Grief and a Smile?

When we are grieved by a loss, we often assume that the only emotions to be felt and expressed are negative ones such as sadness, despondency, and helplessness.  We may even tell ourselves that such an emotional state is commensurate with the depth of our loss.  In some cultures, the expression of negative emotions, through weeping and wearing black, are seen as ways of revealing the love and respect held for the deceased. And while the fathers understand the need to weep and express feelings of sadness, they also indicate that Christians in the throes grief are called, as impossible as it may seem, to rise to new heights and still to be a light in darkness and joy in sadness. The fathers again and again stress that the grieving should also be grateful for what they have been given and even to rejoice. For instance, Saint Ambrose of Milan thinking about the death of his beloved brother said, “I cannot be ungrateful to God. Instead of grieving for losing my brother, I should rejoice that I had such a brother” (Book I on the decease of his brother Satyrus). In like manner, Saint John Chrysostom taught that regardless of the way of life of the departed, there is room in grief for thanksgiving and even rejoicing. Thus, he reasoned, “If the dead man was a sinner who offended God in many ways, it is right not only to weep… and offer alms on his behalf, but also to rejoice at this, that his wickedness has been cut short. If he were righteous, it again is right to be glad that what is his is now placed in security, free from the uncertainty of the future” (Homily 52 on the Gospel of Saint John). And when the fathers speak of joy and gladness, they are not speaking rhetorically or referring to some forced smile that simply masks a pit of pain. They mean for us to really rejoice and thank God with our entire heart in a way that is expressed in a countenance, filled not with the darkness of loss, but with the light of Christ, our Resurrection and our Life.


Today, researchers in the psychology of grief have gathered considerable evidence that there is something clearly harmful about persistent negative thoughts, bitter emotions, and constricted behaviors associated with grief, especially if they become a permanent way of engaging with the world. Findings also indicate that positive emotions have a place in the healthy process of grief, even early on.  And while we don’t necessarily have control over the emotions that bubble to the surface of our consciousness, we do have control over the types of emotions that we cultivate in our thoughts and in our hearts.  The cultivation of positive emotions actually encourages and supports the healing process.  In his paper entitled, “Grief and Emotion,” George A. Bonanno discusses a “Duchenne” (authentic as opposed to artificial) smile or laugh in those who are grieving. He found that those who express such positive emotions demonstrated significantly lower levels of grief at 14 and 25 months post-loss. Such authentic laughter is thought to relieve stress, to undo the negative mindset put in place by sorrow, and in the cases of troubled relations with the departed to even help bring about a transformation from anger with the departed to acceptance of reality and peace.

So many of the Saints, who were, like their Master Christ, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) were also ministers of authentic joy whose gentle smile was enough to bring healing to those who came into their presence. Saint Seraphim would greet each person as “my joy” and each person could see that at that moment he or she really was the joy of the Saint. Even in grief, a Christian can try to cultivate that natural, spontaneous joy of being in Christ, of loving Christ, and of one’s loved one’s now being with Christ.

The newly canonized Saint Porphyrios would agree that positive emotions expressed by a genuine smile can assuage grief.  But for Saint Porphyrios the joy is Christocentric.  He writes in his work, “Wounded By Love,” “Man is a mystery. We carry within us an age-old inheritance – all the good and precious experience of the prophets, the saints, the martyrs, the apostles and above all of our Lord Jesus Christ; but we also carry within us the inheritance of the evil that exists in the world from Adam until the present. All this is within us, instincts and everything, and all demand satisfaction. If we don’t satisfy them, they will take revenge at some time, unless, that is, we divert them elsewhere, to something higher, to God.” When facing the loss of a loved one, we can let our natural reactions rule us, or we can choose to be open to the inheritance of those blessed children of light who would “rejoice as partakers of Christ’s sufferings,” (1 Peter 4:13), to follow the example of those earthly angels who would “rejoice in the Lord always,” (Phillipians 4:4), and to allow the Lord’s words “that your joy may be full” to be true in our lives. The Christian always has reason to weep and always has reason to smile. And both can be present in the person who mourns if he turns to Christ with all his soul.

Saint Porphyrios once said, “Christ is joy, the true light, and blessedness. Christ is our hope….Take hold of the joy of Christ. It is a joy that lasts eternally and contains eternal gladness. This joy of the Lord gives us sure calmness….When you find Christ, you are full and need nothing more, you feel still. You become another person. You live everywhere, where Christ is. You live in the stars, in the infinite beyond, in the heavens with the angels, with the saints, on earth with people, with the plants, with the animals, with everyone and everything. Where the love of God is, loneliness disappears. You are peaceful, joyful, complete, without any melancholy, sickness, pressure, anxiety, glumness, or even hell. Christ is in all your thoughts and in all your actions. You have His grace and can endure all things for Christ. You can suffer wrongfully. You can suffer wrongs for Christ sake and with joy.” This is the Christian explanation of how, not positive thoughts, but blessed grace-filled thoughts from the Gospel, can transform the experience of grief through the power of the One Who transforms sickness into health, sin into holiness, and death into life. Through Him, we can pass through the wilderness of grief into the promised land of our immortal Lord. And we can do so, not simply with a Duchenne smile that relieves the tension of mourning, but with the smile of holiness that elevates the mourning sot that they can see that “death is not death, but only a kind of emigration and translation from the worse to the better, from earth to heaven, from men to angels, and archangels, and Him who is the Lord of angels and archangels” ( Saint John Chrysostom, Letter to a Widow). And being now in the presence of the Lord of angels who embraces both the mourning and the departed with His love, we can even smile and give thanks to God with all our heart.


About Father Alexios