12 November 2001
Grief Management and the Catholic Church
By Carmella Turner,
Pamela Carroll, PSY K201
"Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted" (Matt 5.4). For what am I mourning and how am I being comforted? For me, the mourning is the death of my 11½ month old son Elias, and the comfort comes from my faith in Jesus Christ, the founder of the Catholic Church.
Elias was born in 1999 after a healthy pregnancy and non-event delivery. Less than 24 hours later, when the nurse came to take his newborn picture, my life changed forever, as did his. Something was wrong. His heart I was told, and thus the saga of his short life on earth began. He was diagnosed with severe heart abnormalities and emergency surgery was scheduled for the next day. After 9 healthy months he was scheduled for what we thought would be the first of many surgeries to possibly change, alter and fix his broken heart. Alas, God had other plans for Elias. The surgery was long and difficult and after 50 days in the PICU, the decision was made to withdraw unnecessary medicine and oxygen in order to allow Elias to die a natural death. Since that day in January 2000, I have been going through what the health care community would call "grief management." But for me, grief has become "a means of participating in and growth in the self-giving love manifested in the life of our Lord" (Spencer 11).
"Bereavement is not merely a psychological state. It is that, but much more; from the Church’s point of view, bereavement is an opportunity for cooperation with the Holy Spirit" (Spencer 11). Personally I have learned to offer up much of my pain and suffering because of my understanding that it can draw me nearer to Christ and the cross. The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses this in the section "The celebration of the Christian mystery."
By the grace of this sacrament, the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning: it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus (1521).
This sacrament is what we call in the Catholic Church, "Anointing of the Sick." Elias received this while in a coma like state, yet it was his family that seemed to benefit the most from it.
"Grief and loss are a portal through which we may view eternity. The broken heart is a window through which our Lord offers us his own sacramental presence. Bereavement is a doorway through which we may ascend to a higher understanding and imitation of his own self sacrificing love" (Spencer 13). The Catholic Church raises our minds to things above, thus allowing those grieving a means of understanding the reality of the loss of a loved one. Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross traces out the stages of grief in her book, On Death and Dying. Even though her work was with terminally ill patients and their families, these stages are now considered by most psychologists as the norms for grieving people. They are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (Spencer). A recent study released in Death Studies deals with PARENTAL BEREAVEMENT: THE CRISIS OF MEANING. Parents were asked two questions in order to elicit information about the experience of their child’s death and its effects on them. The first question asked was "Parent’s Experience of the Child’s Death Over Time. The inability to accept the reality of the death was one of the outcomes of this question" (Wheeler 3). This is much like "denial," the first of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. If we cannot accept the loss it seems impossible that healing will ever occur. Peter denied Christ three times before he was able to accept the reality of his imminent death. And one way he accepted it was "he went out and wept bitterly" (Luke22.61-62). A natural emotion, crying, yet one so few want to express, especially openly. As the Mass of Christian Burial was being said for Elias, my thoughts were focused on how I needed to stay strong for my husband, children, family and friends. I was able to carry it off for the entire Mass, but when we walked out of the Church it finally hit me. I broke down and wept bitterly in front of many people. But it was all right. I was accepting the reality of his death. Just like Peter!
Another response to the study on parents’ bereavement was emotional reactions. Those most often reported were: "anger, bitterness, pain, fear and guilt" (Wheeler 3). These emotions ranged from mild to extremely severe. These emotions can be almost totally bundled together under Kübler-Ross’s second stage: "anger." Yet in mourning with the Church, the task of "experience[ing] the pain of the grief" (Spencer 54) is how we deal with Kübler-Ross’s anger stage. I did feel anger over the loss of my son at times, but I knew it was part of managing my grief. If I didn’t experience the pain, the anger, the fear, the guilt of maybe something I did caused his abnormalities, then I wouldn’t have arrived at my acceptance of his loss and be ready to move on to the next stage. "Healing comes from moving toward the pain rather than away from it" (Spencer 46). This stage can be very difficult for all involved, but a necessary one nevertheless. Most people helping those in this stage want to avoid it if possible, but "the pain of loss must be experienced and processed. Prolonging our avoidance of the pain of grief is not helpful and can be downright detrimental" (Spencer 46). Denial of this will only lead to a depressed state if not attended to.
"The third task of mourning has to do with making the necessary adjustments to live in the new world bereft of the person in our lives" (Spencer 56). We, those in mourning, can either make changes or continue to walk on the non-stop treadmill that leads to nowhere. Without making adjustments, the questions of "Why" and "How" will linger indefinitely. "Why" was answered by my knowing that God was in total control of both Elias and myself and only by his designs did Elias live and die. In my opinion, "depression," one of the stages of bereavement, can lead to mental illness. By this I mean that a parent may fall into total self-absorption with oneself and their loss as to be unable to deal effectively with the true nature of the situation. Death is viewed by the Catholic Church as "a step towards Jesus and an entrance into everlasting life" (CCC 1020). Without this belief, death becomes an eternal suffering and a sinking further into a state of no return. "Catholic doctrine has always emphasized the inherent value of each human being as a creation of God. Our worth is not conditional or based on our ability to ‘produce,’ for God loves every person regardless of social status, health, or race" (Bergeron 21). My understanding that Elias was created both by and for God allowed me to adjust to his loss and avoid being led down the narrow path of self-absorption.
"…many psychologists now adhere to Cognitive Theory…which proposes that depression is derived from irrational thinking" (Bergeron 21). This is the treadmill I chose to avoid. Irrational thinking could occur if I didn’t believe that Elias was with God and would lead to depression if left unchecked.
"The final task of the mourner…is to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship" (Spencer 56). There is an old saying "God works in mysterious ways." Little did I know how this final task was to be accomplished. During the duration of my son’s stay in the hospital, I would email daily his Godfather in California. Mostly it was about his condition, our faith, and how I was dealing with it. After his death, he asked me if he could put Elias’s story on the Internet. At first I was very hesitant, but again, God works in mysterious ways. There was a friend I knew just slightly who asked me how I was doing with Elias’s death and I shared with her what his Godfather had done. She went home and after reading my emails, she sent me one of her own. She implored me for help and advice on her own faith walk and thus began the final task of grieving that has allowed me to "reinvest in another relationship." God was preparing me to deal with my son’s loss by putting another person in my life. My willingness to invest my "emotional energy" into a close relationship with another person so shortly after the loss of my son has been the saving grace for me. I have wonderful children and a loving husband who have always been the recipients of my affection, yet now I felt that God was calling me to love others as well as my family more deeply. Jesus takes the initiative himself, from the cross, to help both his mother and beloved disciple to grow from their impeding grief. He begins a new relationship for them by giving his mother to John and John to his mother. And they responded accordingly. They reinvested themselves into another relationship and their personal growth blossomed.That is what happened to me as this new friend that God put in my life has brought me to heights and depths that I never knew existed. Grieving parents can choose to grow by allowing others to step in and help them, or they can focus on the negative aspects and wither away.
If we were to follow Kübler-Ross’s sequences, we would systematically arrive at "acceptance" after the four previous stages. Yet people tend to bounce back and forth at times to the different areas she set forth. If one falls into depression can one really get out? If one accepts death from the very beginning of life, will one become angry or start bargaining with God? When Death Studies asked a second question: "What, if anything, has given your life meaning since your child died?"- some answers paralleled the above "final task of the mourner." "Contact with people and personal growth," were two of the responses. If grieving parents can see beyond the initial loss of the child, then contact with people becomes of utmost importance. Be that spouse, child, parent, friend or whomever God puts in their life. "Personal growth, noted by less that 1% of the parents" (Wheeler 5) is where psychology really needs to see the doctrine set forth by the Catholic Church as referenced above.
"Even the cross ‘is the gift God gives to his friends,’ says one of the saints. Especially the cross. This world is ‘a vale of soul making’ a great sculptor’s shop, and we are the statues. To be finished, the statues must endure many blows of the chisel and be hardened in the fire. This is not optional. Once we lost our original innocence, the way back to God has to be painful, for the Old Man of sin will keep on complaining and paining at each step toward his enemy, goodness" (Kreeft 85).
Many parents see this as total nonsense, hypocrisy of sorts as children retain their innocence for many years. "How did this happen?" is a question asked by many parents going through grief management. By believing that our souls need to endure many trials, a person is brought to the apex of thought that there is no answer to the "How’s" or "Why’s" in our lives. "Only one thing in life is guaranteed: not happiness, not the pursuit of happiness, not liberty, not even life. The only thing we are absolutely guaranteed is the only thing we absolutely need: God" (Kreeft 95). That is the answer to the "How" and "Why." A parent will do or give anything to save the life of their child, yet we only need to look at the example set down for us all. God gave us his only begotten son for a short time.
What more can we do but make the supreme sacrifice and give back to God willingly what he gave to us. Our child.
"…for they shall be comforted" (Matt 5.4). How can one be comforted by the death of a child? "And he said to me: my grace is sufficient for thee: for power is made perfect in infirmity" (2Cor.12.9).
While Elias was the one dealing with an infirmity, I was the one being made perfect. Without my belief in God’s graces, I could never be comforted. Jesus himself called out to his Father, "…not my will, but thine be done" (Luke 22.42). If God Incarnate could say that, I guess I could try it. It wasn’t easy. At one point as I prayed my morning prayers while Elias was in the hospital, I came across the phrase; "In your will is my peace, Lord." Those were very difficult words to pray at the time as it was "my" will I was more concerned about, not his. But I can now honestly say that I am at peace with his will and that is because I walked through the stages of grief, yet was able to manage them through the teachings of the Catholic Church. Knowing that Elias died with God’s grace because of his reception of the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick, allowed him to be perfectly purified of any defilements of sin, thus he was able to be "like God, forever, for he sees him as he is, face to face" (CCC 1023).
Elias was given "Heaven…the ultimate end, and fulfillment of the deepest longing, the state of supreme, definitive happiness" (CCC 1024). Comfort is my knowing that Elias dwells in heaven and managing my grief has become just another road chosen for me by God.
Bergeron, Ed. "The Dangers of Cognitive Psychology."
New Oxford Review Nov. 2000: 21
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Kreeft, Peter. Three Philosophies of Life San Francisco, California:
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Spencer, Glenn M. Jr. BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN
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Wheeler, Inese. "PARENTAL BEREAVEMENT: THE CRISIS OF MEANING."
Death Studies. January 2001, Vol. 25 Issue 1, p51, 16p