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Sitting with Grief

By Emily King, Marriage and Family Therapist and member of Apostles, Knoxville, TN.

As a marriage and family therapist, I routinely talk about grieving with my clients. However, they may not know they are talking about grief. They expect their symptoms are depression, anxiety, or a relational issue. Yes, their symptom is what is happening and what they are currently experiencing, but what they are really describing are symptoms of grief.

Allowing Space for Sadness

In 2010, my husband Jack and I moved from our first home, buried Jack’s two grandmothers, welcomed our first baby to the world, and moved into a new home. We experienced many changes that year, most of which lie at the top of The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. I struggled through postpartum depression and anxiety, learning to be a new mother, and trying to settle into a new home.

It wasn’t until I met with a counselor that she very lovingly pointed out how much I had to grieve. Yes, I was depressed and anxious, but I was carrying great sadness and a sense of loss. She helped me see that even though I was trying to be happy about our new baby, I was grieving the loss of the life we had before all the changes. I hadn’t given myself space to be sad about all we had lost that year, even amid the joyful changes.

Because of my experience and the words of an empathetic counselor, I began to learn that grieving can be more than the death of a loved one. Granted, two people very special to us passed away in 2010, but I began to learn that I can grieve over the loss of a season, a transition, the changes that happen in life.

So often, grieving or sadness are diagnosed. We assign it to mental health, when really, we just need space to be sad and remember what was lost. John 11:35 is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died. Of course he knew that he would bring Lazarus back to life, but he gave himself space and time to be sad. Why don’t we give ourselves space and time to be sad?

Presence During Pain

In Job 2, Job’s friends practiced ‘sitting shiva’ with him. Shiva is the Jewish practice of sitting with someone for seven days while they mourn. Job’s friends “sat with him on the ground… no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” I learned about sitting shiva when I was in graduate school for Marriage and Family Therapy. When any of our friends went through a difficult time in life, as counselors in training, we were eager to comfort correctly and respond to sadness appropriately. After we got over the correctness of it all, we learned from each other that simply sitting with our friends was their greatest need. To be heard if they wanted to talk; to be hugged if that’s what they needed.

People are so often scared of the grieving. We want to help them, say the right things, bring the right casserole. I have found in my life that when people just show up and offer their presence, it’s the best comfort. Many of my clients say the same thing. It can feel awkward to comfort the grieving. We feel clumsy with words and over-think the whole process. Sitting shiva requires presence.

Connections Through Holy Grief

In 2015, we miscarried our third baby. It was one of the most devastating times in our life. Friends sent flowers, brought meals, wrote cards, unloaded our dishwasher, and played with our kids. One of my friends had a pizza delivered, and still others brought Trader Joe’s goodies and wrote out their prayers and their stories of “me too.” These sweet sentiments were salve to the wound. They brought physical relief knowing that my children were well fed and cared for. I was doing okay. We lost our baby in May and the due date was in November. In those six months, I experienced grief like a rollercoaster with no seat belt. There were no “stages of grief.” There were only twists and turns and twinges. In November, the flood gates released for me and I grieved. Hard. After that season of mourning, there are still twinges. There will always be twinges. If they ever go away, I think that will bring its own type of grief. The twinges of grief and longing keep me connected to what was, and is, so real to me and my family.

Grief is an emotion that we have to experience. We are made in God’s image, and Jesus revealed holy grief in his earthly life. Grief is not a bad emotion; it’s hard and painful, but it doesn’t need to be covered up and swept away. And then joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). What joy comes when we feel the hand of God on us in the midst of our pain and feel our people around us, sitting shiva.