Learning to Accept Loss

How do we make sense of loss?

Last year, wildfires came down from the Smoky Mountains and consumed Gatlinburg, killing 14, leaving hundreds displaced and thousands of buildings destroyed.

How do we make sense of such losses? How can we learn to live with the loss of a spouse or child or the losses caused by abuse?

It’s not easy, but we can come to a place where we accept the losses we have experienced.

However, it’s important to recognize that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss is something that takes time. We should not rush it. We need to be patient.

The case of Joseph is instructive. Several decades after experiencing abuse and human trafficking at the hands of his brothers, he was able to accept what had occurred and even see some good in it. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

But this didn’t happen overnight. He had a long road to walk. His experience at the hands of his brothers was a very traumatic one. The trauma was so bad that his brothers continually feared that the guilt of it caused them to continually fear that something bad was going to happen to them, “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” (Gen. 42:21).

They did not take Joseph’s life. Instead, they sold him as a slave to Egypt. Potiphar purchased him, but he was falsely accused of adultery by Potiphar’s wife. This landed him in prison, and he had no clear timetable of when or if he would get out.

Finally, he saw a light. He was able to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, and he thought that one of them would take his plight before Pharaoh and get him out of prison. But two full years passed before the cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh. Two more years of Joseph in prison!

During all that time, I imagine it was very difficult for Joseph to accept the loss of his family and get past what his brothers had done to him.

Joseph was released from prison because Pharaoh dreamed two disturbing dreams which none of Pharaoh’s servants could explain. At that moment, the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was able to explain that the dream was a declaration of the future: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph took the opportunity to suggest how Pharaoh could deal with the famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he put him in charge of carrying out the plan. Now, at last Joseph might begin to think, maybe God brought all this about for a purpose. If I had not been sold, I would not be in a position to do good, he might have thought

The seven years of plenty passed, and the famine arrived. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers showed up. They come to Egypt to buy grain because it was the only place that had an abundance of food.

I can imagine that Joseph’s thinking crystallizes at this point. He realized he had an opportunity not only to save Egypt but his family.

Joseph initiated a series of tests to see if he could trust his brothers. He wanted to see them not only provided with food but also restored as a family. The result is that his brothers did show their repentance, and family trust was restored.

But after the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers got nervous. They started to think that now Joseph would get even with them.

At this point, Joseph wept. I believe he wept because it brought back all the pain he had experienced. The trauma he had experienced many years earlier had left a scar on his soul that would never fully heal in this life.

At the same time, he had come to accept the loss. He could say with conviction: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Over time, Joseph had learned to accept the loss.

Joseph is not the only biblical example of learning to accept loss. Here are a couple more from Scripture:

1. David experienced that affliction had helped me return to the Lord: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).

2. Solomon learned that hardships could be discipline from the Lord that would train him. So, he told his son: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Prov. 3:11–12).

3. The Apostle Paul struggled with some “thorn in the flesh” that he asked God to remove. He came to accept that God’s grace was sufficient for him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8).

4. James learned to recognize that suffering could even be a joy because it could ultimately shape us into what God wanted us to be. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).

5. Peter, who had rebuked Jesus for saying that He would suffer, came to recognize the importance of suffering and see it as walking the way of Christ: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

6. Jesus Himself had to learn to accept His own suffering. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). He recognized that his death would mean suffering but that it would be the salvation of the world: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32).

The important thing to recognize is that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss does come. It just takes time.

If we are struggling with accepting loss, we should enter into the grieving process (for an explanation of this process, see my post here). We should not expect to be able to accept the loss right away. It will take time and grieving.

For those who are helping others grieve, let me encourage you to let others come to their own way of accepting loss. Do not be like Job’s friends who talked and talked trying to explain his loss. They were all wrong in the end. Job eventually did come to his own way of accepting the loss and to healing, but his friends had been more of a hindrance than a help.

I find it very common for Christians to want to give quick explanations for loss. We don’t need to do this. We just need to be there to help someone grieve and be a loving presence. Acceptance will come with time.

As we walk through the grieving process, listen for our own and others way of accepting loss. Let that be the way you help yourself or someone process it.

Throughout the Bible, there are a variety of ways of making sense of suffering. We don’t have to use a one-size-fits-all method.

The good news is that we can come to accept the loss. It may be dark all around you, but the light will dawn. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).

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