The saints were not immune from the suffering that comes from loss and grief. No one is; it’s part of the human condition.
St. Therese of Lisieux was deeply affected by the death of her mother and father. St. Jane de Chantal fell into such a deep depression after the death of her husband that her family worried for her health. St. Francis Borgia mourned his wife for much of the rest of his life. [Saint] Pope John Paul II said that it was out of the loss of his mother that he developed his great love and devotion to the Blessed Mother. Of all the saints, however, it is Elizabeth of Hungary whose deep suffering from grief has lessons we all can learn from.
A thirteenth-century princess, Elizabeth was married at the age of fourteen to Ludwig IV of Thuringia. By all accounts they seem to have been soul mates. Deeply in love, they had three children and appeared destined to live “happily ever after.” However, on his way to join the Crusades, Ludwig died of the Black Death on September 11, 1227. Elizabeth was only twenty. When the news reached her in October, just after she had given birth to a daughter, she is said to have cried out, “The world with all its joys is now dead to me.”
For some time afterward, Elizabeth fell into a deep depression as she grieved the loss of her beloved husband. However, she eventually emerged from her suffering and grief to become honored, even after all these centuries, as one of the great saints of Europe. Her experience of walking through mourning provides those of us who also mourn a profound example.
The first lesson we can learn from her is that she fully experienced her pain. When Ludwig’s body was finally returned, she buried it in the family vault and was said to have wept bitterly and almost inconsolably. She didn’t try to minimize her anguish or brush it aside. She embraced it and recognized that upon Ludwig’s death, for a while at least, all the joys of the world were dead to her. That state of mind is one that we who have grieved know all too well. It’s difficult to experience anything joyful when body and soul are entrapped in sorrow. What we need to realize is that if we don’t allow ourselves to experience our pain and suffering while grieving, it won’t just “go away.” Our feelings become submerged and can often resurface in the form of anger, depression, addiction, or other unhealthy ways.
We need to “feel the feelings” first so that they can eventually be transformed.
Jesus gives us the prime example of how to grieve openly. When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept.
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. (John 11:32-35)
Jesus felt the pain of the loss of his friend, and he allowed himself to experience that suffering. He wept and mourned, even though he knew that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). His example serves as our example as well: The only way out of grief is through it.
Grieving takes time. It isn’t over and done with in the days from the death to the funeral. St. Elizabeth’s life shows us that even saints need time to work through their pain. Elizabeth gave herself time to process the pain. For several months, until the following Good Friday, she withdrew into herself, allowing the passing months and God’s grace to bring about healing. We can only guess that she went through the motions of court life dressed in widow’s garb and caring for her children, all the while bearing in her heart her great pain. Finally, at the end of Lent, she reemerged into life.
And that provides us with another important lesson about grief: Elizabeth did not permit herself to become enchained and ensnared by continual ruminations over her loss. She drew a deep breath, figuratively speaking, and resumed her own existence.
The first thing she did was recommit her life to God. We don’t know what she was thinking about during the months of mourning, but we do know that once they had passed, she sought to fulfill God’s will for the rest of her life. She joined the Third Order of St. Francis, becoming one of the first to do so, and rededicated her life to works of charity. It seems quite fitting that she did this during Holy Week, using the experience of Lent to grieve the loss of her former life, and then, during Easter, embracing her new and deeply changed way of life as her own “new normal.”
Which brings us to the third thing about grief that we can learn from Elizabeth: She began serving others. In the summer of 1228, she built a hospital and took on nursing duties for the sick, an activity that she pursued until her own untimely death at the age of twenty-four. Her action shows us that no matter how painful our losses, we are not to become stuck in the suffering. Rather, suffering can become a way for us to engage more fully with life. We can allow our grief to deepen our own spiritual lives, and we can help others with their suffering.
While the greatest of our suffering from grief comes from the loss of our loved ones, grieving isn’t limited to death. We grieve all the “little deaths” that come with life: reversal of finances, betrayal, unemployment, theft, accidents, loss of relationships, disappointments, accidents, crime, or forced relocations. Grieving can happen anytime that something dear to us is taken away.
Since none of us will get through this life without losing something, we will all experience grief. It’s what we do with that pain—what lessons we allow ourselves to learn and how that suffering can bring us to a greater understanding of ourselves and our purpose here on earth—that really matters.
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is the author of numerous books and articles on faith, family, saints, and spirituality. This is taken from Facing Adversity with Grace: Lessons from the Saints. Available at your local bookstore and Amazon.