Sometimes religious people have this idea that religion allows you to shortcut the normal human processes of agony, misery, decay, and death. I mean, if God is with you, why shouldn’t he enable you to be happy? But that’s not how it works. In fact, with respect to grief, St. Paul himself warned that we Christians do grieve, just not as others grieve—without hope. So, in every other way, Christians are as crushed by grief as anyone else. We differ only in the confidence that we will one day see our loved ones again, a confidence that does little to overcome the loss, loneliness, and crushing emptiness that we experience now. “Filling your life with God” won’t help you here, because God himself became a man, and he too was “acquainted with grief” as “a man of sorrows.” When God makes the saint, he does not unmake the man. There is no way to shortcut normal human processes through some secret powers built into religion. That’s not what religion is for.
C. S. Lewis confronted this problem in Till We Have Faces, where his main character, suffering the loss of her sister, tries to use philosophy to overcome her profound anguish. It proves useless. How could something that takes you right into your own mind have any hope of overcoming a force that is dominating that very mind from within? No, it doesn’t work, but what is suggestive is what she finds at least somewhat useful: the art of swordplay. She finds that learning this art with its requirements for precise attention to physical finesse together with its athletic demands at least gave her moments where she pierced the gloom.
In other words, it’s less our spirituality—our free personal spirited side of our natures—that moves us through grief. It’s very much our physical side. Consider what gives you the greatest relief from grief: sleep. There’s something terribly tempting about just crawling under those covers, pounding your fist into your pillow and crying yourself to sleep. This is a mercy that God provided human beings: tears and sleep. The next morning, we are just slightly refreshed, we might for only a moment forget how broken we have become as the person we loved was torn from our arms by Death. But then it all comes back into our memories, as our minds relive the love that we have lost.
The physical love of a pet soothes our bodily instantiated emotions in ways that someone asking how we are doing or providing us with that third casserole will never achieve.
But sleep is not the only respite that God provided us. Another is animals. Grief tends to separate us from our friends and families. The world feels hollow, words appear as echoes, the edges of one’s vision tunnels in, and all those worried voices and faces appear as though they stand on a far shore. But if you look down into your lap and see your cat, he is somehow not impacted by this human tragedy. His whiskers, his eyes, his vigilant ears, and his soft tail all tell a different story, one of comfort, one of physically animal rather than spiritual love. And that physical love again soothes our bodily instantiated emotions in ways that someone asking how we are doing or providing us with that third casserole will never achieve.
Let’s return to Lewis’ suggestion of swordplay. Fencing forced Lewis’ character’s attention outside her habits. You see, some people rush back to their jobs to escape grief. But many of our jobs function on the level of habit. And habit permits too much time for reflection and then memory. Sobbing in your office really isn’t much better than being stuck in the darkness of your home. But if you take up a new sport, you won’t have habits to rely on. Thus, your mind will be forced to focus on each aspect of the athletic play. Meanwhile, the physical energy spent on the game releases some of the anxiety and stress that paralyzes your body. Again, the comradery of teammates who don’t know you can be such a relief. They think you’re just like they are, an ordinary person living an ordinary life, trying out a new sport for exercise. You will never see those familiar pained and pitying looks in the faces of these fellow players. They won’t remind you of what you have lost. What’s more, sport releases the endorphin high that many athletes chase. Finally, sport allows you to build something new rather than wallow in the wreckage of your former life. And building anew is the key to ultimately moving through grief. Let’s see why that is.
Love created us, established our identity in a web of shared loves. When we lose a critical link in that web, who we are dies.
The first principle to consider is that your grief is caused by your love. If you never loved anyone or anything but yourself, you’d never plunge into social grief. Oh, I suppose if your hand were mangled in a machine at work, you’d experience a kind of grief over your lost limb. But the staggering depths of losing a child or a spouse or a parent—these social griefs—are all caused by our love. But love is supposed to be a good thing, you might object. To which I reply, yes, it is, and the truth is that while we suffer our loss, we’d rather suffer than never to have loved at all. We’d rather suffer than lose the memories of the person we were then, when our loved one giggled in just that way, gazed at us with those eyes, or perhaps just made a fresh pot of coffee in the morning. Because that’s what our love did—it created us, established our identity in a web of shared loves. When we lose a critical link in that web, who we are dies.
That brings us to the second principle: we never “get over” our loss, because the loss is part of who we are. People speak only of “moving past” it or “moving through it.” Note that language. Grief is something that must be gone through, a passage that literally is a movement of your identity and value. Why? Because grief properly gone through is the medium of healing. Everyone knows that wounds leave scars, but the scarred wound is the final stage of a painful process that the body undergoes to heal jagged events. Our emotional systems function just like this, and grief is our emotional healing process. Thus, it must be undergone, and the scarring accepted.
We should seek, therefore, not to avoid grief or to box it up, but to accept it without allowing it to wholly control us. This is why moments of respite with our pets, walks by bodies of water or in starlight, and new engagements in athletics are all so helpful. These reliefs don’t just let us come up for air, they keep us from drowning. For the great temptation of grief is what the Church calls the sin of despair. Let’s have a look at that.
Despair refuses to come to the surface and take the offered gulps of air in the name of some sort of deserved or longed for self-mutilation. It’s not necessarily suicide, but it is a kind of moral self-extinction.
Despair is not depression. Everyone who is grieving is depressed. Many people’s grief takes them so far down that they get the “clinically depressed” diagnosis—all of which is entirely normal, so don’t be alarmed if your doctor tells you that. Depression is not despair. Depression is something that happens to you. Despair is something that you do, which is why despair is a moral quality, while depression is a psychological state. So, what is despair? Despair is the choice to give up, to reject the theological virtue of hope. It says no to God’s offer of healing. It refuses to come to the surface and take the offered gulps of air in the name of some sort of deserved or longed for self-mutilation. It’s not necessarily suicide, but it is a kind of moral self-extinction.
Despair mummifies the past and locks you into the pyramid with the embalmed body.
Despair is so dangerous, because the meaning of life is love. Despair robs you of the possibility of future love. It mummifies the past and locks you into the pyramid with the embalmed body. It prevents your emergence back into the world of the living, possibly because of rage against God, possibly because of fury against the departed for leaving you behind, possibly for some other reason. But as we all know, hope is necessary for love, because love seeks the future good of its object. And without hope, you cannot “move forward,” because you have locked yourself into the past. That might seem noble to some, but it traps them into hell.
The third principle is that healing functions not by denying the value of our lost loved ones or by burying ourselves in our work or giving into despair, but instead by growing ourselves around the loss. What does that mean? It means that as we choose to continue to live, to allow ourselves to re-enter forms of society, we begin to build a new us. This new identity doesn’t deny the old one, but instead grows around it. As we choose to love those around us—the action rather than the feeling—we find that who we are begins to expand, for the “self” is not merely a function of individual choice, but partly a construction of that whole web of loves we discussed earlier. Choosing to love in the midst of our own agony begins to right the ship that had been thrown onto the beach. Continuing that choice—day after day after day—gradually floats the ship again, enabling us to build a new love web around the hole from the last one. This is why we don’t “get over” lost loves. We keep on loving them. But choosing to love the people around us, making new friends, and caring for our children develops who we are in such a way that our expanded selves become larger and larger compared to the hole left by our dead. Our souls literally grow large enough around the scar that the old wound impacts us less.
Romance and infatuation are drugs that we use to closet grief. We turn our date into our drug dealer, something insulting to the respect that she deserves.
One word of caution on this point about forming new loves: when you have lost a spouse, do not give into the temptation to start dating again. Romance and infatuation are drugs that we use to closet grief. We turn our date into our drug dealer, something insulting to the respect that she deserves. The sort of loves that heal are those chosen with the will, where we seek the good for the object of our love. Don’t confuse these true loves with the illusory spectacle of dating.
Do what you need to do to find relief so long as the agent of that relief doesn’t become a larger problem than your grief.
Let’s summarize. Grief is natural in the face of death. God created this process to enable healing. While we must not seek to escape grief, we can and probably should seek solace in the things that provide those gulps of air. I tell people to do what they need to do to find relief so long as the agent of that relief doesn’t become a larger problem than their grief. So, will you want a glass of wine? Yes, probably more than one. Might you try to eat your way through your loss? Yes, that is possible too. We need to take care of ourselves like a nurse in a hospital, allowing ourselves more of the little things than we ordinarily would. But at the same time, we need to watch that we don’t slide into drunkenness or gluttony or some other vice that links to our preferred guilty pleasure.
Additionally, seek outside physical activity such as sports that provide your body stress release while requiring mental focus. Grief forces us to withdraw from normal society, but we must not give in to the awful temptation to let the quicksand of isolation take us. Without relying on the usual emotional energy and motivation, you must simply choose to do good to the people around you. This is the hardest kind of love. But it is the kind that will start the transformation of your self, ever so slowly growing your soul larger in proportion to the currently enormous hole in your life.
And remember, there is no way to speed up the process. It must be undergone, it must be suffered, it must be endured. We have a virtue called fortitude, or perseverance, or long-suffering to capture this choice to get out of bed each day and in the midst of our own pain to choose to love the people around us. The development of the virtues of hope and love through the power of fortitude solidly establishes our moral lives, moving us not just through the grief but ever closer to becoming the sorts of people fit for divine love, the people that we call saints, the people that we are in fact becoming.