Grief, Grief Work, and Emotions

In exploring the multi-faceted and complex phenomenon of grief, psychologists and therapists often approach the subject matter in the via negativa, that is they will first describe what grief is not before attempting to describe its nature and causes. In so doing, they are quick to point out that grief is not an emotion, although emotions are indeed manifested in the experience of grief. One of the primary emotions expressed in grief is sadness (link: Yet, the two are not the same. In grief, researchers tell us that the determinative cause is loss. Sadness, on the other hand, may be felt as a result of various life experiences and its cause may never be quite clear.

In his work, “Grief and Emotion,” George Bonanno writes that emotion is ephemeral and may last a few hours while grief is enduring and can last from several months to several years in its more intense form. According to Bonanno, grief is associated with a myriad of emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and even some positive emotions such as happiness and pride in one’s connection to the departed. He writes, “Grief is associated with a profound evaluation of encompassing and irrevocable loss—the sense that a ‘piece of me is missing’—that envelops the grieving person’s identity and cognitive understanding of the world and the future.” In contrast, emotion is related to simpler and more proximate appraisals of danger or benefit as these pertain to a concrete, immediate situation.

While we’ve all heard the counsel “keep your emotions in check,” no one proposes similar advice for grief. People of all ages have realized that grief is complex and long-term, requiring the passage of time to at least reach a certain steady state. For example in letter 69 to Eugraphia, Saint Theodoret wrote, “I deemed it ill-advised to send you a letter at the very moment when your grief was at its height; when it was impossible for my messenger to approach your excellency, and when grief prevented you from reading what I wrote. But now that your reason has had time to wake from the intoxication of grief, to repress your emotion, and to discipline the license of sorrow, I have made bold to write.” Clearly, the Saint could see that the intensity and hold of grief varies with time. He also noted that for the grieving to come to terms with their new, more barren world, there was a need to awaken from the state of loss and to exercise some control over themselves and some of their emotions.

Over a thousand years later, therapists would talk about this transitional state as grief work that must be done to reach a certain peace with the now changed self and the unchangeable loss. It was Sigmund Freud who coined the phrase “work of mourning” to indicate that grief is a task to be engaged with and actively involved with rather than treated therapeutically. In writing about melancholia (depression), Freud made important distinctions between the two: “Mourning is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as the loss of one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on. In some people, the same influences produce melancholia instead of mourning and we consequently suspect them of a pathological disposition. It is also well worth noticing that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude of life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and refer it to medical treatment. We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.” (Freud 1917/1957, pp.243-244) (Ironically, according to Freudian scholars, Freud was never able to escape the grief he experienced after the loss of his daughter and granddaughter.). In other words, just as grief is not just an emotion, it is also not just an emotional disturbance to be numbered with various mood disorders. It is a change set in motion by a powerful loss that may hit the person like a tsunami and take some time to again regain his or her bearings.

In Saint Augustine’s Letter to Sapida, the bishop of Hippo also intimates an awareness of grief as a state to be worked through and as distinct from the emotion of sorrow. Blessed Augustine writes, “There is nothing in the sorrow of mortals over their dearly beloved dead which merits displeasure; but the sorrow of believers ought not to be prolonged. If, therefore, you have been grieved till now, let this grief suffice, and sorrow not as do the heathen, ‘who have no hope.’ For when the Apostle Paul said this, he did not prohibit sorrow altogether, but only such sorrow as the heathen manifest who have no hope. For even Martha and Mary, pious sisters, and believers, wept for their brother Lazarus, of whom they knew that he would rise again, though they knew not that he was at that time to be restored to life; and the Lord Himself wept for that same Lazarus, whom He was going to bring back from death; wherein doubtless He by His example permitted, though He did not by any precept enjoin, the shedding of tears over the graves even of those regarding whom we believe that they shall rise again to the true life. Nor is it without good reason that Scripture saith in the book of Ecclesiasticus: ‘Let tears fall down over the dead, and begin to lament as if thou hadst suffered great harm thyself;’ but adds, a little further on, this counsel, ‘and then comfort thyself for thy heaviness. For of heaviness cometh death, and the heaviness of the heart breaketh strength’” (Saint Augustine, Letter 263 to Sapida).

For the Christian, grief is expected to take time and be something one works through long after the funeral with commemorations and services for the departed on the ninth day, on the fortieth day, three months, six months, and yearly anniversaries from then on. It is also much more than the emotion of sorrow. The holy fathers acknowledge the rightful place of grief in human life (not human sickness!) and differentiate it from the emotions, especially the negative ones such as anger, resentment, and hostility, which they associate with the passions. However, they also go one step further and contextualize grief in terms of eternity. If emotions are ephemeral and related to a recent life experience, grief over loss is also temporary in light of eternity where every tear shall be wiped away and where there shall be no more weeping or lamentations.

Above all, Christian grief should be mixed with hope. It’s not an easy hope, for in death there is so much that one cannot control. Grief is not like beliefs about the self that can be altered to help depression (link: Freud taught that “in grief the world looks poor and empty while in depression the person feels poor and empty” (Worden, “Grief Counseling and Therapy,” 31), or as Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “the presence of absence is everywhere.” What one hopes for, then, is the promise and the miracle of “a new heaven and a new earth,” a new world fuller than the old world that has passed, which can only be realized by turning one’s gaze from the absence that is everywhere present to the “One Who is everywhere present and filling all things.” That hope becomes stronger as one’s relationship to Christ becomes stronger and that may be the most important part of any grief work the grieving will ever do.

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