say or how to behave” (Brown). This element of grief is usually the hardest part to articulate, often leading to isolation and disconnection from the very people we need for comfort and healing.
Why does it matter? Cross cultural ministry workers experience losses that may be unfamiliar to other people, so, often the grief experienced is not understood. “There is no funeral or other ritual to assist in grieving over these losses and therefore we may carry a load of unexpressed, unresolved grief” (Kotesky). Also, we may not feel allowed to acknowledge our grief, saying it is ‘just a part of life as a missionary,’ but unrecognized or unresolved grief can be debilitating. The inability to recognize what is going on, or inadequate time and space to allow for the process, can lead to confusion and unacknowledged pain. When pain goes unprocessed, it almost always turns into anger or depression, spreading the pain into more lives around us. However, Dr. Kenneth Doka, senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America has indicated that appropriate recognition of loss and a healthy response to grief are significantly developmental, often leading us to a higher level of resilience, better functionality, more compassion, and deeper maturity.
What can we do about it? Here are some key components that have been identified for walking in a healthy way through grief.
- Name it. There is comfort, and even hope, in knowing the name of what we are feeling. We are not going crazy; we are not abnormal. When there is significant loss (and we are the only ones who can define our loss as significant), what we feel is grief.
- Acknowledge the loss. To recognize is to honor. We need to identify what has been lost and talk about it. This is especially important for our kids; we need to recognize and honor the losses they experience as a part of missionary life. We don’t need to be afraid that this will somehow taint their understanding of our commitment; in fact, recognizing the losses can open the door to honest discussions about how and why we live out God’s calling on our lives in the ways we do while demonstrating our deep love and concern for our kids. (see resources: Inside Out)
- Explore our emotions. Sometimes we aren’t even sure what the emotions are, but a healthy exploration may reveal feelings of confusion, anger, disappointment, heartbreak, longing and sadness. Brene’ Brown explains that emotions cannot be selectively ignored. When we ignore the hard emotions, we diminish our ability to experience the positive ones.
- Rediscover who we are. Explore the changes in ourselves as a result of the loss. Significant loss isn’t something we ‘get over’; instead we are changed by it and we might just discover new values, new compassion and new direction. Often our true calling is revealed during time of deepest pain and healing.
- Dig deep into our faith. God can handle it. We can deepen our experience of him and what it means to be created in his image when we honor him with the authentic expression of our emotions, questions and longings. Check out the Psalms and Lamentations for some Biblical examples of intense emotional sharing with God.
- Lean into our relationships. We were created to connect. Let’s call deep on our courage and share in vulnerability with those we trust.
- Become a vessel of comfort. When we have experienced the comfort of God, we are privileged with the opportunity to offer that comfort to others, and in so doing, we honor our own losses and those of our friends and loved ones. (I Corinthians 1:4)
Originally published in April 2016 by Cindy Schmelzenbach, Regional Member Care Coordinator