She was a simple, unadorned young woman. Her long, awkward strides took her quickly from the door of my office to the couch. She plopped unceremoniously onto the couch and crossed her legs, swinging it impatiently as I settled into my chair.
Before I could open my mouth, she said, “My doctor says I need to be here. I think he needs to be here.”
With that double-handful of words she’s thrown at me she’s told me much:
- She has some kind of emotional or behavioral symptoms that are significant enough that a primary care physician has noticed them and felt they needed addressed
- This woman takes the shortest route to a destination. She will not tolerate beating around the bush. I will have to be direct with her.
- She’s mad at her doctor for insisting that she come.
- But has a tremendous amount of respect for her doctor to agree to do something she doesn’t want to do.
- She has lots of misgivings about the value of counseling in general and is probably suspicious of me.
I decide to try a question. “So why would your doctor think you need to come see me?”
She grabs that question like a rodeo cowboy wrestling a calf to the ground. She holds the back of her hand toward me with one finger sticking up. No, it wasn’t that finger. It was her ring finger. Pointing to the wedding ring encircling it, she says, “Doc tells me I need to take this off and get on with my life.”
Folding her arms across her chest, her leg shifts into high gear again, swinging vigorously. There is an air of finality about her, as if she’s said all she intends to say and now it’s my turn.
Clearly I’m going to need some more information. So I venture another question, “So why don’t you tell me your story?”
She gives a huff of exasperation. But she uncrosses her legs, leans forward and does indeed tell me her story.
Three years ago her husband was killed in a work related accident. He was thirty-four. So, at the age of twenty-eight she was a widow with four year old twin daughters and an eight month old son.
She concludes her story by saying, “Am I still sad sometimes? Yes. But I’m not depressed. I go to work every day. I take care of my kids and my house. But doc says I need to take this ring off.”
Grief. It’s an interesting word. It’s an effort to describe in one word a myriad of emotions. Grief is not pain. It is our emotional response to pain; the specific kind of pain associated with loss.
The Hebrew word that is often translated “grief” in our Bibles simply means “suffering.” Grief certainly represents the pinnacle of human suffering.
When any conversation revolves around human suffering, the name of Job inevitably shows up. It is hard to find any example of someone who experienced more loss that this ancient man. As a matter of fact, so shocking were the losses that Job experienced that when his friends came to see him, “they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spake a word unto him: for they saw that his grief was very great.” Job 2:13
All emotions are internal but they need an external (physical, behavioral) expression, a means of finding their way out of the heart. For example, if you are happy, the corners of your mouth turn up producing a smile; you might laugh and even produce tears.
Finding a healthy way of expressing intense feelings is crucial to our mental health. As a matter of fact it is the holding in of emotions that causes a plethora of problems and constitutes one of the main reason counselor’s offices are so busy.
Among the many things that impress me about Job is he readily and openly expressed his grief. What was Job’s physical, behavioral response to his pain? He “tore his robe and shaved his head.” He sat in a pile of ashes and “took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it.”
It is a vivid picture of someone giving full vent to their emotions. Am I saying we should all express our grief the same way Job did? No.
As a matter of fact I rarely offer any suggestions on how to express grief because I believe grief is the most personal experience a person can have. I try to stay out of the way of other’s personal expression of grief. Everyone has to do things in ways that make sense to them, not to me.
The only time I am concerned about how a person is grieving is if, after a month or so, it is preventing them from functioning on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean I think they should be over their loss in a month or so. (See my previous article “When Am I Going to Get Over This?”). I’m simply saying that it might be time to consider medications and/or behavioral changes.
Two points I’m trying to make here:
- Don’t let someone tell you how you should be processing your grief or what “stage” you should be in.
- Don’t make the mistake of telling someone what they should do with their grief just because it makes sense to you. Many people have been greatly wounded by well intentioned suggestions from others.
And the lady I mentioned in the opening of this article? What did I tell her? I simply asked her if she wanted to take her wedding ring off. Coupled with a colorful adjective, she said, “No.”
“Then don’t take it off,” I replied. “That’s your business what you do with your ring.”
She responded with a warm, genuine smile. “Thank you. That’s what I needed to hear.” She added with laugh, “Just wait until I see that crazy doctor of mine.”