by Barb Hill
“I just didn’t think life would look like this. It all feels so painful and overwhelming.” My client slowly closes their eyes as tears stream down their face. I watch intently as they reach for the tissues sitting on the coffee table in front of us. Since it’s a new box I opened that morning, my client struggles to pull out a fresh tissue. A frustrated expression flashes across their face and they let out an exasperated sigh as if to say, “Well, of course, I even have to fight with this stupid tissue box to wipe these tears from my face.” I feel for them and wish I had accounted for this tissue box malfunction so my client didn’t have to feel any more frustration than they already did.
I take a deep breath to regulate my own heart and body as I feel the pain radiating off my client’s heart and into the space we’re sharing. After a while I say, “It sounds like you’re experiencing grief.” They look up at me with an expression that relays both surprise and relief. Surprise, because they didn’t expect to have their feelings summarized in one word, and relief, because it described their experience to a “t”.
I go on and say, “It also sounds like you might be feeling disappointed. I wonder if that is also a part of the grief you’re experiencing. Does that feel true to you?” This suggestion causes them to pause even longer this time. They look out the large window to their left for a few moments, and when they return their gaze to mine they say, “Yes, I think that’s right. I do feel disappointed.” And as they say this, their face flushes with pain, and their eyes fill with tears again.
As a therapist and fellow human, I understand that disappointment is an inevitable part of grief. When our experiences fall painfully short of our expectations we feel the sting of disappointment and grief. Two stories in the Gospels come to mind when I think about disappointment and grief—John the Baptist in prison and the death of Lazarus.
In Matthew 11, we find John the Baptist in prison doubting whether Jesus was who he said he was. This is the same man who baptized Jesus, saw the heavens open, and heard a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” John the Baptist wasn’t above feeling disappointed though. He heard stories of miracles that Jesus was doing for others while he sat alone in prison. I wonder if he had trouble reconciling the discrepancy between his painful circumstances and the joyful ones others were experiencing. It was in this raw moment when he sends a message to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It’s not uncommon to view God through the lens of our disappointment. I’ve done this more times than I can count. When our circumstances don’t line up with our understanding of a loving and good God, we are deeply disappointed and mourn the difference between the reality we hoped for and the one we’re currently living. This brings me to Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. In John 11, Jesus learns that Lazarus is sick and stays where he was rather than rush to heal his friend. As most of us know, Lazarus dies and when Jesus shows up four days later, Mary and Martha tell Jesus, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” This statement from Mary and Martha is borne out of painful disappointment and grief, and is an understandable one at that.
As I have navigated my own seasons of disappointment and walk with my clients through theirs, what has challenged me most is learning how to acknowledge the reality in front of me without letting go of the hope within me. When Jesus tells Mary and Martha that they would see his glory, and when he meets John the Baptist’s message with more miraculous stories happening beyond his prison walls, he is exhorting them to hold on to hope.
What is it for you? What disappointing reality is in front of you, and what hope is within you? I would encourage you to bravely choose to hold both realities—the one in front of you and the one inside you.
It's a mark of growth in our lives when we are more able and willing to hold two competing realities—when we observe ourselves moving from an either/or perspective to a both-and one. I encourage you today to allow yourself to mourn and move through the disappointment before you, and stay tethered to the hope within you.
Barb Hill is a Licensed Mental Health Therapist based out of Nashville, Tennessee. She holds a Masters of Arts in Biblical Counseling and a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, with a specialty in trauma. She has a private practice called Holding Space Counseling, where she works with individuals and couples. When she isn’t writing or seeing clients you can find her sitting at coffee shop with a friend, writing, traveling, or walking her sweet pup, Nash. Follow her on Instagram.