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.