Theology & Spirituality

The Personal Nature of Grief

“Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” — Proverbs 25:20 (ESV)

Grief is miserable. Suffering and loss are perhaps the lowest points of human existence. Nothing compares to the emptiness felt inside after the death of a loved one; nothing can prepare you for the sting of loss.

Yet far too often we act as if saying something like “he’s in a better place now” or “a least she died peacefully” makes the loss less real, painful, or devastating. Even worse is when we expect those who have suffered loss to put on a tough face and “be strong for the kids” or “think positively about what happened.”

Now, I want to be clear about what I’ve just said. There’s nothing wrong with feeling or thinking in any of the ways mentioned above, especially if you’re the one doing the grieving. What’s unhelpful and uncaring is allowing your own perspective on grief to overwhelm the experience of the those who are doing the grieving.

Recognizing Difference, Showing Support

While psychologists and counselors will readily say that not every expression of grief is a healthy one, they will also confirm that different people will process and express grief in different ways. When someone we know is grieving, the best thing that we can do is to show them support in whatever ways they need.

This isn’t an unfamiliar idea for most people. We all know that death is inevitable. We all know that everyone grieves differently. Many of us are familiar with the fact that grief occurs in stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Yet sometimes we struggle to realize that just because someone’s loss is different than ours doesn’t make their grief any less real or painful.

For instance, my wife and I lost a beloved dog a few weeks ago. She came into our lives at a very tumultuous and difficult time, and she brought much comfort to my wife. We miss her dearly. We can assent to the fact that she was a pet, she was getting old, and it was time for her to go peacefully. We’re confident that all dogs go to heaven and we know that there are other things on which we could be focusing our emotional energy. But we still miss her. We don’t need someone to come minimize the loss we’ve encountered—we simply need to walk this path for a time.

Two Sides of Grief

This brings me to the two sides of grief: the experiential side and the relational side. The first is when you are grieving; the second is when you are interacting with those who are grieving. Although closely related (particularly when you are both grieving and comforting others), these are different “relational positions.” A simple way to think about this is that you don’t interact with your boss in the same way that you do with your siblings; likewise, experiencing grief and interacting with those experiencing grief are different social, emotional, and relational situations which call for different ways of thinking and acting.

As part of your own personal grief experience, you must come to terms with your loss. This is intensely personal and will be experienced differently by each person. For instance, following the death of my grandfather, I focused on a couple of theological principles that helped me express and process my emotions. In particular, C.S. Lewis’s phrase that “Christians never say goodbye” was very helpful to me. This was my experiential side of grief.

There are limits to the extent of our experiential grief, however. The things that we internalize and accept amidst our own personal experiences with loss are not necessarily appropriate for the relational side of grief. Meaning, not everything that might’ve helped you through your grief will necessarily help others. It wouldn’t be appropriate, for instance, for me to say to someone else who is grieving, “Christians never say goodbye—so you don’t need to feel so bad!” The relational side of grief requires our coming to recognize that not everyone follows the same journey through grief or arrives at the same destination.

Confusing the Two Sides of Grief

The distinction between the experiential and relational aspects of grief is one that many people fail to make. We default to thinking of grief in the terms we know. If some principle or practice helped us feel better, it should help others too. If we mourned a loss in one way, that’s how others should mourn too. If we had adapted to our new normal after a few months, others should too. To make these assumptions, however, is to confuse the two sides of grief. And unfortunately, this confusion often causes us to hurt, rather than help, those who have suffered loss.

Of course, mourning with those who mourn requires us to enter into another person’s experience of grief and, as best we can, sit beside them and offer comfort. But how can we do this when we are so prone to imposing our experiences upon others? I have two suggestions:

First, reflect before you speak. This is my father’s favorite application of the Golden Rule: if you wouldn’t want someone else to say it to you, don’t say it to others. Ask yourself the following questions before saying anything to those who are grieving:

  • Is what I’m about to say generally true? Is it true in this situation?
  • Is what I’m about to say generally loving? Is it loving in this situation?
  • Would I want someone to say this to me?
  • Could what I’m about to say hurt more than it helps?

If what you’re thinking about saying doesn’t pass these tests, don’t say it. No matter how seemingly relevant or funny it is, practice the virtuous posture of silent presence. And if you’re not sure about what you might say—”maybe it’ll be okay…”—err on the side of caution.

Second, when you do speak, beware of platitudes and pink thinking. A platitude is a cliche or other statement that has been used too frequently to be truly thoughtful or caring. Platitudes to avoid include:

  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “It’s for the best.”
  • “Keep a stiff upper lip.”
  • “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
  • “It’s God’s will.”

Relatedly, pink thinking is optimism run amok—thinking and actions that deny the reality of the situation. Pink thinking often involves trying to cheer people up, glossing over the seriousness of the situation, denying what happened, or pressuring people to be positive or upbeat. When people are grieving, they don’t need empty words or idealistic thinking. They need love, presence, and support.

Along with the writer of Proverbs, then, let us not sing songs to a heavy heart. Let us eschew overwhelming those who are grieving and suffering loss. Instead of injecting our own experiences without first listening to the hurts of others, let us walk with those who are hurting. In this way, we might bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill Christ’s command to truly love one another.

What are some of your experiences with grieving? What platitudes or pink thinking have you heard?


Image courtesy of Denise.

Jacob Prahlow

Jacob Prahlow

Christian. Husband of Hayley. Father of Bree and Judah. Lead Pastor at Arise Church in Fenton, MO. Alumnus of various institutions. Cubs Fan. Co-Founder of Conciliar Post.

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