Recently I had the privilege of taking a retreat for the staff and volunteers of a Christian Hospice. This was one of the most joyful groups of people I have ever met. Knowing the kind of work they do, this must be a God thing. During the retreat, I asked the palliative care nurses what was the greatest challenge in their work. Without hesitation, one of them answered: “The pain of losing our patients.” This sounded about right.
Christians in the caring professions, and I am sure all good people of whatever religious persuasions, do not do their work primarily for the money. You can’t pay someone to care. And because we care, we grieve when those we care for die. I recall one funeral I had to do for a very young child — the child couldn’t have been more than two years old. This was in Cheras cemetery. When I saw the tiny white coffin about to be lowered into the ground, I lost it. I began to cry uncontrollably. The parents of the child had to comfort me. Quite embarrassing.
Grief is real. It is the human response to loss. Studies have shown there are various stages to grief. Here is one schema:
- Experiencing shock, numbness, denial and gradually accepting the reality of the loss.
- Experiencing, expressing and working through painful feelings — e.g., guilt, remorse, apathy, anger, resentment, yearning, despair, anxiety, emptiness, depression, loneliness, panic, disorientation, loss of clear identity, physical symptoms, etc.
- Gradual acceptance of the loss, and putting one’s life back together minus what was lost.
- Putting one’s loss in a wider context of meaning and faith; learning from the loss.
- Reaching out to others experiencing similar losses for mutual help.(Howard Clinebell, Basic Types of Pastoral Care & Counselling [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1984], 221.)
We shouldn’t be surprised that grief may not proceed neatly through the various stages. Not everyone experiences all the stages. And often it may be one step forward, two steps back. Still, it is helpful to know that grief is not something strange or bad. It is the normal response to loss.
How then should we process our grief? Maybe the first step is to understand that grief is not a problem to be solved. It is a journey to be walked. Two things may help.
First is biblical hope. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, we are told that, in response to losing folks who are followers of Jesus, we are to grieve but we do so with hope. The dead in Christ are with Jesus and we will meet again at the end of time. As for those who didn’t die in the Lord, I will only say that we are not called to speculate on anyone’s eternal fate but to trust that the Lord will do the right thing. We also know from Revelation 21 that when the Lord returns to usher in the new heaven and the new earth, there will no longer be any death, nor pain, nor sorrow, nor tears.
Next, we need to process our grief with others. Theology gives us a framework for hope and that is so important but it does not take away the pain. In some ways the journey of grief is a lonely one. But it is a journey that shouldn’t be undertaken alone. In Luke 24 we see two disciples grieving for Jesus. But they were companions in grief. Interestingly, as they walked together, they encountered the risen Christ. Paul commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Romans12:15). We need to process our grief with others and we need to do this intentionally.
My heart goes out to palliative nurses and, indeed, to nurses and others who serve in areas like oncology and renal diseases. They encounter loss much more than others. I also think of pastors and others who have to see death on a regular basis. I thank God that they do what they do. But I pray and hope that they will take their grief seriously and take the necessary steps to deal with it. Until that day when grief will be no more.
*Image from Tuomas_Lehtinen / freedigitalphotos.net