We have all lost something due to the worldwide pandemic: our health, our sense of safety, the freedom to travel, gathering with family, a job, or a loved one. While we are grieving these losses, we are also trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. As someone who grew up in a family riddled with abuse, addiction, abandonment, and general dysfunction, I am used to dealing with pain and loss. I learned how to grieve what was lost and the importance of moving forward at a young age, and now I help others do the same.
While I often help women who grew up in a dysfunctional family and want the encouragement and equipping to create a healthy, Christ-centered family of their own, the principle of grieving the past and moving forward into a healthier, more functional future that I share applies to all of us in this present time of uncertainty, tragedy, trauma, and loss.
Learning to grieve from a movie
One of my favorite movies when I was growing up was “My Girl,” the coming-of-age story about an 11-year-old girl, Vada Sultenfuss, who is raised in a funeral home by her single dad. Vada is best friends with Thomas J., a bookish boy. Together they ride bikes, climb trees, and try to understand life. Vada also avoids the reality that her widower father is falling in love.
In a tragic accident, Thomas J. dies, leaving Vada to grieve the loss of her only friend. I remember watching the scene where Vada crashes Thomas J.’s funeral. I cried as if I were attending the funeral myself — as if Thomas J. were my own lifelong friend.
“Come back, Thomas J.! Come back!” Vada cried over the casket. Oh my stars, I can hardly take it, even today. Our deep-feeling heroine turns to poetry to process her feelings, and young Vada writes a poem about the weeping willow she and Thomas J. spent so much time climbing. The funeral, the tears, the poem — all were a part of the grieving process for Vada.
Just as in “My Girl,” there are many reasons to embrace grief and pursue our own journey from denial to acceptance. Pain and loss were never a part of God’s original plan. Just as childhood death was never God’s design, neither was the dysfunction you experienced as a child. God grieves the pain in your past, and he wants you to grieve as well.
Vada lost her mother and her best friend, and the audience watches a young girl process deep grief. We wonder how God can ever work such grief out for good. Eventually, however, he does. He can take a sad, broken little girl, and teach her that it’s OK to feel. It’s OK to love. It’s OK to open your heart to possibility.
3 things to remember about pain
It might not seem so in the moment, but just like Vada, we can always look back on our lives and realize that even in the darkest situations, God always works out painful events for our good (Rom. 8:28). If we ever forget this truth, we need only remember Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross as a case in point.
Another thing to remember as you grieve your past is that pain is a universal experience. You are not alone in your anguish; everyone experiences disappointment, pain, suffering, and loss at some point in their lives — even Jesus felt it. He was despised and forsaken by men, this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend. As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way . . . and we took no notice of him (Isa. 53:3).
Finally, God sanctifies us through our grief. In pain and suffering, we can run from Jesus or we can try to respond like him and in the end look more like him. King Solomon wrote about this principle: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Eccl. 7:2).
If we accept the truth that our reality will look nothing like the dreams we’ve conjured up, then we can move forward and grieve the pain, suffering, and lost opportunities — all that should have and could have been — even all that might have been ours. But you won’t be alone with your grief — Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to comfort you.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (John 14:16-20).
In these times of social distancing, quarantining, isolation, and being separated from loved ones, it’s important to know that you won’t be alone with your grief — Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to comfort you. Take time to process your grief at your own pace. This process is not linear. Rather, it can often feel like a tangled ball of yarn. As you process and grieve your past, you’ll inch your way toward healing in Christ. Then, one day, you’ll find yourself experiencing a hopeful present you never saw coming.
This article contains an adapted excerpt from Mending Broken Branches: When God Reclaims Your Dysfunctional Family Tree.