“Embracing the Future” by Sheryl Gehrls
Principle #10: Unprocessed grief can lead to despair, causing me to believe I will never again experience joy in my life. Recognizing that grief will never be “gone”, I choose to seek God’s perspective and to refocus my energy on the future. I choose to embrace the loss and intentionally seek to discover my new purpose and calling, knowing that God has a plan to redeem my pain.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
I probably should begin this blog post by asking, “What is unprocessed grief, anyway?” I don’t know that I ever did anything intentional that I could call processing! I just existed one day at a time, choosing to take the next step and survive one more day without him. Eventually God’s new season for me began to focus and take shape.
Coming to terms with our new reality takes a lot of hard work. Some people find it more difficult to adjust than others, and there are those who simply get stuck in what we call unprocessed grief. We commonly hear that there are “stages” of grief, and for many years this was accepted as a linear concept of how we walk through grief.
What we’ve learned, though, is that individuals don’t necessarily go through all of the stages of grief one after the other. They may get stuck in one and end up not accepting the loss. They may experience several stages at the same time. Or they may unconsciously refuse to accept reality because they still have recurring thoughts or dreams about the person who left them. This literally prevents them from moving on to new life.
According to the Holmes Rahe Stress Assessment, losing a spouse is the single most difficult event that we can experience in our lifetime. This stress assessment model was created in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe as a method to evaluate the effect of stressor life events on the immune system and thus generate the likelihood for the patient to suffer from health issues that can be linked to stress. Let’s take a look at the scale: The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale – Stress Management from Mind Tools
The Holmes Rahe scale is a self-assessment tool for measuring the total stress you’re experiencing. Over 5,000 participants were asked to indicate which of 43 stressors they had experienced in the previous year. Based on that research, these stress factors were ranked and given point values. The loss of a spouse is #1 at 100 points! To put this into perspective, a score of over 300 points in one year is a fairly accurate predictor of physical or emotional health issues.
The average widow will fall well over 300 points. Why is this? Well, How many of these factors would you say have impacted your life in the year since you lost your spouse? Losing a spouse often also includes things like financial changes, job changes, retirement, illness, moving and even “fewer arguments with spouse”! The total adds up much more quickly than you would imagine, which only points up to us the importance of having a self-care and wellness plan!
Grief will never be completely gone, so we must learn how to embrace it, live with it, and carry it gracefully. There’s a great book by Megan Devine called “How to Carry What Can’t Be Fixed” that has hundreds of ideas to help process the various aspects of grief.
Let’s talk about unprocessed grief for a moment. A research study conducted at Columbia University found that most people end up accepting loss and grief in a more or less healthy way so they can move forward in life. The average time required to overcome the loss is usually between one and two years. However, 7% of people get stuck in denial, anger or sadness, without achieving the necessary acceptance.
There are some common symptoms that can indicate to us that we have unprocessed grief.
- Denial of Loss: These individuals refuse to talk about what happened and general do not express feelings of grief, sadness or anger. If we ask them how they are, they will reply with a sharp “good” and immediately change the subject. They often look emotionally anesthetized!
- Hypersensitivity: Losing a spouse leaves us with emotions very close to the surface. Even the memory of the loved one can trigger very intense emotions. With the passage of time, we get more used to the new reality and this sensitivity tends to decrease. One writer said that “Sadness gives way to nostalgia and pain to gratitude for what has been. When grief is unprocessed, this hypersensitivity remains very close to the surface. The resources to cope with emotions have not rebalanced, and everything seems like an imposing mountain to climb. In this state, the widow will get irritated, frustrated and will collapse at the slightest problem.
- Guilt One of the most common signs of unresolved grief is guilt. When we suffer a loss, it is normal for us to question our role in what happened because we feel an urgent need to make sense of things. We worry that we could have done something to change the outcome. Questions flood our mind. Questions like, “What would have happened if….?” “Could I have done something more?” The danger here is that we fall into a vicious circle of self-accusation and doubt in which we don’t think clearly, and remorse becomes our worst enemy.
- Physical & Emotional Symptoms Emotions and stress are reflected in the body. When grief is unprocessed, it is normal for these tensions and anxieties to affect the body, expressing themselves through different symptoms, which vary from person to person. We can experience everything from muscle aches to digestive disorders, insomnia, headaches and skin problems. In these cases, the emotions speak through the body.
- Loss of Meaning & Purpose This is probably the most challenging of all the effects of unprocessed grief. This is especially true if our life revolved around the spouse we lost, and if they were the one who gave meaning and purpose to our days. When we don’t process the pain, we can’t move on. Everything seems gray and nothing excites or motivates us because we are unable to look to the future and make plans. We simply survive in the daily grind.
Here’s the good news!! God is all about redeeming what has been broken. To redeem means to exchange for something good that compensates us for the pain. It’s about intentionally moving forward in spite of loss. It’s about investing my energy into the future and the plan that God has for me. Our scripture says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11. He desires for us to be about the business of discovering that new plan. “For we are His workmanship created in Christ Jesus, for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” — Ephesians 2:10
He has a plan to redeem every lonely time, every pain, every minute of confusion and every tear that I’ve shed. He has prepared a pathway beforehand, and His deepest desire is that I should choose to follow Him and walk in it. Our Heavenly Father is in the business of taking what has been cracked and shattered into pieces and putting it back together even more beautifully than the original.
You may be in a place today where you’re stuck in unprocessed grief. Take the time to be quiet before God and allow Him to redeem and heal that loss. He truly wants you to experience joy, to thrive, to be fulfilled, and abundant life again!
Your comments and thoughts are welcome, and you may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org