What Grief Is Teaching Me About Control and Surrender

Need to find inner peace? Have you thought about surrendering to God?

When people talk about the importance of surrendering to God, especially in hard times, my gut reaction is usually one of irritation, even anger. It sounds like one of those vague and unhelpful platitudes that people offer when they don’t know what else to say. It’s a sentiment easy to say, but hard to do.

What does that even mean? I find myself thinking. How exactly do you surrender to God? As I’ve discovered, there are no easy answers to that question, but I have found a deeper meaning to these words through the twists and turns of life.

What does that even mean? I find myself thinking. How exactly do you surrender to God?

Struggling to surrender

My struggle with the concept of surrendering to God stems from my first experience of a major loss when my father died from cancer seven years ago. Losing him was a slow and painful process that spanned several years; watching a loved one suffer from a painful terminal disease is a special kind of torture.

Throughout his illness and after he died, I tried again and again to rely on God and surrender to His will, whatever that might be. I clung to Him in my pain and grief, crying out to my heavenly Father even when I could no longer cry out to my earthly father. For a time, I went through a period of intense spiritual dryness that was like walking through a desert.

I felt utterly alone and abandoned by God. I tried talking to Him, but heard little or no answer.

What can it possibly mean to surrender to God if you don’t feel His reassuring presence? How can you know God’s will in order to surrender to it when you feel so disconnected from Him, despite all your best efforts? What’s the point of praying if it’s not a two-way communication?

These were questions I wrestled with in the aftermath of that first major loss. It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t believe in God anymore — rather that I believed in Him but resented the fact that He seemed to be ignoring me. I felt the double pain of losing my dad, and also feeling like God the Father had abandoned me right when I needed Him the most.

Learning how to be present through grief and uncertainty

As time went by, I slowly became aware of God’s presence in my life again. I realized He had never left me, even when I felt so desolate and alone — He had been there all along, quietly holding me in my anguish, experiencing it alongside me, suffering with me. God was there even when my anguish became a numbness that dulled my senses and hindered my ability to perceive His presence and receive comfort from Him.

It turns out that our feelings aren’t always reliable, as I learned through grief and postnatal depression. It was a great relief to realize that my relationships — even my relationship with God — doesn’t depend on my feelings.

As I started to heal, I learned to make my heart quiet enough to listen for the still small voice of God. I stopped asking where God was, realizing He had been all around me all along.

I’d spent a lifetime looking backward to the past with regret and sadness at how things had changed and what I’d lost, or looking forward to the future full of restless impatience and anxiety. Finally, I was slowly learning what it means to surrender to God, how to be truly present in the moment, and how to enjoy the inner peace that this act of surrender brings.

Having two children at home full-time with nowhere to go and no-one to see for the first few months of the pandemic taught me to slow down on a deeper level than ever before, to trust each day to God, to find joy in the present despite uncertainty. It also taught me that what I do matters, despite this trust: I can choose to care for myself, to feed myself well and exercise well, to feel awe connecting with nature, and to do other things that bring me joy so that I can be my best for those I love and care for. Pandemic life has taught many of us to live in the “both/and”: life is fragile and there’s so much that we can’t control, and yet we do have some agency. We can make a difference.

Then, one perfectly ordinary Sunday in November, our family was thrown into sudden fresh grief. My sister’s partner, Dean, had been trying out his new wetsuit at a beach near their home and drowned in front of my sister. The sun was shining, and it was one of the most beautiful and most photographed beaches in England where many people enjoy swimming in the summer months. When my mother went to gather some of my sister’s things from their house a few days later, the pancakes they’d enjoyed the morning he died were still on the counter in the kitchen. A Nina Simone album was ready on the record player, his surfboard propped up by the fridge — remnants of a beautiful life, full to the brim with love and joy.

Finding inner peace by surrendering to God

One thing I’ve noticed over the course of experiencing these two very different types of losses — one slow, the other so sudden and shocking — is that however grief strikes, people around you try to rationalize it and control their own fear of death by imagining it couldn’t happen to them.

When my dad was ill, people would regularly mention theories about which lifestyle choices prevent or cause cancer, even though he had a healthy lifestyle — and in any case, his cancer was terminal, so any references to cancer prevention felt more like a scolding than love. In the case of Dean’s death, this instinct has seemed even more present. People want to know what he did wrong. What was the error of judgement? How can they avoid something like this happening to them? It takes great courage to admit that we don’t know better than the dead or dying.

The truth is, we all take risks every day — every time we get in a car, every time we cross a road, every time we go for a swim — no matter how sensible or prepared we are. To be alive is a risky thing, and the only thing we know for certain is that we’re going to die — we just don’t know how or when. In the past year alone, I’ve known loved ones (and loved ones of loved ones) die from Covid-19, cancer, a tree-felling accident, a car crash, a brain aneurysm, suicide, and a heart attack that took a healthy young mother in her sleep. We can plan every detail of our lives, cover all eventualities, and then have it all taken away — just like that.

Grief and loss force us to face the reality that we can’t control how or when we’ll die. We don’t know how much time we have. Despite this, here’s another thing I know to be true: We do have agency over how we choose to live in the time we’re given.

That is what surrendering to God really means. It means living the best lives we can, but holding it all lightly. It means not judging others who have lost everything, not defaulting to the assumption that it’s their fault somehow. It means acknowledging that we too could lose it all in the blink of an eye.

I’ve come to believe that inner peace comes from a humble acceptance of both of these truths: that our decisions and actions matter; and at the same time, we don’t ultimately have control over our lives.

Surrendering to God is all about being in relationship

The pain of this fresh loss, along with the uncertainty and loss of control we’ve all endured as a result of the global pandemic, has taught me that surrendering to God isn’t a passive act. On the contrary, it’s something I have to actively choose each day.

It’s a far cry from a defeatist attitude that shrugs and says, “I can’t control the outcome, so what’s the point of trying at all?” We shouldn’t fall for the victim mentality that believes things just happen to you and you have no agency at all, but we also can’t succumb to the tempting illusion that if we do everything “right” we’ll somehow avoid pain, suffering, or loss.

The practice of surrendering to God requires us to find peace in the messy middle, in the grey area between those two extremes. It asks us to hold two things in balance: the knowledge that God isn’t a puppet master, controlling our every move; He isn’t a distant uninvolved observer, either.

Death, loss, and suffering are an inevitable part of our lives. They are the consequences of our freedom, our imperfect efforts to collaborate with our Maker. Surrendering to God isn’t like shaking a Magic 8-Ball and giving up any sense of our own agency; it means inviting Him into our daily lives, letting Him walk with us and accompany us through the joys and sorrows of life as a friend and collaborator.

Sitting with my sister in her deep grief, utterly lost for words, I’ve realized this is what God does for us when we cry out to Him in pain: He loves us silently, and weeps with us. Then He invites us to take the next step, and the next. We might not be able to see our destination, and we’ll certainly stumble along the way, but we can trust that His love isn’t going anywhere.

I’ve realized this is what God does for us when we cry out to Him in pain: He loves us silently, and weeps with us. Then He invites us to take the next step, and the next.

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