The Paradox of Grief
“Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls;
All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me”. (Psalm 42:7)
Growing up, my grandmother (Ga-Ga) lived directly across the street from my house. She was my safe place throughout my childhood and early teenage years before she passed away when I was 16 years old. They say nobody is perfect, but she was. I still have a hand written note she left on my dresser one morning that read, “You are the very best of everything”. When my home life became unsafe I would seek refuge at her house and stayed the night quite often. We had our familiar routine and I cherished every minute we spent together. After bath time I would change into one of her nightgowns instead of the pajamas I packed because they smelled like her. I would act silly and prance around the house; she never cared what mood I was in. I could always be myself. It was just me, no parents or siblings to interfere during our special times.
I would lie next to her each night after I had my sugar cookies and milk and she would run her fingers through my hair for hours until I fell asleep. For years she sat in the same spot on her sofa every afternoon watching TV while I was outside rollerblading, skateboarding, riding my bike, and playing with friends. It gave me such comfort and security knowing she was right across the street.
She was diagnosed with liver cancer and her health deteriorated rapidly. One particular afternoon as I was preparing to leave for cheerleading practice, I stopped by to see her and had a daunting feeling it would be the last time. As I looked at her in her hospice bed while standing in the doorway, I debated staying and not going to practice, to tell her I much I loved her and to sit beside her. I left instead. She died that evening, only 3 months after her diagnosis. I bottled up my pain while others were grieving around me. I was numb. I sat with my family at her funeral and wondered why I couldn’t even shed a tear.
Something died inside me.
Unbeknownst to myself, that day I left for cheerleading practice, I flipped the switch to “off”. The switch being my emotions:
It was easier to live in denial and bury my pain. Soon after, intense guilt crept in and for years I was haunted by the memory of my last goodbye to her. I replaced the sadness over Ga-Ga’s death with a deep wound and void that I spent all of my teenage years trying to fill which brought tremendous pain to myself and others.
I was not able to put a voice to my grief. Therefore, it did not go away.
A Divine Connection
“Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
My night season lasted many, many years.
The Psalms reveal a powerful truth about joy and sadness; there is a connection.
“Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5)
I never allowed myself to cry so I never reaped joy. I did not notice it right away, for almost a decade, but the sadness did not leave; it was buried and slowly eroded my joy over time. Essentially, I lost myself. Reason being, when a person shuts down painful emotions, the positive emotions such as joy are also shut down. I thwarted my own process of healing and I never knew God as comforter. I had mastered the art of cutting off my feelings from earlier wounds I experienced as a young child.
The Consequences of Unresolved Grief
Unresolved grief becomes the undercurrent of much pain in our lives and also our addictions. Grief is not an isolated emotion, it carries with it pain, guilt, fear, anger, and doubt. Suppressed pain does not disappear; it only grows deeper. Grief is pain and pain must be felt. I never felt the pain emotionally so it manifested physically and also created deep emotional wounds that made me vulnerable to experiencing more pain. Just because I did not feel the pain did not mean it was not present and very much alive inside me.
I have witnessed countless ways my patients avoid grief, but the emotional pain eventually manifests in their bodies as unexplained medical symptoms or chronic fatigue, migraines, muscle tension, and insomnia as well as anxiety and depression. Additionally, they live in fear of being hurt again which drives them to take back control and self-protect by closing their hearts altogether. This defense mechanism prevents them from experiencing truly rewarding and intimate relationships with others. It is also important to note that some people experience pain more deeply than others because the loss of a person or thing became their identity or reason for living. That is a sign that additional healing must take place.
Sometimes we are unexpectedly hit with grief upon making positive decisions such as ending an unhealthy relationship, leaving a job that no longer brought fulfillment, or moving to a new place we are excited about. Confusion sets in because we are sad about something seemingly progressive and optimistic. We might think to ourselves: Did I make a mistake? If this is something I wanted to do, why am I so sad? We might even begin to doubt ourselves and even God: Am I crazy? Did I not hear God correctly?
We grieve when we lose, even if the loss is a good thing.
“In the midst of victory, there is a loss” (Chuck Pierce)
There is a process connected with grief because losing someone or something is not an occasion or an event. And it does not just happen once. It whispers to us in unexpected ways and moments that take us off guard. Allow those waves of sorrow to wash over you and be certain that joy is near and will lift you back up again.
You will experience the victory of your new season once you process the loss of the previous season.
Grief and Abuse
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”. (Psalm 34:18)
Way before our present grief experience, we learn very early on as children to cut off our emotional pain and anger when abuse takes place. This is a survival and coping mechanism. When you are told that pain is your fault, it is not safe to feel it. That is what abuse does to a person; it causes shame. You learn how to analyze your abuser instead of feeling your pain in order to prevent the abuse from happening again, even though the abuser is unpredictable. This is why grieving our present losses is so important; it can connect us to past unresolved pain and shame.
In my case, nearly a decade after Ga-Ga’s passing; I found her purse unexpectedly in my mother’s closet. It had remained untouched since the last time she used it. The purse still smelled like her. I made the life changing decision to open it and pull out each and every item. I was surprised by the amount of tears that poured out with each memory. I allowed the waves of sorrow to wash over me. The toothpicks, her red lipstick, her juicy fruit gum, the lollipops from the bank, perfume, her prescription bottle, and her grocery lists. It was as if someone flipped the switch to “on” after having been off for so long. Much to my surprise, I felt relief. I experienced God’s presence comforting me like a warm blanket. I felt Ga-Ga’s smile. It wasn’t too late after all. In fact, I was right on time. The intense pain of years of unresolved grief flooded back to me and God used that moment to bring healing. The good news was although my joy was missing for years, I had a redemptive and powerful God who was able to restore back my joy, and now allow me to help others on their journey of grieving.
Grief is Part of Your Story
Throughout my clinical career, I have learned a powerful and validating truth about grief after meeting with countless patients who come to me with presenting symptoms of depression and anxiety, a feeling of being stuck, and finding no relief from medication. Because of my own early struggles with grieving, rather than narrowing in on my patient’s specific symptoms and looking for ways to resolve their depression, I now put my patient’s clinical symptoms to the side and ask them to share with me the story of their loss. The loss might be of a family member, relationship, job, a home, a dream of marriage or children or a career that never happened for them, or an ongoing relationship with a significant other who has left emotionally while still physically present.
Healing occurs when my patients feel they have permission to not expend any more emotional energy and thought life trying to figure out why they are still grieving or why they are not strong enough to move on. As I mentioned earlier in this post, choosing to grieve in the first place is the most powerful step. Grief is cyclical and the pain can manifest itself in different ways that can bring confusion if you do not realize there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is about giving yourself permission to experience the loss in the moment you feel it and not to rationalize it away, try to be strong, or beat yourself up: “I should be over this by now” or “What’s wrong with me?” It has taken me quite some time to realize, softly and simply, those moments are not a time for self-diagnosis; there is nothing wrong with them. They can surrender their sadness and feel truly known in that moment.
The loss of my grandmother is part of my story, to preserve and to embrace, not a shameful event to hide in the past. It is part of who I am and it always will be.
I can see her now in my mind’s eye with her glasses hanging around her neck, her bright red lipstick, and her beautiful smile. There was such warmth to her. Her presence brought peace and assurance that everything was okay. As I share this story now, my heart still aches to recall it. I never knew anyone to die and it never occurred to me that someday she would no longer be a vital part of my everyday life.
The greatest gift a person can give you is to know without uncertainty that you are loved, special, and taken care of no matter what. And to have a place that you can call home where you are safe and a relationship where you can be yourself without fear of judgement. Ga-Ga modeled for me the heart of Jesus and what a relationship with Him can be like. I do not have my Ga-Ga anymore, but I do have and will always have her memory and an experience of Jesus as my shelter, strong tower, and very present help in time of need (Psalm 46:1).
The Key to Joy
The paradox of grief is that it brings joy. It restores our hearts and brings healing to our souls. Grieving is necessary; it is good and cleansing. The lie we believe is that grief will leave us in despair so we fear it rather than embrace it. Grief can feel unwelcomed, unexpected, and inconvenient. However, I invite you to allow the waves of sadness to roll over you as they come and make the choice to grieve.
I challenge you to give yourself permission to release your emotions of unresolved grief and have the courage to face it, because I know from experience that joy will be always be waiting for you on the other side. Be at peace trusting that you do not have to figure all this out on your own; you can let it be and choose to trust God and others with your heart.
These realities can either frighten you or free you. I invite you to surrender your feelings of fear, dread, and doubt and replace them with hope and a promise that joy will come.
Your life is a masterpiece.
Grief is just a piece.
Put in place precisely by God.