Grief: Adaptive, maladaptive, and transformational

I think most of us would readily admit that we avoid pain in our lives to the best of our ability. After all, it’s a response that’s built into our very nervous system! However, healthy individuals are also able to accept the fact that some pain in life is inevitable and unavoidable. When it comes to the pain associated with grief, we may sense a desire to rid ourselves of that pain as quickly as possible, but the truth of the matter is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” timetable for grief and there are certainly no quick fixes.

When we experience grief or recognize it in others, one of the first questions that come to mind may be “Am I going to be ok?”, “Is he going to get through this?”, or “Will her life always be under this shadow?” We often fear the worst about this unchartered territory. And that introduces another emotional state complicating the picture. Fortunately, psychologists such as Antonio Pascual Leone and Sandra C. Paivio have provided us with some helpful guideposts in this regard. In their paper, “Resolution Through Sadness and Grief,” they make distinctions between a sadness in which a person adjusts to a situation without being happy about it and a complicated sadness that makes adjustment distressingly impossible. According to Leone and Paivio, “sadness involves accepting loss and the hopelessness of undoing the loss, which is distinct from the lingering hopelessness, resignation, and defeat of depression.” The former state they define as adaptive sadness and the latter they refer to as a maladaptive form of grief.

In adaptive sadness, the emotions expressed, such as crying, fit the loss experienced, e.g. “quiet weeping about missed opportunities or deep sobbing over the death of a loved one.” A healthy or adaptive sadness is focused on the loss rather than on fear or anxiety. In maladaptive sadness, other feelings such as fear, anger, and anxiety swirl around the mix of emotions making it difficult to parse one from the other. The healing process may be delayed or impeded all together if all these disparate emotions are not sorted and dealt with individually so that the grieved party is able to recognize them and respond to them in a healthy fashion that entails movement, rather than stagnation. Pascual and Paivio offer a helpful example in this regard, “Another dramatic instance of maladaptive sadness is the paradoxical sadness that may be in response to expressions of kindness and tenderness from others. For the client, these expressions from others are like evocative reminders of a deeply felt sense of deprivation, unmet dependency needs, and an ocean of longing to have these needs met…Intervention in these cases involves accessing and exploring the core maladaptive emotion structure or sense of self as alone and unloved, and then restructuring this sense of self.” This usually involves some discovery about the self that allows the self to continue with life.

This restructuring of the sense of self is precisely where the holy fathers offer us words of comfort, wisdom, and grace-filled insight. Although they don’t speak in terms of adaptive or maladaptive sadness in grief, they do speak to our deepest fears and rekindle our greatest hopes, placing us and our personal tragedy within a larger perspective that is healing, healthy, and true.

In addressing the belief that one is desolate and without the support and aid of another, Saint John Chrysostom reminds the grieved of the heavenly support that remains constant—“So, you are all alone and have lost a protector? No, never say that, for you have certainly not lost your God. And so, as long as you have Him, He will be better to you than a husband, a father, a child and a relative, since even when they were alive, it was He who did all things. So think upon these things and say with David, ‘The Lord is my light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?’ (Psalm 27:1) Say, ‘Thou art a Father of the fatherless, and a Judge of the widows’ (Psalm 68:5) and draw down His help, and you shall have Him to care for you now even more than before as you are in a state of greater difficulty” (Homily 41 on Corinthians).

In Elder Ambrose’s letter on grief, the sainted Staretz counsels the grieving couple, “Make every effort to allay your grief, so that it does not exceed Christian bounds, and the All-good Lord will show you His mercy and send you spiritual consolation.” These fathers recognize that a grieving person needs to be reminded that no situation is hopeless and no person is ever left desolate, for we have a loving Father to whom we are bound beyond the earthly limits of space, time, our own mortality, and the mortality of those we love.

Another of the great Optina Elders of the 19th century, Elder Macarius penned a letter on the occasion of the death of his own grandmother. Acknowledging his own profound grief, Elder Macarius offers a profound meditation borne of much prayer and asceticism. The following is an excerpt of that letter, “On the 20th of January, the letter announcing to me the sad news of the death of my esteemed grandmother, A. P., reached my hand… I thank you also that you did not conceal from me the feelings of your saddened heart, because I like to share grief with the grieving…I do not enjoy, says God, your illnesses, O man, but out of the seeds of your grief and sorrow, I want to bring forth for you fruits of eternal and majestic joy. I imprinted the law of death and destruction not only in your body, but also in every object of this visible world. I commanded the whole world together with your body to cry out to you that this life is not the true and real life; that there is nothing permanent here to which your hearts should become attached through justifiable love. When you do not hearken unto the threatening voice of the entire universe, then my paternal Mercy—which always wishes you unlimited good—compels me to lift the scepter of chastisement…that you might abandon your folly, become wise, cease seeking after shadows, and return to the path of salvation. My unutterable mercy and unlimited love for human beings compelled me to take your flesh upon Myself. Through My abasement I have revealed the greatness of God to the human race. By suffering on the cross for the salvation of men, whom I desire to draw to Myself, I first afflict them with grief; and with these arrows of affliction, I deaden their hearts to temporary pleasures. The scepter of punishment is an emblem of My love for men. Thus, I first afflicted the heart of My servant David, and when a torrent of temptations separated him from the world, then some unusual thought arose and took possession of his mind. He writes: I called to mind the years of ages past, and I meditated, i.e., I glimpsed the past days of my life and they appeared to me as a momentary dream, an apparition that quickly disappeared, dead to life. Then I thought about eternity and compared it with the brevity of my past life, and comparing the eternal with the short and temporary, I came to a conclusion. What is this conclusion? Man like a shadow shall pass away and disquiets himself in vain (Ps. 38:6). That is, no matter how much a man may bustle about, no matter how much he may care for acquiring different passing goods, all this has no value for he does not cease being an incidental brief apparition, a guest and wanderer in this world. Such feelings and reflections made him retreat from the world of the passions, and he began to study the law of the Lord day and night and to strive toward knowledge of himself and of God, as the thirsty hart runs toward a stream of fresh water. Being a King, David had opportunities for temporary pleasures, but after he tasted the sweetness of inner blessings, he even forgot to eat his bread. I have written you, my dear uncle, of my feelings. If they do not correspond with worldly thinking, at least they are sincere, and this sincerity might be a consolation in this time of grief.”

For the fathers, an adaptive response to grief always includes the lifting up of one’s eyes to God in which the believer recognizes that the soul is never completely alone or orphaned, that the Lord supports us, cares for us, and loves us deeply. Even in our sorrow, we confess that God understands our pain and desires to “turn our mourning into joy, comfort us and make us rejoice from our sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:13). We accept the fact that grief, death, and corruption are weaved into the fabric of this world and hence that “here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come (Hebrews 13:14). And so we attach ourselves to God, we long for eternity, we live for enduring virtue with the knowledge that “the world shall pass away, and the lust thereof; but he who doeth the will of God abideth for ever, even as God abideth for ever” (I John 2:17). As Saint Cyprian of Carthage put it, “with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, we prepare ourselves for the whole will of God” (On Mortality). In this state, we can let go of anger, anxiety, and fear, we can accept the love of those who try to comfort us in our loss, and grief becomes not just adaptive, but transformational leading to a life of hope in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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