The gift of grieving
by Jackie Lopina
I’ll never forget leaning on my locker in my flared jeans and Calvin Klein tee blubbering like a baby. It was the start of 8th grade and my grandpa had died unexpectedly. As I told Mrs. Fitz why I would miss school the next day, tears started and wouldn’t stop. Her face melted in sympathy as she drew me into a long hug. I felt safe, my grief validated and understood.
I had my first experience to the contrary only days later.
The intensity of my sadness at my grandpa’s funeral surprised me. Even before I went up to say goodbye, uncontrollable tears streamed down my cheeks. My typically sweet, fun and silly grandma saw me sobbing and with shock and embarrassment rebuked me sharply, saying “Stop crying. Just stop that!” Her harsh tone brought an abrupt end to my tears and made me wonder if sadness and grief were something to be ashamed of.
A few weeks ago, model and social media celebrity Chrissy Teigen and her musician husband John Legend announced they lost their third baby halfway through their pregnancy. The Instagram post is raw, heartbreaking and gut wrenching. If you’ve experienced a miscarriage or loss of a child, it hits extra close to home.
Looking at the comments, there were two main responses. One was support, compassion and love. The other? Full of judgment and shame, accusations of attention seeking, criticism of taking photographs after losing a child and berating her audacity to share her loss openly. I didn’t have to dig far to see multiple comments calling the pictures “pathetic” and telling her she should be ashamed for not “keeping anything to herself.” Some even commanded her to “grieve in private.”
The passion and vitriol behind these comments beg the question: why are we so uncomfortable with grief?
Our Discomfort with Grief
There’s a lie in our American culture that if we work hard enough we can achieve anything. The problem is this: loss, suffering and death have no regard for our hard work, ambition, personality or skill. As Aaron Burr sings in the musical Hamilton, “Death does not discriminate... it takes and it takes and it takes.”
In the case of the death of a baby, child or younger adult, we see the brutal unfairness of death. It reveals — in the most gut wrenching way — that life isn’t supposed to be like this, that everything we see is sin-soaked and tainted with the consequences of darkness.
And for many of our friends and family, death is the terrifying, unknown end. There is no hope of life or joy after death, which makes it all the more frightening. The NBC comedy The Good Place delved into some of these questions. In the last seasons, they reveal plainly how an eternity without an eternal being to worship becomes meaningless and deeply unsatisfying.
The reasons for discomfort with loss and grief are obvious. We don’t like to think about our mortality.
Yet grief is unavoidable. We sometimes think grief is reserved only for those huge losses— death of a child or spouse, a marriage disintegrating or severe health issues. But all of us experience loss, as we’ve evidenced this year.
2020 has been marked by collective grief. Grief has come in big ways for some of us — the loss of a job, moving away, death of loved ones, isolation. Grief came from smaller losses for others. We’ve missed out on time with our parents or grandchildren. We’ve fought anxiety and fear as we worry about our own health or our immunocompromised friends. We’ve cancelled vacations we’ve been anticipating for years. We’ve been tossed into the deep end with virtual schooling and working from home. We’ve been missing out on community, hobbies, handshakes and hugs.
Grief is not reserved for those who have suffered catastrophic losses. Grief is a normal and natural response to any difficult thing we’ve gone through.
So what do we do with it?
The world tells us to keep our losses hidden, to cope privately and to make sure we keep a brave, happy face on the outside.
But God calls us into something deeper.
Called Deeper into Grief
Even though the experience of grief is normal, it doesn’t make it any easier. It begs us to run away, to busy ourselves so we don’t have to think about it, to sweep it under the rug.
When we use platitudes like “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle” (anyone else sure that he ALWAYS gives you more than you can handle?!), we cheapen the depth in which God’s glory can be revealed through suffering. When we hear our pain shrugged off with “God is always working for your good”, it often harms our view of God.
Grief is a gift. Suffering wakes us from what we think life is and who we think we are. It reveals what God says about the world and us. It shows us that God cares more about our souls and our part in his Kingdom than our bank accounts or imaginary timeline to get married or Christmas cards depicting the perfect family. When heartbreak and sorrow fill our hearts, God meets us exactly where we’re at with the tenderness of a loving father. In the face of suffering, loss and grief, he shelters us. He comforts and cares for us in ways we can’t fully experience when life is going well.
When we avoid or rationalize away our grief response, we are missing out on experiencing the deep well of relief, comfort and hope God abundantly provides.
Grieving is worship. When we honestly open the deepest, most tender parts of our soul to God, it brings honor and glory to him. In our vulnerability and weakness, he draws us nearer and nearer as he transforms us to be more like Himself.
Jesus knew what it was like to be separated from his father, he knew the experience of people hating him and disagreeing with his choices. He was betrayed by friends and kicked out of his hometown. God even knows the anguish of losing a child.
When we suffer, we become more like our Suffering Savior. As we grieve, we learn more about God’s fatherly love and compassion.
How We Experience Grief
Grief looks different for everyone. Even the same person may experience different seasons of grief that don’t look like the others. Sometimes it may seem like what you’d expect - crying or withdrawing from others. Other times, it will show up unexpectedly in flashes of anger or irritability, anxiety or even physically in muscle aches, exhaustion, or insomnia.
Growing in awareness of what our souls are experiencing and holding it open handed as we process with the Lord is a good start. There is no place for shame, guilt and judgement in our grieving. Being created in God’s image with the Holy Spirit living inside of us, we can trust that God will meet us where we are and use our suffering and our grief to gently shape us more like his son Jesus. Through our grief, he gently calls us into deeper humanity, transformation and sanctification.
The more loss and grief we face, the more God shows his love, mercy and compassion to us.
“For men (and women) are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” Lamentations 3:31-32
Suffering and grieving are painful. But instead of running from both — in our own souls or in our brothers and sisters - let’s step in. The deep well of God’s mercy and compassion is unending and vast enough for our biggest heartaches, pain and devastation. Let’s allow the gift of grieving to remind us of our humanity, to pull back the veil and reveal deeper truths of who Jesus is, to remind us of our glorious hope that one day we will worship with Him in the flesh. And on that glorious day He will wipe away every tear from our eyes— once and for all.
Jackie Lopina is wife to East’s executive pastor Bryan and mama to three kiddos through adoption. They’ve walked through infertility, miscarriage, health issues and special needs parenting. Jackie is a lover of street tacos, obsessed with the musical Hamilton and low key extra about family dance parties.