Don Follis | Learning to grieve well is crucial to a healthy life

Don Follis | Learning to grieve well is crucial to a healthy life

When I meet caring pastors, I am reminded that the best pastors are great grievers. They take the words of Jesus seriously — "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted."

Last week, grieving was my topic at a morning seminar I presented to 35 people at the Faith United Methodist Church in Champaign. Pastor Sheryl Palmer invited me to lead a seminar I call "Grieving in a Forward Direction."

The seminar emerged several years ago from pondering the words of the apostle Paul: "Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15). It's like this. One day a parent came up to me with good news. Her daughter made straight A's. Instantly I said, "Your daughter made straight A's? Wow! That's the best news I've heard all day."

Now that's rejoicing with those who rejoice. That mom felt affirmed and loved. I saw it in her face. But there are two sides to that coin, of course. Life is full of disappointments. What would you say if a parent came up to you and said, "You won't believe it. My daughter got cut from the team. She is devastated." Would you say, "Aw, that's okay. She's young. Tell her to improve her skills and try again next year." Not if you were going to mourn with those who mourn.

I hope you would say, "Oh no, I am sorry. I was so hoping it would be different for her." How might that response make a parent feel? Probably affirmed and loved. If you both genuinely rejoice and sincerely mourn with people, the outcome is exactly the same. They feel loved.

Every time I present my seminar on grieving, I assure people that though life is unfair and never the same after loss, whether that be the death of a loved one, a divorce, the loss of a dream, the loss of health, a declining church in conflict or whatever it may be, life can once again be rich and fulfilling. And though the loss a person experiences may be 99 percent responsible for their grief, over and over I have seen people recover from loss by making small, correct choices (like apologizing, giving up resentments, offering forgiveness and remembering good times). These kinds of choices can open doors for people to live life in a forward direction and not stay permanently stuck in grief.

Simply, grief is conflicting human emotions caused by an end to or changes in a familiar pattern of behavior. Thus, a wife can grieve the loss of her husband of 60 years, just as a young mother can grieve when her child heads off to kindergarten or an athlete can grieve after playing his final game.

When Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted," I think he understood that grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind. Almost anything that affects you negatively can cause grief.

Now clearly, grieving the loss of a husband of 60 years is different from the grief of putting your kindergartner on the bus for the first time. That's why comparing your grief to others never is helpful. Both are real grief. I heard a guy who lost his dog say, "My loss is nothing compared to my neighbor who lost her husband." Saying others have greater losses minimizes our feelings, while saying you have the worst loss maximizes your feelings. Truth is, I don't trade places with you. I take my grief. You take yours. We don't compare.

Having counseled lots of grieving people, I have encountered a few profoundly unhelpful phrases. "Don't feel bad." (I hear: "I must not be handling this well.") "I know just how you feel." (I hear: "Wow. All grief must be the same.") "You can replace the loss." (I cringed when I heard an older woman say that to a young woman who has just miscarried.) "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." (Just every day — that's all.) "The first year is the hardest." (And the second, and the third.) "I just can't image going through what you're facing." (Well, try to imagine it. Try saying, "I can only imagine.") "God has a purpose for this." (Read Kate Bowler's sassy "Everything happens for a reason and other lies I've loved" [Random House, 2018].)

And while you are at it, be careful with your optimism when you are around grieving people. I heard a woman announce she was cancer-free only to see her friend jump out of a chair, fist pump the air and say, "Yes! Yes!" The woman newly in remission stared blankly at her friend whose optimism had run amok. People know you care. Let them lead the cheers, not you.

Don't trivialize or gloss over someone's pain either. "You're strong. You'll be just fine," and "You'll get over this in no time" mostly showcase your own fears. Or the worst, "There are people much worse off than you."

Bottom line: Be present. Listen well. Nod affirmatively. Keep your agenda for the person's recovery in your pocket. Use your best lines: "I love you," "I'm so sorry" and "I'm here for you." In due time, you may get to be part of the miracle of watching a grieving person begin living life in a forward direction.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Religion