Challenging Times—Understanding Grief and Our Experience with The Pandemic

In these difficult days, have you noticed that you can feel fine one minute only to feel sad, confused, disengaged, or overwhelmed the next? If so, you’re not alone.

What’s the cause?  Believe it or not, you may be experiencing grief. We’ve lost a lot this year either directly or indirectly. While many of us have experienced the loss of a loved one, all of us have lost our sense of normalcy, our connection with the friends we used to see, or the activities we used to participate in. With COVID-related church closings, we have lost many of our spiritual coping tools.  In many ways, we’ve even lost our natural coping skills—we just can’t do the things we used to do to take down our stress and get the break that we all need. Although we tend not to recognize it, all of these losses are producing a massive, world-wide grief reaction resulting in heightened emotions and often unpredictable mood swings.

But why is grief so difficult to manage? The Theology of The Body reminds us that although grief and loss is part of this life, God never meant for us to experience grief or loss and he intends to restore all things to us when we are one with him. The world tells us that loss–whether the loss of a job, a relationship, our health, or a loved one–is an ending.  In our broken world, the most natural response to loss is to give up; to settle. 

Seen through the eyes of faith, loss represents an opportunity to enter into a deeper experience of Gods mercy, providence and abundance.  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be consoled.”  God wants us to approach loss differently.  He wants us to see him, not the world, as the source of all good gifts. Nothing is ever really lost to someone who loves God.  Whatever it is that we think is lost to us–our ability to provide for our needs, the people we care about, the situations or people we depend on—God wants us to turn to him for guidance on how he wants us to respond to that loss.  If we ask God to help us deal with our losses gracefully he will show us how to fill up the hole thats left inside by the things we’ve lost.

Here are three ways that God calls us to respond to our grief:

Be gentle—In challenging times, we must be gentle with ourselves and others. We often have high expectations for ourselves. When we don’t meet those expectations we think, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why can’t I do what I used to do?” Be gentle and change this hurtful thinking to something more helpful, like,  “What do I need to do to feel taken care of in this moment?” “What is one small thing I can do now to take a step in the right direction?”

Seek connection—our natural response to grief is often to hide out, shut down, and withdraw into ourselves. This is the opposite of how God wants us to respond. God calls us to seek connection, to find community, and reach out to others who can walk with us and support us effectively through our experience.

Honor what we’ve lost—Working through grief requires us to honor what we’ve lost. We can honor a loved one by calling to mind their strengths and the ways they were a gift to our lives, then intentionally working to display those strengths in our own lives and being a gift to others in similar ways. We can honor the activities that we’ve lost by finding connection with them in new ways. If our kids are missing school we can ask them what they’re missing most about the school day and do our best to recreate some of those experiences at home. We can honor the connections they’ve lost by helping to keep them connected to their friends, or by encouraging them to draw pictures or writing notes to send to the people they care about. If we’re missing participating in certain events, brainstorm other productive and enjoyable things to do with that time.  The key is not simply sitting around waiting for someone else to program our life again, but to take charge and start living more intentionally.  By taking this approach, we honor the parts of our life that we miss while actively creating the new life God is calling us to grow into.

If you would like to seek support and find help working through your experience with grief, contact us at CatholicCounselors.com 

“He Ain’t Heavy…”: The Death of My Same-Sex Attracted Brother

Guest post by Dave McClow, Pastoral Solutions Institute.

“I don’t believe in hell.  If there is a hell, it can’t be any worse than my life here.”  These were the most striking words from my 55-year-old-same-sex-attracted brother Mark in the last two-plus weeks of his life.  He died February 27, 2017, from throat cancer.  I wanted to remember him here and witness to the abyss of God’s mercy.

It started in May 2016 with a diagnosis, then treatment in August, and two hospitalizations in January 2017 which included a heart attack and a lack of response to treatment.  When my wife and I saw him on February 10th, he was exploring hospice.  This began the whirlwind of two and a half weeks of reconnecting and parting with my brother.

Hell: A Homeless Heart

Mark remembered many more ugly and painful memories from childhood than I did that shook the foundations of my world.  He felt profoundly unloved and was bullied at home and in school.  He was assaulted as an adult for his sexual orientation.  He struggled with bouts of deep depression and would want to die.  He disconnected from our family for decades; he had a “Homeless Heart” (from a song on his iPod).

He had a way of remembering things that kept his wounds open.  In his hell, he did not know that Jesus experienced deep excruciating pain when he said, “I am grieved unto death,” or “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  I share some of Mark’s pain here, because he disliked when people minimized it with clichés, and because I think it made his life more remarkable.

Responding to Hell

Early in our conversations, when he talked about hell, I responded, “I believe there is a hell, but I don’t think you’re going there.  God doesn’t send anyone to hell (see CCC 1033)!  God is love, and he can’t do anything but love you. Because of your free will, he will honor your rejection.  He understands if you are angry at him, that you have been hurt.  But God does not send people to hell—they must request it.”  I continued, “When you die, you will step into love—the love you have never known and always longed for.” He nodded in thoughtful approval, a light in the darkness.

Ugly Into Beautiful

Ironically, I think because Mark had seen so much ugliness in his life, he had a strong sense of and attraction to beauty.  A rehabber at heart, he could make the ugliest houses beautiful!  God is a “rehabber” too, bringing good out of evil.  So Mark had unknowingly lived out a deep Catholic spirituality, making the world more beautiful.

Making Death Beautiful

Death is ugly.  But it was also awe-inspiring to stand at the boundary between life and death with Mark.  We talked about his life, about the end, about his regrets.  I was able to put my hand on his heart, to hold his hand, and cradle his head.  And even when he could not talk, I challenged him to forgive himself and others.  I read him a note of apology from my mom.  He would respond with groans and would calm down when I told him to be at peace.

The Hour of Mercy

On the Friday before Mark died the hospice doctor thought he could go that afternoon or within 48 hours.  So I asked St. Faustina to intercede and let Mark die during the hour of Mercy as a sign to me.  Friday turned into Monday, waiting at the foot of the cross.  I left for a lunch break at 2 PM.  Just before 3 PM, the nurse called me back, saying Mark was on his last breaths.  When I arrived, he had just breathed his last—exactly at 3 PM he had stepped into love.  I sobbed at his side.  He was gone, and I couldn’t believe the time.  I urged him to go toward God’s love.  It had been an absolute whirlwind, an agony in the garden, with deep joy, too.

But God was not finished.  Songs have come into my life at particular times to capture the moment and bring a message of love.  After perusing Mark’s iPod that day, I hit play and heard Queen Latifah’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!  I felt God was showering his mercy on Mark from above, and Queen Latifah from below.  I had surrounded him in mercy because (I can’t resist)—“He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Not Really the End

We dressed him for cremation in a flannel shirt, cargo pants, and an old pair of work boots.  After all, he was a rehabber.  Now that he has stepped into love, I believe he has a new job from his place in purgatory and heaven, this time rehabbing hearts, making the ugly beautiful.  I sense his presence and blessing and often call on him to help with a hurting client.  Please join me in letting his new-found love “spill over” into our lives (Benedict XVI) to heal broken hearts—please pray for him and to him.