The Sanitizing of Grief

“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]

IMG_9361.JPG copyArtwork: Sarah Harmening

30 thoughts on “The Sanitizing of Grief

  1. Your precious words are exactly How I have been feeling as I am grieving! I am at a loss of what to say except THANK YOU for writing so perfectly what I have been unable to express. You are touching more lives than you imagine. Much love and prayers for you

    1. Gina, thank you so much for sharing, I am so thankful the words resonated within your heart this morning. The enemy loves to try to isolate us in our grief, I pray that you are encouraged this morning that you are not alone on this journey through the valley. I am praying for you at this very moment. Much love in Him ~ Karen

  2. Your powerful words are truly God sent. Keep writing! Somewhere down the road, if God leads you, please consider putting all of these into a book that could help other grieving Christians. My prayers continue for your family as you live with this great loss.

  3. Sharing your revelations with a grieving friend today. Thank you for expressing thoughts we should all be aware of as we seek to befriend the grieving people in our lives.

  4. Karen, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your writing is beautiful and heartfelt. Thank you. I wanted to share a blog post with you. When I was twelve, I was kidnapped and had a near death experience. I wrote an article called, What I Would Have Wanted My Loved Ones to Know if I Had Died. Death is much different from the perspective of the one dying. I thought you might like to read about that.
    Praying for peace. Katherine ❤

  5. Thank you for sharing this powerful article! You have beautifully captured in your writing what is so often difficult to grasp in emotion. I appreciate your openness and transparency as you walk this deep and painful journey. You and your family have been and will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.

  6. Reblogged this on You Can Trust Him and commented:
    Misunderstandings and misinformation regarding grief and the so-called “stages of grief” are a major contributor to the isolation and loneliness that often accompany bereavement. Thank you, Karen Harmening, for clearing things up in this gracious, well-written and informative post.

  7. Yes so True Karen God works everything for good in our lives but He does not deliberately hurt us to mold and shape us as some claim. Below is a link about my 7 Babies that are also in God’s arms of Love and yes we will also be reunited and that gives me inner Joy as it does you Karen but sometimes I have longed to hold them too.

    My Babies –

    But I’m so Thankful that God has given me many Children to Love over the years, some through friends, relatives and with my Work and Ministries, they have given me much Joy and wonderful memories to hold onto but yes some heartache too when I have seen them being abused by their Parents but God than used me to rescue them when needed but mostly to share with them how much He Loves them and that is always there for them, yes I have been greatly Blessed. Below is some Scriptures and a Song that comforts me greatly.

    Isaiah 43:1-3 – Do not be afraid for I have ransomed you I have called you by Name you are Mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression you will not be burned up the flames will not consume you. For I am The LORD your God The Holy One of Israel your Saviour.”

    Jeremiah 29 :11-12 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you says The LORD thoughts of Peace and not of evil, to give you a Future and a Hope.

    Lamentations 3: 33 For God doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the Children of Men.

    Christian Love and Blessings – Anne.

  8. Karen, I am grieving the loss of my husband of almost 50 years and am approaching 3 years this Christmas and I couldn’t agree with you more. I seem to miss him more with every passing day. I ditto all of Gina’s comments to you.

    Elaine Barry

  9. I have been trying to explain this the past 7 years. It is difficult to grasp and accept that child loss grief doesn’t really go away. Time does not heal this wound. Thank you for putting so eloquently into words what we are all living with everyday. Even Christian counselors are trying to move us through the process. It is a ongoing always changing but never ending process. I finally had to decide to go my own Way allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the process. He’s the only one that truly completely understands what each individual is going through and what they need. I can truly say that I am grateful for the gifts that grief has brought. they are gifts no one else could give me. I will never be grateful for the loss of my precious son but I am grateful that I have a loving faithful God that has promised me so many things if I trust him. And he has never lied so far I trust that he can’t.

    1. I am in agreement with you about the “gifts” of grief. I think it is a gift of His grace that He allows us to see at least glimpses of how He is redeeming our agony, using all things (the very worst included) for our good and His glory. The pain is sanctifying me, and for that I can be thankful. ❤

  10. These are apposite words. My 23 year old son died on Christmas Day 2017 doing voluntary work with the poor in Cambodia. I do not know how the void will be filled. It was his 8th visit to this community. I often wonder if or when God will send some hint of “consolation” to keep me going. May you blessed in your journey.

    1. I don’t believe the void will be filled until we as believers are reunited with them in eternity. I am reminded of Job, when the Lord restored all of his fortunes they were all doubled, except for the number of his children. He was granted the same number of children again, but not double that number because the original 10 were still his, though they were not with him. Our first prayer as a family immediately after being reunited after the accident was for redemption, for God to redeem the loss of Sarah and our pain in her absence. We have seen redemption or good come from it, but it doesn’t console as much as I had hoped it might. I am beginning to see the greatest redemption is God’s daily use of the void to keep my eyes firmly fixed on Him and eternity. The void reminds me I am a sojourner here, and Sarah’s testimony, like your son’s, spurs me on to desire to finish well, to be fruitful for the remainder of my days. The void causes me to long for Home, just as we are implored in scripture to do. I constantly remind myself of the phrase “in just a little while” (Heb. 10:37). It doesn’t feel like just a little while without our children, but I know in the light of eternity we will look back and see it really was just a little while. My heart is aching with and for yours this morning, acknowledging that Hope does not stop the present pain or the tears that so regularly flow. Lifting you up in prayer this morning. ❤

  11. What an appropriate artcle for me to read today. I love everything you have written. I know there is no finish line, no time table, no “healing,” I’m so happy to have found your articles. I am helped tremendously.

  12. I am so comforted by your interpretation of grief. I have studied Gerontology and the stages in grief, as u have. I think u have hit on a very humanistic explanation of our grieving process. Yes other cultures deal with death in a more real way. Also, I believe God is in control and he uses us to learn and help others. Loosing a child is the worst pain, I believe and I do miss my child just like it was yesterday. I think the medical field needs to put a stage to each of the processes so if you make it through your “cured” of the grieving process. So when asked “How long has it been since your son or daughter died?” That is ludicrous because time has no boundaries when a mom or dad looses their child! So much of our system of dealing with death is archaic and hopefully our civilization will take what mothers have to say or anyone who looses a love one in there life! Thank you for your article!

  13. Karen, I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Psychologist who was trained in the stages of grief as well. Like you, I, too, believe that this is a way to explain away and to compartmentalize grief. The fact is, our bodies were never created for loss. It is absolutely foreign to us because at creation, we were created to be forever beings, to walk hand in hand with Divinity (not as divine beings, but as human walking with their Creator) and to exist without end with our Creator. Death was not a part of that picture until sin entered. So how does a created being handle something it was never meant to have in existence in their lives? We don’t know. It is not a process that ends…that would be like saying that dealing with sin is a process that will have its culmination as a result of how we walk through it…it is an ever-present entity that doesn’t go away, and that won’t go away until Jesus comes back to wake our sleeping loved ones, and to lift us all who are saved up in the clouds of glory to go to heaven with Jesus and the clouds of angels transporting us there. Grief will be ever-present for you now because you’ve lost your child. Your life will adjust to a new “normal,” but you will never stop grieving for the child that has a left a hole in the absence of her presence from your lives. And, yes, grief comes and goes, but I believe that it’s so great and so deep that we can only take bits and pieces at a time. So we grieve, then we go away from it, either it or we come back around again and we grieve some more, we go away from it again, and the process continues like this until we die or until Jesus comes back again. Sometimes the intensity is great, and at other times it lessens as time goes on. But you’re right, there’s no “conclusion” or ending to this process of grief. I pray for peace for your family, and I pray for God’s presence in holding you through this as you mourn for your precious daughter.

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