Stop numbing your pain. Grieve your losses to experience true joy.

I just finished “The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery” and was floored by the insight of the ancient personality typing system and by the humor of the authors. If you want to take your first step toward the enneagram, let this book be it. It is so digestible, so applicable and so hilarious. You will find yourself laughing out loud at times and feeling naked at others. I discovered that I am a 7w8, which means that I like to avoid pain…which means I don’t process pain…which means I know nothing about healthy grieving. 

About a week after discovering this about myself, my wife and I went to Chiang Mai, Thailand for a conference on homeschooling. We have four kids and three are now in full swing at homeschool. So, you’d imagine how surprised I was when the plenary speakers were counselors who spoke on marriage, grace and grieving. I looked at my wife and asked, “Are we at the right conference?” During the talk on grieving, I felt squirmy and tempted to tell a joke to lighten the mood in the room (classic 7 on the enneagram). But because I had just read this book on the enneagram, I was aware of this, so my antennas were straight up. “God, you know my address and you must be up to something,” I reasoned. He was. I’d like to give you the bullet point highlights of his talk and then share a personal story. 

The speaker, Jonathan Trotter (alifeoverseas.com), shared how common it is for evangelical pastors and leaders to avoid the healthy process of grieving. He then gave a list of unhelpful things that people say in the midst of pain. Things like,

1) Comparing with others, eg. “My loss isn’t as big or significant as his/her loss, therefore I shouldn’t grieve.” Every loss is individual and real and must be allowed to be grieved. 

2) Trying to see the bright side too early, eg. “At least,…” Basically, any time you feel yourself about to say the words “at least,” stop yourself. What comes after those words is rarely every helpful. It may help the person trying to comfort a grieving friend, but it never really helps the griever feel seen, feel known, feel validated in their loss.

3) Not allowing oneself to grieve separation, eg. “We’ll see each other again.” As if “seeing each other” was all there was to relationships. What about the loss of not experiencing life together? Of not sharing joys and pains together? Of not building more inside jokes and laughing together?

4) Putting a scripture band-aid on it, eg. “All things work together for good.” In times of pain, when grieving is the only appropriate response, Scripture can be used to silence and stuff pain on the inside, instead of giving it permission to come out. 

5) Expecting time to heal all wounds. It doesn’t. Only grieving heals wounds.

6) Saying ridiculous things like, “God is still on his throne,” and other Christian clichés. 

7) Trying to remind the griever to be thankful. There is an appropriate time to remind people (or our kids,…like everyday) to be grateful, but typically gratefulness isn’t fostered in the midst of grief, but can often be used to stop grieving. 

8) Saying, “I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. Even if you went through identical circumstances, don’t try to comfort someone with these words. All pain is individual and unique. You can’t know exactly every dimension to how another person processes loss. Let them experience it their way.  

(Another great resource:)

Jonathan also gave some helpful tips for those of us in pain or helping others in pain:

1) Say, “This must be really hard for you. I’m so sorry.” 

2) Your presence with a grieving friend is enough.

3) The Psalms can give us language back to help us through difficult emotions.

4) Say “and” not “but.” I.e., “This really sucks, is really painful, and I believe God will redeem this.” NOT, “This really sucks, is so painful, but I believe God will redeem this.” Whatever comes after a “but” usually negates the validity of what comes before it. 

5) Carve out time to process grief, even if it’s just 10 minutes.

6) Listen to that song or watch that clip that makes you cry. This may especially be helpful for those who have a hard time shedding tears. 

7) Crying is almost always necessary to properly grieve major losses.

Trotter taught us that failing to grieve can actually inhibit how much joy we feel in life, as well. When we numb the lows, we numb the highs, as well. “People who don’t grieve are flat,” he said. He closed with this good news: “Grief can expose us to the comfort of God and can help us consider eternity.” He also reminded us that God’s comfort never expires. God will never say to us, “you should have processed that loss decades ago…you’re too late!” His comfort is always within reach. The point of processing grief, according to Trotter, is to be fully alive…to feel life to the fullest. 

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Now for the personal story: About one week later, I was at home in my office feeling an emotional storm inside me that I didn’t know how to let out. Typically, I try to bury it under positive thinking, faith declarations, praise music, Scripture recitation, etc. (all the things you’re not supposed to do). This time, I decided to try and face this storm head on. I got down on the floor, on my face (which I rarely do these days) and began to recount things—anything that came to mind—that felt like a loss I hadn’t grieved. It wasn’t long before the floodgates opened. I was crying my guts out—I mean like heaving sobs—for things that happened five years ago. A litany of disappointments and failures flowed freely off my lips. And I gave each one to God with my tears. I don’t know how to describe this except to say that I felt clean afterwards. Not that I don’t have more process. I’m certain that I do. But, I certainly felt lighter and freer than I have felt in a long, long time. 

As I shared about my experience with my Sunday fellowship, someone reflected back to me their own story. Something she said really hit me: “After I grieved, I didn’t have to fix it anymore.” That is exactly how I felt. Everything I never grieved got subconsciously added to a “fix this later” list. Without intending it, trying to hide all of my losses doomed my brain to continually juggle them and keep bringing them back to my conscious attention. I always interpreted the reminders as, “oh yeah, I’ve got to fix that,” when it was actually just kept trying to get grieved properly. For some of the issues, my intentions were heroic, like fixing worldwide problems so no one ever gets hurt again (fixing theology, fixing the Church, fixing economic and political divides, etc.). So, I discovered that failing to grieve fed the flames of anger and control, because the issues became justice issues that I needed to solve. After grieving, I felt a huge weight lifted off of me. I still want to make a difference in the world for good, but I finally feel like I can do it from a spirit of compassion, rather than from a wounded spirit of anger. 

This feels more significant and monumental than I probably even realize at the moment. But for all you 7s on the enneagram out there (or others), I encourage you to take some time to acknowledge the things that have not gone according to plan and to grieve each one accordingly. It may not be easy, but it is totally worth it. If you'd like to read more about this, I found this article helpful: www.alifeoverseas.com/naming-your-grief-and-finding-an-answer/