Grief is an emotional response to loss – real or perceived, past, present or anticipated.
Humans seek meaning. One of a child’s earliest questions is, “Why?” She wants to know the meaning behind an event, the reason for a direction. “Why is the sky blue?” She is not asking a scientific question about how light is reflected and refracted and how the atmosphere becomes a filter for the dark void of space, which we then perceive as blue. You will loose her if you try to ‘explain’ in response to her ‘why’ question. She is asking what it means that the sky is blue. Similarly, when a child asks, “Where do babies come from?” he is not asking a biology question, but a meaning question, an existential, ontological inquiry into the origin of life.
We need for our lives to mean something, and that meaning usually (always?) derives from our relationships – with ‘the other’ and with self. When a person’s sense of self is disturbed, when important relationships are fractured, then life ‘loses its meaning’. Depression sets in coincident with this loss of meaning drawn from relationships. The loss may only be perceived by the depressed person, while all around still experience and value the relationship. Even when depression has a chemical component, there is typically experienced some psychological component of loss. Part of what is lost is meaning, and grief follows. If meaning cannot be restored, or new meaning found, then depression may set in.
Our ability to ‘do something’ in the world, to make or produce something, to ‘be a productive member of society’ is also about relationships – with self, others and the world. It’s about our ability to contribute, to ‘be useful’ to the other, to be needed. When men, in particular, retire, they often experience a loss of meaning, as their self-identity, and how they understood themselves in relation to others, was derived from work. Part of the ‘grief process’ in this instance will be to choose new ways of framing meaning. The joy one derives even from caring for a pet or tending a small garden, these are expressions of relationship which when lost will be missed – not only the act, but the meaning the act represented.
Of particular significance is the series of losses that come with aging – losses of ability, contribution, and independence. When a mother can no longer cook for her children or care for her grandchildren, she may experience grief. When a father can no longer provide, no longer ‘help out’ with projects around the house, he too may grieve. Next comes the time when they cannot do these things even for themselves, and roles reverse so that the caregiver becomes the receiver of care. This includes a loss of role, of identity, of independence, and perhaps even of dignity, modesty and self-respect. With each of these losses come a unique kind of grief.
Multiple griefs can pile up, much like other kinds of stress. Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that “demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.” (Richard S. Lazarus) The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale is a useful tool for understanding the compounding effect of stresses over time. Loss and Grief function in similar ways, and often include specific stress elements in them, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
At a time of loss, people often ask questions of meaning – usually they begin with ‘why?’ or ‘how?’.
Why did this happen? OR more pointedly – Why did God let this happen?
How will I go on?
What do you do when loss comes into your life? Take a moment to list a few of the losses that you have experienced at any time in your life, and then specifically in the last two years.
And it matters whether the loss was sudden and surprising, or known and a long time in developing.
An extended period of loss – such as a slow death from a debilitating disease – offers special significance to our grief. We this time can allow all involved opportunities to grieve slowly over time, to ‘adjust’ to ideas of a new reality and think things through. In this way, they may have more peace about the loss, and grow to a place of understanding with their questions. At the same time, this long, drawn-out process also may prompt some to experience greater suffering. A deep sadness comes with prolonged suffering, as one perhaps wishes ‘for it all to be over.’ Added to that is the fatigue that comes with suffering, caring, and grieving for weeks and months on end.
In his groundbreaking work on Logo Therapy entitled Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl processes his experience in the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. What Frankl observed, very simply, is that those who found some reason to survive, did. In other words, those for whom life continued to have meaning. The meaning could be tied to family and friends, to life itself, to ‘resistance’, or even to work left undone, as it was for Frankl. Many human beings (there are always exceptions) want life to make sense, to have some kind of reason behind it. People say this about their periods of depression: “I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning.” Don’t we all need such a reason, in some form or another? The challenge for people is that those things which used to provide meaning are 1) no longer effective, or 2) no longer there. The second is the case with grief and loss.
So, as we enter into caring relationships with others, we need to be aware of our own losses, their meaning for us and effect on us. We then need to be sure that these are able to illumine our interactions without infecting them. My grief gives me understanding and empathy for others, but must not be laid or projected onto the other and their experiences.
We also want to listen for expressions of grief and loss, giving the other opportunity to express these, and explore questions of meaning if they so choose. If we are anxious about our own loss and grief, then we will not have the capacity for calm presence as we listen to the other. Indeed, one of the ways our own loss and grief gains new meaning is when it is redeemed by enabling us to be present with/for the other in their times of need without our own needs controlling the interaction. We can not give meaning to the grief and loss of others. We CAN and should give them permission to explore and seek meaning in the midst of their own journey.
A reflection from faith
As we enter into this process, we bring our own understandings of God and God’s place in the world. The Christian tradition is one which has multiple expressions of how loss and grief can become opportunities for deeper meaning in life, in opposition to cultural presumptions that loss leads to a destruction of meaning.
Paul articulates that:
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5)
This passage makes several points: 1) the suffering and loss experienced in the death of Jesus became redemptive because of God’s grace at work in and through those events, and 2) our own experiences of suffering (grief and loss) become an opportunity for us to grow toward hope. These two ideas are central to the Christian understanding of life in this world.
Additionally, we believe/understand that losses in this world are only temporary, and that an experience of life awaits us where there is no loss, grief, sorrow, tears or pain (Revelation 21:3-4). We need to be very careful in the midst of another’s grief. Proclaiming these truths to someone who does not already believe them rings very hollow. Rather, let our faith in them bring us comfort and assurance as we enter into the sufferings of others so that we are able to ‘not let our hearts be troubled, neither be afraid’, but rather provide a calm, steady, safe place in which others may explore their own deep questions and the meaning they may find in and after their experiences of loss and grief.
When the Well-Meaning Become the Grief Police By Sara Perry
(click here to download a pdf of Pastoral Care Training – Meaning and Grief)