Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning

No one should underestimate the importance of the words we use to understand the world around us. In Genesis, we read that “the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:9). According to Saint John Chyrsostom, this was written in order that “we might learn not only of his wisdom, but also in order to show the symbol of dominion through the assignment of names” (Homily 14 on Genesis, PG 53.116). Certainly, it was important for the descendants of Adam to know more than just the name animal for a living thing that moved. They need to know, for instance, the name for a sheep and that of a snake as well as to understand that distinction in all its vital significance. The use of words and the making of distinctions can tame reality, make it understandable, and enable us to cope with it in a way that is wise and healthy. What is true at the time of creation is also true at the time of death.

As we explore grief, it is imperative that we name this frightening experience, make some distinctions, and in the process tame what can be tamed and be careful about what can’t. Using the word grief to encompass all aspects of that experience, like using the word animal to encompass all living things is not particularly helpful in dealing with the concrete, multifaceted aspects of this often, harrowing reality. Our words need to be precise and our understanding of the related terminology clear. In this post, I shall examine three words that are often used interchangeably about the experience of losing a loved one, but in fact have quite distinct meanings: bereavement, grief, and mourning.

In her article, “Getting Straight about Grief,” M. Katherine Shear, M.D. notes these differences that are important for working with people who are grieving. She writes, “Bereavement is the experience of having lost someone close; grief is the reaction to bereavement, comprising thoughts, feelings, behaviors, physiological changes that vary in pattern and intensity over time; acute grief is the initial response, a mix of separation and traumatic distress, that is eventually transformed to integrated grief, which is permanent. Mourning is the process by which the finality and consequences of the loss are assimilated into memory systems, and capacity restored for joy and satisfaction in ongoing life.” By naming these experiences, reactions, processes within the experience of loss, one can see where one is, where one has been, and what lies in store. What becomes understandable then becomes a bit more handleable.

These are indeed crucial distinctions that should assist us in the process of assimilating and coping with human loss. Bereavement is formed from rēafian, the old English root for being robbed of someone or something by force. Bereavement happens to us and we experience it when we learn of a loved one’s death. It is a painful moment that stays forever etched in our minds. We then react to that in our thoughts, in our feelings, in the very sensations of our body and we continue to react to it. And that ongoing reaction, which will in someway shape the rest of our lives, is grief. It is noteworthy that Dr. Shear understands grief as a permanent state with an impermanent expression. It is not something to be overcome, but something to be lived with in a way that honors the love we feel for the life that is lost. Bereavement and mourning are indeed temporal stages of experiencing loss. However, grief is altogether different. Regrettably, how often have we heard a grieved person told that they must “get over it,” “get on with their life” or that “life is for the living.” While the latter statement may be true, it is also punctuated by the memory of the beloved dead, “for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). As Nina Jakoby points out in her article, “Grief as a Social Emotion” (page 680), grief is “integral to life and not a condition to be treated.”

Saints and holy elders seem to be well aware of the distinctions between bereavement, mourning, and grief. Elder Ambrose in his letter on grief notes that “Given the weakness of human nature, it is impossible for parents who have lost their only son so prematurely, at such an age, in the flower of life, not to grieve; it is impossible, I say, for all these reasons, not to grieve, not to complain, not to sorrow, having so unexpectedly lost their only child.” The holy elder recognized something completely natural in the reaction to bereavement, in the questioning thoughts, in the deep disappointment, in the painful feelings and notes that it could not be otherwise. To that natural ongoing process of grieving, he suggests incorporating other thoughts into the process of mourning that can provide comfort and consolation. He continues, “We are not pagans, however, who have no hope concerning the life to come, but Christians, who have a joyful comfort even beyond the grave—which is the gift of a future, eternal blessedness. This consoling thought should temper your sorrow and soothe your profound grief. Although you have temporarily been deprived of your son, in the future life you will again be able to see him and to be joined with him-in such a way that you will never again be separated.”

In a similar vein, Saint Augustine consoled a friend in her loss writing, “The things whose loss you are mourning over have indeed passed away, for they were by nature temporary, but their loss does not involve the complete destruction of that love with which Timotheus loved [his sister] Sapida and loves her still. It abides in its own treasury and is hidden with Christ in God. Does the miser lose his gold when he stores it in a secret place? Does he not then become, so far as lies in his power, more confidently assured that the gold is in his possession when he keeps it in some safer hiding-place, where it is hidden even from his eyes? Earthly covetousness believes that it has found a safer guardianship for its loved treasures when it no longer sees them; and shall heavenly love sorrow as if it had lost forever that which it has only sent before it to the storehouse of the upper world?” (Letter 263 to Sapida). The person may be lost for a season, but the love remains as long as one lives and is in some ways safer now than it ever was before. Such a thought does change the experience of grief in a way that soothes and comforts.

In addition to providing concrete suggestions about luminous thoughts that can bring some light to the darkness of grief, the Saints also suggest some behaviors to bring God’s presence and acts of kindness into the ongoing experience of grief. Thus, Saint Ambrose advises the parents to “take proper measures: 1) commemorate M’s soul at the Bloodless Sacrifice, in reading the Psalter, and in your prayers at home; and 2) in his name give alms and engage in other deeds of charity, as much as you are able. All this will be beneficial not only for your son, but also for you.” These actions are constructive, purposeful, and a testimony to love’s continuing ability to change one’s life and the lives of others for the better.

For the Christian, even integrated grief is not a terminal point, a plateau to somehow reach. Integrated grief is to be transformed by the hopeful expectation of a future resurrection where “God shall wipe away all tears from their 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” (Revelations 21:4). Bereavement, grief, and mourning are unavoidable experiences in this life, but through faith they can all point in the direction of a “living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 13): a hope promised in Him Who “passed from death to life” (John 5:24), a hope fulfilled in eternity in the Father’s house with many mansions (John 14:2), and a hope realized when you “add virtue to your faith, knowledge to your virtue, asceticism to your knowledge, patience to your asceticism, piety to your patience, brotherly kindness to your piety, and love to your brotherly kindness” (2 Peter 1:6-7).

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