Blessed are those who mourn
for they will be comforted.
I was first introduced to the term “grief work” as a nursing student in my early twenties. I knew nothing about grief. The religious culture in which I had been raised didn’t grieve much. At least not that I ever saw. Our preachers sometimes said things at funerals that would stun the average person. Things like, “This is not a day for grief, but a day for celebration.” While the preacher was saying this he would usually be looking right at the grief stricken family, who would often nod in pressured agreement.
The idea that grief involved work fascinated me. It was as if participation in grieving was a task to be accomplished. I did know about accomplishing tasks. Tasking was something I had learned to value. So putting grief and work side by side gave me some permission to explore the idea of grief as something that actually might be important. Maybe even useful.
It turns out that grief is important. It is useful. And it is work.
Grief work is vital to our health. Grieving our losses helps us maintain our mental, emotional and spiritual health.
Grief work begins when we let ourselves face a painful truth, a truth that we would rather turn away from. The truth might be that someone we love is using drugs. Or that we have hurt someone with our unkind words. Or that the abandonment we experienced in early life had a deep and long-lasting impact on us. Or that we really miss the person in our life who died. Or that we have cancer and need to have surgery.
These are painful realities. We want to look away, to numb ourselves, to distract ourselves, to say it isn’t so bad. But how will we find the healing we need if we do not pay attention to these painful truths? And what kind of people will we be if we harden our hearts to the pain in our lives and in the lives of others?
I avoided and denied and minimized the pain I carried with me from my childhood for many years. This cost me dearly. And it cost the people close to me dearly. My failure to pay attention to the work of grief meant that I wasn’t real. I wasn’t fully present. My heart was defended and this defensiveness left me feeling separated from myself, from God and from others. Something was missing from my closest relationships. What was missing was me. The most tender hearted part of me was hidden behind a wall of emotional numbness.
The work in grief work refers to the effort it takes to pay attention to painful truths. Even though we fear that we cannot bear it. Even though it hurts horribly. Even though we find ourselves “falling apart.” The work of grief is to allow ourselves to soften and open up our hearts. It also takes work to let go. To let go of our defenses. To let go of our pride. To let go of trying to control what we cannot control.
At its heart, grief is an expression of love. If we find out we have cancer, we grieve because it turns out that no matter how flawed we may see ourselves, we love our bodies and the life they make possible. They are precious, miraculous. It also turns out that no matter how difficult life can seem at times, we love life. Life is a sweet, sweet gift. We grieve any threat to our life because we love life.
We grieve the loss of a relationship through death or separation because we love the person we have lost and the relationship we had with them or longed to have with them.
The connection between grief and love is very important. It is this connection which explains why we do not need to be afraid of our grief. It is a manifestation of our love. Grief work, then, is opening our hearts to painful realities and letting our tears flow with our tenderhearted love.
But this opening is just the beginning. Grief work is also about receiving. “Blessed are they who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” Grief work is about allowing ourselves to receive comfort. Comfort from God. Comfort from others.
The image that comes to my mind when I think of receiving comfort is that of a child being held and loved by a safe, caring parent. The parent is attuned to the child’s distress and is present to soothe, hold and support the child in compassionate love.
The Scriptures teach us that God is the “Father of all Compassion and the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles” (II Corinthians 1:1-3). Giving and receiving comfort is an intimate experience. It is an emotionally close and vulnerable thing to do. To receive comfort from God is to know that God is with us, it is to let God feel our pain with us, it is to allow God to love us.
Letting God comfort us is letting God be who God is. It is letting God be the God of all comfort.
My experience is that this process of opening our hearts to painful realities, of letting go of our defenses, of releasing our tears, and of receiving comfort is a cyclic process. At first we can only open up a little, let go a little and receive a little comfort. As we do this, we are strengthened with greater courage and humility and love to open up and let go and receive more deeply. And then, again, more deeply. And again and again and again.
All of this changes us in many important ways. We become more compassionate. We grow less and less afraid of pain. We become more capable of receiving comfort and thus of experiencing ourselves as loved.
Many years ago I was grieving over childhood losses. The grief I was experiencing was more painful than I thought I could possibly tolerate. I prayed for help and comfort. As I prayed I had a sense of God inviting me to place my breaking heart in God’s hand. And so, I did. My thought was that God would mend this ripped-open heart of mine. The image I saw, however, was of God gently holding my heart and breaking it all the way open.
Immediately upon seeing this image I thought of the image of Jesus breaking the loaf of bread that a small child had brought to him. There were thousands of people who had come miles to hear Jesus teach and at the end of the day they were all hungry. So Jesus asked if anyone had food. A child brought his small lunch and gave it to Jesus. Jesus took the bread and broke it open and gave it to his disciples to distribute. And all were fed.
My heart needed to be broken all the way open. God took my heart and broke through the defenses and hardness. The result was a more compassionate heart. A more tender heart. A heart capable of giving and receiving love. A heart that could be available to nourish others who were hungry for love.
Do not be afraid to grieve. It is a beautiful thing. It is a clear expression of your love. It will open you to receive more fully the love that is offered to you, and it will free you to share your love with others. And that is, after all, what life is all about.
When you don’t know what to do…grieve.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What grief work are you doing or needing to do?
2. What support do you need as you grieve?
3. How do you see your grief as an expression of your love?