On the Way: The Experience of Grief
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. –John 11:33-35
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her seminal work, On Death and Dying, which introduced the “Five Stages of Grief” – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the 51 years since her book was published, we have learned a great deal more about the complicated experience of grief. What we have learned is that grief rarely moves in “stages” (even Kübler-Ross acknowledged this), that healthy grief may or may not include these five common responses, and that our responses to loss may include many other reactions.
Simply put, grief is our reaction to loss. Any loss. Small losses like losing our wallet will result in minimal grief. Large losses, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the loss of familiar patterns of life and living will likely result in a much more significant grief response. Grief can manifest itself physically (tears, stomach ache, etc.), psychologically (anger, guilt, fear, etc.), behaviorally (loss of interest, avoidance, etc.) and spiritually (loss of faith, questioning God, etc.). Like the drawing above, grief can come in waves that double back on themselves and twist and turn as we work through the loss. Many grieving people have told me, “It’s like one step forward, two steps back, good days, and bad days, sometimes all the same time.” Because grief emerges from the loss of relationships (whether to a valued possession, an important aspect of our life, or a significant person) every grief experience is different and multiple losses can create layers upon layers of grief as we mourn each unique loss.
As we work through our grief, we need to be able to name what we have lost, acknowledge and work through pain the loss has caused, adapt to the changes wrought by the loss, and redefine our relationship with what has been lost in order to live into an emerging “new normal.” As we grieve we work on these individual tasks concurrently, sometimes focusing on one, sometimes more than one as we move forward.
As we all deal with the impact and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have experienced a whole range of losses. For many, the familiar patterns of our lives have been disrupted and our sense of safety and security shattered. People have lost income, jobs, freedom of movement, and loved ones to the virus. Fear and anxiety results as we anticipate losses that may or may not come. We grieve. The grief not only impacts us individually, but also systemically. Because we each grieve differently (because we have all experienced loss in different ways), we can find it hard to appreciate, understand or empathize with others’ expressions of grief – even those in our own families. We need to be gentle with one another, and that is often easier said than done.
And that brings me to the death of Lazarus.
Each person in this story reacts to the death of Lazarus in a different way. It is a case study in the complexity of our common human reaction to loss. The disciples seem pretty nonplused by it all. Martha pleads. Mary weeps. The gathered friends try to be supportive. They all question whether more could have or should have been done. In the center of it all stands Jesus, the resurrection and the life, who both knows what he is going to do and yet, identifies deeply with the grief of the sisters, the friends and the disciples. He responds to their questions with clarity and compassion. And then, he acts.
This story, I think, is a gift to us in the midst of our own experiences of loss and grief during these days of COVID-19. It reminds us that people of faith can and do grieve in the face of loss. It reminds us that Jesus hears our questions, our pleas and even our anger and does not turn his back. It reminds us that Jesus weeps with us when we grieve. He feels our pain. But, mostly, it reminds us that Jesus still has the power to bring life from death – sometimes in surprising ways. Jesus is still the resurrection and the life. As Paul writes to the Thessalonians, that means we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
As surely as Jesus walked with Mary and Martha to the tomb of their brother, Jesus will walk with us through the strange and difficult days we are passing through. As surely as Jesus walked the path to the cross, Jesus walks with us through the shadow of death. And, as surely as Jesus rose again on the third day, we know that we too can and will know the power of the resurrection in our own lives. Yes, even now.
Thank-you for reading.
Pray for all those dealing with the impact of COVID-19. For those who are sick with the virus, for the medical personnel who are caring for them, for government officials and other leaders around the world who are struggling to manage the pandemic, for scientists and researchers developing treatments and vaccines, and for all who are dealing with fear, anxiety and grief in the midst of it all.