The Journey of Grief
“The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home…I [will] restore your fortunes before your eyes says the Lord.” (Zephaniah 13:17-18a,19-20)
Within Sacred Scripture, the act of journeying is common from very early in the story of salvation. Noah built the ark and journeyed upon the water for forty days in order to escape the destruction of the flood (Genesis 6:5-9:17). Abraham was a nomad that journeyed from his homeland of Chaldea to the land which God had promised him (Genesis 12-25:11). Jacob and his sons journeyed to the land of Egypt to escape crippling famine. Upon arriving, they settled there for over four hundred years as the twelve tribes multiplied in number and became a great Hebrew nation (Genesis 46-50). After being enslaved and in bondage to the Egyptians, Moses led his people out of the land of their slavery to spend forty years wandering in the desert before being allowed into the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). After centuries of living in the Promised Land and establishing a mighty Kingdom through David and Solomon, God’s people were conquered and sent into exile by the Babylonians (2 Chronicles 36:15-21). This was truly a journey of devastation and grief! After seventy years, God’s people were set free and journeyed back to their land to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple (Ezra 1:1-7,3:1-13). Even the Church is a Pilgrim Church on a journey in this life on earth. Each of us must pass through death in order to arrive at our home in heaven, where we will remain in the fullness of life for all eternity (Hebrews 11:13-16,13:14; Catechism of the Catholic Church 671, 769).
This human aspect of journeying is found in a particular way in grief. The prison of grief is characterized by darkness, uncertainty of the future, and doubt of God’s love for us. The journey of grief likewise has a number of characteristics. The journey of grief can be confusing without a clear destination in mind. In this way it is much like Israel’s wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt. The journey from Egypt to the Promised Land was not a long one if they had known the way and traveled to it directly. However, it took forty years because the people refused to listen to and be obedient to the Voice of God. Hence, their journey became prolonged over forty years rather than taking a few months.
The journey of grief is also laden with sorrow. In this way, it resembles the City of Jerusalem at the time of the Babylonian Exile:
“How lonely she is now, the once crowded city…Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheeks. With not one to console her of all her dear ones…The roads to Zion mourn for lack of pilgrims going to her feasts; All her gateways are deserted, her priests grown, her virgins sigh; she is in bitter grief.” (Lamentations 1:1a,2a,4)
The journey of grief is also exhausting. This is related and connected to the confusion and lack of a defined destination for the journey. In a way, the bereaved are refugees in search of a home. Yet, that home remains a mystery. Is home and the relief it brings near by, or will there be months and years of this journey left before home is found? The longing for home is one that is deeply embedded in the human heart.
Despite many of these burdensome qualities of the journey of grief, there remains a natural hope that time and distance from the loss suffered will help to heal the wounds and fill the ache that is present. There exists within the bereaved parent an innate sense that the heaviness of heart and deep sadness will, eventually, abate and subside. It is not clear how long it will be until the tide of grief recedes or under what conditions it will happen, but still this hope exists. And so, even in the natural sense, the seeds of hope for the journey of grief exist. The death of a child exiles a parent into the journey of grief, but hope transforms that journey from an exile into a return journey back to the land of the living (cf. Psalm 27:13).
The difficult aspects of the journey of grief are remedied by one constant truth, however. We do not journey alone, but God himself journeys with us. Not only is He constantly with us on this journey of loss and mourning, but He has gone before us—knows every detail, every difficulty, every hardship—and has lovingly prepared the consolation and remedy needed to complete the journey.
“I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them, and make crooked ways straight. These things I will do for them, and I will not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16).
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior…Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you” (Isaiah 43:1b-3a,4a).
These two passages from the Prophet Isaiah give a promise by God that can be trusted completely. First, the blindness and darkness of grief do not prevent the bereaved parent from making the journey. God goes before us, illuminating every step of the way, making the confusing and crooked path ahead clear and straight. He removes every obstacle that lies between us and our full healing and restoration to life. Faith in this promise takes a trust in Him that is not easy in the face of the evil of the death. Often, God guides and leads only one step at a time. The journey and destination remain largely obscured, and only the next step has been revealed.
This can be difficult to accept, since our culture in the West and America is one that prides and exalts self-sufficiency, planning, and independence to achieve a goal. But this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. The way of the Kingdom is to be child-like, always trusting in a Father who loves us. It is the contrast between being a beloved son or daughter with full access to the Father’s resources, and being an orphan scraping and striving to make it on his own.
This leads to the second passage from Isaiah. God has called us each by name. We are His, precious in His eyes, and beloved by Him. The image of passing through water and fire is symbolic of the totality of God’s accompanying and saving presence with us on the journey of grief. Fire and water are opposing elements, yet God has complete power over them. There is absolutely nothing which He cannot remedy, heal, protect, mend, redeem, and restore in grief. Every detail, known or unknown to us, He has seen and anticipated. He is ready to take each painful detail, one-by-one, and miraculously transform each one into a priceless, treasured gift.
The traumatic trip to the hospital—He wants to redeem that.
The mundane details of life that are salt in the wound, such as it being garbage day or a particular holiday on the day your child died—He wants to redeem that.
The relationships that were damaged or lost because of death—He wants to redeem, restore, or replace each one.
The nursery that was prepared and ready to hold life and be a source of joy—He wants to make that insulting and bitter reminder of death again a place of life, joy, peace, and holiness.
The complete lack of knowledge of your child, whether the child was a boy or girl, what he or she would have been like or looked like—Our Loving Father wants to console us in this mystery, and by faith reveal and grant knowledge to us about who our children are.
Redemption and restoration takes time. Some things God does immediately, and for others we are meant to hope in silence (Cf. Lamentations 3:26) as He prepares our hearts and the mode or manner in which He is to deliver us from sorrow. And this is why grief is a journey. It takes time, and that aspect can be frustrating and demoralizing. Death and grief are strong forces that play upon a soul, tempting to darkness and despair. Yet the confidence that God remains with us on this journey prevents death and darkness from having their victory, for Jesus who has conquered death and risen from the dead remains always with us. Two passages from the Gospels are helpful here.
The Empty Tomb
The first passage is of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s visit to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning and their encounter with the Risen Christ (Matthew 28:1-10). They expected to mourn the dead, but instead were amazed to encounter an angel of God clothed in might and glory. The angel instructed them to not be afraid, and to go tell the disciples that Jesus was raised from the dead and would meet them in Galilee. Their response could have been incredulity and unbelief, or to be immobilized by fear. Instead, they believed with faith and began their journey to Galilee with hope. What occurred next is instructive for the journey of grief:
“Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples. And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them” (Matthew 28:8-9).
Jesus met them on their way! The Risen Christ goes before us in all things. He is the firstborn of the dead, the first to truly live. He goes before us and he meets us. We do not have the ability in grief to catch up to Jesus. He must come to us. Our seeking him, first in the sorrow of grief as we visit the tomb, and second as we journey in hope after him, is in essence a turning toward him, an openness to his life-giving love. In other words, our seeking is the condition for us to receive his consolation during grief. To seek Jesus with faith and hope is to always find him, for he comes to us! In the confusion and fear of the tomb, we cannot find the answers our hearts long for. God is alive, and so He is not to be found by remaining at the tomb. If He meets us at the tomb, it is to point us onward. The tomb is death, but we and our children are meant for life. The act of journeying is one that prepares us for God to come to us.
One final detail about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s encounter with the Risen Christ. When they approached him, they embraced his feet and did him homage (v. 9). This calls to mind the passages earlier in the Gospels where the sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears, cleaning them with her hair, and anointing him with costly perfumed oil (Mt 26:6-7, Lk 7:36-38, Mk 14:3). Our tears are precious to God. In anointing Jesus with oil, he proclaimed that this woman was preparing him for burial. This prophetic statement by Our Lord connects this act of mourning—of both our sins and our loss—to his future victory over death. Our grief matters to him and is connected to his saving act on the cross. Do not hesitate to shed tears of sorrow and to offer them as a gift to God, for He receives them with great love and tenderness! Our tears and our grief are a true and priceless act of worship. Never again will we be able to offer in adoration this unique gift. To give God our tears and sorrow is to offer a sacrifice of praise (Cf. Hebrews 13:15), an offering unique and irreplaceable that will never again be able to be given to Him.
The Road to Emmaus
The second Gospel passage that illustrates Jesus’ accompanying presence on the journey of grief is found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:13-35). It recounts two disciples’ journey from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus following Jesus’ crucifixion and death. The disciples are confused and perplexed, not only at Jesus’ death, but also that the eleven apostles and some of the women in their company had claimed to see Jesus risen from the dead. They “debated” (v. 15), trying to come to some understanding of the how and why of Jesus’ execution. It was in the midst of this questioning that Jesus approached them and began to walk in their midst.
There is a great deal of questioning on the journey of grief. After suffering the death of a child and grief, we try to come to terms with our former expectations of who God is. Much of the two disciples’ confusion came from their misguided “hoping” (v. 21) of who Jesus is and what he came to do. It was in letting Jesus explain to them the truth of his identity and why he had to suffer and die that they began to understand (v. 25-28). So too in each of our journeys of grief. We must invite the Risen Christ to walk this journey with us in our midst, side-by-side, so that he can explain every intimate detail of our losses to us in the exact and perfect language of prayer, word, and sacrament (v. 30-31). Only he can properly explain and console the deepest anguish of our grief.
Another detail this passage reveals about the journey of grief is the need for rest. It is not a journey which can be made in a day, in a week, or in a year. It is a journey that can take years, and may likely last a lifetime. It is important to invite Jesus into these periods of rest just as the two disciples in this passage did (v. 29). This rest and prayer in the midst of the journey of grief reorients the compass of our hearts and souls, and brings clarity to our sight so that we return, like the disciples did, to the city of God’s Peace (v. 33).
Without God, the journey of grief is one of exile. Just as the disciples left Jerusalem for Emmaus and the nation of Israel was sent in chains to Babylon, the journey of grief has the potential to be a journey of exile back into prison. Without God it is a journey dominated by confusion, disorientation, exhaustion, and homelessness. Without God, grief is a journey without hope because death has the final word. But, thankfully, it is not determined or guaranteed to be this.
Jesus Christ has assumed our humanity and conquered the grave through his cross and resurrection. The journey of grief is not an exile, but a glorious journey of hope! It is in the supernatural grace of hope, lovingly given to us by the Holy Spirit, that redemption, restoration, and life are found. In encountering the Risen Christ, the doubts and questions of our hearts are answered, hope takes root and grows, and we make a triumphant return from the land of darkness and death back into the land of light and life.
We are released from the prison of grief to travel the journey of grief so that we can arrive at the final destination—grief as a treasured act of love.
Make a list of the things that are most painful about your loss(es), whether they be memories, details, or relationships. Begin to ask God to heal, redeem and restore each one.
Read Psalm 116 – this is a psalm that speaks well of the journey of grief. Where are you in your grief journey? Are you still caught by the cords of death (v. 3), or have you arrived at that blessed Hallelujah! (v.19). Has God done for you what He has promises in this Psalm?
Read Saved in Hope (Spi Salvi) by Pope Benedict XVI
Come Holy Spirit, Father of the Poor, and inflame my heart with hope and courage to travel the journey of grief! I give to you my (speak your doubts, fears, and sorrows) as I travel upon this road of tears. Come to me, Jesus! Meet me along the way! Reveal to me your presence and console the sorrow of my heart. I declare, in your Sacred and Holy Name, Jesus, that (name the wounds and losses inflicted by grief) are each miraculously healed and redeemed. Restore me to life, Jesus. Bring me again to the land of the living and to the Father’s embrace!