In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified what is now popularly known as the “five stages of grief”—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—as she studied and interacted with individuals who had received a terminal illness diagnosis.
Because of the popularity of this linear model, many grieving people (and those who try to support them) find themselves totally lost when they encounter the emotional dimension of their grief. We’re expecting a road map, and what we get instead is a Pigpen-style dust swirl.
If you’ve tried to chart your emotions from one day to the next, you would be hard pressed to find a clear trajectory in the days that follow loss. Instead, your drawing would probably look more like Pigpen’s cloud. We’ve been taught one thing about grief, but we live something different. No wonder we’re confused
As you continue your journey with grief, you’ll want to spend time engaging with the emotions grief provokes. Resilient people face their loss, not avoid it.2 Because your emotions are a gift from God, you can trust you’ll find him here, even when everything swirls around you, even when a way forward is hard to see.
Grief isn’t just a passing feeling.
It is an emotion and a capacity that God wove into our bodies at birth; it is part of the marvelous divine design of emotional range. God built into us the ability to love, forgive, hope, and, yes, grieve.
When grief arrives, it can feel like a real roller coaster of ups and downs. We find we’re able to get through a day without crippling sorrow only to be surprised a few weeks later when we’re steamrolled by sadness. A get-together with friends sounds appealing on Monday only to loom intimidatingly on Friday night. We think we’ve adjusted to the emotions of loss, only to find we’re thrown for a loop as the fog wears away and we realize we’re experiencing something new, with few tools to address the questions we face.
As Christians, we often believe that our intellect and reason can be trusted but our emotions cannot. We defend our minds and dismiss our feelings, warning ourselves and others that “feelings come and go.” We become nervous about making decisions based on emotional impulses, as though God cannot speak wisdom in these intangible parts of our psyche.
Furthermore, we often categorize our emotions as good or bad.
Love, compassion, and courage are positive and to be commended. Anger, jealousy, and grief are negative and should be avoided. But God created all our emotions—anger, love, even jealousy and grief—and he called them good. Emotions are just as much part of the magnificence of our imago Dei as are our reasoning skills. Our emotions bear witness to the parts of our souls that cannot be easily accessed with the intellect, to those places within that speak truth with primal honesty. As my sister so aptly told me after Rob’s death, “Your gut is indwelt by the Holy Spirit too.”
When sin twists our emotions, we should name these distortions as wrong and pray that God would redeem them. The apostle Paul makes this distinction when he tells the Ephesian church, “In your anger do not sin.”3 Anger may be an appropriate response, but sin is never okay. As we study the Gospels, we see Jesus express the whole range of human emotions, from righteous anger to selfless love to honest grief. Over and over, God blesses our emotional range by exhibiting his marvelous design perfected in Jesus. Grief, then, is not inherently bad. It need not be fixed, only managed in spiritually, physically, relationally, and emotionally healthy ways.
Emotional expression is unique to each person.
Research confirms that there are no masculine or feminine ways to grieve; there’s just you and the way you grieve. Some people are what psychologists call “intuitive grievers.” They feel most comfortable when they express their emotions outwardly through crying or talking. Other people experience more “instrumental” grief; they think about their loss but don’t say much. They work out their grief in constructive activities in a hobby or sport or art form.
Our emotions are a gift to help us cope with the changes in our lives, and all of us will probably express our grief in instrumental and intuitive ways at one time or another. Expressing your grief is natural and normal; it isn’t a sign that you need therapy or that you can’t cope. Rather, by expressing grief in healthy ways, you actually ease the burden of walking with it. Therefore, your most important work as you face the emotional dimensions of your loss is to simply learn what grief expressions feel most comfortable to you.
We sing, “Big girls don’t cry.” And we tell our sons, “Real men don’t cry.”
Our culture exhorts us to shoulder through or man up. Tears in public are generally seen as a sign you can’t hold it together. At the graveside we tell each other, “He wouldn’t want you to be sad,” and we dry our tears and try to move on. We avoid mentioning the person who died because we don’t want to make it worse. (How much worse could it be? He’s dead!) We bottle up our emotions, assuming that stuffing them away will make them go away.
This kind of emotional constipation does a number on our ability to process our grief. Hiding the hurt never helps. When we tell ourselves that our loved ones wouldn’t want us to be sad, we minimize the intimacy of those relationships. What husband wouldn’t want his wife to be sad that he was no longer with her? It simply doesn’t make sense. When we avoid making our grief public, we cut ourselves off from sources of support and encouragement. But our avoidance of crying doesn’t just do a number on our emotional state. It isn’t good for our bodies, either.
For hundreds of years, popular belief has told us that you’ll feel better after a “good cry.” Enthusiastic social scientists have attempted to make connections between the chemical makeup of emotional tears and physiological benefit. But the truth is, we don’t really know exactly how crying benefits the body. We do know a few things though. Crying tends to lower our heart rate and can slow breathing, two stress-relief indicators. Crying can exhaust our bodies, driving us to rest. Because it is an outward expression, crying can indicate to others that we need care, offering us vital emotional connection. Sometimes you feel worse after weeping: your head aches and you’re worn out. Other times, you feel a release. Whatever has weighed on you is now off your chest.
While science still has much to learn about crying, it may be a grief expression you find helpful as you process the absence of your loved one. And if you never shed a tear, don’t worry that you’re not normal. Don’t feel pressured to do what doesn’t feel natural. You and grief have an intimate relationship now, and you can choose to express that relationship in a way that feels comfortable to you.
Adapted from Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide for Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss by Clarissa Moll, releasing in July 2022 from Tyndale House Publishers.