EDITOR'S NOTE:  This month we continue our question and answer format with author and contributor Carolyn McCulley.

QUESTION:  What's the difference between self-pity and grief? For example, if you knew a person in your church who had lost a husband or children (sickness or accident), you could be reasonably sure that that person would get a lot of pastoral assistance. No question. But if the average Joe or Jane Single turned up in your pastor's study presenting with a near-identical set of emotions, what's the bet that they would be told that they were awash in self-pity and that it was time to get over it? What often appears to the outside world to be self-pity, is often grief. Grief is the human reaction to loss, and it is not stretching the use of language to say that there are a lot of singles grieving the spouse/children they never had, just as much as the person I described above would be grieving the husband or child they had lost 'for real'. So, my point is … what models do we have for singles to 'grieve well', and not have it descend into self-pity?

CAROLYN:  I received this letter right before Valentine's Day and I've been thinking about it ever since. For those who might be wrestling with these emotions currently, I hope this is a timely topic to tackle. My prayer is that you will be more hope-filled when you finish reading.

First, I want to acknowledge that I am sympathetic to this question. Though I’ve written a number of past columns extolling faith toward God in our singleness, I don't intend to give anyone the impression that it is easy to be single or that I am without empathy for the difficulties of living with a hope deferred. I've been single my entire life and have seen many seasons come and go, seemingly without an answer to my prayers. In fact, one reason I wrote my book was to capture this "wrestling with God" and how in that wrestling He has instructed me and provided for me in my singleness. I had to face the refiner's fire, so to speak, and was still singed as I wrote. And that experience continues! The Lord is faithful to provide fresh illustrations in my life as I write articles or speak at various conferences. I say that with a wry smile because it's never easy to walk through these tests, but I do see, in part, what God is accomplishing through them. I wouldn't volunteer for them, but I'm learning to trust God's wisdom ... bit by bit, step by step.

With that understanding, let’s look again at the question. Though grief and self-pity can resemble each other, there is actually a wide gulf between them. How can you discern between them? I think the most telling difference between self-pity and grief is our attitude toward God in the loss. At times I have been awestruck as I've watched those who have experienced tremendous losses respond with worship to the Lord. Most recently, I witnessed this in a church in New Orleans. But I've seen it, as well, among close friends who received the diagnosis of cancer, who lost jobs or spouses or homes, or who had to bury their children. Their grief was real, but they did not allow it to obscure their faith in God. I've known some friends who have "died well," and whose witness in the dying made a tremendous impact on medical staff, family, and friends. I've also seen it among my single friends who have watched their peers marry and have children – or the children they once babysat get married and have children! – while they remain solitary.

Yet, it is a very real loss to have dreams die. Marriage seems so commonplace that to remain single when you desire otherwise truly is a form of suffering. While those who grieve for a tangible loss seem to work through it within a defined season, there is a circular aspect to mourning extended singleness. Though we may be doing well from one holiday to the next, the cumulative effect of facing yet another Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas alone can trigger the grief once again. I know these holidays also trigger the same experience for those who have lost a loved one, but my observation is that grieving seems to diminish over time while it can actually increase over time for those with deferred hopes. Yet, I believe the Lord would want to interrupt that pattern of mourning with the joy that overflows to us by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).