Jeremy Linneman serves as the pastor of Trinity Community Church in Columbia, Missouri. He writes on discipleship, groups, spiritual formation, leader development, sports, and culture at jslinneman.com. Jeremy and his wife, Jessie, have three sons.
I was introduced to loss at a young age. The first shattering of my world came when I was six years old, in 1991, when my youngest sister Amy died shortly after birth. My very earliest memory is of my parents coming home from the hospital with an empty car seat.
After these days, the grief was immense; it was a silent member of our family—as if it took the place that Amy would have held. For a while after my sister’s death, my family was silently labeled as “the family who had lost a child.” It was the badge we wore that made people talk softly around us and hug us too much. I hated it; but I couldn’t get away from it. When one of your earliest memories is of a baby-sized casket, it just changes you.
Years later, my world came apart all over again. I was 16, and my older brother, Joe, had been off to college for a few months. We received a phone call that he had been in a car accident and been life-flighted to a major hospital two hours away. Hours later, we met with a surgeon in one of those awful consultation rooms—beige walls with no pictures—to receive the bad news.
Just like that, he was gone.
My brother was easily the closest person in the world to me; growing up, we had been inseparable, and there was no category in my mind for life without a big brother. The next 72 hours were easily the worst of my life. We passed the news along to family and friends that arrived in the middle of the night. We went to see his body and said goodbye. We decided when to turn off the machines that were keeping his body functional enough that his organs could be donated. We were pummeled by the barrage of blows that come in these traumas when you’re already down.
Life After Losses
But as all families must, after the losses of my sister and brother, we kept living. The loss gave way to grief, and the journey of living with grief began. So what has that journey looked like? There are some observations about grief as I have experienced it that can be helpful to understand before we look at how we can respond well to our grief.
Grief is complex. There are no easy answers, and there are no solutions. There is no “normal” response to massive loss.
Grief can be unpredictable. The five stages made popular by Dr. Kubler-Ross’s book On Death and Dying are helpful, but sadly they’re often misunderstood. The stages aren’t steps and they’re not sequential; they’re sporadic. We often don’t move cleanly from denial to anger, then to bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but in and out of them sporadically—seemingly randomly—for the rest of our lives.
Grief can be cyclical; it comes and goes in seasons. From the first year onward, many things cause increased grief and pain, and the cycle of loss begins again. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, funerals, and hospitals all re-kindle the loss. And, as I’m getting into my thirties, I’m realizing that age is an important factor of grief: When I have hit a milestone, like going off to college, getting married, or having kids, it re-sparks the grief process again.
Grief can multiply grief. Our subsequent losses seem to build on our previous losses in a way that multiplies the total impact of our emotions, rather than just adding one response on top of another. You’ve likely experienced this on a smaller level: A bad day begins with spilled coffee, then all the traffic lights seem to turn red, then you can’t find a parking spot. Each response multiplies with the others and you blow up at a co-worker over the smallest issue. Pain and loss tend to continue to multiply until we either ex- or implode from the pressure of built up and unaddressed emotions.
Grief can be physical. We are inter-connected beings, and our souls and bodies interact in mysterious but powerful ways. After suffering great loss, it is common to experience physical expression of grief, including sleeplessness, over-eating or loss of appetite, weight gain or loss, decreased energy, less exercise, teeth grinding, and digestive issues. Other cases can be even more severe.
Within a year of my brother’s death, I was suffering from chronic pain and fatigue, and I’ve now struggled with them daily for 15 years. This, tragically, is common as well: Research has confirmed a high correlation between chronic illnesses and childhood trauma. It’s not just a mental-emotional thing; the body can absorb the loss, too.
Grief can be traumatic. One of the great tragedies of my brother’s death for me was that I lost almost all my memories up to that point. I’ve talked with a therapist about it, read about it, and tried a number of exercises to recall things and restore my memory. But, despite all this, I have less than a dozen memories, including little snapshots, from the first 16 years of my life.
So how do we grieve well?
The good news we have as Christians in the face of our grief is that our God is deeply acquainted with our sufferings. Not only that, but he has overcome them. These truths, if we believe them, should make a difference in how we are able to respond to the losses we face in our lives. If we fail to deal well with our losses, the grief only continues to multiply—the losses add up, and one day, the “emotional lid” explodes. If we fail to move toward God and pursue his comfort and restoration in loss, we become stunted both emotionally and spiritually. We grow bitterer with age and can stop maturing.
How then, do we leverage the faith Jesus has given us to grieve well? More to come in my next post.