The Goodness of Grief

by John C. Raines

Dr. Raines taught religion at Temple University in Philadelphia at the time this article was written. He is coauthor of Modern Work and Human Meaning (Westminster, 1986).

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 15, 1986, pp. 886-887. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


SUMMARY

Raines exposes the often forgotten positive aspects of grief and the benefits of the grieving process, reminding us that good grieving rescues us from self-pity and other life-denying attitudes by enabling us to preserve our past with solidity and depth, by opening us to new meanings in the future beyond anger and regret, and by building compassion into our lives for all who struggle to make their grieving selves a friend of life.


If life is to be meaningful and satisfying, we must attach ourselves deeply and fully to

people and causes. Yet everything to which we can and do attach is finite. There are, of

course, steady things like family and friends, but even in relationship to these, we

ourselves are constantly changing.

Because of this ever-changing nature of life's journey, grief is less something that

happens now and then -- like a cold interrupting what is otherwise good health -- than it

is a constant task of living. Like Abraham, who left the land of Ur not knowing whither

he was going, we too, must, time and again, live by faith, not knowing the meaning of it

all, yet trusting that there is a meaning -- that our life is indeed a journey, not just a

wandering.

Grief can be a good friend along this journey first by helping us to remember and

conserve the past, rather than denying that we once had meaningful things but that we

now no longer have them. Grief refuses to flee the past just because it is gone and

things have now changed.

Consider the experience of the children of divorce. They are sometimes urged by one

parent or the other to forget the past and pretend that there is nothing meaningful back

there. All was injury and wrong, and not to be remembered or missed. But children

need to affirm that they do not come just from ruin and wreckage, that their beginnings

held promise. They need to grieve what is lost, remembering and affirming it as

something that was meaningful and important, that is now gone.

Or consider when we lose our innocence -- when we discover that we can injure and

have injured others, that the slate of our lives is not clean. Suddenly we realize that we

must travel into the future carrying not just any past, but our particular past, a past that

cannot be changed. Whatever freedom means, we are not free to undo this past. The

freedom comes in how we relate this past to our future. We can drown ourselves in

regret, lose ourselves in nostalgia, or cling to these old injuries and losses. But if we do,

it is our choice, not our destiny.

There can be something consoling in clinging to old injuries or in blaming what we

have become on others, thus excusing us from responsibility.

However, such responses stop the journey of life. We circle old graves, old lost causes,

old lost relationships. We turn away from the future, away from possibility, away from

new travels. We do not let grief do in us what grief can do: help us to remember,

preserve and affirm the past and its continuing meaning, while slowly letting it become

past.

Another escape from grief is to say to ourselves: "Nothing important was lost! I have

not suffered any great loss because I never needed what I thought I needed. I was

foolishly attached!" Because of the injuries and the losses that we have known, we can

become determined to live life very rapidly, moving quickly across the surface of our

lives with others who also remain on the surfaces of their lives. We can refuse to

remember, or to let others remember us as a permanent part of their lives.

Without grief, nothing is solid or permanent. We empty out our days into the episodic.

"There's no 'there' there," as Gertrude Stein once said of Camden, New Jersey. The past

remembered and affirmed helps build the shadows and complexity that will accompany

us into the future. We do not do this building because it is a light or easy task, but

because it is our past, and without it we are not truly ourselves, but only the surface of

ourselves.

Just as grief preserves the meaningfulness of the past, it also opens us -- slowly -- to a

new future. Grief is a midwife; it lets the journey continue. Often after a profound and

shattering loss, we think that we will never be truly alive again. For awhile we think that

life will now be always gray; though we may "go on," the journey of our life is forever

diminished. We may think that to want to be alive again and to know satisfaction again

is to abandon the past. Grief slowly gives us permission to say Yes to life, to want life,

to think that we deserve life.

Here is an example. A 21-year-old Roman Catholic woman wrote her story in a

classroom assignment. A star student and class leader in her suburban parochial school,

she moved to the dorms of a city university after graduation. In the fall of her freshman

year she fell in love with a senior pre-med student, and that spring became pregnant.

She did not think that she could talk to her parents because, as she put it, "It would have

broken my father's heart."

So she and her boyfriend decided that she should have an abortion. They justified their

decision by viewing it as "a gift" -- "a sacrifice for the future of our relationship." He

could go on to medical school without complications, and she could continue her

college honors program without interruption. Later they could be married and have

children.

Some two months after the abortion her boyfriend's attitude became erratic. Sometimes

he would be loving and kind, but at other times he would strike out at her, first verbally,

later physically. She became confused and depressed. "I feel like going up to everyone I

meet on campus and shouting: 'Do you know I've had an abortion!"' She still had not

talked to her parents, whom she saw as needing to cling to an outdated picture of her.

The grief process was clearly stuck. Her boyfriend struck out at her because she

reminded him of a decision -- a turning point -- where his once-familiar life had taken a

sudden turn that left him traveling in a strange land of anger and guilt. He wanted to

deny and escape the journey -- a journey that he blamed on her.

Similarly, the woman was no longer the "sweet young thing" that her parents imagined.

She was captured by regret; an unfinished grief was holding her, circling around a past

that could no longer be her present or her future.

She could no longer be the girl whom she had been; but the woman she was called to be

still lay before her. It was only in discovering this ongoing moral calling to be herself, a

journey that had hardly begun, that she was able to get her life started again.

Just as grief heals us so that we can begin reaching out to new meanings, grief can

move us beyond self-pity -- first to sorrow and then to compassion. In self-pity the self

is angry at itself; it feels as though it is in a place where it does not want to be, but it

does not know how to escape. In self-pity we are stuck. But in sorrow we begin to be

released.

Sadness and self-pity happen to us; sorrowing is something that we do to get our lives

moving again. In sorrow we lament, grieving over our loss. But we also grieve over

ourselves, and so begin to show mercy to ourselves.

We can, of course, remain caught in anger and self-pity. We can decide that we are not

worthy of healing -- of new and satisfying attachments. We can decide to look upon

ourselves as so undeserving and unworthy that, when life treats us shabbily, we feel we

deserve such treatment. Indeed, we can insist that life treat us shabbily -- as unworthy,

unhappy, sad, abandoned.

But it is not what has happened to us that causes this outlook; it is our response to

circumstances. We have decided to remain life's victim -- perhaps because we are afraid

to live again, for to live is to be vulnerable to hurt. Thus we have stopped grief from

being our good friend and healer by helping restore life to us. True, grief sometimes

seems like anything but a good friend as it constantly reminds us of all that has

wounded and still wounds us. In such times, grief's final purpose is veiled. But there is

still power in such grief; powerful feelings are still at work. During such times we may

walk with a limp, so to speak. But we do walk.

In sorrow we begin slowly to let the anger and the self-pity go. We begin to think that

we can know happiness again -- not an innocent happiness, but an adult and seasoned

happiness. It is a happiness with shadows, but it has found a way to affirm those

shadows. We begin to be grateful for what we have had, rather than just being angry for

what we have lost. This difficult gratitude gradually allows us to enjoy life again and to

become friends again with ourselves.

Finally, in sorrow we learn compassion. Unlike pity, in which we are, strangely, also

noticing the distance between ourselves and the other, compassion lets us hear

ourselves echoing in the other. As those who have had to struggle to regain a sense of

worthiness after crushing loss, we can touch the wounds of the other without deepening

the stigma.

Compassion can and should teach us to identify with and to respect our whole species.

Now no grief is utterly strange or alien. In all we hear ourselves echoing.

If we let it, grief can become a good friend and healer. It preserves the past and helps us

give ourselves solidity and depth. Grief also opens us to new meanings in the future,

and teaches us that we do not need to feel ashamed for being glad to be alive. Grief also

teaches us to sorrow, and, through sorrowing, to let our lives pass beyond anger and

regret and feelings of fatality and ruin. Finally, grief can build a compassion into our

lives that allows us to co-journey with all who struggle to let grief become a friend and

to restore them to friendship with life.

Since we cannot wish one another a life without significant loss, let us wish for one

another instead a strange gift -- one that is often recognized as a gift only in retrospect;

let us wish for one another the gift of good grieving.