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The Marriage Map

from The Divorce Remedy, Michele Weiner-Davis, M.S.W

The marriage map is meant to give you a broad overview of the experiences most couples have when they negotiate the marital terrain. As you read through these stages and developmental passages, don’t get too hung up on the timetable. Some couples move through these stages more quickly than others, and some bypass certain stages entirely. See if any of this sounds familiar to you as you think about your own marriage and that of friends and family.

Stage One- Passion prevails
Head over heels in love, you can’t believe how lucky you are to have met your one and only star-crossed lover. Everything other than the relationship quickly fades into the background. Much to your amazement, you have so much in common: you enjoy the same hobbies, music, restaurants and movies. You even like each other’s friends. You can finish each other’s sentences. When you pick up the phone to call your partner, he or she is already on the line calling you. You are completely in sync. Everything is perfect, just the way you imagined it would be. When little, annoying things pop up, they’re dismissed and overlooked.

At no other time in your relationship is your feeling of well-being and physical desire for each other as intense as it is during this romantic period. The newness and excitement of the relationship stimulates the production of chemicals in your bodies that increase energy, positive attitudes and heighten sexuality and sensuality. You feel good in your partner’s presence and start to believe that he or she is bringing out the best in you. Depression sets in when you’re apart. There aren’t enough hours in the day to be together. You never run out of things to say. Never, never, have you felt this way before. “It must be love,” you tell yourself. While in this naturally produced state of euphoria, you decide to commit to spending the rest of their lives together. “And why not,” you reason, “we’re perfect together.” And marry, you do.

Unless you elope or opt for a simple, judge’s chambers-style wedding, your euphoria takes a temporary nosedive as you plan and execute your wedding. Once you get past the superhuman challenges dealing with family politics and hosting a modern-day wedding, your starry-eyed obsession with each other re-emerges and takes you through the honeymoon period. At last, you are one. You have committed your lives to each other forever- soul mates in the eyes of God and the world. And for a period of time, nothing could be more glorious. But soon, your joy gives way to an inevitable earth-shattering awakening; marriage isn’t at all what you expected it to be.

Stage Two- What was I thinking?
In some ways, stage two is the most difficult because it is here that you experience the biggest fall. After all, how many miles is it from bliss to disillusionment? Millions. What accounts for this drastic change in perspective? For starters, reality sets in. The little things start to bother you. You realize that your spouse has stinky breath in the morning, spends way too long on the toilet, leaves magazines and letters strewn on the kitchen counter, never wraps food properly before it’s put in the refrigerator and, to top things off, snoring has become a way of life. There are big things too.

Although you once thought you and your spouse were kindred spirits, you now realize that there are many, many differences between you. Although you share interests in hobbies, you disagree about how often you want to participate in them. You like the same kinds of restaurants, but you enjoy eating out often while your partner prefers staying home and saving money. Your tastes in music are compatible, but you prefer quiet time in the evening while your mate enjoys blasting the stereo. You have many common friends, but you can’t agree on which nights to see them.

You’re confused about what’s going on. You wonder if an alien abducted your partner and left you with this strange and complicated being, a person with whom you can’t agree on a single thing. You argue about everything. “Who is this obstinate person I married?” you ask yourself. “What was I thinking?” You knew life wouldn’t always be a bed of roses, but you never thought all you’d get was a bed of thorns. You figured that love would carry you through the rough spots, but you didn’t imagine there’d be times you didn’t feel love. You feel so disillusioned and you wonder if you made a mistake. When you remind yourself you made a life-long commitment, you start to understand the real meaning of eternity.

Ironically, it is in the midst of feeling at odds with your once kindred spirit that you are faced with making all sorts of life-altering decisions. For example, it is now that you decide whether and when to have children, where to live, who will support the family, who will handle the bills, how your free time will be spent, how in-laws fit in to your lives, and who will do the cooking. Just at the time when a team spirit would have come in mighty handy, spouses often start to feel like opponents. So they spend the next decade or so trying to “win” and get their partners to change, which tr

Stage Three- Everything would be great if you changed
In this stage of marriage, most people believe that there are two ways of looking at things, your spouse’s way and your way, also known as the Right Way. Even if couples begin marriage with the enlightened view that there are many valid perspectives on any given situation, they tend to develop severe amnesia quickly. And rather than brainstorm creative solutions, couples often battle tenaciously to get their partners to admit they are wrong. That’s because every point of disagreement is an opportunity to define the marriage. Do it my way, and the marriage will work, do it yours and it won’t.

When people are in this state of mind, they have a hard time understanding why their spouses are so glued to their way of seeing things. They assume it must be out of stubbornness, spitefulness or a need to control. What they don’t realize is that their spouses are thinking the same thing about them! Over time, both partners dig in their heels deeper and deeper. Anger, hurt and frustration fill the air. Little or no attempt is made to see the other person’s point of view for fear of losing face or worse yet, losing a sense of self.

Now is the time when many people face a fork in the marital road. They’re hurt and frustrated because their lives seem like an endless confrontation. They don’t want to go on this way. Three choices become apparent. Convinced they’ve tried everything, some people give up. They tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love or married the wrong person. Divorce seems like the only logical solution. Other people resign themselves to the status quo and decide to lead separate lives. Ultimately, they live unhappily ever after. But there are still others who decide that it’s time to end the cold war and begin to investigate healthier and more satisfying ways of interacting. Although the latter option requires a major leap of faith, those who take this leap are the fortunate ones because the best of marriage is yet to come.

Stage Four- That’s just way s/he is
In stage four, we finally come to terms with the fact that we are never going to see eye-to-eye with our partners about everything and we have to figure out what we must do to live more peaceably. We slowly accept that no amount of reasoning, begging, nagging, yelling, or threatening changes our partners’ minds. We look to others for suggestions; we seek religious counsel, talk to close friends and family, attend marital therapy, read self-help books, or take a relationship seminar. Those of us who are more private look inward and seek solutions there.

We more readily forgive our spouses for their hardheadedness, and recognize that we aren’t exactly easy to live with either. We dare to ask ourselves whether there’s something about our own behavior that could use shaping up. When disagreements occur, we make more of an effort to put ourselves in our partner’s shoes and, much to our surprise, we have a bit more compassion and understanding. We recognize that, as with everything in life, we have to accept the good with the bad. Fights happen less frequently and when they occur, they’re not as intense or as emotional as in the earlier years of marriage. We know how to push our partner’s buttons and we consciously decide not to. When we slip, we get better at making up because we remind ourselves that life is short and very little is worth the pain of disharmony. We learn that when you’ve wronged your spouse, love means always having to say you’re sorry. We mellow. We let things roll off our back that might have caused us to go to battle before. We stop being opponents. We’re teammates again. And because we’re smart enough to have reached this stage, we reap the benefits of the fifth, and final stage.

Stage Five- Together, at last
It is really a tragedy that half of all couples who wed never get to stage five, when all the pain and hard work of the earlier stages really begins to pay off. Since you are no longer in a struggle to define who you are and what the marriage should be, there is more peace and harmony. Even if you always have loved your spouse, you start to notice how much you are really liking him or her again. And then the strangest thing starts to happen. You realize that the alien who abducted your spouse in stage two has been kind enough to return him or her to you. You are pleased to discover that the qualities you saw in your partner so very long ago never really vanished. They were just camouflaged. This renews your feelings of connection.

By the time you reach stage five, you have a shared history. And although you’d both agree that marriage hasn’t been easy, you can feel proud that you’ve weathered the storms. You appreciate your partner’s sense of commitment and dedication to making your marriage last. You also look back and feel good about your accomplishments as a couple, a family and as individuals. You feel more secure about yourself as a person and you begin to appreciate the differences between you and your spouse. And what you don’t appreciate, you find greater acceptance for. You feel closer and more connected. If you have children, they’re older and more independent, allowing you to focus on your marriage again, like in the old days. And you start having “old day feelings” again. You have come full circle. The feeling you were longing for during those stormy periods is back, at last. You’re home again.

About the marriage map
I’m certain that if more couples realized that there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they’d be more willing to tough it out through the downpour. The problem is, most people fool themselves into thinking that whatever stage they are in at the moment, is where they will be forever. That can be a depressing thought when you’re in the midst of hard times. And in marriage, there are lots hard times- unexpected problems with infertility, the births of children (marital satisfaction goes down with the birth of each child), the challenges of raising a family, children leaving home, infidelity, illnesses, deaths of close friends and family members. Even if there is lots of joy accompanying these transitional stages, it’s stressful nonetheless. But it’s important to remember that nothing lasts forever. There are seasons to everything in life, including marriage.

Also, it’s important to remember that people generally don’t go through these stages sequentially. It’s three steps forward and two steps back. Just when you begin to feel more at peace with each other in stage four, a crisis occurs and you find yourselves slipping back to stage three- change your partner or bust! But if you’ve been fortunate enough to have visited stage four, sanity sets in eventually, and you get back on track. The quality and quantity of love you feel for each other is never stagnant. Love is dynamic. So is marriage. The wiser and more mature you become, the more you realize this. The more you realize this, the more time you and your spouse spend hanging out in stage five. Together again, at last.

Michele Weiner-Davis, Author of Divorce Busting

Discerning Depression (and Medication)

SOURCE:  Based on an article by  SUSAN PALWICK

Anyone who works with psychiatric patients will tell you how difficult it can be to get them to take their medication. No one with a chronic illness, whether bipolar disorder or high blood pressure, likes taking pills every day; everyone with chronic illness, whether diabetes or depression, sometimes slides into imperfect self-care. We’re people, not machines. We don’t like doing the same thing all the time, and we don’t always function at the highest level.

There’s a popular belief that creative people are more prone to mental illness, or that mentally ill people are more prone to creativity, than the general population. This is a dangerous attitude on several levels: it romanticizes mental illness, portrays creativity as dangerous, and denies the creativity present in everyone. But like most myths, this one contains a kernel of truth. Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and expert on bipolar illness who suffers from the disorder herself, observes in her book Touched by Fire that bipolar tendencies and extreme creativity tend to run in families. Distinguished poet Anne Sexton, who according to her close friend Maxine Kumin heard the trees talking to her every June, found herself unable to write on any of the medication she was given to quiet those voices.

I may have bipolar tendencies. As I’ve written here before, I’ve had depression for most of my life. I’m a writer. And my relationship to medication is ambivalent, at best.

I’ve been on antidepressants for two extended periods. I took them for four years starting near the end of graduate school, and then, after a hiatus of eight years, began taking them again about four years ago. Let me emphasize that I’ve never been suicidal, hospitalized, or completely unable to function: at my worst, I’ve merely been riddled with self-loathing, wracked by daily or hourly crying jags, and unable to imagine a tolerable future. The meds largely remove those handicaps. They make me more resilient to stress, more graceful in social situations – including the teaching by which I earn my living – and generally happier and more optimistic.

They also deaden my writing, which loses the spark and verve it has when I’m off meds.

My husband has also noticed this, so I don’t think it’s my imagination. My psychiatrist believes that I have to be on meds for the rest of my life. But writing’s a huge part of my life and my career, and also my deepest and truest joy. Not being able to do it as well as I can when I’m not on antidepressants (and yes, I’ve tried a variety of meds) makes me, well, depressed.

The situation challenges my spirituality. God gave me the gift of writing, as well as the particular brain chemistry that predisposes me to depression. My depression is as much blessing as curse, if only because it’s given me more compassion for others with mental illnesses. I believe that God wants me to write as well as I can. I also believe that God wants me to be as happy as I can. How, then, am I to respond to the fact that the two seem incompatible?

The easiest answer would seem to be that I should learn to be happy without meds, as I’ve done with some success for the all-but-eight years I haven’t been on them. Those hard-won joys, though, have come at the cost of a social isolation I’m not quite willing to endure again, at least not right now. People seem more comfortable with me when I’m on meds.

This isn’t a problem I can solve quickly or easily, and having it makes me very sympathetic to people who won’t take their medication. I do take mine, although I pray daily about whether I should keep doing so. My current plan is to try to go off it again in a year or two. I’ve recently lowered my dosage, with my psychiatrist’s blessing. I’m writing a little better now, but I’m also a little less comfortable in my own skin. I doubt that God wants me to be a creature of halves and compromises. For now, I take each step as it comes, trying to discern God’s will and my own health, trying to see the path ahead.


A practicing Episcopalian, Susan Palwick volunteers as an ER Chaplain at a hospital in northern Nevada. She currently teaches as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, and is also a Clinical Associate Professor of Medical Education at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, where she specializes in Narrative Medicine.

Five Key Things To Know About Marriage

#1: Marriage is not all about you. It’s not about your happiness and self-fulfillment. It’s not about getting your needs met. It’s about going through life together and serving God together and serving each other. It’s about establishing a family. It’s about committing your lives to each other even though you may be very different in 10, 20, or 40 years from the people you are now. 

#2: You are about to learn a painful lesson–you are both very selfish people. This may be difficult to comprehend during the happy and hazy days of courtship, but it’s true, and it shocks many couples during their first years of marriage. It’s important to know this revelation of selfishness is coming, because then you can make adjustments for it, and you will be a lot better off.

#3: The person you love the most is also the person who can hurt you the deepest. That’s the risk and pain of marriage. And the beauty of marriage is working through your hurt and pain and resolving your conflicts and solving your problems.

#4: You can’t make it work on your own. It’s obvious that marriage is difficult–just look at how many couples today end in divorce. This is why it’s so critical to center your lives and your marriage on the God who created marriage. To make your marriage last for a lifetime, you need to rely on God for the power and love and strength and wisdom and endurance you need.

#5: Never stop enjoying each other. Always remember that marriage is an incredible gift to be enjoyed. Ecclesiastes 9:9 says, “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.”

Enjoy the little things of life with your spouse: the food you enjoy together at home or in restaurants … the movies you like … the little inside jokes nobody else understands except for you … the times you make each other laugh … the games you play together.

And focus on making memories together: Plan special dates and weekend getaways. Make sure you reserve time for each other after you have kids. When you are old, you won’t look back and remember how great it was to buy that new furniture or watch that great show on television. You’re going to remember what you did together and saw together and created together.

The Movements of Grief as a Healing Journey

C.S. Lewis wrote, in A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth?” From intense mental anguish to acute sorrow and deep remorse, grief is a unique human suffering. It has been described as an amputation of the heart, a never-ending pain that reaches to the marrow of one’s soul, a sorrow that leaves no part of the bereaved life untouched.

Jeremiah was a man deeply touched with such pain (Lamen. 3:1- 5). “I am the man who has seen affliction; He has made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely he has turned his hand against me, He has aged my skin and broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and woe; You have moved my soul far from peace; I have forgotten prosperity.”

While grieving is unavoidable, healing in and through grief is optional. We must learn to grieve, to prepare for grief, and accept-if not welcome-it into our lives for a season. The intensity of our grief depends on a combination of three variables: (1) our attachment to the person or loss (how close we were to them), (2) the way the loss came about, and (3) whether it was sudden, premature, or violent. Anyone who has lost a loved one may recall the harsh announcement of death, hitting like an avalanche, with heartache, shock, numbness, and disbelief.

Not long ago I (Tim) had to tell my children, Megan and Zachary, that one of their beloved ‘papas’ (Julie’s dad) had died of cancer. Oh, the hurt that sliced through them. There are few blows to the human spirit so great as this. At no other time in life are we so acutely aware of how fragile life is and having to put one foot in front of the other in order to get through the day. Life can move in an extremely painful slow motion and can feel like a horrifying nightmare from which we do not awaken.

Grieving involves sorrow, anguish, anger, regret, longing, fear, and deprivation. Physically it produces exhaustion, emptiness, tension, sleeplessness, or loss of appetite. If we fail to express our grief at the time of loss, the pain can remain constant, because it takes so much energy to manage our feelings. In order to begin healing, we must come to accept grief as normal, inevitable, unavoidable. As Barbara Baumgartner put it, “Grief is a statement -a statement that you loved someone.” When we allow ourselves to share our grief with God and others, we release our pain, fears, and heartache. As this occurs, our pain begins to subside. From time to time, grief will wash over us-sometimes surprise and catch us in tears of sorrow, but the healing has begun.

Dispelling Myths

“Jesus wept.” John 11:35 is the shortest and one of the most powerful verses in the Bible, for it reveals that Jesus grieved-He was well acquainted with it, in fact (Is. 53:4-6). Too many of us, however, hang on to various myths that block the healing process.

Myth #1: Don’t grieve. An especially harmful belief is that God doesn’t want us to grieve, or has saved us in order that we might avoid grievous suffering. We are led to believe that it’s morbid or even offensive to sorrow in loss or to talk about death, and therefore it should be an avoidable subject. Public displays of emotion are not considered appropriate in our society, nor is loss of composure. Although few people say it directly, many tend to think that we are to simply let go and move on quickly. This is contrary to our God-given need to express our emotions, and when we fail to do this it causes further stress.

Myth #2: Grief harms our faith. Another lie is that grieving and working through the loss of a loved one damages our Christian testimony, and diminishes our faith. It is a sign of weakness for those who falsely believe that they must always be strong, or at least look strong. Quite to the contrary, sharing with, giving our heartache to the Lord will build a deeper, sweeter, and more intimate relationship with Him. Our weakness becomes His strength (Phil. 4:13). Honest grieving that seeks and leans on God nearly always helps our faith to grow as we depend on Him to heal our brokenness.

Myth #3: Always be positive. Another Christian myth is that we should only express joy and positive emotions. But who better than our Father in heaven knows the anguish of losing a loved one. Jesus Himself was prophetically revealed as ‘a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering’ (Isaiah 53:3).

Myth #4: God is absent. If you grieve, Where is God? Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain. Some think they experience, however, a door slammed shut and the sound of bolting locks-after that, silence. What can this mean? Why is He so present as God in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? Not all who mourn feel this type of aloneness. Some individuals report a stronger sense of God’s presence following their loved one’s death. This clearly reveals that the grieving process -a lamentation of the soul in five movements-is as unique and individual as the person experiencing it.

The First Movement: Joining

Some people think God allots pain and suffering that He Himself doesn’t know or understand. The Bible provides a different view. Genesis 6:6 reveals that God was grieved in His heart. Pain and grief are found on the eve of our Savior’s crucifixion in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then again later at the cross. Anyone who has lost a loved one has felt the same excruciating sorrow and pain as Jesus when He said to His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” And who in the midst of loss hasn’t begged our Father in Heaven, as Jesus did, “My Father, if it is possible may this cup be taken from me.” In our darkest hour, as we stood at the grave of a child, parent, or spouse, who hasn’t cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

If Jesus is our supreme example- the One who shows us best how to grieve-we must then trust that sharing our innermost pain and sorrow will bring us healing, as well as a deeper intimacy with God. Hiding or denying our feelings only suppresses our ability to heal and oppresses our spirits. It is completely normal to long for those you love, and weep over their absence. It reveals our Christ-like nature of compassion, love, empathy and concern for others. When Jesus arrived in Bethany following Lazurus’ death, death, He wept (John 11:35). 

Ken Gire beautifully describes this scene in his book, Incredible Moments With the Savior: “Jesus approaches the gravesite with the full assurance that he will raise his friend from the dead. Why then does the sight of the tomb trouble him? Maybe the tomb in the garden is too graphic a reminder of Eden gone to seed. Of Paradise lost. And of the cold, dark tomb he would have to enter to regain it. In any case, it is remarkable that our plight could trouble his spirit; that our pain could summon his tears. The raising of Lazarus is the most daring and dramatic of all the Savior’s healings. He courageously went into a den where hostility raged against him to snatch a friend from the jaws of death. It was an incredible moment. It revealed that Jesus was who he said he was-the resurrection and the life. But it revealed something else. The tears of God.” And who’s to say which is more incredible -a man who raises the dead or a God who weeps.” A God who weeps, grieves, and knows sorrow is a God who loves us so much that He subjected Himself to the cross, to the worst pain that we endure. He did this so that He could be there to take us into His arms, cradle our weak and emotionally lifeless bodies, and nurture us back to spiritual health with the assurance that He loves us and will never forsake us.

In the worst cases, it may be necessary to seek medical care to work through this stage. Some do wallow in denial, reinforcing it-sometimes for years on end- with drugs, alcohol, and addictions of various sorts. Many people who enter counseling do so because they have become stuck in grief, even when they present something that may seem entirely unrelated. It is important, therefore, that counselors query about death and grief in the intake process. Helping someone finish grieving a death that happened years ago is a case formulation that it too often overlooked by helpers. Some individuals rationalize that their pain isn’t really all that intense. This denial is fairly straightforward-it seems honest to those who work hard at it. When asked, “How ya’ doin’?” the stock answer is, “Fine, thanks.” If a person denies and rationalizes too long, however, they begin to believe it, and will angrily defend it if challenged.

Idealizing the dead is an additional defense against the harsh reality of death. Any flaw of the deceased is denied or easily overlooked. A woman who lived with an abusive spouse might say, “Harold was a really good provider for all of us, and in his own way he really loved us.” Sometimes idealization is so extreme that the grieving person will not allow anyone else to say anything bad, or even make a realistic assessment. Others will vividly dream about the deceased, as what we cannot deal with while we are awake is worked through in our dreams as we sleep.

Another defense is regression. We avoid pain by retreating to a previous, more primitive and less mature way of behaving, feeling, and thinking. The child who has been potty-trained may wet their bed, or insist on having a bottle when they’ve been drinking from a cup. The teen-ager may sulk and throw tantrums like a ten-year-old. A sober adult may start drinking again. But if regression takes hold, the pain is not eliminated. It is simply locked away.  

Soul-prayer on joining

Be still, O my grieving, hurting soul. Be still and know that God is near. Be still to tell Him we want-we need-Him to come near. O God, come near to me and still my aching soul. Come and soothe my broken heart, heal the awful pain inside. Please God, let me embrace you-know your presence -as I confess that I cannot face this alone.

Second Movement: Normalizing Stormy Emotions.

 The world-renown psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, defined numerous stages through which the bereaved must travel through in order to resolve their loss. In some cases, not all stages are lived; in others, they are experienced in different order, cycled in different ways.

Shock and denial are often the first stages of grief. Like the shock of physical trauma, the shock of first knowing the death of a loved one assaults us from top to bottom. Our denial of death is described as a dazed numbness that embraces a refusal to accept the loss. “No, NO! That’s not true. It can’t be true!” Denial is a common companion to loss and comes in different shapes and forms.  Many people try to return to a normal routine and intellectualize the loss. Many know intellectually their loved one is gone, but emotionally they reject that it’s happened. Another variation of denial is admitting the loss and feeling it, but behaving as if it had never occurred.

Denial is normal-it is not initially bad. It is a way we work to lessen the initial impact of the loss. Experiencing loss all at once could overwhelm and consume us. Author Joyce Landorf agrees that denial has a divine purpose: “We need denial but we must not linger in it. We must recognize it as one of God’s most unique tools and use it. Denial is our special oxygen mask to use when the breathtaking news of death has sucked every ounce of air out of us….” Denial can be sweet for a short time-it can produce a numbness that acts like a pain-killing drug to a broken heart. Eventually, as reality intrudes and the numbness fades, the intense grief of this early stage may produce physical symptoms such as chest pains or a sense of suffocation.

Fear and anxiety sometimes takes hold and can overwhelm, thus preventing growth and recovery.  Recovery occurs when we face our loss and give ourselves permission to grieve. Denial may be a necessary short-term strategy that helps us ease into grief without being crushed by it. As a long-term strategy, however, it is deadly. As we grow out of denial, it is common for people to begin asking questions. We search for answers and want to know details. We often ask to see an autopsy or police reports. As we search for answers, we suddenly come face-to-face with stark reality-with the factual details of the death. We sometimes find ourselves consciously or unconsciously looking for our deceased loved one in a crowd or a location where we often spent time together. We see someone who looks like the deceased and we’re transfixed by a flood of emotion. This is all part of the process of coming to terms with our loss.

Anger is also a part of grieving. Mourners typically experience anger as they grieve. The early stage of anger often feels like hurt. Sometimes we’re sad, other times we’re disappointed, or frustrated, and still other times we’re depressed. Anger is a response to our pain and it’s often directed at God. When we suffer, it is not uncommon to believe that God has forsaken us and broken our trust in Him. When others tell us to ‘trust in God’ during this time, the words suddenly make no sense. They sometimes sound absurd, like a huge cosmic joke. How can we trust God when our hopes and dreams with our loved one have been unexpectedly shattered? How can we trust the One who took our loved one away? How do we trust someone with the very power of life and death in their hands? These are common questions-questions we must eventually take to God. At some point we will realize that God wants us to trust Him even when we don’t understand why.

Since God is the only One who can fix the problem, He often becomes the focus of our anger. The more intimate our relationship with God, the more betrayed we may feel by the One who was supposed to intervene in our hour of need. Lazarus’ sister, Mary, is an excellent example. She was angry at Jesus when He failed to prevent her brother’s death. “If you had been here,” she admonished Him, “my brother would not have died!” We assume that Mary’s trust in Jesus had definitely diminished. Death makes us feel small, vulnerable, insecure-we come face-to-face with our own mortality. Grieving the death of a loved one challenges us-to our very core-to believe and trust that God’s eternal perspective is better, even superior to our own. We wrestle with the holes in our faith-Will God take me? Will I be privy to His plan? We wrestle with faith in God’s goodness- uncomfortable in the awareness that our faith is so weak in the face of such tragedy. Psalm 130:5 tells us; “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His Word I put my hope.”

Better or bitter

Grief forces us to face this dilemma-I am going to get better or become bitter. Too many get embittered. A long-term study indicated that the death rate of widows and widowers is 2-17 times higher during the first year, following the death of a spouse. Another study discovered that about 25% of those who mourn experience a dramatic decrease in the body’s immune system, six to nine months after their loss. This is one of the reasons why grieving people are more susceptible to illness. However if the grieving process in handled in a healthy manner-if the bereaved one pursues God’s design to get better-this immune deficiency is avoidable. And in order to believe Him, to put your faith in His Word, we are driven to search Him out in prayer, in the Bible, in the hands and faces of others. We are compelled to seek Him in order that He may reveal Himself more than ever before.

Soul-prayer on normalizing

O my soul, loss is inevitable, and grief wants to escape this, but I know deep inside that I cannot. O God, please let this cup pass; but if not, give me the courage to face this honestly, the strength to endure it until your light dawns again on the other side of this sorrow. O God, help me do what I know I cannot, what I don’t want to do.

Third Movement: Understanding

While you may be ready to accept that God is not your enemy because of your loved one’s death, you still may not understand why He chose to take them. Our questions may not find answers while we are here on earth. But we have chosen to walk by faith, believing that God was, is, and will be with us on earth and in heaven. And though grief is an inescapable part of the human condition, He demonstrates His love for us through His loving compassion. At some point we arrive at a partial understanding of grief: to grapple with overwhelming loss and eventually adapt to it.

During this time, necessary changes must be made so that we can live with our loss in a healthy way. This occurs when our questions changes from, “Why did this happen to me?” to “What can I learn from this and how can I best proceed with my life?” As we begin to grow again, we will experience days that are more difficult than others. Tears, fears, anger and confusion are still ahead, but God gives them to us to help release our feelings. We slowly begin to understand, to accept this death. We also realize that grieving is a two part process: the loss of a loved one, and the recovery of our spirit. It is natural to want to return to the life we knew before this traumatic event occurred, but it’s imperative we live a new “normal.” We do this by refusing to be locked away in a tomb of agony for the remainder of our lives, and instead, come to a place of surrender.

Soul-prayer on understanding

O my soul, do not blame God. He is not at fault for the evil of this world or the suffering of life. He is big enough to handle any blame, shame, confusion, and fear that I carry. O my God, help me cope, help me cry, help me learn, help me grow through this. Draw me close to yourself and fill my heart with your love, my mind with yourself. You are able; enable me, O God.

Fourth Movement: Surrender

God promises to deliver those who seek Him. Surrender comes when we finally accept that we could not have changed our loved one’s death. We accept that we are unable to turn back the hands of time-we cannot bring them back, nor are they coming back. We can get angry at God and remain stuck there. I’m sure you know some, still angry over events that transpired decades ago! On the other hand, we can surrender to God and seek His comfort, healing, and direction. In the midst of grief’s pain neither choice seems attractive or acceptable. However, it is inevitable as we choose one or the other. Most believers, at some point, surrender their grieving to the Lord. In so doing, He comes to our side and answers our cries. God comes to our rescue.

Surrender occurs when the bereaved accepts the loss of their loved one, re-adjusts their bond on a more spiritual level, and re-organizes their life. Death is a life changing event- one that alters our view of life, our priorities, our perception of God and His goodness, and every other aspect of our life. Additionally, there are secondary losses that need to be acknowledged. For the woman who suddenly becomes a widow, the loss extends beyond her mate to the hopes and dreams they had together. She has not only lost him, but dreams for the future, and his involvement as her friend, lover, encourager, confidant, prayer partner, protector, tax preparer, business partner, and everything else. She must find new ways to have these needs met. Trusting that He will provide, she must ask the Lord to give her strength to seek help from others, believing that He will provide for her.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.” Some people find that keeping a journal helps them work through their difficulties. “What we work out in our journals we don’t take out on family and friends,” is an old and wise saying. Another common healing step is to join a grief group in your church or community-bringing that pain to others who know and share the same grief. Resolving our loss and surrendering it occurs when we accept the hurt and the memories, but we can move on with a focus when we accept God’s promise: “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20).

Soul-prayer on surrender

O my soul, remember that our beloved one is merely asleep in death, and wild with joy right now in the presence of God. Remember that God wants touch my broken heart. In Christ, on the cross, He knows my pain. In His resurrection from the dead, He is my only hope. O God, let me know that your thoughts toward me have no harm in them at all, but that You are full of plans to give me a future and a hope. Deliver me from this unspeakable sorrow, heal me from this merciless pain. O God, into your hands, I give my life. Take it and do what You will with it.

Fifth Movement: Praise

Again Peter was a genius on suffering. He knew the secret of the power of praise. “In this you greatly rejoice though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith-of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire-may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7). How does one move beyond pain to the point of praise? It is impossible by our own strength; but miracles happen when we ask God to empower us. By now, we understand the loss, have surrendered to God, and have changed our relationship with our loved one. Unable to see or talk with them as we once did, we learn to develop new ways of remembering and relating to this precious person. Good and bad memories will remain. You now say, “Yes, unfortunately this did happen.” But you also don’t postpone the pain, you don’t deny it occurred, and you don’t minimize your loss.

The next step is to find new ways to exist and function. This involves developing a new identity, but without forgetting your loved one. You discover new ways to re-direct the emotional investments you placed in the person now gone. You learn how to take care of yourself, by yourself, and with the help of others, who become precious in your new life. Admit and accept you need the support, help, and comfort of other people during your time of loss. Isolation can be deadly. A friend or even an acquaintance can help you through this difficult time, remove your fear of abandonment, and assist with your depression. Other people can encourage you to continue to function. They offer you their hope and faith when yours has vanished.

Finally, open your mouth and sing again. Choose to praise and thank God as a spiritual discipline. Don’t depend on your feelings to praise, but do rejoice when your feelings reinforce such action. God is worthy of praise because He has poured out on you “the faith and love from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven” (Col. 1:5). Therefore “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col.3:1b-4). Imagine it-and stay with it until your imagination breaks through with the glorious views in your mind’s eye of being with Jesus in His heavenly Kingdom.

Imagine your loved one with Jesus right now-full of joy and peace and glory from the nearness of His glory. John envisions the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 as “the dwelling of God with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who is seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'” (vv.3-4). O wonderful day, come soon. O wonderful King Jesus, come quickly!

Soul-prayer on praise

O my soul, sing to the Lord! Praise his mighty ways. Shout out how great and wonderful is His love-there is no greater love. O God, bring me into your heavenly presence. Heal me of the darkness in my soul, the grief that crushes my heart. Thank you god, you are the captain of my soul. Nothing is impossible for you. In you, I truly can do all things, even this.

Concluding Thoughts

 There is no prescribed timetable for grieving. For most, it takes 2 to 3 years to work through the loss of a close loved one. Sometimes it is a lifelong journey. It encompasses peaks and valleys that are initially intense. The peaks eventually become less severe and the valley’s level out after time, but they do not disappear. Be extra kind to yourself during this time, and diligent about your health. It’s OK to go to bed earlier than normal, to take naps, and spend more time in a long bath. Grieving takes enormous energy, and your body needs more rest.

Setting goals for your future may be difficult at this time. You probably feel that part of you also died, but it will help you work through the grief. Answer these questions in a journal: What do I want to be doing this time next year? What is it I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to doing? Who is someone I’d like to visit that I haven’t seen in years? Goals are important because they force us to invest current energy in a long-term project.

Others around you may be uncomfortable with your grief, wanting you to return to “normal” as soon as possible. If you are not ready, don’t let others determine it for you. This is your loss and no one else’s. It is all right for you to take charge and let others know what you need. Consider telling others: “When I am crying, I don’t need to be fixed. Tears are necessary for me to work through the process of healing.” Tell them they don’t have to avoid mentioning your loss. Encourage them to call and see how you are doing, and not to be put off by your fluctuating emotions.

In the Beatitudes Jesus promised that the needs of the bereaved would not go unmet. “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The word for comfort is taken from the Greek word, “parakaleo,” which means “one who stands alongside.” Mourning openly is a form of self-disclosure. We do not have to hide from God. He is walking along side of us right now as we experience our grief. We need to reveal ourselves to Him and He will strengthen us with His divine love.

Reactions to Sudden or Traumatic Loss

By Barbara J. Paul, Ph.D.

Grief is a normal, natural process following a loss. With a traumatic loss, the process is more complicated. People often describe it as feeling like “they are going crazy without a road map of how to do it”. Like all grief, the experience and process of traumatic grief is different for everyone.

Traumatic grief generally occurs when a death is:
” sudden, unexpected, and/or violent.
” caused by the actions of another person, an accident, suicide, homicide, or other catastrophe.
” from natural causes but there is no history of illness.

A traumatic death shatters the world of the survivor. It’s a loss that doesn’t make sense as the survivor tries to make sense and create meaning from a terrible event. The family searches for answers, confronting the fact that life is NOT fair. Bad things DO happen to good people and the world doesn’t feel safe.

This shattering of belief about the world and how it functions compounds the tasks of grieving. Many times, one’s spiritual belief system may no longer work; another loss for the bereaved.

In the initial days, weeks, and months, the individual may go from periods of numbness to intense emotions in brief time periods. In general, it takes two years or more for people go through the grieving process and adapt to a major loss. With a traumatic death, the time period may be longer. Over time, the intensity and frequency of painful periods diminish.

People may feel worse a year or more after the death. The numbness that helped to protect them in the early months is gone and the full pain of the loss is very real. Family and friends may have gone back to their own lives, and not be as supportive.

Over the years, holidays and special family events increase the feelings of grief. When a similar traumatic event occurs, people may feel re-traumatized or that they are reliving their own loss. Involvement with lawsuits or the justice system can cause upsurges of grief during the entire course of that involvement. As these things occur and if the coping gets more difficult, it may be time to seek some counseling.

Common Physical Reactions
” Numbness
” Tightness in the throat or chest
” Shortness of breath
” Sensitivity to loud noises
” Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
” Agitation and restlessness may also be experienced which will decrease in time Because an event has occurred that is beyond one’s control, people feel out of control. Regular exercise may help to control these experiences. Putting more structure into a daily routine will help one to feel more in control. It’s often helpful to keep lists, write notes, or keep a schedule.

Common Emotional Reactions
” Shock: The physical and emotional shock may be prolonged. Persistent memories or dreams about the event may occur for months. Talking or writing about it can help to break the cycle of obsessive thoughts.

” Fear and Anxiety: Simple activities, like taking a shower, being in the dark, or opening a closed door, may cause fear or anxiety. This is a normal response, but if the anxiety prevents normal routine for a prolonged period, it’s important to see a physician or therapist.

” Guilt: Guilt over things done, or not done, regrets about the past, and guilt for surviving. Much of the guilt that people feel is emotional and not rational but knowing this does not help to alleviate those feelings. When guilt persists, people are often helped to deal with it in support groups or with a therapist.

” Anger: Anger and rage come from the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness one feels after a traumatic death and can be overwhelming for family members. There are many support and advocacy groups to help deal with the anger brought on in traumatic death.

There are new roles to learn. New problems to solve. New systems, like the media, legal, and/or criminal justice system, are now involved in one’s life. It takes time to adapt. Allow yourself to do that.

Factors Which Compound Grief
” No positive confirmation of the death or no physical body is recovered. Or when the loved one’s body is available, but the family may not be able to view it. This factor makes it difficult to grasp the reality that the death has occurred. It is only when that reality is grasped can people begin to move from the trauma to the full realization of the pain of grief.

” Since the death was not anticipated, legal and financial affairs may be complicated. Loss of income can threaten the family’s security; another loss for the family.

” The role the loved one held in the family is lost. It takes time for the family to reorganize.

How to Help
” In the early days and weeks, offer help aggressively and concretely. Many times, the family may not know what you can do to help. Offer to prepare meals, help with childcare, answer the phone, or help to make calls or arrangements. If the media is involved, it may be helpful to run interference for the family. They can feel besieged by the intrusion.

” After a few months, support is most needed. Allow them time to talk about their grief if they want to, but be prepared to listen. It is not usually helpful for those who are grieving to hear about your losses unless the circumstances are very similar. Ask how you can help. You might offer to go with them to a support group if it’s appropriate.

” As time passes, be mindful of anniversaries, holidays, or the birthday of the person who died. On these difficult days, people want to know that their loved ones are remembered.

” Families may be involved for years in legal proceedings. Offer help and support during critical times in the process. Help them find resources for victim and family support and advocacy.

” Most importantly, accept their grieving for what it is: a process following a loss. Allow them to grieve in their own style.

Barbara J. Paul, Ph.D.
Barbara J. Paul is a licensed psychologist and health educator in Philadelphia, PA. She is nationally certified by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) as both a grief therapist and death educator.

The Inward Journey Begins

(Adapted from Healing Care, Healing Prayer by Terry Wardle)

What do we need in order to realize our full potential as a human being and walk successfully through life? What special endowments must we have to experience the wholeness and well-being that God designed for us? Parents and significant others are to be instruments of the Lord, helping us become all that God intended, teaching us to rest secure in our identity as His child. Parents and significant others are supposed to provide us:

*A safe and secure environment
*Constant reinforcement of personal worth
*Repeated messages that we are valued, unique, and special
*Unconditional love and acceptance
*Basic care and nurture
*Encouragement to grow and develop personal gifts and talents
*A pathway to fellowship with God

These important people in our lives were meant to love, cherish, nurture and believe in us. They were to delight in us and be thrilled to see the beautiful human being God created. They were each meant to recognize and rejoice in our unique gifts, listen to and value our opinions, and encourage us to fulfill all the special dreams dancing in our heart. When we failed they were to look beneath the mistake and affirm the wonder that we truly are to them. Their arms were to be a safe place for us to grow, a hiding place against the slings and arrows of a hostile world.

But what if some of these endowments were never given to us? What if part of what we needed was stolen by insensitive or uncaring people? What if the one called to love us, ignored or abandoned us? What is a loved one gave us far more criticism than love, shame and blame instead of nurture and encouragement? What if our opinions were ridiculed, dreams ignored or gifts and talents rejected? What if we turned to a loved one for affirmation and acceptance, but instead were sexually abused. The affect of such things would surely have compromised our ability to function in life appropriately.

The pain is great when part of the treasure that was meant to empower us for life is stolen. Rather than moving into life fully equipped to succeed and experience abundance, we feel empty and insecure. We struggle with deep despair and humiliation, and wear the shame of brokenness like a coat made of iron. We feel fear so powerfully that we want to run away as fast as possible. The constant gnawing deep within threatens to undo us, and no matter where we go or whom we are with, we feel unsafe. There might be days when dark clouds settle in, bringing a debilitating depression that feels cold and endless. Instead of believing that life makes sense, we feel confused and constantly at risk.

From whatever the source, deep wounds impact what we believe about ourselves and our world. The experience of insensitivity and abuse, especially at an early age, can lead to seriously distorted thinking. This is particularly true when the adults who are called to care for us actually injure us. As a child, we are far too young to process all that happens, and there is nowhere to turn for help. Strong emotions lead us to draw conclusions about life based on what we have seen or experienced. Granted, our assumptions may rest more on feeling than rational thinking, but a very strong belief system gets formed just the same. These values and judgments are often shaped subconsciously, empowered by negative feelings that drive us to act in unhealthy ways. Unchallenged, they will continue to operate into adult life.

Being wounded, we may intuitively conclude that we are now damaged goods, unattractive and worthy of rejection. We might believe that if people knew what had happened in our lives, they would make fun of us, or worse, injure us even more. We may easily presume that all people are unsafe and out to get us whenever possible. We may even assume that God is not there for us, allowing bad people to hurt us without care or concern. We might believe that all the loss we have experienced was somehow our fault, that we are bad and out of control. Possibly we could think that we are all alone to provide and care for ourselves. Or we may conclude that we are powerless victims, destined to limp through life, able to receive crumbs to exist, but never food enough to truly thrive.

The deep pain and the distorted belief system lead us to react in destructive ways. We develop a multi-layered coping system not even aware of the relationship between our reactions and the deep loss. In childhood this unconscious strategy may have helped us survive. But as an adult what once served to enable us only further compromises our emotional and mental health. The undressed wound hidden beneath the layers continues to eat away at the core of our inner being. And the older we become, the more difficult it may be to see the connection between certain unhealthy behaviors and deep loss. Just the same, a cause and effect relationship does exist, and it must be identified and acknowledged on the journey toward personal well-being.

The Pain Layer

The first layer of the coping system represents our reaction to pain. Stolen treasures and broken dreams do not happen without great physical and emotional agony. Abuse and abandonment, regardless of the form they take, pierce to the most tender and sensitive places in the human soul. Although the initial hurt seems unbearable, the chronic pain threatens to undo us long after the wounding occurred. How do we attempt to silence the pain? Consider the following list of possibilities:

Dissociation – food – sexual addictions – gambling – work – shopping – sleeping – alcohol – drugs – religion – television – exercising – tobacco – recreation

Any one or combination of these could temporarily anesthetize chronic pain. But they do not address the deep wound that generated the hurt in the first place. The relief seems to be a welcome alternative to the daily agony of deep hurt. In fact we initially seem to feel and function better. However, years of inattention to the wounds deep within simply intensifies the inner agony. And over time a person develops a tolerance for the “drug” of choice. This usually results in the need for higher doses or a change to more powerful pain killers. The cycle that results is very destructive. Eventually both the original wounding and the painkillers of choice exact a grave toll on our emotions, body and relationships

The Protective Layer

The next layer of defense is a wall of protection. When we are significantly hurt, the pain and trauma of that wounding motivate us to be much more cautions. We would do most anything to keep from experiencing the anguish a second time. Self-protection is not an improper reaction to the threat of wounding. It is quite healthy to learn to set appropriate boundaries with people. We have both the right and obligation to set limits on those who consistently hurt us, be it by intention or insensitivity. No one should be permitted to take or destroy any of the treasures that were intended to help us fulfill life’s dreams. However, many methods of self-protection are actually personally destructive and often harm friends and family as well.

Fearful that we might not be capable of discerning who would or would not bring us harm, we construct shields to keep people at a distance. The underlying wound remains undressed, causing the infection to grow and threaten greater pain. People never really have the opportunity to know us or call forth the wonder that is ours’ in Christ. This self-protection can grow out of embarrassment and shame. The wound not only robs us of some life endowment, it left us believing that we are essentially deformed and unattractive. We can grow fearful that if anyone saw the brokenness and weaknesses that lies within, they would openly reject and ridicule. And so, the walls go up through such reactions as:

Pretense – denial – avoidance – silence – anger – aggression – isolation – shyness – hiding

The Layer of Provision

When part of our well-being has been compromised, the absence creates a noticeable emptiness. In a perfect world, mature adults would step in to provide what primary caregivers neglected to give. They would, with God’s good help, nurture us where once abused, and call forth all that had been forced into hiding. Love, acceptance and affirmation would flow through them to fill the places in us that were robbed. But, this is not a perfect world, and as a wounded person, we seldom experience such gracious infillings from others. And so we begin to provide for ourselves. Unfortunately, what we often turn to gives little more than further pain and heartbreak. Sexual promiscuity might seem to promise acceptance and love, all the while tearing away at the soul and ultimately leaving us more intensely alone in a bed of guilt and shame. We might turn to people pleasing as a pathway to approval, only to discover that we have lost our own identity in the desperate quest to be found acceptable by others. Hungry to feel that we have worth and value, we might embrace some performance addiction. But satisfaction lasts only as long as the applause continues, leaving us alone and frightened when memories of our latest performance fade in people’s minds. We might find a way to grab what we so desperately need, only to watch it turn to dust in our hands. Any of the following could become the substitute for genuine love, acceptance, worth and approval:

Sexual promiscuity – career – academics – fame – control – success – money – athletics – people pleasing – manipulation – popularity – unhealthy relationships

It is obvious that some of these are not in themselves problematic. But whenever we try to fill the internal void with any one of these, we will find that they are far from adequate. Most attempts to do this will fail to meet our deepest needs.

The Punishment Layer

Pain often births an anger that drives us to strike back at the one who has perpetuated the injury. While we may not actually act upon the demand for repayment, the deep feeling is often there. We may have even gone so far as to extend the words of forgiveness to the offender, yet struggle with the desire to punish someone, anyone, for the robbery that left us in such pain. Sometimes, the desire to punish turns inward, causing a reaction of self-hate and self-abuse. We can believe that there must be something personally wrong for such bad things to have happened. Reactions include:

Blame – abusive words – criticism – fantasies of harming someone – aggression – slander – self-contempt – shame – physical abuse – unforgiveness – bitterness – withholding – rejection – self-abuse

Where Do We Go From Here?

We must understand and believe that God wants to meet us at the place of our own deepest pain. Jesus knows the heartache we experience and the unhealthy ways in which we may have tried to deal with the lost treasures of life. The Lord is also well aware that any coping system we may use is ultimately compromising our own well-being. Christ offers a better way. He is willing to help us systematically identify and set aside any multi-layered reaction to deep wounding. The prospect may be frightening and there will be some initial discomfort when painkillers are surrendered to the Lord. Laying aside coping mechanisms may cause us to feel vulnerable and at risk. But through the tender guidance of the Holy Spirit, God will take us back to the loss, meeting us there with great love and care.

God is willing to touch the places where pain gains its power and to bring His healing to bear upon our lives. And most important, He stands ready to replace the stolen treasures and lost endowments with something far greater. He will give us Himself. The fellowship of His Presence will far outweigh the pain of past wounding. Empowered by His Holy Spirit, we will be able to move forward in life to realize more and more our full potential as God’s miraculously endowed child.







Grief and the Christian Family

“Why does a loving God allow tragedy? Why doesn’t He just stop terrible things from happening? What is going to happen next? How is this going to affect me and my family? Am I safe? Is there going to be a war? Can I go on my high school trip without being killed? What is going to happen next?” How can parents explain death, divorce, or terrorism to children and teens when they don’t even understand it themselves? These questions keep running through everyone’s mind, adults and kids alike. We feel so angry, so sad, so helpless, even so guilty for having a good day. What we all feel is grief. It’s a short word that stands for a whole array of excruciating emotions. Now, while in the midst of one of the most difficult times in our country, we have to go to work, or mow the lawn, or do the laundry, or balance the checkbook, or even be a parent to a child or teen we dearly love- previously sheltered youth who are hurting as much as we are and understand their own sorrow even less. There’s only one thing we can do. Wrap ourselves in the love of the Lord and let Him carry us through. Grief, this confusing, devastating, volatile mixture of emotions, is a natural response to any loss: death, divorce, loss of health, familiar surroundings, or treasured possessions. This article will discuss the impact of grief on the family and give suggestions for parents on what to expect and how to help. Much of the discussion will center around the death of a family member, but grief also accompanies a divorce or national terrorism. The only difference is the intensity.

Grief affects the mind, body, and spirit. It seems impossible to concentrate or think clearly enough to make even the simplest decision. The body reacts in unexpected ways: pain, sickness, sleeplessness, difficulty breathing, overwhelming fatigue for some, and for others, amazing bursts of energy. For a few, grief brings a deeper, more satisfying walk with their Lord. For many, a massive wall is built between them and their Savior. Surely, all who take the journey through grief find that it transforms their relationship toward God. For example, Susan, a high school student, couldn’t think clearly and had a sharp drop in her grades after a loss. She tried to deny the pain, but it showed. The stress caused her skin to turn a bright red and she quickly gained twenty pounds. Despite this, she learned to depend on God to help her though the sleepless nights. Stephen, on the other hand, has not been to church since he lost his father five years ago. He, like many, is mad at God. Even now, his grief is unresolved. Normal grief is an essential part of healing. Abnormal grief occurs when a person withdraws too long, pushes others away, or becomes bitter and depressed. Unresolved grief may cause involvement in detrimental activities such as drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. It can even affect the immune system and increase the risk of cancer. Grief seems like a silent enemy, but if you face the enemy head-on, it can become your friend.

Since the loss of security and a sense of trust can cause grief, we are currently a nation of mourners. We all hurt for the families of those lost on September 11. Those who have already experienced a loss, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, can have a particularly difficult time in a national tragedy. The following information is written for those who have had a personal loss, yet the process is the same for all grief. Certainly it is infinitely longer and more profound for those who have lost a family member, yet the information and suggestions can be used by anyone who is concerned about how their kids are coping with the nation’s tragedy. Parents need to find ways to tenderly touch the fragile hearts of every family member so they can talk about their most sensitive emotions and encourage one another in Christ.

A major loss often causes such a disruption that the family system can never fully recover. There are families that learn, with the help of the Lord, to comfort and support one another and, through the process, become closer and stronger. What is the difference between the families that survive the loss and those that fall apart? It seems that the survivors learn to communicate their feelings with each other and with God. This is agonizing at first, especially to children and teens. Children have active imaginations and think they can cope by pretending the loss didn’t happen and nothing has changed. Teens are usually reluctant to share their feelings with the family, so they try to work through their grief alone and pretend they are unaffected by the loss. This pretending is not healthy for adults or teens.

Everyone will experience some type of loss, and loss often leads to misconceptions. These misconceptions are often called magical thinking. Adults often use magical thinking somewhat jokingly when they say, “I’m going to take my umbrella so it won’t rain,” or “I knew it would rain because I just finished washing my car.” We know we can’t control the weather, but there’s an almost imperceptible feeling that we can. With kids it is a strong but silent feeling that causes much pain. Just like adults secretly think they control the weather, kids believe their thoughts control the world around them. In the deepest part of their being, they know the loss is their fault. Sometimes they believe in their hearts that a certain thought or action caused the loss, but sometimes they just know they are responsible. They only wish they knew what they did so they would be sure not to do it again. Just like Kevin in the movie, “Home Alone,” who wished his parents would disappear and woke up thinking his wish had come true, a child will believe an angry thought or wish was responsible for the loss.

Because it’s very difficult for children to admit these misconceptions, it’s important to keep communication open so they feel free to talk about these feelings. Adults and teens usually think this way after a loss, too. “What if I hadn’t had that fight with my Mom?” “What if I had called the doctor sooner?” “What if I had driven that day?” “What if I had been at home?” It’s easy to get caught up in this type of thinking, especially after a death, but the simple truth is that God has a time appointed for each person to die and there’s nothing anyone can do to change God’s timing. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2) We can only trust that He has an eternal reason. Each life is like a mural on a wall, and He sees the whole picture before we are ever conceived.

Death is abstract and children think in concrete ways. Yet it is essential that they know the truth about the death of their loved one and the spiritual significance surrounding it. Most teens have begun to think abstractly. They want to find meaning in the loss. Be honest about the events surrounding the death, but keep the explanation simple. Answer questions honestly, but leave out the dreadful details.

Liz, a woman in her thirties, told this story while in a drug treatment program. When she was young, her father died of a freak accident. Her mother never told her anything. She just whisked her away to the neighbor’s house. Liz asked questions when she saw her dad’s picture on television, but instead of getting answers, she was rushed out of the room. No one even told her that her father had died. The philosophy then was to protect kids from hearing about tragedy, but it’s no surprise that Liz had an addiction, how could she ever grieve the loss of her daddy when she didn’t even know why he never came home again? She turned to drugs to deaden the pain of her unresolved grief. In trying to protect her from the truth, her family left her to the lies of her own imagination.

Kids need someone to explain to them what is happening in their lives and to assure them that they won’t be alone. One of their greatest fears in a loss is that there will be no one to take care of them. They need to be told who will be there for them. In most cases, children are attached to both parents and feel that a part of them is missing if a parent leaves or dies. They are also bonded to siblings and grandparents. After a loss, they see their families as a puzzle with one of the pieces missing. They often feel fractured and powerless, with no sense of direction in their lives. Teens feel sad, but they are more comfortable expressing their anger. Many try to fill the role of the missing family member and become prematurely faces with grown-up responsibilities. Kids need someone outside themselves on whom they can depend. They need someone to hold them and tell them that when everyone else is busy trying to rebuild their own lives, God is always there. Adults need this, too, so a wise parent looks to their friends and their church for support during this troublesome time.

No two people react the same way to loss and each individual’s feelings and reactions change from minute to minute. Children’s understanding of loss changes as they get older. Infants and toddlers believe that when an object is out of sight, it ceases to exist. They enjoy the game of “peek-a-boo” because it helps them begin to accept separation and loss. Since they are incapable of understanding that some people do not return, they can’t conceive of the permanence of death. If an infant loses the nurturing parent, bonding will be broken. It is essential for their future emotional health that they bond with another person. Children who have not completely bonded might be quite charming and make friends quickly, but they have difficulty developing long term relationships because they have never learned to trust. Some have more severe problems. These children need much emotional support and often could benefit from Christian counseling.

Preschoolers are still trying to grasp the idea of object permanence and they are dealing with much magical thinking. Because they feel responsible for the loss, they may feel guilt and shame. They think death is reversible, like it is in cartoons, and may ask many questions about biological functions. If parents get divorced, they will try their best to get them remarried. They can get lost in play and temporarily forget about the loss. Because their imaginations are so active, it is important that they be told the truth about the cause of the loss at a level they can understand. Children who are not told the truth will make up an explanation for the changes in their lives. Their imaginations run wild and adults would often be amazed to find what irrational thoughts are going through the minds of children. Before they can be completely free of the grief, little ones need someone to listen to their version of the story and correct their wrong thinking.

Between the ages of six and ten, children begin to understand that death is final, but they often personify it. It is important that euphemisms not be used, because children are very concrete and take what is said literally. A couple of stories demonstrate the literal thinking of children. Eight-year-old Devin said he is afraid of going to heaven. He thinks eternity is such a long time that he might get bored. He did admit, though, that heaven sounds better than hell. Jenny, age six, tried to console her grandmother after the death of her husband. She overheard Granny asking the undertaker if water would get into the casket. “Don’t worry, Granny,” said Jenny in her most reassuring voice, “God will give Granddaddy a drink of water.”

Death can be explained to a school-age child as the time when the body stops moving and breathing and the spirit leaves. Use a puppet to explain this in a concrete way. When the hand is in the puppet, it moves. When the hand is removed from the puppet, the part that makes it move is gone and the puppet is lifeless. That is like what happens in death. The spirit leaves the body and the body no longer moves or breathes.

Children who experience the death of a family member while in elementary school are overwhelmed with sadness, but they feel they must control it. For many children, especially boys, anger is more socially acceptable. Some children resist the expression of any emotions, but their behavior shows how much they are suffering. Jonathan, age seven, refused to talk about his trauma, but he loved jabbing pencil lead into paper plates. As he was doing this, he was exclaiming, “I’m not angry! I’m not angry!” Jonathan needed help learning to admit his normal anger. If children are not encouraged to express their feelings, they may never resolve their grief.

Teens try to find meaning in their loss. Although they feel sad, they are also more comfortable expressing their anger, which in some cases can lead to violence. Teens who experience the divorce of their parents may find it difficult to trust in dating relationships They long to retreat to their childhood just when more responsibility is being expected of them. They may feel guilt about their normal adolescent rebelliousness, thinking they should have spent more time with the person they lost.. If a parent dies during a time the teen is in rebellion, this can cause a strong feeling of shame, which is too embarrassing to admit, but can haunt the person for years. Allen, a man in his forties, wept when he finally revealed that, as a teen, he had chosen to play tennis rather than go to the hospital the day his father died.

Kids of all ages who are grieving may feel sad, lonely, guilty, and very angry. To avoid thinking, they are often in constant motion and have difficulty concentrating in school. They need the opportunity to express these strong feelings in appropriate ways. Like adults, kids need to grieve, but also like adults, they can resolve the loss. It is important that they receive prompt and accurate information about the loss and are allowed to ask questions, participate in the family grieving rituals, and have a comforting adult to rely upon. In telling kids about a loss, whether right after it happened or while discussing it later, be sure they know they are not alone. Use physical contact and be direct. Reassure them it was not their fault and it is not going to happen to them. Then encourage them to talk about the loss.

Children, teens, and adults move through the grief process in their own unique way, yet kids can experience the stages differently from adults. Jewitt (1982) describes the ways grief might affect kids. In the early stages of grief, youngsters may experience shock, denial, and a feeling of numbness, as if God is letting the loss sink in slowly. They will seem lifeless, smiling on cue, with possible outbursts of panic. Some may act as if they are not bothered by the news. Physical symptoms can include increased heart rate, tension, sighing, and relaxed bowel and bladder control. There is a possibility of sickness, nervousness, and trouble sleeping. The child needs comfort, warmth, and structure.

There are several forms of denial. Children may seem to forget the loved one is not returning. They may reject the loved one or refuse to admit that the person ever existed. For teens, it may be the feelings that are denied, as if to say, “This isn’t happening.” Children and teens often use excessive talking or hyperactivity to keep from thinking about the loss. Many will fear being alone. Some kids are too busy adjusting to a new situation to grieve. If denial lasts longer than three to six months, professional counseling may be needed.

As youngsters begin to face reality, their grief becomes overwhelming. They go between thinking about the loss and ignoring it, strong emotions and apathy. They need free time for this period of grief, so too many extracurricular activities can delay the grief process. They are often preoccupied with the lost person and wish he or she was still in their lives. They may be very active or bargain to get the person back, as if they are thinking they have some control over the loss. Since kids model the way their parent expresses grief, they should be included in the mourning process. Sharing tears can be a healing and bonding experience.

Just before kids begin to reorganize their lives, they go through the worst, but fortunately the shortest stage, depression. There is a sense of hopelessness, which may include slower movement, physical symptoms, helplessness, loss of appetite, and even fleeting thoughts of suicide. After this difficult period, kids begin to realize that life can go on and they are going to be all right. This doesn’t mean they are happy, but the strong, overpowering feelings are gone. Even small new losses, such as a move or the loss of a pet, can bring back the waves of grief. These secondary losses can revive all the previous emotions with a vengeance.

Adults must also journey through the grief process in their own way. As with children, the initial reaction to loss is shock and denial. The griever is not ready to accept the loss and reacts with a numb, empty feeling. There may be tears, some difficulty breathing, disorientation, and a need to do nothing but sit and stare. This fatigue may continue as the numbness gives way to overpowering emotions: anger, guilt, fear, panic, loneliness, sadness. There may be physical illness, tension, and aches and pains. Sleeping may be difficult, or the griever may want to escape into a slumber or some other type of isolation. The person will be edgy and may react to life’s little difficulties more strongly than usual. As time goes on, those who are moving normally through the grief process will begin to find new interests or revive old ones and find a new life without the loved one. This doesn’t mean they miss the person less or are happy about the loss. It just means they have found a way to resume their own lives.

For adults, teens, and children the grief comes in waves and can be brought on unexpectedly by a sound, a smell, or a thought at any time or any place. Something as simple as a trip to the grocery store can bring back memories that make the loss seem as if it has just happened. A smell of fresh lemons, a song played so low on the PA system that it’s not consciously heard, or a glance at the loved ones favorite food can produce a tidal wave of almost forgotten emotions. Talking about the loss and the loved one seems to facilitate a healthy progression through the grief process. Getting your family members to open their hearts and face their sorrow this way can be difficult, but there are some communications skills that may help.

Communication Despite the loss, you want your family to feel lovable and important. Your communication is like a mirror in which others see themselves; so it is important that you use good communication skills in discussing your loss. For children, especially young children, nonverbal communication speaks louder than verbal communication. If your nonverbal communication agrees with your verbal communication, then children feel they can trust what you say.

The most effective communication skill is listening carefully for feelings. Children don’t always have the words for their feelings, so they may need help in labeling them. Teens often have a difficult time talking to their parent about their feelings, yet a wise parent finds ways to draw out the emotions of their teens. Even adults feel understood if the listener responds with a word that describes their emotions. Practice using a skill called reflective listening. That involves listening for the feeling in a communication and reflecting that feeling back to the speaker. A good way to use this skill would be to listen and then say, “It sounds like you feel _________.” If you are wrong, the speaker will correct you, which makes the person have to think about his or her feelings to answer you. It is even more effective if you add the reason you think the speaker feels that way. Reflective listening requires sensitive listening to the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal messages and reflecting back the total message empathically without judgment.

This kind of communication can be helpful to a kid who is having behavior problems due to anger, because negative feelings always exist before negative acts and another feeling always comes before anger. It is usually fear or sadness. When we respond to the anger by reflective listening, then kids lead us to the underlying feeling. When youngsters have strong emotions, it is important to listen carefully to what feelings they are trying to express, accept the feelings without necessarily accepting the behavior, and providing an acceptable outlet for the expression of the feelings.

Another communication skill is called “I” messages. An “I” message can be used when the speaker’s behavior causes a feeling in you. This is a way to model the expression of feelings. “I” messages are effective because they express feelings without blaming. Follow this formula: “When you do _________________, I feel _________________, because ____________. For example, “When you say unkind things to Billy, I feel sad, because I care about Billy’s feelings.” It is important to help your family move through the grief process by working through their emotions. This is accomplished by allowing each member an opportunity to tell their story and explain their feelings. This can be difficult; so a parent can help by using good listening skills. Some of the skills that would be useful are:

1. Restatement – Let the speaker know you are listening by restating what was said in your own words.

2. Interpretation – Try to find the “why” behind the speaker’s behavior. Behavior that is understood is easier to accept and change, however, asking a direct “why” question can often put speakers on the defensive. The truth may be that they don’t even know why.

3. Confrontation – Point out the discrepancies between the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal behavior. For example, “You say you are sad, but you are smiling.” This helps family members to see that their behavior is not matching their feelings and the behavior may need to be reevaluated.

4. Minimal encouragers – Add the little “umhums” that show you are listening.

5. Summarization – Bring together the main points of the conversation.

6. Open-ended questions – Ask questions that encourage the family members to explore their thoughts and feelings by having to give an explicit answer. These questions usually start with how, what, would, or could.

7. Closed-ended questions – When there is a need for facts, ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no or other specific information. These questions are necessary sometimes, but they do not encourage communication on a feeling level.

8. Looking for misconceptions – Listen carefully for misconceptions about the death and the beliefs surrounding it. When you discover these misconceptions, be aware that they can be deeply held beliefs and it may take time and effort for a person to internalize the truth.

Whether a loss was the death of a family member, a divorce, or terrorism and the accompanying loss of security, the grief process is the same. A death or divorce is more devastating, while terrorism can cause a great increase in fear. A caring parent gives lots of hugs, even to teens who act like they don’t want them. A wise parent listens and encourages the younger members of the family to talk about whatever feelings they have. Even if the parent doesn’t agree with the feeling, it should be accepted as legitimate to the person who shares it. The following verses may be helpful for dealing with some common emotions:

Fear- Philippians 4:6-7 and Hebrews 13:5
Anger- James 1:19-20
Guilt- 1 John 1:9
Powerlessness-Ephesians 3:16

After a loss, the best thing a parent can do is turn to God for comfort and lead the family to do the same.

Jewett, C. L. (1982). Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss. Harvard Common Press, Harvard, Mass.

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