An Empty Ocean and the 10 Things We Must Remember About Grief

by Jonathan Trotter on July 1, 2020

Walking alone at a park, a friend of mine saw a woman busily walking towards her, dictating something into her phone. The woman looked earnest and concentrated.

She came closer and closer, and as her words became more distinct, my socially-distancing friend heard these slow, simple words:

“Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Oh how I want to know that woman’s story. I recently googled those words and came up empty; apparently, she hasn’t published them yet. In any case, I’m guessing you resonate with her sentiment.

These are hard times. Whether you’re still abroad, whether you’ve had to leave the field and stay gone, whether you’re hoping to return, or returned already, or whether the future is murky, my guess is that at some point over the past several months, you could have written, “Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Or perhaps you would agree with Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry’s famous barber of Port William, who said one bone-soaked evening, “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

It feels like that to me sometimes. “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

And so we come to this: Ten things to remember about grief.

I hope that you find something helpful here, whether a thought or a link or two seconds away from the folks you’re quarantined with.

Whatever you’re grieving, it matters: whether it’s a job, a family member, or the future you had planned. In each case, loss singes, and grieving matters.

So, shall we?

1. Grief is a process
It is messy, unpredictable, and gnarly, but whatever else it is, grief is a process. That means it is not its own ending; it’s going somewhere, leading to something. Author and theologian Dan Allender doesn’t mince words when he writes:

“Grief is similar to vomiting. At its deepest convulsion it exhausts, nauseates, and relieves. It empties us, weakens us, and prepares us for food that in due season will strengthen us. But in its immediate aftermath, we need rest.”

This meme pictures the “process” well.

 

2. Grief might not feel like grief
It might feel like discomfort, or generalized sluggishness, or even anxiety. Grief expert David Kessler describes our current situation:

[W]e’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Read the full interview from the Harvard Business Review here: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.

 

3. You don’t have to be sad all day to effectively grieve
Therapist Kay Bruner recommends the evidence-based time limit of twenty minutes. She writes:

“This is a research-based number:  journal 20 minutes per day when you’re working on a specific issue.  I recently had an adult TCK client tell me how much the 20-minute exercise has helped.  She’s not stuffing down her emotions any more, and the 20-minute limit helps her contain the feelings so they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Read her full article here: How do we process loss and grief?

 

4. The Dual Process Model allows for oscillations
It is pretty normal to bounce back and forth between “I’m OK” and “I’m not OK and I’ll never be OK and why would you even think I’m OK?!”

Researchers Stroebe and Schut described this as “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.”

It is totally normal to oscillate between the two, and actually, getting stuck on either side might be an indicator to get some outside help from a pastor or counselor.

 

5. People grieve differently, even if they’re in the same family
Some people grieve in giant waves. Some don’t. Some people show ALL.THEIR.GRIEF. Some don’t. Some people are vocal and some aren’t.

Some extroverts want the crowds to know all about it. Some introverts don’t.

The danger here is that you expect others to grieve the right way (read: your way), and instead of allowing them their own grief process, you try to stuff them into your box and they end up resentful or detached, finding solace far away from you.

 

6. Even if the loss looks the same, it isn’t
It’s just not. The loss I experienced when my dad died was terrible. It was also very different from the loss experienced by my younger siblings.

The hubris that says “my experience of loss is the gold standard by which all others shall be measured” is disgusting and antithetical to the heart of Christ.

 

7. Things will never be the same again
This is an indelible part of our story now.

And the grief of this season will bleed through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow. Failing to acknowledge the COVID-19 chapters is to censor. To edit out. To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.

So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect. Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains. Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.

He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.

So we keep feeling. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.

And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.

And He’s really good with words.

 

8. Hope and despair can coexist in this space
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on prophetic hope, even in the midst of legitimate despair. He writes,

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

Despair seems to be the crusty soil from which hope itself is born.

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

For more thoughts on this theme, including links to a 21-minute podcast/sermon, click here. Or listen to the audio of the message here.

 

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing…

~Wendell Berry

 

9. While loss is personal, it’s not novel
Many faithful believers have walked hard roads before us, and many will after us. On its face, that’s not good news. But it is.

I wrote more about this idea in my article, What C.S. Lewis, Paul, and the Sword of Damocles can Teach us About Living in Terrible Times. In it, I quote my best friend, Elizabeth Trotter, who echoes C.S. Lewis’ call to do sensible, human things:

So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.

I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .

Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.

These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.

No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.

I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.

I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light.

 

10. Grief can be a gift
Grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” ~Larry Crabb

Grief can be an oxygenating reminder of Eternity. Grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

Read more on the gift of grief here and here.

 

Through it all, Jesus remains
Man of sorrows, giver of the Comforter. Holy.

He is still preparing a place for us, and if he’s still preparing a place for us, then we know he’s still planning to usher us in, one day, to paradise.

The future remains brighter than the past, more glorious, and more real.

Indeed, we live in the “now and not yet Kingdom.” And in this time, and in this space, it is right to mourn, it is normal to feel the pain, it is holy to burn for justice.

It is also good that we remember: he is coming back.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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About Jonathan Trotter

Jonathan is the co-author of "Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker." He serves as a missionary in Southeast Asia, providing pastoral counseling at a local counseling center. He also serves as one of the pastors at an international church. Before moving to the field with his wife of nineteen years and their four kids, he served as a youth pastor in the Midwest for ten years and as an inner-city ER/trauma nurse for three years. He enjoys walking with people towards Jesus and eating imported Twizzlers. | www.trotters41.com | facebook: trotters41 | twitter: @trotters41

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