Good Grief

As a priest I walk with a lot of people in their grief. It’s a regular part of priesthood but lately it’s been hard and heavy:

  • A parishioner lost her 4 year old nephew when, climbing on a dresser, it fell over on him and he was killed
  • Another parishioner lost her 25 year old son, know well to us all, when he was shot to death.
  • Our beloved receptionist at the parish went home last Friday, apparently healthy,  and died in her sleep.
  • The mother of our previous pastor, known and loved by all in this parish died last week after a long illness.

Grief is one of the most painful and terrible emotions we can experience. It can crush us like a ton of bricks or loom over us like a dark cloud. Sometimes in sudden loss we just go numb only to discover that numbness is not a lack of feeling at all. It is a feeling, a kind of general malaise lurking in us like a low grade depression. Grief sometimes comes in cycles. One day we think we are finally getting better and suddenly we’re back in the soup, for no particular reason we can discern and we wonder what we did wrong.

Grief just has a life of its own. I often tell people that you can’t get around grief you just have to go through it and experience it to its top. It seldom lets us off the hook. It has something to say to us, something to give us.

I have often thought the gift that grief gives us is love. Many years ago Simon and Garfunkel sang the song “I am a Rock, I am an Island.” The song celebrated a loveless solitude and declared “If I never loved I never would have cried.” The final line of the song said, “And a rock feels no pain, and an Island never cries.”  Perhaps they do not. But we who love do cry and grieve. And it is precisely the grief that can deepen our love.

Many years ago (1990) my sister died in a fire. She had been mentally ill all her life and I struggled to relate to her. In many ways I feared her. When I first got news she had died in the fire I just went numb. We in the family wondered if we might be able to view her body or not. The funeral director told us we could view her privately but since her skin has been singed in the fire it was too delicate to touch her. Further, because of this,  he had not been able to adjust her face in any way. Nevertheless he thought she was presentable enough for the family to have a private viewing. We I looked upon my sister and saw her face it was very clear that she was crying when she died. For the first time in my life I wept for my sister and lamented the awful mental illness that had caused her such hardship. For the first time I understood her dignity. I guess I am sorry that it took her death for me to come to that appreciation and love of her. But that was the gift that my grief gave me, it intensified my love for my sister. I still cry from time to time when I think of that moment. It was painful but it was a gift and it remains so.

If we let it, our grief will bring us gifts in strange packages. Because of it our love and respect for those we have lost is intensified. Our longing for union with them one day again is deepened and our memories of them become more precious. It is true that the intensity of grief may lessen over the years but most of us know it never completely departs. Why should it? If we love there should always be a part of us that cannot bear to be apart from those we love. We grieve because we love and thank God we love, thank God we love.

Nothing can fill the gap when we are away from those we love, and it would be wrong to try and find anything. We must simply hold out and win through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, since leaving the gap unfilled preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but keeps it empty so that our communion with each other may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer  – Letters from Prison

Here is a video that depicts grief. I hope you’ll listen closely to the words of the song for they eloquently describe grief. The video portion shows a young woman lamenting the loss of her boyfriend. She struggles to be free of her grief even to the point of tearing up one of his letters. But the problem is not on the paper, it is in her heart. The only way to respect her grief and be free of its strongest shakles is to accept the gift it brings, love undying.

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

22 Replies to “Good Grief”

  1. The closest thing that there is to Hell on earth is the sudden loss of a loved one. To have someone near and dear to you suddenly ripped away from you, leaving nothing but a gaping wound and the emptiness of being all alone.

    Of course, the fortunate person is the one who has faith and, consequently has hope, the confident assurance that the deceased loved one is not forever lost, but by the grace of Christ, lives in Him still. By the power of transcendent love, communion with such person is still possible even after “death.” That understanding does provide some measure of comfort, even though on a more emotional level there is sadness from the person being sorely missed.

    On the other hand, there are those who do not have such faith and, consequently, have no hope. For them, the deceased is gone, totally and forever. For them, all that is left is the abyss. And then there are those whose loved ones did not die, but merely rejected and abandoned them. While one is happy they are not dead, the loss of that love from a break-up is just as real; they may not be physically dead, but they are dead to the heart. In both of these cases, what we see is a glimpse of Hell.

    The permanent loss of love, eternal abandonment, the resulting feeling of emptiness. All of these have the potential to lead to excruciating mental and emotional pain and angst, as well as spritual suffering. If we feel all of these things from the loss of a loved human person, imagine how much worse it would be if it were the heart-wrenching loss of love that results from separation from God? If you think that the anxiety you feel from the loss of a human loved one is unbearable, and you feel that your insides are all twisted up and feel like they are turning inside out, and you feel nothing but utter despair of the pain ever going away, all that is just a taste of what Hell is like, where we are eternally separated from He who is Love itself.

    Whatever you do, don’t let that happen. Grab onto God as if your life depended on it. Because it does.

    Now, grabbing onto Him might necessarily mean clinging to Him while on the Cross, it might mean having to endure the Passion with Him, but it is by the Passion that suffering is destroyed. It is through the Cross that we reach the Resurrection.

    Pain and suffering and hardship in this world cannot be avoided. You cannot run away from them. They will eventually catch up to you. Eventually they will ambush you. The only way you can overcome the ambush is by charging through it with Christ. The only way that pain and suffering and hardship are defeated are by embracing them with Christ, grabbing ahold of them and having them transformed by the power of the Cross. Only by grabbing them and transforming them are they defeated. Only by the transformative power of love on the Cross do they lose their sting and power to hurt.

    So, grab onto the Lord as if your life and happiness and well-being depended on it. Because they do.

    1. Yes grief can be the most crushing experience we have here on earth especially in sudden loss. I lost both my sister and mother tragically and suddenly and it is awful . I also know that faith can heal but as Deacon Turner said in another post, simply issuing pious platitudes or shaming people for their grief is unacceptable. The truth is, many who grieve experience anger at God and they need to be given “permission” to have that anger and speak to God about it honestly. Grief is not necessarily a sing that one lacks faith, it also comes from love. Thank Bender for your reaffirmation that in the end we have to reach out to God with our anger and and sorrow and not shame ourselves out of this necessary step to some healing.

      1. Yes, it is not easy to overcome. Mere words do not make the pain go away.

        To connect this back to a prior posting, what a precious gift our Lord made to us in allowing us to call Mary “mother.” In times of sorrow and grief, when one might indeed rage against God, how comforting it is to turn to her and have her take us in her maternal arms.

  2. Blessed is he who cries, for he will rejoice.
    Cursed is he who rejoices, for he will weep.

    Those who share in Jesus’ Passion shall share in His Resurrection.
    Those who share in the joy of sin shall share in the wage of sin.

    1. Yes, it is clear that the Lord invites us to share in his passion and thus also the joy of his resurrection. Further, sin may bring a temporary joy or pleasure but it is soon replaced much that is negative and sad.

      1. You know, your words reminded me of a social group called Good Grief on the Catholic Answers Forum, where users share their grief and console one another. It is a wonderful testimony to your words, to the All-Powerful Mercy of God, and to the prayer of the Church. Here is the group, if you care to take a look:

  3. I agree that having faith is the one thing that will help us to get through times of grief and sorrow. One thing that isn’t mentioned however, is losing someone who was not a Christian, in fact an atheist, someone who did not repent, did not embrace a belief in God. I’ve lost a parent to breast cancer, and my other parent to suicide. Neither of them could be counted among the “faithful departed.”

    The pain of the loss is nothing compared to the pain one feels when hope of salvation is severely questioned.

    I realize that we are not to make any “judgements” about where a soul will ultimately spend eternity. But outside the Church, there is no salvation. There were no death bed confessions.

    God Bless,

    1. Yes this makes it much more difficult. All we can do is to give them to God. Man sees only the appearance. God looks into the heart. Keep praying for them! I am sure you do.

  4. Grief never really goes away, either.

    I lost my Dad when I was 20. I’d been in Mexico for a semester, hadn’t seen him in nearly 4 years, and exactly 1 month after I got back from Mexico…he died. He lived in another state so when we learned death was close, we couldn’t go to him. It was unexpected, sudden, and devastating. It also served to make me desire to come back to God, and that’s when I got hit with a double-whammy. the funeral took place at the start of 2nd semester, and I had a class in theology, a required course. I saw in the curriculum that it involved the question of suffering and loss, and thought perhaps it was good that I had that class. I wanted and needed answers and wanted to flee to God.

    But the professor taught us that “God is not omnipotent. God doesn’t care. God can’t help people who are suffering because he can’t be everywhere….” I did very well in the class, but the heresy destroyed me completely.

    So there is another issue with grief; when people suffer it, they are drawn to God. But it’s a very frail state, and if they are introduced to damaging “teachings”, it can not only prolongue the grief, but really destroy a soul. It took me a very long time to come back from that very very dark road that led me everywhere but to God.

    I’m grateful to have faith again, because at least now, when I lose those I love, I know where to go, I have hope in eternity, and even in grief, see that the shadow of the Cross is but a threshold leading to everlasting beatitude. (When my Mom dies, please remind me I said that, I’ll need the reminder…)

    1. Yes I remember being taught some of this same dribble. In the end what such a theory tries to do is “solve” the mystery of suffering and also of evil rather than simply to accept it’s mysterious dimension and live it. It does not console neither does it help. Heresy never does. Glad to know that the true faith has once again found its proper place in your life. Praise GOd.

  5. Over the past 4 years, I’ve experienced 4 deaths in my family, 1 each year, so grief seems not to let up for me. The most difficult was my 23 year old, strong, athletic, fun loving, nephew who died tragically in a motocycle accident. The others, one being my Father, were from various illnesses. I sometimes feel guilt because my grief was much stronger for the nephew than my Dad. I’m still trying to understand the message in my feelings, but I do know that God has given me the strength to get through it all. I’ve given it to him and I truely know he has comforted me.

    Bender & Msgr. thanks so much for these words, for they will always stay with me.

    God Bless!!!

  6. I am sorry to hear about your mother and sister. That must have been so shocking, and tragic. I see death all the time in my job, people on the brink of death, and even some people that come back to life (which is terrifying but cool at the same time).

    I lost a dear friend of mine to a horrible death. It was actually a Code Blue at the hospital, and I was on Code Team that night. When the code was called and our ER team ran up to the room, and I saw the patient, I was frozen for a second, then I jumped into action. My friend drowned on her own blood (an artery had burst), and the ER and ICU people (who were Rapid Response and Code Team), worked to save her for an hour. The image of my friend, and everything we did to try and save her, is a nightmare that still sits with me, and I will never forget. I was covered in her blood at the end of the Code (it was a very messy Code – walking into it was like walking into a warzone, though it was a hospital room).

    I am glad that you wrote this, and also very grateful for all of my priest friends who have helped me deal with the hospital and other things over the years. We are taught to compartmentalize at the hospital, and there are many times priests have been there for me, when during those times my people weren’t. Thank you for sharing your story, it helps us open up, and see that other people understand our emotions as well.

    1. Yes, thanks. It may be necessary for “professional” reason to compartmentalize on the job but it part of our humanity to be moved by loss, ours or the losses of another.

  7. the stronger your faith is the better you deal with grief and everythig in life Jesus in our hope love and everything:)alicja

  8. Thank you for your post it is comforting. I lost my husband at 33 and the families on both sides have chosen to leave me bring up our 3 children alone each saying its Gods will and my lot. This has been excruitiating and very testing in our faith. But what is heartbreaking is my eldest son 14, who has turned from prayer and his love for God and is going down a shady path, While i learn to invite God, through Our lady’s example into our suffering i ask you please to pray for the children especially the eldest.

    thank you

  9. Hi Katherine,

    When I went through a very difficult time, the people who helped me were sypathetic but not emotional. When I felt completely out of control, it was so helpful to have people around me who were not. I’m sure it’s hard, but it is a gift you give another- your strength. God Bless!

    1. Thank you. God Bless You, too! I am not the picture of strength all the time though. I love what I do, and my goal each time I go to work is to make each patient feel like they are important, and taken care of in this fast paced world. Sometimes I get very task-oriented, being yanked in 5 different directions. I am glad you had sympathetic people around you when you were going through your difficult time – that makes all the difference in the world.

  10. This past Saturday at Vigil Mass, my parish observed Feast of All Souls.

    When they began reading names, my daughter started to weep, thinking of “Oma’s” (my mother’s) imminent death. I couldn’t help but join her. Mom likely will be gone by Thanksgiving, and we already are grieving.

    The musicians, unfortunately, included two out-of-tune guitars, a partial-cracking trumpet, and a flute so off-pitch that I wondered if she were reading the wrong part. For you non-musicians, imagine spending ten minutes listening to fingernails on a chalkboard.

    Under normal circumstances I (as a church musician myself) am only somewhat irked at less-than-competent performances at the parish, but this time I am rather enraged. I was sad, I was grieving, and my worship experience was ruined.

    Less-than-perfect I can accept. I’ve made flubs myself. But less-than-competent? That’s disrespectful to God, and to the people sitting in the pews.

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