Monday, February 8, 2010

How do we get over grief?

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.


  1. The intellect or our minds can so clearly rationalize & tell us that we are (as you said) "not our feelings" & I agree wholeheartedly with you on that. However, the human heart tells a different tale. In the agonizing darkness of grief, we are weak & vulnerable, numb & dumb to each grieving wave that washes over us, as grief penetrates into every fibre of our being. Grieving & mourning is a "growing into" & "growing through experience " - that has a time and season - we need to be patient & gentle with ourselves to see it through as I feel that there is no "getting over with grief" but rather that grief has "to be spent". A time will come when this heavy grey pall of grief will be spent, will lift to allow light to peep in - then & only then can we say that "morning has broken.. ....."

  2. Dear Tessa

    Thank you so much for your contribution to this discussion via your comment. Indeed, we are “weak and vulnerable”, and when we are in the pit of our mourning and grieving, the last thing that anyone should be telling others is “don’t cry”, or “be strong”. That, to me, is simply an ineffective platitude that could well spin the sufferer deeper into an abyss of numbness and dumbness. The passage of time seems to have its own mechanism for healing, and this is God’s grace working in a very hidden and silent way. But it is when the community rallies round with stalwart support, being there for the sufferer, not necessarily providing answers, but maybe just silent shoulders, that there will come the realization that not all is lost, and that love does come in ways other than the one that was lost. You put is so poetically, when you said that this is when ‘morning breaks’. Thank you again.

    Fr Luke

  3. I feel that when people receive bad news of a terminal disease from the doctor, it is not the desperate need to cling on to the current being that they are, perfect or otherwise, that pain and devastate them but rather the unknown and presumably painful path ahead. It is not all about the potential lost of one's individuality and identity. It is more the tremendous fear of the uncertainty of what lies ahead rather than the reluctance and despair of letting go of the past because of vanity or an inflated ego. On the other hand, the grief that consumes us when we lose a loved one is more about the past and what had been rather than the future and fear of not being loved again. It is more about losing what we were, how we were with that person.
    We ARE our feelings - Feelings define us, give us character, through them we appreciate and understanding the meaning of our lives better, they are part of the different facets of our personality that make the final us. Fear, anger, pain, love, loneliness - these are not merely something that happen to us but are essentials that add value to our being and make us human..... they make us us.

    As Christians we know, or rather should know, that death is not dying. But we fear the process of dying. That's when how strong a spiritual foundation we have comes into play in giving us that sense of peace, calm, trust and faith in God.
    Therefore it IS I when I fear, grief, love and rejoice. In all of this, I see God and how much I really need Him and how much He really loves me.

    God bless

  4. 'Get over the grief':-to me,'it'simply dissolves into hope knowing that your loved one is alive with our Father in Heaven.Surely I do Miss my loves!..."The challenge" is to live the fullest today to be with them one day.

  5. Thank you for this. => "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. " <=> Gives me strength to go on living and loving.

  6. I draw strength from this reminder => "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. "

    Thank you.

  7. I felt the emptiness when my mum passed away. I suppose I was closer to mum than dad. My hubby was at my side then...It was easier when you have someone else caring and looking out for you. Recently, my 2nd brother lost his wife to asthma in the Philippines. It was suppose to be a 1-month vacation to celebrate Easter fiesta and her son's wedding. 1st 2 wks went great - you could see from photos - she was very happy. The 3rd wk found her coughing badly. It deteriorated with the heat, cool beach air and smoking around...Medical help was a distance away. Anyway, my brother felt so lost when the rituals were said in their native language. Fotunately, my 2nd sis SMSed him lots of faith messages which helped him stay focused. I felt that emptiness the next day after he shared with us his feelings. I asked around - most of them kept themselves busy, turn on the TV or talk to other close relatives/friends so that they do not give attention to that empty feeling...I agree with you Father that only God can fill up the void when you are left alone...Knowing his love is unconditional keeps you warm and loved at all times. God bless. mat