Growing Through Grief: An Interview with Robert C. DeVries and Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge
Published by Calvin Seminary
Beginning with the publication of their first book, Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse, in 1998, Robert C. DeVries, Professor Emeritus of Church Education at Calvin Theological Seminary, and co-author Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge, licensed clinical psychologist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, have been busy writing and speaking on issues of death, grief, and bereavement. Both of them experienced the death of their first spouse in the 1990s and have now been married to each other for twelve years. They have written two more books on grief—The Empty Chair and Traveling Through Grief—and one on preparing for death— Living Fully in the Shadow of Death. Their fifth book, From We to Me: Embracing Life Again after the Death or Divorce of a Spouse, deals with reinvesting in life after completing the grief journey following the death or divorce of a spouse. We talked with Susan and Bob about their passion for ministry to grieving individuals and their suggestions to pastors and other caregivers who wish to support those who have experienced loss.
Forum: Why do people seem to have a difficult time talking about the inevitable grief we all experience when a loved one dies?
Susan: We like to talk about happy, joyful things, like birthday celebrations, a special vacation, or the birth of a child. We tend to avoid talking about tough stuff that seems negative and perhaps produces anxiety, especially a death. When we develop close bonds with people, their deaths hurt deeply. If we intentionally talk with our loved ones about dying and have the courage to express our feelings and say “good-bye,” we can feel good about having done that when the death occurs.
Bob: So we suggest that pastors and other caregivers help the dying person and family talk about what they think and feel about dying and tell each other what they’ve valued and appreciated in their relationship. Often the dying person or family both hesitate to talk about how they would feel if the medical treatment they hoped for didn’t work. Having a conversation with someone about their death before it happens makes the work of grief after the death far less complicated.
Forum: What do you mean by “grief work”? Doesn’t grief just heal itself over time?
Susan: Although grief occurs naturally as a normal response to loss, it also takes intentional work. Too many people say, “Just give it time.” Time is a necessary component—working through grief often takes longer than people might expect. The grief journey can last up to two or three or even four years. But if there isn’t a reduction of emotional pain during that period of time, the bereaved would benefit from some professional counseling. By “work” we mean engaging in deliberate activities that are attached to five specific goals designed to help bereaved persons face their pain and eventually disempower feared things. Facing the pain actually helps a person heal.
Forum: You mentioned five “goals” of grief. What are they?
Bob: These goals for the griever are interactive and nonsequential. Actually, each bereaved person must deal with them before they can get through their grief. Like David talked about in Psalm 23, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death—not over, under, or around it. One of the five goals is to accept the fact that your loved one died and isn’t going to return. That may sound pretty simple, but often a bereaved person’s mind and emotions can play tricks on them and keep them from facing the finality of that death. Even caregivers tend to soften the blow by talking about someone being “lost,” or “gone to a better place.” Using the words “dead” and “died” reinforces the fact that this person no longer lives on this earth.
Susan: Actually, the entire funeral process launches the beginning of accepting that the person has died. Having a viewing of the body is very beneficial. If the body is not available to be viewed, grieving will be more complicated. That doesn’t mean you cannot get through grief—but seeing the body, and doing everything else you can do to confront the painful reality of death, helps you move through the grief journey. Another goal is to express all of the emotions associated with the death of your loved one. We cannot suppress emotions very long—if a person stores them up they will eventually come out in many other, often unhealthy, physical or emotional ways. Emotions do not just go away, so those providing care and support need to encourage the bereaved to express them.
Bob: That is one of the reasons why we stress the need for Christians to lament— to do what the psalmists so often did. We need to know we have the right and freedom to wail in God’s presence, to ask God “Why?” and even be angry at him for a time. And we need to know that God understands. Even Jesus, standing before the tomb of Lazarus just prior to bringing him back to life, wept.
Susan: Another goal is to store the memories of the deceased person and place them in the past so that the bereaved person can eventually move on with life. This means that the person does have to “let go” of their relationship with the deceased, even while never forgetting him or her. An essential part of this goal is learning how to formulate honest, realistic, and balanced memories, and then store them where they can be retrieved. This does mean that they have to acknowledge that the deceased person is no longer a part of their present life.
Bob: So often we try to comfort each other by asserting that we will one day see in heaven loved ones who have died. However, the Bible is silent on that issue. It also doesn’t say anything very directly about the type of relationships we will have with each other except that marriage will not be part of heaven. The emphasis in the Bible is on the relationship we will have with Christ, the Lamb who has been slain. The form of intimacy and depth of relationship seems to be as brothers and sisters in Christ—and keep in mind this will be the most wonderful place and experience ever! We see this as all the more reason why grieving people need to store their memories, move the deceased into a treasured part of the past, and move on with life.
Forum: I assume, then, that the remaining “goals” have something to do with moving on.
Susan: Exactly. That’s what our latest book is all about. Bereaved persons need to reformulate their identity independent of the relationship they had with the deceased—another one of the goals of grieving. The last is to reinvest in life with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. When someone close to us dies, it is like removing one of the figures from a mobile hanging over a baby’s crib. The whole configuration is thrown out of balance. Grievers are then forced to ask some questions: “Who am I without this person?” “How has my life changed?” Or even more pointedly: “Who am I—alone, by myself? My loved one died. I did not. What are my purposes now in life?”
Forum: You had mentioned “getting through grief.” Can you help us understand what you mean by that?
Susan: What we mean by “getting through one’s grief” or “resolution” is that a bereaved person can get to the point where he or she is no longer in pain regarding their loved one’s death, and their life no longer revolves around missing the deceased person. The death no longer controls the person’s emotions or daily activities. But we make a distinction between grief, which refers to the more lengthy and complicated process that can end if it is worked through, and the emotion of sadness that can still be experienced on some occasions. We may feel momentary sadness from time to time because of the death of someone we loved.
Forum: What advice can you give to pastors and other caregivers who have the challenge of ministering to bereaved people in their churches?
Bob: We often hear from people whose loved one died following an illness that while pastors and other caregivers were there during their loved one’s failing health and death, they felt abandoned after the funeral. Pastoral calls stopped rather abruptly, or slowed down to a trickle. We encourage churches to develop an action plan to minister intentionally and at regular intervals to the bereaved for at least twelve to eighteen months (or longer as necessary) following a death. Church members will benefit by being informed about what bereaved people need to do in order to move through their grief. They also need to be equipped to approach grieving individuals, to listen carefully and take cues from what they are saying, and to support and encourage them to work actively and intentionally through grief.
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