1. Death and Grief

With great love there is also great pain

As we live this life we are constantly reminded that there is an identifiable cycle. People, plants, pets, animals all have their time on earth. Yet even knowing that there is a cycle of life and death, death always seems to take us by surprise, and in that first moment of loss appears to be so unfair.

There is no doubt that every one of us at some point will have experienced, or will experience, the death of someone we love dearly. The cruel impact of this experience in our lives cannot be expressed with mere words, but we can explore together, in a general way, death in our life experience.

There are many books published on the subject of grief, some are helpful and some are not. At one time these books declared to the world that grief is a process. It inferred that one begins with a sense of shock and then progresses in an orderly fashion through the various stages. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that these stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

As a priest in the church of God I have read many books about the stages of grief, and have considered myself to be quite expert in understanding them. That was all well and good until a very good friend died in a car accident. It was then that I discovered that all of my reading had done very little to prepare me for the shock of the cruel experience of separation. The “stages of grief” became a huge disordered tangle of volatile emotions. There were no identifiable orderly stages to go through. There was confusion, pain, anger, denial, acceptance, fury, anxiety, tears, depression and desperation storming through my brain and body without any discernable pattern or order. Highly intense emotional confusion reigned.

It seemed to me that while my head understood the orderly process of stages of grief my heart had rejected them. One positive thing that I gained from all of my reading on the subject of grief was that there would be intense emotions, and that I was to own how I was feeling. Whatever emotion was present at whatever moment of time was my emotion, it was my feeling, it was my experience. Another positive thing learned was that no two people grieve in exactly the same manner and for the same length of time. There is no benchmark to which we can compare ourselves.

People would say to me that surely as a priest who believed in God and eternal life I would handle grief better than “normal” people. Not so. I do firmly believe in God and in eternal life, but the death of someone we love does not listen to such promises. The death of someone with all of the inherent losses that go with that death simply tears at the soul. Grief will have its way because it is the product of love. If we do not have love, we cannot know life to the full. However, with great love there is also great pain.

St Paul teaches that we are not to grieve as people without hope. We are to grieve for someone we love with the knowledge that there is life following death to this life. Even knowing this we will still have a great big gaping hole in our life where that person used to reside. And that hole will be full of grief, loss and pain.

It is perplexing when our friends mumble strange observations and platitudes as an expression of sympathy. The reality is that there is nothing that we can say to our friends, nor our friends to us, that will make everything alright. There is no magic phrase or sentence that will make the pain and loss go away.

When we cannot think of anything to say it would be better if nothing was said at all. As friends struggle to find a magic phrase that will ease our pain and anguish they are inclined to say such things as “they have gone to a better place”, that “we will get over it”. With the death of a child we are reminded that we still have other children. With a stillbirth we are told that we can always have another baby. None of these things come close to bringing comfort to the grieving person. Sometimes it is best to simply say nothing, give them a hug, and vacuum the floor for our friend. Cook a casserole, or bake a cake, for the last thing that a grieving person wants to do is prepare food or clean the house. Their mind is so full of the grief of the moment that there is no room for anything else.

What we do know is that the intensity of the emotions we are feeling will moderate over time. We will reach a stage of being able to live with the pain and the loss without it dominating our every conscious moment. When advised that we will get over it we can console ourselves with the thought that the person means well. Perhaps they cannot think of any thing else to say. The truth is that we will never get over it in the manner that they suggest. For to “get over it” must mean that we will forget the love that we have for the person who died. It is true that over time the very powerful emotions will moderate and will cease to dominate our every moment, but we will not forget.

Sometimes what we need to hear is a reinforcement of exactly what we are feeling. At the funeral of the very close friend mentioned earlier a mutual friend came over to me and stated quite bluntly, “Well, this sucks!” Crude perhaps, but effective, for that was exactly what I was thinking and that one comment allowed me to begin drawing everything back into perspective.

Yes, I am a priest! Yes I believe in life after death. Yes I believe that Christ died so that I might have eternal life. Yes I believe that God has prepared a place for me and will welcome me into heaven. I also believe that when we grieve for someone we have loved our Lord understands and shares that pain with us. It is not taken away, nor do we get over it. In time, with faith in Christ, we come to live with it.

Fr Adrian Stephen