As we consider engaging the future with purpose and hope again, there is a common refrain that is likely to echo in our minds, “But I’m right! I wasn’t wrong about what happened.” As optimism begins to gain momentum, this common refrain often derails our progress.
Let’s return to the paradigm we’ve been working within – grief. The reality is, when grief is prompted by death, we don’t have to worry about being wrong. Rarely do we fall into the pattern of thinking where we believe our life is like a television series where our loved ones will return because they weren’t really dead. In that sense, we can grieve with confidence and freedom. No caution is needed.
But in grief prompted by painful life events, we might be right. Often, we are. The betrayal was wrong and wasn’t an “just an accident.” The negligence was real, and we are the one paying the highest price even though we had nothing to do with it. We weren’t excessive in our expectation but were still disappointed. The disease was random and there wasn’t anything we could have done to prevent it.
Often, Christian writings on this subject try to either persuade us that we were wrong or ask us to be “humble enough” to not ask hard question anymore. The persuasion is usually done via the truth that none of us are innocent. It is as if we have to be ultimately innocent (i.e., deserving of heaven on the merit of our own righteousness) to ask honest questions about hardships we’re facing that we didn’t prompt.
If we were wrong, the life assessment we’ve done to this point would have revealed that. When we’re good, it is good and right to realize and acknowledge it. But for this discussion, we are going to assume you are right. The really bad things did happen. They weren’t primarily your fault. And yet, you are the one stuck in your grief.
Here, we learn something else about grief. Being right about your pain doesn’t circumvent the need for grief. You don’t have to be perfect (i.e., sinless) for God to have compassion towards your suffering. So, we ask the question, “How do we grieve when we’re right about and innocent from the cause of our grief?”
Before we offer some guidance on this question, there is one more acknowledgement that needs to be made: grieving when we’re right about the painful events may be the most difficult form of grief. In these instances, we are double suffering. First, we are grieving because of our loss. Second, we are experiencing some type of injustice. These two things account for why anger and grief are so intermingled in our lives. All of this to say, a better perspective on how to grieve will not make grief “easy,” but it can help us continue to get unstuck.
As we seek to regain a sense of direction in our grief, we will try to understand grief-when-we’re-right using five realities that help us make sense of the confusion.
Grief doesn’t mean admitting you were wrong; it means allowing this season to be over.
Grief means you quit trying to redraft how others respond to your pain.
Grief, by death or pain, means that we live in a broken world.
Grief demands hope that is larger than this temporal world.
Grief means you embrace the future with hope.
Grief doesn’t mean admitting you were wrong; it means allowing this season to be over. This is where we get stuck in our own minds. Again, we are assuming you are right. But we still ask, “Does being right prevent us from moving forward in our grief?”
Progress in grief simply means your current season of life is no longer defined by the pain from the previous season of life. We can be right about the pain and still make this transition. With a bit of reflection, we should be able to see that this transition is healthy and good.
Life lived in reaction to pain takes on an unhealthy pattern. To visualize this principle, imagine your pain is a bear. It is easy to think that anywhere “away” from the bear is a good direction to run. But “away” from the bear may take us “towards” a cliff or “into” a bear trap.
Grieving our pain is what allows us to quit living in reaction to the bear and begin to choose what we want life to be “towards” in this next season of life. We can be right about the past, and it still choose the direction we want our life to pursue next.
Grief means you quit trying to redraft how others respond to your pain. This is where we get stuck with other people, whether in actual conversations or arguments in our mind. Let’s ask the question again, “Does being right prevent us from moving forward in our grief?”
If we think of grief like a playground argument in elementary school, the answer is yes. An event happens, different opinions form, an argument ensues, and either someone admits their wrong or the tension continues to prevent the game from resuming. In this situation, everything is immediate and there are limited social options.
Grief, by definition, stretches over time and it changes relationships. Elementary school logic says, “If you like me, you’ll agree with me and if you don’t agree with me, you’re not safe.” The assessment we’ve done to this point should have equipped you to assess unsafe relationships in a more robust and objective manner. If someone is unsafe, there should be more reasons to validate our assessment than that they disagree with us.
By now, if relationships need to be discontinued, that should be done. But it does us no good to discontinue these relationships if we continue to debate the people we are no longer associating with. In grief by death, we progress by not continuing to rehearse the last things we wish we would have said. In grief by pain, we progress by ending the rehearsal of how we might convince certain people that we were right.
Grief, by death or pain, means that we live in a broken world. Realizing that we live in a broken world helps us end this rehearsal. In an unbroken world, we would need the things that happened to make sense and for everyone to agree about it.
Think of an unbroken world as the teacher’s grading sheet for a math test. We assume all the answers are correct. If we’re confused about how to do the problem, we use reverse logic from the answer to the initial equation to try to figure out what needs to be done. In an unbroken world, we spend our energy trying to figure out how the confusing things make sense.
Now, think of a broken world as the student’s test that is being graded. If there is a wrong answer, we might try to understand the student’s logic to help them work the equation correctly. But we accept that there will be errors in the student’s logic, not just their final answer. This helps us not get lost in the need for unending debate. This is the freedom that accepting that we live in a broken world, with broken people, as a broken person provides.
Grief demands hope that is larger than this temporal world. But realizing we live in a broken world, by itself, is not as satisfying as it needs to be. We want to know there is a right answer to the equation (continuing the previous example) and that eventually people will agree on that answer. Especially because what prompted our pain was not mathematics but justice.
We don’t mind striving if there is some hope for resting. Perpetual striving is exhausting, physically and emotionally. Accepting that the world will always be broken would be like that. It is unsatisfying for the parent who lost a child to an accident caused by a drunk driver to hear, “People aren’t perfect. Humans are prone towards addiction. That’s just part of life.”
If our grief is going to become unstuck, we want to know that there is more of an answer than this even if this is all of the answer we have access to right now. That is what it means to grieve with hope (I Thess. 4:13). We may not grieve as those who have acquired what we want – namely, a world where our pain would never happen – but, because of the gospel, we can grieve as those who have hope.
This doesn’t mean that heaven erases the relevance or significance of what happened to us. That would be insulting; like telling a child, “Don’t cry because your dog died, because you’re going to have a great birthday party next month.” It does mean our pain doesn’t get the final word. Evil doesn’t win. Chaos won’t reign.
Progress in grief means we can endure what is still hard because of how this world is still broken because we know we will not have to endure forever. In that sense, the picture of heaven in Hebrews 4:3-4 is precious. In this passage heaven is describe as a place of rest. The work of grieving will be over.
Grief means you embrace the future with hope. This is where we will turn our attention next. We will seek to answer the question, “How can I trust hope again?” Our progression in thought helped us see the role of hope in grief and how progress in grief provides the freedom from anger we’ve been seeking. We saw that the gospel is the source of the hope that makes this progress possible.
Even still, you may be saying, “I know, but…” This “but” doesn’t have to mean that you disbelieve the gospel. Too often our continued emotional disturbance is interpreted this way. The “but” often means, “I can intellectually ascent that these things are true. I believe them. But they don’t settle my emotions like it seems like they should. I struggle to trust the hope I believe.”
That is where we will turn our attention in the next reflection.
Questions for Reflection
How would you describe the difference in grief prompted by death as compared to grief prompted by painful life events?
Where in the progression of these five realities do you tend to get stuck?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.