“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me.”
Psalm 55 is a passage I use frequently when counseling those who have experienced deep loss and trauma. David’s words are so honest and raw. He doesn’t cheapen or minimize his suffering. He asks God the hard questions, and he laments the injustice of experiencing betrayal and loneliness. My clients are sometimes surprised by these verses, because David’s words may seem harsh, critical and even a bit sacrilegious. But he gives us a kind of template into the heart of what it takes to grieve well.
When I meet with someone who feels depressed, anxious or angry, I try to ask questions that consider the possibility of grief. This can be a very important distinction, because I don’t want to dive into discussion about strategies for managing anxious thoughts or depressed mood if someone actually needs to process pain with me and before the Lord. I have discovered that when a person has the space to approach her distressing emotions and consider how they are affecting her life, she will then be better equipped to walk forward in wisdom. So it’s not just a matter of identifying the feeling and then finding a solution for it – it’s a matter of entering ‘the house of mourning’ (Ecclesiastes 7:4).
The most common distressing emotions related to grief are sadness, anger and worry. When these feelings surface, we should consider the signals they are sending to us.
Sadness includes a low mood and feelings of sorrow or despair. This is the most obvious feeling associated with grief, since a person is mourning the loss of something he or she holds dear. But we often ignore the sadness we feel over situations or things that we think shouldn’t be sorrowful. For example, a college graduate might not understand why he’s feeling sad upon entering the workforce. He believes he should be excited to be finished with school. But it makes sense that he would mourn the loss of college life, even while he’s excited about the future. When we are feeling sad, we should ask ourselves what’s prompting the sorrow. We need to be curious about what we believe about ourselves when we’re feeling sad, and we need safe spaces to share our pain.
When we feel anger, our bodies, minds and emotions are activated. We sense that something is wrong, and we long for justice. I don’t know about you, but I have heard many Christians say they were taught to quickly forsake anger. While I agree that we should not sin in our anger (Psalm 4:4), squelching it too quickly could lead to bitterness and doubt. I spend a lot of time in my counseling office encouraging clients to open the door to anger. I invite them to approach it and ask what anger might be trying to tell them. When it occurs, it’s a signal that something feels wrong inside. Ignoring that signal could bring about long-term consequences. I want my clients to ask themselves how anger manifests itself, what they believe about anger, and whether their anger is linked with the anger God feels toward injustice and evil.
When I think about worry, I think about Jesus’ sermon in Luke 12:22-32. He reminds his listeners that they can trust God in the midst of turmoil, because He loves them and will provide for their needs. Jesus’ compassion is evident in the way he relates to people. When I’m sitting with someone who is worried, I don’t know what has led to her feelings of worry. Perhaps she has experienced the loss of a significant relationship or source of help, so now she senses a lack of future stability. I want to ask about what is causing worry, and I want her to have a safe space to share her concerns. She doesn’t need a solution – she needs compassion.
I think we sometimes move too quickly to find a way out of our sorrow. We feel uncomfortable, and we want it to stop. But Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” If we refuse to acknowledge our brokenheartedness, how will we receive the comfort of the Lord? He longs to come toward us, but we must welcome Him into our grief.
I have created a questionnaire that can help a person explore the emotions associated with grief. This resource is available to members of Christian Trauma Healing Network. Click HERE to access it.