The Transformative Power of Grief

by Rev. Sharon Leman, MLA

May 2009

Rev. Sharon Leman

Some people jump to the conclusion that when the topic of grief comes up the discussion will be centered on sickness and death. While these traumas can be the root of much sorrow, grief is the result of losing anything in life that personally holds meaning—such as the loss of a job…loss of health…loss of a lifestyle…loss of youth…loss of a dream…loss of an opportunity…loss of a relationship…loss of a pet…or loss of financial security.

Loss is not just an ending; it marks the beginning of a new way of being. The adjustment period of finding comfort in this newness can be difficult. It is easy to become disoriented or struggle along the way. It makes an already difficult situation worse when a person’s losses are trivialized and not considered real by society. This can trigger deep feelings of isolation, compounding the pain that the person is experiencing.

Depending on the individual, it is natural to experience various emotions while processing grief. This wide range of possible feelings sometimes creates pitfalls that can keep people mired in difficult emotions instead of moving through them. Getting stuck in emotions such as despair, anger, denial, depression, etc., can be the result of an unhealthy sense of loyalty—as a result of which the person holds onto to what was lost, by clinging to the grief that the loss has triggered.

We are powerless to prevent loss from touching our life, and there is no stopping the tidal wave of emotions grief brings. Still, we do have some control over this process. A conscious decision can be made regarding our direction and ultimate destination. While allowing distressing emotional states to visit, the choice can be made not to allow them permanent residence.

Here are a few examples of positive personal transformation through grief:

Photo by Rev. Donna Belt

• In 1980, Cindy Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver as she was walking to attend a church carnival. In the wake of her loss Cindy started a national organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) where victims of drunk drivers could band together to promote education, legislation and prevention. Now, over 25 years later, because of MADD’s work victims’ rights legislation has been passed, alcohol related deaths have dramatically dropped, and drunk driving is no longer considered an acceptable behavior. (1)

• At the age of 14, J.W. Knapen began to have seizures and was diagnosed with three different brain tumors. In the middle of battling his disease with radiation, chemo therapy and surgery, a virulent, inoperable new brain tumor was discovered. At this point J.W. decided to focus on helping others with medical struggles of their own. He envisioned building a house near Kaiser Hospital in Santa Clara, California, where families could stay with their loved ones during long hospitalizations. He wanted this house to be a “home away from home.” With the help of his oncologist and friend, Dr. Alan Wong, J.W.’s dream became a reality even though JW did not live long enough to see its completion. (2)

• Between January and March 2009, Paul Ridley rowed 3,000 miles solo across the Atlantic Ocean. At age 25, he became the youngest person to do so. The purpose behind his expedition was to honor the memory of his mother who died of skin cancer, and to and help raise money for research to eliminate the disease. Speaking about his journey and the not for profit organization he founded, Paul says, “Here we dream without boundaries, without fear of failure, and without regard for what’s possible.” (3)

Loss is an inevitable part of life. There is no way to sugar coat it; grief sucks. However, as the previous examples demonstrate, the journey can change us and our community for better.

Some possible outcomes of the transformational power of grief are:

Deeper spiritual connection.
 The journey through “the dark night of the soul” can bring us to a richer, more intimate relationship with the Divine.

Artistic expression.
 Internal pain can be expressed and released through art.

Greater compassion for self and others.
 Grief is indiscriminate of education, wealth or social standing. The experience can create a greater sense of connection with all humanity and deepen our well of compassion.

Personal empowerment. 
Grief tests and strengthens personal character.

Integration and wholeness.
 Suffering a loss can leave us feeling incomplete. The journey through grief integrates our loss into our being as it becomes a part of us.

No person should feel they have to act like the “lone ranger” when facing grief. To nurture healing it can be vital to find someone who supports your process and honors your loss. Looking beyond family or friends for assistance is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of health.

Some of the benefits of grief support are:

Having a safe place to process grief honestly.

Openness. Not having to censor what is said.

Self focus. Not worrying about adding to the burden of others who are experiencing grief over the same loss.

Keeping the process of grief flowing.

Gaining new tools for coping.

Creative expression. 
Support for the creative use of emotional energy.

According to psychologist Thomas Moore, recovery from loss is a natural process; it is a journey through the “dark night of the soul.” (4)  Because nothing can fix the pain, grief requires care rather than cure. When another person offers their presence and listens deeply, trust emerges and healing takes root. Through nurturing, the wisdom of your spirit can be found.

As the following quote from Conversations with God summarizes:

“God asks only that
you include yourself
among those you love.” (5)

Like ripples that extend from a pebble dropped in a pond, any act of love cannot help but touch the lives of others. Loving yourself sets an important example. It will contribute not only to your own healing, but also to the healing of the world.



(1)    Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.),

(2)    “The J.W. House Story,”

(3)    “25-year-old Rows Across Atlantic Alone,”…

(4)    Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul. New York: Gotham Books, 2004.

(5)    Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995.