On reaching acceptance, the family may be quite different than it was before the painful event occurred. Reaching acceptance does not mean that family members no longer feel any of the emotions of the other stages of grief, but they are not so immobilized by them. Having been empowered, they can experience increased self-reliance as they make the needed adjustments and plan for the future. The case of ambiguous loss can severely hamper the possibility of a family moving toward recovery.
A crisis can happen to an individual in the family or to the whole family. What is most important is to give help in a way that empowers rather than keeps others dependent. One must treat the person/family with deepest respect rather than taking over, under the assumption that the victim is totally incapable and helpless.
When an entire family suffers a crisis, its members often draw closer together through the common experience. In such a situation, each member mutually gives and receives support. The isolated nuclear family is especially vulnerable during such times, and the Christian community can be invaluable. The challenge is for us to be family to one another so that we can offer Christ’s love and support in emotional and physical ways during times of crisis.
Families in Pain Sometimes, a family feels the disruptive effect of an event so deeply that the term stress is an inadequate description. When family members have been hurt to the core of their being, they are in pain. Such pain has a far-reaching impact on the life of the family and, if not addressed, may continue from one generation to the next in even greater tragic scenarios.
Like the disciples who asked why the man whom Jesus was about to heal had been born blind, families today often ask similar agonizing questions
about their pain. Jesus firmly answered that the man’s blindness was not a consequence of anyone’s sin. Jesus then took action by responding to the needs of the man in pain (John 9). Like the blind man, we need the One who has the power to heal our deepest hurts. We need God’s strength to offset our vulnerability. We need a belief in the God who gives meaning and a perspective to help us survive and eventually get beyond the pain. We need to feel God’s compassionate presence suffering with us and lighting the way through our darkest hours.
By banding together, families can constructively work through the deep hurts of life (Balswick and Balswick 1997). In 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul says that all believers are part of the body of Christ; thus “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” It works this way in the human family too. When one person suffers, the entire family suffers. The responses of all the family members and the interactions among them during a family crisis need to be acknowledged and reckoned with. A family must not only look for their collective strengths in times of trouble but also deal with those weaknesses that prevent them from helping the hurting one.
Working together and placing Christ at the center, family members can begin a process that will help them regain wholeness:
1. Each family member should gather the courage for self-examination of his or her feelings, thoughts, and behavior under the trying circumstances.
2. The family should ask honest questions about how each member is doing, how each one is affecting the others, and how the family is coping as a whole.
3. Every family member must be allowed to feel the painful experience; the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear about what has happened must be acknowledged rather than denied.
4. Grieving over the losses that have occurred, the family must find the strength to relinquish the concerns they cannot control and to let go of past injuries in order to focus more fully on the present.
Families will be empowered to take responsibility for their behavior once they understand clearly how past events and injuries have contributed to the present pain. Family members often see how their behavior tells a story of unmet needs, fears, and resentments they are trying desperately to resolve.
When appropriate, forgiveness will complete the healing and lead to substantial restoration of relationships. Although forgiveness can take many forms and serve different purposes, it should never be superficial or offered lightly. As part of the healing process, forgiveness helps us release the bitterness, anger, and hurt that stifle healing. In some instances, forgiveness of self is the hardest part. Although forgiveness may seem quite an outrageous idea from a human point of view, with God’s strength and mercy it is not only possible but it will also prove to be exactly what is needed to bring transforming power to anguished lives.
Christian Belief and Response to Stress and Pain Our belief systems strongly influence our perceptions of stressful events and our ability to cope with them. The particular influence that Christianity has had in this regard varies over a broad continuum from passive resignation to self-reliant attempts to achieve mastery over catastrophe. At one extreme is a fatalistic view that misuses or misinterprets Paul’s teaching that Christians should be content in whatever state they find themselves (Phil. 4:11). Most Western versions of Christianity, in contrast, are very action oriented, emphasizing the responsibility and capability of the believer to take whatever action is needed to alleviate the threatening situation.
An example of the fatalistic view is the theology of positive thinking. It comports well with the societal emphasis on each individual’s ability to mentally create his or her own perfect world. Positive thinking comes close to promising a life without any difficulties, but this is incompatible with the reality of a world tainted by sin. To live in a fallen world is to experience stress and pain. In our humanness, we are capable of causing all sorts of burdensome situations for ourselves and for others.
Clichés that admonish us to “turn every stumbling stone into a stepping- stone” and to “turn scars into stars” must not be used to deny the very real disruptions families face. Rightly taken, however, a hopeful and positive view can help reduce stress and keep problems in perspective. To view scars as stars—that is, to change one’s perception of a painful event—is healthy when combined with both an awareness of the potential damage the crisis can inflict and a realistic assessment of how the family can manage with the resources available. Such an approach enables the family to take action rather than deny or be paralyzed.
The view that stress or pain is the direct result of a specific sin and/or can be overcome instantaneously through an act of divine healing presents another problem. In reality, most of the events and conditions that distress families, including alcoholism, eating disorders, job loss, parent-child conflicts, and illness, are caused by complex physical, social, and psychological factors. In a general sense, of course, all these stressful conditions stem from our living in a fallen world tainted by sin. But insistence that the cure lies simply in taking action against the sin in individual lives fails to comprehend the pervasiveness of evil and the role that social structures play in producing stress and pain in the world.
True, to deal with stress and pain, we must take action against the sin in our lives, but we must not ignore other realities, such as dysfunction within families, unjust economic systems, the oppressiveness of poverty, and so on. We must adopt a multifaceted approach that recognizes the complexity of the anxieties and pressures of life in the modern world. Awareness of this complexity will make us extremely cautious about claims of instant healing for the deeply painful experiences in life.