Posted: November 13, 2023
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Most people are familiar with the popularized cycle of grief that includes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Kubler-Ross, 2005). Anyone who has experienced grief understands that Kubler-Ross’ work is not just a simplified set of steps but that each of those steps is potentially a lifelong, non-linear journey. Culturally, we in the United States, have generally struggled with knowing how to grieve well. In our fast-paced, outcome-driven society, we don’t take the time to sit and feel the devastation of the complicated emotions that arise in the face of loss. We don’t know how to comfort each other or ourselves. Once the funeral is over, we rush to get back to normal life. It is impossible to lose someone of significance and ever return to the same norm that we knew before their absence.
An already complicated experience is made more complex when we consider that relationships with people we lose are often just as complicated. How do we grieve a relationship that carried pain, disappointment or even abuse, when it also carried beauty, honor and love? There is a need to acknowledge the reality of our relationships, the complete truth of the impact our loved one had on us throughout their lifetime. We need to take time to mourn for the self in the grief process.
An example of how complex grief can appear: When Abby spoke of her father’s passing, she said all the things that she was expected to say. He was such a good man. The church would never be the same after the loss of his leadership gifts. He loved his family. And she meant every word. Yet, as she cried and mourned the loss of this man who had protected and cared for her in so many ways, she noticed an anger within her that was confusing. She sometimes felt relief that he was gone, which made her feel guilty and ashamed. It felt like she should be through the grieving process by now, but it was consuming. Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, things that reminded Abby of her father, became so overwhelming and almost incapacitating.
As she began to process the disparate emotions she was experiencing with her counselor, she eventually found the freedom to begin to discuss parts of her relationship with her father that she had not fully acknowledged or shared with others. Her father, though all the good things she shared with others were true, had a dark side. After several drinks of his standard Gin and Tonic after work, he would become angry and critical. Arguments between he and Abby’s mom sometimes turned into physical fights and left Abby crying, scared, and alone in her room. He would always apologize, and things were different in the morning, so she just hoped that things would get better. And they would for a while. She never knew when to expect loving, fun, kind Dad or when the darker, angry, mean Dad would return.
Through bringing these parts of her story into the light and processing them with someone who helped to acknowledge and care for the fear, sadness, and loneliness that Abby had carried with her, she was able to mourn for herself. She mourned for the consistent security she craved but did not experience when she was younger. She mourned for the lack of acknowledgment from her parents about how difficult that had been for her. She felt sadness for the little girl who thought everything was somehow her fault. While this did not change the facts of her story, Abby began to move towards peace for herself and forgiveness for her parents. This gave her space to mourn the parts of the relationship with her father that held pain, while celebrating the parts that held beauty.
It is not easy to hold so many different emotions towards the same person, especially when they have passed and we do not have the opportunity to address unresolved issues. It can be confusing and frustrating. As you walk through the grief process, give yourself grace for however your grieving process might look. Do not try to conform to the cultural expectations that you think are “correct”. Allow yourself time and space, turn compassion towards yourself, as you reach out to others who are places of safety for you to grieve in your own way.
God created us to be in community with each other, to celebrate and mourn with each other. When working through grief, don’t try to go it alone. Reach out to your family, friends and community. There are support groups that are specific to people who are grieving. There are counselors who have been trained to support people who are grieving. If you would like to talk to someone about your experience, we would love to talk with you and support you in your grieving journey!Back to top