You may have noticed a general pattern we’ve cycled through in this series: emotion, cognition, action. We’ve journeyed this cycle together several times. Initially, we seek to understand and articulate our emotional experience. We’ve tried to treat our emotions like a good friend that has something valuable to say.

Then we’ve sought to identify the beliefs that emanate from or would more healthily contextualize our emotions. Sometimes we agree with the beliefs that arise from our emotions; other times we have sympathetically disagreed with them.

Finally, we’ve sought to select God honoring actions that contribute to a flourishing life. Having a focus on how our choices impact our lives helps us resist the sense of powerlessness that so easily pervades the experience of grief. In this reflection, we are entering into a new rendition of the action phase.

As we do this, it is helpful to make an observation about grief. We’ve made many observations about anger, but as we seek to move beyond the anger phase of grief, it will benefit us to get to know a bit more about the more vulnerable experience of grief. Our grief observation for this reflection is: when grief stagnates, life stagnates. We feel stuck. Nothing seems to fit as a good “next” in our life. That is what we want to begin to change.

When grief stagnates, life stagnates. Click To Tweet

The key term that will capture this action phase is “experiment.” Give yourself the freedom to experiment again. When life gets hard, when our emotions get cloudy, and our thinking gets disheveled, our decision making often becomes constricted. We can begin surviving more than living. We don’t have the emotional margin to try something that doesn’t work. We don’t have the cognitive capacity to dream. We want to reinvigorate this capacity to dream.

Cognitive Experimentation

Your primary goal in cognitive experimentation is to give yourself “first draft freedom” as you explore possibilities. When you’re writing a first draft you don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) care about the quality of what you’re writing. That can be fixed in a second draft. Your initial goal is to get raw material on paper that you can begin to work with.

As you mentally draft ideas about what might be next, as you emerge from a stagnated hot-grief, allow these seven questions to be brainstorming prompts. Yes, each question has a positive connotation. That isn’t an attempt to make lemonade out of a bad situation. It is because we want to begin creating a life that has a forward direction again.

  1. Who are the people you enjoy and want to bless; individuals or group of people?
  2. What roles and activities do you enjoy?
  3. What causes are important to you?
  4. What truths about life, God, relationships, etc. are more real to you now?
  5. What talents and aptitudes do you have and enjoy using?
  6. What things have felt most normal or good during this difficult season?
  7. Imagine yourself 10 years from now looking back on the previous decade. What are the key things that would indicate you have been a good steward of that span of time?

If you journal, write one of these questions at top of each page and give yourself time to dream. Again, think first draft. You can scratch out anything you don’t like later. You are cultivating raw material. Your goal is to begin embracing the idea of a good future again. You want to turn a corner from life centering on what was hard (past tenses) to what could be good (future tense).

This is a common grief transition. In grief prompted by death, we don’t always notice it happening. But there comes a point where we quit measuring time with a past-orientation, “It has been x weeks since my loved one died,” to a future-orientation, “I’ve got x days to get ready for [event].” Here, it is not the units of time that are important, but the focus of our attention.

This introduces a common question, “How much should my post-grief ‘next’ need to include the thing that prompted my pain?” The answer to this question can vary. For some, the answer may be “a lot.” Perhaps you lost a child in a drinking and driving accident and raising awareness about these dangers is what you find to be a compelling stewardship of the next season of your life. But the answer may be “not much at all.” It may be that other talents or interests reignite. Give yourself the freedom to dream and explore possibilities.

Volitional Experimentation

If the key word for cognitive experimentation was brainstorm, the key word for volitional experimentation would be play or practice. It is easy to become inhibited as you move from thoughts to actions. When we play or practice, we aren’t looking for an immediate return on our efforts.

Consider the person who is recovering from a spinal injury. Their initial efforts at any physical task are going to be less than what they remember being able to do. That doesn’t mean they are failing or hopeless. It is merely indicative of where they are starting the next leg of their journey from.

As you collate your responses from cognitive experimentation into a plan of action, don’t hold yourself to the standard of how easily you did these things before or how much satisfaction you got from comparable activities in the past. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend recovering from a spinal injury.

With that in mind, start small. It is unlikely that you go immediately from stagnated angry-grief to satisfying life purpose statement. Your initial goal is to allow your ability to enjoy people, activities, and roles to thaw. It may be as simple as cooking a meal for a friend and enjoying the conversation that follows. It may be reading the kind of literature you previously enjoyed and taking time to reflect on what was edifying.

Initially, don’t let “all better” get in the way of “a little better.” When we’re recovering from stagnated grief, we can be our own proverbial child in the back seat of the car asking, “Are we there yet?” We so perpetually monitor our current location based on where we want to be that we drain the encouragement and enjoyment of the journey.

As you thaw your ability to enjoy a satisfying “next” for your life, begin to think about the larger purpose you want to live for again. Allow the smaller enjoyments to create momentum to jumpstart your larger dreams. This is where you begin to ask, “What does it look like to steward the next season of my life for the glory of God?”

If you have been processing this series “with” God, as our focus has tried to cultivate, then the idea of living for the glory of God is less adversarial than when we began. You have experienced his kindness and patience in such a way that sharing that compassion with others is an appealing possibility (2 Cor. 1:3-5).

If you are presently not at a phase where experimenting with the larger purpose you want to live for, don’t feel rushed. Just know that possibility is still out there for you. The Christian life is not a competition. God is not comparing us to one another for special favor. God delights in each of his children taking the next step in their journey. Continue at your pace and trust in God’s care.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Where or how have you noticed the stagnation of grief in your life?
  2. What cognitive or volitional experiment steps are you considering taking?

* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.