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Grief: turning the sourest of lemons into sacred work

Stephanie Blaquera

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.
When life throws you the sourest of lemons, it is common to ask or sometimes demand for an answer to our “Why”:
  • If God is LOVE, why does He “allow” bad things to happen to good people? 
  • Why does he “allow” suffering? 
  • Why does He “allow” death?
As Christians, we may be tempted to answer these questions by referring back to the Fall--original sin--as the source of all of humanity’s pain and suffering. Adam and Eve, created to be in harmony with God, use their ability to choose their own path to go against God. Personally, this is the least comforting response to receive in a time of hardship. I think that’s because we are asking the wrong type of question. The appropriate answer to any “why” is explaining the causation that leads to its ultimate effect. It’s typically objective and a matter-of-fact. It’s the truth and sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it’s cruel. Sometimes it’s out of our control. It’s not always fair. It just is. It’s not concerned with being comforting– a lot of the time, it’s just uncomfortable.
Although it can feel cathartic in the moment to direct blame on one particular source, demanding an answer to “Why?” will not guarantee anyone peace. So, is there a “better” question to ask? Or should we just keep our mouths shut and accept the cards we have been dealt without any questions? To the latter: no. We are called to be in dialogue with God. But before I get to THE question we need to ask during such hardship, we need context.
Death and suffering were indeed the consequences of the distrust Adam and Eve had in God, severing their relationship with Him, but God did not end the story there. His solution: He sent us his son, born as fully God and fully human, to help repair that broken relationship. To be fully human: what does this mean?
To be the most human (not the best--most) is to experience an array of emotions--not just the happiness of life, but also the pains: sadness, anger, fear, sorrow, loneliness, suffering. So Jesus being FULLY human, that was the deal: he wept for his friend’s death; he was angry when the temple was being misused; he felt agony in the garden before his crucifixion; endured loneliness and abandonment from his friends after his arrest; endured great suffering on the cross. These extreme emotions, like anger and sadness, are not inherently bad. Emotions are actually neutral. You cannot help but feel them when they arise. It is how you respond to your emotions that matters. For example, you can experience anger that either motivates change or is destructive; you can be hopeful, happy, and joyful about the good things God has given you, or toxically positive to the point where you invalidate others feelings or even your own. It is those responses that are weighed as good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. It is the same thing with grief, which is not inherently a negative experience. 
Grief is an emotional response to losing someone you love or losing something you care about. It comes from the Latin word meaning "heavy" and "burden," which acutely describes the overall feeling of grief. It can feel really heavy, like an overstuffed backpack that you did not pack yourself. It weighs you down, because inside are an array of emotions like denial, guilt, anger, sadness, acceptance, hope, and joy. And you cannot be sure which one you will pull out or if you will pull out just one at a time. Nevertheless one needs to approach grief with a neutral perspective: grief is neither bad nor good. There can be a good and healthy way to be in a state of grief as well as there being a bad and unhealthy way to grieve. 
St. Mary Magdalene exemplified both unhealthy and healthy grief. On the one hand, she allowed her sorrow to consume her and blind her gaze. Her hyperfocus on losing her friend filled her heart with such hopelessness that she had forgotten Jesus’ promise of the resurrection, and was unable to recognize him standing in front of her at the tomb. On the other hand, Jesus called out to her, and she remembered that all that suffering that he endured had meaning–”for the sake of the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). She recalled that Jesus’ whole purpose was to reestablish our severed relationship with God through the conquering of death by death.
Let us not confuse expressing one’s sadness or complex combination of emotions as inherently unhealthy. Sometimes one needs to go through that experience to come out of it with new meaning. But let us be wary, because it is easy to fill your grieving process solely with sorrowful and despairing thoughts. In grief, the healthy response is to feel those complex emotions that grief has to offer, and not allow them to drag you into that state of hopelessness. In Mary Magdalene’s case, she was susceptible to falling into a state of despair, until she witnessed the resurrection–the promise fulfilled–that reinvigorated her hope and joy, transforming her grief into a healthy one. As Catholics, we are called to reflect on the Paschal Mystery during these hardships, because if all of Christ’s suffering has meaning, then all our current sufferings have meaning too. Truthfully, this is easier said than done. Acquiring this outlook can be difficult and it can feel unattainable. This is where we are called to be in dialogue with God, not to demand “why” but to ask “how”: “how can I move forward in my life?”
After posing this question, we are called to be active listeners, because the answer will not be obvious, will not come right away, and will look different for everyone. However, there is always an answer– we just have to prepare our hearts to be ready to receive it.  Again, how? How can we prepare our hearts for God’s answer?
Spending time with God in prayer
Communion with God is vital. He wants to have an intimate relationship with you, which is why he sent his son. Share your feelings with God. Tell him that you’re angry. Tell him that you are sad. Ask him questions,even if they are angry ones. Even your tears can be prayers. Always remember to listen when you are spending time with God.
Spending time with others
Share your feelings with trusted friends and family to help you through this time of need. We are born to be social beings and rely on each other. It is with others that we experience the love that can only exist in the midst of suffering: compassion. ‘Passion’ comes from the same word as 'suffering,' which suggests that com-passion is the state of 'suffering together.' What does that look like? It can be as simple as a friend reaching out saying “if you want to share, I’d love to listen. I’m sorry for your loss.” Compassion takes different forms, but what it comes down to is creating a safe space to allow you to feel all the emotions you have. If we are meant to suffer, we are meant to suffer together. We are not meant to carry burdens by ourselves so we must remember to balance our time with others.
Spending time with yourself
Reflect. Share your feelings with “yourself.” Give yourself permission to feel and work through your emotions--even if it’s painful.You can journal, dance, sing, play an instrument, go for a walk; you can just sit and breathe, you can cry. Everyone expresses grief in different ways. You simply need to find the best and healthiest way that works for you. Don’t fill it with distractions. Don’t hide from your emotions. Be courageous. Be patient. Be kind. Always listen to yourself. Spend time with yourself
Time with God, with others, with yourself. I emphasize time in these tips because the grieving process is not a race; it isn’t instant. Taking your time is important, because grieving is actually a  sacred process. As Christians our mission is to choose God and spread His Good News. It is easier to spread the Good News when things are planned and things are going well. It is much harder when things are not going well. But we are called for constancy in mission, to keep spreading the Good News, even when it’s hard for us. In Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope), Pope Benedict XVI emphasized how our woundedness can be an opportunity to invite Jesus into our hearts, not necessarily to take away our pain, but to be with us in our suffering. Jesus, by being fully human, understands our suffering. He weeps with us. More importantly, he knows how to heal us--not take away our suffering--to make us better. So let us do the sacred work of grieving, by resisting the temptation to demand the answers to our “Why,” and instead pray for the answers to our “How.”
How will you transform my suffering into something meaningful, something hopeful? How will I move forward?
Let us be prepared for the answer yet to come. 

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