After a loved one dies, those who grieve often ruminate about what they or others could have done differently to prevent the death or at least postpone the loss. “If only I had seen the signs and brought my wife to a doctor sooner…”, “If only I had kept him from driving there yesterday…”, and countless other variations of the basic idea “If only the past were different, I would not be suffering in this present.” Such responses are a normal part of the grieving process, but at some point we do need to accept reality as is and appropriate it into our life.
In her dissertation on grief, Jennifer Hill refers to acceptance as “the hallmark of emotional stability” and notes that it allows for a smoother passage through the turmoil of grief. Acceptance is also a central ingredient in the spiritual life, numbered by the Saints together with prayer and faith. Thus, Saint Mark the Ascetic once wrote that we are in need of “prayer, right faith, and the patient acceptance of what comes, for all else that is good is found in these” (No Righteousnesss by Works).” The Saint’s comments also mean that acceptance that heals requires a movement towards God (prayer) and a trust in God (faith) that remains even after the loss. Successful acceptance requires a spiritual foundation in order for a renewed focus on things that can indeed be changed. Such an attitude recalls the spiritual principles practiced in Alcoholics Anonymous whose adherents are encouraged to follow the ideals set forth in the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Of course, it assumes a belief in a God and a movement towards God Whose providence is benevolent and loving as well as the obvious fact that we are not in control of everything in our own lives.
In order to accept a reality that has caused grief and suffering, it is imperative to understand the purpose of suffering. As I’ve written in previous posts, it is not a divine punishment. As Saint Nikolai of Velimorovich wrote in his homily on the Third Sunday after Pascha, “Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin.” In other words, although the loss and the suffering strikes us as an evil, they can become a part of our own healing and approach to God when we realize that the greatest evil possible is separation from Him, our ultimate refuge, hope, and life. If we hold onto God, we can make it through the storm of grief. Looked at from this perspective, grief is an opportunity for healing and a re-ordering of life’s priorities. In the Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, the blessed Bishop of Nineveh writes, “God knows that it is impossible for those who live in bodily ease to hold firmly to His love, and therefore He restrains them from ease and its enjoyment” (Ascetical Homilies, pp. 293-294), which means that acceptance of reality even in its hardships is a way in which we can hold on to God’s love.
In speaking about the virtue of acceptance, related to the virtue of patience, the Fathers turn again and again to the example of Job and his holy words of acceptance: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Saint John Chrysostom characteristically writes, “Let the sufferings of that man then be the medicine for our ills. Let his grievous surging sea be a harbor for our suffering. And in each of the misfortunes that befall us, let us remember this saint. Seeing one person exhausting the misfortunes of the universe, we shall conduct ourselves bravely in those which are our share. Let us always flee to this book as terrified children running to their affectionate mother who stretches out her hands to receive and revive them” (Homily 3 on the power of the demons). Similarly, Saint Jerome writes, “Listen to those words of thunder which fall from Job, the vanquisher of torments, who, as he scrapes away the filth of his decaying flesh with a potsherd, assuages his miseries with the hope and the reality of the resurrection: ‘Oh, that,’ he says, ‘my words were written! Oh, that they were inscribed in a book with an iron pen, and on a sheet of lead, that they were graven in the rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that in the last day I shall rise from the earth, and again be clothed with my skin, and in my flesh shall see God, Whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another’ (Job 19:23-26)” (Letter to Pammachius). Acceptance is possible when we know that our Redeemer liveth and in Him we and the departed will live as well.
Acceptance of loss, acceptance of the past, acceptance of the present, all can bring peace when done with faith in God and love for God. Acceptance is humbling, but also exalting, for “the chariot of humility lifts you up to the very heavens in a chariot with winged steeds” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 40 on First Corinthians). There, you will no longer see “through a glass darkly, but face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Then, all the what ifs and regrets are set aside, for “God shall wipe away all tears from your eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).