…the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. – A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss by Jerry Sittser
Those aren’t merely words in some random book to me. Jerry Sitter’s book on grief and loss has particular meaning for me because I was there. I saw his loss first hand. I was a student at Whitworth College in the Fall of 1991 when tragedy struck Jerry (a professor, advisor, and mentor of mine), his family, and the entire Whitworth Community.
Jerry’s wife Lynda had been homeschooling their two oldest children, teaching them a unit on Native American culture. Being a professor of religion, Jerry decided to drive his family and his mother Grace (who was visiting at the time) to a pow-wow in rural Idaho. On the way back home, Jerry was driving when he was suddenly struck head-on by a drunk driver.
Everyone on the left side of the car lived. Everyone on the right side – Jerry’s wife Lynda, his mother Grace, and their youngest daughter Diana Jane – died. In an instant, Jerry was reduced to a grieving single father who somehow, some way had to figure out how to comfort and care for his traumatized, shell-shocked three surviving children, all while somehow trying to teach college theology classes, advise students, and maintain his own sanity, let alone his walk with God.
Jerry was not only a professor of mine, but he was also my advisor and somewhat of a mentor. I knew Jerry and who he was before, during, and after the accident and I can tell you that it changed him profoundly. I met had met Jerry’s wife Lynda and his daughter Diana Jane before, as Jerry often invited students over to his home.
I was there as a student, watching him struggle to get through teaching college classes. I was present at the memorial service when Jerry tried to recite Romans 8:28, only to watch him break down crying uncontrollably, unable to finish. And I was there to watch and be a part of the body of Christ in action, coming alongside him to grieve with him.
Jerry’s story is a constant reminder for me of the reality of the fleeting nature of this life. The older we get, the more often grief and loss tend to visit our doorsteps – and it can bang on our doors quite loudly, sometimes kicking our doors wide open.
I’m definitely no exception. On Memorial Day of 2000, I watched in horror as my own mother was paralyzed at my home right before my very eyes and I have been there to witness the health problems she and my father have wrestled with ever since.
I’ve watched the slow decay of Alzheimer’s take a large portion of my extended family. All of my grandparents, as well as all four of my uncles, are now gone. Many people who were once intimately connected with my life are now distant memories.
It’s stunning to me as I ponder the long list of personal tragedies and the names of people I’ve known who are no longer here. In addition, I’ve had former classmates successfully commit suicide, had two failed adoptions, lost jobs, grieved the loss of tightly held hopes and dreams, and have endured my own share of personal hardships throughout the years.
Grief and loss isn’t something I talk about anymore from a mere dispassionate philosophical standpoint and neither does Jerry (though he used to). Grief and loss have touched my own life and the lives of every client with whom I’ve ever worked in one form or another.
You could say that suffering and I have become very well acquainted. Suffering for me isn’t just some abstract concept in a book it has names, faces, and in some cases, a fair amount of unpleasant memories attached to it. I’ve lost count of how many tears I’ve cried as I’ve come alongside countless traumatized and hurting people of all ages over the years.
Thoughts on Grief Counseling
Through it all, God has used these experiences to teach me a few very important things regarding grief and loss.
1. Suffering and Pain is a Part of This Present Life
Grief, loss, and suffering are a part of human existence for the Christian and the non-Christian alike. Jesus, himself, taught us so, saying, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” (Matthew 5:45)
2. Blessed Are They Who Mourn
Scripture clearly demonstrates that it’s okay to cry, to be sad, and to mourn. Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that there is “a time to weep and…a time to mourn”. The Jews of all people have always understood this, as demonstrated in their long-standing tradition known as sitting shiva.
If a spouse, parent, sibling, or child of a loved one dies, mourners will come alongside the grieving family and be with them for a period of 7 days. Through the shiva experience, the community gathers together to remember the deceased, to cry, and to comfort those who are hurting. This appears to be what’s going on at the home of Martha and Mary when Jesus arrives and raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11).
As good and truly healing as this can be, the hardest part for those who grieve isn’t right after a loss. Regardless of culture, people are often surrounded by family, friends, and well-wishers at that point. Helpers may be there aplenty at that time to offer words of encouragement, to bring meals, to help with housework, and to show their love and support in tangible ways immediately following a loss.
What about after that point though? You see, the hardest part of grief and loss isn’t immediately following a loss, it’s after six months or even a year or more when everyone has stopped coming around and life has supposedly returned to “normal” again.
People often ask me about the “Stages of Grief” and what particular stage they might be in. A part of me chuckles at that notion of “stages”, as in my experience, I’ve found that grief is very cyclical in nature. It can often show up in very messy ways and at the most inconvenient of times. Whether we’re talking about the death of someone close to us or a traumatic experience, the very same process occurs.
Memory is a funny thing and it can be triggered by all sorts of things. For some, it’s the anniversary of the loss or the traumatic event. For others, sights, sounds, and especially smells can trigger those old painful memories and bring them right back to the surface.
The exact same thing happens to those who experience trauma. The sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life can trigger old painful memories and bring those right back as fresh as the day they happened. For example, the sound of a stranger’s voice or the appearance of their face which just happen to sound or look like either a loved one or a hated abuser can flood us with memories (both pleasant and unpleasant) that in turn affect our mood.
The same thing can occur year in and year out with Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and so on. Both good and bad memories are one reason why we see depression levels spike especially during the holidays every single year.
At other times though, it’s the absence and the silence that can speak loudest of all. It’s the widow who rolls over in bed in the night who suddenly remembers the stark reality that there’s no longer a beloved husband to snuggle up next to.
It’s stuff like this that’s a constant reminder for me of the honest truth that when it comes to grief, loss, and trauma, we truly don’t ever “get over” our hurts. Jerry Sittser concurs:
I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it. – A Grace Disguised
Jesus himself teaches us the same thing:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5:3-4
Having followed the Lord faithfully for 27 years now, I believe that I understand this passage today in a far deeper and much more profound level than I ever did as a young believer in Christ. Though it can be extremely unpleasant at the time, there is a strange transformation that takes place within us when we experience pain and suffering.
Pain and suffering can make our hearts tender towards others and closer to God in a way that nothing else can. The Apostle Paul expressed this as well, saying, “I want to know Christ–yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
I’ll go so far as to say that I’m not sure we could truly be compassionate towards others before God were it not for the experience of pain and suffering in our lives.
For others though, pain and suffering are the very things that end up driving them away from God and other people. It shakes the very foundations of their world to the core, leaving despair, cynicism, hopelessness, and despair in its wake.
For them, all of life truly is meaningless and all they’re left with are postmodern ideas of trying to create their own meaning in an attempt to try to make sense out of it all. For them, life truly is all about, “Eat, drink, and be merry today, for tomorrow we die.”
Why the difference? Why are some resilient while others end up falling apart? The answer to that ultimately lies in what a person’s life is really founded upon and whether or not they believe they truly are all alone after all.
3. Remember, We’re Just Passing Through
Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mind and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rains came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. – Matthew 7:24-27
After thousands of dollars spent on education and many years spent in the counseling and social service fields, I have concluded that in so many ways, it all comes down to a very simple question: Is your house built upon the rock or is it built upon the sand?
Make no mistake about it, the storms of life will come to all, regardless of who you are. It’s those storms in life that reveal to us just how firm the foundations are that we’ve built our lives upon. These storms often force us to ask life’s toughest and most important questions (the ones that we often tend to otherwise avoid) such as:
- Does life have a purpose?
- Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?
- Does all of this really matter?
- What am I truly living for?
- How have I honestly lived my life?
- What legacy am I leaving behind?
- When I’m dead and gone, how will people remember me?
- Is there life after death, and if so, how do I and my loved ones experience it?
Pain forces us to ask such questions. It forces us to ask if there even is a God and if life truly is as pointless as the atheists would have us believe. As Paul fully admits, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied above all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
On that note, about 20 years ago now, I engaged in a personal journey to explore the question of Darwinian Evolution and Intelligent Design. That journey completely blasted to smithereens any chance of me ever becoming an atheist.
In my search for answers, I read numerous books on cosmology, the origins of life, evolution, and intelligent design and emailed professors and scientists at universities throughout the United States. I ended up teaching a three-month-long class on the subject at my church based on what I’d learned.
Today, I no longer have enough faith to be an atheist. To believe that a stunningly complex, intricately fine-tuned universe and life can come about purely by random undirected natural processes quite frankly takes far greater faith than I have. It’s honestly the atheists, not the theists, who have the greater faith.
Faith is a real key to successfully navigating the rough waters of life. After having worked with both Christians and non-Christians for years, I can say that in general, those who truly believe in Jesus have a resilience unlike any other. That’s because born-again Christians know deep down inside that this current world is not their true home.
For here we do not have an enduring city, we await the city that is to come. – Hebrews 13:14
The Bible teaches that as far as this life that we experience is concerned we are just passing through. Therefore Paul encourages believers in Christ to, “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
He goes on to remind believers that this body that we possess right now is merely an “earthly tent” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), an interesting picture that reminds us that everything we experience right now is temporary and will eventually be folded up.
Peter and other writers of the New Testament go further in saying that Christians are “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 1:17; 2:11; Hebrews 11:13-16) in this world. Jesus himself, in praying for his disciples, reiterated this same idea, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” (John 17:16).
The New Testament picture of this world is not that of a Garden of Eden, but rather that of hostile territory that is temporarily occupied and under the dominion of the Prince of the Air – The Devil (Ephesians 2:2), much like many European countries were occupied by the Nazis during World War II.
And just like the Allied Forces who liberated those countries, so too the Bible teaches that God and His armies are surely coming to liberate us and put an end to Satan, sin, and death once and for all (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
Those who mourn can cling fast to the hope that all of their momentary troubles are but a nanosecond – a snap of the fingers in the light of eternity. They can be comforted by keeping their eyes firmly fixed upon the city that is to come, knowing that they will be surrounded by their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ in the presence of God (face to face at long last) forever and ever.
There will be no more pain and no more sorrow. As Revelation 21:3-4 says, “Now the dwelling of God is 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.”
This is the hope of all who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is this that gives hope to those who mourn, that all wrongs will be made right, that all hurts will be healed, and that they will see and be together with their loved ones again (those for whom Jesus was their Lord and Savior).
What about those who either don’t accept or don’t know Christ though?
4. Put It All in God’s Hands
It’s these kinds of questions that tend to be the biggest sticking points of all for Christians who find themselves in the midst of pain and suffering. What about those people who die of whom we’re fairly certain didn’t know Christ or even those whom we’re just not sure about?
Jesus himself was crystal clear regarding the eternal destiny of those who don’t know him. We read parables such as The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and his words to us in verses like John 3:17-18 and find that sobering truth an extremely bitter pill to swallow.
Are our loved ones really and truly gone and lost forever? For Christians, these kinds of losses can be some of the very toughest of all to absorb.
When you really start to peel back the layers of the onion and examine why some people ultimately end up rejecting the Gospel, you start to discover that sometimes there are some definite reasons why they did so.
Over time as you hear these stories, you realize that things aren’t always as neat and tidy as you might think. There are a lot of people out there running around who have been wounded in the name of Jesus, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Is God really not going to end up giving these people a chance to see the real Jesus for themselves?
It becomes even more problematic when you start to think about all the people who grow up in cults and about the millions of people in the world who grow up in countries where the gospel isn’t even allowed and who die never even having had the chance to hear about Jesus.
Is God really going to condemn such people without giving them a chance to even know him?
I believe this is precisely the question that the disciples were asking Jesus in John 14:22 “Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?’”
Jesus’s response to him was very interesting:
Jesus replied, ‘If anyone loves me, will obey my teaching. My father will love him, and we will make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teachings, These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.’ – John 14:23-25
Jesus also said that he had “other sheep who are not of this pasture” and that “they too will listen to my voice” (John 10:16). According to all accounts, that’s actually happening in the Middle East right now. I’ve heard stories of numerous Muslims coming to Christ because Jesus visited them in a vision or dream. All of which reminds me that God is sovereign and suggests that somehow, someway, God will find a way to reach those who are ultimately His.
I once asked Jerry Sittser that very same question. I’ll never forget his response to me:
God will judge us on what we know, not on what we don’t know. God isn’t going to judge us on what we don’t know and what we don’t understand about him, but upon what we do. – Jerry Sittser (personal conversation circa 1994)
After 27 years of faithfully following the Lord and diligently studying His word, I’m convinced that Jerry is right. As Hebrews 6:10 reminds us, “God is not unjust.”
5. Never Forget We Are Just Fish in the Fishbowl
Some people though who grieve in a very different way question how just God truly is.
“If God is so good and so loving as you claim, why was I abused? If he truly loves me like you say, how could he allow such pain and suffering to happen?”
These are the very kinds of questions that drive so many people away from God and from having any kind of faith. To answer these people, I often use the analogy of the fish in the fishbowl.
You see, we are the fish in the fishbowl. Our entire world, our entire galaxy, our universe – everything is inside of that fishbowl. The fish lives inside of the bowl. All it knows is what’s inside of the bowl. That’s all the fish has ever known or can truly know. Its entire existence has been inside that fishbowl. That fish has no idea that there is a whole massive world that exists beyond the fishbowl.
There are oceans, and lakes, and mountains, and deserts, space, planets, other galaxies, and so on, but the fish, has no knowledge and understanding of such things. It has no idea (not even a clue) about those things whatsoever. The fish cannot understand all that because it’s confined to the fishbowl. We are merely fish in the fishbowl.
There is an eternal, all powerful, all knowing, all present, and all-loving God that exists outside of that fishbowl along with a whole huge, massive realm of existence He’s created that we call heaven. And all of that is frankly beyond our understanding at this time.
As the Lord told us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). People certainly do try to understand though.
Job didn’t understand what was happening to him and questioned God for 37 chapters of the book of Job. In the end, after God showed Job just how small he and his own limited human understanding of things truly were, he said, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3).
God’s answer to Job is far from satisfying in so many ways, but I don’t honestly know if he could have answered otherwise. After all, we are finite creatures trying to understand our infinite creator.
I cannot tell you why one person lives and another person dies. I cannot tell you why people suffer and why bad things are allowed to happen to seemingly innocent people. God is God and I am not. What I can tell you and do know is that God most certainly does care.
God didn’t sit at a distance with his arms crossed scowling in disgust (or worse yet, apathy) when his creation messed up. He entered into the fishbowl. God entered into time and space. He loved us enough to visit us, to become one of us. He walked with us, talked with us, cared about us, taught us, and lovingly looked us right in the eyes.
He healed the sick, brought the dead back to life, and released the captives from the chains of sin and death. His name is Jesus – the Alpha and the Omega (the beginning and the end). He is the answer to all those who seek and as St. Augustine said, our hearts will always be restless until they find their rest in Him.
6. You are Not Alone
The most important thing of all for people who are grieving to realize and to feel is that they are not alone. It can certainly feel lonely when you’re in the midst of suffering, though. When grief and loss are staring you in the face, it can sometimes feel like God is far away, doesn’t care, or may not even exist. It can feel at times like no one cares and that no one could possibly understand even if they were there.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Psalm 34:18 tells us, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” As mentioned above, God didn’t just stop at merely being sympathetic to our pain, He entered into it. Jesus grieved and wept with Martha and Mary over the death of their brother Lazarus (John 11:32-36).
God did far more than that though, he actually felt our pain. Jesus himself experienced the pain and suffering of being alone and abandoned when He took on the sins of all humanity on the cross (Matthew 27:46).
We have a God who knows what pain, suffering, and isolation actually feels like because He became one of us and experienced those things as one of us. He isn’t distant, he is with us and loves us even in the midst of our pain and suffering far more than we can possibly understand (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. – Psalm 139:7-10
So, even though it may feel like you’re alone at times, know that you never ever are alone and in fact, you never have been. God is and has always been there.
7. Don’t Allow Yourself to Act as if You Were Alone
For who are introverted by nature, periodic isolation is how they recharge their batteries (so to speak). When tragedy strikes though, there is a real tendency – especially for those who are more introverted by nature – to retreat into themselves. The danger when we allow ourselves to do so is that we can drive ourselves crazy, just like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Castaway.
There is a reason that solitary confinement is a major form of punishment used by prisons. We can start to believe that we’re all alone, that no one could possibly understand (or worse yet even care about us). The more alone that we feel, the more psychotic our thinking becomes.
That can be hard to overcome – the belief that we’re alone or that we’re strong enough and that we don’t need anyone or anyone’s help. When hard times strike, many people will often think they are helping by telling us, “You’re a strong person. You can get through this.” These people may even discourage crying and emotional displays of grief and sorrow, telling us how tough we are.
The problem with that “strong man” or “strong woman” self-sufficient “you can do it all on your own” narrative that many in our culture try to make us believe is that it simply doesn’t match up with reality. And if we truly allow ourselves to think about it, we’ll realize just how much of a lie that idea truly is.
People are relational by nature. If you doubt that, just look around you. People naturally form romantic relationships. They form friendships. They form families. They form groups, schools, churches, organizations, societies, and even countries. They crave connection – to know others and to be known.
It’s clear that God did not make us to live alone. God made us for communion with Him and with each other. It goes further than that though. God didn’t just make a relationship, He himself is actually a relationship (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
God made humanity in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27), so is it any wonder that like God, that we would be relational in nature too? You and I were made for relationship. That is the whole point of the crucifixion of Jesus – God, desiring so much to repair the relationship between himself and us that he sent his son Jesus to die on the cross for it. We cannot live life on our own, nor were we ever meant to.
Scripture blows apart the notion of Lone Ranger Christianity. You will not find that picture supported anywhere in the Bible. Instead, what you’ll find is that all true believers in Christ are brothers and sisters – one massive family that we call “The Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:14-26).
All who have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior are family. And as is the case with families, family members are supposed to love and support one another. They care for one another in time of need.
That’s precisely what Jesus’s disciples did, as they were all together following his crucifixion (John 20). 1 Corinthians 12:26 says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” We call that community and that’s precisely the picture that we see with the early church in Acts 2:42-48.
Why is it that in the church today, we too often don’t have or experience that? Instead, we put on plastic smiles for one another on a Sunday, telling one another how great things are in our lives when in reality many of us are falling apart inside.
Others tend to remain aloof in churches, avoiding contact or meaningful contact because behind their masks lie a lot of deep wounds and significant pain. Too many Christians today are shouldering burdens, suffering in silence all alone, trying to get by on their own in their own strength.
And the problem is that there are too many professing Christians in our churches today who for one reason or another don’t reach out and talk to anyone outside their circle of comfort. What about the shy single people, the disabled, or the elderly in our congregations, who may truly have nobody in their lives whom they can really talk to? That’s just not the way it’s supposed to be.
As Christians, we need to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). By doing so, we will fulfill Jesus’s command to us to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).
If any of that describes you, I would encourage you not to be alone. Reach out to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. You need them as much as they need you. And in the struggle to come to grips with it all, I would encourage you not to hesitate to reach out for professional help.
1 Corinthians 12:9 says that to some, God has given through the Holy Spirit gifts of healing. Why not call upon a fellow brother or sister in Christ who is gifted by God and has both the Bible in one hand and mental health training and experience in the other? A trained Christian therapist can be an invaluable companion in coming alongside you in your journey through grief and loss.
“Portrait”, Courtesy of IanZA, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Girl”, Courtesy of “Jerzy Gorecki, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Hug”, Courtesy of Mark Filter, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “War”, Courtesy of Stefan Keller, Pixabay.com, CC0 License