Can grief actually be a friend after losing one we love?
“You won’t always feel this bad.” This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road. Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”
She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies. It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old married daughter was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
And it is the question any person carries who lives with the shattering loss of a beloved parent, spouse, family member or friend.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs, whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry in inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave. I’d never be able to go back to the old normal.”
“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.
“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in the classic book Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one we loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child. “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigson, whose daughter was murdered twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them for fear of the pain. I allow myself to let them arise.”
2) “Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
After my Whitworth University faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him. Shaken, he told his dream to his sister. “She reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.” Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.
As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life-destructive addictions.
3) Grief can expand wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew. “How did your family ever survive such a loss?” I asked.
Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It’s an insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death. Now acutely aware that each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.” She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care into this corporate structure.
4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action.
Beneath sorrow there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it becomes the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions. We see this in the formation of major non-profits like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Susan G. Komen Foundation, but also for thousands of local efforts to compassionately address human needs.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas. “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die, or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” Many stories in my book Pilgrimage through Loss show the beauty of such growth.
For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table many years ago, has found that befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed,” she said. “Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice, and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit…The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you.
Are there ways you have found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important? I’d love to hear.