A change in the month; leaving one year behind for a new one; the movement of the liturgical calendar as we move through the last days of the Christmas season into Ordinary Time; each change, while bringing with it a sense of newness, or potential, also brings with it a sense of grieving as well.
Grief is one of those strange and mysterious things in our human existence. Yes, I say mysterious, because – as anyone who has dealt with the immediacy of grief will be able to relate – our responses to any loss are as varied and unique as the person experiencing the loss. Those losses can be anything really – something as tragic as the loss of a young woman in our community recently, or something as trivial as a change in our office or living space.
Whenever anything in our life changes, we go through those oft-mentioned ‘stages’ of grief (depending on the psychology text you read, there could be anywhere from 4 to 40 stages of grief), but they all involve some similarites; we disbelieve, we withdraw, we become numb or angry, we try to ‘negotiate’ – and perhaps, at some point, we come to make a sort of peace with the loss that we grieve. But each person’s reactions and journey is a bit of a mystery to those around them; we never know exactly how someone will react to news of loss or exactly how they are progressing afterwards.
I know there is no perfect analogy, and this one is not by any means accurate, but the whole grief process we go through can be compared to a medicinal ointment or treatment or bandage. It stings at first, but properly tended, promotes circumstances that lead to healing. Grief – the ointment – didn’t cause the injury, but it is one of the results of the injury needed for us to become well again.
That, to me, is the mystery of grief; it can, in time, even strengthen us to the point that when we encounter others who are grieving, we can become a source of support for them. There is no stronger advocate for others than one who has suffered through and overcome a particular loss or trauma.
God often is blamed for the circumstances that result in our losses – ‘why didn’t God stop that’ or ‘why did God allow such-and-such to happen’ are common enough questions or responses. This type of response in tragedy is often married to the suggestion that God is not there, present, or that God doesn’t care.
I once heard a rabbi remark that for him, the surest proof of God’s existence (with apologies to St. Thomas Aquinas) was that in the darkest of times, or the saddest of circumstances, people are put in our paths at just the right time, with just the right actions or words that help us along the path to healing.
That makes sense to me; especially when I consider a God who (as we just celebrated) was willing to empty Himself of His divinity to become one just like us; one who experienced all of the trials and struggles, the joys and sorrows, the gifts and the losses that are part and parcel of what makes us human. In his gospel, St. John uses the expression, ‘in the fullness of time’ describing when God entered our existence in the person of Jesus, as one of us. It was the right time, and the right place.
That opportunity is held out to us each day, in all of our own struggles, losses and sorrows; that God is entering into our reality when we need Him the most, in those around us who are there to help us grieve, to heal, and eventually to hope and celebrate life again.
On our part, we need to be present to those around us, so that grief doesn’t become so overwhelming that they lose sight of the light, the hope and the love that they experienced and remain part of, before they suffered loss.
And I suppose, that’s the key; to be truly present to each other – not ready with some personal wisdom or suggestions – but present; to watch and wait and heal with each other, with compassionate and caring hearts.
A compassion and caring that often is not discovered in our own hearts until we ourselves grieve. And that, to me, is the mystery of the ‘giftedness’ of grief.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!