Grief: The Journey Takes Time
By John Mallon
©1996, 2005 by John Mallon
"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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