It was time to invite family members to my daughter Honor’s latest ballet recital, and as I sat at my computer sending invitations through email, images of how Honor used to playfully dance with my mother through Mom’s apartment went through my mind. Then I thought back even farther, to when I was a girl, dancing with Mom through our townhouse purely for fun. Mom, who loved dance and was close to Honor and me, had always been the first person I invited to Honor’s dance recitals. I caught myself starting to type Mom’s email address as thoughts about her swirled around my mind. Then tears escaped from my eyes and dropped on my keyboard.
Mom had been dead for nearly 7 years. When would I ever get over my grief?
Grief lingers long after the deaths of people we’ve loved – but in our culture, grief seems acceptable only when we express it soon after our loved ones pass away. Beyond several months, people tend to assume that we’ve fully recovered. But when those we were close to pass away, their absence creates a permanent void in our lives.
Anything that reminds us of people who have died can trigger our grief by making us aware of the void that’s always there. It can be something big (like a holiday we can no longer celebrate with them) or something small (like glancing at old photos of them).
Embarrassed about how I’m still mourning Mom all these years after she died of leukemia, I rarely talk about her with friends and family anymore unless it’s a special occasion (such as Christmas or Mother’s Day) when I think people will be more likely to understand how I miss her. But I still grieve Mom often during my everyday life (such as when I drive to my gym, on a route that takes me right past her former apartment).
Is it okay to admit that the void isn’t going away?
After I prayed about it, I now feel at peace that lingering grief is not only okay, but actually good. Why? God has used my grief as a tool to help me grow closer to him.
Grief, it turns out, is a gift. Yes, it’s one that we would all like to return if we could. But if we’re willing to open this gift that God gives us when our loved ones pass away, we’ll discover that it contains blessings in disguise. Grief is a gift because:
Grief focuses us on what has eternal value as we’re thinking of our loved ones in heaven and their legacies on earth. We’re less likely to fritter away our valuable time and energy on what isn’t truly important and more likely to devote ourselves to pursuing God’s purposes for our lives when we’re grieving. Grief puts heaven at the forefront of our minds, reminding us that we’ll go there ourselves someday if we have a saving relationship with God through Jesus. When we get there and meet Jesus face to face, do we really want to look back with him on a life full of excessive television watching, shopping, gaming, or other pursuits that wasted the resources we could have spent on what has eternal value? What Jesus wants is for us to show up in heaven having spent our earthly lives investing in what’s most important – loving God and other people – through relationships, creative projects, service work, and anything else God leads us to do. Grief also brings our late loved ones’ legacies to mind. As we reflect on how their earthly lives impacted others, it helps us clarify our own priorities so we can leave the kind of legacies we want to leave ourselves.
Grief motivates us to use our time well by reminding us that our time here is limited. Once we’ve set wise priorities, we need to base our daily decisions on them – and grief motivates us to be disciplined enough to do so every day. We realize when we’re grieving that our time on Earth is finite and can end without warning, at any moment. That reality check helps us see that every moment God gives us is a precious bit of time that we should use well.
Grief encourages us to rely on God’s strength by bringing us to the end of our own strength. When something triggers our grief, it often feels like a wave of sorrow overpowering us. We can’t stop missing our loved ones who have passed away, and we’re powerless to bring them back to life here or to visit them in the afterlife. We may also feel like we’re stuck in some unhealthy places as a result of our grief, such as dealing with depression, obsessing over regrets from our relationships with late loved ones, or living with nostalgia for the past so much that we’re not embracing the present. It’s only through God’s strength that we can overcome the challenges grief brings into our lives. Grief makes us aware of how much we need the Holy Spirit to empower us to deal with those challenges well.
Grief inspires us to pray more, which helps us develop a closer relationship with God. We want our heavenly father to help us in our grief. The more we reach out to God in prayer, the more he gives us the comfort and encouragement we need – which inspires us to keep communicating with him. Prayer always draws us closer to God. While God won’t remove the voids that have been left in our lives from the deaths of our loved ones, he will enter those voids and embrace us with his presence there. The voids can them become like doors leading us closer to God.
Grief helps us value other people more as we miss the people we’ve loved who have died. Appreciating the people around us becomes easier when we see them through the lens of grief: as people made in God’s image, and as precious souls who are still present with us so we can still enjoy their company. Who hasn’t wished for more time with loved ones who have passed away? While we can’t be with people who have died until we get to heaven ourselves, we can be with people who are still alive and make the most of our time with them by building loving relationships.
Although grief is difficult, we really shouldn’t try to get over it. By viewing grief as a gift from our heavenly father and opening it more every day, we’ll encounter unexpected blessings.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, produces a site about angels and miracles for About.com. She is author of the inspirational novel Dream Factory (which is set during Hollywood's golden age) and writes about the power of thoughts on her “Renewing Your Mind” blog.
Publication date: February 6, 2015