How Can I Live With My Grief?
“I FELT a lot of pressure on me to hold in my feelings,” explains Mike in recalling his father’s death. To Mike, suppressing his grief was the manly thing to do. Yet he later realized that he was wrong. So when Mike’s friend lost his grandfather, Mike knew what to do. He says: “A couple of years ago, I would have patted him on the shoulder and said, ‘Be a man.’ Now I touched his arm and said, ‘Feel however you have to feel. It will help you to deal with it. If you want me to go, I’ll go. If you want me to stay, I’ll stay. But don’t be afraid to feel.’”
MaryAnne also felt pressure to hold in her feelings when her husband died. “I was so worried about being a good example to others,” she recalls, “that I did not permit myself the normal feelings. But I eventually learned that trying to be a pillar of strength for others wasn’t helping me. I began analyzing my situation and saying, ‘Cry if you have to cry. Don’t try to be too strong. Get it out of your system.’”
So both Mike and MaryAnne recommend: Let yourself grieve! And they are correct. Why? Because grieving is a necessary emotional release. Releasing your feelings can relieve the pressure you are under. The natural expression of emotions, if coupled with understanding and accurate information, lets you put your feelings in proper perspective.
Of course, not everyone expresses grief in the same way. And such factors as whether the loved one died suddenly or death came after a long illness might have a bearing on the emotional reaction of the survivors. But one thing appears certain: Repressing your feelings can be harmful both physically and emotionally. It is far healthier to release your grief. How? The Scriptures contain some practical advice.
Talking can be a helpful release. Following the death of all ten of his children, as well as some other personal tragedies, the ancient patriarch Job said: “My soul certainly feels a loathing toward my life. I will give vent to [Hebrew, “loose”] my concern about myself. I will speak in the bitterness of my soul!” (Job 1:2, 18, 19; 10:1) Job could no longer restrain his concern. He needed to let it loose; he had to “speak.” Similarly, the English dramatist Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth: “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
So talking about your feelings to “a true companion” who will listen patiently and sympathetically can bring a measure of relief. (Proverbs 17:17) Putting experiences and feelings into words often makes it easier to understand them and to deal with them. And if the listener is another bereaved person who has effectively dealt with his or her own loss, you may be able to glean some practical suggestions on how you can cope. When her child died, one mother explained why it helped to talk to another woman who had faced a similar loss: “To know that somebody else had gone through the same thing, had come out whole from it, and that she was still surviving and finding some sort of order in her life again was very strengthening to me.”
What if you are not comfortable talking about your feelings? Following the death of Saul and Jonathan, David composed a highly emotional dirge in which he poured out his grief. This mournful composition eventually became part of the written record of the Bible book of Second Samuel. (2 Samuel 1:17-27; 2 Chronicles 35:25) Similarly, some find it easier to express themselves in writing. One widow reported that she would write down her feelings and then days later read over what she had written. She found this a helpful release.
Whether by talking or writing, communicating your feelings can help you to release your grief. It can also help to clear up misunderstandings. A bereaved mother explains: “My husband and I heard of other couples that got divorced after losing a child, and we didn’t want that to happen to us. So any time we felt angry, wanting to blame each other, we would talk it out. I think we really grew closer together by doing that.” Thus, letting your feelings be known can help you to understand that even though you may be sharing the same loss, others may grieve differently—at their own pace and in their own way.
Something else that can facilitate the release of grief is crying. There is “a time to weep,” says the Bible. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4) Surely the death of someone we love brings on such a time. Shedding tears of grief appears to be a necessary part of the healing process.
One young woman explains how a close friend helped her to cope when her mother died. She recalls: “My friend was always there for me. She cried with me. She talked with me. I could just be so open with my emotions, and that was important to me. I didn’t have to be embarrassed about crying.” (See Romans 12:15.) Nor should you feel ashamed of your tears. As we have seen, the Bible is filled with examples of men and women of faith—including Jesus Christ—who openly shed tears of grief without any apparent embarrassment.—Genesis 50:3; 2 Samuel 1:11, 12; John 11:33, 35.
You may find that for a time your emotions will be somewhat unpredictable. Tears may flow without much advance warning. One widow found that supermarket shopping (something she had often done with her husband) could reduce her to tears, especially when, out of habit, she reached for items that had been her husband’s favorites. Be patient with yourself. And do not feel that you have to hold back the tears. Remember, they are a natural and necessary part of grieving.
Dealing With Guilt
As noted previously, some have feelings of guilt after losing a loved one in death. This may help to explain the acute grief of the faithful man Jacob when he was led to believe that his son Joseph had been killed by “a vicious wild beast.” Jacob himself had sent Joseph out to check on the welfare of his brothers. So Jacob was likely plagued with guilt feelings, such as ‘Why did I send Joseph out alone? Why did I send him out into an area abounding with wild beasts?’—Genesis 37:33-35.
Perhaps you feel that some neglect on your part contributed to your loved one’s death. Realizing that guilt—real or imagined—is a normal grief reaction can be helpful in itself. Here again, do not necessarily keep such feelings to yourself. Talking about how guilty you feel can provide a much needed release.
Realize, though, that no matter how much we love another person, we cannot control his or her life, nor can we prevent “time and unforeseen occurrence” from befalling those we love. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Besides, no doubt your motives were not bad. For example, in not making a doctor’s appointment sooner, did you intend for your loved one to get sick and die? Of course not! Then are you really guilty of causing that one’s death? No.
One mother learned to deal with the guilt after her daughter died in a car accident. She explains: “I felt guilty that I had sent her out. But I came to realize that it was ridiculous to feel that way. There was nothing wrong with sending her with her father to run an errand. It was just a terrible accident.”
‘But there are so many things I wish I had said or done,’ you may say. True, but who of us can say that we have been the perfect father, mother, or child? The Bible reminds us: “We all stumble many times. If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man.” (James 3:2; Romans 5:12) So accept the fact that you are not perfect. Dwelling upon all kinds of “if onlys” will not change anything, but it may slow down your recovery.
If you have sound reasons to believe that your guilt is real, not imagined, then consider the most important factor of all in allaying guilt—God’s forgiveness. The Bible assures us: “If errors were what you watch, O Jah, O Jehovah, who could stand? For there is the true forgiveness with you.” (Psalm 130:3, 4) You cannot return to the past and change anything. You can, though, beg God’s forgiveness for past mistakes. Then what? Well, if God promises to wipe the slate clean, should you not also forgive yourself?—Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9.
Dealing With Anger
Do you also feel rather angry, perhaps at doctors, nurses, friends, or even the one who died? Realize that this too is a common reaction to loss. Perhaps your anger is the natural accompaniment of the hurt you feel. One writer said: “Only by becoming aware of the anger—not acting on it but knowing you feel it—can you be free of its destructive effect.”
It may also help to express or share the anger. How? Certainly not in uncontrolled outbursts. The Bible warns that prolonged anger is dangerous. (Proverbs 14:29, 30) But you may find comfort in talking about it with an understanding friend. And some find that vigorous exercise when they are angry is a helpful release.—See also Ephesians 4:25, 26.
While it is important to be open and honest about your feelings, a word of caution is in order. There is a big difference between expressing your feelings and dumping them on others. There is no need to blame others for your anger and frustration. So be mindful of talking out your feelings, but not in a hostile way. (Proverbs 18:21) There is one preeminent aid in coping with grief, and we will now discuss it.
Help From God
The Bible assures us: “Jehovah is near to those that are broken at heart; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” (Psalm 34:18) Yes, more than anything else, a relationship with God can help you to cope with the death of someone you love. How? All the practical suggestions offered thus far have been based on or are in harmony with God’s Word, the Bible. Applying them can help you cope.
In addition, do not underestimate the value of prayer. The Bible urges us: “Throw your burden upon Jehovah himself, and he himself will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22) If talking out your feelings with a sympathetic friend can help, how much more will pouring out your heart to “the God of all comfort” help you!—2 Corinthians 1:3.
It is not that prayer simply makes us feel better. The “Hearer of prayer” promises to give holy spirit to his servants who sincerely ask for it. (Psalm 65:2; Luke 11:13) And God’s holy spirit, or active force, can equip you with “power beyond what is normal” to go from one day to the next. (2 Corinthians 4:7) Remember: God can help his faithful servants to endure any and every problem they may face.
One woman who lost a child in death recalls how the power of prayer helped her and her husband through their loss. “If we were home at night and the grief just became insurmountable, we would pray together out loud,” she explains. “The first time we had to do anything without her—the first congregation meeting we went to, the first convention we attended—we would pray for strength. When we got up in the morning and the reality of it all seemed unbearable, we would pray to Jehovah to help us. For some reason, it was really traumatic for me to walk into the house by myself. And so every time I came home alone, I would just say a prayer to Jehovah to please help me to maintain some sort of calm.” That faithful woman firmly and rightly believes that those prayers made a difference. You too may find that in response to your persistent prayers, ‘the peace of God that excels all thought will guard your heart and your mental powers.’—Philippians 4:6, 7; Romans 12:12.
The help that God supplies does make a difference. The Christian apostle Paul stated that God “comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those in any sort of tribulation.” True, divine help does not eliminate the pain, but it can make it easier to bear. That does not mean that you will no longer cry or will forget your loved one. But you can recover. And as you do, what you have experienced can make you more understanding and sympathetic in helping others to cope with a similar loss.—2 Corinthians 1:4.