Where should we put grief? To what category of struggles does it belong? To what emotional or relational struggles is grief most akin?

For a long time I put it in the basket of emotional struggles. I grouped it together with things like depression, anxiety, anger, and apathy. Then, as I was reading Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide by Gary Collins, I noticed that he classified grief as an identity struggle. While I disagree with Dr. Collins in several ways about counseling, this reclassification of grief has been immensely helpful. Trying to process grief was not primarily about wading through emotional states like denial, anger, bargaining, and depression (although each of the emotions are often present in grief), but answering the question, “Who am I now?”

Consider a Loss

Consider the person who lost their spouse of 40 years, their job of 30 years, the freedom to move about freely due to injury, or their innocence to abuse.

  • How does this now person introduce themselves to a new acquaintance?
  • What do they now see when they look in the mirror?
  • How do they now anticipate the next chapters of their life story?

Each of these are identity-laden questions. They reveal ways in which one’s sense of self can be altered by a significant loss.

Identity, Not Necessarily Idolatry

As biblical counselors, we might read those questions and immediately have our “idolatry alarms” go off. But I would caution us against assuming that an identity struggle automatically means we love someone or something more than God.

We can experience uncertainty without a false view of God being at fault. Faith does not make us into emotional-Teflon; that would be stoicism, not Christianity. Read the Psalms; they’re an emotional mess at times.

Think about how relationships, health, and the freedom of choice (which abuse takes away) impact your sense of identity and normalcy.

  • How many of your decisions are made mindlessly on the basis of your marriage, children, and occupation?
  • How many decisions do you never consider because of your health and expectation that you have control over your immediate environment?

You don’t have to worship those things (relationships, health, or safety) in order to admit that your life would be remarkably different if any of those things were removed. Conversations, daydreaming, mundane events, and various forms of planning which were previously mindless would suddenly become points of pain, challenge, or intense emotion.

Chances are you wouldn’t just be sad or angry, but also disoriented.

Two Types of Disorientation

You can become disoriented in two ways. First, you can become disoriented by not knowing where you want to go. If the aim of your life is no longer Christ, that would be idolatry. But that is not necessarily what is happening during grief because that’s not the only form disorientation can take.

Second, you can become disoriented by losing a sense of where you are. You know where you want to go, but you cannot find your bearings to figure out which way that is from “here.” To illustrate this with personal examples…

  • … a large piece of what it means for me to love God is to love my wife as Christ loved the church. If she died, I would be lost for a while.
  • … a large part of my day is spent serving as a pastor. If I was relieved of those duties, “my week” would become a phrase with much less meaning.
  • … I have a sound body and safe environment in which to live. If my body became impaired or my surroundings unsafe, it would take me a while to adjust to this new way of life.

In each case, I pray I would still value Christ most, but I’m pretty sure I would be confused about what life ought to look  like now for an extended period of time.

As I wrestled with the wrongness of death (1 Corinthians 15:26), the emptiness of the loss of a good calling (1 Timothy 3:1), or the decay of my body (Psalm 102:1-9), I would experience many emotions. Doubtless the emotions would come in mingled waves of varying intensities. I pray I would take each of these emotions to God in prayer, but I think I would pray with the raw honesty we find in the Psalms.

Identity, Emotions, and Hope

Yet, these emotions would each, in their own way, be begging for an answer to the same question, “Who am I now?” It would be an appropriate time to ask that question. It would mark a major transition in how my call to love God and love others was lived out.

There is no time when we sincerely ask the question “Who am I now?” without intense emotions. You can’t ask a question of that magnitude without setting off major emotions (neurological and hormonal fireworks throughout your brain and body) that will not settle quickly or neatly.

I would contend that it is okay, even good, to experience that level of instability during a season of major transition. Unpleasant emotion and uncertainty are not necessarily indicators of hope’s absence. Hope is a product of where we turn, not merely what we feel. As Psalm 56:3 commends to us, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

The hope in grief is not merely the calming of four or more unpleasant emotions (denial, anger questioning, depression) with theological truths. It is confidence (relational trust) that God has an answer for the question, “Who am I now?,” that His answer is good, and that He can be trusted until that answer is known.

Tools for the Journey

So what would I recommend for someone in the early stages of grief?

  • Be honest with yourself, God, and trusted Christian friends about your experience. Find friends who are willing to be patient with you in this uncomfortable journey and don’t try to make your experience “neater” than it is.
  • Realize, that in light of Matthew 5:4, you will have to trust God with your tears and confusion before you will be able to experience His comfort.

Join the Conversation

How would it impact you in the midst of grief to look at grief as an identity question? How would it impact your counseling?

This blog was originally posted on the Grace and Truth blog of the Biblical Counseling Coalition.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Grief” post which address other facets of this subject.