Working Through Traumatic Loss and Grief
Interview with Dr. Mel Lawrenz on his new book, "A Chronicle of Grief"
Posted Jul 09, 2020
Tragedy often strikes when we least expect it. Working through the process of grieving traumatic loss is difficult. But, there are ways to work through it and seek the authentic support of others along the way.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought leaders. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought (Marquette University) and has been on the adjunct faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Trinity International University. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook's minister at large, teaching in North America, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He has authored 18 books with Zondervan, Baker, Jossey-Bass, Leadership Network, Regal, and others, including Spiritual Leadership Today (Zondervan) and A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss (IVP).
JA: Why did you set out to write your book?
ML: The week my 30-year old daughter suddenly died I wrote a few hundred words just to get the pain off my chest, but also to express our great love for Eva. I continued to write about once a month, posting the pieces on social media. Many people told me the writing was painful and very beneficial at the same time. They said things like: I have not had to face this kind of loss, but I feel as though you are helping me to be prepared. Others said that they too had experienced jarring loss and that they were glad their reactions were normal.
After a year I realized I had in hand a kind of chronicle of all the complex dynamics of traumatic grief. A year after that, one day, I started writing about lessons learned, and the book manuscript emerged. I had co-written two books about grief and trauma with a psychologist friend years earlier, but when our tragedy hit, I saw things in a whole new light.
JA: What is the primary takeaway you hope readers will learn from reading your book?
That traumatic grief will take a person on a journey that is intense and painful and unpredictable. That it is all normal. Supportive friends and family need to be a compassionate presence and not try to fix things. Grief is not a problem to be fixed but a process to be lived out.
JA: What are some lessons from your book that can help people live more resiliently, especially during COVID-19?
ML: All of us are vulnerable to disease and injury, even young people. Any of us may face a traumatic loss which means experiencing something that is unexpected, jarring, and devastating, which causes injury with long-term effects. Our whole society is being subjected to traumatic loss right now. Just the threat of getting seriously ill from an invisible virus is producing psychological stresses that will affect us for years to come. After my family’s traumatic loss, the compassion, awareness, and presence of friends and family helped us survive. There is a power in togetherness. We can survive if we walk through it all together. The problem is that divisiveness in society is thwarting the power of togetherness.
JA: What are some insights from your book that help readers support a friend or loved one?
ML: If you know someone going through the intense pain of traumatic loss, you have an opportunity to help them survive. It won’t be by trying to make them feel better. It won’t be by giving them platitudes. It won’t be by getting them to “move on.” It will help them to know that you are thinking of them, and to remind them of that for a very long time. It is a huge blessing to know that you are not forgotten. Know that you will have an “empathy gap” if your friend is having a loss unlike anything you have experienced. That is inevitable. It’s nobody’s fault. So, it is best to have as much empathy as you can, and then realize you do not fully understand.
One of the best things I heard from people after our great loss was “I have no words.” Friends who said they do not know what to say were showing that they, in fact, were appreciating just how great our loss was. One last thing: One of the worst mistakes we make is to think that if you contact a friend who has had a loss, that you are making it more difficult for them. Don’t think that you are hurting your grieving friend by mentioned their loss. They have not forgotten. And when you mention the loss, almost always it tells them that they are not forgotten.
JA: What are you currently working on these days?
ML: With the release of A Chronicle of Grief imminent (July 21, 2020), I am trying to anticipate what further work this might engender.
JA: Anything else you would like to share?
ML: A psychologist friend mentioned one day there are many books about grief, but real-life narratives of grief are often the most helpful to people. That is my hope with A Chronicle of Grief. I kept it concise and straightforward because I know that people going through traumatic grief are often confused about what is happening to them and wonder what to do next. And whether they can survive. They can. I have found that people take some assurance in knowing that if they plod—putting one foot in front of the other—they will survive, and things will gradually get better.
Lawrenz, M. (2020). A chronicle of grief: Finding life after traumatic loss. InterVarsity Press. ISBN 978-0-8308-3760-1.