Grief and the Quality of the Thoughts

While most people come to know us through our actions, our lives are actually determined by our thoughts. It is precisely in the inner realm of the thoughts that outward action first germinates and later comes to fruition, always supported by the moist or dry, rich or barren, smooth or rocky soil of our thoughts. This is also true for those who are experiencing grief. It is the quality and direction of our thoughts about the departed, about ourselves without that person near us, and about our world in that person’s absence, which ultimately determine the course of our grief and the resolution thereof.

Psychologists who study grief have determined that there are rational and irrational grief processes at work in those who are bereaved. The rational processes are considered adaptive and healthy, because they are consistent with a fair appraisal of reality, while the irrational ones are thought to be maladaptive and unhealthy because they distort or exaggerate negative aspects of reality and dismiss other more positive elements. For psychologists, it’s the problem of cognitive distortions. For the fathers, it’s the danger of the imagination and fantasy taking its captive to a distant land not only far from the beloved, but also far from Christ.

In making this distinction between the rational and irrational, Ruth Malkinson describes an adaptive thought process in this way: “Thoughts about the death are not avoided nor constantly remembered, but are rearranged into a system of sadly deploring, but successfully living with, the great loss of the bereaved person (‘I know there will always be a big hole in my life where she was, but I will always remember her with love;’ ‘I’ll always miss my mother, but I have great memories to keep in my heart and pass on to my kids—my children will always remember her as a great grandma’).” Irrational thoughts, on the other hand, involve a freezing of time and a devaluation of the world around oneself, so that thoughts about life being meaningless or worthless without him or her completely engulf the grieving. In the rational/irrational paradigm, the goal is to move away from the irrational and adopt the rational so as to become whole once again or in the words of Malkinson, “a process of searching for a ‘rational’ meaning to life.”

The ancient fathers would certainly agree that it is important to distinguish between good and bad thoughts, with the good being true and in modern terms adaptive and the bad thoughts being false and again in modern terms maladaptive. And although they might not use the framework of rational versus non-rational, they certainly made the distinction between moderate and excessive as can be observed in Saint Basil the Great’s comment: “The upright in heart have thoughts that are inclined neither to excess nor to deficiency, but are directed toward the mean [to meson] of virtue”( On the Seventh Psalm 7, PG 29b.244d). The holy bishop of Ceasarea also applied this distinction to the issue of grief, imploring the grieving “to meet the event with meekness and, so far as is possible, to endure your loss with moderation” (Saint Basil the Great, Letter 269 to the wife of Ariathaeus, the General).

Rationality alone, however, does not get to the source of the problem or offer the most powerful remedy. Yes, we all have unreasonable, irrational thoughts, but we cling to them so much because they are often laced with passions that the fathers speak of in terms of the eight evil thoughts of gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. These passions are often at work in the bereaved when they experience anger, hopelessness, despair, and listlessness in their grief. Such emotions cloud the thoughts and distort reality, making clarity difficult. More than rationality is often needed to clear our vision, what we need is the light of Christ, the light of virtue, and the light of holiness.

In a previous post entitled, Religiosity, Christianity, and Forgiveness, I wrote, “In the West, many speak about Lent as a period of struggle whose goal is for Christians to become better people. For the ancient fathers, however, it is not just about “the good being preserved in their goodness and the crafty becoming good” (anaphora of Saint Basil the Great), although these are things to be prayed for. Rather, it is about discovering the heart, being honest about oneself, being humble before God, and in repentance beginning an incredible journey in which the soul seeks to be clothed in Christ, so that thoughts, desires, the will, all become holy, all become bent on salvation, all become an expression of His forgiveness and His love. No frail human morality can ever hope to contain the overflowing fullness of life with which Christ desires to rejuvenate the faithful.” I cite this post because it’s an illustration of a Christian approach to one of life’s questions much like grief, an approach that involves more than just becoming reasonable. Grief can no more be resolved through a merely rational approach than thinking that offering an inebriated person a cup of coffee will make him sober.

Rather than employing the rational/irrational paradigm to deal with maladaptive thoughts, the fathers prefer to emphasize growth in our relationship with Christ.  Grief can only be overcome when the profound alienation that underlies it is overcome through a reliance on our relationship with Christ. That’s why when we assume ascetical practices such as fasting it is not to become a better person but to recognize our dependence upon Christ and seek His healing and strength. If you look at the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, they are not filled with rational statements such as “drinking is unhealthy” or “drinking will cause problems at work or in the home.” These statements are both true, but don’t move the alcoholic to change his behavior. What changes his behavior is the recognition of his own powerlessness over what has now consumed him.  That is why the Steps talk about surrender and the need for reliance upon God. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The same is true with grief. We can’t think our way out of grief after the loss of a loved one. Like the alcoholic, once we admit our own powerlessness to stop the bad thoughts or move through the grief, God is there to rescue us once we call upon Him. This is precisely the reason the fathers counsel those who are grieving to turn to the Lord in prayer. Saint Augustine wrote, “If we are horrified, let us grieve; if we grieve, let us pray; if we pray, may we be heard; if we are heard, we gain them also” (Tractate on John 7).

Indeed, there are adaptive thoughts as well as maladaptive ones in the grief process. However, the manner in which maladaptive thoughts are transformed into adaptive ones is essentially a spiritual process in which prayer is a most powerful remedy. After all, Saint Augustine once remarked, “When these things are pondered, and are regretfully desired with all the vehemence of long-cherished affection, the heart is pierced, and, like blood from the pierced heart, tears flow apace. But let your heart rise heavenward, and your eyes will cease to weep” (Letter 263 to Sapida). Pure prayer to God assuages every grief, for when we pray in this fashion we turn to the Divine Physician for healing and consolation, we turn to that Physician who is not only “faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), but also to “wipe away all the tears from our eyes” (Revelations 7:17).

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