From Isaiah 61: He gives us beauty for ashes, and garments of praise for our mourning.
Right now, the air outside is foggy and gray. On the wall inside, a painting features a woman bent low in worship, adorned in vibrant colors. The contrast between the painting and the atmosphere outside is complimented by Frederic Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp playing in the background. Grief is a contrast – a gray space. Grief is holy ground.
I write this introduction in the beginning days of the 2020 pandemic quarantine; the first of my lifetime and hopefully, what will be the last. As I observe the global reactions to the pandemic, I see the manifestation of grief is being overlooked by many. It is no surprise that our grief is going untended. Recognizing grief requires so much of our attention that we just cannot offer as we are struggling as individuals and world citizens to simply maintain some semblance of normalcy.
And yet, I argue that grief is the only “normal” thing we can expect in the middle of such horrendous circumstances. For those among us who have lost a loved one to this plague, we grieve together. The rest of us are cycling through varying levels of anxiety, fear, sorrow, and rage. The tension is real, and so is the grief. This is my book, but I will share my own stories only briefly, as I believe any healing you encounter here will come from your own story becoming flesh in front of you.
My hope in producing this work is to allow for the stories of loss to rise, take shape, gain acknowledgment, and allow us as individuals and a culture to transform into a new thing. This is tread-lightly, move-slowly work. Give yourself space to exhale, cry, mourn, feel, and float between steps as needed to receive healing. We have been offered beauty for ashes, but only receive the gifts we accept.
Whether you are actively grieving a loss, working through heartbreak from a previous loss, or simply curious about how to support yourself or others with more empathy, this work is for you. It is intended to create compassionate pathways through familiar storylines and give us better tools to love and hold one another gently.
After years of working through grief privately, I chose to pursue a career supporting grievers both as a writer and as a coach. Coaching is different from counseling, so I want to take a moment to clarify. Counseling is crucial for many grievers. It is reflective work, led by a trained professional who will help diagnose and analyze past experiences or behaviors. Sessions are usually consistent for a long duration, or until the client feels settled in their current season. On the other hand, coaching is a less frequent, forward-thinking process in which the client identifies areas with opportunity for growth. I invite coaching clients to lean into failure with curiosity. As each client recognizes where they would like support, a coach helps provide a specific methodology and framework to reach the client-informed goals. A counselor can function as a coach, but a coach should not function in a therapeutic manner without the proper licensing.
In grief work, we know the connective tissue between each client and their pain is always love. When the source of our grief stems from abuse, trauma, or violent loss,* it is the broken promise of love that hurts the most and takes priority. Grief is love, whether the person we lost is another or part of ourselves. As you move through this book, move with the idea that you are beloved (even if you are struggling to believe it right now).
*Note: If you are managing grief from an abusive or violent circumstance, please know this book will serve as a resource but cannot be the sole place you gain support. Coaching in all forms is meant as a subsequent tool alongside or after counseling.
Whether we are walking through a fresh loss or one decades old, we all experience the same fear of exposure when discussing grief in communities. Our Western culture struggles to engage the complex, nuanced emotions of grief. Even momentarily allowing discomfort to exist is intimidating. But in the constant pursuit of comfort, we have set aside our emotions, lost sight of how to hold space for one another, and forgotten how to mourn with those who mourn. Have you ever heard someone equate vulnerability with evil? I have, and nothing could be further from the truth.
As much as possible, allow the stories and resources here to guide you to a deeper understanding of who you are and who God is to you amid sorrow. My beliefs have grown over the years, informing both my personal faith and the way I honor grievers in my work. This book is as much a memoir of my own healing as it is a guidebook. I want to inform you that I do carry a grounded faith in Jesus. Yet even with my own strong beliefs, I felt wholly misunderstood as a grieving Christian. The church (as an entity) does not appear to serve grievers well beyond the initial loss. Much could be said, but rather than turn my work into a tirade, I offer my hope and intention that the story of my process will introduce freedom for your own.
You should also know I do not believe God causes our loved ones to die to teach us a lesson. The Old Testament is full of moments in history where this would seem otherwise, but the context of a historical work is never to be drawn straight into the present for application. God’s character is consistent; He is constantly redeeming and drawing all of humanity back into His presence and closer to His heart. Salvation means healing. Death and loss of all forms are outside of His promise to us, as well as outside of His plan to remain with us.
I want us to meet the man Jesus, who in His time on earth embodied the fullness of joy and the lowest point of grief. He is the happiest person to ever walk the planet, and still we know Him as the Man of Sorrows. His demonstration of the paradoxical life, able to navigate gracefully through all experiences, is our North Star for healthy movement toward wholeness.
The purpose of including scriptures is not to simply use the Bible as a confirmation, but to express the validity of your grief process (as well as your emotional responses) as seen and known by God. Does that mean you must share my beliefs to use this work? Surely not.
The idea that God needs a loved one to die before He can reach our heart stems from a need to understand and explain away the pain. We want to define the “why.” Simplifying God’s nature to something so intrusive and aggressive is like relating owning a dog to getting married. One does not require the other.
By adding scripture to grief, we can inadvertently deepen pain with platitudes and a lack of understanding. This is often where the church veers off-course, presenting hope without holding space for pain. However, if we approach the scriptures with empathy, attentiveness, and respect for others first, then we will see His happy heart for restoration in all things. It is here we will begin to relate to the stories of old in a way that no longer binds us but rather, sets us free to grieve as we see fit.
During my own process, I struggled with my faith. It wavered and for a time, I wondered if I should simply walk away. I could not reconcile some of the teachings and interpretations of Christianity with the reality of what I continued to experience. Much of this book is framed for those in the same boat – perhaps you are ready to give up your belief system because of the way some teachers have impressed spirituality as the answer to all your sorrows. The global church struggles to support grievers in a way that is individualized, sustainable, or helpful long term. This is not an attack, so please set aside the pitchforks. The truth is that all pastors are stretched to their limits with expectations on how and what to teach, and grief is not an easily received message. If we want to be the church, we have to learn how to grow and support one another authentically and in love with more than thoughts and prayers. There is much to disentangle.
Regardless of where you stand, I offer my experiences as just that – mine. This book is a memoir only insofar as the content requires for explanation. Each day, the tools offered will incorporate some of the Christian Bible as context, in addition to wisdom from experts in the field. Perhaps you will find the scriptures hopeful; perhaps distracting. Your faith tradition and history is likely different from my own, and that’s perfectly normal. No matter how you initially respond, remember that you are a fully autonomous human with the ability to replace the name of God with whatever resonates with you. If you carry a belief system that differs from mine, I am grateful you are here and hope you choose to stay. There is value to be found in all systems, all structures, all stories, and all people.
As they say, “Chew the meat and spit out the bones.” Find what serves and allow the rest to pass you by.
As we find ourselves drawing closer to our grief, we must offer ourselves the same compassion we would hope to receive. When we observe our emotional states, we can make a judgment to shut ourselves down (i.e. – disallow the emotion to resurface out of fear of appearing weak, unhealed, etc.). Alternatively, we can make the choice to become curious about the feelings as they arrive and practice patience with ourselves. Be sure to maintain a journal as you work through your grief process, no matter what the daily prompts suggest. Your journal and thoughts will become immeasurably valuable even as a dumping ground for heavy emotions you’re not ready to unpack. And if you’re not one who enjoys journaling, that’s okay. You can learn to do something new.
When Lazarus was dying, Jesus knew full well that His words would raise His friend from the dead. He could have prevented it, yet chose to allow Lazarus to decompose for four days before He ordered the stone to be rolled away. In those days, we are given insight to the way Jesus mourned with His friends. To the way He showed up for them — intentionally and with compassion —allowing tears to stream down His face.
The validation of an emotional response as demonstrated by Jesus serves to remind us that we have emotions for a reason. When we mourn with those who mourn (despite our own knowledge or discomfort) we extend the mercy of God into the lives of the sorrowful. We acknowledge and hold space for our humanity.
Researcher Brené Brown has given our generation one of the greatest gifts we could ever ask for with her fastidious research into shame, vulnerability, and courage. In her work, she uncovered a common indicator that a person’s rise into strength is often marked by behavior she classified as living with a “strong back, soft front, and a wild heart.” I discuss this concept specifically in chapter eight with regards to boundary setting and building a circle of support. But internally, a person living with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart is willing to stand alone because they know what is right and good. We belong to ourselves and while grief can disintegrate our sense of self into someone we hardly recognize, this principle of self-pursuit is an incredible way to come home to ourselves. Holding our process and story close, with intention and dedication, is how we can find our way through the mess.
We experience grief like a sneaker wave, attacking when life looks like a beach. To resurface requires one to simultaneously invite the wilderness and confusion, along with the tenderness of a heart ready for healing and a sturdy center to hold us through it all. But the methodology to become one ready to grapple with the waves varies wildly. We all want satisfaction, and some would have you believe they found an answer. Throughout my research, however, I found evidence that often the answer given by the well-intentioned confidant can inflict almost as much damage to a person’s faith and sense of confidence as the initial floundering in grief.
There are no wrong ways to grieve. Are there unhealthy ways? Of course. Just as there are unhealthy ways to drop pounds or quit a job. We are a society insistent on finding the quickest way to process. With grief, that often means accepting the surface level answer, hoping for the least amount of pain. But as any trainer will tell you, transformation takes time. Grief can become a moment of ingrained trauma to which you never return but repeatedly experience. It can also be an opening to celebrate life and transform the very core of who we are into a more integrated, generous, and openhearted human.
No one ever said life would be easy, but for some reason, we reject the complex in a constant pursuit of ease and comfort. While it is hard, it can be so good.
Let’s move slowly into the deep end and learn how to tread water instead of fearing that we will drown.
The Window of Tolerance
One way we can move slowly through this process is to learn about our “Window of Tolerance.” In his work at the UCLA School of Medicine, clinical professor of psychiatry Dr. Dan Siegel developed this concept to help us recognize when we have less capacity for tension than usual.
For much of our lives, we are happily cruising through life with a wide open window of tolerance. This means we have higher capacity for complex thought, decision making, stressful situations, etc. But when trauma or stressors increase rapidly (like in grief), the window narrows. We are thrust into one of two different physiological states where we actively avoid, resist, fight, or reject incoming information.
This can look like so many different reactions, but to keep it simple, we’ll talk about volcanoes and icebergs.
- Volcanoes erupt. They experience tremendous pressure, cause great fear in others, and if they were people, would likely wonder how much longer they could maintain self control before exploding and causing mass destruction.
- Icebergs are slow, quiet, and frozen in place. It takes decades to see any movement and when we do, it is microscopic. They do exactly what they’ve always done… which is not much.
Neither one of these states of being is ideal, but awareness around our own “window of tolerance” is not an opportunity to bring more judgment against our capacity. It is information we need to practice patience and honor ourselves with the time necessary to heal.
Finding Your Story
When my mother passed away, I spent one week with my family in an incredibly focused, emotionally frozen hurricane of productivity. I considered this silent fortitude as bravery, as if I were setting the example for how to carry on. I numbed myself with food, alcohol, and entertainment. I coped by ignoring my memories and wondered how long I could maintain stoicism without addressing the indescribable emptiness in my being – mind, body, and soul. It was pure survival for those seven days.
On day eight, as I flew home to my husband and daughter, I had a conversation with my heart. A turning point loomed as I sensed I could not continue to rely on my own strength for much longer. The decision to look at my grief meant allowing my heart to be held by God – not humans – and to allow His kindness and truth to invade the arena of my life that would rather shrivel and hide. I wanted to learn how to embrace loss as a part of life, without dismissing the importance of living or of processing my grief. I wanted to move forward with intention and responsibility for the life before me. I needed to find a way to pursue healing and to feel connected to my loss without minimizing my pain. Grief and life are two sides of the same coin; and we can only avoid grief in our story for so long.
My mother’s death is not the first traumatic loss in my life and grief is not limited to a death. However, it was this season of grief when I finally allowed myself to recognize the power of holding space for my own heart through the sorrow, even if it meant crying in public. The normally self-assured, confident leader needed to find a new level of humility and honesty. I became hell-bent and heaven-sent on welcoming a deeper version of myself to the surface.
The transformational power of grief cannot be overstated. But as we are willing to observe the grief, we must be equally willing to allow our understanding of God’s nature, character, and truth to be revealed through scripture in a new way. The world, the church, the well-intentioned advice givers; everyone will offer us platitudes, comfort foods, and flowers to try and quickly cheer us up (again, I am speaking broadly of “the church” as a global entity in this context). Although you may not identify as someone who shares my faith, there is still a truth that we have to embrace: Humans do not know how to allow others the space they need to grieve, and organized religion is not helping us figure it out.
In my healing process, I found God offering a new level of peace, which does not rely upon understanding but trust in His character. When we are ready (and only then), we can trust Him to excavate our buried treasures. We no longer need to drown in the details.
What this really harkens to is that on the whole, churches struggle to handle the ambiguous, unending occurrences of grief. This often includes identifying the source of our grief as the church itself. The business of carrying on is alive and well, and those who are “not transformed” during their weekly attendance must somehow be to blame for their lack of progress.
However, we simply know that grief is not a topic easily discussed in public. It is messy, unpredictable, and wholly uncontrollable. We grieve deeply and wildly, unaware of when triggers will cause our simmering pain to boil over. As you work through this book, pay attention to the voice in your mind that repeats phrases you’ve heard over your lifetime. Are you whispering platitudes to yourself? Are you comparing your loss to a much larger scale tragedy, and invalidating your process?
This topic is so hard. I know many of us are hurt by the church and carry deep wounds connected to rejection and beliefs. I want to believe the church has never intended to disenfranchise or minimize your loss; and yet, it does so often. Even if your faith tradition differs from mine, consider that we both have much to learn by remaining open handed with our grief. Regardless of our backgrounds, we can learn to embrace Jesus as one who pursued the disenfranchised and embraced the marginalized. His approach to grief was simple, invitational, and clear. As we internalize and practice loving, gentle reminders of how to process loss with mercy and grace toward ourselves, we will become the grief supporters we think we already are.
On Grieving Well
As you work through these pages, allow your heart to become curious about the circular nature of grief. The work is broken into five days at a time, each examining what is traditionally known as a “step in the grief process” but only to help create an air of familiarity. We know very well that grief is not linear. The time it takes for one to move through a single day of this work will be the same amount of time another person moves through the entire book.
Additionally, feel free to jump around to a section that feels most like hope for the moment. This is meant to become a resource that is honest, approachable, inviting, and safe. This is not a book of answers, but a source of wisdom to explore the emotions of grief and the restoration process of moving through loss with grace and compassion, no matter the duration. While fertilizer in and of itself may stink, it’s useful when we work it into the soil. Left on the surface, it will have minimal impact and eventually be washed away. Doing this work is going to feel messy! You will repeatedly get your hands dirty and feel like you’re working through unending piles of fertilizer. You may wonder if any of it is going to make a difference. It is not the book itself, but your faithful willingness to return to the work, day after day, that will bring about healing. Your consistent commitment to your own heart and story is the crux of this work.
This material is designed to bring life to the place that feels the most like death. If you catch nothing else, believe this: Your life is meant to overflow! Everything you say, do, think, and feel impacts your own story and the people around you. Give yourself permission to bring life to your own grieving heart before you unintentionally bring a half-life to those you love.
So, name your loss. Feel the emotions. Learn to grieve as you learned to love – naturally, through example and deep connection – because grief and love are eternally intertwined.