Grief and Groceries: What To Do When Grief Is Unexpected

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We Methodists don’t “believe” in backsliding, as some have accused us, but we’re honest enough to confess a fact when it stares us in the face, and we’re sensitive enough to our spiritual condition that we can tell the difference.

My Grandma Arnold passed away last month after a valiant battle with cancer. Her death came on the heels of a messy 2014 – a year that, for me, was littered with fractured friendships, unmet expectations, and the diagnosis of a heart condition.

I was honored to deliver the eulogy at my grandmother’s funeral. I stood in front of a packed church sanctuary and weaved together stories of a woman who always kept her kitchen cabinets well-stocked with Hershey’s Kisses for her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren; who was never afraid to express her opinion; and who loved her church, her family, and her Savior with all that she had.

Much to everyone’s surprise, including my own, I navigated the visitation, the memorial service, and the burial with my composure intact. As I flew from southeast Alabama back to the Bluegrass that night, I patted myself on the back for my stoicism. Once I got home, I threw myself into scheduling clients at my counseling practice and teaching a developmental psychology course at my alma mater.

I’ve spent the past three weeks reassuring everyone that my grandmother has achieved ultimate healing, that she is in a much better place, and that I am handling my grief just fine. But today, as I stood in Aisle 6 of my neighborhood grocery store surrounded by heart-shaped candy boxes, larger-than-life stuffed animals, and ridiculously overpriced flowers, I came face-to-face with the cold, hard truth that I am not fine. My chest tightened and my heart pounded as waves of deep sadness and anger rolled over me.

Heartache and loss aren’t supposed to be part of the game.

Cancer cells aren’t supposed to be resistant to radiation and chemotherapy.

Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people.

One of my specialties is family therapy, and every year around Valentine’s Day, I see an influx of new clients coming into my office for counseling. Couples whose marriages are disintegrating. Families being ripped apart by a teenager’s rebellion. Foster and adopted children struggling to adjust to their new home. People who are overwhelmed with grief because their expectations for their relationships haven’t lined up with their reality.

In a recent Psychology Today article, author Matthew Hutson interviewed Barbara Perry, whose son and daughter-in-law lost their lives in a freak accident while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. Perry says, “While you never look for grief, it’s one of the hugest growing experiences you’ll ever have. It deepens you as a human being. You’ve got to find footholds wherever you can.”

I believe that God often does His greatest work when we are at our lowest points. I believe that He is constantly molding and shaping us into the people He wants us to be. In the three weeks since we buried my grandmother, I have prayed, read Scripture, and leaned into community more than I have in months. I have scheduled an appointment with a grief counselor later this month, and I’ve been intentional about calling and texting my closest friends regularly to let them know how I’m doing.

But on days like today, when I feel crushed by my grief and when my weary and wounded soul can’t seem to find a foothold, all I can do is cling to the One whom the Psalmist says is close to the brokenhearted.

The One who sits with us in the therapy office.

The One who stands with us beside the grave.

The One who meets us in the grocery store aisle on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

My hope and my prayer is that, whatever grief you might be facing this Valentine’s Day, whether it’s a change in your job, the loss of a close friendship, or the death of a family member, God’s love will transcend your deepest pain and reach into the most bruised, battered, and broken-down places – in your heart and in mine.

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Benjamin Arnold is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor in Kentucky and a National Certified Counselor. He holds a Master of Arts in Counseling from Asbury Theological Seminary and has received advanced training in trauma-focused therapy through the University of Kentucky’s Child and Adolescent Trauma Treatment and Training Institute and Yale University’s Child Study Center. Benjamin works as a child and family therapist at a pediatric medical clinic in Nicholasville, Kentucky. He also serves on the Counseling Alumni Board at Asbury Theological Seminary and is a psychology professor at Asbury University.

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