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Good Grief: A Meditation of How Grief can be a Gift in Strange Package

September 16, 2011

As a priest I walk with a lot of people in their grief. It’s a regular part of priesthood. I remember back in 2007 how tough it was for me:

  • The Deacon of my parish, Nerus, like a father to me, died after a long battle with cancer. His final words to me were, “I’m not so good right now, but I’ll be better soon.”
  • My administrative and pastoral assistant, Catherine, like a mother to me, developed a rapid form of Alzheimer’s and within that year went from being at the top of her game to no longer recognizing anyone, within a year she was gone.
  • My Parish bookkeeper, Shirley, also like a mother or an aunt, died suddenly.
  • I was transferred from a parish I loved. This too was like a death, death by a thousand cuts.
  • My father died shortly thereafter, after a long illness.
  • A new 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.

All in a year. I remember telling God it was too much. And though I got no answer, I haven’t had a year like that since.

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 shackles is to accept the gift it brings, love undying.

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  1. Katherine G ERT says:

    This was a timely post. Saw some things in a class for my job that brought up memories of stuff I thought I had “put away.” Started the grieving process all over again. Parts of our job never truly get easy, there’s always something to remind us of a horrible loss again. I am sorry for your losses but I am glad you are there for your parishioners and understand what they might be going through.

  2. Janet says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. Several of my family members do not like to go to viewings or funerals, and do not think children should be exposed to them. As a parent, I think it is my responsibility to teach all the truths of our faith, and there is no way to sugarcoat the death of a loved one. God does comfort us in our grief, if only we would take the time to listen to Him.

  3. Helen Cordero says:

    It has almost been a year since Al left us, and the grieve is still fresh, but we know he is in a far better place. Your blog has been very helpful in bringing an understanding to my grieve.

  4. BHG says:

    A priest friend of mind reminds me that one is never “over” grief or the event that causes it. One has to integrate it so that it becomes part of one’s life, and that is the hard part. I’m not much fond of the random tears that the oddest things will trigger when I am reminded of past hurt, especially the loss of my dad, but I have come to recognize that, in some ways, it really is God reaching the deeper parts of my heart. The other thing I have learned is that sharing another’s grief is sharing another’s cross, and that we are intended to do, even when it just means sitting in silence or offering a silent prayer. Grief really is a gift for it reflects our ability to form connections and to love. Fantastic post Msgr.

  5. Ann says:

    Beautiful post.

  6. Sasha says:

    A woman I love lost her husband suddenly and unexpectedly. In the months following there was lots of concern that she was ‘depressed’ and that something should be done about it. I maintained that she was appropriately sad for the situation. A year and a half later, she misses him intensely but is healing – I think precisely because she grieved when she needed to. We need to stop treating grief as a medical problem which needs to be ‘fixed.’

  7. Dan Buckley says:

    John tells us that Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, and the Judeans (who have never seen clearly in this gospel) remarked, wrongly, “See how he loved him.” Jesus knew before Lazarus died that he would restore him, which is probably why he tarried in going. No, I do not believe that Jesus wept for Lazarus, but for the grief that each of us feels when death robs us of a loved one. I lost my brother, Eugene, six days ago, and the belief that Jesus weeps with me in my loss is a great comfort to me.

  8. wilma says:

    Thank you for sharing and giving hope. My marriage of 40+ years died, then one of my sons was killed, he was 30 – then my oldest daughter succombed to cancer at 40 – my health began to fail and i had to retire – yet, there is good in this – it is time to pray for the world, for my country and my family. Is it easy NO! Yet, i know that God is there and has been there I need to reach out my hand and let Him guide me and hold me up.

  9. Paulinus O. P says:

    i lost my beloved elder sister in 2009 before i joined the Dominicans, that experience sent chills down my spines for many months, i went into my shells, to see the nothingness in life. Seeing her remains at the funeral was like the end of the world to me. i begged her to get up from the coffin, but it never happened. My love to reunite with her burns daily. i know she is somewhere safe as i pray psalm 130 for her daily. For months ago, i lost a dear friend that i knew back then in school. i appreciate the living better, and i prepare myself daily for the unexpected. God has a way of fixing things, but not to obliterate the memory of the loved one. May God keep us consoled in moments of grief.

  10. ThirstforTruth says:

    We are the only species that CAN weep! In that lies a whole meditation…but one we would rather not have to
    contemplate. God gave you no choice here with all that befell you …in one year? It would make the average
    person go mad. While God gave you little choice in these matters…He has given you an abundance of grace
    to be able to accept and go on….it is not ususual you weep still from time to time. Hopefully today’s tears are
    tears that cleanse ( the function of water in both the material and spiritual world ) and no longer are about
    uncontrollable grief. There is great consolation for me in the words…” and Jesus wept” ! Will pray they
    provide you with enormous consolation for your many losses, most especially that of your sister!

  11. Reverend Doctor Victoria Allen Howard, Anchorite says:

    I am in so much grief that I don’t even remember the time of my mother’s death. Those days were so painful that I have a mental block over them. Just recently, only the Lord could stop my tears. I will never get over it till l see her again in Heaven. I stay busy so I don’t have to think about it. I used to call her every day, sometimes twice a day. No one has replaced her or ever will. Here is my work. I thought I’d share it with you:

    I only have one other member, but I am hoping for many more. It is an online cyberparish, with a lot of fun and a lot of poignancy. My motto is: You love as much as you forgive. I live by it. Please take a look at the new parish and join if you would like. It is delightful! I am not excommunicated after all! I have a ministry here which was found acceptable by the pope:

    God bless the pope, give him long years of health and let him be a saint!

  12. james says:

    thank you for a beautiful message. I have been suffering a separation for the past four years and I have cried every day of it but in the process I have regained my soul and praying definitely has been the greatest help. I have also found that I am becoming a better and more compassionate person though given the low base level that’s not perhaps surprising and I have a long way to go before my soul will be anything like ready for its meeting with god. This is a ‘good’ which has emerged from the whole sad episode I feel I have got my faith back and can pray, not only for a reconciliation but also for others in their grief. Thank you again father and please keep my family in mind in your prayers as I will you in mine.AMDG

  13. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Thanks to all who shared, especially BHG.
    This reminds me of noting the following items in my bible study of the last few years;
    Jeremiah 6:14 “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
    Jeremiah 8:11 “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
    Proverbs 25:20 “as well take off your coat in bitter weather. You are pouring vinegar on a wound when you sing songs to a sorrowing heart.”
    I don’t know for sure who (Who?) thought that the phrase in Jeremiah was important enough to mention twice but, I’m very grateful. I think that it was most likely Ruach Hodesh.
    I believe that God gave us the ability to heal naturally, not only in body, but also in mind and spirit. If a wound is clean and covered this blessed healing process will follow through but, if the wound is bound up in an unclean state, it will turn poisonous and seep toxins into our entire being.
    The earliest I recall of this natural healing process within me was when my grandmother died I was in my mid teens. I was obviously upset and, after the funeral sought to withdraw from the relatives who were re-uniting and, as a seeming result, I was sort of stuffed in the back seat of a car (between two other people) that was full of relatives about my age group.
    The driver went all over the city while jokes and funny anecdotes were poured out at me until I finally started laughing at them. The guilt of buying into the humour I carried and re-experienced, off and on, for about fifteen years until I took a course in grief counselling and decided to turn to the others involved so that I finally set it down.
    Many years later, when my parents died, I was fortunate enough to bleong to a support group who had an understanding of the natural healing process of grief and passed through the process with no more discomfort than necessary.

  14. Moses says:

    Thank you for the reflection.

  15. Marie Bell says:

    We need to grieve to become whole again, and I have learned God is there in the grieving. My husband was driving home one night. The weather had been very dry for several weeks and that night it started to rain, creating a dangerous dust film on the road. He skidded round a bend directly into an oncoming vehicle and died in hospital later that night. I was numb with shock for days afterwards and I think I functioned on remote control. Of my four children only one – a 9-year-old at the time – was still at home, and it was having him there to look after that kept me going. I asked God how he could have done this to me (which of course he hadn’t). I was angry with him and he didn’t seem to be giving me any answers. A cradle catholic, I think it was then I that I really grew in faith. For the first time I turned to the psalms, just reading them daily helped. God spoke to me through them, and I was comforted by the fact that these words had been hallowed by use in faith by countless people before me and would be by those still to come, and that I was part of the great people of God who loves us and cares for us in spite of ourselves.

  16. Anne Marie says:

    Grief can come not only from the death of someone dear to you, but also when one loses one’s employment during difficult economic times or even through chronic illness. I am going through the start of a chronic illness, othroarthritis or wear-and-tear arthritis. My body weeps through the pain in my right knee. Right now I have been going through physical therapy excercies. It is the confort that comes from my faith in God that keeps me going.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. I lost my little boy at 2 yrs, 7 months and 1 day old in a tragic accident at home. The grief can be overwhelming at times. But my pastor, at my son’s funeral, said we have hope because we are an Easter people. And it’s that hope that carries me through.

  18. Carla says:

    I happened upon this today, a day that the grief was hitting me again. It’s been four years since my husband died…and the waves of grief are still a part of my life.