The below are excerpts from the chapter “The Grieving Process” in J. I. Packer’s A Grief Sanctified: Through Sorrow to Eternal Hope – Including Richard Baxter’s Timeless Memoir of His Wife’s Life and Death (Crossway, 2002)
What does it mean to grieve properly when one has lost a daughter, a son, a close companion, or the spouse who was one’s own best friend?
Grief at the loss of a loved one is as old as the human race. Everyone who loves will experience it sooner or later, and the greater the love, the greater the grief when the time of loss arrives. The message of the booklet titled Christians Grieve Too needs no underlining: We know that Christ’s people leave this world for a better one; yet the pain of grief strikes us down as it does others. When bereaved, says St. Paul (1 Thess 4:13), we are not to grieve as people without hope would grieve; but strong as our hope may be, grief cannot be avoided. As the enjoyment of another’s love invigorates one inside, so the blow of losing someone near and dear drains strength from both mind and body for months and perhaps years. And if the bereavement was unanticipated and not prepared for, grief hits harder and hurts more.
Grief is regularly more draining and harrowing than we thought it could be. As a feeling, it is not unique in that regard: All of us are sometimes overwhelmed—stunned, frightened, devastated, transported—by the intensity of our feelings of surprise, pain, fear, love, and joy. We did not know we could feel so strongly, and words fail us to express our feelings adequately…
At the very time when grief and our verbalizing of it bring us to tears, we find ourselves feeling that our grief is really too deep for tears and too agonizing for words. As we struggle with the ache of loss, the grip of our grief imposes a kind of relational paralysis. Perhaps grief is a true reflection of hell, where the ache of losing God and all good, including the good of community, will be endless. Be that as it may, a most painful part of the pain of grief is the sense that no one, however sympathetic and supportive in intention, can share what we are feeling, and it would be a betrayal of our love for the lost one to pretend otherwise. So we grieve alone and the agony is unbelievable… The loneliness of grief is one of the worse and most draining things about it—and, be it said, one of the most dangerous, too.
Grief—the experiential, emotional fruit of the bereavement event—is…a state of desolation and isolation, of alternating apathy and agony, of inner emptiness and exhaustion. How may such a condition be sanctified—that is, managed, lived with, and lived through in a way that honors God? No Puritan to my knowledge addresses the question in this form, but the Puritan answer would be this:
Starting from where you are, do what you can (it may not be much at first) to move toward thanksgiving, submission, and patience.
Do not let your grief loosen your grip on the goodness and grace of your loving Lord.
Cry (for there is nothing biblical of Christian, or indeed human, about the stiff upper lip).
Tell God your sadness (several of the psalms, though not written about bereavement, will supply words for the purpose).
Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t. (That bit of wisdom is not original to me, nor was it distilled in a grief-counseling context, but it is very apropos here.)
Avoid well-wishers who think they can cheer you up, but thank God for any who are content to be with you and do things for you without talking at you.
Talk to yourself (or write) about the loved one you lost.
Do not try to hurry your way out of the inner weakness you feel; grieving takes time.
Look to God as thankfully, submissively, and patiently as you can (and He will understand if you have to tell him that you cannot really do this yet).
Feel, acknowledge, and face, consciously and from your heart, all the feelings that you find in yourself at present, and the day will come when you find yourself able, consciously and from your heart, to live to God daily in thanksgiving, submission, and patient hope once again– as did Richard Baxter, C. S. Lewis, and millions more.
Grieving properly leads back to thinking properly, living properly, and praising properly. God sees to that! “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).