May 4, 2016 – Grief

Rev. Jeff Gannon

On Memorial Day weekend, we always take time to remember our loved ones who have died and to participate in the lighting of candles. It is a very special service of worship because we create space to reflect and remember and ultimately to give thanks for the gift of our loved ones lives and the promise of eternal life.

This year, I will be interviewing our own Julie Prater who is the Executive Director of Kidscope, a local ministry devoted to helping children grieve well so they can heal well. It is an amazing ministry. Please spread the word about the interview with Julie. If you’re out of town, we will have a video for replay in our archive on the Chapel Hill website.

Today, I want to address the topic of grief. God has, in my humble opinion, and according to scientific research, created us with the capacity and need to grieve every loss we encounter. When I was studying psychology in college I was invited by one of my professors of psychology to specialize in thanatology. That’s a fancy word which describes the study of death and dying. I am incredibly thankful for my time in that field because it has informed my ministry for 30 plus years.

In the midst of my study of death and dying in the context of Christian faith I was struck by the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who said in I Thessalonians 4:13, “Grieve, but not as those who have no hope.” There are two major dangers to which St. Paul alludes. First, some Christians do not believe we should grieve if we have faith. Secondly, there are people who grieve but do not so with hope but only with despair. Both are dangerous without the other. We grieve and as people of faith we are invited to grieve our losses but in creative tension with the biblical concept of hope and not ultimate despair.

So, first, what is grief? Grief is a physical, spiritual, emotional and relational reaction to any loss. Any loss creates for grief. We have the power to suppress our grief but like a beach ball, when it push it down, it will eventually come popping up to the surface. Any change in our lives or any pain in our lives, automatically creates for loss which results in grief.

Some common physical reactions to grief include….too much or little sleep, food, hygiene, health care and a suppressed immune system which makes one vulnerable to sickness, especially around 6 months after the loss.

Some common emotional reactions to grief include…feeling sad, irritable, angry, laughing at things not funny, lack of interest, the roller coaster effect emotionally – up and down and all over the place.

Some common spiritual reactions to grief include….being mad at God, unable to pray, bargaining with God (you do this and I will do that), guilt, shame, too much or too little church participation, becoming obsessed with questions of “why me…why us….why?_____________.”

Some common relational reactions to grief include….too independent, too clingy, rebounding, the unwillingness to let people in emotionally for fear of loss, or not trusting people and keeping a wall around your heart.

This chart is something I created after I studied the above and its effects on the human person. There are a few thanaltologists who have influenced this chart.

grief blog

After the loss, the “false bottom” comes about 6-8 months generally. The real bottom tends to hit about a year or so after the loss. Typically, the real bottom is devastating because it is the culmination of a lot of “firsts.” First birthday, first anniversary, first special events, etc. What is significant about this chart is how it is completely normal to grieve deeply for two years after the loss. We live in a death defying and death denying culture therefore we do not like the idea of grief taking time and requiring intentional care because of it.

To grieve with hope we must give ourselves permission to grieve. Grief can be suppressed as I’ve said and it can be accumulated. Rarely do we grieve the current loss. More often than not, we grieve every loss we have ever had in our lives and it is one of the reasons grief can be so overwhelming to the soul.

There is an important question with which I will leave you… can always determine if you are grieving with hope with this one important question. Are you doing things that make you feel better or are you doing things that make you better at feeling?

I will share more next week….until then….remember….The Shepherd of our Souls is with us in life, in death, in life after death. We are never alone. Thanks be to God!

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