“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)
Along with brokenness, darkness is one of the principal spiritual experiences of grief. The death of a child brings with it a blinding fog that envelops the bereaved parent so that the surrounding environment becomes clouded, murky, and dark. What were once familiar reference points and established routines become disconnected from the interior life of the bereaved parent. Formerly easy decisions become confusing and lack clarity. The simple acts of choosing what to wear for the day or what to have for breakfast can seem like unscalable mountain cliffs. Priorities are also lost as the grieving person loses sight of goals, plans and dreams for the future. The world and life seem meaningless and empty when shrouded with the blindness of grief.
Further, there is a terrifying fear lurking in the darkness of grief. Fear is the apprehension of a future evil. Fear of the unknown plagues a person in grief because the bereaved parent has suffered one of the great evils any human can suffer – the death of a child. Fear can especially be present in a subsequent pregnancy after the loss of a child. Blindness and fear threaten to paralyze bereaved parents because of the sense of abandonment and vulnerability of being in the dark. Can this darkness of grief and all it brings with it be overcome?
In the Gospel of Mark (Mk 10:46-52), Jesus is journeying with his disciples and a large crowd. Along the way, they meet a blind roadside beggar named Bartimaeus. We don’t know why he was blind, whether it was from birth or if something later in life caused it. We do know that he was a poor man – a beggar. His only possession was the cloak that he wore to shield him from the elements and to keep him warm at night. We can surmise that it was probably not a very nice cloak. But it was his cloak, and it was all he had.
When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was coming, he cried out, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” The disciples, rather than immediately bringing him to Jesus, instead rebuked him and told him to be silent. What Bartimaeus did was gutsy. He cried out even louder. “Son of David, have pity on me!” This time Jesus responded by having Bartimaeus come to him. Bartimaeus did something that can be quickly glossed over, but is important in grief. He threw off his cloak, his only possession, meager though it was. He came to Jesus unprotected, vulnerable and unable to see.
Jesus asked him a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus could have asked Jesus for anything, but his deepest need was to see. “Master, I want to see.” What Jesus says is the remedy for the blinding darkness of grief. “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Absence becomes an invitation for Jesus to enter into the heart and soul of a bereaved parent to heal, to love and to make whole once again. Faith that Jesus is present in the darkness of grief becomes a light which illumines the darkness and lifts the veil of blindness caused by the death of a child. Pope Francis says it like this:
”In faith, Christ is not simply the one in whom we believe, the supreme manifestation of God’s love; he is also the one with whom we are united precisely in order to believe. Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes: it is a participation in his way of seeing.” (Lumen Fidei No. 18)
The sight which faith in Jesus affords is that we begin to see with the eyes of the Resurrection. The light which illumines is in fact God himself.
In the darkness of grief, a bereaved parent is not only blind, but also quite poor spiritually. After the loss of a child, grief envelops a person like a cloak of poverty that has as its cloth and stitching bitterness, fear, anger, deep sorrow, confusion, doubt, distrust, and a heaviness of heart that makes even the simplest of tasks seemingly impossible. It is this cloak of darkness woven from the threads of grief which must be cast off. Once disposed of, the bereaved person is left naked, empty, and open. This place of accepting vulnerability and helplessness is not the absence of faith, but exactly where faith is found!
Bartimaeus was not searching for Jesus. He was blind, and to be quite honest, it would have been absurd for a blind man to wander the countryside looking for the man rumored to heal all that ails a person physically and spiritually. On the other hand, Bartimaeus did have to call out to Jesus, and when he did, Jesus came to him. Relief and restoration from the burden of grief can be found in the tension of knowing that I cannot do it on my own but am dependent on grace; and knowing that Jesus wants my cooperation and consent in order for him to relieve, heal, and restore.
There is a real temptation when faced with a looming and advancing darkness to turn and try to out run it. But this would be like attempting to outrun the twilight of night by running toward the sunset. There is no chance of catching the sun in this way. Inevitably it will set, and darkness will come. The quickest and only way to reach the light of daybreak is to turn into grief and to face the fact that there is a cloud of darkness. At times, all one can do is sit and endure grief. At other times, it might be possible to walk or even run through grief, advancing quickly in this journey of love.
This feeling of aloneness in grief is expressed well in Psalm 88. The Psalmist cries out in lament, “My one companion is darkness,” (88:19). Darkness makes relationships difficult to see, and even if a spouse, family member, or close friend is visible through the haze of grief, a clear path to them may not be seen. No matter the state of human relationships during grief, God makes us two promises. The first is, “Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as day. Darkness and light are but one,” (Psalm 139:12). The second is, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me,” (Psalm 23:4). God is ever-present in the darkness of grief. He encircles us and embraces us (Psalm 139:5). He is not scared by our grief or by death. He is also not surprised by the difficulties we experience – the doubt, confusion, hurt, and anger.
This truth that the bereaved parent lives in faith is proclaimed by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. ”What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?….No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life….nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,37-39)
God knew our life fully before we were formed and shaped in our own mother’s wombs, and knew all of our days, even loss and grief, before they came to be (Psalm 139:16). He knows our children and has them sheltered in His arms for all eternity in the presence of His Perfect Love.
The secret of Faith, especially in grief, is that we don’t seek God, but that He seeks us! Faith is an invitation, an opening for God who is feverishly seeking and pursuing each one of us to come and to comfort us by simply being with us in our grief. As he himself says, ”I am with you always,” (Mt. 28:20). His presence is what brings light to dispel the darkness and brings restoration to life.
The Prophet Isaiah further validates the accompanying presence of Jesus during this journey through darkness:
“I will lead the blind on a way they do not know; by paths they do not know I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These are my promises – I made them, I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)
The openness of faith is not a large thing beyond reach, but is a small, quiet, and simple thing that allows God access to our deepest needs, some of which are unknown to us. He brings Himself close to us in order to accompany us on the journey of grief, to hold us, and to sustain us during grief’s many trials.
Pope Francis again says this beautifully in his encyclical “The Light of Faith”:
“Yet it is precisely in contemplating Jesus’ death that faith grows stronger and receives a dazzling light; then it is revealed as faith in Christ’s steadfast love for us, a love capable of embracing death to bring us salvation. This love, which did not recoil before death in order to show its depth, is something I can believe in; Christ’s total self-gift overcomes every suspicion and enables me to entrust myself to him completely…Had the Father’s love not caused Jesus to rise from the dead, had it not been able to restore his body to life, then it would not be a completely reliable love, capable of illuminating also the gloom of death.” (Lumen Fidei No. 16-17)
He gives additional expression to this toward the end of the encyclical:
“By contemplating Christ’s union with the Father even at the height of his sufferings on the cross (cf. Mk 15:34), Christians learn to share in the same gaze of Jesus. Even death is illumined and can be experienced as the ultimate call to faith…..Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light. In Christ, God himself wishes to share this path with us and to offer us his gaze so that we might see the light within it.” (No. 56-57)
Faith delivers hope, and hope mends our broken spirits. Faith and hope together lead to the embrace of God’s love which fills the aching emptiness following the death of a child. In the next post, we will consider the third spiritual experience of grief – emptiness.
For further prayer and reading:
2 Corinthians 4:14,16-5:9
“The Light of Faith” (Lumen Fidei by Pope Francis)
Spend time in prayer and let the words of Scripture sink into your grief. Allow Jesus to meet you in this need for light in the midst of darkness and to be that light for you. As the living Word of God seeps into your soul and into your grief, allow all the emotions and thoughts that are brought to the surface direct your prayer and conversation with the God who is with you always and who saves you in every circumstance.