The Space To Feel
“When we mourn we are in a state of freefall, our heart reaching out toward what we have seemingly lost but cannot help loving anyway.”
- Cynthia Bourgeault
from Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation
Grief covers many losses, be it a relationship, a dream or a person. Grief isn’t always a physical death, but when it is, the losses multiply. You lose the life you had dreamt up for that person, plans you had with that person, hope for who and what that person would become, the honor of watching it all play out, you lose the role you played in their life, the access you had to them at any moment, and the many gifts that person added to your life. The loss is multi-layered and the process of moving through it is the opposite of linear. Grief is intrusive and forceful, volatile and unpredictable. It has this way of making sure it’s noticed. It demands to be felt, despite our best efforts not to.
As a therapist, I am increasingly aware of this recurring pattern among clients, this idea that grief is like an evil force there to disrupt their faith. And not just grief, but every other feeling as well – sadness, hurt, loneliness, shame, anger (especially anger) – are all seen as these pesky little “distractors” from God and contentment…these impulses we need to control.
Some clients name they don’t want to feel because it means they’re being ungrateful and they don’t want to care for themselves because it means they’re being selfish. Mind if I just speak into that for a moment?
When you cry, when you wrestle with God, when your insides rage and your body is consumed with sadness and loneliness and hurt, you are not disobeying God. You are not distrusting God. You are not denying hope and you are not giving up faith. You are engaging the very heart He gave you – the heart that feels, the heart that aches, the heart that longs for home, the heart that is full of desire, and the heart that can’t help but to love that which is no longer even there.
These dark places of life are terrifying, but to feel your pain is not sinful. Even those who don’t see it as sinful, seldom lean in to pain. Instead they control it, stuff it, hide from it, deny it, medicate it, numb it. I’m not just talking about drug addicts. I’m talking about inspiration and optimism addicts. When people are avoidant of their own pain, naturally they are avoidant of everyone else’s.
Rarely does a person suffering need encouragement. They need to know they aren’t alone. This has been true since Genesis. The difference between encouragement and hope is much like the difference between happy and joy. Hope is bigger than encouragement. Hope hangs over our heads in the depths of despair. If we didn’t have this hope, life wouldn’t be as painful because pain wouldn’t hurt as badly. Hope awakens us to the reality that there is something better, which awakens us to the reality that that something is not here. When we don’t tend to our wounds, we cheapen hope and we subscribe to a fake version of it. If you want someone to lean into hope, you have to allow them to lean in to pain. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they need one another.
If you want someone to lean into hope, you have to allow them to lean in to pain. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they need one another.
I’m not suggesting that you never encourage, but the transformative power of suffering, the peace amidst chaos, the hope that still remains are all things that can’t be injected by pat answers or advice. The problem comes when we try to bury the pain with encouragement, when we try to talk ourselves or others out of the sadness, out of the anger, out of the hurt.
When arguing with a spouse, close friend, or significant other…what is the worst thing they could possibly say to us in that moment? “Chill out” or “Calm down.” It’s the worst, right? There are so many ways we communicate this very thing to our hurting loved ones. For instance, we skip straight to advice, encouragement and hope instead of listening, empathizing, and simply holding space for them to feel whatever it is they feeling. We ask if the person they lost was a Believer before we ask how they’re doing. We tell them “at least they’re with Jesus now” instead of entering into a deep awareness of what that person has lost. We tell them they’re not dealing with their grief when they have bouts of crying.
If we as humans weren’t so uncomfortable with our own feelings, we’d be much more effective entering that space with others.
I wish we were as good at giving people our presence as we are our advice. What people need to hear is that you are with them. The only way to be with them, is to let them feel.
What I remember most during my own experience with loss and betrayal was the night I sat on a couch with the women from my small group and I sobbed in a lap for close to an hour…a kind of sob that had never come out of my body before. They didn’t try to calm me down or offer me scripture. They put cold towels on my head and held me. Their role in that moment was to hold the space for me to be able to show up with ALL of me. This meant my rage, my grief, my feelings, my questions, my anxiety and my needs. I asked them not to mention the words reconciliation or forgiveness. I needed space to feel and space to simply be me with them. That was all. It was a turning point in my journey because I knew I wasn’t alone and that was everything.
When you are the one grieving, engage your heartache, confront your pain and feel your feelings. Every time you feel sad, you are honoring your loss. When you have a loved one who is grieving, enter the pit with them.