Father Mark, Sermons

The Mystery Underlying Grief and Loss

I was asked to address the subject of grief.  I heard a long time ago a saying, “The only constant in life is change.”  Change mean loss.  Even if the change is welcomed, something is lost in the transition.  Even recovering alcoholics who are grateful and love their new found freedom can grieve the “old days” when they drank.

What is grief and what are we dealing with?  First, let’s define three terms:

Bereavement is the state of being in grief. 

Grief is the experience of our loss. 

Mourning, such as going through a funeral and a bereavement group, is what we do in the process of working through grief. 

Grief is a normal, and I want to emphasize normal, response to loss.  Grief doesn’t feel normal because normal to us is what life was before the loss.   Grief involves the totality of our being:  spiritual, intellectual, physical and the mental—emotional self.  Loss throws our life off balance.

The root word in bereavement means to “tear away from.”  Grief is what is experienced in the state of being torn.  This is where your hear terms like “heart broken,” and it’s more than metaphorical.  Grief, the feeling, is experienced in the body.  The spirit, one with the body. Is torn, even if not visible to the human eye.   There is a metaphorical internal bleeding that goes on, leaving us in pain, confusion and with a loss of energy.   

Grief affects our biology, compromising our endocrine/hormone system and our immune system.  Grief affects our brain functioning, inhibiting the thought process and overstimulating the emotional brain. The body carries the grief in a multiple array of unpleasant feelings. 

The physical symptoms and the mental racing thoughts or moments of feeling stunned feels like we’ve been hit between the eyes with a 2×4. 

Losing a loved one catapults us into this experience of being in a never-never land.  

Feeling like we’re suspended, the disoriented mind involuntarily tries to bargain with itself in order to undo the pain and loss, trying to return to what was before the loss occurred. 

Again, all of this experience is normal.  

Our first instinct when the feeling of grief arises is to attempt to escape it, which only makes it worse.  It is easy to believe that “I’m not doing life right” because I can’t get over this, can’t function to my optimum, am low on energy and other imbalances.  All of this is to be expected.  Resistance to the grief complicates and enlarges it while learning to lean into grief’s unpleasantness like Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes begins our healing.

We hear Jesus in the Beatitudes, (Matt. 5): “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  Mourning has several aspects: it is a process of grieving for once was love and lost, while also longing deeply for wholeness to occur in the midst of emotional turmoil and emptiness.  The word for comforted means being returned from a state of wandering, from being lost, united within by love, feeling an inner continuity and to receive that which for one longs in a new form.  Comfort over a period of time allows our inner strength to return helping our wounds heal from being aligned with the One.  

Grief work is Holy work because we are merged with God.   Jesus also normalizes sorrow (John 16:22):  “You also now have sorrow, but I shall see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.”                                                          

Mourning, working through grief, involves numerous approaches depending on the personality of the bereaved.  Since the body, mind and spirit cannot be separated as it erroneously is in our culture, mourning involves a combination of spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical approaches since grief covers all the facets of our being human. 

Men and women grieve differently and all need to some extent a blending of interpersonal contact support and personal space to varying degrees.  There are phases of grief through which we travel that vacillate back and forth through time which cannot be calculated because each person is unique.  Grief cannot be simplified by stages, like walking up a flight of stairs.  Grief cuts its own path and actually involves more of an experience of descent than ascent in its nature as mourning takes us deeper into God. 

Grief is a far more complicated phenomena than I can address here.  However I would like to make two points.  First, is that when someone we love dies, we experience the tearing and the absence for an extended period of time.  If we have accepted our cross of grief to bear, then gradually over a period of time, the person whom we’ve loved and lost will return again to live within our heart that was once broken since they are no longer limited by the physical realm as we are.   Our relationships are changed from being one with the other, to having the beloved come alive in our hearts.  I have experienced this over and over again with people whom I have loved and lost, only to gain their presence in a new way.

Secondly, grief teaches that when we lose another, the ache within us is also an ache for God. 

Our grief appropriately mourned leads us into the heart of God as God is present within ours patiently waiting for us to merge more deeply with the Spirit.  Grief can come from changes and losses in our relationships with people, places and situations.  Thus we are grieving something most of the time because of these changes.

What is most important is to realize the pain that we experience is not weakness, as our western Stoic philosophy would falsely lead us to believe, but shows how real the love is that we shared with those we have lost.  

The other item is that grief, being Holy Work, leads us into God.  And this is the greatest blessing and purpose of all.