The Unexpected Joy in Grief

Each January, we look with hope towards a fresh start. Like an empty canvas awaiting the first strokes of a new painting, the year lies before us full of potential. But what happens to those who have had so many hurts that they fear what heartaches lurk ahead? They might feel relief that painful experiences are now behind them, but inwardly fear that disaster will strike again. 

December Disasters

Such was the case for me after a few stress-ridden years; I felt knocked down by life when I was already down.  One year with chronic health issues ended with a frightening diagnosis and surgical complications. A few Decembers later, a tumultuous year ended with the trauma of running over our family kitten. The following Christmas season, a driver slammed into our car and totaled it. Years earlier, I had lost a pregnancy in December. Only later did I see the positives: When stopped in my tracks and brought to my knees, God captured my attention. I started making changes in my life in the ways I respond to difficult circumstances.

Little compares to the grief of losing a child. My friend, Gary Claassen, lost his wife and eight-year old son in a tragic accident while visiting relatives at Christmastime. Where was God in that moment?  In addition to the grief of losing his family, Gary struggled with the guilt of not having been able to protect them from harm. How does one recover from such a calamity and look forward to a new year again, especially when we hear hymns about glad tidings and comfort and joy. Does the Christ’s birth and the promise of renewed life in Him penetrate so deep a loss?

Amazingly, my friend started to find peace and joy within the first few weeks after the accident. To the outsider, this might look like shock or a sense of denial. To the believer, it might be the inexplicable peace that passes human understanding. “Even after the initial blast of sadness, there were lots of smiles-  and even laughter, increasing in the many months since,” Gary wrote.

Polly and Trent Claassen

The Hope of Gratitude

What struck me about the tragic, incomprehensible accident my new friend endured was his faith and gratitude. Gratitude for the paramedics who saved him and tried to rescue his family. For the parishioners who came to celebrate their lives. For the friends who lifted him up during the agonizing shock of those first days.  And thanks for rewarding new opportunities as he launched a new career in student ministry.  He has made the students and ministry staff his new family.  

My friend Gary continues to find reasons to give thanks: “Grateful Christ gives us strength together, as He makes all things new. For “intense fun.” For staying alive through a bad injury. For the students who care so much. For new relationships, for a birthday to look forward to. For staff partners who walk through the dark with him. For friends who acknowledge and honor emotions, who share “light and laughter.” He acknowledges the grief in life but chooses not to wallow there; he dances between the darkness and the pain, the light and the laughter.

How does one find gratitude in the midst of grief and purpose in the midst of pain? This ability of super-survivors is echoed in the book “The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success,” by David Feldman and Lee Daniel Kravetz, which explores the way that people’s lives are changed for the better following life’s unexpected traumas. This book examples how resilient survivors not only bounce back but bounce forward, rebuild their lives, thrive and grow in ways they had never imagined. In my own life, I experienced how a serious setback that had once overwhelmed me led to more growth than I ever thought possible.

Purpose in Pain

Gary turned grief into a new purpose that was rooted in the love of his wife and son and an abiding faith in God. Vicktor Frankl, a leading psychiatrist in Europe post World War II and a Holocaust survivor, also was strengthened to survive tragic situations by the love for his wife and for others. “Love goes far beyond the physical person of the beloved.” He did not know whether his young wife was alive or dead but it “ceased to matter” for nothing could touch the strength of his love. He continued to be sustained by her, while struggling to survive and to ease the suffering of others.

Upon his liberation for the camps, Frankl authored a book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which sold 10 million copies worldwide and was translated in 24 languages, illustrating that finding purpose in pain is a universal concern. Frankl writes “This meaning is unique and specific in that it must be fulfilled by him alone.” The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering that it entails gives him ample opportunity- even under the most difficult circumstances- to add deeper meaning to his life.” Somehow even in the midst of the concentration camps Frankl found opportunity to: treasure a beautiful sunset, find humor in a dark joke, or even forfeit an opportunity to escape in order to help sick prisoners. True love involves sacrifice.

Frankl discovered that it is the “exceptionally difficult external situation that gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself.” Rick Warren, pastor and author of another huge bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life also discovered this. Ironically, Warren wrote an Easter sermon on “What to do do on the worst day of your life,” and by the end of the week he lost his 27-year-old son to suicide. As he and his wife approached their son’s home, he noted the two words of her necklace “Choose Joy,” the last emotion could fathom at the time.

In Warren’s grief, he surrendered heart to Jesus and walked alongside Him despite unanswered prayers and questions. He accepted his pain and gave purpose to it from the very beginning, by becoming sensitive to the suffering of others, thousands of whom reached out to him following his son’s death. A December, 2019 Psychology Today article by Darren Edwards, Ph.D. echoes this sentiment. In Seek Meaning and Openness to Pain, not Happiness, Edwards argues that “making room for pain in an open and accepting way benefits us in the longer term,” and can help us become better versions of ourselves.

The Elusive Search for Happiness

Edward asserts that the fact that there is such a high prevalence of anxiety and depression in society suggests that happiness is not “normal.” In fact, he states that depression is the leading “disability” in the world, with 322 million globally suffering from depression and 260 million from anxiety. The more intuitive approach, then, would seem to avoid pain at all cost. We long for positive experiences and lament the difficulties that befall us and we look to ways to numb the suffering or find joy again.

Some try to find happiness in the acquisition of material possessions. King Solomon in the Old Testament took this to the extreme: building temples, palaces, and parks, and acquiring huge amounts of herds and flocks, precious metals, and nearly 700 wives. He writes in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Suddenly I realized it was useless, like chasing the wind.” Then he chased after joy and sought to cheer himself with wine. But self-centered pursuits and wealth did not satisfy him. Eventually he turned to God for meaning.

Western society faces a similar obsession with happiness. Author Shawn Achor, an expert in human potential, designed a course on happiness that became the most popular course at Harvard! He discovered that the subtle formula taught by parents, schools, or workplaces was that if you worked hard you will be successful and acquire enough “stuff,” then you would be happy. For many it remains an elusive quest. If we fail to achieve happiness by the typical standards for success, we feel we are doing something wrong.

Fortunately there our countless tools today for helping us manage our emotions. One book “The Emotional Toolkit” by psychologist and professor Darlene Mininni Ph.D provides tools on thriving and becoming resilient. The book was initially created from lectures geared towards women at UCLA. She wondered if the life skills course would take off: In 18 months the course grew from 18 applicants to 700 men and women, and students and colleagues alike were sharing the material with others.

Rewiring Ourselves for Joy

New York Times bestseller author of Rewired for Joy, Laurel Mellin Ph.D, tells us how we can recreate joy from within through the powers of neuroplasticity. We do not have to be born with a sunny disposition, we can acquire it! More and more research on neuroplasticity demonstrates how we are not just victims of circumstance or genetic wiring.

Super survivors, somehow, are able to write a new script for themselves, Tales of the Super Survivors. Psychology professor Richard Tedeschi, examines how shock and trauma disturb the recurring patterns of your life, causing certain individuals to imagine and create a better story than before.

Do the Strongest Survive?

We try to control risk, as if we can avoid a cruel fate with the right amount of caution, when in reality life offers no guarantees. When faced with the unimaginable we must find a way to cope. Philosopher Nietzche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Yet Halocaust survivor Dr. Victor Frankl noticed how the survivors in the camps were not those who were the strongest, but those who retained a sense of control over their environment and had a sense of purpose and choice.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread…they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms- the ability to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances- to choose one’s own way.”

This is the ultimate message of hope, that regardless of how painful one’s circumstances, life- and even suffering- can have meaning. Meaning can be obtained, Frankl believed, by giving back to the world through creativity and self-expression, interacting authentically with others, and controlling our attitudes. He noticed that the bigger the gap between what prisoners wished or imagined their lives to be, and their current reality, the more they suffered. Survivors, against all odds, found a way to keep going.

Stillness from Sorrow

How will you find meaning in your past and hope for your future? My friend Gary found freedom from despair by giving life new meaning, investing in the lives of others in loving ways, and changing how he reacted to his current reality. He built new community, yet he recognized:

“In the midst of rekindled relationships, reconciliations and wonderful new bonds, there is always this low frequency of sorrow as a constant undercurrent… until the realization that I could take ownership of my experience. Acknowledge what happened to cause the loss, but choose how I respond and how I now live. See the usual triggers, possibly never fully gone, and choose sadness for awhile. Or pause, take a deep breath, and choose joy. With this choice, at least for now, that harmonic seems to have stopped. It is freeing to have found stillness from it, Gary recently wrote.

When I once focused so much on the undercurrent of troubling nerve sensations following my nervous system disorder, I too failed to notice the healing taking place –  until gradually I began to make peace with my painful situation.  Initially I panicked with each new setback or trigger as the condition waxed and waned. I wanted to turn back the clock to how I used to be. Similarly, we are sometimes in a hurry to heal or we feel pressured by society to “move on.” As Gary opened his heart to live and love again, he discovered that recovering from traumas takes a non-linear path and that joy can be found again.

The Fluid Path of Grief and Joy 

“What would it look like if acceptance wasn’t the final stage of grief?” Gary wondered. “Maybe the final stage of what feels like loss- of a person, relationship, responsibility or desire isn’t  static all?  Is it possible that none of the stages  of grief are actually a stage but a more fluid blend of feeling. That we do not “get over” or even “through” anything, but instead choose joy in what is and cherish what was for what it was.  For two and a half years life has been a crazy mash up of happiness and pain, heartbreak and beauty.  One very intense cocktail. Hardly ever one pure feeling at times.”

That is the mystery of life: Finding light in the darkness and beauty in heartbreak. The light is made all the brighter for the darkness, or as Pastor Rick Warren said, “A bad day makes a good day better.” Some of us remain under a shadow: afraid to step out in faith and even face the day. We are mired in grief or fear due to past circumstance, and fail to experience the love and joy that life still has to offer.

The Joy that Lies Ahead

How does one NOT feel let down by God, or fate amid life’s “unfair” experiences, or avoid torturing oneself with regrets, doubts or anger at painful circumstances?  When overwhelmed by the darkness it can be hard to see the light shining through. Gary reflects, “Maybe it is about shifting one’s perspective to the joy that lies ahead.” 

What joy and pain awaits you in the new year? Often we wish for ourselves and our loved ones all good things in the year ahead. But life is, as my friend Gary discovered, an intense mix of experiences and emotions that we have not always been taught how to navigate. Some journeys we cannot prepare for, but may we all find an anchor in which to place our faith. Where will you put your hope?

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