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Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Grief Work

I write a portion of each book while in some kind of recreational vehicle.  Recently, while working on this one, I was in my 1986 VW Westfalia, camping at Steward State Park in southern Oregon.  While out for a walk between chapters, I came across an American Clipper motor home—and my heart instantly sank.


When I was a child, I accompanied my father on a trip to an RV dealership in Southern California.  We looked at many RVs, inspecting different floor plans, and I can still remember that new RV smell mixed with his Old Spice cologne.  He settled on an American Clipper for our family—until he heard the price.  I saw him wrestling in his mind, Can we afford it?


It's risky, Tom.  You've got six mouths to feed, his eyes seemed to say.  He told the salesperson that he couldn't swing the payment, and we walked toward our International Travel-All to drive away.  And then he did something I cannot forget.  He stopped, turned quickly back toward the dealership, and I saw a look in his eye that to this day fills me with great sadness.


My quiet and charming father, a man who for most of his life wouldn't have complained if you dipped him in coal oil and set him ablaze, wanted that travel trailer.  He longed for it with a degree of intensity and a boyish enthusiasm that was not common for him to express.  His emotions were on his sleeve, a rare occurrence, this from a man who worked very hard providing for our family.  He deserved that trailer.  He earned it, and he didn't get it for noble reasons; he had a family to keep afloat.


If he were alive today, I tell you, I would buy him a fleet of those trailers, one for each day of the week!  When I see one, I remember that look in his eye, hope dashed by disappointment borne from the burden of being a family man.  And it fills me with a kind of grief that's hard to fully explain.


I used to run from these feelings, you know, "turn the channel."  I can do it as well as anybody else.  But I also know now that it's bad for my courage and damaging to a loving orientation toward others.  So I didn't run from the grief that filled me while on that walk; I honored it.  Here's an insight that really takes the worry out of grief: Don't try to fix what happened.  I let myself feel its weight—I didn't change the emotional channel, and I didn't try to clean up all the emotional mess.


And we must do something with it—otherwise it will swamp us or number us.  So I gave that grief to God—not in a coward's way of avoiding pain, but in trying to redeem it for something valuable.  I thanked the Lord that I had such a father to mourn, for many guys do not or did not.  I thanked him for my capacity to mourn.  I thanked him for caring about how I feel, and I thanked him that nothing can separate me from his love.


On the other side of mourning and grief, I find gratitude.  I care more afterward.  I'm more alive, animated, eager to do what's right.


To me, honoring grief goes something like this: I wish things had turned out differently.  I really do.  But they didn't, and there's no meaningful way that I can make things better—or else I would, or at least I would try.  So I'm going to feel this pain, and I'm going to breathe deeply through it; and, God, I'm going to ask you to help me through it.  I'm going to try to learn something from it and see if there's something I can be grateful for as well. 


In doing so, I discover something Jesus told us:  "How blest are the sorrowful; they will find consolation."  Consolation makes me more flexible in a soulful way, and I have a renewed energy and animation as well.  In many ways it's similar to how we feel after a good physical workout: keener, stronger, yet with greater peace.


If we don't bring this deep grief to God, we will expect others to drain it for us—and this almost always will include a woman who loves us.  And though she can help us part of the way, she just doesn't have the capacity to consume all of it, to redeem it.  God knows some will bravely and lovingly try to consume our grief for us—but it won't work.  It can't work, and it's cruel to expect a woman of goodwill to accomplish this for us.


Porn, drink, pot, meth, work—they numb our grief, which feeds the Great numbness that kills our thumos courage.  Grief always produces a scar, and these scars contain wisdom that points us back to health and healing.  We need to go through the grief to get to the wisdom, health, and healing. 


We need to feel our grief because we need feelings, but not just feelings, to get us moving—active, doing, present in love.  Our lives are like combustible engines, which need three things to run: gas, air, and fire.  Thumos is the animating fire-spark that moves the pistons up and down.  Otherwise there's no reaction, no movement.


After my mother died, I asked my father about how they met.  I already knew most of the facts because when your parents are immigrants and you don't have contact with other relatives the way most Americans do, you pepper your parents for information like a 60 minutes investigator.  I wanted to go deeper into their pivotal story, hoping that my questions might make him feel better by remembering better times.


I knew they met at a dance hall in downtown Dublin, not far from the River Lithy.  But what I didn't know until that talk with my father was that a man wasn't allowed to dance unless he wore suspenders.  And I didn't know they stayed out nearly all night even though my dad had to work the next day, something I also did many times while dating.


My dad mentioned a man named Joe Loss.  After some searching, I found a CD of his music and surprised my father.


I fibbed and said, "Dad, I picked up an old CD and was hoping you'd help me figure out who it is."




We put the CD in his bedroom stereo system, and within a few notes he recognized Joe Loss.  He was transported back fifty years or so within just a few seconds.  His eyes went someplace else.  It was as if his petite date, my mother, were standing in the room with her sultry Elizabeth Taylor eyes, cigarette and all.  Mom could stop traffic back then.  Dad's heart must have fluttered.  He stopped talking, turned to his bedroom window, and leaned heavily on the sill.  His shoulders shook.  I feared what I had done.


I left him alone in that room, with that music and with memories of more vital times.  Times when he was trying to win the heart of a beautiful woman, before his heart attack and his triple bypass surgery.  Before the inevitable loss and death that life deals us all.


Grief can be like a fever, and I watched some of it break later that day.  He felt her loss that evening in a deep way that he'd had yet to do.  Then and only then were his body and his mind in an enjoyable state of repose.  My father played Joe Loss music until he died about two years later, basking in memories of more sure and virile times.  He played them loud while he fixed up his new home, even sanding cabinet doors by hand, just one block away from mine.  Sometimes he played them so loud he couldn't hear me knocking on the door.


That aptly named musician didn't bring total healing to my father.  If the loss is substantial enough, then the grief never fully goes away.  I doubt there ever is such a thing as complete "closure" to life-altering loss.  Many today doubt that there are even stages of grief that everyone goes through.


The theory originally promoted by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross includes the five stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Over the past forty years, our understanding of grief has improved, so this cycle of grief theory has been challenged as being too simplistic, too one-size-fits-all.  Others have added to the dynamic of grief the tendency to feel shock and numbness (there's that word again), yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization.


I have been unable to "get over" my father's passing, and I don't even try anymore.  I don't try to "fix" this loss within me.  The loss of him is something I neither clutch nor avoid.  It comes and goes like the weather, and it would be as foolish to try to control these feelings as it would be to command the weather.


My father didn't know about the nuances of grief or the importance of feeling it in order to live a better life.  If I'd talked to him about the stages of grief, he would have sat there politely and believed hardly a word of it.  So I tricked him, not so he would feel grief but so he would feel relief, which came through grieving.


Like a lot of men, he didn't have a strong understanding of feelings.  But it's significant that in order to feel grief and be liberated from its molasses-like control over life, he didn't have to collapse on the floor like some opera singer clutching a dead lover.  Feeling grief for him did not mean a complete breakdown or wild mood swings.  But it did mean feeling it, something he hadn't been willing to do but that snuck past him through the evocation of music, which like humor, has a way of bypassing our defenses.


We're afraid of painful emotions.  They tend to give us a panicky feeling because they make us feel out of control.  We like control, even when it brings us into a comfortable numbness.  We like control even when it ruins our life.


I'm told by a pilot friend that if John F. Kennedy Jr. had just taken his hands off the controls, the plane would have corrected itself and flown straight and level.  Instead, thinking he knew what he was doing, he kept his hands on the wheel, insisting on control while unable to discern land from sea and then corkscrewing the plane into the ocean, ending three lives.  There are times we need to cease clutching so tightly and have faith that God's goodness will see us through to the other side of our grief.


If we don't do this "grief-work," then our losses will marry us to our past and we will never really be present in the present.  We all know people like this.  They can't have a meaningful conversation because part of them is still "back there."  The lights are on but no one's home.  They are wedded to the weakness that the loss produced, and they just aren't going to step up to the plate of life and partake in a more muscular form of faith and love while in that state of suspended animation.  We need to feel our grief because on the other side of that experience is empathy, and empathy—the creative ability to put oneself in another's shoes and feel their suffering as if it were one's own—is a fundamental ingredient in the creation of courage.


Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying. 

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Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: