Grief and Human Bonds

human bondsIt is so natural for small children to cling to their mothers’ embrace. After all, little ones feel warmth, safety, strength, and security close to someone who feeds them, clothes them, caresses them, and loves them. That is the first relational bond that in the best-case scenario we all form and soon other similar, emotional bonds follow suit. An author writing about grief at the turn of the 19th century, A. F. Shand, once wrote, “The bond, which joy alone forms with an object, would in its absence be quickly dissolved, were there no sorrow to reinforce it.” At any age, the experience of grief has to do with that sorrow caused by a bond that is severed and perceived as a relationship lost, a connection broken, or an intimacy forever beyond one’s reach.

Death forces us to confront the hard reality that our former, familiar connection to our beloved is gone permanently. Our inability to “fix the problem” or re-establish the self-same human bond we treasured exacerbates our mourning and our suffering. Yet, psychological studies have found that intimate bonds formed in life are not completely broken, even in death. In his paper, “The Nature and Causes of Grief,” Robert Weiss writes, “Observation suggests that even in bereaved people who seem to have fully regained effective functioning the emotions associated with attachments can be elicited years after death of the attachment figures—on anniversaries of the death, for example. Indeed, it has been argued that the persistence of bonds to lost figures may sustain effective functioning in the bereaved person instead of being an impediment to its return.” The bond has indeed changed, but that does not mean it is lost or beyond salvaging. Rather, the attachment figure or beloved now lost outside of oneself can be safely anchored within the self, so that the bereaved can say as Karl Abraham once put it in his study of the development of libido, “My loved object is not gone, for now, I carry it within myself and can never lose it.” The complex neural pathways involving memory, imagery, emotion, and cognition required for this task have now been confirmed by neurological studies examining frontal lobe activity in bereaved people. In other words, the minds of those who maintain bonds continue to react and relate to the departed in some way analogous to the relationship that existed when the person was physically present on earth.

In a world dominated by materialist theories of existence, some will scoff at such notions as mind games or figments of the imagination. In layman’s terms, these memories of loved ones do nothing more than produce phantasms that serve as panaceas for the bereaved. They are the shadows of objects not to be confused with the objects themselves, unless one prefers to be out of touch with concrete, physical, material reality for purely idiosyncratic, emotional reasons. From a materialistic worldview, making such a choice is perfectly understandable, although intellectually regrettable.

Christian tradition, however, offers a different vision of reality, which begins with an affirmation of faith born of experience that “life is more than meat and the body is more than raiment” (Luke 12:23), and in today’s jargon, that the mind is more than synapses firing in the brain. We are composed of a physical body and an enduring, vivifying soul. And  among the various powers of the soul, nothing is more powerful than the capacity to love. As Saint John Chrysostom once wrote to a widow, “For such is the power of love, it embraces, and unites, and fastens together not only those who are present, and near, and visible but also those who are far distant; and neither length of time, nor separation in space, nor anything else of that kind can break up and sunder in pieces the affection of the soul” (Letter to a Young Widow). That love was real, is real, and leaving it free to maintain a bond with the beloved is a healthy, real response to grief. When Saint Ambrose of Milan’s brother died, he wrote “My relationship with you is not lost, but changed; before we were inseparable in the body, now we are undivided in affection; for you remain with me, and will always be with me” (Book 1 on the Decease of his Brother Satyrus). In the same spirit, Saint John Chrysostom once consoled a parent who had lost his son, “I beg you, do not say ‘I am no longer called father,’ for why would you not be so called while your son remains? For you surely have not parted with your child or lost your son, but rather obtained him and have him safe. That is why you will not only be called father here, but also in heaven. So, you have not lost the title of father, but have gained it in a nobler sense. From now on, you will not be called the father of a mortal child, but of an immoral one, of a noble soldier continually on duty within [the palace]. So, do not think that he is lost, because he is not present; for if he were absent in a foreign land, the title of your relationship would not be taken from you with his body” (Homily 1 on Second Corinthians).

For the holy fathers, it is quite right for those who are grieving to maintain continuing bonds with the departed, not merely because the departed remains an indelible feature of one’s memory, not simply because it is psychologically and emotionally adaptive to do so, but because the departed also continues to exist outside of our minds, because Christ is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), because He has gone “to prepare a place for us” (John 14:2), because “if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him” (1 Thessalonians 14:14). In Christ, bonds of love become not just permanent. They become eternal. That is why Saint John Chrysostom counseled the widow whose virtuous husband had died to “do your best to make your life resemble his, and then you will assuredly one day depart to join the same company with him not to dwell with him for five years as you did here, nor for 20, or 100, nor for a thousand or twice that number, but for infinite and endless ages” (Letter to a Young Widow). Human bonds formed on earth are not destroyed by death. Day-to-day life changes dramatically, but those bonds can endure and should endure forever. They continue to exist not merely through the imaginative use of memory or cognitive functioning, but in our living faith in Christ, “the victory that overcometh the world” (1 John 5:4) “now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

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