Today I was busy doing the webinars for the 4 Big Lies that Christian women believe that keep them stuck, afraid and confused in their destructive marriage so I invited my friend and colleague Wendy Douglas to share with you her answer to one of our reader’s questions.
Wendy holds a master's diploma in biblical counseling specializing in grief and loss. She is a counselor being trained in the EQUIP group that Chris Moles and I run. You can find her on both Instagram and Facebook under @delightedbygrace where she writes about grief and loss.
Question: I was in an emotionally abusive marriage for 30 years before my husband passed away a year ago. You would think I would feel relief, but I find myself fluctuating between anger and sadness. I keep telling myself that in many ways life is better for me, but I’m not feeling it. I’m not even sure I believe it. (Financially, I’m doing fine.) My family tells me that it will take time, but how much more time before I feel normal again? I just keep thinking if I can make it through today, tomorrow will be better, but so far, it hasn’t been. Can you provide some guidance for me? I feel a little crazy right now.
Answer: Let me start by saying that I am so sorry for your loss. Thirty years—good or bad—is a long time to be with someone. When they are gone, your life inevitably changes.
Understandably, you are in the midst of a common human experience…grief. It isn’t a problem to be solved, but a process to be engaged. Let’s start by asking, “What is grief?”
Grief is a normal response to any loss. Everyone experiences it at some point in life. In I Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul points out that death stings, at least temporarily. It’s painful, and it’s normal to feel that pain. Know that it won’t sting for eternity because God has overcome death and ultimately – that gives us hope! But today, it hurts.
When you experience loss, you viscerally feel the emotional overwhelm; and the grief is either acknowledged or pushed aside. In the beginning the waves of grief come frequently and with great intensity; but with time and hard work, both will diminish. However, there will be times when grief will come unexpectedly and with great intensity because grief is not predictable. It doesn’t fit in a box. It doesn’t tell you in advance when it will come, how long it will stay, what may trigger it, or how great or small it may be at any given time.
You may be familiar with the Kübler-Ross model of grief which includes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, it’s important to remember that grief is not linear. You will not go from denial to acceptance and be done. You may not experience all of the stages, or you may go back and forth between stages. Even after you experience acceptance, you may find yourself feeling anger again. Just like life, grief is messy; so, it’s best to get rid of any expectations of doing it “right”—that simply doesn’t exist.
You see, grief isn’t only what happens to you, but it’s also what doesn’t get to happen. You have a loss in the present, but you also have a loss of what you thought your future would hold. And that can produce anger and/or sadness at any given point.
So, how do you do that?
First, acknowledge reality. According to the Oxford Dictionary, reality is “the state of things as they actually exist.” The best way to acknowledge reality is to start with the facts of what happened and then move into your feelings about what happened. What meaning did you give to it? In order to do this, you must be honest with yourself. Know that it is okay to simply be “in process.” If you’re angry or sad, acknowledge that. Perhaps you are angry because your husband’s death left things unsaid and unresolved. Or you’re angry because things between the two of you never changed the way you hoped they would.
One of the best ways I have found to acknowledge facts and feelings is to journal them. Get a notebook and start writing. Don’t write what you think you should be feeling or thinking, but write about what you truly are experiencing. You may be surprised at what you see. One thing to note is that it seems to work better if you write by hand as opposed to typing or simply speaking into a word processor. If you’re afraid of someone finding your journal, it’s ok to write out your feelings and thoughts and then shred them; but you definitely don’t want to leave your thoughts and feelings inside of you with no place to go.
Second, find some safe people. The burdens of life are too much to carry alone. You weren’t designed to do life that way. You will need grace for yourself, but you will also need it from God and others. Why? Because you need love. Remember in Genesis that God said it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18)? Love is internalized as you get it from God and other safe people. Look for people who are good listeners, who do not judge or try to fix you. Even if you decide to go to counseling or get some coaching, you need real life friends who will support you. If you need help in identifying these people, a good resource is Safe People (2016) by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.
Third, take an active role in your grief journey. You will need to learn new ways of being without what has been. You will probably have to do some things that feel uncomfortable, and you will need to ask God to help you to make meaning from your experience. You may need to go to counseling and/or a grief group to help conquer some limiting beliefs and get support.
Whatever you do, you must be active. Don’t just wake up and wait for more time to pass in order to feel better. If you had a deep cut on your finger, you wouldn’t just let more time pass, right? No, because if you kept going on with your life without addressing the cut, it would become infected over time. In order for it to heal, you’d have to act on what you know to do: clean it, get stitches if necessary, or put on antibiotic cream, and keep a fresh bandage on it daily. It’s the process over time that brings healing, not time alone.
Another point I’d like to make is that being in a destructive relationship for a long period of time carries its own grief apart from the grief of death. It’s painful and many times confusing. My heart goes out to you. When these relationships end unresolved, they can bring on what is known as complicated grief. I always recommend a good grief counselor in these situations.
Grief is the process of letting go in order to make room for something new. Death can seem like the end of the book, but many times it’s the pivotal point in a chapter where the story begins to change. The future is full of endless possibilities, and you play a part in writing the remaining pages of your story.
Learn from it; don’t waste it! How will you use what you’ve learned and are currently learning to write a different ending to your story and heal from the pain you’ve experienced?
Friend, what has helped you the most when you are overwhelmed with the emotional side of letting go, whether it be of a marriage, of a dream or of a person?