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?

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