Psychologists talk about the “stages of grief,” and this framework has trickled down into the popular consciousness. First comes denial and disbelief. Next is rage at the loss and the universe in general. After that is bargaining, attempting to somehow turn what is sad untrue. Depression as the inescapable truth sets in. Then, finally, acceptance of a new normal.
While this rubric has some value, those in the middle of grief often find it unhelpful. Not that the categories are wrong—they describe real emotions—but that they are too neat. The labels don’t communicate the jumbled agony of the experience. Denial and anger and bargaining and sadness are ever-changing faces of one awful reality rather than events we can pry apart. In a quest to make sorrow comprehensible, we can reduce it to something tidily unrecognizable.
In addition, picturing grief in stages makes healing sound deceptively easy. Once the grieving person has checked the first four boxes, the expectation is that the sadness should be at an end. This is wrong. Grief brooks no easy resolution, and healing is more learning to walk with a limp than ever regaining our former stature.
Grieving Is a Messy Process
I live daily life in a sort of confused denial/acceptance until something happens to shatter the equilibrium. Maybe it’s some outside reminder of Elizabeth’s prognosis; maybe it’s just an unexpected diversion in my train of thought. The balance breaks, and I am angry, seething and seeking an object for my frustration. Alongside this anger is a despair at the seeming inevitability of cancer and the uncertainty of the future. While my temperament and theology don’t make me prone to grand bargains with God, I certainly make them with my own anxiety. Maybe we’ll get another year, I tell myself. Surely, it’s at least six months away—no need to dwell there yet. Somewhere in that jumble, my heart eventually calms, and I return to a place of acceptance, still with a healthy dose of denial mixed in, and now I’m at rest until the thing tomorrow that will set me off again.
The messiness of this process is mirrored by the equally messy spiritual process of walking with God through grief. People seem to expect Christian suffering to be neat and consisting of clear stages. In the evangelicalism I was raised in, the form of every spiritual story naturally gravitates toward that of the conversion narrative. There is a clear before (the darkness, the lostness, the wanton sin), a clear after (the light, the found-ness, the joy of the Lord), and some turning point in the middle, some encounter with Jesus that transforms the one to the other.
Experiencing God’s Presence
There are two problems with applying this conversion narrative structure to grief. One is that even conversion isn’t usually that simple. Many of us don’t have a clear understanding of the point at which we were saved, just a series of complicated experiences that somehow leave us in relationship to God. (Was it when I was four and prayed a prayer? Thirteen and rededicated my life? Twenty and arrived at a deep appreciation of the gospel for myself? Yesterday, when I realized all over again how little I still understand of Christianity?) There is light before the turning and darkness that lingers after. Jesus is present throughout the whole thing rather than sitting obviously and exclusive in the middle.
The second problem with the conversion narrative is that, while imperfect at describing conversion, it is even worse at explaining something like grief. There is no clear boundary we can cross from sadness into hope, no beach to divide the land from the sea. We are drifting in the ocean, slipping under the water and clawing our way over and over back to air. The struggle is just to stay afloat. Much like the stages of grief, the story of conversion makes us expect people to “get better.” In truth, what healing we find is more like an agonizingly slow dawn, months or years that can only be demarcated by slight variations of gray.
The danger in our expected experience of God’s presence is that we think God will be present the way Jesus appears in our conversion stories. The Holy Spirit moves, the Father draws near, and magically everything gets resolved. Scripture does not promise such a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Instead, the Bible offers two pictures of what experiencing God’s presence is like—a messy duality rather than a list to be mastered.
Taken from Either Way, We’ll Be All Right: An Honest Explanation of God In Our Grief by Eric Tonjes. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.