3 practices that help me grieve that can help you too.
Grieving for me, like for many Americans, is really hard. Here are some things I’m doing to embrace grief instead of avoiding it.
An uncle of mine passed away about a week ago, and it has been difficult. Perhaps I think I’m more “macho” than I am, but it hit me harder than I thought it would.
All that to say, I have been struck with how poorly I grieve. My default mode seems to be to avoid and neglect emotion I see as negative and to bury it as deep as possible. As someone who’s tried this before, I can safely say, it doesn’t work.
I’m certainly not a psychologist, but I have found these three practices helpful in handling my grief.
Lean into it
In a culture that idolizes happiness, it can be difficult to embrace lament, but we have to. I have found that when I fail to grapple with my emotions, choosing instead to dismiss them, I'm only kicking the can down the road.
Think about the way we talk about grief; it's something to get through, process, or even get over. To allow myself space to grieve I'm trying to eliminate some of this verbiage. It's okay to not be okay.
So, there are a couple things that I’ve needed to do.
I have more than one technological extension of my body. Pretty much all day I am consuming something; when I get in the car I immediately put a podcast on, when I have downtime I’m on an app learning or honing languages, when I should be doing other things I’m on social media or reading the news, when I’m doing schoolwork I’m reading listening or writing, when I get home I flip on the TV to wind down—I’ve managed to fill pretty much every waking minute of my day with something.
I have to consciously pull back and break these normal rhythms (which aren’t all bad) to confront and explore my emotions. I’ve found that giving myself time to remember my uncle and to just be present in my sadness has been helpful.
I don’t remember how old I was, probably 10-ish, but my Aunt and Uncle were taking my brother and me to visit my cousins in San Diego and go to Disneyland. If you’ve ever made the haul down I-5 in the summer, you know it’s not always the best part of the trip. Even with the A/C, you’re very aware that it’s 102° outside. The seats are sticky, you can never quite get comfortable, and as with any road trip, someone always forgets something.
I’m not sure when Disneyland started offering digital tickets, but it hadn’t happened yet. About halfway there, my uncle asked my aunt, “Hey, where’d you put the tickets?” After some searching in a hot car, pulling over, and going through my aunt’s multiple suitcases, they concluded that the tickets didn’t make it in. Not knowing him this may sound a bit mean, but my uncle was a funny guy and was always cracking jokes, no matter the situation (If you've watched Breaking Bad, Hank Schrader reminds me a lot of him). I’ll never forget his reaction, “So, you remembered every pair of shoes you have, but not the tickets!” My brother and I laughed about that for the rest of the trip.
There’s a whole lot more like that, but the big thing here is to take time to remember, reflect, and proces.
In situations like this, my tendency is to emotionally self-isolate and process all of these emotions by myself. The fact of the matter is, I’m not the only one processing these emotions, and others in my family are certainly dealing with a greater level of grief than I am.
Handle grief communally, because it’s often communal.
Reaching out to different family members, even just to check in, has really helped me. Sharing stories and crying together has been comforting and has helped me to process my emotions more healthily than I probably would have otherwise.
Instead of ignoring and repressing my grief, leaning into it has helped.
Don’t neglect your body
It’s important to remember that grief isn’t just mental, it’s physical too. While I’ve been getting the same amount of sleep I usually do (which probably isn’t quite enough) I have just been exhausted all week. At times, it has felt like there’s been a 45’ weight on my chest that I can’t get off. We may be apt to just dismiss these symptoms, but that would be a mistake.
While this hasn’t been the case for me, many people will often lose their appetite or get sick while grieving. Taking extra effort to care for your body is important when mourning.
Here’s a place where I could do better, but a tendency of mine in this time is to want to just curl up and do nothing with a fist full of snacks. Exercise and a proper diet are important to maintain while grieving. In my experience, taking good care of my physical health aids my mental health. Even just doing little things like going on walks to the park can be helpful.
A final thought—If you drink, alcohol probably isn’t your friend in times of grief. Much like the way I use technology, some may be tempted to drink more than normal to avoid dealing with the pain of grief. Alcohol is a depressant and using it in this way is counterproductive because it avoids grieving rather than facilitating it, and many people develop addictions in times of grief. If you’re going through something similar and find yourself turning to alcohol to cope, it’s probably a good idea to get it out of the house for a while.
Keep your body in mind during this process; treating it well will help you grieve better.
Saturate in scripture
Being completely transparent here, this has been hard for me.
But, you’re a pastor!
And I’m also human.
Often, this is where we’re tempted to treat scripture like a spiritual grab-bag and pull out one day calendar worthy verse after another. Romans 8:28, all things work together for good! Fortunately, I’ve never had someone try to do that to me, but the effects of that mentality toward the Bible still influence the way I look at it even though I try hard to reject it.
Rather than turning to a passage in an attempt to deny our feelings and to meet a cultural expectation of perpetual happiness, I think it’s more helpful to look at the scripture holistically and realize huge chunks of the Bible are laments. These passages, at least to me, feel so much more real and relatable than misapplying a Phil. 4:13 type verse to my situation.
Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, Jeremiah, Job, and Lamentations all take a somber tone and can be a better starting point for someone in grief. When we enter into these texts we come alongside ancient authors who also grieved and even argue with God, but in the end, find hope in him.
In times like this, I feel more at home with passages like Ecc. 3:18-22
I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
At the end of the day, it hurts when we lose someone close, and that will never completely heal; don’t feel the need to pretend like it will, or that it has. Take time to grieve and remember your loved ones.