Giving Our Grief over to the “Man Acquainted with Grief”

With the coming of Christ into the depths of all things human, we now know that even our grief can be given over to the good God … All losses can become places of life, places of intimacy with Christ, if we show him these wounds caused by bereavement.

 

The pain of loss can be so difficult to face that many turn away from such pain, and, ironically, lose themselves in a world of their own making and artificial consolation. Compassion wells up in us as we meet such persons. No one wants to face the pain of loss. Such is the way of grief, the way of avoidance of the pain of loss, the suffering of the absence of a way of life that was once present but now taken, the presence of a person who once filled our senses and soul with joy, now gone. These takings and losses are as cruel as they are inevitable. No one is spared the takings and losses of life, even as we fantasize that “if I am good, my life will be comfortable,” “if I have faith, God will spare me great losses.” Since loss is inevitable, our psychological defenses against such pain can achieve overdrive—careening us into a way of being filled with fantasy and denial. We can be fooled that we are not really sad, we are not really angry, we are not really experiencing an affective vertigo, and so we say, “I just have to stick to my daily routine, follow the rules, hang on by my fingernails. I will get through this loss.” Sometimes our losses are subtle, and we do not even notice how much they have impacted us. For example, we may miss the routine of our day after we changed homes or towns. We may miss the walk we once took to the bus stop, or our daily walk to the park near our former home, a home we no longer live in, a park we no longer enter. These losses can be felt indirectly and simply dismissed, we think. And yet our lossesboth large (death) and small (a new town to live in)need to be acknowledged and healed, or they cling to our hearts, small webs catching all sorts of emotions, and even temptations. Unacknowledged grief births disproportionate responses to our own and others’ common sufferings. Harboring unacknowledged grief, one may become dismissive of other persons’ “grief”—“Oh, come on, it was just a pet.” Hidden in this dismissal is one’s own pain for having to leave that home, and that daily walk in the park. The message is clear: “I had to give up something very comforting to me; now you carry your load, too. Stop whining.” Acknowledging grief, small or large, is not easy, and we are masters at not allowing grief to rise to consciousness. If it were to rise, we would have to cry, or mourn, or ask questions about God or life, and we really simply want to “move on.”

To receive the grief of loss, we are invited to pay attention to our disproportionate responses to others’ losses, to notice unexpected tears, or bouts of sadness, without a concrete reason. We are urged by truth to let the grief finally arrive in our heart, the responsive part that carries the full consciousness of our loss, the part that communicates to our awareness, in an integrated way, how much of my life was caught up in the reality that was lost to me. In other words, the part of my heart that may ignite tears. Tears free us to finally surrender to the pain that is felt when beauty is taken from us or lost to us. In tears, we receive the full truth about the loss; we “see” how much this person or this way of life or this component to life that is now gone had so affected my happiness. Now living without it is a wound to the very way I live. When these tears burst through and overwhelm the wall I had built to protect myself from the pain of loss, I know both an emotional freedom, and yet, a strange isolation; “My loss is real.” In this freedom, then, is the invitation to not remain isolated and finally share the pain of loss with someone else—another loved one, a professional counselor, or with God.

For people of faith, sharing grief with God can be ambiguous because we sometimes harbor the unspoken belief that God caused the loss we are grieving: “It was God who refused to intervene and prevent my loss.” In fact, Christ reveals that God is the author and source of goodness; he is the source of only love, and that God is, in fact, “fighting” each day to lead us more deeply into his love so as to heal this “lie” that somehow he is the one who takes from us. “I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). God gives. God is not involved in taking. God so hated evil and what it does to us—robs us of life—that he came among us to take on grief as his own. He came among us to be one with us in sorrow, so that sorrow does not lead us into isolation and temptation. As Isaiah prophesied about the Christ, the one who suffers for the people, he was “a man of suffering, knowing pain” (Is 53: 3).

With the coming of Christ into the depths of all things human, we now know that even our grief can be given over to the good God because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15). All losses can become places of life, places of intimacy with Christ, if we show him these wounds caused by bereavement. At the Eucharist, in the silence of our post communion meditation (a safe place emotionally where all can be spoken to God), we should open each wound of grief to him, and let him respond to our needs as he sees fit. Mary at Cana revealed what we are lacking (“they have no wine” Jn 2:3), and he responded to what she noticed. What do you notice about your grief over past or present wounds? Offer what you notice—do not ask for anything; just show him what you notice. He will do the rest. In this way, your wounds become fountains of life, places of gratitude, as Christ redeems the losses that you notice and present to him. The one who grieves can join his grief to the love that gave birth to Christ’s own grief. There is, in this relating of grief, the potential for a communion of persons, known in the experience of the mystery of suffering, by both the suffering person, and the one who loves him. Our intimacy with God grows deeper, not only in the joy of ecstasy, but also in the sorrows of desolation, if one reveals such sorrows to him in love and hope.

Grief is a form of weakness, a form of collapse before the truth that what you loved is now gone, or what you were dependent upon has now changed, or what you desired or dreamed has now evaporated. Embracing this collapse before the truth gives us intimacy with the poor Christ who also grieved a dream not fully realized, a message not fully received, and a love not circulated. In grief, one may identify with Christ as he lets go of all and hangs upon the cross uttering the same cry that our losses give birth to: “where are you, God?” We only need to know that, as we cry over loss, Christ is crying in usas us, so close to us, so one with us, that we may feel alone. God is grieving with us, suffering in us, because he is loving us (see Regis Martin, Suffering of Love, 69).

To grieve in faith is to first behold the action of Christ upon the cross, and elsewhere in revelation, as he unveils his deep love for us (Lk 13:34). As we contemplate these acts of love, we can welcome their truth into our imagination, thus rendering our imagination sacred. A sacred imagination is one filled with the Paschal Mystery. We grieve by relating all to what faith has us “see.” Such a vision rests upon the behavior of Christ as he directs divine empathy toward our weakness, limit, finitude, and sin. Contemplation and grief were one beneath the cross; Mary and John’s sorrow, and their contemplation of what they beheld before them, coalesced as a response to their love of the Lord. Theirs was a grief that beheld love, and, as such, it became a prayer, it became a way of being with the Trinity even as loss was being suffered. “At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last” (cf. Stabat Mater). The vital component to any grief being healed is for the mourner to stay at the cross, stay close to Jesus’ own grief born of Love, and transcended in communion with the Father. As St. Pope John Paul II has taught:

Those who share in Christ’s sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But, if at the same time in this weakness, there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God, manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. (Salvifici Doloris §23)

Our grief can be “lifted up,” infused with the power of the resurrection. In believing the truth of the cross, we affirm that “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). Yet, we often live in fear as we anticipate that all will be taken from us by the circumstances of life. Faith is bestowed upon us to tutor us in this truth: the soul lives where it loves. We are not meant to live in fear; we are destined to live in freedom, a freedom that comes from communion with Trinitarian love. The presence of grief in our hearts reveals that we have indeed loved and lost. But, if we place the fullness of our lives, the complete reality of our livesits loves and lossesinto the wounds of Christ upon the cross, nothing that is good is ever lost forever. Grief must be met by, and opened by, something beyond itself, if it is to function in a healthy way. Grief alone can only leave us in the memory of love. Over time, to live in grief is to resist the hints of the resurrection that are shared between ourselves and the response God gives to us as we reveal our hearts to him.

Certainly, grief is not to be jettisoned by a manipulative will so we can just “move past all this.” No, we stay in grief receiving the truth of how real is our capacity to love and be loved. We stay receiving the healing of tears, we stay receiving the grace of having been loved and loving, we stay receiving the memories of beauty, we stay receiving the healing of sharing our grief with others who love, and with God who is always reaching us to heal. To hurry through grief is to short circuit the full healing gained by living in this truth: I was affected by someone in the depths of my heart, or by something meaningful, and now those are lost to me. However, one cannot live in loves that are past; one must allow the love of the past to be taken up into God’s love, drawing the mourner from the past into the present, allowing new life and light to circulate in the heart. God’s overflowing love is eager to establish us in the present where love and life are ever available, and ever running from his heart. “Let anyone who thirsts, come to me and drink! Whoever believes in me…‘rivers of living water will flow from within him.’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive” (Jn 7:37-39). Suffering grief may be compounded by our resistance to change, our choice not to embrace what is new, about our lives each day. To be sad about a loss is not our fault, but just as one has no culpability in causing the pain experienced in an accident, the victim may compound the injury by resisting the needed physical therapy, resisting the necessity to move.

By opening the grief to Christ on the cross, we are welcoming his slow and gentle initiative to open the heart again to life in the present. By being healed of grief, one is not “forgetting” the person or experience that was lost to them; no, these profound realities are etched even deeper in our soul as we converse with Christ about them in prayer. Nothing of love is lost by placing all that we have loved, and lost, in Christ’s most Sacred Heart. As St. Pope John Paul II has written, “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And, at the same time, it has entered into a completely new dimension, and a new order: it has been linked to love … to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross, constantly takes its beginning. The Cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers” (Salvifici Doloris §18). The path of the Christian is clearly Christ’s own: sharing in the Cross comes about through the experience of the Risen One’s love. Only by receiving the deep love of the Trinity, can we undergo suffering in such a way that love is deepened, and not threatened. Thus, for followers of Christ, within suffering, there often appears the consolation of glory. The birth of glory is received in grief. Grief and glory are not mutually exclusive if one is receiving the love of God in faith and hope. “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:13).

Spiritual maturation, as well as mental health, requires that we submit to something higher than ourselves. To surrender in love to God is how we stay in reality, and not get duped into despair. Even if all is taken from us, God will never take himself from us. And, when we receive God again in love and hope, we receive all whom we have ever loved, as all love is contained in God.

A Strange Grief

There is one more way we grieve, and it is the opposite of one losing the good; it is, rather, the loss of the pleasure of evil. We can, in real ways, grieve the loss of sin. This possibility of grieving the loss of evil is only due to our weakened nature and the consequent cascade of temptations that take advantage of such weakness. To understand how weak or spiritually sick we are, can we imagine that a physically sick person would ever miss the “comfort” of his hospital bed, and the misery that got him into that bed in the first place? And yet, sinners miss the “comfort” of their spiritual pathology.  St. Augustine articulates the classic description of how one grieves a sin he must now abandon:

I hesitated to die to death, and to live to life. And the worse way, to which I was habituated, was stronger in me than the better, which I had not tried. And up to the very moment in which I was to become another man, the nearer the moment approached, the greater horror did it strike in me. But it did not strike me back, nor turn me aside, but held me in suspense. It was, in fact, my old mistresses, trifles of trifles and vanities of vanities, who still enthralled me. They tugged at my fleshly garment,s and softly whispered: “Are you going to part with us? And from that moment, will we never be with you anymore? And from that moment, will not this and that be forbidden you forever?”…And now I scarcely heard them, for they were not openly showing themselves, and opposing me face to face; but muttering, as it were, behind my back; and furtively plucking at me as I was leaving, trying to make me look back at them. Still they delayed me, so that I hesitated to break loose, and shake myself free of them, and leap over to the place to which I was being called—for unruly habit kept saying to me, “Do you think you can live without them?” (Confessions, VIII.11)

I hesitated, I delayed, I looked back, and I wondered if I could live without my sins … and so on. All of these are expressions of a deeply held attachment to which Christ asks us to give up. We can call this struggle “nostalgia for sin.” This nostalgia can be demonically utilized to tempt us to return to that which was jettisoned, a temptation strong in times in which Christian living is difficult, or the affirmation one needs from others is not forthcoming, or the strain of trying to stay in relationship to a Spirit for years becomes more ethereal than ecstatic. It is then that we miss our sins and the artificial consolations they spawn. If we do not turn immediately to the Lord upon his cross, and seek his face, then such pathological grief can rise up and possess us. It leads us back to isolation, the past, the way of bondage; it blocks light and life. Since the Son of God himself entered human sorrow, sorrow is now capable of bearing intimacy. In our legitimate grief, we turn to him, and meet him at Lazarus’s tomb, or weeping over Jerusalem. When my nostalgia for the slavery of Egypt, or the artificial consolations of personal sin arise, I turn to him upon the crossthe very cross which those enslavements and sins createdand there he is, even there, waiting to receive my sorrow into his own love for me.

Conclusion: Grieving in Christ

When something, or someone, is lost to us, we know the wrenching pain of grief. After such loss, we experience isolation and paralysis—something dark and heavy has befallen us. We did not choose this. We are not responsible; it just happened. In this state, we turn to the One pinned to love upon the cross, the One who entered all the dark places of human aloneness and isolation, so that his light and love could reach even there. Our natural movement in grief is to turn in on the self, to isolate our affective movements of lost love, and taste the bitter torment of being thrust into a world not of our choosing, or one that radiates our good. For grief to be transcendedslowly, and with great patience, and gentlenesswe ask the Holy Spirit to come into the grief and move us along into the present life, where the fullness of God’s omnipotent love can be received. God is always interested in moving us into the present, because that is where he lives, where he is found, where he is working to heal, and restore, and renew. With the help of family, friends, good spiritual counsel, and psychological therapy (when needed), one is taken by Christ into the Light through his Eucharistic mystery, his anointed hands, and his empathic Sacred Heart. It is this heart to which we relate all our sorrow as we behold his cross, and in return, he lifts us to the one constant in his own life: Nothing “can separate us from the love of God ” (Rom 8:38-39). He aches to reveal this mystery to the grieving heart.

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avatar About Deacon James Keating

Deacon James Keating, Ph.D., is the Director of Theological Formation at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. He has published widely in spiritual and doctrinal theology.

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