Vale of Tears

Patterns of Grief

Patterns of Grief

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.
I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.
The same fluttering in the stomach,
the same restlessness, and yawning,
I keep on swallowing. 

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Although every grief experience is unique, we can distinguish certain features that are common in almost all of them. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s seminal work On Death and Dying identified five stages associated with the grief process: denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before finally reaching a place of acceptance. These have been widely accepted in grief and bereavement counselling, and they hold true for any form of loss – redundancy, retirement, loss of status, change of physical or emotional circumstances, and a host of other conditions.

These stages do not follow one another in an orderly progression, but are rather cyclical, often overlap with each other. It is quite possible to progress beyond one of these stages, only to fall back into it again later on. Thus we find David expressing the highs and lows of his pilgrimage within a single couplet:
When I was prosperous, I said, “Nothing can stop me now!” Your favour, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain. Then You turned away from me and I was shattered.
Psalm 30:6-7

Like David, we find ourselves crying out to God to deliver us from our pressing problems. This is important psychologically as well as spiritually, for it means that we are expressing our grief as near as possible to the event that occasioned it, and are doing the very best thing possible in taking it to the Lord. There are many things that only He can sort out.

Our first and most important step, therefore, is to recognise when we need to grieve. This may not be quite as automatic as it sounds. Apart from anything else, grief is such an untidy emotion that it is hardly surprising that many of us – those who are in any form of leadership especially – may be tempted to put on a mask and pretend that all is well. Perhaps we are afraid it would indicate some lack of faith on our part were we to give voice to it. If so, the Psalms of David show us a very different pattern!

Every one of us needs grace to adjust our priorities and perspectives when cherished people, positions, health or possessions are taken from us – especially if the loss occurs suddenly. Each of us process life’s setbacks in different ways, however, and although there is no virtue in trying to jump start anyone into making responses they are not yet ready to embrace, it is as well to be aware that to sidestep embarking on the grief journey risks making the long-term cost higher.

Reflect and Pray

I have wandered many worlds unknown to you.

I have watched the tears for life’s sorrows slowly brew.

I have tasted the fruits of joy,
and the bitter seeds of hate.

I have seen the paths of life laid out for me.

The towering mountains of trouble,
to be toiled with and slowly climbed –
battled with step by step until I reach the summit:
the many different forms and turnings.

Which way will I turn?
Which path will I follow?
The smooth or the rough?
The selfish or the selfless?
Which is which?
Will I be forced or tempted and take the wrong path?

Alison Browne (aged 13)1

1 Allie’s Song. Alison Browne. Copyright Tony and Brid Browne (1999). Herne Bay, Kent. A collection of poems and writings by Allie, who knew at the age of thirteen that an early death awaited her from cystic fibrosis.