by Heidi Vermeer-Quist, PsyD
While we are preparing for Christmas, what comes to mind when I mention “good grief”? You may think more of Charlie Brown and his Christmas special than to a discussion dealing with grief and loss (remember, he says “good grief” quite frequently). Speaking of Charlie Brown, that cartoon kid was almost perpetually stuck in grief. Grief often involves the stages of Shock, Denial, Anger, Depression and Acceptance. Charlie Brown seemed to live in the first four stages. But do you remember the end of his Christmas special? Charlie accepted the most pathetic looking Christmas tree in the lot. He was able to see some good in that tree and ultimately in Christmas, even though so many things were going wrong.
Like Charlie Brown, one thing you can count on this Christmas is dealing with grief. Whether you are dealing with the loss of a loved one or every day disappointments, you are likely struggling with grief. How you work through your grief makes all the difference. Rather than getting stuck in a stage, try to work through the stages toward a place of acceptance and moving on. For example, imagine losing your car keys at a shopping mall during this Christmas season. Immediately the grief cycle will ensue:
- Shock – “Did I lose my keys?”
- Denial – “No way, they must be here somewhere!” So, you search through your purse, bags, maybe retrace your steps.
- Anger – “What did I DO with them? Ugh! Maybe someone stole them!” Watch out. If you have loved ones with you, you are likely to lash out at them.
- Depression – “What do I do now? I’m stuck. I can’t get home.” At this point you may want to hide, pout or maybe even cry.
- Acceptance – “Okay, I am not helpless here. I need to figure this out and find another solution.” You start to open yourself up to accepting the situation as it is and look for Plan “B” options. Report the loss of keys to security. Call a friend to pick you up. Find your back up keys so you can drive your car again. Pray that your keys turn up again soon.
Grief happens all the time. It occurs not just when we lose our loved ones, or go through traumatic accidents. Grief is a normal part of life. It is like the natural pruning process of life. But with pruning comes the opportunity to grow and learn to adjust. When we lose something or someone near and dear to us, we are challenged to grow in new ways. We learn lessons we may never have learned. In hindsight, though we still may not have chosen or asked for these losses, we may discover gifts of wisdom on the other side. The key to “good grief” is to go through it and not remain stuck in any of the first four stages.
Several years ago two women close to me lost their sons. One died after a yearlong battle with cancer at the tender age of 4 ½ and the other died suddenly from a fever at 19 months old. Two golden nuggets of wisdom these mothers learned in the midst of their grief and graciously shared with others include the following:
- Be thankful and don’t take our little ones for granted…and that really goes for all the MANY blessings God gives to us.
- Draw from social and spiritual support to get through the valley of the shadow of death. Never go it alone. Hang on to one another and our one sure thing – a God who loves us and who provides for us.
Recently one of my pastors shared this quote, “Hope for the future is the engine that creates comfort in the present.” At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus brought all of us hope for the future and His presence in our lives gives us comfort in the present. During this Christmas season, may you find comfort in the gift of the Christ’s presence. Hold onto hope, knowing that God is at work, especially in the midst of our suffering and loss.
Heidi Vermeer-Quist, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist working at the Pine Rest Des Moines Clinic since 2002. She provides psychotherapy to people struggling with depression, anxiety, relational conflicts, unresolved grief and adjustment, and personality disorders.