Several years ago, a pastor who was a longtime mentor and friend of mine did some things that caused havoc in my family. Overnight we lost our church community. We felt totally betrayed. For weeks I was angry, then sad, then just depressed. I avoided interaction withpeople. I didn’t want to hear any Christian platitudes that just made me feel worse.
I finally met with a counselor and she talked with me about grief and forgiveness. She talked to me about the importance of grieving what I had lost when I had been hurt, then choosing to let it go.
So I did. I grieved. I forgave.
That painful event happened on Palm Sunday, which happened to fall in March that year. Now, at some point every year, in March, I’ll wake up with that pastor and what he did on my mind. I might feel a flash of anger or sadness or thoughts of what I should have done differently. When this first started happening, it concerned me. Shouldn’t I be over this by now? Am I emotionally weak? Did I never actually grieve the loss? Was I not embracing God’s healing?
It created a spiritual crisis for me. During that relapse of sadness (and in my work with others who are grieving), I’ve learned two important truths about grieving:
Grief is a Spiral, Not a Straight Line
You’ve probably heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Those are real, but because we call them stages we tend to think they are a linear process. Stage 1 then 2 then 3 … Phew! Ok, I’m over it now! But that’s not how it works.
The different stages of grief and sadness tend to come back around. Often times at specific intervals (Like in March for me.). The closer you are to the event, the smaller the base of the spiral will be. You may find yourself feeling the pain daily or even hourly. But eventually, the spiral will get wider and wider. From time to time it will come back around—holidays, birthdays and other events that remind you of the person or event. Sometimes, the grief will come when you least expect it. During a movie. Watching a family say goodbye at the airport. During a sermon that has nothing to do with grief. It hits you like a tidal wave.
There is nothing wrong with you when this happens. It’s normal.
Grieving is a process. A circular one. It’s long and, honestly, we will feel some losses for the rest of our lives. It’s OK to feel that loss and embrace it. If it becomes debilitating, it’s important to get some outside help. You don’t want grief limiting your ability to function or move ahead in life. But know that it can take years or decades to get over some losses.
Don’t Grieve Alone
Don’t isolate yourself. Physical isolation leads to psychological isolation. Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher points out in his book, The Happiness Advantage, that based on research, “The people who survive stress the best are the ones who actually increase their social investments in the middle of stress, which is the opposite of what most of us do.”
You need a strong community around you when the grief comes back around. A good community will walk with you in those moments. They may not say all the right things all the time, but know they are trying. Keep people around you and press into community when the spiral of grief comes back around.
Life is loss. But it’s also full of joy. Every season requires grieving what we’ve lost, but recognizing that there is still joy to be had in this world. There is always something to be grateful for. When you feel the spiral of grief coming back around, there’s nothing wrong with you. Just use it as a trigger to remind you to look around at what you still have and be grateful. Get with people you love and enjoy the life God has given you right here, right now.
Joel Malm is the founder of Summit Leaders Coaching and is the author of Fully You: Unlocking the Power of All You Really Are He has an M.S. in Counseling.