Grief is part of the shared human experience. All of us feel the sting of loss, whether through recent tragedies or the anniversaries of past events, such as those we remember today on September 11th. This week my community sits in shock as we ponder the quick death of a local leader who influenced many. The cancer swiftly swept through his body and finally took him two days ago, leaving behind dear family and friends who are now preparing for his farewell service.
I’ll be honest; as a therapist, I am not an expert in grief work. But the topics I have researched, written about, spoken about, and practiced personally in depth are attachment & connection. Most of the work I do is focused on helping individuals learn how to connect with others, with God, and with themselves (see several links throughout this article for further study). Thus, the focus of this article is answering the question, “How do we connect in times of grief?” Finding connection in the midst of mourning is a meaningful gift.
In times of grief, when intense emotions surge within us and those we love, our responses to them have profound consequences. We have a powerful opportunity to experiences connection in times of emotional suffering. This truth was proclaimed through Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The key to connection is comfort. “Wherever we go for comfort in times of anguish is where we connect. When we connect with sin through an experience that numbs our inner turmoil, we no longer need God (or others) for that and we miss opportunities of meaningful connection”.
This concept is foundational if we want to learn how moments of suffering can lead to rich and deep connection. I want to share some foundational tools I’ve learned throughout my journey in learning how to connect and helping others do the same. As we walk this grief journey together, it is my hope that these resources will open up new possibilities of intimacy, comfort, and connection for those who choose to apply them.
Have you ever seen a friend suffering and felt the awkwardness of not knowing what to say or do? When tears well up in others, we so often resort to responses that may not necessarily do harm but certainly do not lead to an experience of connection. When people are in a state of mourning, so often I hear others share responses such as “he’s in a better place” or “at least she’s not suffering anymore”. These perspectives may be true but what they fail to do is provide empathy. Dr Brene Brown explains the difference between sympathy and empathy in this short, simple video called The Power of Empathy:
In this video, Brene Brown shares about how “empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection”. She speaks about how “empathy is feeling with people”, which is a vulnerable experience. She shares that sympathy, on the other hand, misses the pain and focuses on the “silver-lining” of the experience. Such responses are usually rooted in the kindest of intentions but do not lead to a deep sense of connection.
Proverbs 25:20 frames this interaction in more blunt terms: “Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound”. Ouch! What wisdom poured from Paul’s pen when he shared the strikingly opposite response to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Could it be that holding a crying friend with tears spilling down our own cheeks allows them to feel love and connection more deeply than reminding them that “at least” their loved one is with Jesus? What a touching experience it is when these lyrics ring true, “The tears aren’t our alone, let them fall into the hands that hold us”.
I’d venture to say that the Christian church was meant to be a family that loves each other in this kind of way, providing a depth of comfort and connection that frees us from the loneliness of isolated pain.
When my friend recently died just a few days ago, I found myself up late that night, sitting across from my wife at the kitchen table, on our separate computers. As I shared a touching song about grief, I began to cry, holding my face with my hand. My wife lovingly reached across the table and grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw her moistened eyes. We sat and wept together. In that moment, nothing could’ve felt more connecting.
In the chaos surrounding the death of a loved one, children can easily get lost in the shuffle. How we respond to children in times of turmoil will have consequences that ripple out into their futures. The biggest predictor of our ability to connect with others as an adult is how adults responded to us as children in moments of pain (for more info, click here). Teaching children that people can be trusted to respond in nurturing ways when they are sad is a powerful way to “safeguard” them from many future problems, especially addiction.
The previous comments on empathy fit with children as well. Responding to them in ways that helps them feel “seen” and cared for will go further than saying “you don’t need to cry, your Daddy is in heaven”, even though that may be true.
Normalizing feelings of grief is also essential. Recently, when I was talking to my friend’s daughter the day after she lost him to cancer, I shared with her what my wife and I did the previous night….listening to music and crying about her Daddy’s death. I talked about how crying is a natural response when somebody dies. Children need these reminders. More-so, they need to see adults responding to their own grief in healthy ways. Seeing parents in pain who cry, pray, and call and hug friends is a much different experience than witnessing them drowning out their sadness with alcohol, sugar, excessive work, etc. Our children watch and learn from what they observe.
For additional insights on how to talk to children about death and loss, working with a therapist who specializes in this area can be extremely helpful. Often, there are community resources for children experiencing grief as well.
Caring for Personal Pain
When we suffer emotionally, we can choose to react in unhealthy ways or respond in healing ways. This foundational choice leads either to further suffering or the experience of comfort and connection. Many of the ways we choose to “disconnect” from our emotions include:
- Numbing and escaping through addictive behaviors and/or substances (including food) -Remember, children can do this too.
- Distracting through busyness or entertainment
- Isolating and withdrawing
In my article “The Courage of Self-Connection”, I wrote about this dynamic, sharing:
“Something is under the surface, can you feel it?…You keep moving forward, keep staying busy, keep ignoring it, keep pretending everything’s fine. But it’s not. Something is unsettled inside. But you’re too busy to feel. It’s moments like this when addiction whispers to you messages like “escape there” and “run here”.”
Too often, we resort to “self-neglect” when we experience emotional pain. Instead of seeking the connection and comfort that are possible, we too often run from our pain. I’d like to invite you to consider the following alternatives:
- Connection with God
- Connection with Others
- Connection with Self
Let’s look at some specific tools for finding comfort in these three places.
In my article entitled “Moving Beyond Belief: Cultivating Connection with a Responsive God”, I shared about how many Christians “know about God but find connecting with his love difficult” and may “understand Biblical theology but find themselves reaching to addictive or unhealthy behaviors to manage their emotions instead of reaching out to God for help and comfort”. Sound familiar?
There are a handful of tools I’ve learned for deeply connecting with God in times of pain that are extremely helpful for those who are mourning (see article for more details). I have found visualization to be the most powerful way I have ever connected with God. The images and interactions I have had with God in my own mind have provided amazing experiences of feeling comforted and connected with my Father. I understand that for some that may sound strange. Really, it is similar to prayer and meditation. It is basically inviting God to soothingly speak through our imagination, which literally rewires our brains to become more securely attached to Him (see Anatomy of the Soul for more information). It is one thing to read verses about God’s love and quite another to envision Him wrapping us up in a warm embrace. The first speaks to our head, the latter to our heart.
Recently, when I was praying for God to heal my friend from cancer, I imagined myself sitting on the peaceful beach I always go to, holding my frail friend in my arms. I saw God with me in that moment, as I asked him to heal my friends’ wounds. The imagery that came to me was not what I expected. I saw my friend lifted in a basket-like bed, up through the sky, into the sun. I did not know my friend would die a few days later. This is one example of the powerful imagery that has been revealed to me in the past using this spiritual connection tool.
This is one of many tools for connecting with God in our grief. There are ways to use journaling, scripture, and other exercises. What is more important than the means we use, is that we make the courageous choice to turn to God in our pain, instead of running to the arms of the many idols and “adulteresses” that call to us in our daily lives. May we choose to run into the arms of God, finding that he sees our pain, that he cares, and that he truly does respond to us, bringing reassuring comfort and connection.
Connection with Others
The process of connecting with others in times of pain was described earlier but now imagine being the one who “reaches out” in your sadness, rather than the person who responds. In my article called “Connection Calls”, I wrote about the powerful opportunity we have to reach out to others when we are hurting. I reflected on the Swedish Proverb “Shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow”. It is my hope that we will all find “safe” people who will respond to our pain with empathy and caring, avoiding sharing too deeply with people who wont. Many in deep mourning will also benefit from seeing a caring, qualified therapist.
Connection with Self
One of the most helpful discoveries I’ve made in my research on connection is that self-compassion is incredibly effective for those who are experiencing emotional suffering. I have written about self-compassion several times and spoken about it as well. Most importantly, I share this great tool whenever I can and try to practice it often. The research shows that self-compassion decreases depression, increases happiness, and has several other wonderful benefits.
You may be wondering, “what is self-compassion”? Dr Kelly McGonigal describes self-compassion as “being kind & supportive to yourself whenever you’re experience suffering.” It means learning to show yourself care and concern in the same way that you would with someone you love who is going through a difficult experience, whether it is the result of personal choices or challenging life circumstances.
For those from Christian faith backgrounds, can you imagine treating yourself with the same kind of love, forgiveness, and compassion that God generously pours out on you? Weird concept? Maybe for some. But I can attest to the benefits of using self-compassion in moments of suffering.
When my friend was in his “season of suffering” with cancer, I shared the simple yet effective tool called The Self-Compassion Break (Click on the following link to hear the Self-Compassion Break in an AUDIO format). It was moving to watch him provide himself with soothing touch, as he lay on his bed in physical pain. Initially this part of the exercise sounds strange, but it literally produces “Oxytocin, which leads to feelings of nurturance and safety”. I recommended The Letter of Self-Compassion to both my friend and his wife, who was also suffering emotionally, as his partner and loyal caregiver. I strongly recommend this self-connection tool for those who are grieving as well.
Whether you use self-compassion, journaling, mindfulness, or other self-connection tools, I believe this area should not be neglected for those who are grieving. When we connect with our own feelings, we have a much greater opportunity to connect with others because we can communicate about what emotions we have, allowing others to more effectively offer the comfort we need. Giving ourselves permission to feel whatever we feel can be a liberating experience.
It is my hope that as all of us grieve the pains of life and loss, that we will also learn how to use these experiences to connect more deeply with ourselves, others, and God. May all of us in mourning genuinely receive the gift of lasting comfort that “blesses” our suffering souls (Matthew 5:4).