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Walking With God Through Grief and Loss
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By Joyce Rupp, O.S.M.
One of the most pain-filled letters I ever received was from a young mother whose firstborn child had died. She was overwhelmed with the depth of this loss. All her plans and hopes and dreams came crashing down around her, and she couldn't fathom how she could ever find joy in life again.
The letter poured out her anguish and despair. She felt, she said, as if God had abandoned her at a time when she most needed this Loving Presence. She even thought of taking her life, so deep was her desolation.
As I read her letter, I sensed a deep desire in her to walk with God even though she found no comfort when she tried to pray. Over and over she pleaded for some insight, some direction, on how to relate to God during her time of darkness.
The painful emotions described in that letter haunt many human hearts caught up in grief and loss. The negative feelings we have during such times are natural. Yet they bewilder us because we do not expect or accept them as a part of the experience. We want to rid ourselves of the unpleasant feelings as quickly as possible, but grief takes time. We must recognize our feelings of loss and learn to live with them for a time as best we can.
Working your way through
Faith questions naturally arise during these agonizing times: How can I walk with God when God seems to have forgotten all about me? How can I pray when I hurt so much? What do I do when the ways that I used to pray don't work for me? When we feel engulfed by such questions, there are some helps to which we can turn.
* Picture God on your side. The way we picture God has much to do with the way we walk with God during our time of loss. It is helpful to picture God as being on our side rather than against us or responsible for our suffering. Harold Kushner tells us in When Bad Things Happen to Good People that God does not send suffering to us; rather, suffering and loss are a result of the human condition.
Picturing God as One who is on our side is a strong biblical image. God will never abandon us or forget us. God has great compassion for us, yearning for our peace and joy. Many writers see God as suffering with us, walking the road of our grief, having infinite concern for us.
As we pray during our time of grief, we can picture God sitting by our side, looking upon us with much love, or walking with us and listening to our story of sorrow.
* Trust in God's nearness and goodness. When we are grieving a significant loss, our world can seem bleak and dark. We may feel that God does not care or doubt that God even exists. Grief is a time to trust that God is very close, even though our feelings say otherwise.
When we are depressed and all we can think about is our sadness, it helps to call on our good memories. We recall people and events that have brought us happiness. These memories assure us that God does love us very much even though we are mired in gloom at the present time. Good memories also have a way of helping us to trust in the future, when other times of happiness will come our way.
Because our inner vision is usually quite blurred when we are filled with painful emotions, we can easily miss the good things that are a part of each day in the present. At the end of each day, no matter how miserable it may have been, we can find at least one thing we can be grateful for. We may want to write this down each evening and to look at our "gratitude list" when we are feeling particularly discouraged.
* Pray your pain. If we feel sad and empty, these feelings will naturally affect our prayer. We cannot separate ourselves from our bodies or our emotions when we pray. We need to accept the fact that we probably will not have a sense of God's presence for a while. God understands this and loves us in our humanness.
As we grieve our loss, it helps to deliberately pray our pain, to cry out to God, to express our anger. Writing a letter to God, telling God how we feel, can help us to experience being "heard" by God. We can also write a letter from God to us, noting what God would want to say to us at this time of loss.
We may also need to find other forms of prayer for a while. If we are restless, we could go for a long walk or listen to music. If our mind is constantly filled with remembrances of the loss, we could quietly repeat a scripture verse or formal prayer. If we are overwhelmed with sadness, we may find that just sitting with empty hands held open is the only prayer that we can pray. As we do so, we say with our open hands that we trust God to fill our lives with strength enough for another day.
"There are moments when I feel like a little bird, tucked away in a great protective Hand." —Etty Hillisum An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillisum, 1941-1943
* Look for God in unexpected ways. We tend to look for God in certain familiar ways. Consequently, we may think God is absent, yet God is there in ways we may not have noticed. It may be the kindness of someone who writes us a letter or makes a phone call to see how we are. It could be the beauty of the stars on a night when we cannot sleep.
A friend of mine who was in great pain from cancer told me that during her many sleepless nights she would hear the first birdsong in the dawn. When this happened, it would lift her heart and bring her a deep sense of closeness to God.
Another woman who was in much grief told me how she looked out her window one day and saw a spider spinning a web. The threads were wet with dew and sparkled in the sunlight. As she gazed on this intricate wonder, she saw her own life woven into God's heart. This insight filled her with peace for the first time in many months.
* Make time for solitude. As difficult as it may be to take quiet time for ourselves and to be in solitude, we need to do so. We may feel terribly restless or lonely and want to run from the pain or keep ourselves very busy. But solitude is essential and necessary for our growth.
In our solitude we are like a seed buried in the darkness of the earth, all alone and waiting. It seems as though nothing is happening, but quiet growth is taking place.
A day will come when a new green shoot will come forth from the earth. A day will come when we will discover new growth, a gradual return of peace and happiness.
* Be gentle, be patient. We are in a hurry to heal, but we must be patient with ourselves. We must look for courage, resiliency, and hope in the lives of others, noticing how they have made it through their difficult journeys. If one of these persons lives nearby, we can ask that person to tell us his or her story of loss and growth.
Finding a local support group can also ease our pain. We can hear in the lives of others some of our own experiences of grief. This, too, will encourage us to be patient as we grieve.
Sometimes we expect so much of ourselves until we realize that the road we walk is a long one for other people as well.
When the people of the Exodus were wandering in the wilderness, they often complained that God was far from them. Yet God was as close to them as their next breath. And God constantly reassured them of this nearness. The Exodus people eventually did find a new place of freedom and peace.
The same is true for us. Through it all, God is keeping vigil over us just as God did with the Exodus community in the wilderness. It is the kind of vigil that a parent keeps with an ailing child or the nightwatch one keeps while waiting for a loved one to come home.
Etty Hillisum experienced the great loss of her family and friends' deaths in concentration camps. She walked through years of war and suffering. Amid it all, she never gave up. One day she wrote in her diary: "There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer."
Etty Hillisum held on tightly to God in her difficult times. We need to do the same, leaning on God, believing in this compassionate Presence with us. God will, indeed, stay with us on our road to restored peace and joy.
Joyce Rupp, O.S.M., is the author of Fresh Bread and Praying Our Good-bys.CHAPTER 2
Finding God in Times of Loss
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By Ruth Ellen Hasser
We were riding up the slope on a ski lift for the first run of the day, our legs dangling freely over fresh powder and evergreen treetops. The air was crisp, the sky a deep blue, and the majesty of the mountains surrounded us on every side. My friend, a self-proclaimed atheist, drew in a breath and quietly muttered in awe, "It's hard not to believe in God at a time like this!"
Years later, in the far less majestic surroundings of a sterile hospital room, another friend watched her father die a slow and painful death. Here is a man who worked hard all his life, loved his family well, and never intentionally hurt a soul. Now, he hovered somewhere between life and death, struggling for four long months. Joan's heart was breaking as she helplessly watched her father's diminishment. She ached at his undeserved pain, and at her own loss of the Daddy she loved so deeply. Her prayers for either his healing or for a quick and peaceful death apparently unanswered, she wondered, "Where is God in all of this?"
Anyone who has experienced life comes to know the pain of loss, both great and small. From those earliest moments of emerging out of the warm, comfortable place of our mothers' wombs, to those final moments of death, we each know loss intimately. As spiritual beings, we look for answers to our questions about the meaning of such losses, and we often discover that the deeper our pain, the fewer the answers we easily find. Believing in God is much easier in the majestic mountains than in the desert valleys.
Working your way through
Loss comes to us in many forms. It may involve the death of a loved one, a way of life, or a dream. We experience loss when we leave, willingly or unwillingly, a family, a job, a friend, or a home.
Loss occurs whenever we no longer have or experience something or someone to which we have assigned great meaning. It is the absence of that which is loved or longed for.
Can God truly be present in such painful experiences? How can you find God in your loss? Here are a few ideas that may help as you walk through your own desert valley.
* Accept your feelings, whatever they may be. Most people find that they experience a wide range of feelings when undergoing a loss. Along with sadness, there may be anger, resentment, even rage. If the loss is profound or tragic, questions like "Why?" or "How can a loving God allow such a thing to happen?" are common. Some people become bitter, feeling abandoned by God or blaming God for their pain. Others simply stop believing in God altogether.
As difficult as it may be, don't run away from any of the feelings you are having at this time. Give voice to them. Talk with a friend, pastor, or counselor, join a support group, or write in a journal. Shake your fist at God, scream and cry. Set aside time to vent in a way that feels safe for you. As the feelings emerge and are expressed, you may not have any clear answers to your questions, but you will notice a change in your perspective. Your ability to accept your loss may be intimately linked to giving your feelings the attention they deserve. At that point, your relationship with God may come back into focus, though perhaps through a different lens.
* Re-imagine God. One thing we know about God is that what we think we know about God may be just a glimpse of who God truly is. Who is God for you? Many of us still walk around with images left over from childhood. These images of God may have worked for you for many years, but perhaps are not of much help now. Maybe you've imagined God as a Judge, a Ruler, or a Santa Claus rewarding good and punishing bad behavior. Maybe God is a Trickster, a Parent, or a Teacher who "tests our faith." If God cannot be found as you experience this loss, it is time to look to other descriptions or images of the Divine.
One place to start is the Bible. Keith McClellan, O.S.B., describes it as a record of the diverse religious experiences of many women and men, offering us a rich collage of God-pictures. "There you will find God portrayed as a walking companion, anxious parent, passionate debater, comforting mother, prodigal father, co-sufferer." Contrast your current expectations of God with the biblical experiences described in these images. Open yourself up to new possibilities of who God can be for you.
"Every painful event contains in itself a seed of growth and liberation." —Anthony de Mello, S.J.
* Keep trying to pray. Maybe you haven't prayed much lately, or you feel that when you have prayed, there was no noticeable response from God. Perhaps your old ways of praying are not meeting your needs as you make your way through this loss. If so, try something different. There are no rules here!
You may sing, dance, write, and cry your prayers. You may create poetry, sculpt or paint your prayers. You may want to laugh, shout, or sit quietly alone or with others to pray. You can read spiritual literature, study scripture, or attend large services at your mosque, temple, or church. Some people pray in small groups in each others' homes, while others create new prayer rituals in their own homes. You may find comfort in the prayer rituals of earlier religious training. Or, consider going on a retreat to open yourself to God in a new way during this time of loss and change.
Whatever way you choose to pray, pray for yourself and for others affected by this loss. There is no wrong way to pray when you pray from your heart. Remember that the purpose of prayer is not to change God, but to open us up so we might know God's love and desires for us.
* Recall how God has loved you in the past. In the days and weeks following my father's sudden death, God cared for me in immeasurable ways. The cards, prayers, flowers, and hugs from friends; the delicious meals cooked lovingly for me on those days I would have otherwise eaten cold cereal for dinner; the understanding of office colleagues at my frequent forgetfulness; all were evidence of God's tender mercies in my life. At the time, I was just "getting by." Looking back, God's love is crystal clear.
It is often the experience of people of faith that, although they may not recognize it at the time, God was there for them in their time of need. I often hear stories from friends or students who can see, in hindsight, how the Divine sustained them.
Consider how God has loved you in your past. Begin a gratitude list of the ways you have been loved. Trust that, though hidden from your sight now, God is indeed sustaining you, even as you take your next breath.
* Let go. Veronica's loss involves the dream of birthing a baby. As her infertility becomes evident, she grieves profoundly. Each year that passes, new layers of grief are uncovered as she attends the baptism of a friend's child, wakes up to a quiet Christmas morning, or watches an office colleague grow large with child for nine months. Each time, she grieves and must let go of her dream yet again.
We all have to let go, usually again and again. If we are to heal from any loss, and to know God's presence in that loss, we must let go of that to which we cling. It may be a loved one, a job, a dream, or an ego need.
Excerpted from Turning to God to Get Through Grief by Linus Mundy. Copyright © 2014 Abbey Press. Excerpted by permission of Abbey Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|I.||Walking With God Through Grief and Loss||1|
|II.||Finding God in Times of Loss||9|
|III.||When Someone's Suffering or Death Makes You Question Your Faith||17|
|IV.||Five Key Beliefs to Get You Through a Loss||25|
|V.||Healing Your Grief Through Prayer and Meditation||33|