"My wife's father was murdered a year ago and her emotions still erupt like a volcano."
I've heard a lot of surprising things in this ministry, but for some reason this one really caught me off guard. Perhaps it was the apt metaphor of a volcano to describe grief in the wake of a murder. Or the look of utter helplessness on the man's face, with a little exhaustion mixed in. Supporting a loved one through traumatic loss is difficult work, and he'd been at it for a year.
It wasn’t very long ago that a year was the official time period for mourning. Family members of the departed wore all black. They didn’t go to parties or smile very much, and everybody accepted this as normal. Yet here was this husband a year after his father-in-law's death, and he hadn't seen much progress in his wife's grief process. "She's stuck in the anger stage," he said.
He was referring to the stages of grief from death-and-dying expert Elizabeth Kübler-Ross — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. "Stages" is a bit of a misnomer because they aren't exactly linear. As a country pastor explained to me years ago, the stages of grief are like different types of wild animals that can show up on your porch at nighttime. You never know which one is going to appear. Or for how long it will keep coming. The process of grief is very personal, and each person is entitled to their own schedule.
While I don’t have much experience with grief and homicide, I do know about anger in dealing with loss, especially anger at God in the face of injustice. Anger of the “it’s not fair” variety. Grief can leave us feeling out of control, and people of faith see God as ultimately in control. It makes sense that we might look to the one in charge when things go wrong and take our complaints to the top.
This may result in laying into God with accusations or giving God the cold shoulder for a while. The good news is that anger at God can be a sign of our intimacy with God, even if it doesn't feel that way in the moment. Over time, that intimacy pulls us back in. Love pulls us back into relationship and heals the rift. This may include forgiving God for letting us down or acknowledging that we don't want to carry around the emotional weight of bitterness.
I never encourage rushing to forgiveness as a solution to anger, no matter to whom the anger is directed. But for those feeling stuck, it can help to simply be open — open to receiving the ability to forgive as a gift of grace. A very helpful definition of forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a better past. I think God would wish that sort of letting go for all of us.
Like acceptance — the final stage of grief — forgiveness of something deeply hurtful is about integration of loss into our reality. Not necessarily moving on but moving forward. The loss of a loved one may always bring pain. This is a fact of love. Another fact is that is God's commitment to us is unfailing and everlasting. So no matter where we are in the journey of healing or the journey of faith, no matter how much we rant and rave and rage, God's love holds us fast. And there is no safer place to be than hidden with Christ in the heart of God. (Col. 3:3).