Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

Navigating the Waters of Grief


Grief is defined as deep sorrow. But there are no words to adequately describe grief.

Grief is the thief in the night that slips in unexpectedly, robbing you of sleep and everything important.

Grief is the monster that rages inside, making you feel as if your body will explode.

Grief is the sadness the sweeps over you at the most unexpected moments, leaving you unable to focus on the task at hand.

Grief is the fear that haunts you, causing you to be unable to move forward.

Grief is so many different things, attacking each individual in a unique way. Grief is a pain that hits you at unexpected times. Grief can be paralyzing, bringing fear of the future. Grief can rob you of life. Grief is the uninvited friend that overstays its welcome, often lurking in the darkness for years.

Why do I talk about grief?

Because grief is alive in our home.

Our lives have been difficult for at least a decade now, filled with incredible highs and devastating lows. We have experienced pain and loss that no one—no child—should ever have to face. And here we sit, with grief alive and real and stalking.

The grief in our home started in 2008 when I learned of my ex-husband’s affair. Although I tried to keep our home stable and normal, grief hit hard when my ex-husband moved out. Then, we moved, ripping my kids from their home and their church and their school. It was necessary. It was good. But it was still a loss, one that we had to grieve.

And then came 2016 and the unexpected death of my ex-husband. I struggled to comprehend it, to get my emotions in check. I can only imagine what my children have felt.

As we moved through those early days, it almost seemed easy. I have tried to stay aware of the signs of grief over the years, and I’ve watched each of my three children navigate the waters in their own way. Just when I begin to breathe a little more easily, grief strikes again. It seems as if the grief today is stronger than it was three years ago. It seems as if it’s taken three years for reality to hit, for the full force to become real.

Maybe it’s because we have suffered more grief, with the loss of Roy’s dad. Maybe it’s because we were so busy in those early days, building a relationship with Roy. Maybe it’s because life has become a little easier and we suddenly feel the depth of the loss. Maybe it’s because milestones like graduation and prom and dating and so many other passages of childhood are coming and going and there is someone missing.

I honestly don’t know why it’s hitting so hard these days, but as a parent I find myself struggling to know how to help my kids. I find myself wondering if my efforts have been enough. I wonder what mistakes I’ve made, what I’ve done right, if my kids will survive.

Perhaps that’s the reality of parenting kids in the midst of grief—whether from death or divorce or any other loss they may experience. We, as parents, wonder. We wonder if we’ve done it right, done enough. We especially wonder if our kids will survive—even more importantly, thrive. We wonder if our kids will always be in pain or if they will find the healing, the peace, the joy that once came so easily.

I’m not an expert on navigating grief with our children. Far from it. It almost seems that I’m in the trenches again. I struggle with the fine line between grace and discipline, between love and toughness. I struggle with knowing when actions are grief speaking and when it is normal teenage pushing the limits. I have a wonderful support group that is always available, always praying, always loving, always providing direction. I don’t know where I would be without them.

Although I’m not an expert, here’s a few things I’ve done…things I pray my kids see and understand.

Unconditional love. My kids have made mistakes. I try so hard to let love guide my every word, my every action. Sometimes I fail. Sometimes I have victories. No matter what, I pray above all else my kids know they are loved deeply and nothing will ever change that. I pray they know that even though they only have one biological parent living on this earth, there is more than enough love from me, from Roy, from our extended family…and especially from God.

Abundant grace. I pray my kids know grace is the language spoken in this home. I pray they know they can mess up and still find abundant grace. I pray my kids know they can come to me, share their deepest hurts and fears and failures and find a safe place.

Forgiveness. When my kids mess up, forgiveness is always available. When I mess up, I try to admit my mistake and ask forgiveness of my kids. I try to model eliminating bitterness and letting forgiveness be a way of life. Sometimes it comes easily. Sometimes it doesn’t. I hope my kids know the value of forgiveness from the way I live my life, from the way I extend forgiveness.

Open communication. I want my kids to know they can tell me anything. I want them to know my door is always open, my ears always available. Some of my kids are better at opening up and talking than others. For those who like to talk, I try to be available—even in the middle of the night. For those who don’t like to talk, I try to offer a coffee date or a dinner alone. I try to bridge that gap, to do what I can to encourage communication, to let them know nothing is going to change my love for them.

Counseling. Can I tell you that counseling is expensive? I am thankful that I’m in a position right now where paying for counseling is doable. As I’ve told my kids, there is no cost too great to help them find healing and deal with the unwelcome guest known as grief. Sometimes I think it’s harder for boys to want counseling, to recognize it’s ok to need some help sorting through our emotions. But counseling is a must.

Trust in God. I think the hardest part of this whole parenting gig is letting go of my kids and trusting God to take care of them. I know He loves them way more than I ever could. I know nothing can touch them that He doesn’t allow. I know they have only been loaned to me for a short time on this earth. But it is so hard to let them make their choices, live their own lives, make their mistakes…and know that God is in control. Ultimately, I know God is at work in them and around them. Ultimately, I know I’ve done my best to pour into them, to show them the right way. Now, I have to step back and let God direct their steps.

Scripture teaches that we must train up our children in the way they will go and when they are old they will not depart from it. It doesn’t say they will never stray, but it tells us they are always in God’s hands, He is working to keep them close to Him all the days of their lives. I must trust that as I have faithfully done all I can to teach them the way they should go, that God has heard my prayers to fill in the gaps where my human efforts have not been enough.

And I know my God. He if faithful. So I must rest in Him as He works to heal the grief that is so profound.

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