The Question of Grief: “Who am I now?”

28 February 2014, 13:00

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Photo credit: Charlie Johnson

Flooding in Drake, CO.
Photo credit: Charlie Johnson

Beginning September 12, 2013, the northern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado received more than its yearly precipitation in just a few days. Rivers that normally flowed from one to three feet deep were ten or more feet above their flood stage. Eighteen miles of Highway 34 between Estes Park and Loveland were devoured by the Big Thompson River, along with homes and property.

It is amazing to see the effects of mountain flooding. The destruction is awesome. Not only houses are lost, but trees and roads and lawns—everything that made the property a home. For so many people, there is nothing left but a patch of mud with whatever boulders were deposited as the water receded. Family cabins, built by hand over decades, were washed away. Collections of jewelry, books, guns, heirlooms, tools, and art were lost forever. Some who returned to their property were unable to find fence lines, landmarks, even foundations.

And the overwhelming emotion is grief. The sense of loss as we drive through the canyon is oppressive. The beauty is gone and the pain is palpable. People are trying to restore their lives. Some are able to rebuild. Others try to find pieces of their lives as they walk the ditches and riverbanks. So many are so unsettled.

Grief is the normally painful process of defining ourselves in the light of our loss. Nearly any loss can produce feelings of grief. We talk about grief with the loss of a loved one, but there are many losses suffered throughout life. A move usually involves the loss of friends, a job, familiar surroundings, favorite places, and settled routines. Broken relationships reveal loss. Health changes usually involve loss. All change, even a change of thinking, is intertwined with loss.

Most of us identify ourselves as a collection of the things of our lives. If you ask “Cheryl” to tell you about herself, for example, she may say that she is a mother of three, married to John for twelve years, lives in Kansas City, and works as a nurse at the local hospital. She thinks of herself in these terms. The loss of any of them would change how she thinks of herself and how she reveals herself to you. A parent who loses a child experiences grief every time she thinks of the one who is lost. A man who has suffered divorce feels as though he is no longer the same person. Is Cheryl the same person in New York as she was in Kansas City? Is she the same if she works at the coffee shop rather than the hospital?

It may be easy to affirm that a person is the same in one place as they were in the other, but it takes time to believe that when you have had to move. Places, and the comfort we have found in them, are important to our lives. Parents might tell their children that they will make new friends in their new home, but the children know that they have formed something of their identity in connection with their current friends and find it difficult to understand how new friends would offer the same. Very often the truth is that we are not the same when things change.

So, who am I now? That’s the question grief asks. Who am I now that she is gone? Who am I now that I am retired? Who am I now that my legs don’t work? Who am I now that my friends, my job, my church, my teacher, or my vocation is gone?

Then there are those times when reality hits us unexpectedly. We look back over our lives and realize that there has been much loss. As we age and our bodies change and opportunities slip by, we may look in the mirror and grieve the loss of what was and what might have been. Mistakes, accidents, and choices can be causes of loss and grief. Who are we now?

Not all change produces grief, and not all grief produces pain. Sometimes transitions go well and we adapt without much struggle. Some people are able to shrug their shoulders and accept significant changes without suffering. I have known people who readily adapted to the death of a loved one. I know people who have moved many times and have easily made new friends each time. Some changes are easier than others. You and I have heard people say, “I never liked that house,” or “I have wanted to change jobs for a long time.”

What’s the difference? Why do some find a certain change so painful, while others seem to enjoy it? At least part of the difference is the investment of identity. When I see myself connected to another person, or a place, or an activity—as part of my identity—then I will suffer when there is loss. Separation from a loved one is a loss of self almost all of us understand, and the pain associated with that grief is nearly universal. But the grief each one suffers is different in almost every situation because we invest our identity differently. It is not for us to judge the extent of another person’s grief because we do not know the pain they suffer.

Perhaps our culture talks enough about the stages of grief that we all should understand them, but I doubt it. We don’t think about grief until we have to deal with it. Forty-five years ago, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross gave us a way of understanding the grieving process. She suggested five stages, remembered today by the acronym DABDA: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. We understand that these five stages are not easily seen in every instance of grief, nor are they always in that particular order. Yet the model gives us a glimpse into the suffering of grief. Those who find themselves struggling with a loss might do well to understand this process.

As I have read the various accounts on Recovering Grace over the past couple of years, I have come away with a certain sense of grief. I see indications of grief in the comments. For many of us, the organization and teachings of Bill Gothard were a significant part of our lives.

To have these accusations, revelations, about the man and the ministry is very troubling. And I see denial (“None of this is true!”); anger (“I hope he suffers for what he has done!”); bargaining (“Well some of the teachings were good, even if some of these things are true.”); depression (I don’t want to hear any more, but I can’t tear myself away.”); and acceptance (“I am sad, but thankful that this is finally revealed.”). All of these feelings and stages are normal.

And it is also normal for us to look back over our lives with the grief question, “Who am I now?” Now that this has been revealed, who am I? Am I a phony? Is so much of my life a waste? Am I a fool? Do I have to abandon everything I learned, disavow everything that came during those years? What of my identity is left?

The wonderful truth is that our identity is safe in our relationship with Jesus. The very life within us is His. We are in Him and He is in us. He is our hope, our joy, our righteousness, our strength, and our peace. We are inseparable from Him. We are who we are because He is who He is.

That means we are not identified by what we do, or what groups we belong to, or where we live, or what we have. Nor are we identified by the things of our past—what we used to believe, or what we did, or who we followed. Today we belong to Jesus and our identity is in Him.

I am not an “ATI dad,” and I never was—not really. I am a child of the Most High God through Jesus. That’s who I was when I first heard of Bill Gothard and that’s who I am now. The fact that I made some wrong decisions or that someone I trusted has turned out to be false does not change who I am.

Yes, I grieve when I think of this whole mess. My family has suffered loss. My friends have suffered loss. The Christian community has suffered loss. I have suffered my own loss. And now I—we—have to go through the process of re-discovering our identity in the face of this loss.

There is a wonderful prayer from the leadership of Solomon. So much has been taught about this prayer for the dedication of the Temple that I hesitate to use it, but it would be sad to miss this very powerful and timely call to our hearts. I have purposely extracted just two verses from that prayer so we can see the desire of our Lord.

. . . Whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel, when each one knows his own burden and his own grief, and spreads out his hands to this temple: then hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive, and give to everyone according to all his ways, whose heart You know (for You alone know the hearts of the sons of men).
2 Chronicles 6:29-30

Take your burden and your grief to the Lord who loves you. Spread out your hands and your heart to Him and find the touch of His love. He heals your grief. He tells you that you belong to Him and you are safe. Whatever you have lost has not diminished you, because you are in Him.

Dr. David Orrison has been a pastor for over 30 years and is now the Executive Director of "Grace for the Heart," a ministry dedicated to proclaiming the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for all aspects of the Christian life. Dave has served in the Evangelical Free Church and in the United Presbyterian Church, and he holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Trinity Seminary. Dave has unique insights into the struggles of what he calls “performance spirituality,” as he has worked extensively with people who are unsure of their relationship with Jesus because of the burden of legalism and the hopelessness of a “works-based Christian walk.” David has lived in Loveland, CO for 25 years and is happily married to Alice. They have eight sons. David blogs on a regular basis at http://graceformyheart.wordpress.com.

All articles on this site reflect the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of other Recovering Grace contributors or the leadership of the site. Students who have survived Gothardism tend to end up at a wide variety of places on the spiritual and theological spectrum, thus the diversity of opinions expressed on this website reflects that. For our official statement of beliefs, click here.

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