Surviving grief: From desperation to healing

When Linder Berman attended a “Calm My Anxious Heart” Bible study years ago, she had no idea that the lessons she learned through that study would soon be put into practice in her own life.  I originally sat down with Linder to write an article about her son Paul’s death three years ago at the age of 22. What I didn’t know was that God had something greater in store. During our hour-long interview, I was able to learn how a Christian, truly grounded in God’s word, dealt with the gamut of emotions that come with the grieving process.

In The Beginning
Linder Berman grew up in a family of quiet faith. The family moved around the globe as her father served out assignments for the Navy. Linder remembers being involved with whichever denomination was available on that particular military base. Linder considered herself a Christian, but admits not truly walking with the Lord or having a relationship with Him until she went through a fierce custody battle after a divorce. Through this event, Linder realized that “no man on this earth would be able to help and no amount of money would be sufficient to defend me”.
Searching for hope, she began to attend a small church in Plantation. After a special presentation featuring Potter’s Field Life, Linder recommitted her life to Christ. “I had no idea what this truly meant or what I was doing, but I knew I had to be up there,” shares Linder. “After that, God gave me a ravenous hunger for His word.” Soon, Linder began attending a bible study given by the pastor’s wife. “At that time, my battle was with anxiety. I was an expert at running ahead in my imagination and being fearful of things that might come to pass. I would imagine dreadful scenarios that might happen and would be sickened by things that weren’t even true,” explains Linder. “God tells me to take captive every thought and cast down all imaginations and to focus on things that are true and noble and of good report. My scripture at this time became Philippians 4:6 as it reminded me to ‘Be anxious for nothing.'”
Through this bible study, Linder also learned to hide God’s word in her heart. One exercise that she distinctly remembers was writing down her fears. “My two greatest fears concerned my marriage and that something terrible would happen to one of my three children,” tells Linder. “After we wrote down our fears, we were instructed to write down scriptures of how God would help us if, in fact, these things did happen. This exercise taught me to memorize verses and to be familiar with God’s word, so that when He wants to speak to me and comfort me, He can bring these scriptures to mind.” Over time, Linder saw that anxiety no longer had a hold on her as the Word of God now had dominion over her thoughts and imagination.
In time, Linder moved to a new church, Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, and occasionally would encourage her son Paul to join her. “I will never forget January 17, 2007. Sy Rogers was the speaker. Every time we went to church together, I hoped it would be the time that Paul accepted Christ. After Sy finished, Paul and his girlfriend went running towards the altar and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior,” shares Linder. “There was such an immediate change in Paul. He would wake up earlier than me in the morning and I would find him reading his Bible. He wanted to tell everyone- his friends, co-workers, whoever he met- that he was now ‘born again’ and to tell them about his new found joy.”
Two months later, Linder received a phone call that every parent dreads. Her son Paul had died after a night of celebrating his new career as a firefighter.

Into The Wilderness
From the moment Linder received the News of Paul’s death, the Lord started comforting her. “God immediately spoke to my heart, ‘I have protected him’.” tells Linder. “Even though I had just heard that Paul was dead, I knew that he was in God’s arms. My comfort from God’s word was that He knows the number of our days.  The Bible reminds us that unto each man a time to die is appointed. God had preordained Paul’s life to 22 years, even though Paul (and I) had other plans.”
Linder knew she could not argue with God about what had just taken place. “Because I had God’s word hidden in my heart, I could immediately rein in the negative thoughts. God knew the plans He had for Paul, and I would not allow myself to be tormented by the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’,” explains Linder. “I decided I wanted to grieve the ‘right way’. I read book after book on grief. Eventually, I learned that there was such a thing as ‘grieving forward’ and that I needed to put my grief into action. I realized that I couldn’t allow Paul’s death to become my identity. Paul’s death could have easily become my idol if I wasn’t careful, but I was aware of how displeasing that would have been to the Lord.”
“Grief is exhausting and ugly. Every sensory input, everything you hear, see, talk and think about, becomes a reference to the one you lost. I remember in one of my grief books, someone wrote that God’s grace is sufficient but it is not an anesthetic. I would describe grief as putting your heart through a shredder- continuously,” shares Linder. “It’s a glimpse of hell – a true glimpse of separation. When we are separated from someone we love, that pain, desperation, loss and the agony that is associated with it – that is really a picture of what hell would be like. There is no better reason to run to God than when you have had a taste of grief.”
Linder remembers the day she received a call from the funeral home letting her know that Paul was going to be cremated. “I walked to the bathroom and fell on my knees. I said ‘God, oh God, this is my son, whose body I protected for 22 years from sickness and injuries and now he is going to be burned in a fire. How can I bear this?'” she recalls. “Like a flood, God dropped verse after verse after verse into my heart to remind me that ‘we are refined as silver in the fire; we have this treasure in jars of clay, Paul’s treasure was already stored in heaven. That though we walk through the fire, God promised us that we would not be burned and that Paul was now with Abraham and Moses and David.”

Moving Forward
Eventually, Linder decided to join Grief Share, a 12-week long program focusing on a different aspect of grief each week. “It is a loving and Christ- based group, but people do not have to be Christian to attend,” explains Linder. “It shares the gospel and God’s hope. Being with like-minded people who are going through the same state of despair was healing.”
“One of the first surprising things that I learned about grief was that people go through a first loss, and then the secondary losses hit.” Linder continues, “The first loss for me was losing my child. The secondary losses were watching my child’s friends graduate from college and get married; watching them win awards, accomplishing things in life, and watching them having children.”
Another surprise to Linder was how differently her and her husband, Fred, handled the grieving process. “I remember wanting pictures of Paul all over the house, but these pictures were disturbing to my husband because they wouldn’t let his mind rest. Fred wanted to be distracted, to go out to dinner or dancing, and I felt like I was betraying Paul if I laughed or enjoyed myself. There is a progression that takes place.”
Linder tells of a pastor who prayed with her and shocked her with the following words: “Lord,  help her to have the grace to forgive others for the stupid things that they are going to say and do.”
“Sometimes people aren’t quite sure what to say or do when you lose your child,” shares Linder. She recalled some of the things that meant the most to her- phone messages from friends that shared a quick “I’m praying for you and thinking of you, but don’t feel obligated to call me back” or the people who remembered the tough occasions, like Paul’s birthday or holidays, with the simple phrase, “I know this is a hard time for you and I want you to know that I am praying”. 
“Holidays for people who’ve lost loved ones are excruciating. Greeting card companies and our society set us up for how we are supposed to feel and celebrate these holidays. Our culture has come to expect that these days are supposed to be ‘glorious and wonderful’. For someone who has lost a loved one, the days leading up to the holiday are especially difficult,” shares Linder.
In addition to learning how to deal with tough holidays, Linder remembers going through a “blame” episode, where she blamed Paul. “When I realized what was happening, I decided I needed to actively forgive my son. I went forward at church and prayed to forgive Paul.  I was immediately released from bitterness and able to be comforted,” she tells. “I think it is really important that people who are experiencing grief realize that they need to give themselves permission to mourn. Each grief is unique. You should grieve to the depth that you loved.”
Linder has sound advice for those who have been grieving for some time. She has found that not everyone “needs help” or “needs counseling”, but that people can become stuck in their grief and it can become their identity. For Linder, it has become part of her ministry. She quotes 2 Corinthians 1: 3-7 (NLT), “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer.  We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.”
Linder’s advice for parents is that time is precious and fleeting. “I remember how much Paul loved to fish.  I would supply him with bait and fishing rods, but I never actually went fishing with him. Sometimes, I didn’t enjoy him for who he was. We need to learn to set aside quality time for those we love, scheduling fun times when nothing serious is being talked about. Don’t always look for teachable moments; just enjoy your loved ones for who they are,” adds Linder.
Her most important advice for others currently going through the grieving process is simple: “”We need to remember that God is our anchor; to grasp onto Him for peace and comfort. He will be our solid rock when we experience troubled times. To lean on God during these troubled times, you need to learn about His character and who He is or you are not going to be able to throw yourself into His arms and cry, rest and be comforted. You cannot trust someone that you don’t know – but if you know God, if you know that He is God, when things happen, you know that you can trust in Him because He is a restorer and a redeemer. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

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