How to Deal With Grief as a Resurrection People
In a society that values personal happiness above all else, is it possible to authentically express sorrow without burdening others unnecessarily? Perhaps the greater question is, should we burden others or even be burdened ourselves by suffering in solidarity with people in crisis, pain, and grief?
Grief is a topic I long ago became acquainted with and yet one I avoided for many years. I failed to see the connection God was weaving so providentially in my life until my youngest daughter was born with a rare disease. That day a caregiver was also born: me. I never wanted to be a caregiver, though I admired them from a distance. I also never wanted a child with severe special needs that would require multiple corrective surgeries over the course of her lifetime, not to mention social ostracizing due to her facial and limb differences.
Chronic grief stripped my life of joy for a time after Sarah was born. I loved that little girl with a heart so full that I couldn’t contain that love within myself alone. But the pain of daily life and finding a new sense of normalcy gripped and smothered me. I wondered if I would always carry my cross begrudgingly, or if somehow I could discover that the burden did, in fact, become lighter with the grace of Jesus.
It saddens me how society avoids suffering. Even less personal is the topic of grief itself, and yet the word conjures up innumerable responses of discomfort. I think people erroneously assume that grief is restricted to a widow who has lost her husband to death or, more generally, anyone who has lost someone to death. But grief encompasses far more than death.
In a figurative sense, grief does involve death of some sort, because a loss must occur in order to induce the personal and fluid expression of grief. Perhaps you lost a home, a job, a relationship, a pet, or maybe you are suffering with a loved one who is afflicted with a psychological diagnosis or addiction. The bottom line is: Grief is personal and multifaceted.
It does not fit tidily in a little box of chronological stages. Grief can strike in the most unexpected (and unsolicited) of places and times, crashing a wave of anger or sadness from an intense memory that triggers deep, inexplicable sorrow into our hearts.
As with Our Lady, our hearts have been pierced by a sword.
So what do we do with the problem of suffering, and even more, the problem of redemptive suffering? How do we reconcile these questions with our faith in a benevolent God?
I questioned God’s benevolence immediately following Sarah’s birth. It seemed cruel to inflict her with what appeared to be a lifetime of social isolation, surgeries, and therapies. More selfishly, however, I didn’t want to be the one to serve as a primary caregiver for someone who needed daily management of medical and developmental concerns. So I temporarily adopted the concept that God must be cruel, that He was somehow a masochist who delighted in my suffering so that I could reach Heaven by way of the Via Dolorosa.
But I wrestled with this false ideology like Jacob wrestled with the dark figure in the Old Testament. My heart was restless, and though I was angry at God – angrier than I had ever been before with Him – I sought Him in the darkness and mess of my life at the time. For nearly two weeks, my interior life was in utter upheaval and turmoil, though it remained hidden from everyone except God and me. At night, I would sob uncontrollably when everyone else had gone to bed, because it was the only time I could release what was pent up inside me during the day from dark thoughts and despondency filling my heart.
Somehow God met me in that wrestling, in the darkness. His grace penetrated my anger, which was really displaced misunderstanding of “why bad things happen to good people.” Countless prayers from concerned family members, friends, and neighbors upheld me, and I felt the tumult subside like fog lifting high above the horizon and dissipating to reveal a perfectly clear, sunny day. My eyes – and the eyes of my heart – were opened as God washed over me with the “peace that surpasses all understanding.”
I realized two things over the course of about a year. One is that God’s permissive will was at play with Sarah’s condition and my new role as a caregiver, and He wanted to meet me on the road to Calvary. Actually, He wanted me to meet Him on this road and learn about the beauty and gift of suffering with grace. I couldn’t do this without accepting and embracing the cross, beginning with a lot of reflection and meditation on the Passion and Paschal Mystery. The second was that life is full of mysteries, and I had to accept that I won’t understand everything in this life. I have to rest in the peace of trusting “a known God with an unknown future.”
So God’s benevolence isn’t contingent upon circumstances. We have to consider the factors of the First Fall and the First Sin. Both of these play into why maladies of all sorts infest our world, including animals and plants. This is where God’s permissive will comes into being. He doesn’t actively will for any evil or harm, but He permits unthinkable torments so that we might learn the difficult lesson of suffering well.
The Cross is powerful. It is so poignant, simple, and perhaps oddly comforting to us when we are in the dark throes of grief. Pain can be our teacher. It points the way to change, and this is ultimately the statement of the Cross: death is not the end but only the beginning of something new.
It’s difficult to discuss or reflect upon grief without including some platitudes, because the truth is that none of us wants to hear that “everything happens for a reason” or “God gives special children to special parents.” While there may be grains of truth in these clichés, they fall short of the depth of the message of love.
Love isn’t complete without self-eradication. We find Love on the Cross, and so in order to fully unite ourselves with the One who is Love, we must also find the way to Him by way of suffering. He meets us there, and even more, He hides us in His wounds for a time. Through the affliction of Love, we understand more deeply and fully that our pain can actually be a gift that can transform not only our lives but the lives of others. What an incredible grace!
And though grief is like a tidal wave that recedes for a time, leaving us with a respite of peace before crashing against our hearts again and again, it’s important for us to always be evolving by way of grace to a place of peace and joy. This may not come all at once but instead gradually develop over the course of time. For some, it may involve a necessary wrestling at the starting point before regaining a once-found sense of joy. Even so, it is possible to suffer well.
This does not mean that we put on a façade so that people do not see our pain, but only a false attempt at joy. It means that we are raw and real. We should always seek to be people of authenticity, and if it means exhibiting weakness to others, then it is a source of humility for both us and other people who witness that weakness. We can display physical, emotional and even spiritual limitations while still being silent witnesses of hope, joy, and peace to others. The key to this is simple: accept the unknown, embrace the cross, persevere in faith, and overcome with hope. Then your joy will be complete.