I have been thinking a lot about the idea of mourning and grief as I read and hear countless apologies from people who feel the need to first express guilt or provide warning before being able to honestly express feelings about this most fragile emotion. Grief is not something our society is willing to readily embrace and openly discuss. For those on the outside of a loss, there is an understanding that the bereaved are experiencing a season of immense pain and sorrow, but there is a natural and understandable failure to comprehend the depth of the impact grief has on those who are held in its grip.

It has been nearly three years since I became a widow and six-and-a-half years since I last saw my sweet Jack. And while the coping is often easier, the emptiness of their absences will always be profound. To be clear, the impetus for my rhetoric is not an appeal for sympathy but rather a call for an understanding of the lifelong journey each and every person takes when grieving.

Grief is profound, it is overwhelming, it is hard and, unfortunately, it is a necessary part of letting go. However, grief is not a four-letter word. It is not something to ignore and shy away from. Grief is not wrong and it is not a process that can be rushed, even if we desire a hasty retreat from the pain. There is no opportunity available to be an over-achiever at grieving and there is no going around.

The idea of grieving makes many people uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about the pain of loss, in fact some choose to ignore it, dismiss it, make jokes, offer platitudes, or suggest that it is time to “move on” with life. But grief is a natural part of living. It means that someone mattered, it means love was present and that the impact of the loss was profound. Grief is, by nature, messy and unpredictable. It does not have a timeframe . . . and, if we are truly honest, when the loss is great, grief never fully goes away. Everyone has their path through the journey and no two paths look exactly the same.

One of the greatest disservices we can do to someone who is grieving is pretend it did not happen. I have had people apologize for saying John’s name or mentioning a memory of Jack. I know they were well meaning in their intentions, but it is important to remember that these sentiments do not erase the pain. They do not cause us to not think about the person we lost. They do not lessen the ache but, rather, help us to rejoice in the memory.

I have learned a great many things while grieving my losses. The one thing I keep coming back to is that we must become a culture that accepts grief for what it truly is: the truest expression of love. My theory of the heart is that, like any muscle, it must be exercised. When grief occupies a place in the heart, it can seem as though it is the only thing that will ever fit; with time, however, and the exercise of allowing more love to be welcomed in just as it is openly shared with others, the muscle will grow. If we support each other in the natural expressions of our hearts, we can find that our capacity, ability, strength, and memory will also grow allowing so much more to be accomplished with this greatest of all muscles.

To truly help a person who is grieving we must be willing to walk with them through the good, bad, and ugly of this process. If we truly care, we cannot choose to be with people only in seasons of happiness; we must be willing to sit with them in the difficult seasons as well. We must be willing to accept grief as a beautiful, painful, tender, loving, natural transition towards the best of all four-letter words . . . hope.