by Andrew Brown, MA, LLP
Pain and loss are two of the most difficult realities we face in life. They are normal insofar as they are a common part of the human experience, but they seldom feel natural. Loss and pain are also intertwined—so that significant loss is always accompanied by pain and pain can often be traced back to loss. How well we handle loss then, is often closely related to how we handle pain. This represents a problem for many of us.
Having grown up in an era of extensive pain management (often via total anesthesia—feeling nothing rather than feeling pain), many of us don’t do well when faced with pain. We have an abundance of choices when it comes to avoiding emotional pain: distraction in the form of work, projects, or recreational pursuits; manipulation of our inner feelings through substance or media consumption; highly controlled social interaction; or pursuit of that “next thing” that will make us feel better. With so many different options for pain management, why might a person choose to undertake the daunting challenge of grief? There are reasons.
The first, and possibly most obvious reason, is that excessive pain management has some pretty severe drawbacks. Most of us have experienced firsthand the consequences of someone close to us refusing to deal with difficult emotions. It is often the root of misplaced anger, disordered priorities, addiction, and despair.
Pain exists for a purpose. It is our soul’s way of letting us know that “something’s not right” and motivating us to address it. As such, the pain of deep loss doesn’t resolve itself. It lingers just below the surface, coloring our perceptions and feelings about the world and our place in it. Until a person can accept the reality of a loss, feeling their way through the depth of its impact, the loss will continue to churn out this powerful negative emotion.
Though it can be hard to imagine in the face of major loss, grief can actually lead us down a path toward freedom. The reality of loss is fixed. A loved one that has passed away, a missed opportunity, a dream that has been shattered—things that we once cherished are now gone. Grief is the courageous process of actively accepting this reality. Rather than protecting our minds and hearts from the truth, we do what we can to comprehend the loss more deeply. It’s miserable. And at the same time it offers freedom from struggling against something that doesn’t move—an event in the past. It’s scary. But the only way to conquer the unknown is to step into it.
Grief offers the hope of living again. Part of the grieving process is learning how to live without what was lost. Only when we have truly come to terms with the reality of the loss on an emotional level, can we embrace the challenges of the present reality and find satisfaction in overcoming them. Otherwise, we will be tied to the past with cords of dissatisfaction because it isn’t the way that it used to be. This concept was brought to life for me as I watched a video of a woman who had lost her sight learning to pour a glass of water. A simple thing that she had done without thinking many times before, now became a challenge. The look of satisfaction on her face when she felt the dry counter after pouring the water was proof that she had worked through the loss and was determined to go on living.
John 11 gives us one more compelling reason to face our loss and grieve. Here, we read that Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus had fallen gravely ill. Jesus, with full knowledge that God intended to use Lazarus’ death and resurrection for his glory, delayed going to him (This brings us the difficult topic of God’s hand in our suffering. It is a truth that must be faced…but not here). When Jesus did go to Bethany, we are told that on at least two occasions, he was deeply moved. Jesus was not surprised by the loss. He knew that it was temporary and had eternal value. But that didn’t keep him from feeling its pain and expressing this with his tears. Grieving—experiencing that deep soul protest against the present reality of this world—is part of God’s redemptive plan. Like nothing else can, it tears open our hearts and exposes our desperate need for one who will make things right again.
Like so many other things in life, grieving is far easier to talk about (or write about in this case) than it is to do in real life. And like so many other things in life, it is best done with those who truly care. May God grant each of us the courage and strength to face the losses in our lives and learn to live beyond them.
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