Understanding our own grief helps us to serve others
6 MINUTE READ
My background is in research. As a 21-year-old, fresh-faced master’s student completing a dissertation in epidemiology, I didn’t expect to be faced with hard truths about humanity.
I completed my dissertation a few years prior to COVID-19, in the area of mental health. I’ll be honest, I chose this area mostly because I thought that it was likely to have job growth in a first-world country such as our own. (Ironically enough, I dismissed the idea of infectious disease research despite an offer from one of my lecturers – maybe I could have worked on COVID-19 surveillance research if I had taken that path!)
My group focussed on mental health in adolescents and children, and I was given a dissertation topic on help-seeking behaviour. Have you ever researched a topic and slowly, but surely, realised you are researching not just general people in society – but your own, stubborn self? Well, that was me. As a driven student and academic, I hadn’t yet taken a moment to think about my own need for help-seeking behaviour and the strength, not weakness, of this behaviour. Over the years, I’ve come to find it humorous that I was writing about this topic. At that stage of my life, I would almost die if I had to ask for help from someone. As a Christian, it’s important to remember that we are entirely human and entirely able to ask for help, to learn and grow from hard truths, and this was a lesson that I feel God used my profession to teach me.
“As a Christian, it’s important to remember that we are entirely human and entirely able to ask for help, to learn, and grow from hard truths, and this was a lesson that I feel God used my profession to teach me.”
I learned even more when I started work as a research assistant in a paediatric intensive care unit (PICU). Working in PICU as a research assistant, essentially having to talk to parents who are experiencing the worst days of their life if they want to be part of a research project, felt daunting. If a parent told me to “**** off,” my first reaction would usually be instant acceptance and ‘fair enough’, because it feels invasive to be entering that space when a family is experiencing that amount of distress and sadness. If I’m honest, at first it feels scary to approach people who are grieving (it could be the grief of a poor prognosis; the grief of a level of quality of life that their child has lost; or the grief of being admitted to the PICU which is a scary and unnatural place).
I had a colleague and friend with whom I worked several rostered days every week. As was our routine, we would spend the morning screening the patients in the unit, identifying those potentially eligible for studies, and then plan the day from there. Some days it would be quiet, so we’d use the time completing documentation and data entry, and would have a lot of time to talk. My friend had grown up in a Catholic family and attended an all-girls Catholic school, but had come out as bisexual in her early thirties and could not find a way that her two worlds could co-exist. She knew I was Christian, and so we often had conversations about life and religion. Once, when I asked about coming out to Christian friends, she told me that she came out to her family last of all the people that she knew, because it’s easy to come out in conversations with strangers – that was of no consequence – but harder with people who you value the response of, and care about.
One day, we were completing data entry and chatting about some long-term patients with poor prognoses at the time. Those who have worked in a critical environment know that sometimes death, while still a taboo topic in our culture, can be a merciful release to ongoing suffering. Most clinicians I work with, regardless of background, wish their patients to rest in peace when that moment comes (whether the patients identify as Christian or not).
One day, my colleague and I were having a conversation along those lines, when she suddenly turned to me, while indicating to a patient on our ward who had passed away, saying “See? This is why God isn’t real. Because babies die.” I will be honest – I didn’t have a perfectly prepared answer up my sleeve to this. I sat in stunned silence for a second or so before responding with, “It’s so sad.” I don’t think it was the ideal answer, but it was a starting point for our subsequent conversation and it validated that I shared her view on pain and death (especially among young patients) as needlessly sad and heartbreaking.
As Christians, I think we have more reason than most to agree that the world is broken, without negating the truth and hope within us. I have found while working with colleagues who know I am a Christian, there are many times my response is tested, and I have had many conversations about God, life and death, without explicitly having to bring it up myself. I have also found that not being blind to the suffering of the world does more for people who are testing my Christian response than anything else. The world needs more Christians who are attuned to the suffering of the world and who feel the weight of that, rather than looking away.
A few years ago, I picked up a book, “On Death and Dying“, by psychiatrist Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.1 You might know it better by its content: the five stages of grief. Dr Kubler-Ross had used these stages of grief as a purely observational model to tell the stories of individuals as they experienced the grief of their own end-of-life period. It is deeply profound, and the stories are so special that I feel they have to be read and witnessed first-hand, rather than simply hearing about the concept. However, as with many clinical and scientific topics taken out of context and applied incorrectly, as a society we have turned it into a five-step self-help plan to get through grief. I feel that this is particularly because the finality of death is a big, scary, taboo that we don’t readily talk about as adults, or teach well to our children. I know people who were told as a child that a loved one who has passed away had euphemistically “gone on a trip”. When we make talking about death and dying a taboo, we rob ourselves of the experience of grieving that every human is entitled to have when losing a loved one, and our society is the poorer for it.’.” When we make talking about death and dying a taboo, we rob ourselves of the experience of grieving that every human is entitled to have when losing a loved one, and our society is the poorer for it.
More recently, David Kessler, who worked with Dr Kubler-Ross on her books, presented “finding meaning” as the sixth stage of grief.2 Having worked in PICU, I now know this to be deeply true. Why did parents, experiencing the worst days of their lives, want to be part of my research studies? Because they wanted to contribute to something bigger than the challenges they faced right at that moment. Rather than passively waiting each day to know what they could do (because being a parent in PICU means having your own parental role of carer and protector taken away from you), they wanted to take control of what they could, and find meaning in their experience.
As a Christian, I think there is a small, but incredibly crucial distinction between meaning-making and grief. Meaning is not in the grief. There is no meaning in the loved one passing away; or a type of life expected to happen that can no longer happen; or infertility (referred to as “disenfranchised grief” by author Brene Brown)3; or even unacknowledged grief, such as a lost (prior) worldview. There is meaning beside us, lovingly leading us through grief – now and for the rest of our lives. Meaning doesn’t distract us from the grief or tell us that we have to thank the grief for the lesson it taught us, as if it’s a cruel teacher. Instead, meaning lets us look our grief squarely in the eyes and says, “Yes. This is painful, and there is life ahead of me.” If you read Dr Kubler-Ross’ book, you will see that of those who were most hopeful during dying believed in an eternal life.
“There is a way to find meaning through knowing the glory destined before us, that is hidden to the wisdom and knowledge of the world.”
There is a way to find meaning through knowing the glory destined before us, that is hidden to the wisdom and knowledge of the world. Not because it’s hard to find or because only particular people can access it, but because nothing of this world will lead to the wisdom of Christ. They are opposites, so one cannot take you to the other.
In 1 Corinthians 2:6-7 (NIV), we read,
“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.”
To conclude, through God’s Word and our own observation of society, we find that no earthly wisdom can guide us through grief. The difference in the experiences of grief between Christians and non-Christians is not that Christians experience less pain than others, but that, as Christians, we have hope to guide us through our painful experiences. This is an incredible opportunity to gently help and serve those experiencing grief.
Lori Anthony is a research scientist and public health epidemiologist at the Queensland Children’s Hospital, Brisbane. She is interested in parental resilience and ways to support patients and their families so that they feel less alone in an often confronting and scary hospital environment. Lori strongly believes that the way we show Christ to others is deeply meaningful and significant in the workplace, and can bring peace to uncertain situations.
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- Kubler-Ross E (2014). On Death and Dying. What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy & their own families. 50th anniversary edition. UK, Simon & Schuster.
- Kessler D. (2020). Finding Meaning. The sixth stage of grief. Scribner.
- Brown B (2020). Atlas of the heart. Audience Q & A. Part 1 of 2. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/atlas-of-the-heart-audience-qa-part-1-of-2/