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Grief: The Journey Takes Time

By John Mallon
©1996, 2005 by John Mallon
Catholic Online

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing."

"At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me." — C.S. Lewis, opening paragraphs of A Grief Observed

I read an article recently which reported that some people are growing tired of the pain of those who lost loved ones in the OKC bombing and think those suffering bereavement ought to “get on with life.” Such an attitude shows the still widespread ignorance in society about the nature of emotional pain, grief, depression and other related conditions. The terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder haunting actual survivors are only beginning to come to light. Bereavement and grief are natural processes which must run their course. This is a natural healing process and as a natural process the time it will take to run its course varies from person to person. One year is by no means “long enough” for everybody.

Grieving people need understanding, need to be listened to — not talked at — they need patience. While it is true that some people can become obsessed with grief in an unhealthy way, the determination of the length of grief’s course is best left to the bereaved and those providing appropriate and competent, preferably professional, care for them. For some people that may be a lifetime. And if it is, it is not their fault. Grieving people have enough to cope with just getting out of bed each day without the added burden of guilt because they sense someone else is “inconvenienced” or impatient with their suffering. It is not easy to live or work with a depressed or grieving person, but it is a lot easier than being a depressed or grieving person. If they could stop the horror in their abdomen or the ringing in their brains, believe me they would.

Telling the bereaved to “snap out of it” is like telling someone with a broken leg to go ice skating. If they could, they would. Yes, they will skate again, in time, but attempting to do so prematurely only risks reinjury and prolongs the healing process. Dr. John Andrus, chief of psychiatry at St. Anthony’s Hospital told Newsweek magazine at the time of the bombing — and me in a later conversation — that some people may require years and years of therapy to cope with what happened.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, and later became a convert to Catholicism, said in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, that we could survive any “how” as long as we knew the “why”. That is, if we could somehow find meaning in our suffering we could draw strength from it to continue on and survive. The “whys” of the OKC bombing, or the horrors of the Nazis, come under the great mystery of evil. But as his book shows, after the initial shocks, Frankl, coped, and ultimately survived the death camp by observing day to day life there as the clinician that he was, gathering research in his mind on how people cope with and endure such extreme evils, planning a book based on the experience that would help people. He certainly knew people would need help when it was all over. He had every intention of surviving and helping the other survivors when the time came. Living through it with purpose got him through. Man’s Search for Meaning is the book.

For the Christian the ultimate meaning of our suffering is found in the Cross of Christ — where the greatest evil that ever happened—the murder of God — Deicide — resulted in the greatest good that ever happened: Redemption. Philosopher Peter Kreeft calls this “God’s jujitsu.” God used the force of the devil’s own evil to defeat him. We can endure evil and suffering. We can, with great suffering, adjust to evil’s results (although perhaps we should never adjust to evil itself).

In a recent editorial (SC 3/24/96) I criticized that form of (false) compassion as defined by the “culture of death” which seeks to sweep all suffering under the rug, or at least “out of the way” and seeks to “put people out of their misery” which really means “put them out of my misery.” An attitude which permits evil, while saying “I shouldn’t have to look at that.”

Real compassion means, literally, “to suffer with.” Suffering people are inconvenient. They remind us of our own brokenness which, however unpleasant, in Christ, is our greatest resource for offering hope and consolation to the world.

The bereaved of the OKC bombing do ...

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1 - 7 of 7 Comments

  1. Tani Burton
    9 months ago

    This is a beautiful and sensitively-written piece, and an important understanding of the grief process that can help those in contact with the bereaved. There is one point made here which I know to be factually untrue, namely the assertion that Dr. Viktor Frankl was a convert to Catholicism. He was not. He may not have been the most observant of Jews from a ritual standpoint, and he did intermarry, but this man, a Holocaust survivor, never renounced his Jewish faith. I respectfully submit this comment as a logotherapist holding a Clinical Diplomate in logotherapy from the Viktor Frankl Institute, and as the disciple of Dr. Teria Shantall, who knew Dr. Frankl personally as his student.

  2. Jim
    1 year ago

    We lost our mother in 2011. She was a wonderful mother and my close friend. I was her primary caregiver for several years. Since her loss I feel lost. To compound this feeling of loss and grief I feel I failed her as a caregiver - going over the should have, would have elements. While I have attempted to find a priest, spiritual director, counselor to guide me in this journey I have been unsuccessful. I don't want to burden family members.

  3. Debbie
    1 year ago

    My Dad passed away last September. He was such a great man- a great husband and a wonderful dad. He had such a love for the Catholic faith. He and my Mom sacrificed a lot to put four of us through Catholic school. He has such a wonderful legacy. Unfortunately, I had developed a fear of forgetting my Dad and his legacy. I did not allow myself time or space to grieve. 10 days ago I suffered a mild heart attack because of this. Now I am getting help with the grieving process as I heal both physically and emotionally. Thank you for this wonderful story you wrote.

  4. NAtalie
    6 years ago

    My Dad passed away on 14th August 2009. He had been ill for 6 years but it was under control. He need to dialysis three time a week, but this wasnt working as well as it should. He had so many things wrong with him but he looked fine on the outside. A week before he passed away it was mine and my husband birthday, we had booked a restaurant that i really wanted to go to. I had invited both my parents and my uncle. When we got there my dad took bad... Bit true to form he didnt want us to miss out on the day and insisted that we go and have the meal. We did and when we returned to the car he was fine.. We sat in my garden afterwards have some cake and tea. That week he also went to the last post with my mum something he had always wanted to do. The very next day he was taken into hospital, he was having trouble breathing. Later on that night he died of a massive heart attack and was gone from our lives forever. My mum keeps blaming herself for not doing more, but she had looked after him for 6 years and was a brilliant wife to him. I just miss him so much i keep thinking maybe i didnt do enough for him maybe i didnt listen enough should i have called him more, did i let him down???
    I am very lost, i dont know who i am any more... I was my dads little girl...

  5. Julie Ashton
    6 years ago

    PS -- I found I could access the rest of Mr Mellon's article at the "printer friendly" page.

  6. Julie Ashton
    6 years ago

    Thank you for this article. Would like to see more on grief recovery, particularly upon the death of a child. The references to CS Lewis and Viktor Frankl were most helpful. (Unfortunately, Page Two of Mr Mellon's article was inaccessible.)

  7. Emily
    6 years ago

    My mother passed on the 13th of June. All the things that I have read and that were mentioned to me about grief is true. I feel as though I am in a fog. People talk, but I can't really focus enough to understand what they're telling me. One day slips into another day. I lose track of the time and can't focus enough to complete a task.
    My friends smile and say that it will take time, but it will get easier. I can't even imagine what that will feel like, but they promise me it will come.
    The only thing that keeps me going day after day is picture I found of my mother, standing next to her father, my grandpa in a wheelchair. I know that the picture was taken after my grandmother had passed away. She was smiling and that gives me hope that one day I will smile too.

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