When Justin’s father died, a good friend who believed it might be helpful for Justin to write out his thoughts gave him a journal. “For nearly two years I wrote about my dad, about the close relationship we had and about the wonderful father he was to me,” Justin says as he looks back at that sad time in his life.
“As helpful as the journal proved to be, even more important was the fact that the friend who gave it to me said I could read any parts of it to him, any time I wanted to. Because my spouse and other family members seemed uncomfortable with hearing my pain, my friend was a lifeline out of grief as he listened to the words I wrote in the journal. They came from the depths of my heart. I don’t know if I could have experienced grief recovery without my friend.”
One of the lessons Justin learned from his loss was about the healing power of friendship. While we are grieving, it is difficult to recognize the spiritual lessons present in every painful life experience. Only after we have gained some space from the event can we see and appreciate the profound teachings that the encounter with grief brings us. Here are some spiritual lessons of loss which priests can help grievers identify. Knowing that such lessons emerge from the loss of a loved one can give the griever greater strength, deeper resolve and abundant hope for dealing with future struggles.
1) Loss prompts us to re-evaluate our priorities. Devastating losses create a realignment of priorities. The pain forces us to look closely at our lives and causes us to make healthy changes and adjustments. The ability to separate the significant from the insignificant is heightened.
Stephen J. Cannell, an Emmy Award winner regarded as one of television’s most successful talents, created or co-created more than 38 shows including “The Rockford Files” and “The A Team.”
Although highly successful and living the good life, Cannell and his family were struck by disaster. “At the age of 15, while playing on the beach near San Luis Obispo, my son, Derek, was crushed to death under a large sand fortress. Up until then, everything in my life had gone my way. I married the girl I wanted to marry. My career was great. I had my own studio, which my wife and I owned 100 percent, and I had 1,500 people working for me. All of a sudden, I don’t have a son anymore and everything is upside down,” he recalls.
Cannell said he and his wife experienced a five-year readjustment to life. During that time, there was a sifting and shifting of priorities. One of those concerned family life. “I realized that the only thing that was truly important in life was my family. I had lost valuable time with them because I was constantly at work. I decided I wasn’t going to let that happen any more.” Another change was attitude toward financial security. “In our society, money has become the goal. Money is not a joyous thing. It certainly beats not having money, but it shouldn’t be the goal. For just when things seem to be as good as they can get, life changes everything,” Cannell says.
2) Loss can result in discovering the power of faith. Whenever we face loss, whether it is the death of a loved one, divorce, separation, disability or terminal illness, doubts emerge about our ability to handle the crisis. At that time, we turn to God and discover the immense power of faith. Loss reminds us that we travel through life with an unseen partner.
When crises come our way, we remember that we are not alone in the battles and that we need not be destroyed by them. With the Apostle Paul we recall that God makes light shine out of the darkness (2 Cor 4:6). We can experience the all-surpassing power of God and bear witness to the truth of Paul’s declaration: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed: perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8).
In his book A Grief Unveiled: One Father’s Journey Through The Death of A Child, Gregory Floyd and his family discovered that God did not take away their grief: rather God showed up in their grief. He writes: “We experienced the presence of God along every step of the journey of grief. But he was with us in the pain, not lifting us out of the pain. He was walking the tortuous route with us, not paving a straight path. More than lifting our grief, I believe that God invited us to offer it to him.”
3) Loss nudges us to ask the better questions. Those who have a successful grief recovery are the ones who ask better questions. Rather than focus on “why” questions, they quickly move on to “how,” “what” and “where” questions. Rather than keep asking “Why did this happen?” “Why me?” they ask questions that will propel them forward: “How do I rebuild my life?” “What do I do with what is left?” “Where do I tum for help and guidance?”
Another shift that helps grief recovery is moving from “Why?” to “Why not?” Missionary Ruth Padilla Eldrenkamp, whose husband was murdered by car thieves on an isolated road in the Andes, said: “I must remind myself and others that this is the kind of world we live in: a broken world, full of emptiness, wracked by injustice and consequent poverty and violence. The question, then, is not ‘Why?’ but ‘Why not?’ Why should we as Christians expect immunity from pain and loss while most of the world suffers them.” We do not become bitter and cynical because bad things happen to good people.
4) Loss can make us more grateful. Often our gratitude level rises when loss enters our life. Michaux Nash Jr., and his wife, Eileen, endured one of the worst losses that any parent could face: the death of a child. On the last day of May 1974, their eldest son, Michaux III, had an accident in the new car his parents had just given him. He was 16 years old when he died. Three decades later, they still feel pangs of pain over their loss. Surviving such a loss “really makes you appreciate every day,” Eileen Nash says. “And you appreciate your other children even more.”
5) Loss empowers us to become a light for others. After his wife of 50 years died, Sam Lubinsky of Orlando, Fla., was overcome with grief. No amount of consolation from friends, family or neighbors could lessen his pain. He spoke to rabbis, priests and clergymen but found no relief. As a last resort, his son dragged him to a support group. It was there that Mr. Lubinsky met other widowers and widows, women and men who shared his experience, understood his pain, felt his loss and spoke the common language of a broken heart.
Participating in that group, Mr. Lubinsky found his pain, which had been deep, intense and constant, gradually subsiding. Although it has been many years since he has shed his grief, Mr. Lubinsky continues to participate in the support group. He continues returning, not for himself, but to help others whose grief is fresh and raw. His understanding nod and gentle words of encouragement empower others to make the gradual movement from pain to recovery.
6) Loss teaches us how to love again. Following the death of a loved one, we are left feeling vulnerable. The temptation to resist loving again becomes great as we do not want to be wounded by another loss. Yet we learn to trust and love again. As a result, the boundaries of the heart are expanded.
One woman explains, “I lost my wonderful husband, friend and companion of 29 years. For many months I was numb and then, when it wore off, I thought I could never fall in love again. However, I found solace and love in the companionship of a widower friend who was in the same situation. This relationship has not replaced the love for my husband but it has permitted me to experience life, joy and love again.”
When we recover the joy of living, we share in the enthusiasm of the Psalmist who wrote this gratitude to God, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent. O Lord, my God, I will give you thanks forever” (Ps 30:11-12).
REV. PARACHIN, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), writes from Tulsa, Okla.