Bible+Theology, Spiritual Practices

Surprised by Grief

My first real journey down the path of grief was when my mother died.

My mom passed away 10 years ago this past December. It came after her six-year battle with cancer. In many ways it was neither tragic nor sudden. But I never expected to lose my mom this way.  If I’m honest, I had always thought she would be there for my daughter’s wedding and her grandkids’ graduations. Even as I write those words, I find myself tearing up because I don’t always let myself acknowledge these unrealized hopes and dreams. It’s part of my journey on the path of grieving–a journey that has had its share of surprises.

Along this journey, I’ve encountered a number surprises.

When I lost my mom, I was inducted into a group I didn’t even know existed and certainly never asked to join. I had joined the club of those who have lost their mothers. After my mom passed, many people reached out to express their sympathy. For the most part, these gestures were welcomed. But I felt the most comfort from  those who had also lost their mothers. Knowing they had gone through what I was going through meant a lot–even more than I expected. I felt less alone in my grief. It was a gift to receive.

The second surprise was realizing I now had a gift to give. It was the same one that was given to me by others. When I hear that someone in my life has experienced the death of a parent–I feel a special bond. I don’t always know what to say, but I have learned that’s okay. As Pastor Chris mentioned in his sermonI’ve learned not to say, “I know how you feel,” but rather, “I too have lost a parent and I feel for you, for I know how that has felt for me.” It has been an invitation into the words of Romans 12:15, to “…mourn with those who mourn.” This takes on new meaning when we ourselves have walked down the path of grief and mourning. It’s a gift we can give.

The third surprise was that I thought I could put a time limit on my period of grieving. I thought I would work through the loss of my mom in a few months time–certainly no more than a year. My perception of many others in my life is that they thought the same. Not many asked me how I was doing with the loss of my mom  a few months after her passing. It sometimes felt like there was an expectation that I should be “over that” by now.

I have found–even 10 years later–that thoughts of my mom can pop up at the most random times. When that happens, I try to give myself space to process. I spend time listening to what my heart is saying and then offer that up as prayer–even if it’s not a terribly articulate prayer. The Psalms have been a refuge, comfort, and great resource to me. They have given me words to pray even when I don’t know what words to pray. The Psalms are filled with those who, led by God, brought their sorrow and grief to God in prayer. I have found great solace in that over the years. In this way, God has shown me that the surprises I’ve encountered during my journey with grief have been unexpected gifts from Him.

Here are some recommended resources to help you or someone you love:

Lament for a SonLament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

“Wolterstorff describes the progress of his grief from the shock of learning of his son’s accidental death to his final resignation a year later.”

GriefGrief: Comfort for Those Who Grieve and Those Who Want to Help by Haddon Robinson

“Whatever its cause—the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a devastating illness—no one escapes the ravages of grief…. If you or someone you know struggles with sorrow, this book offers hope and solace to the brokenhearted through the compassion of God’s Word.”

Broken HallelujahsBroken Hallelujahs by Beth Allen Slevcove

“The losses in our lives are both big and small, and cover a range of experiences. We leave home. We experience physical illness and disabilities. We struggle with vocation and finances. We may long for a spouse or child. We lose people we love to addiction or illness and death. All of these losses can build into questions and doubts about faith. We may experience depression or other mental health struggles. Where is God in the midst of our losses? In this book spiritual director Beth Slevcove shares stories from her own life about losses and struggles. Along the way, she offers distinctive spiritual practices that can guide us back to God and, in the end, to ourselves.”

A Grief ObservedA Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

“Written after his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the ‘mad midnight moment,’ A Grief Observed is C.S. Lewis’ honest reflection on the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss…. This is a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.”

Being MortalBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande

“Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should….In this book, Atul Gawande examines medicine’s ultimate limitations and failures-in his own practices as well as others’-as life draws to a close. Riveting, honest, and humane, Being Mortal shows how the ultimate goal is not a good death but a good life-all the way to the very end.”

Finally, for help on beginning conversations about Advance Care Planning with your family, see one of the following for (free) resources:

About the Author: Craig Gartland
Craig is Pastor of Spiritual Formation at Blackhawk and oversees Adult Ministries. He completed his Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary and spent over two decades of his career in campus ministry. He is married to Sharon and they have four children. His passions include cycling, listening to jazz music, photography, and the writings of C.S. Lewis.