Have We “Institutionalized” Grief?

Let’s face it, nobody is comfortable with grief, either their own, or anybody else’s. Grief makes us uncomfortable. Grief is “strange“, and because no two people’s grief-journey is the same, we don’t know how to deal with it. As I have read other articles about grief, and through my own experiences, I have come to the unmistakable-conclusion that we may have “institutionalized” grief by trying to “compartmentalize” and suppress it. Our society would say;

Grieve in private, but act like you are “normal” otherwise.

What is grief?
Grief is an “intense emotional suffering caused by loss, misfortune, injury or evil of any kind“. WOW! That brush is pretty broad, but for those who have suffered from these kinds of experiences, it should come as no surprise that grief comes calling too. Grief is a journey, not a destination…

Grief has many causes…
Grief is the result of some kind of death. Death is the unwanted guest in human life. We do not want it; we often fear it; we cannot command it; and we hate our helplessness. As hard as we try to stave it off, it relentlessly comes into our lives and the lives of those we love. The experience is universal; nobody is immune; death is no respecter of persons, young or old, rich or poor; all will experience death, because death came as a result of the Fall.

While we commonly think of grief as being related to the death of a loved-one, and that kind of grief reaches the deepest into our soul and psyche, death isn’t the only cause of grief. Grief may be caused by any “death-like” experience, such as the deterioration of a relationship or loss of a job. Grief may be caused by anything that turns our world upside-down, anything that seriously upsets the “status-quo“. Grief-causes may “stack-up“, further turning our world upside-down, and compounding our grief.

Trauma, in all its forms, causes grief, because whether it is the loss of innocence for a sexual-abuse survivor, or the loss of bodily-function in someone who has survived a serious accident, injury or disease, something HAS been lost. The “normal” has been replaced by something that is NOT normal. Whatever has been lost will cause grief for that loss.

We often seem to want people who have suffered terrible things to just “get over it”. They cannot. Evil has real impact and does real damage. (Diane Langberg PhD)

Imagine being forced out of your home, losing your job, losing your spouse, getting four death-threats AND losing your family, all within the space of about three months. That was what I experienced in 1997. Everything that could go wrong – did, in spades. Any one of those events would have been bad-enough by itself, but each “shoefall” compounded the situation. To add insult to injury, my wife had died by her own hand – suicide, and her family had the audacity to blame me for her death. Is it any wonder that, when I walked into that first divorce-support-group meeting, I was bonkers-crazy? I wouldn’t have blamed them for telling me to hit the door and never come back, but they didn’t. They loved me through my craziness, for six long months.

All of the faces of grief are part of one over-arching task: learning to let go, learning to live without what once was, learning to wear something that feels like it does not fit. (Diane Langberg, PhD)

I lost both my grandfather and my father-in-law in 1984. As with most major-corporations, the one I worked for had a policy of granting employees “bereavement-leave“, or “paid-time-off“, and the length of this time-off depended on how “close” the family-member was and where lived and were being buried. Both were out-of-state, one in Illinois and one in Oklahoma, so I was allowed to take five days off – with pay. Had they been local, ie, in state, I would have only received three days paid-leave.

What if I had been responsible for their funeral-arrangements? Any additional time-off I needed would have to come from my vacation-time. Each time, when I got back to work, I had to pick-up where I left-off, as if nothing had happened, but it wasn’t a “nothing” that had happened. I had lost my grandfather and my wife had lost her father. Those weren’t “nothing” events. They were real losses. What if my wife had really needed me more than for just a few days? BTW, she was thirty-four-weeks-pregnant with our third child. Is three or five days off really “enough“?

The Israelites mourned Moses’s death for thirty-days (Deuteronomy 34:8). “Great-leaders” are often “laid-in-state” for several days after they pass. Is anyone less “worthy” to be “laid-in-state“, and yet, only the “powerful” and “well-connected” are given this honor…

“Celebration of Life” events…
What better way to shew grief out of our lives than to celebrate the dead-person’s life? It no longer is important that they are no longer with us (DEAD) as long as we still have good memories of them. They might as well have moved away and left no forwarding-address…

Funerals and memorial services still honor our memories of the deceased, but they also remind us that we have lost someone we were close to and held dear. We mourn their loss at a funeral. We try to forget the loss at a “celebration of life” event. Yes, there is a difference…

One of the reasons we so often criticize another’s grieving process or rush them along in their grief is because we have not yet really accepted the reality, the finality, the crushing nature of trauma, endings or death ourselves. (Diane Langberg PhD)

Life Must Go On…Grief does too…
Bills still have to be paid, groceries bought, food put on the table, and the family tended-to…

Grief goes on too…

Jobs still have to be done…

Grief goes on too…

Life goes on…

And so does grief…

Grief waits for no-one…

Grief shows up unbidden at random and inopportune moments…

Shortly after I lost Connie, as I was going into a support-group meeting, someone asked me how I was doing. I told them; “Doing okay. I’m tough. I’m resilient.” Who did I think I was kidding? I was a basket-case, but I didn’t want to admit it.

The darkest place in the grieving process is somewhere along the way as the shock wears off and denial can no longer numb, a sense of hopelessness and despair can settle in. (Diane Langberg, PhD)

How long does grief last?
Grief has no “time-line“…

Grief has no “expiration-date“…

The faces of grief do not occur in a linear fashion. Everyone’s grief experience is unique. No two people go through the grieving process in the same way or on the same timetable. (Diane Langberg, PhD)

We just passed Mother’s Day, my second without my mom, and as I walked into church, a close friend said “Happy Mother’s Day“, and how much I still miss mom hit me like a freight-train. I was probably too numb from just losing her last year to notice it, but not this time. I had lost my very best friend. Mom’s are special, and mine was the best of the best.

Its reappearances many years later may be “triggered” by similar-events…

I lost a “brother” to suicide last October, and his funeral was the day before the twentieth “anniversary” of my wife’s death, to suicide. That was a tough funeral, and a tough weekend.

Suicide isn’t a “normal” death, so it carries with it a LOT of extra “baggage“, and greatly-complicates the grieving-process…

Final thoughts…
Don’t be afraid of your grief – it is a normal part of the healing-process.

Grief is not your enemy. Death is…

Don’t say “I’m okay” even when you’re not.

It’s okay to say “I’m not in a good space right now“, when that is truly how you are feeling.

Don’t “compartmentalize” your grief, thinking it will go-away on its own. It won’t.

Don’t suppress your grief – it will come back to bite you when you least expect it. I know. I did…

Allow yourself to feel sad when you are sad.

I am sad right now, and that’s okay…

You will grieve deepest those you loved most deeply.


4 thoughts on “Have We “Institutionalized” Grief?

  1. Thank you for writing this, Steve. Grief can touch us in other ways, too. I’ve been grieving a physical loss in my body since April 20th when I collapsed on a hike with my wife. Medical tests have shown nothing, but I now get short of breath with increased heart rate from minor things like a normal paced walk, a trip up the stairs, or picking up one of the grandkids. I have an appt. Thurs. with a cardiologist. My prostate cancer is in remission but I feel out of commission.

    Here’s the “Grief” poem I read at the Memorial Day service at the retirement village where I pastor. People came up afterwards wanting a copy, so the committee who arranged the service are copying it and putting it in all the residents boxes (about 285 of them):


    Grief is the stretch beyond the pain,
    A long and bitter-sweet refrain.

    I trace again a trail we walked,
    A spot where we sat down and talked,
    Or see a gift, a card, a note,
    And each rehearses songs it wrote.

    Reviewing portraits on the wall
    Or treasured visits, I recall
    The smiling image of your face:
    These mem’ries I dare not erase. . . .

    As on I press through flowers and weeds,
    Such aching surges then recedes,
    Like salty waves that ebb and flow,
    Until I reach my turn to go.

    Till we embrace again On High,
    Grief is the stretch, the long good-bye.

    — David L. Hatton, 12/4/2013

    Blessings, my brother! Keep up the good work!


  2. What I have tried to do with this article is “normalize” grief, to show that grief is a normal part of living in this fallen and sin-cursed world. We DON’T like grief, ours or anyone else’s. I don’t like it that grief has “colored” my life for the last several months. I DON’T like that I can’t “shove it back in its box”, like I did for many years. Grief has gotten to be too big of a monster to be ignored. As much as I don’t like it, it is time for me to pay attention to how I am really feeling.

    Diane Langberg, PhD, in her book “Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores”, has given a far more thorough treatment of Grief in chapter 11, “The Many Faces of Grief”. I have only scratched the surface, while including some of her pertinent “one-liners”.


  3. I really love the line “Don’t say I’m okay even when you are not”. It’s such an auto response for so many to include myself. Sometimes people just don’t know who to trust with being vulnerable and in emotional pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am trying to do a better job of “owning” and expressing my feelings, but that isn’t easy, particularly since I was taught to SUPPRESS my feelings from the time I was a toddler. We DON’T always know who is “safe” with our emotional-vulnerability, so my favorite response to someone I don’t really know is “I am on the right-side of the grass”. Sometimes, when I am trying to “put on a happy-face”, I will say “I am fine as frog’s-hair”.

      Liked by 1 person

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