Grief entails far more than just familiarizing ourselves with certain symptoms. We must enter into a process which can be likened to a ''journey.'' As we embark on the journey we soon find out that it cries for meaning. It is a very definite time of trying to make sense out of life.
Our present situation, both in our own country and throughout the world, is bringing news of loss. This is so evident in the many difficulties we are facing with the world economy. Our parishioners are searching for ways to cope with their losses. I have been told by some of my parishioners that they are afraid or even avoid opening their mail with information about their 401K's or IRA accounts. People's financial portfolios have been greatly affected. We see this increasing even in areas we least expected such as charitable trusts.
Times of loss are critical, and at the same time they are opportunities for change. Transformations all of us need can occur if we interpret persons, places and events in a purposeful context while we take the journey. This clearly places us into the realm of spirituality.
Journeying with Healing Steps
A path through grief with a ''step'' approach models itself on the spirituality of a Twelve Step Program. We find in this approach ways to accept our powerlessness, form new relationships with others, develop a better image of God, learn to trust and love again, and bring others the peace we experience from having accomplished significant spiritual exercises. Spiritual exercises are ways of prayer which relate to all of the above and the major losses we experience in our lives.
When we keep in mind that grief is the ''perception of loss'' we can better understand separation and loss. At the same time, as priests we are better equipped to be empathic with those to whom we minister. From a pastoral perspective we need to help others to place their losses into the wider context of faith. This is no easy task. Yet it is one that in a very spiritual way we can offer. This may be offered in our preaching and with support groups or seminars geared toward helping those who are presently overwhelmed.
A step program for separation and loss gives some real shape to our grief. We are beginning to respond rather than to react to what can be a shattering experience. Our feelings of emptiness, abandonment, anger, guilt, searching and yearning are put into a healing context. The step program speaks to our spiritual self. Compulsive patterns and being self-absorbed are addressed. Step exercises empower us to realize that our life's journey continues. When it is anchored in faith, real resolution for losses happens.
The steps are a suggested framework to assist us according to our needs. In a religious context they are truly a spiritual exercise. And they are suited for both groups and individuals.
It is no easy task to take the steps. All grief work is intense. It requires our full attention and strength. In many ways the steps to be outlined are a spiritual and transformative way of life. They require our faith awareness of virtues or powers which will release us from the shadows or darkness in our lives.
We need to discern what is really occurring in our lives. With grief we need to name our emotions and channel them in creative and practical ways. We have been given the rich resource of faith and belief which we want to make operative in our lives.
STEP ONE: Acknowledge that we are powerless over causes of loss, that grief happens, and that our lives can become unmanageable at times.
This first step appropriately meets us where we are in our journey. It does not allow us to be a participant in our culture which so often chooses avoidance and denial. Rather, loss is cited as very much a part of reality.
The chaos that so often accompanies grief is noted. The challenge is to name the chaos and channel it in ways that will be creative. This first step for healing our pain provides us with insights to how unmanageable our lives are during critical times of loss. We need to sort things out and realize that by ourselves we cannot do this. It is a time to cry out to the Lord to give us ways to accept things as they really are.
STEP TWO: Affirm that a Power greater than ourselves can restore our balance.
Grief really puts us off balance. We are not ourselves and do not know how to respond to our innermost thoughts and feelings. Resorting to rugged individualism or even a false sense of self-reliance does not help us while we grieve.
While we grieve it is essential that we go beyond ourselves. We have to allow our experience of loss to open up a sense of the Ultimate. During grief we need to cultivate an awareness of our own contingency. In other words, we have to transcend as best we can.
Transcending very often helps us to become aware of our own mortality. Amidst the confusion, sense of isolation, unreality of events and many other factors we can transform our lives by listening to our limitations. The limitations help us to appreciate that there is also a limitlessness to life.
Life is eternal, and the limitations are our inability to see. God is the Transcendent One who is limitless horizon in the establishing of the Kingdom. Our hope in this step is to meditate and learn how to trust in the Power greater than ourselves to restore our equilibrium.
STEP THREE: Freely turn ourselves toward God and let God take charge of our lives.
Grieving makes us feel wounded. We may even feel that part of ourselves has died. This hurt cries out for healing. We need direction.
This spiritual exercise gives direction at times of confusion. We just cannot see clearly and are so very confused about life. Our disorientation complicates all that we say and do. Left to ourselves we just cannot go through all this grief. This step requires that we accept our loss and turn it over to God. It demands emptying ourselves. Now we are beginning to find purpose and must make the conscious decision to have our wills conform to God's.
The Prayer of the Kingdom (the Our Father) is also the prayer of acceptance. Up until now we may have wanted to make life according to our will. Now we must realize that we are not the Creator but the creature. This means we walk humbly in the presence of God.
Complete healing comes about when we seek deliverance. Deliverance from ourselves and our obstacles to allowing the reign or presence of God to break through into our lives is what is needed for healing. This step prepares us for the next which requires self-examination. When we identify the obstacles to acceptance of our loss, real growth in the spiritual life is at hand.
STEP FOUR: Examine our relationships and attachments to better understand ourselves and what is happening.
Practicing this step requires some real soul-searching. We need to take an emotional and spiritual inventory of our lives to date. An in depth look at ourselves requires considerable courage. This exercise helps us to assess growth and those factors which are impeding it.
Are we controlled by our attachments? Do persons, places, and things have inordinate power over us? These and other difficult questions have to be raised. Sometimes a mapping of our lives listing significant points and our responses/reactions is a good way to do an inventory.
Grief is cumulative and how well or how poorly we did in the past influences our present way of coping. We need to admit to ourselves that we are in pain and have been in the past. In this way we know what we must do to grieve and reconnect with healing ways.
When we examine our lives we have to confront our attachments. Are we letting go of ourselves as being always in control of life? Are we ridding ourselves of false images or idols in our lives? Who or what dominates our lives? Is God in the center or over to the side in our lives?
These are significant spiritual questions. Our rich resources in faith are hindered by living only in a perceived material, one-dimensional interpretation of life.
This step is one where we are required to smash the false idols in our lives. It requires our examining our relationships along with all of our attachments. We need to have compassionate listeners who will hear our story as we relate it looking for support and understanding. Otherwise our lives become more and more devastating.
STEP FIVE: Learn to love and trust again. Form new spiritual relationships in life.
Whenever we experience a loss it takes considerable time to rebuild trust in our lives. This is especially evident when we lose a loved one. This, as with other losses, makes us feel vulnerable. Avoidance can easily be practiced. ''If we do not expend our emotions and love we have nothing to worry about in the future.''
Such thinking is an example of how our minds can play tricks on us and we can think of ourselves as rocks devoid of human feelings. This, of course, means we are stuck in our grief and need help.
In this step we explore ways of wanting to trust in life again. Our wanting to believe connects us with the ability to believe and trust again. In death we want to believe in our hearts that we will see our loved ones again. So too with material losses amidst a depression we want to reorder our lives in spiritual ways that bring hope and healing.
The experience of loss is assisted in this step through our signs and symbols and rituals. There are ways that this step, along with others, energizes a parish spiritual seminar or presentation. Paying attention to our signs and symbols is an essential part of forming an ongoing change and transformation in our lives. We truly do believe that our signs are saving signs which touch our entire person.
STEP SIX: By having experienced healing and by having our lives restored to us in the ways of the Spirit, we can now bring that message to others who are suffering.
It must be understood in our spiritual seminars, pastoral encounters and ministry that there is really no time limit for our loss. Our grief becomes manageable yet we are always aware of our losses. The Gospel has to be preached to the point of people's needs. This step program is one way of addressing the many losses now in our parishioners' lives.
The pastoral challenge is always to help others continue their dialogue or converse with God. Expressing loss in the context of faith brings healing and hope. Our pastoral ministry is in our preaching, teaching, and spiritual direction, loving listeners and the great support needed in lives seeking direction.
The real compassionate listener is the one who is empathic. This goes beyond sympathy. In empathy we try to place ourselves in the other person's place. In many ways this illustrates how the priest is a mediator and very often a wounded healer as well.
Our hope is that when we participate in spiritual steps or spiritual practices we will bring God's healing presence to others and become instruments for healing.
We have looked briefly at a sketch of steps which bring healing for loss. Our own stories are usually intertwined with a step approach. There is so much more to our lives when we realize that we need spiritual resources to go through tumultuous times. Our spiritual exercises are healing ways to accept, manage and bring healing for loss. TP
Father Curley, D.Min., is the pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Nahant, Mass. He also is a member of the faculty for St. John Seminary, Brighton, Mass., Master of Arts in Ministry Program where he teaches pastoral ministry. His book, Six Steps for Managing Loss, A Catholic Guide Through Grief, Alba House, New York, 1997, deals with grief due to the loss of a loved one.