It was unbelievable that my dad randomly dropped dead. In those first weeks denial was a powerful ally I clung to fiercely. In the dazed aftermath it seemed logical, even reasonable, that I could tackle the proverbial stages of grief in my own timeframe. It also felt good. I couldn’t be in control of when and how my dad died, but I was in control of how I grieved. This was comforting until I was told I was grieving the wrong way.

A conversation with a friend shook me free from my pacifier of denial. Determined death wouldn’t define me or steal my joy, I waxed on optimistically, “I don’t have to go through all the stages of grief unless I choose to. I’m choosing to stay in denial because his death doesn’t seem as final.”

Her experience said otherwise and she could have just slapped me upside the head, but she didn’t. She had walked in my shoes and learned the hard way when her dad died a decade earlier. “You can do that, but you’ll have to deal with it at some point. By the time you deal with it, you’ll have created other problems to deal with. Take my word for it.”

Her words severed denial’s grip on my heart and pulled me into the fog and pain I worked to avoid. My sunglasses couldn’t hide the shiny streaks on my scrunched cheeks and though the buried pain rising to the surface hurt, I could feel the brim of healing.

Returning home I “pressed pause” on life and allowed myself to step fully into grief. I retreated, as I did after our second miscarriage, to the comfort of home and embraced the freedom to cry, pray, and spill my heart onto the pages of my journal. I backed away from helping others as much and faced my grief head-on, where tender peace and immense pain were matched equally.

A month of catching your breath can unleash the unexpected because stepping back doesn’t always please others. Once again I was told I was failing the grieving process, but this time the words chafed. “You’ll be left behind the rest of the family because you’re choosing to grieve alone.”

But I wasn’t alone; I was with my husband running rounds of comfort, explanation, and hope with our children. Cradled in the arms of grace, peace, and love, I felt undisturbed by the warning as an unshakeable understanding anchored my heart: unchecked grief makes for an unhealthy soul.

We learn how to grieve in our earliest days.

We live in an era of emotional boxes with perfect labels. Psychologists have packaged grief and defined it by seven tidy steps. But, really, we’ve been learning how to grieve since our earliest memories.

On our son’s second birthday, we gave him a gigantic singing balloon. As he hurried toward the treehouse, the balloon broke free and soared into the atmosphere. Sadness swept across his chubby face and his eyes showed clearly the depth of disappointment he was experiencing. These little swipes of loss and encounters with grief are tiny lessons in recovering from what hurts us.

Our five-year-old daughter has adored her older friend Taylor since birth. Her family is moving to Thailand in July and my daughter is already grieving the distance. Recently we picked Taylor up from school and my daughter’s first words to her were, “I’m so sad you’re moving to the other side of the world.” I was stunned that my daughter understood what she felt and expressed her heart appropriately. Along the road to adulthood, we fortify the walls of our hearts. Sometimes we no longer know how to show what we feel appropriately.  

We accept and encourage children to express the internal dialogue of the heart; we work to draw it out; we help scaffold and shape it, yet we burden each other and insist on following a particular formula despite the depth of loss. A toddler grieving a scoop of ice cream that tipped off the cone onto the hot cement in a clumsy moment isn’t the same as a breadwinner being laid off, yet we carefully console and intentionally nurture the toddler while we offer broad-brush encouragement to those more experienced.  

Everyone grieves differently.

What if we accepted each other in the midst of grief? What if we mourned with those who mourned without trying to direct their path? Support groups, classes, books, and quiet retreats are all helpful, but a single person won’t do them all. We cannot compartmentalize grief and proclaim that every person will progress uniformly.

We send each other subtle messagesdirections for a particular procedure for grieving when it is imperative that we give those grieving space to heal that corresponds with how God created them. There’s a difference in freeing and forcing someone to grieve. One brings healing, the other destruction.

Expectations shackle but sharing our experiences without demands frees those close to our hearts to explore where healthy healing can take place. I’m grateful for a friend who spoke hard truth laced with rich love. Her words drove me to a place of pain, but in that place I also met God’s comfort.

Right now, someone in your life is grieving a loss. How will you respond?

Julie writes as a private form of worship, a way to lean-in and draw-near to the Creator and as well as a way to bring an upbeat perspective to the world. Her work can be found at at Start Marriage Right, The Mudroom, Coeur d’Alene Press, The Redbud Post, Bonner Ferry Herald and guest posting at a variety of other sites. Stop and visit her virtual home at http://julieholly.com/, https://www.facebook.com/peacequility or @peacequility. For daily inspiration head to Instagram and follow @peacequility1

17 Comments

Post Comment
  1. I’m so sorry for your loss, Julie. Thank you for sharing these words. I agree: “We cannot compartmentalize grief and proclaim that every person will progress uniformly.” In my experience, I’ve discovered that grief is not a linear progression, but often cyclical. In my e-book, Letters to Grief,I compare it to the phases of the moon — it waxes and wanes, but never disappears. May you know God’s presence in the midst of it all. Thank you again for this post!

  2. Excellent insights, Julie. I stuffed my grief and feelings of loss for years as friends came and went. I didn’t feel that grieving was acceptable, until I was so stuffed with it that it couldn’t help but flow out. Thank you for giving others the freedom to grieve.

    1. I was planning on stuffing inside and am wildly grateful for my friend who spoke hard truth to my hurting heart. Faithful are the wounds of a friend indeed! God is faithful to redeem our hardships. I look forward to reading how God uses your experience to help others.

    1. Linda, I didn’t know what shiva is and really appreciated reading and learning a small bit about it. My aunt and cousins came from out of state and stayed for days. That single element of shiva was comfort to our hearts, I can only imagine what the entire tradition would do for those grieving. Thank you for opening my eyes to more!

  3. The timing of this couldn’t have been better. Four days ago my daughter lost her second baby from an ectopic pregnancy. There was so much time to greive the first loss a year ago but now the physical recovery from a traumatic emergency surgery take the stage. We are both working to distance ourselves from the emotional pain of this and the physical is a good distraction. The image you created, of the toddler losing his ice cream resonated deep. It hit the core of me that wants to wail, “I want this baby.. my grandchild…my daughter to be whole.” Something about that image hit home. Thank you. I know this. I learned it with my own losses, a stillborn daughter and a miscarriage…but I needed to be reminded. Our family, and especially my daughter, will be untangling this knot of pain for a very long time. I think this will be an encouragement for her.

    1. Cherrie, I’m so sorry for your loss and appreciate your vulnerability. My two healthy kids are aware someday we’ll meet the other two in heaven. Losing babies; such deep heartache. During that time my friends let me grieve in my own way. Their unspoken acceptance, a sort of permission to grieve, was nourishing and healing. I pray comfort for your heart, healing for your daughter’s and strength to trust God with and through it.

  4. Hi Julie! What stood out to me in your sensitive and caring article is the delicate balance between grieving alongside others and the wisdom to know when to speak as your friend did. This is a wisdom we cannot possess on our own but thank God He gives freely and without reproach to all who ask.
    Blessings friend.

  5. I appreciate your post very much. I know what you mean about children expressing their grief so openly; I remember several years ago I was sitting at the computer reading an email from close friends who had just told us they were moving. My daughter, who was about 5, came into the room and must have wondered why I looked upset. I told her, “G and T are moving away”; an anguished look crossed her face and she said, “Well, can’t they just go away and then come back????” But you’re right; as we get older we often moderate those natural responses and put a brave face on things to make ourselves feel better in the moment. It is so important to grieve in the way that’s right for us; there’s no manual for doing it “right.”

    1. Ugh. A child’s broken heart is not my favorite part of motherhood. I’m grateful God is able to use such experiences from our early years to build our faith. Thanks for sharing your story!

  6. I keep coming back to this looking for a way to connect with it, but I just don’t. You weren’t on the wrong side of grief. You were just early in the process. You were not wrong in hoping for some element of control. It’s just that it doesn’t work that way. But we all look for the process, search for the light switch. That is part of the process too.

  7. My brother in law passed of heart failure in Aug, my brother was hit and killed by a drunk driver in Sept and my mom passed of pancreatic cancer in Nov.. I want to turn it all around and have it be all better but it’s just not happening.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *