Grief as an Act of Love
“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (Song of Songs 8:6-7)
If we begin our experience of grief and loss in a prison bound in chains of anguish, we are released from prison to begin a journey. Like every journey, there is a destination and arrival place for grief’s journey – otherwise it would not be a journey but merely wandering. The destination for the journey of grief is love – love for our child, love for our spouse, and, above all, love for God who created us and has saved us from sin and death.
“Love is felt more keenly, when we lack that which we love.” (St. Thomas Aquinas STh., I-II q.35 a.6). How often do we take for granted the people and relationships in our lives along with the goodness and peace they bring? Yet, in the death of a child or any loved one, we are immediately more aware from our sorrow and grief of the love we have for the one lost than the equivalent love we have for those still living. To say it simply, sorrow draws us deeper into love.
The sorrow produced from grief gives a gift to us, because it makes us aware of the love we have for others who are living. Our love for our spouse has the potential to be rekindled and burn more intensely than ever before; our living children immediately become more precious; relationships take primacy of place over things and possessions. More important than even our human relationships, however, is our relationship with our Loving Father.
This truth about loss and sorrow making us more aware of love does not detract or make light of the real anguish, suffering, and longing we have at the death of our children. Rather, it reinforces the very nature of love. The fate of a mother or father becomes united to that of the child from the moment of conception. This means that the death of a child pierces the soul deeply.
St. Alphonsus Liguori in his book The Glories of Mary illustrates this point in his reflection on the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and Mary’s encounter with the Prophet Simeon (Luke 2:22-38). In prophesying over the child Jesus that he would be the rise and fall of many and would reveal the minds and hearts of humanity, he turned to Mary and said, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” In other words, the fate of the mother is bound together with the fate of the child. When the child suffers, the mother suffers. When the child dies, a part of the mother dies as well. This is equally true for fathers. The sword which pierced Mary’s soul was all that Jesus had to endure and to suffer in order to save and redeem humanity and creation. Mary was equally a martyr because of her sorrow. According to St. Alphonsus, she was a greater martyr because of this than if her own body had been tortured and killed.
The death of a child is a martyrdom of the soul. In love, we give our self, not “some thing,” to the one loved. With a child, we literally give a part of our self in our body. Half the chromosomes that determine the physical constitution of a newly conceived person come from mom, half from dad. God creates the child’s soul, unique unto himself or herself. Yet, even the soul of a child reflects his or her parents in some manner, while at the same time being full his or her own, because the body and soul of a person are inseparable from conception until death.
Another illustration of grief as love is when Jesus, as a twelve-year-old boy, was separated from Mary and Joseph in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). This temporary loss and separation was a prefiguring of the grief Mary was to endure at the cross where she again was separated for three days until the Resurrection on Easter morning. St. Bonaventure, a Bishop and Doctor of the Church who died in 1274, describes beautifully the grief of Mary and Joseph at the loss of Jesus.
“Then the mother, crushed with bitter grief, with tears cried, ‘He has not returned with me. I see I have not taken care enough of my Child;’ and she rushed out, late as it was, with all the composure she could command, and went from house to house making inquiries about Him, and saying, ‘Have you seen my Son?’ ‘Have you not seen my Son?’ hardly knowing, so great was her grief and ardent desire, what she said. And Joseph, also in tears, followed her. And what rest, think you, could they find, when they found not Him—and especially His mother, who loved Him so devotedly? For although her friends sought to console her, she could in no wise be comforted. For what was it to lose Jesus? Behold her and condole with her, for her soul is in bitter anguish, for never since she was born did she experience grief like this. Let us not, then, be disturbed when trouble comes, seeing that the Lord did not spare His own mother. As it is His own to whom especially He permits tribulations to come, and they are the signs of His love, it is good for us to have the.” (The Life of Christ, p. 55).
We, like Mary and Joseph, wonder why we cannot find answers to our grief, despite searching with all our strength. Their search for their beloved son was temporary. They found him after three days. But again, this prefigures the three days between Good Friday and Easter, and it gives us immense hope. Jesus has subjected all things under his authority, including death. With faith and hope in Jesus, our search is also only a temporary search. In faith and hope, we know that we will again be reunited with our children who have gone before us in death into eternal life.
We must also pay close attention to where Jesus was found — in the Temple. That Jesus was in the temple with the elders is significant. The temple because it was the place of worship, sacrifice and atonement for the Jewish nation. The elders are significant because Jesus is the way, truth and life (John 14:6), and the elders were stewards of these things for Israel. In our sorrow we search, and searching is necessary, even if we do not immediately find Jesus or receive consolation. Know that we will always meet him in worship and adoration, and that our sacrifice of grief is a worthy offering. God hears and is present when we offer these pangs of sorrow to him. Hold nothing back from God concerning grief and sorrow, but lay all things before His throne of grace, mercy and love! Take the burdens of loss and the weariness of your journey to Him in prayer, especially in the Mass, and receive from His Heart of Mercy the answers to your sorrow that only He can give. In both Word and Sacrament, let Him anoint you with oil of gladness instead of mourning, and let Him return strength to your broken spirit (cf. Isaiah 61:3)!
As mentioned in our reflection on the Journey of Grief, our tears and our grief are precious to him. When the sinful woman brought an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment and broke it at his feet to anoint him with oil and her tears, she was shown great tenderness by Jesus. She was broken, bruised, and beaten down and was in great need of healing. Because of her immense need, she showed great love for the one who forgave her and healed her (Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Lk 7:36-50, Jn 12:1-8).
Grief is an act of love because it reveals our complete dependence on God, our need of His mercy, and His unfathomable and infinite love for us. In truth, without God and His love, we would have no hope of seeing our child again for whom we long for and grieve so intensely. Quite simply, the fact that we grieve is evidence enough that we have deep love for our child. But it is what grief reveals to us that makes it a place of love. Namely, that we are beloved sons and daughters of God, and despite what is presently before us in this broken and cold world, because Jesus lives, we and our children will also live (Jn 14:18-20)!
Read and pray over the Seven Sorrows of Mary:
1. The Presentation in the Temple and the Prophecy of Simeon – Luke 2:25-35
2. Flight into Egypt – Matthew 2:13-15
3. The Child Jesus Lost in the Temple – Luke 2:41-50
4. Mary Meets Jesus Carrying the Cross – Luke 23:27-29
5. Mary at the Foot of the Cross – John 19:25-30
6. Mary receives the body of Jesus – (Psalm 130)
7. Mary Witnesses the Burial of Jesus – Luke 23:50-56
To help focus and concentrate, it may be helpful to pray and meditate over one sorrow each day for a week. Along with each passage for that day, pray a Rosary and ask Mary to reveal what she suffered in the death of Jesus. Ask for the same grace of consolation that she received from the Holy Spirit.