We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. —1 Thes 4:13–14
BECAUSE OF OUR FAITH in the Resurrection, is it realistic for Catholics to expect to grieve differently from those who have no hope? In my experience as a hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor, I would have to say yes, but don’t expect the pain to be any less intense.
As long as we’re human, we don’t get a free pass. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. I often remind people of that, especially those who say things like, “I thought I’d be stronger. I know he’s with the Lord,” or, “My wife and I were daily communicants. I shouldn’t be crying like this every night,” or, “It’s been two months. Shouldn’t I be over this by now? I’ve always had strong faith.”
A Consequence of Love
Normal grief includes an array of intense emotions, deep sadness, and sometimes even depression. But our hope in the Resurrection and the thought of seeing our loved ones again can be a hedge against despair. That’s the difference. The very definition of despair is hopelessness.
Weeping over the loss of someone we’ve loved with all our heart is not a sign of despair, nor is it inconsistent with being strong and having faith. The grief we feel is the natural consequence of love, and the greater our love, the greater our grief. Would we have it any other way? Would we build barriers around us to temper love so it won’t hurt so much in the end? C.S. Lewis writes, “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”
The other side of love is always pain, and we can’t do a thing about it. It’s going to hurt when our loved one dies. Why add unnecessary guilt, telling ourselves we ought not to be grieving so deeply because we’re believers? Grief is the normal emotional response to loss. No one escapes it because we’re all human. So go ahead and cry. Tears are good, healing, precious to God, and never wasted. “Are my tears not stored in your vial, recorded in your book?” (Ps 56:9).
The Grief Process
Grief can affect us on every level: physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually. Experts in the field of thanatology (death, dying, and bereavement) write about the experience of grief in similar ways. They steer away from old models of stages, as if you’ll magically find closure when you get through the last stage.
Closure is such an inadequate word, anyway, when it comes to grief. There’s no such thing as closure when those dearest to us die. It’s more that we move beyond, we integrate the loss into the tapestry of our lives, and we somehow learn to live with it.
J. William Worden, author of Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, defines the grief process as a series of four tasks. He doesn’t see it as stages but more as a circular process where the one grieving moves back and forth and all over the circle, sometimes working on more than one thing at a time.
Face the Truth
The first crucial task is to accept the reality of the loss, to come to grips with the fact that your loved one has died and will not be coming back. Normally, though, in the early days after the death, you may be in shock and feel numb, stunned, as if you’re having a bad dream. Then, when the shock wears off, you’re faced with all sorts of confusing feelings.
Your mind can play tricks on you. One minute you know your loved one has died, the next you imagine that he’s only away on a fishing trip and will soon walk back through the door. Some people may get alarmed and want to tell you you’re in denial and that you should snap out of it. But a little denial in the beginning is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help us take in the reality of the loss in smaller doses and give us a little control when things have suddenly turned chaotic. But when the full reality sets in, so does the pain.
Though humans are unique and will grieve in their own way, there are some common aspects. Normal reactions can include anger, guilt, relief, replaying the events, and going over all the “what ifs” and “if onlys”: What if we’d gone to the doctor earlier? If only we had taken that other treatment. What if we’d asked for a second opinion? If only I’d been there more.
Though questioning and second-guessing is normal, it can drive us crazy if we don’t limit it. If we’re able to find even a little compassion for ourselves, we’d have to admit that we did the best we could with the information we had, and we did it out of love. The person we’ve lost would not want us to go through all this emotional self-torture.
Experience the Pain
The second task in Worden’s theory is to experience the pain of grief, awful as it may be at times. To run from it, to deny it, to cover it up with an excess of alcohol, sleep, food, drugs, or any other mind-numbing remedy is only to delay the process. Sooner or later, for the sake of our overall health, grief has to be faced and resolved.
Talking with a good friend might help you to process your emotions during your time of grief. Hopefully you know someone who will not feel the need to fix things, who will simply allow you to talk about your loss and express your feelings.
If your loved one died on hospice service, you and any member of your family are entitled to 13 months of one-on-one bereavement counseling at no cost. The counselor will visit you at your home or at the hospice office, whatever you prefer. Bereavement support groups are also available. Many people report they find comfort and support in a group. “It helps to know I’m not alone,” they say. “It’s good to find others who know what I’m going through.”
Dealing with so many conflicting emotions can make us feel disorganized, confused, forgetful, apathetic, and aimless. Then, just when we start believing we’ll never think straight again, we find ourselves reorganizing or regrouping: What am I going to do now? How will I live the rest of my life? This can be a time of incredible spiritual growth as we pray for God to show us the way.
Adjust to a New Normal
The third task is to adjust to an environment, externally and internally, where your loved one is no longer physically present. This is typically a time of renewed socialization, when you find yourself laughing again and are closer to coming to terms with what’s happened. You move into what is commonly referred to as “a new normal.”
From time to time, out of the blue, grief will take us completely by surprise again. And all the awful feelings will return, but they won’t last as long. When it happens, it’s good to remember this is normal, and you’re not going crazy. It is a brief grief recurrence.
Wedding anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and especially the date of the death can bring up your grief. A certain song, the smell of your loved one’s perfume or aftershave lotion, a glimpse of someone who walks the way she walked or laughs the way he laughed can cause tears to well up in your eyes.
Perhaps you’ve had a special dream where he appeared to you and assured you he’s all right. Or you felt her presence one night and kept it to yourself because it was impossible to explain. The bittersweet memories lingered for a while and gave you a measure of peace. Be assured that you are not going crazy. Accept it all as a gift to help in your healing.
You’ll revisit each task in the grief circle from time to time, but the feelings may not be as intense. Some of my bereaved clients told me that they had woken up months later with a sense of unreality. They asked themselves, just as they had in the beginning, Did this really happen? But overall, on most days, it’s clear that you’re beginning to heal. You’re sleeping better and getting out more, and you know you’re going to survive.
The fourth and final task is to move beyond, to move forward with your life, with your loved one safe in your heart and memories, entrusted to God until you meet again. The gift of hope in the Resurrection has carried you through the dark journey of grief and loss.
Finding Strength in Hope
When I was working as a hospital chaplain in Arizona, I was asked to give a talk on grief to a group of young women whose babies had died. I fretted a little, thinking about it. What could I say to comfort them? How could I possibly understand what these mothers were going through? And then I thought of my oldest daughter, whose only son, my only grandson, had died at birth 12 years earlier. She knew how they felt.
As I was walking outside my hospital to an adjacent building where I was to give my presentation, I suddenly felt the presence of Sean Christopher. I became overwhelmed with the realization that now he would be 12 years old. What would he have looked like? How would he have sounded when he laughed? What would be his interests?
I was caught off guard and felt completely shaken with grief. I mourned for all those years we didn’t have with him and all the years we’d never have. I mourned that he would never know his three sisters, we could not go to his graduation, he would not be with us at all the holiday meals, and that he was not in our family pictures. I fought back the tears in that lonely walk across the parking lot to the building next door.
By the time I made it to the meeting room, I knew I had to pull myself together. I had a talk to give, and I needed to be a professional. But right after the facilitator introduced me and I took the microphone, I started to cry. It was embarrassing, but there seemed no way for me to stop the tears.
Then, I spoke from the heart and told the small group of concerned women what had just happened and how grief is never really completely over. It was an opportunity to talk about trigger events, and what better place to have a grief recurrence than right there with women who knew so well how I felt?
Though grief may knock the wind out of us for a time, our faith in the Resurrection can be our strength. God made a promise that we will see our loved ones again someday. This we believe. This is our hope.
How Can We Help Those Who Mourn?
MOST PEOPLE are well-intentioned and want to help a friend who has just lost a loved one, but they’re not certain how to go about it. Often we find ourselves talking too much or saying the wrong thing, not because we’re insensitive, but because we’re nervous and just don’t know what to say.
As I have provided grief counseling, people have related to me some unhelpful comments they wished they hadn’t received from friends and coworkers. Anything that begins with “At least . . .” can be perceived as minimizing the loss: “At least you still have your daughter. At least he didn’t suffer. At least you’re young and can marry again.”
Questions that elicit information can be seen as insensitive: “How old was she? What kind of cancer did he have? When did he get the diagnosis? Did she have radiation and chemo?”
Theological statements can be delicate: “She’s singing with the angels! He’s happy and at peace now. She’s in a better place.” As Catholics, we believe this to be true, but these are statements about the person who has died. Grief is about the survivor: the husband, the wife, the significant other, the mother, the father, the son or the daughter who is still here, left to deal with the enormous pain. It’s best to let them lead the way. You can start the conversation by simply saying,
“Tell me what you’re going through.” Then ask open-ended questions: “What happened then? How did you feel when the doctor said that? How are you coping now?” If they say to us, “She’s in a better place,” then we can agree, because it’s about their views, not ours.
We can never go wrong if we simply and sincerely say, “I am so sorry,” or, “I don’t know what to say.” Or maybe offer a hug with no words at all. A warm, silent embrace speaks volumes, more than all the eloquent words we could ever summon.
The bereavement period is such a stressful time for everyone, and we’ve probably all blundered more than once. But when the one who is grieving senses that we truly care, then that’s all that matters. I love what Maya Angelou says about this: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”