Grief cannot be controlled

May 16th, 2023

Grief is a paradox and an enigma. We cannot control the process of grief or our own healing, but we can employ helpful means of coping. There is a sense in which we actively grieve, and a sense in which grief is something that happens to us, or even in spite of us. I have often said that dealing with grief is kind of like looking at the sun. You can never really look directly at it, and even after looking in its direction, sometimes you have to look completely away. But it continues shining whether you are looking at it or not.

We do not necessarily decide when to look in the direction of grief and when to look away. Our minds take care of this unconsciously, with the waves of grief discussed before. Loss-oriented waves are sort of like looking in the direction of the sun, and restoration-oriented waves are sort of like looking away. Still, even though these emotions are not chosen consciously, many people struggle the first time they realize they have laughed or experienced joy, in the wake of grief. They feel a pang of guilt, as if they have done something wrong or somehow betrayed their sadness over the absence of their beloved.

Both the experience of joy and the guilt over it are common experiences during grief. Awareness of laughter or joy (a restoration-oriented wave) leading to guilt leading to sadness (another loss-oriented wave) are a frequent pattern at first. Over time, you are likely to find that you can laugh or feel joy without the same guilt and that your laughter or joy may even evoke positive memories of your loved one. Remember that we are uniquely capable of having mixed feelings, and it is possible to feel both happy and sad at the same time. In fact, it is so common, we have a name for it: bittersweet.

So, in many ways, grief is a natural process that you cannot control. You cannot necessarily speed it up, for example (although some research has suggested that grief counseling can help along the process of normal grief).[1] However, there are things you can do to help yourself heal, and ways in which you can actively cope.

To begin with, healing from grief (or from any psychological trauma) is much like healing from a physical illness in that good health behaviors are good health behaviors and support all manner of health and healing. In other words, the more you are able to get an adequate amount of rest, eat well, limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine, exercise, surround yourself with people you love and who love you, and engage in the things that bring you meaning and joy, the more you are supporting your health, healing, and general wellness. Foremost, then, take care of yourself much like you would take care of someone else to help them heal from an injury or to promote their wellbeing.

Additionally, remember that for thousands of years, people have grieved in community, and this was probably not by accident. As I write this, I am sitting downstairs in a room in my home church. There is a funeral going on in the sanctuary above me. It is the funeral of someone I did not know, but I can hear the organ playing a hymn I recognize, and I hear muffled voices raised in a song of praise. After the service is over, the family will likely gather for a meal prepared by friends.

As people of faith, we give worship and give thanks for the life of God’s children after their death. A funeral is a worship service, but it is also a way for a community to surround the family of those who have died with love and support. It is one of the few ways in which we continue to do so in our culture, but throughout the ages and in many cultures around the world people have grieved together, in community. In many cultures the families of the deceased have symbolized their grief in various ways for months or even a full year, and the people surround- ing them were therefore reminded to treat them with care.

Culture has always been a primary determinant of the ways in which people grieve. A culture teaches its inhabitants what is normative and provides the rituals that mark the major life transitions, including death and loss. When I visit the cemetery, I see flowers everywhere, on almost every grave. Because I have grown up in a culture in which decorating graves with flowers is common, I am not surprised by this sight. Every now and then, however, I see a plate of fruit. Placing fruit on graves is not customary where I am from, so I always find it unexpected. However, I am reminded that those from other cultures might find the sight of flowers odd. Cultural practices will largely influence the expres- sion of grief in any society.

Currently, we live in one of the most death denying and avoidant cultures in the world, and perhaps in history. We expect people to go back to their “normal” lives, often immediately after the funeral of a loved one, or after their three-day bereavement leave is over and they have returned to work. It is not lost on me that I am here writing about grief within earshot of a funeral. Death and grief are a part of life, and especially part of the life of the church. It concerns me, though, that we have largely forgotten how to grieve together, in community.

You and I may not be able to force our culture to grieve collectively the way that many other cultures did and do, but we can recognize that the history of grief was perhaps born of an understanding of human need that we have forgotten. We can use this knowledge to help ourselves in our grief. For example, many people find comfort in rituals of remembrance. We may not routinely cover our heads or wear black armbands to symbolize our grief to others, but you can still choose your own personally meaningful ritual. A friend of mine wore an angel pin in memory of her son daily following his death. Others might wear lockets or light candles. There was a time in which I prayed Psalm 40 daily. I also kept a daily journal. If you are a writer or find solace in expressing your thoughts and feelings, you may want to do the same. Research has shown health benefits of journaling our emotional experience.[2] My journal became a saving grace for me.

If you are more physically expressive than emotionally expressive, your ritual may involve daily exercise, or you may want to give yourself a new challenge or take up a new sport. While I journaled my grief, my husband trained for his first marathon. There can also be something healing about focusing on the thing you can control when much of your life and emotions seem out of your control, as in grief.

Just as grief is highly individualized, coping with grief can be highly individualized, too. Again, give others around you the room they need to grieve and permission to grieve in their own way. And remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. If someone you love does not seem to be grieving as you think they should, or wish they would and you are concerned that they are delaying their grief response in a way that will come back to haunt them, become informed. Researchers now believe that there is no such thing as delayed grief.[3] So do not try to force someone else to grieve in the way you want them to. Consider that your unacceptance of the way in which they are grieving may indicate something you need to work through rather than something they need to work on.

Because we have lost much of the communal expression of grief, connectedness may be something we have to consciously search for in our grief. Reading this book is an example of one way in which to connect. You may find comfort and connectedness in other books or memoirs as well. Many people find it helpful to connect directly with other people who are grieving, especially those who are grieving a similar loss. There are grief support groups for general grief, but also for widows and widowers, grieving parents, families who have lost a loved one to suicide, and others. Your local funeral homes, churches, hospitals, or hospice centers likely maintain lists of support groups for grief in your area. In this digital age, you may also find helpful resources and groups online.

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Because the narrative approach to grief has been most useful for me in my work with grieving people, I want to suggest to you three things that you may find helpful as you try to cope and support your own healing. In the 1970s and 80s an American-Israeli medical sociologist by the name of Aaron Antonovsky published his work on a theory of health, a field he called salutogenesis, or the origins of health. He was interested in how people cope and even thrive following major stresses or traumatic events. Much of his work was done with Holocaust survivors who appeared to be emotionally healthy, a fact that he found astounding. From his interviews with them, he developed a theory of health, or positive coping with stress that he called “sense of coherence.”[4]

Antonovsky suggested that there are three important aspects to coping with a traumatic experience, in our case a loss, that are related to maintaining a sense of coherence. They are comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. Comprehensibility refers to the extent to which a person has an understanding of the reasons a trauma or loss occurred and can therefore maintain a sense of the world as generally predictable. An example would be knowing the cause of death of your beloved. Though such knowledge does not help make the death more acceptable, it is likely to help make it more understandable. Manageability describes the extent to which a person believes he or she has the skills, ability, resources or support to deal with a trauma or loss. For example, this might refer to the sense that even though your heart is broken and life will never be the same, you believe it is possible to go on living, to cope, and to recover. Meaningfulness refers to the belief that life remains worthwhile and that you can experience joy and purpose again. It may also include the desire to see meaning come from the trauma or loss itself.

As your grief becomes part of your story, I encourage you to think about these things—comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness—especially in light of your faith. Is the death of the one you have lost comprehensible to you? Do you understand what happened? If not, is there some way you can get answers or someone who can help you understand what happened? Sometimes comprehensibility can come from an awareness or acceptance that God has ordered the universe in a certain way, with laws of physics, for example, that do not change. These laws help us to live predictably most of the time, even if we wish they would bend sometimes. Gravity was a factor in the circumstances surrounding my daughter’s death. Most of the time, I am thankful for gravity, but in this instance, it became my enemy. Still, it helps make her death comprehensible to me. I would not expect God to suspend gravity for my sake, or hers.

Faith can be integral in establishing a sense of the manageability of a loss, and a sense of meaningfulness following it. Even when we cannot believe in our own ability to cope, we may find strength in the assurance that “all things are possible for God” (Matt 19:26), or that we endure all these things through the power of [Christ] who gives [us] strength” (Phil 4:13). As followers of Christ, we believe in the power of God to redeem death and to transform suffering. This foundation can help us not only to find meaning in the midst of our darkest days but to become participants in the creation of it.

Finally, I encourage you to try two ancient practices that have helped deepen the faith of Christ followers for ages. Contemplation is the practice of sitting in the present moment with an awareness of God. You may think of contemplation as a prayer practice or as a meditation practice, and either one would be correct. As a prayer practice, contemplation may mean focusing your attention on an attribute of God, like God’s loving-kindness, peace, or sovereignty. Or, it might mean repeat- ing a breath prayer. A breath prayer is a prayer that is meant to be repeated in rhythm with the breath. You can make a simple breath prayer by choosing a name for God that you will repeat as you inhale, and a one- or two-word request of God that you will repeat as you exhale. An example is the simple prayer, “Christ,” (inhale) “have mercy,” (exhale).

As a meditation practice, contemplation might simply be the act of noticing things in and around you. It can lead directly into the second practice that you may find healing and helpful, which is the practice of gratitude. By noticing simple things involving your five senses—the detail in a blade of grass, the smell of rain, the warmth of the sun on your face, the songs of the birds, the sweetness of an apple—you bring your awareness to the present moment and find something for which to be grateful. Both of these practices have been shown to help people cope, heal and improve their wellbeing.[5] Both can awaken an increased awareness of God and a deeper faith.


Excerpted from Out of the Depths: Your Companion Through Grief by Greta Smith. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] W. T. Hoyt and D. G. Larson, “What Have We Learned from Research on Grief Counseling? A Response to Schut and Neimeyer,” Bereavement Care 29 (2010): 10–13.

[2] K. A. Balkie and K. Wilhelm, “Emotional and Physical Health Benefits of Expressive Writing,” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 11.5 (2005): 338–46.

[3] George A. Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss (New York: Basic Book, 2010).

[4] Aaron Antonovsky, Health, Stress and Coping, The Jossey-Bass Social and Behavioral Science Series (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979).

[5] R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough, “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84.2 (2003): 377–89.

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