Thursday, May 2, 2013

In Times of Grieving (Matthew 5:4; II Corinthians 1:3-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Tony Dungy, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, lost his 18-year-old son to suicide in 2005.  At the funeral service at Idlewood Baptist Church, Dungy offered a heartbreaking appeal to fathers:  "God can provide joy even in the midst of a sad occasion," he said. "And the challenge is to find that joy.”
Listen to the advice of a seasoned Christian counselor who was asked what she advises people who are dealing with grief.  "I tell them to feel their feelings.  I also urge people to reduce radically the pace of their lives, to review their loss, talk about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and pray through it.  It's my experience that people want to run from their pain.  They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it.  You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate.  That's God's way.  You see, I didn't do that when my husband died.  I replaced that pain real fast.  I think I missed only four days of work.   And I just replaced the feeling of loss and disappointment with a frenzied schedule.  I ran from it. That was a bad move for me and for other people around me. I wonder how many of us do that?”
Jesus says blessed are those who mourn.  We grieve when we have lost something, something meaningful and significant and precious, something integral to our identity.  Grief is our human response to loss.  It’s the face of a common human experience that affects both young and old.   The Greek word for mourning which Jesus uses is penthountes.  It is the strongest word for mourning in the Greek language.  It’s a word used for mourning the death of a loved one.   It is the poignant grief we see portrayed in the Bible when Mary and Martha learned that their brother Lazarus had died.
Grief is many things, but one thing it’s not, simple.  There is no question that people share much in common when grieving like shock, disbelief, anger, confusion, emptiness, depression, loneliness, fear, and yet everyone mourns in their own way.   Grief in terms of its intensity and duration and impact varies widely and is both common to everyone and unique to the one mourning.  You never want to judge someone for not grieving in the right way or the way you grieved. 
Grief is normal.  It is a natural human experience, though it feels like anything but normal when you’re going through it.  It’s like riding on a wild roller coaster, with its ups and downs, its sudden and unexpected turns and twists.  Sometimes you feel you are hanging on for dear life.   I recall unexpected waves of grief pounding against my heart and mind after my parent’s deaths – particularly about tender childhood memories.  I tried but couldn’t stop these waves of grief.  I simply began to learn to cope with them and ride them out when they occurred.
Grief occurs not only in times of death, but whenever we have lost someone or something significant that was a part of us and we were a part of it.  Known by different names, mourning, grief or bereavement, it affects our entire being, our body, our mind, our heart, our soul.   Grief is physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.  Our whole being gets caught up in a force, a process, a current, in something we can’t seem to manage.  As I tell people, grief has a mind of its own.  It’s in charge; you can’t control or direct it.  It happened to me and many people have said to me, “Pastor, why is it that I always cry in those uncomfortable moments when I don’t want to and can’t seem to cry when I want to.”
Grief is a serious wound, and like any serious physical wound, it takes time to heal, and that time can be lonely and painful and empty.  The book of Ecclesiastes describes it as a season: a time for every matter under heaven, a time to mourn, and a time to dance. 
Another way to describe grief is that it is a process of separation, separating ourselves, detaching ourselves, disengaging ourselves from someone or something we highly value.  We are breaking away, we are severing the bond, psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally from someone or something we love.   For instance divorce, the loss of a job, breaking-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, the death of a beloved pet, and children leaving home and the new experience of becoming an empty nester.  Nancy remembers how I got choked up for weeks at the drop of a hat when our second son Eric left for college, but not when our first son left.  Why, I don’t know.  I knew I would miss him, I had no idea I would start sobbing anytime someone mentioned his name.  Grief is always full of surprises.
Grief is of course also a social phenomenon, reaching beyond the individual to touch the family, the neighborhood, the community, the church, the workplace, schools, cities like Boston and New York and Washington D.C.  the nation in terms of the horrors of war.

Children remember grieve in their own way.   This is very important to realize.  They sometimes appear not to care.   They might come off as selfish, callous or indifferent.  Their behavior often regresses.  They are processing the hurt and pain in their own way.  And we must be patient and sensitive, and alert in terms of helping them through the situation.    We need to help shield them and help them go through the pain of the situation.  They often need to continually be near someone, like asking to sleep in a parent’s bed or following you around during the day.  They sometimes have difficulty completing tasks well within their ability level.   Their emotions can explode. They act out, reflecting their internal feelings of anger, fear, frustration and helplessness.   Acting out is a way to try to control a situation for which they have no control.  They ask the same questions over and over again. 
People have said to me, “Pastor: “I’m so lost, I feel like I’m going crazy, I feel so guilty, I’m so lonely, I’m so angry, I’m so afraid, I can’t concentrate on anything, I can’t make a decision, I just don’t know how I can go on, where do begin, what will I do.”
There are three general stages in times of grieving.  First, numbness.   You are in a state of shock, denial.  You struggle between fantasy and reality, between what is real and what is unreal.  I believe God initially shields us from the pain of our loss by wrapping us in an emotional blanket.  It can last from 2 weeks to 2 months or more.   
The second stage is dis-organization.  You begin to recall and must deal with painful feelings and memories.  You may feel like you are beginning to unravel.  Emotions erupt and take on a life of their own – anguish, guilt, anger, depression, loneliness, fear, sorrow; sometimes we question God or have a faith crisis.  You often experience physical manifestations like anxiety attacks fatigue, a lack of energy or sleeplessness, and a loss of appetite.  You have trouble focusing or concentrating on anything.  You tend to withdraw, retreat, to pull away from people and life.   This stage can last from 6 months to 1 & ½ years or longer. 
The third stage is re-organization.  You find your feelings and memories are less intense.  The searing pain of memory is not quite as acute.  Memories actually begin to bring comfort and consolation.  We find a renewed desire to re-enter life and to re-connect with people.  We experience occasional times of peace.   We begin to come to terms with our loss.  At times we even begin to feel normal.  This stage can last from 18 months to 2 years or longer.  
What are some guidelines in times of grief?   First, acknowledge your feelings.  Accept them.  Allow painful memories to resurface.  Don’t bury them. They are painful, but ironically, memories are God’s channels for bringing healing, consolation and comfort.  Express your emotions.  Crying is a gift and leads toward healing.  Be honest with yourself, others and God. 
Second, realize that you are entering into an emotional valley, expect to feel lost and at times out of control.  Third, reach out to others, talk to trusted friends.  Select those friends carefully.  Not everyone feels comfortable or has the patience to talk about your feelings regarding your loss.  A trusted friend should also be one who can keep things in confidence.  Seek professional help.  See your doctor especially if you are having concerns about your health.  Participate in a grief support group.   Visit some special places which meant a lot to you and your loved one.  Stay connected with people.  See a counselor.  Don’t go it alone.
What is God’s goal in terms of the grief process?  It’s two-fold: First, God’s will is to accompany us through the journey of grief and help us complete our emotional relationship with the person whom we’ve lost.   Though as any of you who have grieved know, as I know, our grief is never fully resolved or complete and stays a part of you the rest of your life.  
Second, God’s will is that you begin to re-direct your energies and hopes and goals toward the future, rather than concentrating on the past.   God desires for us to re-connect with others and renew attachments.  Jesus says in effect: “Grieve my friends, yes, but do not become a slave to your loss, do not become a prisoner of your grief.”   

On Friday morning, Arbor Day, I went to Balboa Park, where the friends of Balboa planted 18 trees in honor or memory of someone. Bobbi and Leon and families members were there, to witness the planting of a tree in Jennifer Adams-Brooks memory.   What a wonderful way to help grieve, to plant a tree, a living thing, in someone’s memory. 
Jesus’ affirmation of blessedness is followed by a promise – “For they shall be comforted.”  Jesus’ promises that one day you will again experience comfort, peace, joy, the brightness of the morning, the beauty of creation, the joys of life.  You will again laugh, and feel, and find a renewed purpose and direction.    II Cor. Says:  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God”
Biblically speaking, mourning is a journey toward healing and wholeness which God calls us to walk.  To walk not alone, but with Christ and others.   So pray to God for help and strength.  Read the scriptures.  Be alert for surprises of God’s grace along the journey.  God is with us in our season of grief.  Jesus Christ walks beside us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Gradually, you will realize that though you have suffered a traumatic loss - as painful as it is, you haven’t lost everything.  You will begin to feel gratitude for the love that you once had and for the support of others around you.  You will begin to discover spiritual and emotional power and energy, gifts from God, which help you to pick up the broken pieces and transform them into hope for the future.  You will re-discover your basic belief and confidence that life is good, that your life is good, that it’s a divine gift, which God wants you to cherish that you might glorify Him.     
I close with a scene from Disney's animated movie Toy Story.  Woody (a toy cowboy) confronts Buzz Lightyear (a toy astronaut) with the fact that he is only an action figure and not a real space hero.  Woody shouts, "You're not a space ranger! You're an action figure—a child's plaything."
Grief-stricken and disillusioned, Buzz hangs his head in resignation declaring, "I'm just a stupid, little, insignificant toy."  Woody comforts his friend by pointing out the love of the boy who owns them both. "Buzz, you must not be thinking clearly.  Look, over in that house, there's a kid who thinks you're the greatest, and it's not because you're a space ranger; it's because you're his."
As Buzz lifts his foot, he sees a label affixed to the bottom of his little shoe. There in black permanent ink is the name of the little boy to whom he belongs.  Buzz breaks into a smile and takes on a new determination.   Likewise, let us remember that we too are His, that nothing can separate from God’s love, that Christ’s love is deep, merciful and strong, that in times of grieving, and in all times, in life and death, you belong to the Lord.  Amen!

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