Where should we put grief? To what category of struggles does it belong? To what emotional or relational struggles is grief most akin?
For a long time I put it in the basket of emotional struggles. I grouped it together with things like depression, anxiety, anger, and apathy. Then, as I was reading Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide by Gary Collins, I noticed that he classified grief as an identity struggle. While I disagree with Dr. Collins in several ways about counseling, this reclassification of grief has been immensely helpful. Trying to process grief was not primarily about wading through emotional states like denial, anger, bargaining, and depression (although each of the emotions are often present in grief), but answering the question, “Who am I now?”
Consider a loss
Consider those people who have lost their spouse of forty years, their job of thirty years, the freedom to move about freely due to injury, or their innocence to abuse.
- How do they now introduce themselves to a new acquaintance?
- What do they now see when they look in the mirror?
- How do they now anticipate the next chapters of their life story?
Each of these are identity-laden questions. They reveal ways in which one’s sense of self can be altered by a significant loss.
Identity, not necessarily idolatry
As biblical counselors and pastors, we might read those questions and immediately have our “idolatry alarms” go off. But I would caution us against assuming that an identity struggle automatically means a person loves someone or something more than God.
People can experience uncertainty without a false view of God being at fault. Faith does not make us into emotional-Teflon; that would be stoicism, not Christianity. Read the Psalms; they’re an emotional mess at times.
Think about how relationships, health, and the freedom of choice (which abuse takes away) impact our sense of identity and normalcy.
- How many of our decisions are made mindlessly on the basis of our marriage, children, and occupation?
- How many decisions do we never consider because of our health and expectation that we have control over our immediate environment?
People don’t have to worship those things (relationships, health, or safety) in order to admit that their lives would be remarkably different if any of those things were removed. Conversations, daydreaming, mundane events, and various forms of planning that were previously mindless would suddenly become points of pain, challenge, or intense emotion.
Chances are a person wouldn’t just be sad or angry, but also disoriented.
Two types of disorientation
People can become disoriented in two ways. First, they can become disoriented by not knowing where they want to go. If the aim of their life is no longer Christ, that would be idolatry. But that is not necessarily what is happening during grief because that’s not the only form disorientation can take.
Second, people can become disoriented by losing a sense of where they are. They know where they want to go, but they cannot find their bearings to figure out which way that is from “here.” I’ll illustrate this with personal examples:
- A large piece of what it means for me to love God is to love my wife as Christ loved the church. If she died, I would be lost for a while.
- A large part of my day is spent serving as a pastor. If I were relieved of those duties, “my week” would become a phrase with much less meaning.
- I have a sound body and safe environment in which to live. If my body became impaired or my surroundings unsafe, it would take me a while to adjust to this new way of life.
In each case, I pray I would still value Christ most, but I’m pretty sure I would be confused about what life ought to look like now for an extended period of time. As I wrestled with the wrongness of death (1 Cor. 15:26), the emptiness of the loss of a good calling (1 Tim. 3:1), or the decay of my body (Ps. 102:1–9), I would experience many emotions. Doubtless the emotions would come in mingled waves of varying intensities. I pray I would take each of these emotions to God in prayer, but I think I would pray with the raw honesty we find in the Psalms.
Identity, emotions, and hope
Yet, these emotions would each, in their own way, be begging for an answer to the same question, “Who am I now?” It would be an appropriate time to ask that question. It would mark a major transition in how my call to love God and love others was lived out.
There is no time when a person sincerely asks the question “Who am I now?” without intense emotions. A person can’t ask a question of that magnitude without setting off major emotions (neurological and hormonal fireworks throughout his or her brain and body) that will not settle quickly or neatly.
I would contend that it is okay, even good, to experience that level of instability during a season of major transition. Unpleasant emotions and uncertainty are not necessarily indicators of hope’s absence. Hope is a product of where we turn, not merely what we feel. As Psalm 56:3 commends to us, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”
The hope in grief is not merely the calming of four or more unpleasant emotions (denial, anger questioning, depression) with theological truths. It is confidence (relational trust) that God has an answer for the question “Who am I now?”, that His answer is good, and that He can be trusted until that answer is known.
Tools for the journey
So what would I recommend for people in the early stages of grief?
- Be honest with themselves, God, and trusted Christian friends about their experience. Encourage them to find friends who are willing to be patient with them in this uncomfortable journey and who don’t try to make their experience “neater” than it is.
- Use a resource like Taking the Journey of Grief with Hope to help them process their suffering in light of the gospel.
- Encourage them to join a GriefShare Christ-centered grief support group program.
- Realize, that in light of Matthew 5:4, they will have to trust God with their tears and confusion before they will be able to experience His comfort.
Join the conversation
How would it impact your counseling and ministering to look at grief as an identity question in the midst of a person’s grief?
This article The Big Question of Grief: Who Am I Now? first appeared on the Grace and Truth blog of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, June 10, 2013. Adapted for CareLeader.org with permission by author.