Holding Space for Those Who Grieve

by | Jun 22, 2023

“Cruel people offer pity when they no longer feel threatened. However, kind people offer compassion and understanding regardless.”

Shannon L. Alder

When my birth father, Gus, passed away in December, I thought to myself, “I just need space to grieve.”

Everything had been fast and furious for almost six years. Prior to that, I already had an incredibly busy life and a demanding job. And then, I added higher education to my plate, beginning my master’s program. I fell in love with higher education and the process of growth and learning brought about by that. It transformed my life. Following graduation with my master’s, I went right into what is known as my “bridge” that summer, in an effort to knock out all of the pre-requisite classes for my doctorate. Most people said I was crazy to do it. Six classes in the summer. That’s 18 credit hours in addition to working full time and the classes were among the most challenging I ever completed. None of the classes were easy electives…they were high-level theology courses and more. There were times I thought I would crack. One day I texted my program director and told him I felt like I might snap and said, “If this is what the doctorate is like I don’t know that I can do it.” He said, “If you can do what you are doing now you can do anything.” He was right.

I made it through the summer bridge classes and moved into the doctoral journey. It was challenging, but honestly, nothing could compare to the difficulty of that summer of bridge work.

When I graduated with my doctorate on April 29, 2022, I envisioned resting a bit after work, and reading whatever I wanted to read for the foreseeable future, versus what I was assigned to read. I was ready to breathe. I had been under such stress during those years that I had literally lost chunks of my hair on the back of my head and had to do a comb over for my hair to look normal in the back. But, getting to the finish line was one of the best moments ever, and I sure wouldn’t trade what happened next for the world…

Twelve days after graduation the greatest miracle of my life happened when I found my birth father who I had been searching for most of my adult life. I found him when I was 55 and he was 91. He had never married, never had any other children, and he immediately received me into his heart and life. Gus became my world in that moment. It was like we were both living a fairytale. Although, the fairytale had simultaneous moments of spiritual warfare…

Five months prior to my finding him, Gus had landed in the care of Adult Protective Services. This happened because his doctor did a wellness check to his home, and he was found in a horrific condition. He was immediately hospitalized and after two months, placed in a nursing home. He was told he would remain there the rest of his life, barring a miracle. Well, whaddya know…a miracle happened.

I came into Gus’s life and started working on bringing him home with me, to Tampa. It was an arduous but expedited legal process, being that we didn’t know how much time we would have together. I fought hard to make it happen quickly and in retrospect, I’m never more glad that I pushed so hard for anything in my life. It made having what time he had left the best it could be, as we were together and I set about making the rest of his days the best days. If he wanted seven ice cream cones in a day, he got them. If he wanted to listen to Frank Sinatra for 3 hours straight as loud as he wanted, he did it. If he wanted his back scratched with special exfoliating brushes, he got it. If he wanted to hold my hand for hours, I obliged. I wanted to make him the happiest man on earth to have found me. Although we had caregivers for when I had to go to the office, I took care of Gus 24/7 the rest of the time. I knew nothing of caregiving before I started that journey, but quickly learned because I desperately wanted to. It was the most challenging new thing I ever tried, but the most fulfilling. In no time at all I was doing everything from wound care to catheter care. It was like I threw myself into the deep end of the pool overight and had no idea how to swim. But I had great teachers, and I quickly learned. I never lost the awe and wonder that we got to be together. Again, it was the stuff of fairytales.

And then, on December 6, 2022, he was gone. He went to heaven on what was, interestingly enough, St. Nicholas Day. (His last name was Nicholas and he was Greek.)

When Gus died, it was indescribable grief. I was equally grateful for every day we had together – that has never diminished and never will. But grief? Oh, there was grief!

Exhausting grief.

Grief as high as the mountains and deep as the seas.

Grief so life-altering it defies explanation although I am a wordsmith.

After almost six years of running at 100 miles an hour, I was ready for a break , although I would have done anything to have him back again.

Unfortunately, breathing in peace was not to be.

I couldn’t have ever predicted what happened next.

I do not exaggerate that the past few months have been some of the most stressful of my life when honestly it should have been some of the easiest. Aside from grieving, iit should have felt as if I had some space. Instead, I have faced some of the worst trial by fire of my professional life. It seemed like every demon in hell lurking around my work-life came out. I’ve served in my current job for 9 years and I have never gone through anything like the past few months.

There were some things that happened prior to Gus’s death (having nothing to do with my job) whereby I knew that once he died, I would embark on a forgiveness journey. I was setting that aside, for when I had space to deal with it emotionally. Keeping up with work, and taking care of Gus took all the emotional bandwidth I had. I was going to therapy during that time but it was impossible to process all of it in an hour a week. By the time Gus died, beginning to face those things I had set aside as well as the new things happening at work were like several-ton boulders to process, move out of the way and go forward.. I never dreamed that in one of the weakest, most vulnerable times in my life, I’d be kicked when I was already down, but that is exactly what happened.

Why am I sharing all this?

What is the purpose?

Learning is the purpose.

We need to learn how to hold space for those who grieve. There is a lot said these days regarding “holding space.” What does it mean? It means many things, one of which is to just be present – be there, for those who are hurting.  I’ve heard various definitions from being present to allowing them to be fully heard, to withholding judgment.

To clarify, holding space doesn’t mean a person is  exempt from having to live life, do their job, (unless they take a leave of absence.) But what it does mean, is that people are present, and if they can’t be helpful — at least don’t be hurtful. That’s the opposite of everything that holding space is about. Again, holding space is a judgment-free zone.

To hold space, we allow them to safely grieve, without worrying that they are going to be kicked while they are down.

To have the freedom to grieve without fearing that they will be sabotaged while they are most vulnerable.

Shouldn’t there already be an unwritten code of ethics that we do not strike out at people when they are in their weakest moments such as right after the death of a loved one?

I’ve been told by several close friends, “This high-level spiritual warfare is what the enemy does when you are getting ready to be elevated. He does this as a last-ditch effort to destroy your future.”

I believe that and at the same time, the fact that “believers” (quotation marks for a reason!) are pawns in this game, is still unfathomable to me. How are people THAT CLUELESS about the enemy’s devices?

I wish I did not have to fight for space to grieve during this time, but I do.

Every day I wake up and wage spiritual warfare to move the emotional boulders out of the way, work through the forgiveness process and move forward into the next phase that God has for me. Unfortunately, I’m not in a protected space. Emotionally,  I have to often stagger to my feet like a boxer that is down for the count, slowly getting back  up while I am steadying myself and swinging out with all my might to ward off the vultures who want to destroy everything I’ve worked so hard for. And then when  I’m done swinging, having sufficiently beat the vultures back far enough on any given day, I can then gulp some air for a minute and try to get in some grieving time.

It just shouldn’t be this way.

It shouldn’t.

Holding space for the grieving should be a thing.

From every life experience we lose or learn. I’m committed to learning.

What have I learned from this?

I’m going to do the right thing even when the right thing is not done to me or for me.

I’m going to hold space for the grieving.

I’m going to fight for them when they are in their weakest, most vulnerable moments.

I’m not going to be a vulture, and I’m not just going to stand by while vultures circle someone else.

I’m going to kick tail and take names on their behalf.

Because it’s what a Godly leader does.

It’s what everyone deserves but doesn’t experience.

As far as it depends on me, others are going to get that experience.

The goal of this post is not pity, it’s CHANGE.

So, the next time you are tempted to say something or do something that impacts the life of one who is a year or less away from their loved one dying, think hard. Think really hard.

Pray hard, and then pray some more.

Are you going to hold space?

Or is someone going to have to view you as nothing but a vulture they have to contend with on the daily?

I know which choice I want to make.

I’m going to hold space.


  1. Mari Karabelas

    From 2014…

    Some things need to be heard almost as much as they need to be said. So please bear with me as I share what’s on my heart.

    After all this time, I thought I’d gotten past things that could take me to such a painful place. I can honestly say I never saw it coming. Not the unexpected grief trigger or the tidal wave of pain that followed. And in the emotion of the moment I posted a prayer request on FB.

    I was so grateful for the prayer and support I received, but was shocked as well to see one response that was beyond inappropriate (apologies have since been made and accepted). The person didn’t know. He didn’t know what the post was about. Didn’t know that John had not been the one to post it. Didn’t know that I had lost a son. Or even that I had one.

    Mighty strong sentiments expressed over something they knew nothing about.

    It brought back memories of something else that happened not long ago. Some sweeping assumptions were made concerning my innermost thoughts and feelings, along with some insensitive remarks and opinions about my grieving process. After being reminded that I was “not the only one who’d ever lost a child”, I was told it was time for me to “move on” and further admonished to “let the dead bury the dead”.

    A rebuke of sorts was also deemed necessary as the “lack of joy” I had been exhibiting in public was setting a questionable example for other Christians. Finally, to further underscore how poorly I was handling myself and my grief, an earlier admission (about experiencing days when it was all I could do to get out of bed) was also thrown in for good measure.

    Less than a year had passed since losing my son.

    This kind of reasoning leaves hurting people with nowhere to go. If being unable to hide our grief in public and being tempted to stay home (thus hiding our grief) are equally unacceptable, what are we to do? All that’s left to do is to dig up our got-it-all-together masks and start wearing them again. Then, only after we’ve mastered how Christians grin and bear in public, can we safely put them away until next time.

    I could almost hear the words “Just suck it up, sister”. As if they’d been spoken out loud.

    This is just plain wrong folks. On so many levels. What hurting people need is sensitivity, not pain on top of pain. If grace and truth were realized in Jesus Christ then it’s grace and truth operating together that will bring healing and freedom. When we separate truth from the compassion and wisdom that grace brings, we have nothing left to offer anyone except more bondage.

    There are reasons why those who feel compelled to “fix” hurting people are called Job comforters. Thousands of years may have passed but these comforters are still very much alive and well on planet earth. Still claiming to know the Mind of God, still misrepresenting the Heart of God, their primary calling seems to be to judge, rebuke and correct those they feel are not where they need to be. And through it all, they remain unshakably convinced that they’re about the Father’s business.

    Rarely do they see the damage their careless, insensitive words cause. If they did, they’d be lightening loads, rather than adding to them. And they wouldn’t further break hearts and crush spirits already weighed down by loss, pain or grief.
    It’s time we stopped shooting our wounded and find ways to help them heal. We can start by pouring in the oil and the wine instead of rubbing salt into open wounds. And those with all the answers? May their hearts be broken for hurting people; and may a deep work of God’s Spirit move these truths from their heads to their hearts.

    The painful truth? Any one of us can believe we know all the facts or know the will of God concerning someone else’s situation. Any one of us can think we know what someone else is going through. Any one of us can think we know, better than they do, what is necessary, what is “for their own good”, or what is “right” for them.

    And this is precisely why we need to take a slow, deep breath and a huge step back.

    Job’s comforters were never sent by God. In spite of all their knowledge and wise-sounding words (and according to God Himself) they didn’t speak for Him.

    The good news? Our modern day Job comforters aren’t sent by God either.

    In the final analysis, if we let God be Who He is, if we let Him do what He does, we’ll be surprised to find that, with or without us, because of us or in spite of us, He WILL do what He has promised.

    He’ll just do it in His time and in His way.

    So when we encounter the pain and suffering of others, let’s all get on our faces. Before God and before allowing even one word to come out of our mouths. Then, unless the Holy Spirit gives us something that will truly bring comfort, freedom and healing, let’s resist the temptation to say anything at all.

    One final thought: Very few are more vulnerable than those who are grieving. Yet contrary to what some believe, that vulnerability-coupled with a willingness to be transparent about it-is actually more reflective of strength than of weakness. It takes real courage and character to be painfully honest, especially in light of so many who don’t understand or who can’t seem to help being hurtful.

    Still, my own experience has made me grateful. God has placed a special few in my life who’ve loved me through thick and thin — brothers and sisters who’ve reached out to me with genuine love and compassion. Like David, “I would have despaired had I not believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living…”

    Through all who’ve loved me throughout this journey I can truly say I’ve seen the goodness of God.

    • Dr. Deanna Shrodes

      Ummmm wow, Mari. This is unfathomable that someone would be so insensitive as to post that or say it to you. You’re not the only one who has lost a child? Oh. My. Word. I am so glad you have worked through this but I understand why it was so hard to do so. These are the things that make our journeys forward so hard!! thank you for sharing all of this. I believe it sheds a much-needed light on why it’s so important to be careful of what we say especially after a loss and while someone is grieving. Love you!


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