I’m often asked how to process grief with hope. When I became a young widow, I was completely naïve about the grief process. When friends asked how they could help, I told them I needed books on grief.
I’d never experienced grief this deep and because Dan’s death was sudden, I didn’t have time to prepare for the shock and emotions of loss. In those early weeks, I wanted to know how to process grief and how to hold onto hope as I moved through grief.
I was familiar with 1 Thessalonians 4:13 that encourages Christians to grieve with hope: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thess. 4:13, ESV)
Paul wasn’t teaching Christians not to grieve, but rather to process their grief with hope. So then, how are Christians to grieve with hope? What does that look like practically?
I’m reluctant to reduce something so complex as grief to bullet points. Grief is not a checklist, nor can it be confined to tidy stages like moving a pawn forward on a board game toward an ultimate destination.
Grief is messy with days forward, backward, up and down. And everyone grieves differently. We need to allow ourselves and others grace to grieve each unique situation the way God uniquely made us and our emotions.
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The grief process has commonalties, though. I found comfort learning that what I was feeling and experiencing was normal and the hard work I was doing emotionally, mentally and spiritually would move me forward from raw grief. Learning to process grief with hope doesn’t spare us pain. But it can give us a framework to attend and move forward in loss.
How to Process Grief with Hope
Allow emotions of loss.
Grief triggers a range of hard emotions like sadness, despair, shock, numbness, loneliness, fear, anger, and regret. These are often termed negative emotions—a clue that our society isn’t comfortable around these emotions.
While our culture may be awkward around the hard emotions of grief, God is not. When God made you, he also made your emotions. God never intended you to sit in your emotions alone. Instead, God welcomes the hard emotions of grief. The Biblical term is called lament.
“Lament, says Esther Fleece in her book No More Faking Fine, is saying: “God I’m hurting, will you meet me here? And as such it is a prayer God always answers.” The Psalms are filled with lament and set an example for us not to hide or stuff or self-medicate our emotions away, but to express them to God out loud, through a journal or in prayer.
Acknowledge the extent of loss.
Loss is never singular. Whether you are grieving because of death, divorce, diagnosis or something else, there are always secondary losses. Loss can affect nearly every part of life as you knew it and part of the grieving process is realizing the full extent of all that’s gone.
Some of these secondary losses include loss of routines, friendships, your expected future, routines, friendships, parenting, traditions, identity, roles, plans, security, dreams, and more. Even as we move forward, we discover new secondary losses at holidays, celebrations and milestones where our beloved isn’t present or where life looks different than we expected. The full weight of grief is processed as we deal with the full breadth of loss.
Accept the loss.
In the early days of grief, it may feel like your mind is playing tricks on you. I felt like my husband was on a long trip and would walk through the back door any minute. I can’t tell you how often I reached for my phone to call him or woke up sleepily blissful until the grim reality came crashing in. I considered this God’s soft landing, allowing my mind and heart to slowly comprehend the permanency of loss.
Processing loss means letting go of the life we expected, the life we wanted, and the life we had. It’s never one and done. We release what’s lost over and over again through tears, lament, prayer, journaling, talking it through with others and intentionally moving our thoughts from lingering in the past to live in the present.
Adjust to loss.
Grief ushers in enormous change. It can change our role, responsibilities, family dynamics, relationships, friendships, work, finances and more. Some call it a “new normal” but even after nine years, living as a widow and single mom doesn’t feel normal. Though my grief is no longer raw, I still feel the effects of my husband’s death as I parent, manage our home and watch my kids grow without their dad.
Instead of a new normal, let’s consider it a new routine. I’ve adjusted my expectations given my bandwidth as a single mom. I’ve begun to dream new dreams, like writing a book and traveling. I’ve begun to envision a new future and rediscovered my identity outside of marriage. Adjusting to loss involves letting go of the life that was while embracing the life that is.
Affirm your trust of God in loss.
We may not get our questions answered this side of heaven. We may not be able to wrap our story with a bow or understand why God has allowed pain. But to fully let go of the life that was and embrace the life that is, we have to trust God.
Imagine with me holding both our hands open to God with palms up. With one hand, we give God our loss, the life we had and the life we wanted while with the other hand, we trust all God has for us in the life that is. Slowly, as we continue to lament, accept, adjust, and cling to God, it becomes easier to let go of the life that was and embrace the life that is.
- We can process grief with hope because of the promise of eternity. This life is not all there is and for all eternity, we’ll be freed from pain and in the presence of God.
- We can process grief with hope because of God’s promises for us this side of heaven. God promises us joy and abundant life and though your hard emotions may be screaming different, it won’t always feel like this.
- And we can process grief with hope because God is good and God does good. Though life may feel incorrigible right now, trust that God is working good for you.