November 2008

Transcending Loss ©

Death is a life-altering experience, both for the person who dies and those dealing with loss.

For almost 20 years now, I have accompanied people struggling with grief. Each case is unique; yet some things don’t change. All Soul’s Day invites us to recall loved ones who have died and to reflect on the experience of loss. In so doing, we can also reflect on the relationship between life and death.

The Book of Lamentations helps us to situate the journey from death to new life. It recalls both the suffering and the healing. The pain is real: “My soul is deprived of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is.” After a time, however, we become aware how the Lord is kind and merciful. He rescues us by the fruit of faith—hope, not as the world gives it, but as only God can.

All created things change with time; all that lives dies sooner or later. We fear both change and death. We also know that it is how things grow. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us how this works: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Knowing our resistance, he adds bluntly, “those who love their life lose it; and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Jesus is not using the word “hate” as we typically understand it. It would be absurd to despise what God has given to us. Instead, Jesus is urging us to not cling–to not build tents in one particular part of the journey–but rather to continue the course even through the darkness, with hope in our hearts.

Death is a time of awesome transformation, both for the person who dies and for those struggling with loss.

Ten years ago, Ashley Prend, a U.S. grief counsellor, wrote a book that provides a spiritual framework for understanding the lifelong impact of grief and how to make it meaningful. In it, she offered a simple formula for “SOARing to new heights”: spirituality, outreach, attitude and reinvestment.

Death and bereavement educators and counsellors have a variety of ways in which they describe the stages of the grieving and coping process. The first stage is shock. This is a period usually marked by numbness and the disruption of basic faculties such as concentration, judgment, memory. Fears are easily exaggerated. This is not a time for introspection or theological speculation. It is a time of survival for which there is no script, only a few words of caution. Prend observes, “whether death came suddenly, expectedly, or somewhere in between, you need to be gentle with yourself in your shock. It’s a temporal stage that cannot be rushed or forced. It lasts as long as necessary until your mind begins to absorb the magnitude of what has happened…You will emerge slowly from the fog, finding yourself sinking in the quicksand of grief.”

The second is disorganization, the heart of grief. Here we find any number of feelings and thoughts, and sometimes-incoherent movement between them. These ebb and flow almost randomly. Emotional pain is felt to some degree or other. Anger and guilt may be present; as may be depression. Here, participation in activities related to the bereaved person’s religious tradition may be helpful. The creative use of meaningful rituals can also be comforting and aid in finding meaning, which is the goal of the grieving process. Prend advises us to “take it slowly, take it gently, take it at your own pace. Be patient and kind with yourself. Remember that grief cannot be devoured all at once. It must be digested slowly, in tiny, bite-sized pieces. You have been forced to embark on this journey and there’s no turning back.”

Dealing with the grief that inevitably follows any significant loss is a journey. Spiritually, it is a pilgrimage and an opportunity to deal with huge existential questions with fresh intensity. The key will be to move at the pace that is appropriate to the person and the situation.

The third phase is the rebuilding of life, the reconstruction. Once reconciled to the reality of deconstruction, a person can explore new beginnings. But Prend warns against any suggestion that the boundary from one to the other is distinct—“A person commonly experiences both stages simultaneously, although in different measure. On a very important level, your grief work will never be “finished,” because your loss will always be a part of you.”

Having acknowledged death as a deeply spiritual experience, Prend then proposes “outreach.” Outreach is a decision to help others. It is a deliberate action taken in opposition to a basic instinct, which is to withdraw. This must be understood in context. The initial movement is one of self-preservation and that instinct must be honoured. No one should pressure a person to move hastily from whatever constitutes a safe haven for them. But, in time, another impulse will emerge simply because we are social creatures; that is the need and desire for loving relationships.

From observation, I suggest that being attentive to loneliness can serve as a cue that the time to reach out has arrived. Missing the company of people slowly becomes distinguishable from missing the person who has been lost through death or other forms of separation. In my practice, I have developed a series of easy exercises to facilitate planning that mitigates the risks that are sometimes perceived. These consist of decisions around modest, short-term goals in the area of physical, emotional, social and spiritual outreach.

Our focus then goes to “attitude.” Attitude is about healthy thinking. Growth in consciousness enables us to experience things attentively, understand them intelligently, make reasonable judgments, and responsible decisions. This applies to all aspects of life but is particularly important with regard to the image of divinity that guides our relationship with God and with others: “The key to one’s attitude toward suffering is more than just accepting its inevitability; it lies in how one manages the suffering and whether one can make it meaningful.”

Finally, reinvestment. Reinvestment is the decision to actively embrace life. Prend refers to reinvestment in love, in work, in a cause, and in creativity. Each of these is important. Ultimately, our joy will be found or renewed in love. St. Thomas Aquinas observed that joy is the fruit of love. Joy is the fullness of life.

Traditionally, All Soul’s Day has focused our attention on prayers for the souls in purgatory. Though a less common practice today, this day allows us to celebrate what is richest in our understanding of life and death—that is the thinness of the veil that separates the two.

Since the time of Sigmund Freud, people have been encouraged to sever ties with loved ones because that is how most therapists understood the need to “bring closure.” The focus has been on his so-called theory of “attachment.” Today, the best understanding of what is helpful to the bereaved is what practitioners call “continuing bonds.” Religious traditions, particularly Christianity and Buddhism, offer great tools for facing change by honouring what is shared on both sides of the mortal divide without fading into unhealthy denial about the reality of physical death.

This is well explained in “Dead but Not Lost” by Goss and Klass. The book is based on excellent social science as well as a keen understanding of the importance of faith. Religion introduces into our world a particular view of life that atheists typically reject. That’s a pity. We too feel the sting of death but its burden is made lighter by hope and the promise of eternal life.

Atheists see death as the end of a road. Some even suggest that Christian teaching devalues earthly life. Truthfully, Christian doctrine affirms the nobility of our life by giving it meaning that reaches beyond the shores of earthy existence. As well, recalling those whose lives enriched ours, we declare that they still sail beyond the horizon, and their lives and our own remain joined forever.