In my vocation as a priest, it is common to meet different people in the span of one day who are going through different emotional phases. In just one day, I can be sharing the joy of a newly married couple in the morning, baptizing an infant in the early afternoon, and in the later part of the day, preside over a funeral. While it is very easy to share the joy of the couples in marriage and the families of the newly baptized infants, handling the grief that comes with the departure of a loved one or a family member entails a different set of skills and sensitivity that not only is difficult, but also something that I have realized can’t really be learned from books.
The pastoral challenge of any pastor is not just to preside over such ceremonies, but in the longer term, to help the living to continue living with hope and in some way, to ‘get over’ the grief. I put that phrase in inverted commas, simply because in the current youth lingo, to tell someone to ‘get over it’ is actually a blatant verbal blast of churlishness. In no way am I suggesting that, especially when wounds are raw and memories still fresh.
Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fact that many of us associate too readily with our bodies and feelings, and that for many of us, we have a rather distorted mental image of “my body”. From a very young age, a lot of us, through the media and well thinking friends and family, get readily identified with either good looks (or trying to get there), physical strength (think of sports jocks and the like), or abilities (intellectual greatness, business acumen, and related savvy). But there comes a time in life when these attributes begin to fade and disappear. If our happiness in life has always been too closely associated with these, then there will be a collapse in life, and a ‘grief’ that comes with it.
But I think the opposite is strangely, just as true. It is not just the good looking, the strong and the smart who very often end up living to maintain this mental image, there are also those with a ‘problematic’ body, the imperfect, the ill, and the disabled who can just as easily identify themselves with their ‘suffering’. Some people do gain a lot of ‘satisfaction’ by getting attention from doctors and caregivers simply because their ‘suffering’ is the only thing that they seem to identify themselves with. They cling onto this image just as tenaciously as the ‘well’ can be erroneously clinging on to their successes, joys and economic triumphs. In both cases, it really is a case of the wrongly fed ego at work.
My Christian sensitivities become heightened when such situations unfold before me. Whether in joy or in grief, in celebration or when someone tells me that he or she is crushed because the doctor has just told them that they are having Stage 4 cancer, there’s something in me that wants to share with them something that is fundamental – that the joy you are experiencing, the grief you are undergoing, the fear that you may be feeling, is not you. Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that we be the killjoy at parties or the wet blanket at celebrations. Neither should we be the heartless oafs when someone is grieving.
The key to getting over grief is to be able to get to the point where we know that WE ARE NOT our feelings. When a loved one dies, and grief is experienced, what overwhelms us is that we will not be loved again. But that is not true. We may not be loved by that person in that way, but it doesn’t mean that we will not be loved again. That is because there is an ultimate lover. For us who believe, this ultimate lover is God.
Jesus has come to show me this, and that is why he is the key to living life to the full now. In the Gospel text of the Sunday that just passed, the last line is revelatory. We are told that Simon Peter and his companions left their boats full of their miraculous catch to follow him. Notice that they did not follow Jesus because they had empty nets. It was just the opposite. Jesus gave them that large haul. And it was when this haul was opened that their eyes were also opened to see that this abundance is really nothing if not for God who provides the abundance.
I believe that any counseling that I can do as a priest and a guide to life, must help one to reach this realization. That is when we can live life anew, despite all that we may be facing. And then, we can not only get over grief and loss, but also begin to live, truly live anew.