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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.


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.


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