Traveling Through Grief: Learning to Live Again after the Death of a Loved One
Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. DeVries • Baker • 160 pages • $12.99

"Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers," C. S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed. He complained of the awkwardness many people felt around him. "To some I am worse than an embarrassment. I am a death's head." In the last 50 years, we have made little progress in helping people through their grief. Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. DeVries believe that many modern trends like celebratory funerals, avoidance of the corpse, and attitudes that encourage people to "move on" can prevent people from grieving properly.

Working through the grief caused by the death of a loved one is no easy business. The difficulty is only increased by our culture's abandonment of traditional mourning rituals. Today, we deal with grief mostly in private. "Our society does not like to see people in pain," write the authors. Without mourning attire and corresponding routines, we rebuild our lives alone.

Zonnebelt-Smeenge and DeVries have written a helpful guide through this "detour" in life. The authors, who lost their first spouses before marrying each other, suggest five tasks for the grieving. "Healthy grieving takes deliberate, intentional actions coupled with time," they say.

These actions, which include accepting the reality of death and identifying yourself apart from your deceased spouse, are divided into more specific tasks. For example, they recommend not only viewing the body but also participating in the burial. "Stay at the graveside to watch the casket lowered into the ground, and then shovel dirt on the deceased's casket. This is the beginning of the hundreds of goodbyes you will be saying."

The recent Yale Bereavement Study confirmed the usefulness of such an approach for good mental health. Traveling Through Grief is short, easy to read, and straightforward, well suited for those on the tumultuous detour of grief.

Rob Moll
Associate Editor, CT.

You say that grieving is an intentional, task oriented process.

DeVries: Most therapists now talk about the fact that there are a number of interrelated tasks or goals of grief. That's what this book is based on. If you break a bone in your body, the body needs time to heal. But at the same time you don't just wait for it to get better.

Our work with a young widowed support group here in the Grand Rapids area proves that to be true. This approach gives them some assurance that, as bad as this thing feels, they can get through it. When you have a significant death experience in your life, you can get through the emotional pain and drama. You'll always have the memories. You'll even remember the pain itself. But you won't necessarily have to experience the pain.

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Zonnebelt-Smeenge: Coming from a Christian perspective, we think that without God, it's really hard to get through this. It's important to know that God understands and that God can handle your anger at him or your confusion. You're not walking through this alone, though it is a lonely journey. We hope that people will recognize that having faith in God does help their journey. They can grieve with some hope.

Are there issues specific to Christians that may make grieving more difficult?

DeVries: One is our fascination with heaven. We talk a lot about eternal life and about being in heaven, which is legitimate. But a griever should be very careful not to use heaven as a way to deflect the actual grief. We advocate understanding biblical lament and to know that though heaven is a real place, we do lament here. We are not yet perfect, so this brokenness is very, very real.

The second one is that a lot of folks think that Christianity has to be joy, victory, peace, and comfort. They don't accept the fact that you will have trouble in this world, as Jesus says. People traveling through grief should understand their negative feelings are legitimate feelings that have to be attended to.

Zonnebelt-Smeenge: People sometimes think a Christian should get over it quicker or easier. That simply is not so. As a society, we tend to have the wrong idea about grieving. We think that if someone gets back to singing in the choir or teaching Sunday school, to doing their old things, that will help them. Actually that does more harm than good. I think churches don't do a good job of coming alongside grieving people. Churches are much more available when people are dying then they are when people are grieving. A lot of people feel like the church doesn't acknowledge them any longer now that they're not a couple.

People sometimes ask, "How can you grieve, because your loved one now is in a better place?" While it is comforting for grieving people to recognize their loved one no longer has to deal with all the hardships in this earthly journey, it's not very helpful for others to initiate that [conversation].

It also short-circuits the grieving process to think that all that really matters is that my loved one is not suffering anymore. It's important to say, "I was attached to this person. I walked through life with this person, and I'm hurting in all the ways that this person was in my life."

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Grieving people have a lot of hard work to do. The more things that distract from that, the longer it's going to take.

Sometimes we think or we're told that our job is to move on.

Zonnebelt-Smeenge: Our world is so busy with people going here and there and having all these responsibilities that I think grieving people have to know it's their primary job to get through this grief journey. The grief journey honors the person who died. I don't think it's very honorable when somebody is done grieving in three months. It does take time, and you can't just rush it. We've had a few people say they did everything we recommend to get to the other side of grief, and they don't feel better. And we ask how long has it been since your loved one died? Two or three months. It takes least a year and often a lot longer

DeVries: A lot of people who want you to get through it assume that you are going to want to go back to what you had before. But you don't go back to what it had been before. That spouse is never going to be there. We often encourage pastors and members of churches to imagine that that widowed person is now a new person coming into the church for the first time.

C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed writes about how people don't know how to be with someone who is grieving. How should a church come alongside someone who's grieving?

DeVries: They must be present. They also need to be able to ask questions rather than giving advice or making judgments. You need to give that person a chance to talk about it. Grieving people need to have the capacity to be able to tell people who say dumb things, I understand you're trying to be helpful but that really wasn't helpful. If someone asks, How are you doing? A grieving person should be honest. If I am grieving, and I'm feeling pretty lousy, then I'm going to say it's not a good day.

Most people are fixers. We don't like to see people in pain, and so we minimize it. That's not helpful.

A trend in funerals is to have a celebration of the deceased's life. They have a party around a theme of that person's life. People say they want to be remembered for what they cared about and how they lived when they were active, not how they died.

Zonnebelt-Smeenge: Yeah, and that makes my blood boil. Our society wants to make it easy on everybody. We don't recognize that when we do that we're actually making it harder for that person to work through grief. Facing pain is healing. Avoiding pain doesn't heal. A funeral ought to be a celebration of the person's life. We are advocates of people giving eulogies. But it also ought to recognize that these grieving people are here who have woven their life around someone who has died. They're going to be lonely. They're not going to feel whole. They are going to miss that person.

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DeVries and I encourage people to see the body. People say they want to remember their loved one alive, not dead. But that really short changes our mental capacity. Just because I see my loved one dead doesn't mean I can't remember seeing them at the beach or at a reunion or holiday. Our minds are much more expansive then that. We know from research that people who don't see the deceased loved one have a harder time accepting the reality that that person died.

DeVries: When people want to celebrate instead of having a funeral, they're making the grief process much more difficult.

Related Elsewhere:

Traveling Through Grief is available from and other book retailers.

Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. DeVries are also authors of Living Fully in the Shadow of Death.

Similar CT articles are collected on our death and dying page.

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