I walked away from my dad’s graveside service, crying unashamedly.
The final prayers, the gun salute, and the presentation of the flag for this World War II veteran were more than my fragile emotions could handle. I hugged and was hugged by my husband, my children, my brother, and my sisters. All of us shared a deep and overwhelming grief at that moment.
Then my four-year-old grandson was beside me, tugging at my hand. “Grandma,” he asked, with great concern on his face, “are you always going to be sad?” Clearly my tears were upsetting to him. He had probably never seen me cry before.
I smiled down at him and assured him, “No, I won’t always be sad. But I do need to be sad for a little while. Okay?”
Some people can overcome the worst of grief in just a few weeks. For most of us, it may take six months to a year. Yet many people will have recurring episodes of grief for years after the loss. The goal is not to recover from grief as quickly as possible but rather to recover well. The longer we deny our feeling of grief, the longer it will take for us to fully recover.
The simple fact is that everyone grieves differently but there is no right or wrong way. Grief is an extremely personal experience that can be influenced by many circumstances. The timing of the death, the way the person died, and other stress in our lives at the time can all impact how we grieve.
One thing we know is that everyone grieves at some time. As much as death is a part of life, grief is also a part of life. Invariably, when one person dies, another one will grieve. Yet we like to ignore grief, push it under the carpet, and pretend that it isn’t there. Take your three or four days of bereavement time, and then please get back to work. Don’t mention it again.
However, ignoring grief isn’t helpful. We will find our way through our grief more easily if we accept grieving as a good and instinctive process. It’s a natural side-effect of loving. No one is immune to it. It’s the great equalizer. All of us, whether rich or poor, intelligent or simple, successful or struggling, will someday come face-to-face with grief. Some have been destroyed by their grief. Most make the journey through grief with a few scars on the heart and some tender spots in their souls. And the truly blessed find grief to be a time to draw closer to God and to live life more fully, more gratefully, and more blessed.
Even if we try to pick ourselves up and shake ourselves off, sometimes we still feel the burden of grief is useless. What can it accomplish?
One of the primary purposes of the grieving process might be found in the ancient writings of Scripture, which tell us we have an innate longing for God.
O God, you are my God—
it is you I seek!
For you my body yearns;
for you my soul thirsts,
In a land parched, lifeless,
and without water. (Psalm 63:2)
My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and flesh cry out
for the living God. (Psalm 84:3)
A great benefit of grief might be that it makes us more fully aware of this spiritual longing. When a very special person is gone from our lives, the only One who can really understand us is God. Grief throws us into the arms of our loving God.
Shortly after her beloved husband died, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton wrote of this deeper connection with God in a letter to a friend: “I cannot doubt the mercy of God who by depriving me of my dearest tie on earth will certainly draw me nearer to him.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us this is a closeness we all crave: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (27). And the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults expands on this truth: “God has planted in every human heart the hunger and longing for the infinite, for nothing less than God.”
When life is going well, we may not be aware of this deep longing for God. When we are busy with many things, we may not feel this divine tugging at our hearts. But when someone we love has been taken from us, we hunger for love in a way we have never known before. It is then that God can truly touch our hearts as he has never been able to reach us before.
When we need strength and understanding beyond what our family and friends can provide, God is the only answer. When we feel a hole in our heart because someone we loved has been taken from us, we become more aware—consciously or unconsciously—of our need for God. Maybe that is one of the purposes of grief. Grief, on one level, could be an invitation from God to slow down and get to know him better.
When the apostles were grieving in the upper room because Jesus had been killed, the Lord appeared to them and turned their grief into rejoicing. But Thomas was not there, and so he continued to grieve and doubt. One week later, Jesus appeared again, when Thomas was there. He said to Thomas, “Bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (John 20:27). In the same way, when we are grieving, God is inviting us to put our hand into his side and to learn to believe in him. For his love is greater than any other love, and it can sustain us through all pain and all grief.
Because your grief is unique you may need to find someone very special to help you through this journey. One of the saints mentioned here might be a good spiritual companion for you at this critical point in your life. Maybe you need to seek out the companionship of a friend who has experienced a similar grief. A religiously focused support group might be helpful. In extreme cases, in which grief is crippling or leading to suicidal thoughts, you should seek the help of a certified grief counselor. Don’t try to handle your grief alone.
—excerpted from Finding a Loving God in the Midst of Grief by Susan M. Erschen, TWAU Press 2019. Available at www.wau.org/books