Grief and Grieving

John Navone SJ FAITH Magazine May-June 2003


Learning to Live with Loss

Grieving, like friendship and nearly everything significant in our lives, is not something we do; it is something we undergo. Once we realize that the root of our word "suffering" is the same as "undergoing," we have taken a step towards undermining the modern presumption that suffering is the worst of all evils.

That presumption is linked with its complement: that the best situation is one in which we are in control, which leaves us with nothing more than the challenge of "dealing with" events like the death of a dear one. Neither our friendship nor our grieving at the loss of our friend is something we do; for undergoing is precisely what we are called to do in response to both the gift of friendship and the loss of our friend.

As friendship is a gift we have learned to receive and be immensely grateful for, so we learn through it - and through its ostensible loss -that life itself is a gift, whose loss leaves a space as ample, or as restricted, as our capacity to have received it. Friendship, death, and grieving effect capacities in us out of which we learn to live.

In our life journey we can become transformed vicariously in the transformation of those whose lives have become intertwined with ours. Into the emptiness following upon their loss can come an abiding gratitude for a friendship so precious. This can be a grieving that forcibly reminds us that we cannot make it on our own, which has to be the lasting legacy of a profound friendship.

Understanding the Gift of Life

For Christian faith, there is a connection and a continuity between life and death, heaven and earth. Death makes us acutely aware of the mystery and gift of life; the fact that our deep desire of being, of remaining, of not losing life, including the life of those we love can only be achieved by a letting go of life, graciously returning the gift to its Giver.

We are aware of ourselves as participants in an ongoing drama of existence that we did not originate and that will continue after we are gone. We experience ourselves as sharing in a reality that is common to all, while at the same time recognizing that we are not identical. Our participation is not a matter of choice; it is simply given. So long as we are willing to regard the universe as a given, in the mathematical sense of "given" which presupposes no giver, we can take existence for granted as little more than a floor for anything that is. On the other hand, we may realize that a universe of givens presupposes the Giver who is generously giving them, the One originating source of all that is, the principle of unity for a universe. Hence the very to-be of creatures is to-be-related tothe One from which our existence derives: our created to-be is a relation to our uncreated source, to-be-itself.

Eternal Life

The mission of Jesus is that we may have life, and have it abundantly. The life that he comes to bring is not mere biological existence, but eternal life - the kind that God is. Jesus comes to share with us the life that he himself receives as the beloved Son of his loving Father. The self-giving life of his Father is revealed in the self-giving life of his Son's passion, death, and resurrection. This is the eternal, invincible love that all the forces of evil and death itself cannot quench. In the Son's invincible commitment to his Father, the community of faith recognizes the Father's eternal love for his Son, acknowledging that the Father has given us the Spirit of his Son (Gal 4:6).

Living with the awareness of eternity does not devalue life, but rather allows us to live it fully. Eternity orients us to the present, to the eternal "present" in which God lives. To the extent that we seek God, we become present to each moment. We do not live for the moment - like those who have no hope - but live fully in the moment. Because we do not live for the moment, but by the Christian hope for the eternal, we are able to give ourselves so fully to each moment, but without grasping it.

Our belief in eternal life enables us to live this life constantly as something that is becoming eternal. It is to live not acquisitively, but generously; not anxiously, but joyfully. Christian hope enables us to take joy in the moment, and yet let it go, because we see the passing of each moment not as loss, but as an element in a whole that we shall one day enter. Living with hope allows us to live with courage, not shrinking from the many small deaths that occur within life. We know that the goal of life is present in the process of living and dying toward it

The Sufferer with Jesus

When Jesus went with his disciples across the sea of Galilee to the wild and sparsely populated country of the Gerasenes, he was confronted with a person whom one gospel describes as "a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit":

He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself (Mark 5:2-5).

The setting of the story in a burial ground, "among the tombs," is a clue as to the cause of the man's derangement. In all likelihood, this is someone who has allowed the experience of grief to literally drive him crazy. The demoniac may have brought someone to the burial ground whom he loved, and the intensity of his loss was so great that he had never been able to find his way out of the cemetery. The death of one beloved person had meant, in effect, the death of all meaningful life for him. He had allowed his experience of grief to be the absolute undoing of his life. Something had ended before he had wanted it to end.

With Jesus in the Garden of Fears

Grief poses a powerful spiritual temptation; it cuts squarely across the desires of our hearts. Like Jesus going to the garden of Gethsemane, we go into our bereavement begging God for one thing and come out with the exact opposite of what we have requested. If having our own way seems to us the essence of happiness, grief is the ultimate affront. Mark's ending to the story of the Gerasene demoniac tells of Jesus' commanding the unclean spirits to come out of him and enter a herd of swine feeding on the hill, who rush down the steep bank into the sea. When people hear of this story and come to see for themselves, they find the sufferer sitting with Jesus, "clothed and in his right mind." When he begs Jesus to take him away, Jesus refuses: "Go home to your friends, and tell them how muchthe Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you" (Mark 5:15-20). The story invites us to look more closely at the gifts that the risen Christ holds for us, which can turn even the most tragic loss into something truly rich and transformative.

False Images of Death

One of the greatest problems we face in coping with grief is the image of death we construct early in our human pilgrimage. As children we are keen observers, but poor interpreters. Our powers of observation exceed our capacity to understand what we observe in the earliest years of our lives. We take in everything around us, but because of our limited experience, we often come up with erroneous interpretations. One common childhood misunderstanding is to think of death as annihilation and total destruction. The child may be a keen observer of death but a poor interpreter. For the child whatever death touches, it destroys absolutely. The child equates death with annihilation.

If this is our image of death, then a primordial terror of death is likely to follow. It explains why otherwise sophisticated people recoil at the thought of dying; why so many shy away from visiting the sick in hospitals, refuse to attend funeral services, or die without preparing a will. The childhood impression of death's power over everything that it touches may well be one of the "unclean spirits" Mark's Gospel refers to in his story of the deranged man among the tombs. The other childhood image that easily develops is that of death as a thief, robbing us of what we love best. Death clashes with our proprietary sense; death has no right to come and take what lawfully belongs to me. Our experience of love includes a dimension of possessiveness. Our sense of ownership with regard toanother explains why we react so often to grief and loss with outrage and protest. It is as if a theft has taken place. People ask, "What right did God have to take away the one person who was truly mine?"

If these two images of death as annihilation and theft accompany us as we move into adulthood, then one of the challenges of the Christian gospel is to redeem and expand our understanding of death. This is an aspect of Jesus' redemptive ministry when it comes to the pain of grief. The risen Christ can heal the pain of our grief just as Jesus healed the Gerasene demoniac.

God with us through Death to Eternal Life

How does our healing take place? In the light of the crucified and risen Christ, Christians believe that death is one of the ways that God has chosen to move us toward the ultimate fulfillment that awaits us. We do not experience life all at once, but in successive stages. All of us start our journey as two tiny cells in our mother's body. There is a holy mystery to that moment when a living sperm interacts with a fertile egg, and when out of that coming together a new organism is conceived and begins to grow. For the next nine months we are housed in the womb, surrounded by protective and nurturing walls, fed continuously so that we know no hunger, and warmed at a constant internal temperature. In fact, one of the first things that newborns experience is a precipitous drop intemperature. No wonder we feel we have come into a cold, hard world!

That place of beginning is beautifully adapted to the needs of the fetus, but then there comes a dramatic moment of separation. From the vantagepoint of the newborn, it is a death: we are taken from the place where all has been provided and nothing asked of us, and we move with difficulty into a real that is genuinely different. From another perspective, however, that same trauma of separation is called birth. Think of how our bodies and minds and emotions can grow and develop in the world of time and space in ways that they never could have had we stayed a part of our mother's body. It is obvious that this pattern of dying to a smaller world that we might be born into a larger world is the shape that God has given to our saga of becoming, and that pattern repeats itself as we make ourway through life.

The Challenge of Growing and Moving On

Throughout our lives we have the experience of having to let go of things that have served their purpose so that we might have access to new possibilities. As children we have to leave the sheltered world of the home for a big, ominous building called "school" which, despite our fear and apprehensions, turns out to be a place where we grow and develop in ways that we could not have if our parents had left us at home. We encounter people and books and ideas and music that enrich our perspective on life. Years later, we face the same trauma of having to let go of the elementary school where we had become so comfortable to be thrust into an even more ominous place called the high school, and from there to college. From that point on the same pattern repeats itself, and we learn that everyexit is also an entrance. We never walk out of one situation without walking into another. Hence, we can have the profound conviction that what will happen to us at death is going to be part of that same basic pattern. We are going to leave the world of time and space, but we believe that there is something beyond the gates of physical death that will be exactly right for the growth of our spirit, just as time and space was better than life in the womb and elementary school better than the sheltered backyard of the home.

Our Hope in God's Love

Christian hope is rooted in the belief that God's love for each of us is an everlasting love. Jesus said it this way: In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may also be (John 14:24).

Death is not a descent into nothingless. It is not annihilation. Death is God's way of moving us from one dwelling place into another, a journey one stage further toward God's ultimate intention for us all. If the belief in death-as-transition can take the place of death-as-annihilation, then the whole of our perspective can change. In the words of Paul, "Death has been swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54). The One who has created all things loves everything he has created, everlastingly, and we experience that love differently at different stages of our development.

God's love accompanies us through every stage - from sperm and egg to fetus and infant, then the child, the adolescent, and from there to maturity and old age. There is thus good reason to believe that what happens to us at the beginning will also happen at the end; namely, we die to a small place that we might move on to a greater.

Walking Through the Shadow

We affirm our faith in the Nicene Creed, ending with the words: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come." This sense of expectation that there is something beyond the ending of this life is at the heart of the Christian view of reality. One of the ways that Jesus helps us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death is to cast out that unclean spirit, if you will, of seeing death as annihilation and to replace it with the truth of death as our birth into eternal life.

Jesus can also transform the other common belief that death is a thief who takes from us what is ours by right. Once again, the miracle of birth may hold the clue to understanding this aspect of death. It is helpful to go back and ask the questions: "What did I do to deserve being born? Did I earn my way into this world? Did I cause myself to be? Or is the deeper truth that I was given life as a sheer and total gift? And if this is the secret of my birth, is this not also the secret of everyone else's, too?"

We too often forget that life is a gift, that every birth is a windfall, and that all things are here by the graciousness of God. We can become possessive of our dear ones who, ultimately, belong to Another and were given to us out of sheer and boundless grace. We can forget where they originally came from, and that we had never deserved them. They are not possessions to which we are entitled, but gifts by which we are utterly blessed. When we experience their loss, we can either be filled with anger and resentment, or we can be grateful that they had ever lived at all and that we had the wonder of our time together.

The Spirit Helps us to Remember

Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would help us to remember the things we should never forget, and that means we must remember that the lives of our dear ones are God's gifts and blessings to us. They are not possessions that belong to us. If they were, we would have a right to be angry. Remembering, on the other hand, that they were gifts from the start, we should be grateful that they were ever given to us at all. Only when life is seen as a gift and received with open hands of gratitude is it the joy God meant for it to be.

Gratitude is the best way through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not eliminate the pain that accompanies the work of rebuilding one's life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice has been done, and it opens the way to thanksgiving.

Releasing the Spirit from the Graveyard of the Mind

Gratitude deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the gold old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well. We return to the story of Jesus' healing and transforming the Gerasene demoniac. This deranged man was living in a graveyard out of which he could not find his way, but Jesus was able to cast out the unclean spirits that were causing him so much suffering. He replaced them with a new spirit, one that brought the man back to his right mind, with the ability to give thanks for what Jesus had done. In other words, this man was enabled to begin to live again creatively in the world that was left.

If we allow the risen Christ to transform our childish images of death into his vision of the truth, he will also heal us from our grief in ways we do not expect. The God of all comfort will bring these truths home to our hearts, and we may find it possible to live again inspired by the losses that we have experienced.

Faith Magazine

May - June 2003