“Throughout the journey of my worst nightmare—my descent into a dark, sad valley—the Holy Spirit would remind me of truths that comforted my soul and sustained my life.”
Having lost a child and working in pastoral ministry for fifteen years, much of my personal and professional experience has involved coping with loss. I personally found that some of the hardest truths about grief prove to be the most helpful to mourning people in the long run. I wanted to share some of the hard truths, that a good friend would pass on, with the intent of giving you hope in the long run.
1. Don’t be discouraged if things get worse before they get better.
My son, Cameron, died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2013. He was a perfectly healthy three-year-old boy who just went to bed one night and never woke up. I figured that the first two weeks would be the worst and that the difficulty would gradually diminish as the weeks progressed. I was wrong.
I found that I was in shock the first month. With each day I began to gain increasing awareness of the immense magnitude of Cam’s death. I found that I actually was sadder in the third through sixth month than I was in the first.
Death is the ultimate expression of the Fall. Its emotional repercussions are immense. In the grief process, if you feel as if you’re getting sadder, you’re not failing or abnormal. You are tasting fully just how awful the Fall is. The pain eventually will start to subside.
2. It’s a godly thing to grieve.
For whatever reason, many Christians have the idea that happiness honors God and sadness constitutes spiritual failure. They think sadness tarnishes their witness. In reality, we see intense expressions of lamentation and grief throughout the Bible. The laments of the Psalms, the expressions of Job, the outrage of Jeremiah, and the questions of Habakkuk provide ample evidence of holy grief before God. Jesus grieves the death of Lazarus. God mourns the disobedience and defiance of Israel (Luke 13: 33-34). There is no shame in mourning your loss with a heart full of sadness.
3. There’s no way around it: if you’re going to get better, you’re going to have to taste the pain.
During the first year after my son died, I allowed myself to grieve. I made space for it and accepted the reality. After the one-year anniversary of his death, I subconsciously decided that I was done with being sad. I proceeded to fill my schedule and life with so much work and ambition that I couldn’t feel much of anything. Busyness functioned like a numbing drug for me until I started to crack.
If your knee is going to heal after a sports injury, you’re going to have to do the painful work of rehab. If you’re going to get stronger, you’re going to have to experience the soreness that comes from work outs. If a broken bone is going to heal, you’re going to have to endure the pain of setting the bone.
The same is true in grief. The way of the cross necessitates that pain precedes healing and restoration. God will give you the grace you need to withstand the tides of sadness. God will provide his presence in the depths of grief. You must allow yourself to feel the sadness and lament. With each tear you cry, you are moving closer to healing.
4. You cannot redeem yourself, but God can give you healing in time.
At times, I felt as if I needed to work a playbook. Go to the counselor. Journal. Talk about my loss. My occasionally rigid approach reflected a belief that I needed to heal myself. If I could take the right steps, then I could make myself less sad.
The healthiest and most helpful place I could ever go was to trust Jesus to heal me. God told Israel in Isaiah, “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Is. 30:15). In the passive place of relying on God’s healing grace, we find hope, comfort, and strength. We cannot mend our hearts, but God certainly can. You will need to return continually to waiting patiently and expectantly for him to heal and remediate your wounds. In time, God can heal your heart.
God is a Healer and Redeemer. In all of the sorrow and confusion, our hope in grief resides in the reality that God can restore anything.
Cameron Cole (MA, Wake Forest University) serves as director of youth ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the chairman of Rooted, a ministry dedicated to fostering gospel-centered student ministry.
Photo credits in order of appearance: ©Thinkstock/Kzenon, ©Thinkstock/Supershabashnyi, ©Thinkstock/AntonioGuillem, ©Thinkstock/Milkos, ©Thinkstock/Mbolina