Two weeks ago, I received word that someone dear to me had just experienced the unexpected death of a loved one. The shock reverberated through my body as I looked at my phone in complete disbelief. This must be a dream. This cannot be right. Thankfully, I was able to make my way to her home to be with her. During the drive, I wondered what I would see when I arrived. What would she need from me and would I be able to comfort her? All I knew was I had to be with her even though I had no words to ease her pain.
I walked into her home and saw her lying on the couch. I sat beside her, she hugged me, and then we both collapsed into a puddle of tears. No words were necessary. She was brokenhearted and I was brokenhearted seeing her brokenhearted. In those moments, we want to do anything – tell jokes, give words of encouragement, bring treats – to make our loved one feel better. It is a helpless feeling to watch someone whom we dearly love walk through grief; but, it is in those moments our loved ones need us most.
But, what do they need? Do they need someone to take charge and make arrangements? Do they need someone to make them smile or distract them? Do they need someone to sit beside them in silence? Do they need someone to answer texts and phone calls and keep the masses away? Do they need a three-hour hug?
Sometimes, we do not know what we need until we are faced with it, but it never hurts to talk about possibilities in advance. When you are hurting, what type of support do you need? As much as you can imagine, or based on your previous experience, how would you like your significant other to support you in times of grief? Are you prepared to support each other in those ways?
Stages of Grief (as defined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)
Denial – “I feel numb.” Have you ever had someone respond with this phrase after the loss of a loved one? After losing someone dear to us (especially if it happens suddenly), we first go through a stage where we feel like we are traversing some intense night terror. Surely, any minute we will wake up and this nightmare will be behind us! The first stage of grief is when we can hardly believe it has happened. We might be in shock or unable to fully grasp the reality of the situation.
Anger – Many years ago, I remember a young lady from church sobbing in the bathroom because her boyfriend had just broken up with her. Having dated the same guy a year or so before, I was familiar with her heartbreak. A few days later, Mom and I asked her dad how she was doing – worried that she was home wallowing in desperation. His response? “She’s mad!” Yes, after the reality of the breakup set it, her anger started to rise. Stages of grief do not only apply to the loss of life, but the loss of love or even the loss of a dream.
Bargaining – After the shock wears off and the anger calms down, there is a time of bargaining. “God, is there anything I can do to regain what I have lost?” A lot of the bargaining stage happens internally or in private. We think through regrets and ask questions such as “What if _______ had happened differently? Then my loved one might still be here with me.” Have you ever had thoughts of negotiation or found yourself trying to bargain with God during a time of loss?
Depression – This is probably the stage with which we are most familiar. This is when the reality starts sinking in that our loved one is no longer with us. It feels intense and leaves us wondering if we will ever feel okay again. It is important to allow time to go through this stage and experience depression. As tempting as it is (especially since we are taught that depression is always bad), we should not rush ourselves or others through this stage. Depression is not a weakness but, rather, a necessary part of the process. We all grieve differently, and it may take your sweetheart longer to move forward than it takes you. There are so many underlying factors with loss which are unique from one situation to the other (e.g., words left unspoken, fears about how to live without the person, unforgiveness, losing a trusted confidant, financial uncertainty, etc.), so one situation cannot be compared to another even if the loss appears to be identical (e.g., siblings losing a parent, parents losing a child, etc.).
Acceptance – The acceptance stage is easily mistaken for the ‘all is well’ stage or the ‘I am over it’ stage. This is when we start to accept the new reality. It will take a long time to forget (which may never happen) and/or get to a point where we are over the loss, but we do grow to a point where we can move forward and live. Some refer to loss as an amputation. You will always miss the part of your heart you lost and you will learn to live without him or her – though never forgetting all he or she meant to you.
We can also go through all of these stages multiple times. Be supportive of your loved one as he or she moves back and forth between them. Encourage appropriate steps forward but give copious amounts of patience and grace. Let him or her talk if desired and needed. Let him or her be quiet if desired and needed. If your sweetheart or spouse becomes stalled in a state of depression for more than three to six months, research grief counseling or support groups and be willing to accompany him or her if your presence is desired by them.
Creed Notebook Time
If you are with your special someone for a significant amount of time, it is almost inevitable that you will walk with him or her through seasons of grief. From burying family pets to saying goodbye to grandparents, parents, possibly siblings, and sometimes even children, your future spouse will experience grief just as you will. And, you will look to each other for support during your times of loss.
Before moving forward in your relationship, pause and discuss your beliefs and experiences regarding grief. What do you need from each other? Discuss the questions below:
- When I experience loss, how do I react?
- Do I allow myself the opportunity to truly grieve?
- The loss of loved ones?
- The loss of beloved pets?
- The loss of love?
- The loss of dreams?
- The loss of what I thought my life would be?
- On a scale from 1-10, how healthy are my current beliefs and practices regarding grief? What would get me one point higher? What would get me to a 10?
- Have I ever lost someone close to me? Did I experience the five stages of grief?
- When I was growing up, what did my family and friends teach me (whether through words or actions) about grieving?
- What do I hope my future partner believes about grief and healing?
- What do I want or need from my future partner in times of grief?
What Does the Bible Say?
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Psalm 56:8-11, ESV)
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, ESV)
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3, ESV)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4, ESV)
For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5, ESV)
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15, ESV)
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4, ESV)
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. (Psalm 18:6, ESV)
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18, ESV)
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20, ESV)
Do you and your boyfriend or girlfriend feel a calling to minister to the grieving? Do you have strong beliefs about giving to and supporting the brokenhearted (cf. Isaiah 61:1)? If so, you can add that to your creed. If not, determine if you want to add a portion about grief and loss to your personal and couple’s creeds.
What Do I Say to Someone Who is Grieving?
Several years ago, Eric and I were planning to attend the visitation of an amazing husband and father. The shock of his sudden death affected everyone who knew him as he was young and so full of life. He was the rock for his family, especially his precious wife, and left seven shattered children. As we prepared to show our respects to the family, I told Eric how uncomfortable I was because I did not know what to say or how to act. What could I possibly do to encourage this heartbroken family?
Eric, having lost his mom at the young age of twenty-three, shared a piece of advice I will always carry with me. He said, “They may not remember what you say, but they will remember you were there.” How true it is. When we encounter hurting people, we do not need to have the perfect words. Is there even such a thing? What matters is that we are there and eager to show our support. So, instead of wondering, “What should I say?” we should focus on, “What should I do?”
- Should I bring a meal?
- Should I offer to babysit?
- Do I have skills which would bless them at this time?
- Is there a need I can fulfill (e.g., fixing a vehicle, paying a bill, cleaning the house before people start coming over, etc.)?
- Should I just go and be with him or her?
And, instead of saying “Let me know if you need anything,” find the needs and fulfill them as best you can. In the throes of grief, most people are not able to think through exactly what they need; and, even if they know, they are not likely to ask for their fulfillment. When my grandfather passed away in 1993, I marveled at how quickly people started bringing food to the house. In a time of complete devastation, there was comfort in knowing how many people cared. It blew my ten-year-old mind and still touches my heart twenty-six years later.
Grief is a tough subject to broach, but somewhat easier if discussed before a loss-filled season unfolds. You do not need to linger here, but some discussion for future planning is helpful and wise.
“The death of a beloved is an amputation.” “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Where grief is fresh, any attempt to divert it only irritates. – Samuel Johnson
Grief is a process, not a state. – Anne Grant
Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses. Then wash your face. Trust God. And embrace the life you have. – John Piper
Have my significant other and I thoroughly discussed how we process grief?