“You’ve Got to Go Through It…” Why We Can’t Go Around Grief

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One of my favourite children’s books is the classic “Going on a Bear Hunt.”  You may have read it, but if not, let me give you a summary.  The book reads like a poem, or a song, with a rhythm and meter as you read.  The refrain is: “Going on a bear hunt, gonna catch a big one, we’re not scared!”  Then after each of these refrains we see this family on their bear hunt hit an obstacle.  For example: “Oh-oh! A forest! A big, dark forest.”  Then comes the important part.

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We can’t go over it.

We can’t go around it.

We’ve got to go through it! 

Then we read sounds as we act out together going through the forest: “Stumble, trip, stumble trip.”

This continues with different obstacles. 

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I have begun to quote this refrain often in recent years, to the point that the words have begun to feel almost sacred to me, as extreme as that might sound.

Can’t go over it!

Can’t go under it!

We’ve got to go through it. 

I have said them at funerals, hospitals, in coffee shops, and in my office while passing over a box of tissues.  I say them to people who are grieving, and I believe them.

I say them because we have become a grief-avoidant culture.  I see this everywhere, and it saddens me.  A common example: “We don’t want the funeral to be sad.”  Or even: “We don’t want a funeral at all…it will be too hard on everyone.”  

Sigh.

How did we come to believe that by avoiding something we would somehow be able to skip it?  

There are other things too.  We tell grieving people it’s time to move on, or we encourage them to distract themselves, or make them feel embarrassed if their emotions linger a little bit too long. There is the common refrain from the broken hearted after a loss: “I don’t want to have to do this.  This hurts too much.  Can’t it just get better?”

This is where I quote one of my favourite verses of Scripture, when Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Amen and amen.  Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who don’t feel sad.”  Or “Blessed are those who get over it.”  He says: “Blessed are those who mourn.” Mourning is blessed because in it we find the comfort of God, and so starting with this verse is important.  

And then I add to it:  “Have you ever read “Going On a Bear Hunt?”…”

At first, they look at me a little strangely, until I remind them of the refrain of the story. Then they nod, because they begin to recognize in it the truth they are now experiencing.   

You can’t go over it.

You can’t go around it.

You’ve got to go through it.

The only way to the other side of grief (and this includes grief not only from the death of a loved one, but grief from any loss) is walking through it, though the journey itself is often rather twisty, turny, and occasionally leads you backwards.  We push and muddle our way through and and we also make sounds.  Wails. Sobs. Screams of anger at the injustice of it all.

The book might sound like this.

Uh-oh.

Grief.

Yucky, Sucky grief.

I can’t go over it.

I can’t go under it.  

I’ve got to go through it.

AHHHH!!

“I hate this!”  

“Why me????”  

 

Skipping grief won’t fix it.  I know you might want it to.  I know that it feels like there must be some path around it, some other way,  that surely someone has figured out by now a different road that you can walk that will spare you the crushing weight of loss and heartbreak.

I say this with love: There isn’t.  There is only going through it.  

It is not nearly as awful as it sounds.  Well, let me say that again – going through grief is awful…but what is not awful is what happens when you do. When you go through it, you get to another side.  You will arrive with scars and perhaps a limp.  You will be different, forever.  AND there will be healing and new life and the chance to walk forward again.  No amount of walking around or over or digging tunnels under grief will get you there.  Sooner or later you’ll just end up back at the start of grief and realize: “Yup, I’ve got to go through.”  

So, walk. Or crawl, if that’s all you can manage.  Lie down when you need a break.  Pack tissues.  Let friends who are willing come with you and hold your hand.  Cry.  Talk. Rage.  Pray.    

But whatever you do, don’t try to go over, or under, or around it.  And don’t expect it of others.  It won’t help.  Please, can we stop trying to skip grief? Can we stop with “This isn’t a funeral.  It’s a celebration!” – and let it be both?  Can we stop with “This will be too hard so we won’t…..” (fill in the blank here:  have a visitation, go to visit a hospital, say a person’s name, call someone who is grieving,  go to grief counseling, throw ourselves on someone’s shoulder and cry our eyes out….), if the only reason we aren’t doing it is to avoid the pain that is unavoidable? Can we stop with “Let me tell you how to feel better” and start with “Let me sit with you right in the middle of it?” Can we acknowledge that lament and loss and despair are not only a part of life, but a part of very real faith?

Say it with me:

I can’t go over it.

I can’t go under it.

I’ve got to go through it.

No bears at the end.  But comfort and healing and all the blessed things that are on the other side.   

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