So much has changed in all our lives in the last twelve months, and sometimes, change can be a gateway to feelings of grief and sadness. Is it OK to genuinely grieve the loss of the life you used to have? Dr. Deb Gorton, psychologist and author, talks about why grief is hard, why God allows it, and why grieving looks different for everyone.
(If you missed it, Dr. Gorton was also on Work, Love, Pray in Season 1 and talked about “God’s plan in mental illness.” Click here to listen to more of her insights!)
Don’t have time to read this blog? Listen to it below!
In your opinion, why is change such a difficult thing for us to deal with?
Our brains are wired for the path of least resistance. We get very comfortable with consistency and predictability (often out of habit), even if it’s ultimately unhealthy for us. Change forces us to confront the unknown, to make adjustments in our life that we consider inconvenient, or actively embrace emotions (anxiety, fear, discomfort) that we’d likely prefer to avoid. When faced with the decision to make important changes in our lives like healthy living habits, pursuing or ending a relationship, changing careers, or prioritizing time differently, we’re often energized by the long-term, big-picture outcomes but get stuck in the short-term, day-to-day changes needed to move us in the right direction. We’ll make excuses, justify our positions, or minimize the consequences of maintaining the status quo at the expense of the change that’s ultimately consistent with what we value most.
Why do you think God allows us to deal with loss?
The author of A Severe Mercy (one of my favorite books), Sheldon Vanauken, says, “Great joy through love always seemed to go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still…the joy would be worth the pain– if indeed, they went together. If there were a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way…here and now chose the heights and the depths.” While I don’t know the full picture of why God allows us to deal with loss, I do know that the experience of loss shapes our experience of gain. We would not understand one without the other.
“For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”2 Corinthians 2:3
Paul reminds us that we know what comfort feels like because of the contrast of suffering and out of our experience of Christ as Comforter, we are able to then comfort others.
As a psychologist, I frequently navigate loss with my clients. The question of “why God has caused me to suffer” is one that many people wrestle with. It can be overwhelmingly difficult to reconcile a just and loving God with a God who allows His people to suffer. However, I believe we are gifted the ability and empowerment to make meaning in our suffering. Validating the pain of loss while holding space for meaning-making and shifting perspectives can be a healing practice for navigating grief.
When we think of “loss” and “grief,” we typically associate those feelings with death or a major catastrophic event in our lives. But we can grieve just about anything, like loss of way of life pre-COVID. Is grieving an accurate adjective for times like this?
Yes! Grief is ultimately the experience of deep sorrow. In Scripture, I love the way grief is conceptualized in the Hebrew Psalms as the pain and weariness of sorrow (Psalm 31:10). This has been a year of tremendous loss, from COVID restrictions, isolation, loss of loved ones, the trauma of ongoing systemic racism, political upheaval, and more. Weariness is an abundantly accurate word to describe what so many people are feeling. The emotional weight and depth of any significant unexpected change is worthy of acknowledgement and validation. Often giving yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling is the beginning steps to relieving some of the heaviness that emotion carries.
What advice would you give to someone staring down a situation of grieving or loss?
The first thing I would say is “try to avoid judging your emotions and/or how you’re navigating grief and loss.” Many of my clients have expectations of what their grief and loss should look like and it really is unique to the individual and their season and circumstances. I believe Scripture points us to the powerful impact of providing space in our life to lament loss and suffering. While this can be a raw and painful process, avoiding grief or trying to push through it often just buries feelings which grow under the surface and seep out (or worse, explode) when we least expect it.
I would also encourage individuals facing unexpected grief to find people in their lives who listen, validate, and understand. While problem-solving can be helpful, in the immediate space of acute grief, a ministry of non-judgmental presence is critical. If you don’t have that person in your close community or you need further support, counseling can be a great avenue for experiencing safe holding space to engage the healing and transformation process.
Dr. Deb Gorton earned both her MA in Psychology and her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA. Additionally, she holds an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Presently, she serves as the Gary Chapman Chair for Marriage, Family Ministry, and Counseling at Moody Theological Seminary as well the Program Director for Moody’s Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program. Dr. Gorton recently published her first book Embracing Uncomfortable: Facing our Fears While Pursuing our Purpose, and co-hosts, with fellow Moody professor Dr. Mary Hendrickson, Becoming Well, a podcast that explores the intersection of faith and mental health.
Dr. Gorton currently resides in Chicago, loves the Cubs, the city’s architecture, and, believe it or not, walking daily to work even in the dead of winter. If she’s not home in the city or traveling for work, you’re likely to find her with family in Colorado or Arizona.