Active and Passive Responses to Grief-the Christian Response

There are a  realm of possibilities open to each of us as we encounter those who grieve. Each possibility involves choice, often between active engagement and passive withdrawal. And choices matter irrespective of the amount of thought we put into them, for our decisions determine the course of our lives, influence the lives of those we love, and ultimately determine the quality of our character.

The same may be said for those who grieve. There are choices to be made and attitudes to be assumed and these affect how we fare during our long passage across a sea of grief. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and no stranger to grief, once wrote a poetic midrash concerning Noah’s reaction to the Flood, which scripture passes over in silence. His words are instructive and enlightening:

Imagine what he must have felt as he walked ashore and discovered the empty, devastated land. He must have looked for familiar ground, vantage points, cities of light and life, dwelling places and their sounds. He knew that they had vanished, still he went on looking for them.

Then he was confronted by a choice: anger or gratitude. He chose gratitude. He offered thanks to heaven… As a survivor, the first, he chose gratitude rather than bitterness: the special gratitude of the survivor. He or she knows that every moment means grace, for he or she could have been in another’s place, another who is gone” (Elie Wiesel, Sages and Dreamers).

Forced to confront the complete destruction of his world and the harrowing reality of death, Noah (much like Elie Wiesel himself) had to make a decision. The choice would have profound consequences for the remainder of his earthly life. In psychological terms, the choice is fundamentally one between active and passive stances or between a loss-oriented posture and a restoration-oriented one. Noah chose restoration and gratitude.

Authors Elizabeth A. Doughty Horn, Judith A. Crews, and Laura K. Harrawood note that “Stroebe and Shut (1999) identified two types of stressors related to bereavement within the Dual Process Model of coping with bereavement: loss-oriented stressors and restoration-oriented stressors. Loss-oriented stressors are essentially those that relate directly to loss and the feelings associated with it. These types of stressors include ruminating on the emotions associated with the loss, concentrating on how life had been prior to the loss, and focusing on the circumstances surrounding the loss. Restoration-oriented stressors deal more with the secondary losses associated with bereavement. These stressors include the acquisition of new roles the bereaved must take on in the absence of his or her loved one, creating a new life without the deceased, and relating to friends and family in new ways. Stroebe and Shut asserted that bereaved individuals go through a process of oscillation between attending to loss-oriented stressors, restoration-oriented stressors, and periods when they do not focus on their grief at all.” While this oscillation is considered a natural part of the grieving process, the work of active restoration is primary in terms of moving resolutely and successfully through the grieving process.

Sacred scripture is instructive concerning the importance of active striving. In the wake of His cousin’s arrest, the Lord Christ speaks to the people gathered around Him concerning John the Forerunner. He remarks, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” Saints Barsanuphius and John illustrate the importance of active striving in the spiritual life in writing, “And how far one goes astray if he thinks to save himself by giving himself repose in everything!. . .Those only receive the Kingdom of Heaven who force themselves (cf. Matthew 11:12). If we do not force ourselves a little, how can we be saved?” (Answers to the Questions of Disciples in Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p. 55-56)

The Lord Christ’s words concerning Saint John the Forerunner as well as the commentary of Saints Barsanuphius and John reveal important spiritual truths concerning the bereaved’s approach to grief. A passive response of rumination and focus on loss can lead to a state of despondency that is mortally dangerous. An active, engaged response to loss and grief is the true path to growth for grief is a natural extension of the Christian life, which is struggle, labor, and hard word for the sake of Christ and the Kingdom of God. As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes in Homily 59, “The path of God is a daily cross. No one has ascended into Heaven by means of ease, for we know where the way of ease leads, and how it ends. God never wishes the man who gives himself up to Him with his whole heart to be without concern (that is, concern over the truth). But from this he knows that he is under God’s providence-that He perpetually sends him griefs…Whoever wishes to be without any concern in this world and, while desiring this, yearns besides to spend his days in virtue, is repulsed by the way of God. As the Blessed Interpreter said in his commentary on the Book of Matthew, ‘It is impossible for those who desire virtue to escape from griefs.’”

There may be oscillations between an active and a passive response to grief in the early stages; however, the proper Christian response to grief is active engagement and struggle. Rather than focusing on the past and what one has loss, the Christian is to glorify God for what has been given and to consider how to continue to live his or her life in a way worthy of the soul that has fallen asleep, in a way that honors their memory, and above all in a way that honors God and faith in the resurrection of the dead. As a Christian, the soul is sealed with the sign of the life-giving Cross in holy baptism. Active engagement with grief is an indication of a disciple’s willingness to take up his cross and follow the Master to eternal life.

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