June 7, 2011

'Surprised By Grief"...

This is somewhat of an unusually personal piece for me. Never one for gratuitous self-exposure, and not naturally a person who opens their private world into the public realm (let alone the very public world of the ‘blogosphere’!) But, deciding to finally be brave enough publish this piece was provoked in part by a reading a recent article by Narelle Jarrett called Grief Just Is…’ (*here) but also the thought that by posting it, it might just be of some help to others who at one time or another also found themselves ‘surprised by grief’.

I hope it does…

Recently, during the process of supporting dear friends through a particularly painful event, I unexpectedly found myself overwhelmed by a profound & besetting emotion. An emotion I could not immediately identify, but one that eventually showed itself to be a deep & profound grief. What I can probably only best describe as an acute sense of ‘missing’…

It crept silently upon me from behind, disarming me in an instant, sweeping and swamping my emotional world. A sudden, perplexing grief I’d neither courted nor coaxed with negative thoughts, disaffected grumbling, hidden resentments nor murmuring discontent. 

I’d not invited it, encouraged it, nurtured it, nor desired it. But, there it was…

This overwhelming sense of loss at never having, knowing, nurturing, or tenderly loving in the Lord, my own children…

Inexplicably and without warning, there it was.

It wasn’t that at that moment, or in the days and weeks that followed I didn’t ‘know with absolute certainty God’s love for me, or have an unswerving confidence in his sovereignty, or a trusting belief he’d not withheld anything good from me. I did.

Likewise, it wasn’t that I didn’t ‘feel’ with a heartfelt assurance my heavenly Father’s love for me, compassion for me, that he wanted only the best for me. Not once did I ‘emotionally doubt’ that he was intimately engaged and tenderly attuned to me, to all I was thinking, feeling & experiencing. All this I knew. All this I was confident of. All this I was comforted by - deeply so. And yet, there it was…

For as long as I remember, children have always been a significant part of my world. Having raised my young brother & 3 sisters when my father became incurably ill. Having taught Sunday School, lead ‘Keenites’ on Beach Mission, trained and taught as a Primary School teacher, babysat, loved, watched over and embraced countless children of friends and church family…and yet, this void…

But, I also knew that for a single person to acknowledge such a grief, or express such a grief was not without its complications. Complications of perception, validation and acceptability…what do I mean?

Well, common responses to grief such as this have sometimes been …

- That unlike the married person, there’s no immediate ‘potential’ for children, therefore a single persons grief must surely be less acute, less distressing, less logical

-  Such grief cannot be compared to the grief of someone facing  infertility

-  It’s a void best cured by the joy & privilege of looking after the children of others

- It’s but another reflection of the singles lack of contentment, ingratitude & lack of thankfulness to God

All responses that can be fairly confronting, confusing and alienating to tender grieving hearts already struggling to make sense of grief’s existence and validity. 

Though I dislike the way psychological ‘labels’ often have a nuance that almost ‘clinicalizes’ the human experience, categorizing issues into neat boxes potentially diminishing their importance, the term sometimes given to grief like this is - disenfranchised grief’.

The concept of ‘disenfranchised grief’ was originally described and articulated by Prof. Ken Doka. Doka defined this kind of grief as:

 “… grief that persons experience when they incur a loss that is not, or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned."

A ‘disenfranchised’ grief may happen when the real impact and significance of some events are missed or ignored, either by the person experiencing them or by those around them.

For example, natural, appropriate and rightful grief may go unrecognized, unexpressed or unacknowledged in these kinds of instances:

* Infertility grief during the onset of each menstrual cycle
* Miscarriage
* Termination of a pregnancy
* Children’s grief
* Singleness & childlessness (a double acuteness)
* Birth mothers as they adopt out a child
* Adopted children grieving the loss of biological parents

* When a Christian couple divorce or separate
* Death of an ex spouse
* Break up of a de-facto relationship
* A missing person
* Death from Aids/HIV
* Family & friends of ‘a suicide’
* Retirement
* Unemployment
* Death of a pet

Note: Some of the griefs listed will have lifelong effects, and therefore there is lifelong grief.

Doka reflected that in many of these instances, an individual may have an intense personal experience of loss, a loss that may not be validated by family, friends or society. They may not be offered "the rights of the grieving role - such as a claim to social sympathy and support, or other compensations such as time off, or diminution of social responsibilities”.

Compounding the particular grief may be dismissive and hurtful sentiments or statements, such as - “You’re still young, you can have another baby.” “Be glad you’re still alive.” “You need to learn contentment.” “You’ll find another partner.” “If you had to get up 3 times a night to a crying baby you might feel differently.” “It was only a dog!”… Ill thought out comments such as these can only serve to intensify the person’s sense of emotional and social isolation and invalidation.

Because of this lack of social recognition, Doka suggests this disenfranchised grief can become hidden, suppressed or internalized by the grieving person. This "hidden-ness" can paradoxically increase the reaction to loss, intensifying emotional reactions; intensifying feelings of anger, guilt, isolation or powerlessness, resulting in a more complicated grief response.

Sometimes it may actually be the grieving person themselves who disenfranchises the grief. They may feel awkward about it, embarrassed, or anxious that the feelings themselves may not be seen as appropriate or acceptable, either to themselves or to others.

There may also be conflict with informal, or subtle, cultural expectations about how such a grief can, or should be expressed…

“… if an individual has internalized societal norms about which loss can be grieved and how it can be grieved, and then finds him or herself grieving a loss not formally sanctioned, there can be psychic pain internally including guilt or shame.”

Doka suggests an important factor in the resolution of this kind of grief comes about through both social legitimization and loving emotional support from friends and trusted confidants. Support, not only for the reality of the loss, but for the validity of the grief and of themselves as legitimate grievers.
"Because loss entails a loss of self-validation,
the starting point for recovery is the validation of the loss itself."

A wise friend Keith Condie, once said - all emotion must be felt’. That must sound like a peculiarly obvious statement to make, but what I think he meant was, emotions don’t change, dissipate or fail to exist just because we ignore them, deny them, suppress them or try to displace them. Emotions must be felt before they can be processed

Any attempt to circumvent that reality is not only unwise, but it’s also emotionally, psychologically and spiritually unhealthy.

For the Christian believer, we also take confidence from, and enormous comfort in, knowing the God who ‘sees all and knows all’. The one from whom nothing is hidden, nothing unknown, nothing not understood, nothing uncared for (Ps 62:5-12, Lam 3:31-33, 1Pet 5:6-7).

Our Lord, who lovingly and constantly searches our hearts, deciphers even what we deem as the most irrelevant of thoughts, the one who hems us in behind and before, and strengthens our fragile spirit (Ps 28:7-9, 119:28, 139). The one with whom there are no labels, just love…just grace.

In the beautiful words of the Psalmist:

“The Lord is my strength and my shield;
My heart trusts in him, and I am helped.

My heart leaps for joy
And I will give thanks to him in song.”
(Ps 28:7)

As for me may I be like Job, who in the face of great grief and those doubting God’s goodness towards him, exclaimed with trusting heart, “shall we accept only good from God and not trouble…may the name of the Lord be praised!” (2:20, 1:21-22). May I learn to view all of life’s griefs and challenges through those same ‘eyes of faith’, and with the same hope, same assurance, and same yearning that declared…

I know that my Redeemer lives,
and  that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
 And after my skin has been destroyed, 
 yet in my flesh I will see God;
 I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another.

   How my heart yearns within me!”
My hope, my comfort and my strength rest, not on marriage, not on children, not on things that are passing, but on Him (1Cor 7:29-31, Phil 3:13). As I turn my eyes toward Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face, the things of this earth “grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

The deepest validation for any believer, for THIS believer, is being known and loved by the one who is never surprised by our grief, whatever it is, nor ever distant from it. He that never fails to bring us great joy, even amidst great sadness (2Cor 6:10, Neh 8:10).


Rachael said...

Thank you Sarie for this coherent treatment of something we push down or aside, for the fears you mentioned above. When grief turns in on itself, we can no longer be surprised by joy, either.

George said...

Brilliant piece, Sar! And thanks so much for your honesty. You've helped give voice to those who are grieving, and helped those who are not be more attuned to those who are.

James T said...

Thanks for sharing Sarie. Similar issue very hot at SMBC today. Seminar: 'What is the 'freedom' that singles have'?

Sarah H. said...

Thankyou! Miss you!

Gracy Wright said...

Thankyou Sarie ♥

Joanne Pope said...

Thanks for your honesty & its a wonderful piece. I know I have a child but I experienced a little while back grief at at not being able to carry another due to health issues & my age. The grief just welled up as I held a new born baby. And you are right the emotion has to be felt before its processed. Its good to acknowledge things that are not able to be always talked about in our "must be happy all the time world". Sarie I am glad you are blessed with so many little children who know & love you.

Alli Street said...

Excellent piece Sar - a big thank you for your honesty, vulnerability, very helpful insights, and pointing us back to God's word and love. xxx

Julia Collings said...

love this piece! I know many single men who sympathise to a degree...grieving the lack of children due to lack of a wife to carry them...

Taryn Hayes said...

Wow. Thank you

Anon said...

Just wanted to say thank you for your last blog post - which I subscribe to. Hope you don't mind me PM'ing you but unlike you and Narelle, I'm a wimp! I can't put this stuff out there in public.

Anyway, I'm pretty tired now so this is brief but I've never seen my feelings/thoughts/experiences/struggles so accurately expressed as between your post and Narelle's - not even in my own head.

I really identify with the idea of disenfranchised grief - what I think of as my "Una grief". Have you ever read the last in the Anne of Green Gables books? There's a young woman, named Una, and the man she loves (one of Anne's sons) is killed in the war but they weren't in a relationship and no-one knows how she feels (except one of Anne's daughters but Una doesn't know that). There's this line, as one of Una's thoughts - "she had no right in the eyes of her world to grieve".

The grief of childlessness (as well as singleness) is so real and tears my heart apart sometimes but then I'm told it can't possibly be that deep, if it's even really there at all, as I'm single. Having the grief ridiculed and belittled is so much worse than dealing with it on your own.

DanHenby said...

Thanks for this Sarie.
As a parent, I can't imagine the grief of childlessness either as a couple or as a single person. I do know that for a long time I equated adulthood with parenthood, and I have longed for family from an early age.

It's people like me who can make life difficult for people like you. :) Please continue to call us out on these issues when necessary.

God bless.

Dani T said...

Thank you for making yourself vulnerable like that Sarie. It was beautifully written and ever so true.

Gordon T Dugan said...

Thank you Sarie for your courage and your beautiful, beautiful heart.

Kris Argall said...

Sarie, thanks so much for this. It was so incredibly helpful to read this and understand what many of my friends must be going through. Thanks so much for your courage and honesty

Debbie Retief Garratt said...

Thank you Sarie, this was important to post.

Jo Bidwell said...

Thank you for sharing. Greatly appreciated. xx

Kara said...

Thanks for your post sarie. i'm doing alot on this subject at the moment and appreciate your insights and honesty.

Peter said...

A great article; it should be required reading for all who pastor evening congregations! I think the guy in acts 8 knew the 'disenfranchised' grief; isaiah 56:4-5 may explain why he was so keen to know who the servant is. Hope doesnt remove the grief but it does change the way we grieve.

Ps. I quoted the bible verses to say the grief is v legitimate and purely as a possible encouragenent not to pontificate.

Melbourne Counsellor said...

Hello Sarie. Thanks for your heartfelt post. I agree with you about using psychological labels to explain away the diversity and depth of our emotional experience. I have also written a post on "disenfranchised grief" that might be interesting to your readers http://www.paulthecounsellor.com.au/disenfranchised-grief/

Sarie King said...

Thanks Paul.

Petal said...

Sarie. I have in a strange way stumbled upon your blog and found it to be beautiful; it is real and full of honest heart stuff which I find to be refreshing. Thank you for sharing your heart and love for the Lord and reminding me how Great his love and grace are toward us.

Sarie King said...

Thank you so much everyone for your comments, encouragements and shared lives. God's blessings on you all.

Karen said...

Thank you for bearing your soul, yes for your honesty Sarie. Very helpful article which is touching.

Karen Deutscher

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