Love Well, Grieve Well: A Conversation with a Grief Specialist

By Barbara Boatwright, Ph.D.

“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:17-18

We grieve because we love.  Our remarkable ability to love someone intensely is turned upside down as we face loss of a person we have deeply loved.  The emotional, physical, and spiritual pain we encounter can be overwhelming and often unthinkable.  And yet, we live in a society that discounts the primal human need to grieve and mourn our loved ones. Feelings of isolation often accompany grief in our fast passed world, as family members, friends, and coworkers refocus on their own lives, work, and concerns, leaving us to feel as if we are mourning alone. Yet, it is in that place of pain and sorrow that we find the essence of life.  Knowing and understanding the basic human need to grieve and mourn gives each of us the opportunity to heal and to begin to live in a world different from before, but nonetheless, a world of hope and life.

I recently had a conversation with Carol Conway, a bereavement specialist who has joined our team at Life Resources. Carol’s entire career has focused on walking with children and adults as they experience loss and death.

How has grief in your own life impacted your work with others?

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My Dad died at age 51 when I was 17 years old. I felt devastated, abandoned, and terrified as my childhood-teenage assumptions of security crumbled. When my son-in- law died 2 years ago just 10 weeks after he was diagnosed with cancer at age 43, I found myself grieving my own father again, so many years later. Despite my experience and understanding of the dying and grief process, I felt angry with God for not healing my son-in-law for the sake of his teenage sons, who now were going to experience what I had during my own childhood. I could not help but recall my mother’s fierce struggle to survive after my father’s sudden death. Anger at God is most likely to occur with an untimely tragedy or death. When we can’t find a reason for our loss, we may feel betrayed and blame God. With this second similar loss, I also had to work through the belief that these things would not and should not happen to me or my family. It can be very hard to trust and lean on a God with whom we are angry. But as I navigated the loss, I personally experienced the very real healing presence of God that I had offered to others over the years as He faithfully met me in that place of angry devastation. 

“Grief came to me like a gigantic wave, crushing the breath out of me, pushing me deep into the cold ocean waters of loss.” -Carol Conway 

Many grieving people think they are “going crazy” because their emotions feel like a roller coaster. What would you say to them?

The grief process occurs with all types of loss- miscarriage, divorce, loss of a job, finances, or property, other traumatic events, and even the loss of a beloved pet. We need the consistent support of caring others during such times. There is joy in knowing that we can be instruments of God’s peace and compassionate presence in very difficult intersections in people’s lives. Sometimes it is heartbreaking, but it truly is through suffering that we learn compassion (II Cor.1:3-5).

The normal process of bereavement is experienced physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually. Grief encompasses the entire range of emotions and brings a confusing array of disbelief, intense longing, and often unwanted new experiences.  Unresolved or complex grief may occur when there is guilt or regret in the lost relationship.

A month after losing his wife to cancer, CS Lewis wrote the following: “I live not only each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”   Such pain and bewilderment mimics the out of control, bottom dropping, frenetic speed of a roller coaster ride. People may vacillate unpredictably between emotional extremes from uncontrollable weeping and sobbing, intense anger or guilt, to emotional numbing. A loss of grounding and fear may rise as the grieving person's rhythms and routines of life are "finished"- leaving hard questions of how they will deal with the void that remains. Feeling outside of one's self or in a dream, “seeing” the loved one at home or outside in public, or experiencing a vivid sense of the loved one’s presence can be particularly disconcerting but are not uncommon. 

One of the most discouraging experiences can occur just as individuals feel they are moving forward when some thought, picture, object, or even smell crashes in and engulfs them once again with pain.  Dr. Alan Wolfelt describes these events as “grief bursts”.  A grief burst is like a spring time thunderstorm.  Sometimes we see dark clouds building on the horizon, while on another day, the thunderstorm suddenly erupts with little or no warning. Such experiences are quite dysregulating and can be embarrassing when they occur unexpectedly or in public.

Sometimes people feel ill equipped to support a friend or loved one in their grief. How can we be truly helpful?

Grieving people need time and freedom to mourn, and they need friends who will come alongside them with a patient listening ear rather than advice.  People cannot “will” themselves to "get over it.” They need repeated opportunities to process the story of their own grief as it unfolds until the day arrives when the need to tell their experience begins to diminish.

The compassionate presence of others coupled with practical help are tangible and valuable gifts to those who are grieving the loss of a significant relationship, whether through death, divorce, or some other tragedy.  Anticipating needs and providing help in the household, workplace, and with basic life tasks offers reduces the burden for the person adjusting to an unwanted “new normal.” Grief support groups and counseling can provide hope for healing through a shared understanding of loss. Alan Wolfelt calls these activities, “Companioning,” a practice that honors, supports, and encourages those grieving a loss while accompanying them on the journey to resolution and acceptance.

How can we best communicate the death of someone important to children who are impacted?

The most important thing we can do is to offer age appropriate, honest explanations of death and the dying process.  When a death occurs, there is a tender opportunity to equip and support children in their grief as a normal response to loss.  Most children are not able to comprehend the finality of death until close to the age of ten. Depending on the age of the child, we should invite them in to the grief process. Family members should also avoid metaphorical explanations such as ‘Grandpa has gone to sleep’, or ‘God called your Mom home,’ because young children may take such comments literally, and this confusion can cause them to experience unwarranted fears.

Sharing stories often and creating opportunities to remember the loved one on special occasions comforts children that their loved one has not been forgotten. In the face of many types of loss, consistent schedules, time for fun activities, and adult availability to listen and validate children’s questions, feelings, and needs all bring order and nurture to children’s confusing new realities.

“(A support) group provides a safe harbor where hurting people can pull in and anchor while the wind blows around them, and search for safe ground on which to go on living.” -Alan Worfelt, Ph.D.

Where does God fit into the healing of grief?

There is a very special bond and a tender place in God’s heart for grieving people. Jesus is described as a man acquainted with sorrow (Is 53:3). Our Father God has walked through loss-  the brutal crucifixion of His Son for our sake, so that we, as believers, can come through to the other side of suffering and death into life. Jesus alone can uphold the promise to truly never leave or forsake us. Jesus referred to Isaiah 61 when He revealed Himself and His mission in Luke 4. He truly came to heal the wounds of the broken-hearted and comfort and restore those who mourn (Isaiah 61:1-4).  He often does this through the loving actions of those who are willing to walk with others through the darkest days of life. His Presence and our willingness to live our lives as vessels God’s love are the most effective remedy for the lonely devastation of loss.

For a list of the 10 most common things you should NOT say to someone who is grieving, click here

 Carol can be contacted at cconway@myliferesources.org with questions or concerns.

Article was published in the March 2017 edition of The Carolina Compass.