Monday, September 19, 2011

Expressions of Grief

TITLE: Expressions of Grief – Three ways
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 21 Sep 2011

This is why I weep and my eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit. My children are destitute because the enemy has prevailed.” (Lam 1:16)

It has been a year since my father passed away. Remembering how he has lived brings a moment of joy. Remembering how he died brings a tear to my eye. My dad has struggled with strokes, at least twice. The first time, half his body could not move. After the second stroke, his dependence on others moved from half to total. I was in Canada when he breathed his last. While I am sad not to be by his side in his dying hours, I am glad to have seen him, and him seeing me a couple of months before he died.

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These couple of weeks, I realize that I have not fully gotten out of the grieving process. Responsibilities at work have grown. My studies have taken on a heightened level of urgency. Yet, the way I manage these outside activities is different from the way I manage the movements inside my heart. I learn that while I can rush work and external responsibilities, I have to let my heart move at a pace of grieving and mourning. Heart-work internally cannot be rushed. Heart-work is hard work. More importantly, grieving is not a problem to be solved, but a journey to be undertaken earnestly and honestly. It is in this light that I want to reflect on three ways we deal with grieving. While the first two are often practiced, it is the third one that I strongly encourage grievers and mourners to consider.

A) Suppression

Seeing loved ones die is one of the most painful moments anyone can experience. Whether in peace or in pain, the departure is never easy. My father passed away in silence last year, without family members present. When I heard the news, I was with my mum on a cruise to Alaska. I remembered how I suppressed my grief, and withheld the information from my mum. It was out of fear that my mother could not handle the news. She had even purchased lots of herbs and medicines to bring home to nourish my father. How can I bear to tell her in the midst of one of her most well deserved and most enjoyable holidays? So I suppressed myself. I put on a stoic face that communicates physical exhaustion rather than a mournful look. It was hard.

After three days, I could not take it anymore. I told her and I felt a heavy burden being lifted up. Strange. I learnt that grief shared do not take away the pain. However, it makes grieving more manageable when loved ones around understand how I feel, with or without words. In a brilliant book on the process of grieving, Alan Wolfert laments at how our culture misunderstands the need for grieving.

“If you openly express your feelings of grief, misinformed friends may advise you to ‘carry on’ or ‘keep your chin up.’ If, on the other hand, you remain ‘strong’ and ‘in control,’ you may be congratulated for ‘doing well’ with your grief. Actually, doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain. Don’t let others deny you this critical mourning need.” (Alan D. Wolfert, The Journey Through Grief, Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2003, p31)
If suppressing or repressing one's grief is bad, compressing it artificially can be worse.

B) Compression

It is hard to control tears. I find that in general, women tend to handle grief better than men simply because they cry well. We think of Hannah weeping over her empty womb (1 Sam 1). We remember how Jesus was moved when he sees a mother mourning over her son’s dead body (Luk 7:11-13). Unlike suppression which tries to deny the grief or the death, compression re-directs the grief somewhere else. Compression attempts to squeeze the grieving process into a convenient capsule. It attempts to let convenience and worldly busyness dictate one’s grieving process.

I remember one of the companies I used to work for. On an official basis, a compassionate leave is about 2-3 days. After that, one is expected to come back to work, regardless of how one feels. Unless of course one takes Annual Leave, or unpaid leave even at the risk of losing one's job. Thankfully, in my case, my employer is more compassionate than the official compassionate leave policy. He even offers to have someone else cover my duties, asking that I take my time. This is not so for one of my church members. Despite knowing the grief and pain of his daughter’s dying condition, the boss still insists on a ‘normal’ speed of performance and delivery of the project work. As far as the boss is concerned, any matter of the heart can be compressed at a corner, in order for it NOT to interfere with work responsibilities.

I feel for my church member. This is no way to treat an employee. People are not machines or robots that can flip a grief button on and off. They are people with flesh and blood. They are individuals with feelings. They cannot be conveniently compressed into a package. Grief work is hard work that needs time to work on. It has no schedule. It has no budget. It needs to be free to express itself. It needs to find the path of healing.

The Prophet Jeremiah takes the time to lament his grief over the people of God. Sometimes one may ask why does God include in the Bible the book of Lamentations? After all, the major prophetical book, Jeremiah already contains lots of references to grieving. I believe the Lord understands the human condition more than anyone on earth. He recognizes the need in people to lament. Lamenting is a critical emotion that enables one to travel on the path of healing. Jeremiah cries. He weeps openly. Rather than giving way to uncontrollable angst, lamenting in the Lord brings healing.

C) Expression: Anger or Gratitude?

In expressing one’s grief, I find it helpful to recognize two possible directions. For those of us who have lost a loved one, ask: “Am I going to be angry and regretful at the missed opportunities with him/her? Or am I going to be gentle and thankful for the great times spent together with him/her?”

A common question that arises at any deaths is “Why?” Why now? Why must he/she suffer so long? Why the cancer? Why the accident? Why the dying? Questions like these can tempt one to hate the circumstances surrounding the death. It makes one bitter about the lost opportunities. It makes one regret not spending enough time with him/her. It is a painful spiral of despair, where one regret leads to another deeper regret. One angry thought brings about an even angrier emotion.

The second expression is one of gratitude. Without hurrying. Without rushing, one gently remembers the wonderful moments shared. One recalls not just the positive or negative moments, but the honest moments shared with the deceased. I think of my father’s love for Bak-Kut-Teh, a familiar food dish in Malaysia. Each time I eat the dish, or cook a similar dish, I can recall the perspiration of happiness coming down his forehead. I can see him eating bowls after bowls of rice, drinking cups of tea, and enjoying family time over the table. I think of his love for football, and memories of time we shared together cheering for our favourite teams. Once every four years, I will be glued to the TV watching World Cup Soccer passionately. It reminds me of the good times with my dad. I remember the way he extends his hand to protect me when he brakes the car suddenly. For me, the best way to grieve is to remember my father for who he is. He may have his flaws. He may have his tempers. Yet, God loves him. He is my father. When I let the regrets and anger for missed opportunities fade away, and replace them with gratitude for the memories of the beautiful moments, it makes grieving a lot more manageable.

My readers, I pray that whenever you lose a loved one, do not suppress or deny your feelings. Do not let the world compress you into a set mold. Communicate your need for a time to grief. Express your grieving process not through anger or regret for the opportunities lost. Instead, let your grief be expressed through gratitude for the times spent together, both positive as well as negative. Express it gently with a mind of honest attitude, and a heart of earnest gratitude. When you do that, you are on the way toward healing. You will move from grieving to growing.

Thought: “Early in your grief, allow yourself to openly mourn without pressurizing yourself to have answers to such profound ‘meaning of life’ questions. Move at your own pace as you recognize that allowing yourself to hurt and finding meaning are not mutually exclusive. More often your need to mourn and your need to find meaning in your continued living will blend into each other, with the former giving way to the latter as healing occurs.” (Alan D. Wolfert, The Journey Through Grief, p100)

Reflection: Grieving angrily hurts. Grieving with a thankful heart heals.


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