by Silas West
Catherine Piwang is no stranger to suffering. She lost nine of her siblings to HIV/AIDS. After returning to Uganda after living in the U.S., she realized that an entire generation was missing because of HIV/AIDS. Catherine devoted her life to helping thousands of children and elderly people in Uganda find healing from the loss of the middle generation.
On a visit to northern Uganda, which has been devastated by years of civil war, she found another lost middle generation. As the rebel group named the “Lord’s Resistance Army” came into villages, they abducted the children to become child soldiers and force the children to kill their own parents or be killed along with their siblings.
In a radio interview, Catherine recounted that after hearing one story after another from teenage girls who told her how they had killed their own father or both parents, she would break down in tears. The girls, however, were unable to express any emotion. With faces of stone, they recounted how they took up sharpened axes or machetes and beheaded their own parents. In that same monotone way of telling their story, they would go about their life without any sense of excitement or ability to attach to anyone. Catherine realized that the girls were stuck in their grief and unable to process their losses.
Her response to the losses of those girls was to simply hug them and show them the love of a mother in very tangible ways. She said, “At first, hugging one of those girls was like hugging a tree. There was no emotional response or return of affection.” But now, she says, that has changed. As the girls began to connect with their feelings of being loved as a daughter, they began to be able to face the loss of their own mothers and fathers.
Suffering through loss comes to all of us. We suffer losses — that is a reality of life. We lose the people, the relationships and the things we love. Grief is a combination of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, spiritual and physical symptoms that occur in response to loss. In our struggle to cope with the difficult emotions that accompany loss, we frequently deny ourselves the opportunity to grieve.
A good friend of mine helps missionaries process their grief and loss. He frequently says that our culture does not give us permission to grieve. We are not encouraged to talk openly about our losses and “go there” with one another. Instead, our focus is on “feeling better” and quick fixes. We self-medicate by making ourselves busier, buying things, entertaining ourselves or denying that anything is wrong. That didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of generations of societal change and shifts. For instance, “With the advances of medicine during the 20th century,” Gary Laderman writes, “hospitals displaced the home as the places where most people became sick and died.”(1) We no longer have the opportunity to look death in the eye and know what to do or say to respond to it. Death began to be regarded less as a personal loss and more as a failure to solve the problem of disease. If we are surrounded by a family, environment or culture that does not encourage us to talk or think about our loss, that can hinder our capacity to acknowledge the loss.
Denial is indeed one of the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). In its proper place, it is a healthy — temporary — part of the grieving process. Pushing away the emotional reality of grief, however, is not a healthy long-term coping mechanism. We can move forward by facing our grief and acknowledging it as real rather than hiding it. Experts on grief describe the necessity of accepting the loss of someone or something to which you were attached. Only by facing the reality that the attachment is irrevocably gone can an individual reattach to another person (or object) and learn to relate to life again.
Part of the problem for us is naming the loss — actually acknowledging that something we no longer have or experience is a loss to us. That difficulty is not so much for the big things such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a home — those stand out to us as obvious losses. What is hard, however, dealing with all the thousands of hidden and ambiguous sorrows such as the denial of opportunities, diminished youth or health, or the changes in what is familiar and comforting when we face transition of any kind.
Even seemingly insignificant things such as coming to the end of a great week with your family at the beach or finishing a good book can be losses. Choosing a good thing over something else can be a loss (another good friend often says, “To get one thing you always have to give up something else”). Naming those things as losses actually allows the grieving process to begin or to get unstuck. It allows us to get to the place where we can accept the loss and begin to imagine what “reattachment” or learning to relate to life again could look like.
When I talk about debriefing with our staff, I usually refer to my pair-a-ducks, two rubber ducks that symbolize the paradox that exists in our lives. One of the ducks is clean and shiny. The other is scuffed up and looks like it has been colored with crayons and markers. The pair-a-ducks point to the truth that two opposing realities can exist at the same time. Many aspects of our culture insist on closure and certainty. There exists an assumption that if we work hard enough we can accomplish just about anything. Some kinds of losses, however, make closure or certainty impossible. Recognizing the existence of paradox and using paradoxical language to acknowledge losses can help us deal with more ambiguous losses.
University of Minnesota professor Pauline Boss recommends using “both/and” language.(2) For example, if someone is working faithfully with a youth on the streets who continually reverts back to poor decisions and negative life patterns, he or she could say, “I am both doing my best to help this youth and not able to control his choices.” This loosens the bonds of certainty and relieves the strain of needing things to go one way or another. That is a way of naming a loss and coming to terms with things that are out of our control. It can reduce the shame and guilt of not being able to solve a problem by working harder on it, and allows the individual to move forward without having a concrete answer for an ambiguous loss.
Fear is another problem that results in unprocessed grief. In the story about Catherine and the former girl soldiers in northern Uganda who were initially unresponsive to her affection, she said, “It was like hugging trees.” Fear forced them to commit acts that had huge traumatic effects on them, but fear also was a coping mechanism that, for a time, helped them to function. If they broke down out of remorse or from grief when they were under the control of the Lord’s Resistance Army, they would have been killed. However, that unprocessed grief undermined their ability to have a renewed sense of engagement with life.
Fear also plays into unprocessed grief because of the unknown or the expectation of what it might take out of us to engage in the process. If we are emotionally and physically drained, the thought of going to hard places to name losses and acknowledge their effect on us could be enough to make us hesitate to engage in such a process — especially if we are uncertain what the process is, how to take the first (and each subsequent) step, and who will help us if we begin to “lose it.” Maybe we are afraid to ask our own questions — not out of fear of being harassed by a brutal government but out of a fear that we don’t have the emotional energy to deal with it.
Whether it is denial, avoidance, blame, ambiguity or fear that results in unprocessed grief, we face the risk of a wide range of health issues, not to mention a decreased capacity to engage in life and relationships. People who are dealing with unprocessed grief are at a much higher risk of death by suicide or untimely death (such as heart failure). Death, mood and anxiety disorders can be other extreme consequences. Disbelief about a loss, difficulty in relationships, anger and bitterness, and an obsessive focus and longing for what was lost are common symptoms of unprocessed grief.
Facing our losses and naming them may seem like an overwhelming task, but denying them only prolongs the pain and suffering we feel. Grief can actually be good when we give it its proper place.
Sometimes when I injure myself, it’s not until I sit down and admit that I have the injury that it begins to really hurt. Moving out of denial about our losses and wounds can be like that as well. However, like an injury that only gets worse until we give it the care it requires, denial of losses only prolongs the pain and suffering we feel. It can be tempting to accept false comfort in times of loss: distraction, shallow optimism, minimization, indulgences or even codependence. Jesus warned the rich, “Woe to you … for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). That applies to anyone who seeks comfort anywhere other than Christ’s strengthening and often demanding embrace.
That, however, is where our suffering can truly become a celebration. Instead of denying that our losses hurt us, instead of numbing our grief through self-medication, our losses can give us the opportunity to experience God’s grace in very profound ways. Denial of what we most fear — pain — is made easy in a culture that markets distraction and capitalizes on being passive. But simplistic or surface therapies that soothe and numb our feelings of loss rather than encourage us to face them head-on forestall the comfort of Christ who waits in love and in infinite patience for us to turn from them to Him — even though that turning may mean the release of those momentary reliefs. By facing our losses and naming them with all their ambiguity and paradox, we give God an opportunity to take what was meant to harm us and turn it into something beautiful. Giving them a name — acknowledging them — and engaging in the process of grief can release Christ’s redemptive power into our circumstances and bring us healing.