We recently hosted our second day-long grief retreat at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center. Forty-five people gathered to acknowledge a variety of losses in their lives—deaths of spouses, children, parents, and friends; losses of jobs and careers; life-altering diagnoses, like mental illness, Alzheimer’s, cancer; and more. Each of us, leaders and participants alike, carried unique experiences of loss and grief—often piled up over a lifetime—into the day. And we all shared a common set of needs.
In his book, The Journey through Grief: Reflections on Healing, Alan Wolfelt presents six needs of mourning.
Accepting the reality of the death or loss. This is not simply an intellectual knowing but an awareness in our hearts, minds, and bodies that the loss is real, and our lives have changed. He writes, “The reality of this death demands my attention. As I move from head understanding to heart understanding, I know with burning certainty that life is forever changed. I arrive at this new place unprepared for the journey ahead. How will I set forth?”
Embracing the pain of the loss. This feels so paradoxical because we naturally recoil from suffering. How do we embrace that which we would never choose? Slowly, one step at a time, we lean into our grief.
Remembering who or what was lost. We may share our memories with others, enjoy mementos, and establish new rituals that keep us connected internally to those who have died. We learn to connect with the needs met in relationship to who or what we lost, for example, needs for meaning, purpose, belonging, and love.
Developing a new self-identity. We learn new roles and take on new responsibilities in new relational configurations. This may take a long time; it’s disorienting to start anew especially if who or what we lost functioned like an anchor in turbulent times.
Searching for purpose and meaning. Grief and loss often yield “big questions” about life, questions about ultimacy, about God, about the presence of inexplicable suffering in human existence. Can we find purpose and meaning anew? Can we give ourselves freedom to live with unanswered (perhaps unanswerable) questions? Can we learn to lament like the psalmists?
Receiving ongoing support from others. We don’t do life alone. True human existence is always co-existence. We need trusted others to accompany us, to sit next to us in the darkness of grief and loss until healing comes. We certainly don’t need people who want to fix us, reassure us (reassurance rarely reassures), or give us advice. We need persistently present, listening friends.
I find myself on Caring Bridge a lot these days. A number of friends and colleagues with long-term illnesses post updates there. Three others, from very different sectors of my life, have been diagnosed with cancer in the last year. I regularly check their updates and prayerfully hold them in my heart with care. Each of these people (like many of those attending and leading the grief retreat) live close to death (physically and psychologically). They experience what some existential philosophers and theologians call the “threat of non-being.”
While reading a recent thread, I was struck by the persistent care of friends for those who know this threat all too acutely. Their love, encouragement, and solidarity reminded me of a particular healing story from the New Testament. Perhaps you are familiar with it. Jesus is teaching in a crowded house, overflowing with people who are clamoring to be near him. Four people decide that this is their paralyzed friend’s opportunity to get well. They place him on a mat and carry him to the house. The entrance is blocked; there is no room inside. But they are fierce and determined. So they climb to the roof and dig a hole through it, a gaping hole big enough to lower their friend lying on his mat down to Jesus. (As an aside, I wonder what the homeowner thought at this point. He welcomed Jesus into his house, along with a throng of people, and now his roof is demolished. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that about what happens when we welcome Jesus and therefore all whom Jesus welcomes!)
These friends are inspiring. They refuse to give up, to turn away, to wait for another day. Their friend has suffered long enough. They persist until they get to Jesus. They don’t stop until their friend is healed and restored. This dogged determination, on the one hand, and trust in God’s loving presence, on the other, is precisely what we need whenever we bump up against impossibility, whether that comes in the form of death, debilitating illness, or catastrophic loss of another kind. May we be friends who embody this for each other, and may we let others do the same for us, and in this way, find ourselves participating in the healing and restoration of all.