My family keeps a pet hamster, well technically it belongs to my sister, but we take turns taking care of it when she goes away on holiday. Recently, this pet hamster passed on. It was 2 and a half years old – considered very old in hamster age, and when it died, it had been struggling with hamster cancer in the last months of its life, that prevented it from eating and drinking properly. What made it poignant was that it somehow also sensed that it was in its sunset days, but whenever I came to clean the cage or replenish the feed, it would put up a jolly front, and show me that it was alive and well, by running on the hamster wheel or sliding down the slide. When it died, I felt a wave of sadness wash over me, that made me reflective and quiet. It possibly conflated the news of a series of people dying about me. I had also recently received the news that a senior of mine in school, who was just 41 this year, a year away from my own 40 years of age, had also passed on. Grief is by no means limited to the loss felt in the from of death. Grief could also be experienced in betrayal, or the loss of an item, or a job.
As the psalmist laments in Psalm 42: 4-6:
“My tears have been my bread day and night,
as they ask me every day, “Where is your God?”
Those times I recall
as I pour out my soul,
When can I enter and see the House of God?
Amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving,
the throng wild with joy.
Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my saviour and my God.”
Nonetheless, society has for a very long time tried to stifle any showing of emotions – “Boys don’t cry”, “You must be brave and strong, this will pass”. These well-meaning, but inherent toxic narratives often accompany the news of bereavement. In our fixity on trying to solve the issue and to fix someone, we often let slip unconsciously words like, “suck it up”, or “get on with life”, not realising that these words in our attempt to quickly move on, can be quite detrimental. We often do not have the emotional vocabulary to describe how we are actually feeling. This is in part due to a systemic problem of sweeping everything under a generic “okay”. We tend to say, “I am feeling okay” when we are actually not.
Bereavement and grief have a natural trajectory to run, but there is still a widespread flippancy in society about the nature of pain, emotional hurting, grief, and bereavement. This ignorance assumes that grief can be ironed out and sorted within a few weeks, or within a year. However, recovery takes time, and differs from one person to another.
We often hear the cliché, “Offer up your suffering to the Lord.” While there is truth and merit in that, the problem comes when we fail to empathise with the person who is undergoing loss, and then this phrase, “Offer it up” becomes an attempt to quickly fix the issue that I am uncomfortable with, in an attempt to quickly move on. Empathy is different from sympathy.
According to Psychiatric Medical Care (n.d.):
“Empathy is shown in how much compassion and understanding we can give to another. Sympathy is more of a feeling of pity for another. Empathy is our ability to understand how someone feels while sympathy is our relief in not having the same problems.
When we relate with empathy, we give the other person space to own their emotions and feelings. We reflect on what they are feeling and provide a safe space for all emotions, even negative ones. When we relate with sympathy, we move into problem-solving mode. We have ideas and judgments about how the person feels and what they should do. This not only minimises the person’s problems, but it ignores their feelings.
Sympathy comes from our ego. It is what we know we should do, and often, it is telling others what to do or feel as well. Empathy comes from the heart. It is feeling another’s pain and sharing a human experience. Everyone wants to be accepted and understood, and empathy fosters those feelings in the person sharing and the person listening.”
It is only when we can empathise, that the phrase, “offer it up” makes sense. We have a God who knows and understands suffering and when we surrender our sufferings to God in union with the passion, and cross of Jesus, our suffering takes on a value and a meaning.
A person who is grieving experiences many struggles and challenges:
- A challenge that many who are grieving face, is to name the feeling. I am tired, could simply be symptomatic of something deeper, like regret or anger. In bereavement, we often find ourselves afraid to confront what we are actually feeling or thinking, and we encounter a sense of emptiness – that person or pet is no longer there. We may feel disoriented, confused, and unable to focus.
- In the process of grieving, there are many mood swings, as we experience the feelings concentrated in several ups and downs within a day. There could be simultaneous experiences of relief, especially if someone has been care-giving for a long time, guilt, depression, jealousy, loneliness, and sadness.
- There are a lot of administrative processes to deal with after someone dies – these paperwork of succession and estate, and bills could be potentially energy-sapping.
- There are challenges as we encounter the everyday – we may feel resentful if people both ask and not ask about how we are feeling.
- The administrative tasks of cleaning up or unpacking the deceased belongings and things can trigger new floods of emotions.
- When birthdays and anniversaries come up, we could get triggered.
- Adjustments issues are likely to be felt and experienced – adjustments have to be made with regard to lifestyles and finances.
- We may also need to be honest about whether we are angry with God and the Church.
- We may struggle with a façade of emotions – pretending to be okay when we are not.
Jesus was not one to hide his emotions and he was seen to grieved openly at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). St. Paul further draws attention to how God is not a God who ignores us in our suffering: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5) What this tells us is that it is okay to grieve. It is okay to feel all these big emotions that we are feeling.
Integral to the process of healing, is the process of emotional processing, rather than emotional by-passing. Through emotional processing – “I am feeling sad as I pick up the box containing my belongings from my previous job. This is telling me something about what I love or hold dear,” we allow ourselves to be more authentic in our grieving rather than being dismissive or invalidating our own emotions. In getting in touch with the pain that we are experiencing, and asking intentional questions about what these feelings mean, we grow in self-awareness about how God has created us (Campbell, 2020).
For Catholics, we name and acknowledge the reality of grief in our funeral liturgical rites and prayers for the dead. Some other ways of healing and coping include:
- Allowing God to inculcate in our grief the disposition of meekness of heart – this shifts the self-pity into focussing on God. With this attitude, we understand that the grief is beyond ourselves, and that we need God to take care of it.
- Abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence. Part of the healing process requires us to move to a place where we are having authentic conversations with God, and then placing the suffering and what we need into the hands of God.
- Having the Saints come on board our journey to accompany us in our grief. St. Teresa of Calcutta for instance experienced a deep dark night of the soul, where God’s consolations were absent from her in the later part of her life, while St. Monica shed many tears for her disappointing child. These buddies in faith who have experienced grief before in their lifetime, will surely come speedily to our aid.
- Confidence in God’s Timing – adopting a disposition of thanksgiving and gratitude will shift the emphasis on self to God, and while we cannot understand or see what is happening, God sees the road ahead and in thanking God for whatever He sees is best for us, this cultivation of gratitude – and it is going to be very tough, is what will negate the spiralling down of negative emotions.
- The Corporal Works of mercy and charity are also a way for us to move from focussing on ourselves to helping someone else in need.
Grieving the big and small things, is a journey that takes time. It is important to allow ourselves and others to feel grief. At the heart is this, drawing from the example of God who walks with us, is how we can hold space for a person who is grieving without judgement and without attempting to fix anything.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
Campbell, C. (2020). Grieving our Losses Big and Small. Catholic Apostolate Center. Retrieved June 23, 2023 from https://www.catholicapostolatecenter.org/blog/grieving-our-losses-great-and-small
Psychiatric Medical Care. (n.d.). The Difference between Empathy and Sympathy. PMC. Retrieved June 23, 2023 from https://www.psychmc.com/blogs/empathy-vs-sympathy
Tobin, E. (n.d.). Dealing with the Loss of a Loved One. Ascension Catholic Community. Retrieved June 23, 2023 from https://www.ascensioncatholic.net/Dealing-with-the-Loss-of-a-Loved-One