Human response to loss is as predictable as it’s sad. We experience grief and probably more than we know. Adjustment in life involves a process of letting go. The goal of adjustment is voluntary acceptance—we do that better, and quicker, when we honour the legacy of pain in our grief.
The stage-theory of grief—that we cycle through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally reach acceptance—describes accurately the stages we go through.
But what it can’t compensate for is the iterative nature of these stages. This is what true grief looks like:
Denial, anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance, denial, anger, denial, depression, anger, bargaining, acceptance, depression, denial...
... And so on it goes; until, finally, we reach the fuller portion of acceptance.
Reaching Acceptance a Bit at a Time
It’s true we eventually reach acceptance if we adjust healthily. But the stages evolve of their own accord, and acceptance is a temporary destination, with longer visits each successive time.
We’re always tempted to expect we’ve reached acceptance prematurely.
We don’t expect the further issuance of the pain of grief when we have had a taste of acceptance. We want to be fully adjusted, and we try hard to reach there as quickly as we can.
The journey to acceptance cannot be rushed; it cannot be reached without the full process of adjustment; and that, honoured by the accepted memory of the events.
The Purpose of the Pain in Grief
If we acknowledge that four parts of the five-part stage-theory of grief involve relative variations of pain—including denial, with its ironic sense of relief—and if we believe that grief has a good purpose—we can note there is ‘good memory’ to be had in reminiscing over the pain.
Pain must be felt repetitively for it to mean anything. Sometimes God’s only way of getting through to us, to transform us, is through pain.
As we cycle through the stages—learning our own way to adjust to each one, which paradoxically gets us into other stages, and not necessarily acceptance—we develop the character of coping. We learn about ourselves; about what truly pleases and upsets us.
Perhaps the purpose of pain in grief is that it forces us to act; to do anything we can to ameliorate the pain.
Coping is a very individual thing. No one can tell us how to cope, only suggest.
The value of experience can never be understated. But we tend to forget. Honouring the memory of the pain—the special legacy—is what drives growth in resilience.
Growth is steeled in the legacy of our memory of our pain. It is a rich possession.
‘Branding’ the Memory of Pain in the Psyche
As cattle and horses are branded, such that the owner’s mark is cast, the memory of grief’s pain leaves a mark of benevolence over us, once we recover.
Honouring the legacy of pain in grief is never forgetting that pain—and that it is part of the making of us. Sure, the sting is gone, but we honour God’s faithfulness to get us through—all the way to acceptance.
Each day we do this it gets better.
Honouring our pain validates it. It characterises the real ‘us’. And as we move past the sting of our pain, the memory of how we learned to cope glows fondly within. We will say: “We got through; we learned; we recovered.”
© 2011 S. J. Wickham.