Rear view at upset man in trouble get psychological support during therapy session, diverse friends people comforting helping depressed guy having trauma problem addiction at psychotherapy counseling
Rear view at upset man in trouble get psychological support during therapy session, diverse friends people comforting helping depressed guy having trauma problem addiction at psychotherapy counseling

Longings and Losses: Working with Grieving Families - Part 1

Understanding grief is essential to ministering to a grieving family.

Blog January 6, 2021

by David and Beverly Sedlacek 

Goals and Objectives

By the end of this article, readers will be able to: 

1. Define grief 

2. Describe God’s original intent for humanity 

3. Identify five losses in the life of Jesus 

4. Name three losses and longings individuals may experience 

5. Identify normal grief process and Kübler- Ross stages of grief 

6. Describe unexpected family grief such as trauma, adoption, loss of addiction 

7. Identify 2 problems that may compound the grief process 

8. Describe symptoms of complicated grief 

Grief and Suffering 

It was never God’s desire or intent that His human children should suffer. He created us as perfect, whole beings who would live eternally with himself. Suffering is an unfortunate but natural consequence of sin. Not only suffering, but death came as a consequence of sin. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Whenever human beings experience loss, suffering, or death, it is normal to also experience grief. 

A Definition of Grief 

Grief is keen mental suffering or distress over a loss or affliction—a sharp sorrow—a painful regret. At the very heart of the grief definition is intense sorrow. Grief is a deep emotional response to a great loss. 

Loss in the Life of Jesus 

Jesus himself suffered many losses during the course of His life here on earth, but it is also important to understand the profound losses that he experienced in heaven with the other members of the Godhead. They experienced the loss of Lucifer and a third of the angels. They suffered when Adam and Eve chose sin and instead inherited suffering and death. Are there ways that we can comfort God as he grieves the loss of so many of his children today? 

When Jesus was on earth, He experienced the loss of his cousin, John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). He experienced rejection at Nazareth, His home town (Matthew 13:53-58) and wept over Jerusalem. Abuse of any kind is accompanied by significant losses, such as a loss of innocence, capacity to trust, and safety, just to name a few. Jesus experienced physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse. On the cross He experienced what it was like to be forsaken and to lose connection with His Father. Jesus experienced misunderstanding of his mission by His family and His own disciples. He was abandoned, denied, and betrayed by His disciples. Ultimately, He lost His very life. Jesus went through these experiences so that we might know that we have a Savior who was touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15). 

Grief and Loss in the Human Experience 

It is important that we allow ourselves the human experience of grief in response to real losses such as the death of a loved one, divorce or separation, breakup with a significant other, loss of anything that has been significant to a person, or other significant losses in adulthood or childhood such as: loss of innocence or virginity, safety, possessions, friends when making a move, post-abortion syndrome, miscarriage, a job, children growing up and moving on, friends and teachers, control, or losses related to retirement. 

|EXERCISE |Journal about grief that you have experienced in your life. As you do, identify specific losses that you have experienced. Write down feelings that you have had connected to these losses. If you have not been allowed to have feelings connected to real losses, are you willing to begin giving yourself permission to feel? Ask God for the gift of your feelings. 

It is also important to realize that when our normal human longings are not met, we grieve their loss. Some typical human longings are listed below: 

• Intimacy and Affection 

• Connection 

• Disappointment related to God 

• Disappointment related to the Church Organization 

• Time and Attention 

• Affirmation 

|EXERCISE | As you look through this list of normal human longings, can you identify yours from this list or perhaps other longings, those that you have had that have not been met. God gives you every desire and longing so that you may in turn bring it to him to see how he wants to fulfill it. Write about these longings in your journal. 

Unexpected Grief in Families 

We normally think of grief related to the death of a loved one or other significant losses as mentioned above. It is important to realize that there are other losses that occur in families that may produce grief. For example, foster parents must be aware of the need for their foster children to grieve the loss of their biological parents and siblings. When a new child is born into the family, other children may grieve the loss of their favored position. When trauma occurs, a person may need to grieve losses such as safety and security, innocence, trust, etc. When a person overcomes an addiction, there may be a grief response to the loss of the substance, behavior, person, etc. that he/she has been addicted to because addicts develop significant relationships with the objects of their addiction. 

Normal Grief 

Grieving a significant loss takes time. Depending on the circumstances of a person’s loss, grieving can take from weeks to years. Grieving helps a person gradually adjust to a new chapter of their life. Full awareness of a major loss can happen suddenly or over a few days or weeks. While an expected loss (such as a death after a long illness) can take a shorter time to absorb because it is anticipated, a sudden or tragic loss can take more time. Similarly, it can take time to grasp the reality of a loss that doesn’t affect one’s daily routine, such as a death in a distant city. During this time, a person may feel numb and seem distracted. They may obsess or yearn for the lost loved one. Funerals and other rituals and events during this time may help one accept the reality of one’s loss. 

A person’s way of feeling and expressing grief is unique to them and the nature of their loss. Some may feel irritable and restless, while others are quieter than usual, or need to be distant from or close to others. Some feel as if they aren’t the same person they were before the loss. Don’t be surprised by conflicting feelings while grieving. For example, it’s normal to feel despair about a death or a job loss, yet also feel relief. 

The grieving process does not happen in a step-by-step or orderly fashion. Grieving tends to be unpredictable, with sad thoughts and feelings coming and going, like a roller-coaster ride. After the early days of grieving, one may sense a lifting of numbness and sadness and experience a few days without tears. Then, for no apparent reason, the intense grief may strike again. 

While grieving may make one want to isolate themselves from others and hold it all in, it’s important that they find some way of expressing their grief. Some modes of expression include talking, writing, creating art or music, or being physically active. All of these are helpful ways of dealing with grief. 

The Grief Process 

Several years ago Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, Swiss-American psychiatrist, described grief in stages. While we have come to learn more recently that grief does not always occur in easily definable stages, it is helpful to know the typical process that most people experience when they grieve. 

1) Denial, numbness, and shock: This stage serves to protect the individual from experiencing the intensity of the loss. It may be useful when the grieving person must take action (for example, making funeral arrangements). Numbness is a normal reaction to an immediate loss and should not be confused with “lack of caring.” As the individual slowly acknowledges the impact of the loss, denial and disbelief will diminish. 

2) Bargaining: This stage may involve persistent thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss. People can become preoccupied about ways that things could have been better. If this stage is not properly resolved, intense feelings of remorse or guilt may interfere with the healing process. 

3) Depression: This stage of grief occurs in some people after they realize the true extent of the loss. Signs of depression may include sleep and appetite disturbances, a lack of energy and concentration, and crying spells. A person may feel loneliness, emptiness, isolation, and self-pity. 

4) Anger: This reaction usually occurs when an individual feels helpless and powerless. Anger can stem from a feeling of abandonment through a loved one’s death. An individual may be angry at the person who died, at God, or toward life in general. 

5) Acceptance: In time, an individual may be able to come to terms with various feelings and accept the fact that the loss has occurred. Healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into the individual’s set of life experiences. 

Different people follow different paths through the grieving experience. The order and timing of these phases may vary from person to person: accepting the reality of their loss, allowing themselves to experience the pain of their loss, adjusting to a new reality in which the deceased is no longer present, and enjoying other relationships. 

|EXERCISE |Since there are many ways of grieving, try to identify ways that you express grief. Share your grief process with a close friend or in a small group. 

Complicated Grief 

In this complex and busy world, it can be hard to fully grieve a loss. It is possible to have unresolved grief or complications associated with grieving, particularly if a person had several major losses in a short period of time; lost someone very important in their life; the person may feel that they will never get over the loss of someone special; experienced the unexpected or violent death of a loved one, such as the death of a child or a death caused by an accident, homicide, or suicide; have special life circumstances that act as obstacles to grieving, such as having to return to work too soon after a death; or have a history of depression or anxiety. If these symptoms of grief persist more than a year, it may be a sign of complicated grief. 

For some people, feelings of loss are debilitating and don’t improve even after time passes. This is known as complicated grief, sometimes called persistent complex bereavement disorder. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that a person has trouble recovering from the loss and resuming their own life. 

During the first few months after a loss, many signs and symptoms of normal grief are the same as those of complicated grief. However, while normal grief symptoms gradually start to fade over time, those of complicated grief linger or get worse. Complicated grief is like being in an ongoing, heightened state of mourning that keeps a person from healing. 

The following may be symptoms or indicators of complicated grief: 

• Intense sorrow, pain, and rumination over the loss of your loved one 

• Focus on little else but your loved one’s death 

• Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one or excessive avoidance of reminders 

• Intense and persistent longing or pining for the deceased 

• Problems accepting the death 

• Numbness or detachment 

• Bitterness about one’s loss 

• Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose 

• Lack of trust in others 

• An inability to enjoy life or think back on positive experiences with one’s loved one 

Complicated grief also may be indicated if a person continues to have trouble carrying out normal daily routines, isolates from others and withdraws from social activities, experiences depression, deep sadness, guilt or self-blame related to the loss, believes that they did something wrong or could have prevented the death, feels that life isn’t worth living without their loved one, or wishes that they had died along with their loved one. 

When there are symptoms of complicated grief present, it is important to make a referral to a mental health professional who will be able to assess the severity of the grief response and make appropriate interventions to help resolve the grief. Interventions can include talk therapy, behavioral interventions, or perhaps medication. 

|EXERCISE | Would you know where to refer someone who is experiencing Complicated Grief? Explore the phone book, the internet, or community information services to find mental health professionals who have been trained to help during times of grief. 


 David Sedlacek, PhD, LMSW, CFLE is a Professor of Family Ministry and Discipleship Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI, USA. 

 Beverly Sedlacek, DNP, MSN, PMHCNS-BC, RN, is a Therapist in Private Practice and Clinical Director of Into His Rest Ministries in Berrien Springs, MI, USA. 


This article was published as part of the 2019 Planbook, “Reaching Families for Jesus: Strengthening Disciples.

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