April 18, 2011

Grieving — the painful physical, emotional, and spiritual journey that we go through to come to terms with the loss of someone through death, separation or divorce — is among the most sacred and the most human things one will ever undergo. It plummets us into the mysteries of life.

On a weekend during this season of Lent, members of my family experienced an emotional roller-coaster, marked by both death and new life.

On Friday, we gathered in prayer and remembrance to honour the life of our mother on the first anniversary of her death. One of my brothers was not able to be with us because he was at the hospital with his son and daughter-in-law, who had a few days earlier prematurely given birth at the five-month mark to twins, a boy and a girl.

The tiny girl died on the afternoon of mom's anniversary. The boy seemed to be doing better, but on Saturday his kidneys ceased to function.

Late Sunday morning we baptized a different baby boy born to a second brother's son and wife. And in the afternoon we received word that the surviving twin had just died.

At six o'clock that evening came yet more news: the daughter of a third brother had just given birth to a healthy son to whom she and her husband chose to give the name Francis, my deceased father's name. Within the span of seven hours there was a Baptism, another death and a birth.

It is difficult at such times to find words. In the midst of our joy at the Baptism and the birth, there was a deep sadness at the loss of the twins and a concern for their parents. Sixteen months earlier they had lost triplets in a similar premature birth.


Their parents and friends had journeyed with them in their grief. People who are grieving may look okay, but when you get underneath the surface with them, you find out they're not sleeping or they're angry at co-workers or they're fighting with family.

Some get very active and help those around them, while others withdraw into seclusion. Some want to talk about it a great deal and others don't even want you to bring it up. It can be confusing, even frustrating, for friends and family.

At the same time, there are styles of grief — like getting overly busy or rationalizing away the sense of loss and the need to grieve - that, while numbing the pain, do not favour the healing within.

Grief is a loss of connection, a connection that gave meaning to our lives. Now I have to decide: What am I living for? What gives me a reason to get up in the morning? Where's the meaning in my life?

Experts say the best way to help the grieving is to spend time being with and listening to them rather than talking to them.


Grief is best healed in community. When we are supported by a circle of love it is easier to let go of what is over, to harvest the experience for its wisdom, to tell the story until we do not have to tell it anymore. Grieving is more a matter of the heart than of the head.

There is no set pattern of "normal" grief responses. Some people eat a lot; others eat little; some sleep a lot; others do not. Some people look mad. Some look sad. Some look distant. Whatever form it takes is "normal" for that person. Grief is a roller-coaster; there's nothing sane or predictable about it.

The average time frame given to people who grieve is several months in the case of an expected death and a year when it was unexpected, but grieving in actuality can take years. There's no pushing the river. It will take the time it takes.


Grief is a process and it is hard work, but worth the effort because we and our lives are worth the effort. How we recover from grief depends upon our inner resources and on the support we receive from others.

Grief is the price we pay for love, and it can be the source of much growth and gain. Some widows and widowers, once greatly dependent on their spouses, find themselves growing as they are forced to discover inner strength, acquire new skills and play unfamiliar roles. The person who is lost can never be replaced, but that doesn't mean we can never love again.

The Easter Triduum sends us an important message. Jesus' death on the cross lets us know that God does not preserve us from pain and suffering.

But the witness of the resurrection is that God is present with us in it to sustain us and is at work to bring us through it into a new and richer experience of life. The consolation of Easter is that it is life, not death, that has the final word.

(Paulist Father Thomas Ryan is director of the North American Paulist Centre in Washington, D.C. tomryan@paulist.org)