In my darkest moments, when the pain becomes overpowering, depression stealthily weaves its way into my day-to-day. This depression ebbs and flows, catching me off guard with surprising force, often directly correlating to the ups and downs of my physical pain. The link between my physical pain and the depression that follows feels unbreakable, the depression a seemingly uncontrollable response whenever pain climbs.
Responding to pain is unavoidable; pain cannot simply be ignored. Moving on with life and pretending the pain does not exist is not an option, and so often, depression becomes a means of escape, a poor form of coping with unrelenting agony. But in my heart, I know there is a better way, a better response, than depression. Although this connection between pain and depression feels indestructible, I believe something can take its place.
Too often society asks chronic pain sufferers to replace depression with stoicism, false displays of cheer, or a blind ignorance of reality. But when we come to the end of our strength and can no longer manage the façade of cheer or stoicism, we simply fall into another down-swing of depression and emerge where we began. And for this reason, I only see one option that truly faces reality without falling into the pit of depression. Depression can be transformed into grief and mourning, a truly different path than depression, filled with life-giving purpose that recognizes the hurt and actively seeks to emotionally heal.
Five ways depression can be transformed into mourning.
Depression is passive. Grief is active.
Depression lies down and passively weeps, but grief is an active outpouring of our hearts and all that we feel. Grieving does not simply occur with the passing of time; it is an active process that requires the hard work of crying out to the Lord in our distress. Grief speaks its troubles aloud, gives word to its losses, dives to the depth of hard unanswered truth, asking questions and seeking a response. To find the words of a grieving heart, go no further than Psalm 88. “I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, who remember you no more, who are cut off from your care.” Grief never avoids the truth or tries to hide behind a façade.
Depression isolates. Grief is communal.
Those who are depressed begin to avoid activities they previously enjoyed, which often manifests in isolating behaviors. When suffering from chronic pain, isolation is obviously unavoidable at times; however, in the midst of depression, isolation beyond what is physically required often becomes the norm. Scripture depicts another option, calling us to live in a community that plays together and suffers together, rejoices together and mourns together (Romans 12:15). In biblical times, mourning always occurred in community, as believers surrounded one another in love and support. Israel grieved together 30 days at Moses’ death (Deuteronomy 34:8), Jesus mourned alongside Mary and her friends at the death of Lazarus (John 11), David and his men grieved the loss of their city and families “until they had no more power to weep.” (I Samuel 30:4). Mourning in community means coming out of isolating depression and finding those who will weep with us, cry out with us, listen to our heart-felt burdens, and physically bear with us in times of need.
Depression numbs the emotional pain. Grief experiences the whole range of emotions.
Depression is deceitfully helpful in the face of chronic pain because it numbs our minds to the point of not feeling. While the feeling of sadness can certainly be a factor in depression, more common is numbness, lethargy, and complete stagnation. Those who are depressed will often times go out of their way to feel as little as possible. Negative emotions arise, but are quickly pushed away, avoided, and there is complete denial that anger, jealousy, sorrow, and fear even exist. But grief purposefully experiences these emotions and attempts to understand them. Grief recognizes that there are good versions of all emotions and does the hard work of learning how to express powerful emotions, that are typically seen as negative, in God-honoring ways.
Depression doubts God. Grief seeks God even in the midst of immense hurt.
Depression looks at God and questions his sovereign ways. Grief seeks God out and truly believes his words: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah ..) Even in the midst of horrors, God is present. In our grief we trust and continue to seek him out.
Depression finds solace in idols of the flesh. Grief finds solace in Christ and our salvation.
Where do the depressed turn? Anywhere that affords a pleasant escape or a way to numb the pain, if only for a moment: alcohol, drugs, binge eating, sex, entertainment, the internet, so on and so forth. Even healthy means of dealing with pain can become idols when they are turned to in lieu of a trust in the Lord. Grief recognizes that even those who are healthy have no good thing on this earth apart from the Lord (Psalm 16:2). Grief truly says in its heart: “Whom have in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73: 25-26).
My physical flesh fails me more and more each day. My heart is emotionally torn to pieces on a daily basis. And so I turn to the One who is my strength, my God who is my heart and portion forever. And on the hardest of days, I cry out in grief to him, convinced that he hears and knows me.