Understanding Grief

Psalm 31

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord,

for I am in distress;

my eye wastes away from grief,

my soul and body also.

10 For my life is spent with sorrow,

and my years with sighing;

my strength fails because of my misery,

and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,

a horror to my neighbours,

an object of dread to my acquaintances;

those who see me in the street flee from me.

12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;

I have become like a broken vessel.

13 For I hear the whispering of many—

terror all around!—

as they scheme together against me,

as they plot to take my life.

Grief has the power to isolate.  It can create a sense of loneliness that leads to despair.  As unwelcome as it can be, grief can also be a source of spiritual growth.

But in order to navigate our grief in ways that are life-giving, first we need to recognize certain truths — some of which will help to neutralize its power to isolate us.

One, grief is universal.  For a variety of reasons, grief can have a stronger hold on us from time to time and for some people the experience is far more intense.  It can be further complicated by chemical and psychosomatic challenges that vary from person to person that may even require the attention of a physician.  But everyone experiences grief sooner of later.

Two, grief is not a sign of spiritual deficiency.  Grief can accompany wrong-doing, but its mere existence is not evidence of spiritual deficiency.  Even people of considerable spiritual maturity can experience grief.

Three, grief is evidence of the world’s brokenness.  The sorrow, anxiety, or sense of loss that we experience in times of grief is a evidence of the world’s brokenness.

Four, grief can even be evidence of the deepening work of God in our lives.  Some people have asserted that grief at the loss of a loved one is evidence that we do not believe strongly enough in God.  That is, quite simply, dangerous nonsense.  We are made to live in intimate connection with God and others.  We are also made for life.  When we lose someone dear to us, it is a painful reminder of how incomplete that experience is this side of the grave.  The more we understand the will of God for us, the more the incompleteness of it all is likely to trigger the experience of grief.

Five, not all grief is the same.  Some grief is unavoidable and occurs in the course of life — the loss of loved ones, our own deaths (if we have some forewarning of them).  Some grief can be precipitated by the choices that we make and it is possible in some cases to make amends for those choices.  Some grief can spur us on to good work, providing the impetus for efforts on behalf of others and for that reason could be called “good grief.”  Other kinds of grief — if it is chronic and debilitating — can be dangerous.

As with so many experiences in the spiritual life, if you are experiencing grief, the ability to name and understand the shape of the experience is the first step to finding freedom .

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.