07 Aug How to Deal With Grief
How to Deal with Grief
by Rod Pinder
Sometimes life hurts. We all pass through seasons of pain and sorrow. We all experience dark, dreary days in which warm rays of sunshine are only a dim memory or a distant hope. No one is immune from sadness. No one is happy all the time. It just isn’t normal, no matter how much we may wish it were. We all face times of melancholy and mourning. Sometimes life hurts.
God understands this stark reality, and God’s Word tells us how to deal with grief. The Bible says, Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to … grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13.)
Christians grieve, but it is a different kind of grieving. It is a grieving grounded in hope. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) Christians mourn, but with a bold expectation that comfort will come.
In Psalms 42 and 43 – which should really be read together as one psalm – we hear this haunting question repeated three times: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? (Psalm 42: 5, 11, 43:5)
In other words, the faithful believer who wrote this psalm asks himself, “What’s the matter with me? Why am I so depressed?”
There could be many answers to that question, as you and I well know. Many things can cause sadness. Many things bring about a heavy heart.
The telephone rings late at night, shattering the silence and jangling your nerves. From the other end of the line, a sober voice delivers the somber news. Death has come to someone you love, and grief has come upon you.
The doctor closes the door behind her and sits down in the chair opposite yours. Starring at your chart instead of looking you in the eyes, she begins to speak. “I have your test results here. The disease is not terminal. You will live, but your condition will continue to deteriorate until you lose that faculty altogether.” You understand exactly what she means. Activities you now take for granted will become impossible for you, and your life will never be the same again. Suddenly, grief has come upon you.
The boss calls you into his office and says, “I’ll make this short. Things just aren’t working out. We have to let you go.” Your confidence is crushed. Your sense of security is smashed. How will you pay your bills? How can you face your family? What will happen to all your plans and dreams? Again, grief has come upon you.
Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Perhaps it’s the death of a loved one, or disease. Perhaps it’s the loss of a job, or the ending or a relationship, or even facing our own time of death. Many things can cause grief.
So how do we cope with grief when it comes? Where do we turn for help? Many people turn to counselors, psychologists, and people in what we call the “helping professions.” And we can find genuine help there.
The Five Stages of Grief
Helping professionals have identified what they call “the five stages of grief.” These are five phases through which people typically pass as they come to terms with calamities in their lives.
Now it should be clear that this is not a plan or prescription. One does not automatically and methodically move from stage one to stage two, from stage two to stage three and so on. Sometimes we jump around. Sometimes we experience two or three of the phases at the same time. Some people may even skip this or that stage altogether.
The first stage of grief is denial. Very often our initial response to bad news is, “This can’t be so.” There must be some mistake. This can’t happen to me. Maybe the doctors got the charts mixed up. Maybe the boss has me confused with one of my co-workers. Maybe the diagnosis is accurate, but they’ll find a cure any day now. Or maybe God will grant His healing touch. Maybe this is just a bad dream, and when I wake up, this will all be gone.
Sometimes bad news is just too hard to hear. We really can’t take it in. So, as a defense mechanism, we try to convince ourselves that the bad news just isn’t true.
You will remember that this is what the apostle Peter did when he heard that Jesus was going to be crucified. The Lord explained that He would go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, … and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:21-22)
Such a thought was too horrible for Peter to understand. And so, like many of us, his first response to bad news was to deny that it was true.
The second stage of grief is often anger. Sometimes the anger makes sense. A drunk driver causes a tragic accident. A habitual drug abuser dies of an overdose. Other times the anger is quite irrational. We may feel anger at a loved one for dying and deserting us, though we know death was not their choice. Or we may be angry at God for “letting this happen.”
Sometimes people displace their anger. They know it’s irrational to blame Dad for dying, so they find fault with the doctors or medical staff. They don’t want to blame God for their disease — they love God. So, they take it out on the clergy or the church. That kind of thing is not unusual.
Sometimes we won’t admit our anger. We try to suppress it or cover it over. Anger is an ugly emotion, and we don’t want anyone to know it’s there.
I love the honesty of the psalm writer when he says things like, I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” (Psalm 42:9) The psalmist felt like God had let him down. He was mad at God, and he told Him so.
This is the best approach, my friend. God can handle our anger. God is big enough to take it. And when we get our anger out in the open, we can begin to deal with it.
The third stage of grief is bargaining. We try to make deals, usually with God. “Lord, if you’ll heal me, then I’ll do anything you want. I’ll be a missionary. I’ll go to church every Sunday.”
You may have heard the story about the man whose boat sank about a mile out to sea. He immediately began praying, “Lord, if You get me safely to shore, I’ll give all I have to the church.” As he got a little closer he said, “Yes, Lord, half of what I own I dedicate to You.” He got a little closer to land and he prayed, “Please, Lord, save me, and I’ll be a tither.” Finally, he dragged himself up on the beach and said, “Thank You, God. I didn’t know I was such a good swimmer.”
I remember when my mom was first diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I had just planted a new church. I remember telling God, “Lord, this is great! We’ve got the x-rays and everything to prove mom has cancer. And now, when You heal her, just think of the glory that will bring to Your name! Think of what a boost it will be to this young church, that the pastor’s mom was healed!” I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but really, I was trying to strike a bargain with God. It is a very normal response to grief.
In a way, we see Jesus responding this way as His crucifixion grew closer. The night before His death, He went to the Garden called Gethsemene and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” (Matthew 26:39) Jesus is saying, “God, if there is any other way, let’s try it.” Bargaining is typically the third stage of grief.
The fourth stage of grief is depression. We can deny the sad truth no longer. This really is happening. Our bargaining has gotten us nowhere, and we are completely spent. We are washed out, like an old dish cloth. This is the point where we cry, with the psalmist, “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’” (Psalm 42:3)
This is the point where we cry out with Jesus, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” (Matthew 26:38)
Dear friend, please understand this. Depression is horrible. No one likes it . No one likes to see someone they love go through it. But depression does not demonstrate a lack of faith. Because we may be depressed, that does not mean we are not good Christians. Jesus Himself said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Can you be more depressed than that?
In Jesus Christ, God became fully human. He faced grieving the same way any normal human does, and that included times of depression. When we are depressed, we can know with confidence that our Savior has been here before us. Depression is simply a phase in the process of working through our grief.
But depression is not the final stage of grief. There is one more. The fifth stage of grief is acceptance. When we have worked through the other stages, and the depression begins to lift, we begin to accept the reality of our situation.
Now Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who quite literally wrote the book on the five stages of grief, describes this phase like this. “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings.”1 For Kubler-Ross, it sounds like “acceptance” is just a nicer word for “resignation.”
However, for the Christian, Jesus gives us another picture of the acceptance stage. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus and take Him away to be crucified, Peter drew a sword and cut off the ear of one of the attackers, a man named Malchus. But Jesus healed the man’s ear (Luke 22:51), and said to Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Within the hour, Jesus had prayed, “MyFather, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” But now He bravely asks, “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
The cup the Father has given me. Now, Jesus knows the role that Judas has played in bringing about His execution. And He understands what Pilate and Herod must do, what the crowd and the soldiers must do. Jesus understands how human agency is involved in His crucifixion. Nevertheless, Jesus also understands that even this terrible tragedy which He faces comes to Him from the Father’s hand.
And so, He can endure it. So, He can patiently and faithfully drink it to the dregs. He can accept it with astonishing confidence, not because He is the Son of God, not because of any supernatural ability that you and I do not share, but because He knew this cup came from the Father’s hand.
Jesus accepted the cup from God’s hand. He accepted His brutal and agonizing death on the cross. And because He did, God made Him the Savior of the world. In a mystery that we will never fully comprehend, God put our sins on Christ’s cross. And when we trust in Him, we are forgiven.
Further, the cross was only part one of God’s plan. The bitter cup of crucifixion was not the final round. It was followed by the heavenly nectar of resurrection. On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead. He conquered death, and won new life and eternal life for people of every age and era, every race and continent.
Jesus accepted the cup from the Father’s hand. And because He did, God won through Him a victory that changed the world.
This is one of the differences between the way a Christian grieves, and the grieving of those who have no hope. Like anyone else, we face times of deep, deep sorrow. Like any normal person, we respond with denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But our acceptance is not an empty resignation to the inevitable. Our acceptance is a faithful and patient drinking of the same cup Christ consumed before us. Our acceptance is ultimately an embracing of God’s ability to bring triumph out of tragedy.
In Psalms 42 and 43 we hear this haunting question repeated three times: Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Yet every time that question is asked, it receives the same answer. Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Grieving with Hope
This leads us to a sixth element in the grieving process. It is not a separate stage or phase. Rather, it is a foundation. It undergirds and supports us through all our times of mourning. For the Christian, grieving always includes hope.
Romans 8:28-29 says, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
Pain will come into your life and mine. We cannot prevent that. We will grieve. But we are not hopeless. For we know that in every circumstance, God is working for the good of those who love Him. We know that even in our pain, God is conforming us into the likeness of His Son. He is making us more like Jesus.
Jesus faced suffering and grief, and God used His suffering to draw the world back to Himself. God will also use your suffering and mine to draw us closer to Him, and to draw others closer to Him. God raised Jesus from the dead. He will also use your suffering and mine to bring new life to us and to others.
Sometimes life hurts. We all face times of melancholy and mourning. But God’s Word helps us deal with grief. Listen to this glorious promise from Romans 8:35-39. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Times of sadness will come to us, and we will ask, Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? But let us always answer, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”
You may have heard news that is so bad you can hardly believe it. “This just can’t be true.” My friend, deny if you must. Denial is normal. But at the same time say to yourself, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”
You may be angry at the circumstances that brought you to such a sad place. You may be angry at a loved one or a friend or yourself. You may even be angry at God. That is normal. But through it all say to yourself, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”
Perhaps you are bargaining with God, trying desperately to get Him to see things your way. I understand. I’ve been there. Christ has been there, too. Nevertheless, say to yourself, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”
Or maybe you have sunk into depression. You are numb and listless. Your soul is overwhelmed with sorrow. Nevertheless, dear child of God, hold on to this. “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.”
If you do, God will bring you to a place of acceptance that is far beyond hopeless resignation. In your time of grief, know that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will bring triumph out of tragedy for you as well.
Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?
“Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.
Rod Pinder is a retired pastor. His life is dedicated to helping people grow in God’s love through Jesus Christ. Books, blogs, videos, guest speaking and more are all tools he uses to share God’s love. Check out his website at www.PastorRodPinder.com or email him at PastorRodPinder@gmail.com.
1 Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, Macmillan Publishing Co. © Elisabeth Kubler-Ross 1969 (p. 113)