None of us is exempt from experiencing grief during our lifetime in some form or other. At such times we need help. We know we can derive comfort and strength from God through prayer and meditation on His Word, but He also provides the support and understanding that comes from caring brothers and sisters in Christ.

We have invited Brother Brendon Clark of the Tawa Ecclesia, NZ, to write a series of articles on the subject of grief. Brother Brendon is highly qualified professionally in this field and has had extensive experience in the field of mental health prior to and since coming to the Truth.

Grief and bereavement are terms we often confuse although they are closely related. At its most fundamental, grief is our reaction to a loss of some kind. For most of us, bereavement is the most familiar form of grief as it involves the loss of people close to us through death. Thus we grieve when family and friends die, but also if we lose other things. For example, while not bereaved in the physical sense, we grieve when brethren are lost from the meeting through disfellowship, or when children choose a life in the world rather than baptism and a life in the Truth. “A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him” (Prov 17:25). In addition, we grieve when we lose employment, limbs, opportunities, possessions, our sense of identity and so on.

Degree of Grief

Naturally, the more important the person or thing is to us, the stronger our reaction to the loss. As different things assume a different importance for all of us, it is impossible to determine how severe someone’s grief will be merely by identifying what has been lost. One of the key determinants of the severity of the grief reaction is the strength of that person’s feelings of attachment to the thing they have lost. Losing a job may be enough to send one person into depression, while a second is extremely matter-of-fact and barely grieves at all. However, the second person may suffer interminably through the loss of a pet, while the first would barely register the loss.

A Highly Personal Experience

We cannot therefore provide a simple template of grief as it is a highly individualised experience, comprising such things as our unique backgrounds, values, idiosyncrasies, experiences, biology, genetics, ability to express emotions, support networks, skills and resources, without even considering the relative importance to each of us of the things that we lose. People’s reactions to loss differ enormously and the coping strategies we employ to deal with the loss also vary significantly. At best, then, we can determine some central themes to the grief process, our reactions and expressions of grief, and how best we might assist others.

As Time Passes

Unfortunately, we often have stereotypical views of what grief is and how we should grieve, which then conditions the help we might offer others who grieve. Historically a series of stages of grief has been the model for how we grieve, suggesting that we progress through an ordered sequence of reactions. It is generally accepted today that while we certainly do progress through mostly identifiable stages, they are in no particular order and we may experience some of them more than once and some more intensely than others. Moreover, there is no guide to how long each stage should take, as again, this is dictated by so many individual variables. Artificial estimates are usually employed in the absence of strict boundaries in such situations as employment law, which offers three to five days as usually enough time to grieve and get back at work.

Obviously this sets an arbitrary limit on a normal process which can be entirely unrealistic. In truth though, most people actually cope remarkably well for the first few days after such an event as a death and generally do feel well enough to head back to work or to resume normal duties at home. Superficially this seems reasonable. It is, however, completely artificial. In the early days most of us have access to support from others, enough things to do to keep us occupied and therefore distracted, and substantial amounts of stress hormones that enable us to keep going during times of stress such as this.

Readjustment—‘Getting Over It’

Where problems tend to occur is in the days, weeks and months after the visits stop, the phone calls stop, no more meals are delivered, cards and flowers stop, everyone else’s life has continued at the same pace as previously and there becomes an unspoken opinion that we should be ‘over it’ and getting on with life. Then comes the realisation that we never in fact ‘get over it’, but that we learn to live with our new situation. It is during these times that we need to be alert for symptoms of anxiety or depression and to look for physical ailments. We will begin to know the truth of Paul’s words: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Cor 1:3,4)

Identifying Symptoms

Most commonly, symptoms like these are directly related to the loss, but are often missed as symptoms or ascribed another cause because of the time between the loss and the appearance of the symptoms. Merely turning up at the meeting and fulfilling most of one’s responsibilities is no indication that grieving is over or that that person is in fact coping. Depression for example may not be evident until six months later. The depression may lead to agoraphobia and a range of physical problems.

Having said this, there is a point at which continued grief is considered to be unhealthy, even damaging. In strictly clinical terms, a minority of people suffer from pathological grief which is observed at the extreme end of the grieving continuum. Here, the grief reaction seems disproportionately long and intense to be considered normal. This in turn can lead to other complications such as psychosis (split from reality characterised by events such as delusions, hearing voices etc) or profound depression.

Fortunately, this is uncommon for most people and, while it is somewhat subjective to pigeonhole normal and abnormal grief, usual clinical experience would suggest a timeframe of up to two years to resume normal functioning. Most people seem to need somewhere between six months and two years for the loss of a loved one, and generally less than that where the loss has a lesser impact.

Positive Outcomes

What seems to be one of the key features in coming to terms with any form of loss and other stressful events is how we come to grips with the meaning of the event. A common component of any grief reaction or process is to ask the rhetorical question “Why me?” Naturally we would like to be able to place some order on the events that have happened, particularly if the loss is sudden or unexpected, just so that we can understand the “why”. This is not to say that we must find the right meaning in order to ‘move on’, but that we are comfortable with whatever level of meaning we find. In some cases, people find no meaning at all and still appear better adjusted than others at one and two year intervals. Of course, an equally valid question to ask, but one which gets significantly less coverage is, “Why not me?” Realising that this is a valid question provides all the meaning one person might need, while another engages in a long term, intensive search for an ever-elusive better answer. While some answers are irrational, unprovable, just plain wrong or even destructive, many are not, and having the support of Brothers and Sisters helps to direct our thoughts along helpful avenues.

The importance of support cannot be overstated, provided it is delivered in appropriate ways and at appropriate times. Giving answers to others, such as did Job’s friends, is really of little benefit. Assisting a friend to work through their own answers, praying and guiding with wise counsel, rather than with instructions and ‘to do’ lists, is extremely beneficial. Assistance, given well, eases the process. Done poorly, it tends to lead to greater complications. Following articles will discuss this more fully.

In closing, there are some good things and some not so good things to do in coping with grief or helping others cope with grief. Future articles will look more closely at:

  • a consideration of the various stages of the grief process (anger, depression etc)
  • a two-part consideration of the components of reaction to stress (behavioural, emotional, cognitive and physiological). What is normal and what is abnormal? When should we seek professional assistance?
  • some dos and don’ts of helping others who are grieving
  • a Scriptural perspective on grief
  • conclusion and comments.