Significant life transitions are hard. Even when they are good and desired, they can still have difficult, challenging aspects. That new job you’d been longing for finally comes to you, and now you’re in new territory and maybe wondering if you’re as up for the task as you thought and hoped. Marriage or childbirth happens, and joyful and welcome as it is, it’s more complicated than it seemed. You graduate from high school or college and now what?
Every transition, positive as well as negative, entails some form of loss: loss of the familiar, the predictable, the known, the comfortable, the securing. When we experience loss, we grieve.
Grief is a normal and necessary aspect of transition. Grief is a process, although that is too technical and mechanical a term; it’s a pathway, a journey and often a wrenching one. You can’t just determine to “get over it”—you have to go through it, and you discover that you’re not in control of the timing or the terrain. Grief may well take you to some places in your soul that you didn’t know were there and which you might not want to visit.
I do not mean that the losses you experience and the grieving you may need to do are punishments, or that grieving is blameworthy or shameworthy. Loss means that I lose something upon which, upon whom, I have depended, relied upon, drawn my sense of identity from. And as I grieve my loss, sometimes I have to confront some things about my dependence, reliance and the sources of my identity that may be uncomfortable to face.
I rush to add: the goal is not a Stoic hyper-individualism, where I try to fool myself into believing that I need no one, rely on no one, that I am entirely and completely a “self-made” and self-contained man or woman. We are designed for relationship, commitment; we are designed by Love to live in love, and love always means other people. And especially since love is a long-term thing, to live in love will inevitably bring us to moments or seasons of transition and loss. The goal of grief is not an atomized detachment from everything and everyone; and grief may provide an invitation to look at the nature and extent of your attachments to people and things.
The early Christian leader Paul provides us a classic text:
Praise be to God … the Father of compassion and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows … We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered … We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts, we felt the sentence of death … (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
Paul doesn’t want his friends to be uninformed or unaware of just how bad it has been for him. Our modern therapeutic culture drives us to deny and suppress “bad feelings”; the goal seems always and only to make a person “feel better.” A person in the midst of grief does not need to be endlessly questioned, “How you doing? Feeling any better?” But they do need to be sat with, accompanied, often in silence, and listened to as needed, without pressing to “fix” anything. Loss means that life has broken apart in some major ways, internally and externally, and almost none of it is in our hands to fix.
Depression and despair are often parts of our experience of significant change; we may feel that “life has come to an end” – “in our hearts, we felt the sentence of death,” we felt that this was the end for us, there is no way forward, there is no hope. But Paul continues:
This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (1:9).
The grace of God meets us in our grief, if we are open to it, if we can learn to welcome it. The losses we experience are not random accidents in a purposeless, meaningless universe. God is involved and at work, in us and for us, training us to rely, not on ourselves, our resources, capacities, strengths and talents, but on God who raises the dead.
Significant change involves loss, and significant loss feels like a kind of death. Mention the word “grief” and the first picture that likely comes to mind is someone weeping at the grave of someone they loved and have now lost. Paul has recounted a journey to a pretty low place—“I despaired of life”—and it was in that place of loss and darkness that God’s grace met him and changed him. He emerged from this darkness as a new kind of person: not less connected to people, but more deeply connected, more deeply grateful, more deeply interdependent. God raises the dead, and therefore neither loss nor death has the final word.
The goal of grief is not to “get over it” or to “just get through it,” but to be changed by it. Loss means something bad has happened—life has been broken in some way, and denial will not help anyone. But the God who meets us in Jesus knows, understands, loss: God the Father, in ways we can never fathom, “lost” his beloved Son; Jesus, who is God the Son, in ways we will never fathom, “lost” on the cross his communion with the Father, his friends, his life. But this happened so that we would not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.