“There was no sudden striking emotional transition. It is like a room warming up or the coming of daylight. When you first notice healing, it has already been going on for some time.”
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Grief is a journey, marked by movement. But most people experiencing depression are not moving. They feel stuck, until they receive help. Yet, the two emotional experiences feel so similar. Anyone who has walked through grief following a major loss can remember times of feeling depressed.
If movement is what sets grief apart from depression, is there a map we can trust to lead us through it? Our therapeutic, and even our Christian culture can perpetuate the myth that the path through grief is linear. It’s tempting to expect a grief experience to move through definitive stages, decrease after about six months, and be gone by a year. It is tempting to stay busy out of fear that we will become stuck or depressed in our sadness. And it is tempting to retreat into our heads, trading in confusion and questions for planning or control. Truly, trying to make sense of our loss may feel like a relief compared to facing our inner ache.
During my own experience of grief, the kindest words I received were from a woman who had known plenty of it in her life. She wrote me a letter, telling me that I would slowly come through my loss, that God would be close to do the work of binding my broken heart – but all the while, I would feel like I was making one step forward and two steps backward. She told me that some days I would experience the pain in as raw a form as I had at the beginning, and some days I would feel much stronger. Through her words, God blessed my process and gave me permission to grieve as a small human, while He put things back together.
If we’re to let go of rigid expectations of ourselves and others as we grieve, we also do not want to lay down under the feelings. This fuels depression. Instead, we can, choose and hope for a genuine, but gradual movement through confessing that a huge loss has occurred. This allows us time and space to experience all the feelings we have about the loss. We can accept the feelings as opposed to judging them, and we can feel them as opposed to merely thinking about them. Along the way, we will need, and God will bring, slow reminders that we did not die or lose all hope. We will rediscover light. As we move, one slow step at a time, our only work is to remain open, to express our pain to Jesus, and then to others. The only realistic work after great loss is to move your heart toward Jesus over an extended period of time. Journal your prayers or complaints if you cannot speak them, or if you feel wordless. Begin to put words to your bewilderment with people you trust, and ask for help. Healing is always a work of God; you cannot take the burden off your own shoulders to do it “correctly.”
There is so much room within the invitation to be patient with ourselves and each other as we grieve. I don’t automatically choose gentleness or patience with myself; no, I would rather plow through the pain, feel and see the worst of it, and then try to find some strength and clarity as I fight my way out. This does little but exhaust me, and it’s my way of short-circuiting needing Jesus to illumine the little piece of path just right in front of me. The Psalmist writes; ‘He has always illumined my darkness’ (Psalm 18:28).
Grief is a journey, one step at a time, into that light.
Meredith joined The Barnabas Center on staff in January 2009, upon completing her Masters in Counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and her Bachelors in Religion and Psychology from Furman University. She counsels, leads women’s groups and teaches a seminar called “Hope in the Darkness.” Meredith, her husband Jon, and daughter Charlotte live in Rock Hill, SC.