“He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. And it will be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.” Isaiah 25:8-9 [NASB]
I’m not working through the stages of grief. To be frank, I have grown to resent the phrase “the stages of grief” rather deeply. Let me say it again, I am not working through the stages of grief. I am missing my child. I am learning to live life moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week and now month by month in the wake of the death of my daughter. I am learning to live life without my child. I am learning to press on while no longer hearing her singing, her laughter, or her quirky sense of humor. I am learning to leave the house in silence instead of hearing her cries of “Wait! Wait!” as she bounds up the steps because she needs to hug me just one more time. I am learning what it means to cling to the Hope of the resurrection unlike ever before. I am learning what it truly means to let the Joy of the Lord be my strength. I am learning and doing a myriad of other things, but I am not “working through the stages of grief. “
I first learned about the stages of grief in a health occupations class in high school. As a senior in high school I worked in CCU (the Cardiac Care Unit) and as a result saw many people die. I remember watching terminally ill patients and their families and trying to identify where they were in the stages of grief. True to what I had been taught, I observed some who were in denial right up to the very last seconds, some who were filled with rage, others bargaining, many depressed, and now and then even someone who had reached acceptance. My black and white, perfectionistic personality that loves to categorize things found it very intriguing. In my immaturity, it was a neat, tidy little outline, another medical process to be observed and analyzed.
Later in college I took a class titled, “Death and Dying.” We looked at how different cultures respond to death, it was there that I was first confronted with the concept of “the sanitizing of death.” I don’t remember if that was the exact phrase used in our discussions, but it was definitely the thrust of what we discussed. As you look across cultures in comparison it becomes clear that Western culture strives to hide death as much as possible. We clean it up, or “sanitize it” to make it more palatable, or to hide it all together. It’s uncomfortable and awkward to discuss, and its aftermath, grief, is equally uncomfortable and awkward, so we make every effort to neutralize the sting of both.
Sadly, along with death, I fear we are sanitizing grief through standardizing and medicalizing “The Stages of Grief.” While outlines of the stages of grief may be beneficial in recognizing the gamut of emotions and feelings many walk through as they grieve, I think the manner in which many now apply “the stages of grief” has become a detriment to the bereaved. The prevalence of referring to bereaved family members as “working through the stages of grief” may well be another way we are sanitizing death. We shift the focus from the tragic death of their loved one and the details of the legitimate and horrific pain they are experiencing to instead focusing on a standardized process that even in its title lacks the impact of the word death. It is an impotent encapsulation of the heart shattering reality of the bereaved. It distances the observer from the full impact of death, because now the bereaved are working through a defined process that has a conclusion. It’s neat, it’s tidy and it’s much more comfortable to discuss.
Those who are better educated on the stages of grief are quick to tell the bereaved that they may go through the stages in any order, skip some of the stages, and they may go back and forth between stages as well. The educated will also tell the bereaved there is no set timeline for working through the stages, that everyone does it in their own time and way. But the implication remains that there is a conclusion, there should be resolution and the bereaved are charged with working toward it. If we switched our terminology back to what I shared in the first paragraph, though, would there be a conclusion? What if instead of talking about “working through the stages of grief” we talked about me no longer “missing my child,” or for better clarity yet, you not missing your child?
If your child is gone when do you stop missing them? Think about the last time your child was gone, if it was more than a few days, say a week or even a month, did you miss them more the first day or after many days? Because my child is physically dead and I can not see her again this side of heaven does that mean that changes for me? It does not. I miss her more today than I did the first day. That deep sorrow I feel as I miss her, that throbbing pain in my heart is “grief.” There are no stages, processes or procedures that will strip away my longing to see and hold my child, or the grief that results from my inability to see and hold her. There will be no conclusion or resolution to my grief this side of heaven. But saying that undoubtedly made someone reading this very uncomfortable. It sounds hopeless, perhaps someone even had a desire to clean it up a bit, to sanitize it.
Don’t do it, don’t sanitize grief. Grief hurts and it is raw, but grieving is not bad or wrong, it is not a disorder to be cured, and it is not a list of stages or steps to be completed. It is simply deep sorrow in response to deep loss. The presence of grief does not eliminate the possibility of joy and happiness. Grief and joy exist simultaneously. I grieve the absence of Sarah, but I have great joy that she is in the presence of our Lord and Savior, and even greater joy that I will one day join her there. I am able to celebrate the victories and blessings of others while at the same time bearing the pain of her absence in my heart. The permanence of my grief does not define or enslave me, but it does change me, it molds me. God, who uses all things for the good of those who love Him, is using my grief as a sanctifying flame to refine and transform me more and more into His image.
In my pondering I have frequently wondered if Satan plays a role in the sanitizing of death. It makes sense that the very one who comes to steal, kill and destroy would want us to avoid meditating on the weight and ramifications of death. Death and grief should not be hidden away or sanitized. Instead they should be harnessed as powerful reminders of the consequence of sin, the fallenness of this world – and the origin of death itself. Death and grief are reminders of the brevity of this life and we should use them as catalysts to teach ourselves and others “to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). They also provide profound opportunities “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
I am not working through the stages of grief. But God is working through my grief to transform me, to equip me and to use me in ways that He has foreordained (Eph. 2:10). My grief is part of my offering to Him. Just as I offer up my life to Him, I offer up my grief, knowing that He who is faithful will use it, too, for His glory and my good.
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him For the help of His presence.” Psalm 42:5 [NASB]
Artwork: Sarah Harmening