People fear death. They even deny death, and too often seek to avoid it until they are faced with the death of a loved one. However, “death is an essential force in the cycle of life” regardless of one’s perspective or cultural assumptions (Shapiro, 1994). It dissolves the deepest and strongest human bonds (Attig, 1996). The death of a loved one can trigger a range of emotional, behavioral, motivational and cognitive reactions collectively labeled as “grief” (Maccallum et al., 2017).
Research indicates that the response to the death of a close family member is a lifelong developmental process (Maccallum et al., 2017; Shapiro, 1994), and “7-10% of bereaved individuals experience intense and chronic reactions termed "Prolonged Grief” (Maccallum et al., 2017). Compared to the non-bereaved group, bereaved individuals score significantly higher on loneliness, sadness, depressed mood, and appetite loss, and significantly lower on happiness and enjoyment of life (Maccallum et al., 2017).
But does everyone experience grief similarly?
Do men and women grieve the same way? Do children and adults grieve the same way? How does grief and loss affect family dynamics?
Whereas both men and women experience the same feelings related to emotions and challenges over the death of their spouse, there are gender differences in the grieving process. The loss of of a wife is equaled in men with the loss of a part of themselves. They feel “as if they were dismembered” (Zonnebelt-Smeenge& De Vries, 2000). The loss of their husband, on the other hand, generates the feeling of abandonment and loneliness in women. They feel as if they lost their protection and security. Both genders often experience feelings of despair to the point of taking off their own lives (Maccallum et al., 2017; Zonnebelt-Smeenge& De Vries, 2000).
The parting of a child grieves the parent beyond measure (Bruce, 2008). Parents who have lost a child often fantasize reuniting with their child. Some adults, particularly fathers, tend to use coping strategies such as keeping busy in their work to the point of exhaustion (Attig, 1996).
Young children who lose a parent struggle with separation anxiety (Attig, 1996). After the death of their sibling, many children, both young and teens, experience guilt, thinking that they might have caused the death; or they may experience behavioral problems, social withdrawal, concerns about the well-being of their loved ones, fears of abandonment, and increased somatic complaints (Koblenz, 2016). Studies also indicated that, grieving children are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety compared with their non-grieving peers (Koblenz, 2016).
But there is something everyone has in common; we must grieve fully.
We need to grieve fully to be able to love well. Grief therapy, whether with children or adults, begins with telling of the story: what happened and how did it happen? Then it is time for the counselor to show empathetic listening and make clients feel accepted and understood. Some key areas for counselors to focus on in the grieving process include cultural and religious practices and beliefs, and the support of the extended family, friends, and faith community (Attig, 1996).
While no one can grieve for another, none has to grieve alone.
It is thus the salient role of trusted counselors to help grieving families identify an authentic support system in their lives. An authentic community can help the bereaved regain their full capacity of life by encouraging them to resist passivity and helplessness, and support their self-worth (Sowers, 2010).
In a family with children, counselors need to buffer their ongoing development by empowering family members to consider these children’s developmental needs (Shapiro, 1994). In enabling parents to appropriately grieve, counselors empower them to understand their children’s pain through loss. They enable them to effectively communicate with their children, and eventually look for opportunities to teach them valuable lessons. “What better time to teach a child about life and death and the world to come than in the days and months following the death of a family member” (Bruce, 2008).
What does the Bible actually say about suffering?
Unfortunately, grief is an emotion all too common in human experience. Many men and women in the Bible experienced deep loss and sadness, including Job, Naomi, Hannah, and David. Even Jesus mourned (John 11:35; Matthew 23:37-39). When Lazarus died, Jesus saw Martha and the other mourners weeping, and He also wept. He felt their pain over Lazarus’s death. He empathized with them. Even though Jesus knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, He still felt the grief of the situation. Jesus truly does “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).
Wrestling with grief and loss, and one’s own mortality can also be enriching. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” So grief can not only be cathartic, but also serves to refresh people’s perspective on life.
How often do we hear this preached, “Go to the house of the grieving”? There is certainly vital truth in that. While death and loss are part of this life, one is reminded that through it all God is faithful and present (Psalm 23:4, 56:8).
And for those in Christ, there is hope of meeting again (Psalm 30: 5; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
BIO: Diana Bakia, a current graduate student in the CMHC program, has a background in Theology and Biblical Counseling. She is passionate about helping people find true wholeness. Diana's goal is to be a trusted counselor to those looking to find hope, making them feel accepted, understood and cared for.
Attig, T. (1996). How we grieve: Relearning the world. NY, NY: Oxford University Press
Bruce III, J. W. (2002). From grief to glory: Spiritual journeys of mourning parents. NY, NY:
Koblenz, J. (2016). Growing from grief: Qualitative experiences of parental loss. Omega:
Journal of Death and Dying.
Maccallum, F., Malgaroli, M., & Bonanno, G.A. (2017). Networks of loss: relationships among
symptoms of prolonged grief following spousal and parental loss.
Shapiro, E. R. (1994). Grief as a family process: A developmental approach to clinical practice.
NY, NY: The Guilford Press
Sowers, J. A. (2010). Fatherless generation: Redeeming the story. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Zonnebelt-Smeenge, S. J., & De Vries, R. C. (1998). Getting to the other side of grief:
Overcoming the loss of a spouse. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books