Here is a Catholic Guide to Understanding Grief
When we hear or read the word “grief,” we almost always conjure up images of viewings, funerals, and death. In reality, grief is the comprehensive physiological, spiritual, and emotional response we have to any devastating loss in our lives. Maybe that’s why we don’t often recognize when grief affects us – because we don’t understand that death isn’t the only catalyst for launching us into it.
Nearly six years ago, my husband and I welcomed our second baby girl, Sarah, into our family. She was born with a rare craniofacial condition called Apert syndrome that requires complex and numerous surgeries and therapies throughout her life. To date, she has had seven surgeries, most notably on her skull and to separate her fingers. Her anomalies were a total surprise to us, only discovered at birth.
I didn’t understand what I was experiencing after Sarah was born. At first, I thought I might be suffering from depression, but I hadn’t lost interest in life. I just felt overwhelmed, confused, and broken on the inside. Day to day, my emotions crashed over my heart like waves upon the shore – sometimes shattering my hopes, sometimes uplifting them. I never knew what was happening or why.
Eventually, a friend suggested I might be experiencing grief. I prayed about this for two weeks and discussed it with my spiritual director. God revealed to me different incidents that occurred over the course of my lifetime – deaths, drug overdoses of friends and family members, mental illness in my family, counseling teens who had lost loved ones to suicide or gang violence or suffered from abortions, and then the final straw: Sarah.
Life doesn’t go as planned. But I heard from people, near and far, who were well-intentioned, that “everything happens for a reason” and “God gives special children to special parents.” These platitudes angered, not comforted, me. At last, it seemed that God was asking me to share what I’d learned about grief with others who might be going through it without knowing. Here is what I wrote in From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph.
A Catholic Perspective
First, it’s important to understand the depth and rich viewpoint that the Catholic Church offers us when it comes to suffering. Most of us have heard the phrase, “offer it up.” As a cradle Catholic, I heard this ad nauseam and to the point of tuning it out! But it has merit and deserves further exploration.
When we say “offer it up,” we mean that suffering has value. It has purpose and meaning. God does not waste anything. And He wants us to hand our suffering to Him in union with His Cross so that we might be purified by trials and tribulations. We can also offer up our pain and struggles in reparation for our sins or for others who are suffering from something similar.
For example, if you were recently diagnosed with cancer, you can “offer up” your sufferings from chemo, the fear related to dying or leaving your children and spouse behind, etc. for others who are going through cancer treatments and their families.
Even so, this isn’t easy to do. We can turn to Scripture and discover the gift we have in the crosses Jesus permits us to undergo. It doesn’t mean God wills for suffering, because that was never part of His divine plan. But He permitted His only Son to suffer the worst possible torment for the good of salvation. And we are called to participate in the salvific mission of Jesus and the Church He entrusted to us all.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life?’” (Matthew 16: 24-26)
What we glean from this passage is that we cannot experience the beauty and joy and healing of the resurrection unless we are willing to undergo our own passion and death of sorts. The mature Christian understands that God is a God of mystery, and what may seem like cruel punishment is intended to refine and purify our souls on the path of virtue and rid us of vice.
Grief is often the means by which God permits us to grow in our interior lives and to draw nearer to Jesus and the suffering He endured out of love for us. When we learn to surrender our anguish to the God of love, despite the reality that we do not have answers to our painful questions nor resolutions to the what-ifs of our lives, we begin to live the Christian call to sacrificial love. And then Jesus transforms our suffering into love.
The Six Spiritual Principles of Grief
When I was writing From Grief to Grace, I was inspired by the Holy Spirit to share some of the spiritual principles that had helped me navigate my own devastating losses: the losses of dreams, the life I imagined we would have with our family, and who I thought Sarah would become. Here is what I discovered:
1. Humility of Heart
- This is the foundation of all other principles, because it requires us to move from self-pity (“woe is me” attitude) toward focus on God.
- Opportunities to grow in humility tend to come in the form of humiliations; when grieving, these can include unexpected weeping to a compassionate stranger or permitting a neighbor to clean our house.
- Requires vulnerability – allowing God to tear down our emotional barricades, being transparent to others
2. Abandonment to Divine Providence
- Builds upon the first principle (humility), because our hearts need to be receptive by way of humility. Pride closes and hardens our hearts.
- This receptivity allows us to move to a place in which we long to please God, even in the midst of mystery.
- Abandonment, or surrender, is acquired through acts that try one’s patience and foster perseverance.
- A person who is ready to enter into this principle has a heart and mind that is open, ready, and willing to hand over his or her wants and needs into God’s hands without needless worry or concern.
3. Holy Indifference
- Based on the Ignatian concept that if the soul “is attached or inclined to a thing inordinately, that [person] should move himself, putting forth all his strength, to come to the contrary of what he is wrongly drawn to.”
- It is NOT apathy or indifference. It does not mean we no longer care about our circumstances, only that we surrender (second principle) our needs, cares, and concerns without expecting a specific outcome to our prayer.
- It is the third principle because one must have begun the journey into humility and abandonment before the ability to be content with a “yes” or “no” or “not yet” answer from God to our prayers.
- Related to holy detachment
4. The Dark Night of the Soul (e.g., Holy Darkness)
- Focused on fidelity to God in the face of self-emptiness.
- Acquired through time, temptations, trials, and tribulations.
- Feeling as if God has forsaken or abandoned you; feeling spiritually dry or alone.
- If you’re in a state of grace (e.g., no mortal sin staining your soul, and you are staying close to the sacraments of Eucharist and Confession), then the emptiness and loneliness you feel may be this holy darkness.
- NOT the same as the darkness caused by sin or consequences of sin (including spiritual attack).
5. Confidence in God’s Timing
- “Thank God ahead of time for whatever He sees is best for [you]…Courage is half the battle – confidence in God is the soul of prayer – foster the latter and you have both.” (Bl. Solanus Casey)
- In your period of mourning, when you are feeling empty, exhausted, possibly abandoned by God and others – cultivate gratitude. Think of your past and all the ways God has delivered or blessed you. Then, thank Him for what He is doing in your life that you cannot see and entrust your entire present and future into His hands (2nd principle – surrender).
- When we thank God for our pain and sorrow, as well as our joys and celebrations, we make everything a holy gift that He, in turn, molds into a facet of healing, strength, and peace for us.
6. The Wound of the Heart
- This is a mystical concept based on St. Therese of Lisieux’s spirituality: “I offer myself as a victim of holocaust to your merciful love.”
- When we pray without expectation of a certain outcome (holy indifference, third principle), and when we thank God for all He is doing and will be doing in our lives (confidence/gratitude), then we will accept that our pain may not be taken away from us. Instead, it may be transformed into love.
- “Martyrdom of the heart” or “white martyrdom” that some saints experienced – a piercing of the heart and soul that causes a “wound of love.” In other words, our grief and suffering may become the best gift of love we can unite with the wounds of Jesus.
- This principle teaches us how to suffer well.
Ultimately, grief can lead us to greater compassion and empathy for the suffering of others. We become more attuned to the burdens that others carry, and we, in turn, accompany them in an authentic and genuinely loving way. Suffering and loss do not define us; they teach us how to love in a deeper and more meaningful way.