Lessons from Grief
Windows into Mary's Heart & God's Heart
The loss of a loved one—be it by the end of a relationship, because of a move of one or the other of you to a distant place, or by death—is intense and comes as a shock. Even when we accompany a loved one through the journey of a prolonged illness, his or her death always comes as a shock. While we live in a relationship, life without the other is unthinkable, impossible, unimaginable. Whether we lose a parent, child, other relative, spouse, beloved, or a dear friend, it is impossible to imagine life without that person in our lives.
As we have been learning from St. Pope John Paul II, human beings are made to be gifts to one another. Gifting oneself and receiving another person as a gift is a profound, life altering experience. We are enriched by the person’s beauty, presence, simplicity, gifts, his or her entire being. Over time, the mystery of who that person is is revealed to and shared with us. And we are both enriched, as the Holy Father noted, by this sharing. At the very least, we are enriched by the incredible wonder of a distinct way of being human. That person’s perspective differs from our own and we are broadened by it. We are, in a very real way, changed by these interactions with other people, from the simple classmate or playground interactions between children to our parent/child interactions, to buddies and friends, to perpetrator and victim experiences, to the deep bond of best friends, and the even deeper bonds between spouses and lovers. Even deeper, but in its own category due to its particular and unique nature, is our relationship with God.
All of these relationships change us and change the other person as we, in various ways and to differing depths, share ourselves with one another.
As St. John Paul taught, we are enriched as both giver and recipient of the gift of another person. We become wealthier, in a sense, for having these relationships. The more long standing and deep, the more they mark us.
Consequently, we come to view them as “normal,” as typical, as “just part of our lives.”
It is no wonder, then, that we are shocked when our best friend moves away, we find ourselves in a different class from our buddies as we start a new school year, or when we receive the wrenching news of the death of a grandparent, sibling, or parent.
My recent experience comes as we have been in the midst of our review of St. John Paul’s teaching on the Theology of the Body. More keenly than I usually do, I have seen the wonder and beauty of the gift of self between a beloved and oneself. The shock of the sudden loss of this relationship has been heart-stopping. I’ve been dizzy, nauseous, unable to sleep, then sleeping all the time. My world became reduced to the seemingly incessant sensations of pain and disorientation. Like most of us, I have heard many stories of long married couples dying within days of one another. People would say that the second spouse died of a broken heart. I had no idea what that could mean. To my engineering-trained mind it was logical, but still a mystery. Now, after this experience, I, on an emotional level, begin to understand how that can happen. Given the agony I have felt, I can begin to fathom dying of a broken heart. Absolutely.
So, yes, such a loss is a complete shock. One is disoriented because one must now, somehow, learn to navigate the world without the gift of the other that had become customary. Additionally, you keep tripping over yourself, precisely in all the ways and means and places you habitually gave yourself to the other. Now that action, which had become such a normal, integral part of your life, abruptly and permanently, is stopped. And you are lost. What do you do with the gifts you wanted to share? The comments you want to make? The texts or calls, that way you held hands as you drove or prayed or a million other circumstances. What do you do with all your hopes and dreams and plans for the future?
It is in these moments of feeling utterly bereft that I feel like I have begun to understand Mary, ever so slightly, to begin to be able to imagine her overwhelming, jarring, disorienting loss, her completely destroyed life after Jesus died. It is incomprehensible, really, the loss of a child, a beloved child. It isn’t supposed to happen. When my mother died at age 64, my grandmother was confused. It just wasn’t supposed to happen this way, she told us over and over. Children are supposed to bury their parents. Parents, we think, despite it happening quite commonly for most of human history, aren’t—at least we think they aren’t—supposed to bury their children.
There Mary was, with John and Mary Magdalene. The three of them lost in agony, unable to fathom life without Christ, life without the Messias. Her Son. His best Friend. Her love and savior. They had just celebrated Passover together a few days before. Now He was gone. They faced complete and sudden discombobulation. In my pain, I was given a tiny glimpse of that staggering reality.
It is in this place, this very place where everything you knew is gone, or at least it feels like it is, … It is precisely here that one exercises faith. Questions fly through your mind. Is life worth living? Is there a God? If so, does God care about me? Is He here, with me, in this horrible awful pain and fog? Is there any reason to keep breathing? This isn’t a moment, at least it hasn’t been for me, a moment for thought, for pondering.
At first, I felt like I was in free fall, falling into a never ending abyss. I could see nothing but darkness. I screamed but there was no sound. My arms and legs flailed trying to touch something, anything, but found nothing. It was absolutely terrifying to fall and fall with no sense of connection with anything, nor any sense that there would ever be a connection again. This, my brothers and my sisters, was the very place where my faith had to kick in.
I could easily have given in to the disorientation, the complete lack of connection with anyone, with myself, with life. I confess, my brothers and my sisters, that I didn’t want to live. In my shock and the extreme pain, I did not want to breathe any more. If my body hadn’t kept breathing, I would have stopped. At the same time, in that free fall, as I was reeling in shock, feeling completely lost, I also knew that I wanted to live. I have love to give, work to do. My journey is not finished.
This glimmer of light also showed me that I was not alone. In this moment of being completely bereft, I knew Mama Mary was there. I also knew God was there. I realized that I was being given a tiny glimpse of God’s unspeakable pain when one of us, one of His beloved sons and daughters, fall into sin. When we walk away from God. I had a tiny glimpse of the agony of the heart of God and the depth of His love for us. For only when one loves deeply, with one’s whole being, can one know such a loss. And that is precisely how God loves each one of us.
Think of it, my beloved brothers and sisters, how incredibly depthless, infinite, beyond measure must God’s pain be when we walk away from Him by our sin, our doubt, by our choice to disbelieve in Him.
I lost a beloved friend. God’s loss of us is ever so much greater than that. So, too, my brothers and my sisters, is His immeasurable joy upon our repentance, our return to Him.
I think of the parable of the prodigal father, standing there, day after day, looking longingly down the road, patiently awaiting the return of him who his heart loved, his precious but foolish, even stupid and cruel, son. The father waits and waits. Patiently, with love. He waits.
Our God is such a good God. We can be so stupid, such fools. We take Him for granted. We ignore His kisses, His gifts. We spurn the treasured directions for life He offers to us. We stomp upon and run away from His love.
Yet, He stands at the wall of the garden of each of our hearts, loving us. Waiting as a gentleman always will. Waiting, not charging in, despite His immense love and incredible longing. Waiting for us to even glance His way, furthermore open the gate of our heart to welcome Him in.
Such is our God.
As I reflected upon the intense joy has when one of us turns to Him and invites God to love us, to heal us, I also thought more about Mama Mary. Not having a loving mother, I grew up not really understanding the role of a mother in our lives. In this moment of sheer agony, I felt completely connected to her. I didn’t have to cast about, wondering whether anyone knew my pain, whether it was survivable. She was there, steadfast, strong, yet silent. I knew she knew. And I was not alone.
She also did what she always does.
Remember the wedding? No, not the one I’d hoped to have. No, the wedding she attended. The one Jesus and His disciples attended too, the wedding of the unknown couple in Cana. Yes, that wedding. Mary points out to Jesus the need. They have no more wine. Then she tells the servants, just as she tells us, “Do whatever He tells you.” Then she walks away.
How do we do whatever He tells us? What are we supposed to do? The first step is always the same. It has to be. First, we must look at Him. Gaze upon Christ. Look at the Lord. Look with openness. Look with the expectation that He will direct our path.
There I was, in free fall, reeling, disoriented, disconnected, yet not alone. And she tells me to look to Christ.
I thought of Peter the water walker. Living by faith, after all, means doing the impossible as a matter of course. It means living not by what we see and touch and know in our daily experience of life. Walk by faith and not by sight is how the saying goes. Peter was doing just fine walking on the water that night, despite the choppy waves and the blustery wind. He did fine as he got out of the boat and began to walk. That is, until he stopped looking at Jesus and began to look at the wind and the waves.
I am finding this to be true in my life, on many occasions in the past, but also in this one. I’ve never experienced a loss like this one. Nothing in my life comes close to the depth of this pain. Nonetheless, there is but one thing I must do. Just one, simple action I must take.
Simple, yes. But ever so difficult.
I must look to Jesus. That is all. Look to Him and know that He will tell me what to do, in the right time, when it is the time to do things. Now, this moment, the call is to simply endure the pain, feel it, and look at Christ.
I mentioned earlier that this pain has been a tremendous gift. It is difficult to recognize that suffering is a gift. I am grateful for the many, many people I have known over the course of my life who bore witness to this truth, many of whom are my benefactors, since they prayed for me, offered a share of their suffering for me, unworthy though I was and remain.
In my great pain, particularly in conjunction with the insight God gave me into His pain when we leave Him, I realized that I was standing in a privileged position. I can – and I have repeatedly – offered my agony in conjunction with Christ’s – for souls, for the salvation of souls. For my lost beloved’s soul, for my children’s, for my own, and for souls in general.
After all, that is why Jesus became a human being, taking on our weakness, so He could suffer with and for us so we can become one with Him. He gifts Himself to us and welcomes, invites, our gift of self to Him. My brothers and my sisters, I am not special. Each one of us suffers losses and pain in life. Suffering is a part of human life ever since the original sin of Adam and Eve. Let us surrender ourselves to God. Let us never ever forget, no matter what happens in our lives. That God loves us, and is right here beside us, come what may. He never fails. He always, always loves. Let us entrust ourselves to Him.