Things I am asked: What does healthy grief look like?

Grief is how we cope with loss, and it is my hope that I can help you through it.

It’s okay to grieve

First, let me say this: It’s okay to grieve. Our body can handle grief if it is allowed to do so. One of the ways we handle grief is to cry. Because tears have wonderful healing power, crying should not be discouraged.

Our bodies also cope with the initial stages of grief by producing a number of narcotic-like chemicals similar to heroin – powerful painkilling drugs that help create a numbing experience in the beginning. As the weeks roll by, (typically 4-6 weeks) the production of these chemicals decreases and reality sets in. So, be ready for it.

Christians are no less likely to feel grief than anyone else. We are not expressing lack of faith in the Christian hope when we grieve, so don’t feel guilty. Hidden guilt is destructive but grief is okay.

It’s okay to feel relief

It’s also okay to feel relief. Relief typically comes from three things: First: relief comes from the fact that someone’s suffering has finally come to an end. Second: you can feel relief that a long anxious wait is over. And thirdly: there can be relief that your life can return to some sort of normality. You are not expressing lack of love or being unfaithful when experiencing this relief. It is simply common sense… and you are being honest.

You may also be experiencing a sense of guilt that you could have done things better. This feeling is either untrue and you are being too hard on yourself; or it is true. It is sometimes both. If it is untrue: do an honest review of the situation and tell the feeling of guilt to “get lost.” Note: you will have to do this repeatedly until you have retrained the brain to think differently. That can take six weeks.

If there are good reasons for your guilt, come quietly to God and share it (confess it) to him in prayer. He loves you and promises to forgive (see 1 John 1:9). God wants to love you, not condemn you. He is a God of new beginnings.

What does grief look like?

Let me return to the subject of grief and tell you about what typically happens so that you will be forewarned. Here’s the sequence:

1) Initially you might not be able to take it in. There will be numbness. (Good old brain opiates in action)

2) Then there is protest, confusion and anger. In this anger, you might reasonably expect to blame God, others and yourself.

3) Feelings of hopelessness typically follow, including deep despair, anguish and depression.

4) Apathy, detachment, indifference, fatigue often come next.

5) Bursts of energy follow as you begin to reorganise your life.

6) Finally, you are grateful for the past… but you are now ready to embrace the future.

Often a mixture of stages will be present in the same day. It is also quite usual to go back and repeat a few steps. You are not going mad. It is normal.

Grief takes time

You will be surprised how long the grief process is. Again, let me assure you, you are not going mad. It takes a long time – many, months, (typically 18 months, although nothing is ever “typical”.) Grief only really gets going at the time the brain opiates go, which perversely, is the time some people start expecting you to “pull yourself together”, so don’t listen to them.

So, allow grief, weeping, anger etc. My concern is only that:

1) Your grief should not be too destructive. If you have to throw plates at the wall, get old ones and do it outside.

2) Don’t sink so far inside yourself that others can’t reach you to love you. This recognises that there will be plenty of times you only want your own company. That’s okay.

3) Don’t hide guilt inside you. Let it out. Share it. Talk it out with wise and trusted friends.

4) Don’t hide from memories and objects that remind you of the past. Healthy grief will eventually mean, however, that you don’t make a “shrine” of anything, but are free to get on with life.

5) Don’t make too many big “life” decisions until the dust has settled, i.e. it’s probably not a good idea to decide to move to America in the next year or so!

Be aware that your body might do odd things. You may not eat very much etc. This is normal. However, don’t let it get too bad. You need to ensure that you drink enough to be hydrated and eat enough to have the energy to function.

Good grief is healing

Finally, many of your family and friends may not know how best to help you in your grief. They too will be in grief… and will be grieving for you. They will say the wrong thing sometimes. Forgive them, and understand.

One of the best things you can do is to tell stories, both funny and sad, of what you once did together. Tell them to your family, and tell them to your friends.

Good grief is both healing and possible.


Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at

Nick told his life story to Eternity in ‘Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith‘.