By Daniel T. Hans
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Grief is an experience common to all of us. We all lose someone we love at sometime. The difference lies in the names and circumstances of our losses. Like many of you, I too have lost a child. There’s something terribly wrong with the scene of a parent standing over a child’s grave. It’s supposed to be the other way!
Others of you have lost a spouse or a sibling or a friend or a parent. To lose a parent is to lose the past. To lose a spouse, sibling, or friend is to lose the present. To lose a child is to lose the future. Each of us has loved and lost and, now, the grief we feel is overwhelming sometimes and persistent at all times.
I believe the depth of our grief arises from the depth of our love. When we lose someone we greatly love, how can we not deeply grieve and how can that grief quickly pass? Deep grief never passes quickly and never passes completely. My loss occurred almost 20 years ago; your loss occurred this past year. Yet, our common grief persists. How should we, how can we, respond to our losses?
Here are three responses to loss that deal with the past, present, and the future of our lives. Some people respond to their loss with regret as they focus on the past. Their grief is defined by their guilt about what was but should not have been or their guilt about what should have been but was not. The words they often think and say with respect to their deceased loved one are “if only.” If only I had not let him take the car that night! If only I had told her I loved her more often! If only I had done more for him! If only…
If only you and I could change the past, if only we could alter the circumstances that resulted in our instant loss and constant pain.
We cannot change yesterday; we can only live today. To live today, despite our loss, we have to begin to replace the regretful words “if only” with the grateful word “nevertheless.” Sure we could have placed more protective rules on our children; nevertheless, we loved them with a freedom that they needed and appreciated. Sure we should have told her more often that we loved her; nevertheless, we did speak and show our love and she knew it. Sure we could have done more for him; nevertheless, we did much for him and he was grateful.
Nowhere in the Bible does it speak in the language of “if only”; however, frequently the Bible uses the language of “nevertheless.” We cannot change the painful past or bring back our loved one; nevertheless, we can live with gratitude for the love we had and for the life we shared – even though that love and life ended too soon. How will we live with the grief that has rocked our world? Will we get stuck in yesterday with the words “if only” or will be move ahead toward tomorrow with the word “nevertheless”?
Twenty years ago, the Challenger space shuttle exploded claiming the lives of the seven crew members. The day after that tragedy, a TV crew was interviewing residents of Concord, NH, home of teacher and crew member Christa McAuliffe. One old timer was asked how the tragedy would affect the residents of Concord. He answered, “We will grieve our loss, but life will go on.” That statement needs to describe us who have loved and lost.
We do grieve our loss; nevertheless, life must go on.
Another response to our losses deals with the present moment. How are we handling the emotion of our loss right now, today? The emotion that accompanies the death of a loved one can be so intense that we do not know how to handle such feelings. Afraid of what might happen if the pain within us comes out, we try to bottle up our emotions and not let them out. We wonder: what happens if I let my emotion out and I begin to cry and I can’t stop crying – if I can’t regain control of my emotions?
The bottom line is that painful emotion is within us and it will come out sometime, somehow, somewhere. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve with tears over our loved one, our grief may come out in inappropriate and damaging ways such as misplaced anger toward a loved one still with us or as destructive actions toward ourselves. Divorce, excessive drinking or drug use often follows tragic loss.
We need to find positive ways to let the pain within us come out. If not, that pain within will build up like gas under pressure and will eventually explode, with collateral damage to others or to us. If we don’t find healthy and healing ways to let our pain out today, that pain will emerge in unhealthy and destructive ways that can destroy other relationships and result in losing other loved ones as we drive them away in our anger and frustration. But this doesn’t have to happen. And it won’t happen if we allow ourselves to let out our pained emotions. Yesterday’s loss doesn’t have to create more losses today.