(This post describes my Christian outlook. A lot of people who read this blog don’t particularly identify as Christians, so I like to give a little notice if a post is going to have Christian content. This one does.)
The book I wrote, “A Valley Journal,” and the Living with Loss retreats are not overly religious but I do include Christian elements.
There are two main reasons. Firstly, I find comfort in faith, and from what I’ve seen, a lot of other people do too. It could be from drawing some living meaning from a Bible passage, or sitting back to reflect and letting God fill our thoughts, enjoying some songs, or giving our troubles and the care of our loved ones to Him.
The other reason is the main focus of this post.
How do “people of faith” – and it could be any faith, it doesn’t have to be Christian – cope with loss, and how does our community of faith support us in our difficult times?
My own experience of losing my children showed me two contrasting possibilities.
When Pax died suddenly at the age of 3, I was still only 24, living and working in India with my first husband. The message I received from those around me, along with the communications from my own family back in England, were on the lines of:
“Don’t cry, he’s with the Lord now.”
“Everything works together for good. It was his time to go.”
“It was for the best.”
“It was God’s will.”
I did embrace the idea that Pax had “graduated” to heaven, and it was comforting. But it wasn’t the whole story. I was grieving. My son had died. I couldn’t quite believe what had happened; I replayed it in my mind over and over and over. I was upset and confused. I had nightmares about strange hospitals for decades afterwards (Pax died in the government hospital in Bhopal). I would burst into tears at odd times, and went through very low periods.
The difficulty was, my religious environment wasn’t exactly supportive of these troubled emotions. I genuinely thought that it was wrong of me to grieve, and that I should instead be thankful for as long a life as Pax had, and that he was now safe in heaven. I felt guilty for grieving.
And so I suppressed that grief. I drew in the tears, I pulled in my emotions, and tucked them deep inside. Periodically they would explode out of me; then I would feel guilty again, and once more push the emotions back.
It got to the point where I couldn’t even talk about Pax, because if I even said his name, there was a chance of the volcano exploding. I grieved him, in my own way, very privately, very inwardly, and – crazy as it seems – actually ashamed of that grief.
Everything changed when Catherine died, a full 29 years after Pax.
The grief exploded out of me. It was uncontrollable. I grieved Catherine, I finally grieved Pax, I grieved them both together, I grieved the grandchildren who would never be born.
My grief spilled out in floods of tears. I still remember standing in the entrance of B&Q (hardware store) and weeping and weeping, and I don’t even remember now what thought precipitated it at the moment.
There were some big differences in my life compared to where I had been with Pax.
I had (have!) a second husband – kind and patient, although not the father of my children. I had more time. I wasn’t able to continue my teaching job, which meant I had time to reflect and work with my grief.
I had lots of external support which have been totally missing after Pax died. I had grief counselling (thanks to the Dove Service). The leaders of the church I had been attending showed true Christian care. I discovered other support networks, like The Compassionate Friends and Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.
And then I did things that mattered to me: I went back to visit where Pax died in India. I set up a nice headstone for Catherine. I wrote a book. I started trying out different craft activities. And so on.
My faith took a big dive, but then I started discovering it in a new way. I moved away from the idea that being positive and happy no matter the circumstances was a sign of “good” spirituality. Instead I found another side to my Christian faith – that Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” and that the seasons of our life are not all joyful.
“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” became a touchstone.
It’s only as we do the work of mourning that we get comforted. Suppressing our grief doesn’t help in the long run.
If you had met me in the months after Pax died you might have thought, “she’s doing really well, she’s managing her grief.”
If you’d met me in the months after Catherine, you might have thought: “wow, she’s really lost it.”
But the reality was opposite. I am now more at peace – as much as is possible in the circumstances – and the reason is that I grieved. I went through a very messy initial 2-3 years, and came out of it, still missing my children as I always will, but in a place where I can live with that loss.
Which brings me to the reason I’m writing this article.
If there is anything I have learned myself, and seen among others, is that having a religious faith does not prevent you from grieving. In fact, it can make your grief even more complex, because you’re not only dealing with the “normal” emotions of grief, but you’re having to fit them into your belief system. You might feel guilty that you’re grieving or surprised at the ferocity of your grief. Of course you may also draw considerable comfort from your faith. It’s not all one way or the other, and it can change from moment to moment.
I find it sad that so many people struggle with this particular aspect of grief. And so the second reason why my retreats have a Christian perspective is sometimes the “believer” needs a bit of help in sorting out aspects of their belief/grief journey.
To be continued! I also have more to write about this and the interplay between faith and grief, but I’ll save that for another post.