Every time Mary Borner goes to church at St. Thecla Parish in Chicago she pictures her husband's casket going down the aisle. She and Jack had been married 40 years when he died two years ago. Friends suggest she switch parishes, but Borner prefers to stay rooted and engaged in a place full of both joyous and devastating memories. "It would be easier to run away," she says, "but I have to face this."
During the first year after Jack died, Borner prayed a lot and found comfort connecting to God, but her prayers also surfaced questions about why this had to happen. "But then I'd think of other people who are worse off," Borner says. "God helps you to see that you're not the only one. Sometimes I feel like I am, but there are others going through it, too."
She continues to live her life as before, keeping busy with a part-time job, her family, her house and garden. Sometimes she wonders if she is busier than she should be, but staying active seems to be her salvation.
Another saving grace has been her family. She feels lucky to have children and grandchildren in the area, and siblings with whom she can share her grief and just drop by for visits unannounced. Without all this support, Borner says she probably would have joined a support group in the evenings, which are lonely times.
Plain and simple, Borner says: "You just live with it; you have no choice. I don't fight it. When I feel like crying, I cry and feel better."
Grief and loss are universal experiences; no human being can avoid them. But when people face the death of a loved one, they often feel unprepared to deal with the emotions and pain. For some, their faith is a godsend, while others find themselves questioning God. Either way, moving through grief and loss is a profoundly spiritual journey, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. Still, our Catholic Christian tradition offers many resources for navigating this most human of experiences.
What grieving people need
Crying can be healing, agrees Joyce Rupp, a spiritual director and hospice volunteer whose book Praying Our Goodbyes (Ave Maria Press) is a primer on the spiritual journey through grief and loss.
"Grieving people need to be vulnerable and have a willingness to enter the feelings of loss," Rupp says. "Grief sinks down and stays, and people have to be patient with it. They need someone to talk to who won't hurry them through it."
Rupp also encourages those who are grieving to stay faithful to prayer and spiritual practices. "It's about hope," she says. "They have to cling to the hope that one day grief will not be there in the intensity it is now. They don't get over it, but learn how to get through it and how to accept the loss."
It's also important to tell the story of a loved one's death, although that often makes others uncomfortable because of their own fear of death or discomfort in seeing a friend cry. But saying it over and over makes it more real, says Kathleen Walker, coordinator of bereavement services and part-time chaplain at Coastal Hospice in Salisbury, Maryland.
The worst thing to do after a loved one dies is to ignore your feelings, Walker says. Grief can surface in the form of severe depression if a person doesn't work through it. "Even if your husband died 20 years ago, other life experiences will dig it back up," she says. "You have to handle the loss."
Talking about the loss also allows the survivor to readjust to life. A loved one is now gone and so is the connection that a person had with him or her. If a spouse dies, the survivor becomes a widow or widower. Once parents die, the survivor becomes an orphan. Not only does the relationship disappear, but so does an identity and a role, which may have offered a sense of worth. Says Walker, "When a loved one is plucked away, the elevator drops, and we wonder, 'What good am I if I'm not a wife [or husband]?' "
The flip side is that grief can spiritually change people; it can help them grow. "We learn the value of the strength of God in our lives," says Rupp. "We realize how vulnerable and how not in control of our lives we are. That's when we really turn to God and we discover a lot of gifts-the gifts of resiliency, compassion, inner strength."
Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and other organizations and groups exist because of grieving, hurting people moving in a life-giving direction. One widow who left flowers on her husband's grave every day said that she sank deeper into grief as a result of this action. It wasn't until she decided to bring the flowers to sick and appreciative children in the hospital that she began to heal.
Change or action is often required to reconcile a loss. Joining a support group can turn into a blessing for many people. "It is not unusual to have difficulty sleeping or eating," Walker says, "and when grieving people come together they find out what they are experiencing is normal."
Borner realized that taking some time out to reflect on her loss could benefit her, so she attended a retreat called Joyful Again. She also joins her brother and other friends for breakfast at a restaurant every Monday. "I want to keep the family together and preserve our traditions," she says. "I feel Jack prodding me to do so. I have found an inner strength. I believe God has given it to me."
Shocking, isn't it?
Death comes as a shock to most people even after a long illness, in part because people in our culture don't talk about death. Compounding that is the fact that grief strikes each person differently-even within the same family.
"People say it may take a year or two to get over this grief," Rupp says. "But it may take six months or five years. The process is different for each person, but there does come a point when they're not in a horrific place. There's hope and they feel physically different."
For those who are grieving, feeling exhausted is common. Psychiatrist Robert Klitzman, whose sister died on Sept. 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center, was surprised at the toll her death had on him. He wrote in the New York Times a year later: "I, as a psychiatrist, will never be the same, or look the same way at the problems that patients or their families face with depression or grief. The difficulties were far more complicated and long-lasting than I would ever have imagined; closure has been far more elusive. The lessons were painful, but I am grateful for them."
Klitzman touches upon a huge truth about grief: it is complicated. Even spiritual experts say that there is much yet to learn about grief. Some, however, claim that, like the journey through death, many people experience grief in the following stages: shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this framework may help some people recognize the process they are going through, it can also frustrate people.
"Grief recovery processes are not so easily charted," writes Albert Y. Hsu in Grieving a Suicide (Intervarsity Press). Hsu still finds himself angry at times, in denial at others, over his father's suicide. "Traumatic grief is not a linear process, a straight path mapped out," he writes. "Rather, it is a journey filled with twists and turns, unexpected detours and dead ends that force us back over ground we thought we had already covered." The problem with seeing grief in stages, he says, "is that it raises the false expectation that we go through them only once."
How people cope with grief and loss depends on their attitude or belief system and whom they have in their lives. Not surprisingly, people manage better if love and care surround them.
"We have a strong tradition in Roman Catholicism that says God is compassionate and is always there for us," Rupp says. "But what people believe about suffering will make a difference. Some may hold a false theory that God is sending the suffering and is a force against them rather than for them."
During times of loss, some people reject God or even question the existence of God because of what has happened to them. "But that is not being realistic," says Walker. "All living things die. It's not God doing it to us, it's just our role in nature."
Every time spiritual director Mary Jo Valenziano felt abandoned by God during and after her husband's fight with a terminal illness, the phone would ring or someone would stop over. "I want to do things my way," she says, "but God has a different way." She considers the new and old friends that have assisted her during this difficult time as "the presence of Christ" in her life.
Publisher Patrice Tuohy also wrestled with God after the loss of a loved one. "There was a point I was so absolutely angry with God, I said, 'That's it. I can't believe in you.' I experienced a profound doubt that a benevolent being cared about me and my happiness and well-being," she says.
For a while she believed that if there was no God, she could better understand what was happening to her. "But I couldn't do it," Tuohy says. "I couldn't accept a reality where there is no God. I had to embrace God. When I did, it was incredible. I saw God in so many ways that I hadn't before."
Tuohy says her experience of grief and loss has been invaluable; it has become a well of strength for her. "I can no longer say no to God. I have to say yes," she says. "Faith tells me God is present in all situations. I put aside the whole doubt thing and took a leap of faith."
While some people are able to move out of their deep grief, others continue to wallow in wondering "Why?" Rupp believes pursuing such questions isn't productive.
"The Western mind is so rational-we want rational reasons for why things happen," she says. "But suffering can be a source of growth, and when we try to reason why-well, it's not helpful to go down that road."
Experiencing an absence of God is a natural response to grieving. "When we're depressed, it's rare to feel a presence of God," Rupp says. "But think about the funeral and the people who wrote that pile of cards-this is God comforting you now."
Many also find solace in reading or praying the psalms. While the psalmist "cries aloud to God," he also is able to "rest my hope in you." Says Rupp, "The psalms bring some resolution to our pain by helping us see that the psalmist turned back to God again."
Does grief get any easier? When Rupp's dad died in the 1970s, literature on grieving was hard to find, and she says she grieved poorly. She didn't have much energy or desire to work. She couldn't pray but didn't know why.
When her mom died 15 years later, Rupp says she wrote in her journal and cried, which she hadn't done after her dad's death. She didn't expect consolation in prayer but now understood God was with her. "It was still painful, but an awareness can take some of the sting out of it."
Hsu agrees: "Survivors must not believe the lie that nobody knows how we feel. Others have experienced the same tragedy and have weathered the storm. They have been able to go on. We can, too."