New Horizons

The Grief Group

Evelyn Lauxstermann

Only a few weeks had passed since my husband died. My emotions were raw. I controlled them fairly well at church and at my part-time job, but I wept at home. A fellow worker who was still "working through" the death of her father encouraged me to attend a grief support group sponsored by her large charismatic church. The sessions would continue for seven weeks, one evening a week.

Before deciding to attend the class, I called the coordinator, a trained counselor, to try to determine whether the general approach and the materials used were biblically oriented. She mentioned the use of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's description of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) and assured me that part of the class time would be spent in Bible study using a lesson book based on Job. I figured I couldn't go wrong with a Bible study on Job!

Many years ago, after my mother's death, God mercifully used the first chapter of Job to bring me out of an angry, sulking depression. Job 1:20-21 tells us, "Job arose, ... and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, and said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord' " (KJV). Close to four decades later, during the long days of shock following my husband's death, God again enabled me to bow to him and say, however faintly, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away."

The Class Sessions

In the first class session, our coordinator, or "facilitator," introduced us to the study guide, Dealing with Grief and Loss: Hope in the Midst of Pain, published by Serendipity House. She answered questions, summarized Dr. Kübler-Ross's observations, and explained the ground rules for group "sharing," which included not being judgmental. Then she encouraged us to tell a few details about the death of our loved ones. Some gave testimony. I appreciated two in particular. The first was the coordinator's own testimony concerning her loss, and the second was that of a middle-aged man, who told about the depression he suffered for many weeks following his close friend's inexplicable death. He testified how his personal pain resulted in blessing as it prompted him to read and reread the Bible.

The study on Job began in the second session. The Bible study guide did not begin with Job 1 and 2; it began with Job 21. I could not find chapter 1 discussed in the guide. Nevertheless, I was attracted to "Hope," the guide's last chapter, which was based on Romans 8.

The facilitator also told us not to be ashamed to weep openly, since weeping was a natural, healthy expression of grief. She encouraged us to check out Psalm 56:8, "Thou hast taken account of my wanderings; put my tears in Thy bottle; are they not in Thy book?" (nasb). We also considered some biblical examples of godly men who wept, such as David and the prophets. Even Jesus wept over the death of his friend, Lazarus (John 11:35). Later I looked up Calvin's commentary on this passage. He wrote: "I do not doubt that He was looking higher, namely, at the common misery of the human race.... He is as much affected by our ills as if He had suffered them in Himself.... Herein He proved Himself to be our brother, so that we might know that we have a Mediator who willingly excuses and is ready to help those infirmities which He has experienced in Himself.... Christ's example alone should be sufficient for rejecting the unbending hardness of the Stoics; for where should we seek for the rule of supreme perfection but in Him?"

One helpful discussion centered around the first stage in the grief process—the mechanism of denial. This mechanism appears to protect us from unbearable sorrow during the first days or weeks following a life-shattering loss. The guide book pointed out that healing can start to take place only when the painful reality of the loved one's death is accepted.

I remember something about my own "denial process" following my husband's death. I was numb, like a zombie walking in an unreal dream. I couldn't quite "take in" the idea that he was dead. Yet, by God's grace, I remained spiritually intact. I remember saying, "Thy will be done," and accepting, at least intellectually, that everything the sovereign Lord does is wise and right.

Reservations

I had more than one reservation about the grief group. First of all, I was disappointed in the Bible study guide. It did not provide any background information on the book of Job or treat its text in order. Instead, chapter after chapter, Kübler-Ross's stages of grief were treated in order. Texts from Job were presented, but had been selected to fit Kübler-Ross's psychologically orientated views.

Second, I wondered how the unchecked ventilation of self-pitying attitudes could be conducive to genuine healing. Isn't that conducive to depression? On the other hand, I couldn't throw stones. While listening to others, I was driven to examine my own self-pity and to seek out Elisabeth Elliot's opinion on the subject: "I try to refuse self-pity. I know of nothing more paralyzing, more deadly, than self-pity.... (It) can drag you down because you have chosen to sink" (Facing the Death of Someone You Love, p. 8).

There was another problem that caused me to skip one session. Two sessions were spent on the stage of anger. While it is true that feelings of anger need to be acknowledged, I really have reservations about free, unchecked, repeated expressions of angry, bitter thoughts. Can that promote healing? It might, perhaps, if it brings those feelings out into the open and leads to confessing them to the Lord. Since I skipped the second session on anger, I must be fair—perhaps it was then that the anger expressed was taken to the Lord for his cleansing. I hope so.

When we suspect that we are harboring a deep, angry hurt, I wonder if we shouldn't ask ourselves, "What or who is the real object of our anger?" If we find that we resent our loved ones for dying, isn't that illogical? If we fume against the doctor for not curing our loved ones, is that profitable? Suppose the anger is directed at God—"God is so unfair to let this happen! I don't deserve this, etc." But what about Hebrews 11 and 12:15, and Ephesians 4:30 and its context?

I wonder, also, about the intense, introspective focus on the thought processes expected in each of Kübler-Ross's stages. Might some people be led to believe that they are not "normal" if they don't experience every stage and in the proper order? Might some even dredge up feelings to accommodate the leader's expectations?

Finally, I do not remember any time when the Bible was opened for direction. The directive type of counseling, which includes biblical correction (recommended by the Christian counselor Jay Adams), was lacking for the most part.

Is there anything more profitable to us than the guidance that God gives in his revelation? Where else do we discover God's rules for living and his gracious promises for our comfort and hope? From what other source can we learn who he is—the all-wise, sovereign, good, and just Lord? Until we begin to comprehend, however poorly, who he is (by means of the Spirit working through his Word), how can we hope to begin to react like Job in Job 1?

Mrs. Lauxstermann is a member of Grace OPC in Vienna, Va. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 1997.

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