Coping with Bereavement

Dr. Brian Allison

The Nature of Grief

Grief is a painful emotion which results from the experience of loss, disappointment, or separation (e.g. Job 2:13; 16:6), which often leaves one feeling helpless. It is the 'soul's sorrow', consisting primarily of the feelings of sadness/depression (e.g. dejection, emptiness, melancholy, boredom, etc.) (cf. Prov 14:13; Psa 107:39; Eccl 7:3) and displeasure/anger (e.g. bitterness, irritability, frustration, resentment, etc.) (cf. Prov 17:25; Lam 1:4; Zech 12:10). Grief is a natural (i.e., innate) emotional response to either deprivation – the removal of a source or means of some needed, valued, or desired object (e.g. 2 Sam 19:2); or to distress – the psychological pressure and anxiety which result from misfortune, tragedy, or threat (e.g. Isa 53:3,4). Bereavement involves the deepest kind of grief because bereavement usually concerns the deepest kind of loss, disappointment, and separation.

Relationship Between Grief and Mourning

Grief and mourning are intricate, correlative behavioural dynamics. They comprise two sides of the same experiential phenomenon. Grief is the 'inner side' and mourning is the 'outer side' of the one reality of personal hurt and suffering. We may associate grieving with the covert, emotional side; and mourning with the overt, behavioural (i.e., visible) side. Accordingly, the Psalmist bemoaned, "I went about as though it were my friend or brother; I bowed down mourning, as one who sorrows [grieves] for a mother" (Psa 35:14).

The Necessity of Grieving-Mourning

Grieving-mourning restores health to the heart (and body). Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 reads, "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure." Grieving-mourning has medicinal effects.

Grieving-mourning is right, good, and necessary in response to the experience of significant loss, disappointment, or separation; and thus should be expected, and even encouraged, especially with respect to bereavement (cf. 1 Thess 4:13). There is an appropriate "time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Eccl 3:4). Well-meaning caregivers or supporters of the bereaved who make the following statements reveal their ignorance of the necessity for healthy grieving-mourning: "Get a hold of yourself;" "You can't fall apart;" "Keep a stiff upper lip;" "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps;" "Be strong for the children;" etc.

Stages of the Grieving-Mourning Process

Though we may talk about the stages of grieving-mourning, in reality the relationship amongst these stages is not strictly and invariably chronological and linear, but often are concurrent and overlapping; but for the sake of understanding, we view the stages successively. In actual experience, the process does not unfold so neatly. Notwithstanding, the general stages of the actual grieving-mourning process are: 1) Shock. The bereaved is initially overwhelmed emotionally and incredulous. He is rendered emotionally numb and unresponsive; 2) Denial. The bereaved finds it impossible to accept the reality of the tragedy. Wishful thinking dominates, and he may expect the deceased to reappear alive; 3) Depression/Anger. The bereaved becomes sad at the reality of the loss or separation, and even angry at the disappointment brought about by it; 4) Loneliness. The bereaved has a sense of being abandoned or left behind. He feels isolated, detached, empty, and unconnected; 5) Acceptance. This final stage presupposes an effectual working through of the various painful, and even confusing feelings (e.g. hostility, guilt, fears, etc.), and resolving them.

The bereaved should be encouraged, not forced, cajoled, or pressured, to freely express his feelings; however painful the experience may be. The two main healing variables of the bereaved are typically talk (though writing is also effective) and tears. Therefore, he who would support the bereaved should endeavour to be a good, sympathetic, and patient listener. Paradoxically, the sharing and expressing of the pain helps to release and reduce the pain. The tears of pain are the tears of cleansing. As Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote, "To weep is to make less the depth of grief" (King Henry the Sixth, II, i, 85). The bereaved must have the courage to face his fears, guilt, regrets, and 'unfinished business', and be prepared to experience hurt in order to receive healing.

Healing Stages of Grieving-Mourning

The fundamental healing stages through which the bereaved must pass are: 1) accepting of the death. Typically, the survivor may deny the reality of his loss, or the depth of his pain. Subsequently, the grieving-mourning work is obstructed, stalled, and even reversed. In this connection, the bereaved is responsible for himself and his healing. He cannot be childishly dependent upon others, nor should the caregiver or supporter of the bereaved encourage such a dependence. The bereaved must determine to seek stability and personal, emotional resolve (certainly trusting in God); realizing, however, that the grieving-mourning process may be a protracted one. Admittedly, people grieve-mourn differently, and at varying rates. There is no set way to grieve-mourn ; 2) saying 'good-bye' to the deceased. Typically, the survivor fails to sever the emotional ties with the deceased, endeavouring to hold on. Saying 'good-bye' may be an incredibly painful transaction, for one is starkly confronted with the finality of the former relationship. Saying 'good-bye' is often misconstrued as a betrayal by the bereaved. The bereaved must realize that to say 'good-bye' does not mean forgetting or dishonouring the deceased. It is simply an honest acknowledgement that life has changed and that the former relationship no longer exists in its original form, and that one cannot hold on to the deceased. The bereaved may have to be especially helped through this stage; 3) resolving to press on and be open to future experiences. The bereaved must realize that life is still worth living, though the loss will always be felt; that life can still be enjoyed; that his life still has purpose and meaning; that he must assume responsibility for his own growth and living.

Responding to Grieving-Mourning

The primary response to, and management of, grieving-mourning is providing and applying comfort. We read, "She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers" (Lam 1:2); and again, "And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console [i.e., comfort] them concerning their brother [who had died]" (John 11:19; cf. 1 Chr 7:22). Comfort results from the experience of peace, hope, or joy. It is the emotional disposition which arises from a sense of relief or encouragement. It entails an inner strengthening. Comfort naturally quells and mitigates grief, for comfort counter-affects and 'swallows up' grief.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, God Himself is the Source of comfort. We read, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor 1:3,4). God's very presence, and the conveyance of grace, communicates real healing comfort. The Christian's confidence is that "even though [he] walk[s] through the valley of the shadow of death, [he should] fear no evil; for [God is] with [him]; [His] rod and [His] staff [will] comfort [him]" (Psa 23:4). God communicates this divine comfort particularly through prayer and the meditation of the Scriptures. Yet God also communicates comfort through practical means, as the following section outlines.

Dealing with Grieving-Mourning

Practically speaking, the means of comforting assumes different forms. First, timely, supportive, and meaningful words communicate comfort – "This is my comfort in my affliction, that Thy word has revived me" (Psa 119:50; cf. Job 16:5; Psa 119:52; 1 Thess 4:18). For the Christian, the Scriptures provide the greatest source of comfort, with the hope and encouragement which they offer (cf. Rom 15:4).

Second, sensitive, understanding, and supportive friends and companions, who can genuinely commiserate, communicate comfort. The presence of people (especially with compassionate touching) is crucial for the bereaved to work through their grieving-mourning. Bereavement, naturally so, fosters a deep sense of loneliness – a real vacuum – which only the presence of people can begin to fill and counter. We read, for instance, "For these things I weep; my eyes run down with water; because far from me is a comforter, one who restores my soul" (Jer 1:16; cf. 1 Chr 19:2; Job 2:11; John 11:31; 14:18; 2 Cor 7:6). Usually the bereaved cannot heal or recover alone. They need caring people who provide unconditional love and meaningful exchange (not pointless platitudes). Yet a supporter of the bereaved should not always feel that he or she must always have something to say. Silence can be powerful, and even sacred. Many times the bereaved simply needs your company, not your 'wisdom'.

Third, the provision of physical support and aid, which convey concern and care, communicate comfort. There must be tangible evidences of love. For instance, concerning Job, we read, "Then all his brothers, and all his sisters, and all who had known him before, came to him, and they ate bread with him in his house; and they consoled him and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought on him. And each one gave him one piece of money, and each a ring of gold" (Job 42:11).

Fourth, encouraging and positive situations communicate comfort. Good reports or news, happy or celebrative events, satisfying or fulfilling circumstances help counter the force and effect of miserable and tragic experiences. We observe this dynamic in the apostle Paul's own life. He affirmed, "And not by [Titus'] coming only, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more" (2 Cor 7:7). Accordingly, the bereaved should endeavour to foster and promote a positive and uplifting environment during this fragile time of grieving-mourning (e.g. taking that long-desired vacation, engaging in an enjoyable hobby, enrolling in a course of interest, etc.).

The grieving-mourning process is not a pleasant one, but, if handled properly, often proves to be a strengthening and growing one. The human condition inevitably entails suffering and pain, and thus entails grieving-mourning. We must be prepared to deal with it, and prepared to help those who must deal with it; but, as Christians, we must constantly remember, and be encouraged that: "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed" (Isa 53:4,5).