As I write this, the weather is gray and cold. It has been raining for what feels like forever, but is more accurately about a week. I miss the summer. I miss a lot of things, and people, when October rolls around. It seems to be a month made for melancholy.
Perhaps it is because two of my grandparents died during Octobers in my childhood. This month has always been a month of missing them, remembering the past, and grieving. I was eight the October my paternal grandmother died, and she was the dearest person in the world to me.
Grief is the word we use to describe the feeling of missing someone or something after they are lost to us forever. We grieve days that are behind us, relationships that never grew, opportunities missed. But most of all we grieve persons. Death seems to be the end of all that was, the end of all who was. It is unbreakable, unbreachable, unending.
But as Christians, we must recognize that this is not the case, even when all appearances suggest otherwise. Mother Church tells us that death is not the end, and it is an act of hope that we believe her. Death only seems to be final and absolute and unknowable, and it is hard for us to trust what happens next because we simply cannot know with the certitude and concreteness with which we know this world. The Church speaks of the Four Last Things, with Death being the first or entryway to the other three: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. But that is another topic. What about those of us who remain on Earth while a loved one has gone on ahead? What do we do? How do we live with loss?
C.S. Lewis told a friend who had recently lost his beloved wife, “Sad you must be at present. You can’t develop a false sense of a duty to cling to sadness if– and when, for nature will not preserve any psychological state forever– sadness begins to vanish” (A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken). Of course we feel sad. The one who brought joy and lightness into our hearts has gone, and the weight of it is left. There is no Christian commandment forbidding sadness. It is an emotion, and emotions are neither good or evil. They just are. And they come and go as they please, and wash over us. If we choose to take them too deeply within ourselves, however, that can become dangerous. We can drown in grief if we make it our cosmology. And the Christian is commanded to have the same mind as Jesus Christ. He sees the world with the eyes of love.
While we may not always be able to choose our emotions, we can choose our attitude. Joy, even in the midst of sadness, “comes of being loved” as Pope Benedict XVI tells us in Deus Caritas Est. And love has conquered death, in a singular act. Jesus, the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinitarian Godhead, the Son of the Father, died on a cross to redeem us from an unredeemable bondage because he loved us and desired us to be with him. It is to that action we must orient ourselves. Grief can too easily turn us inward, and like a black hole devour everything surrounding it so that it is the only thing left. Love perpetually calls us out of ourselves, and asks us to give ourselves as a gift. Even in the hard times. Especially in the hardest of times. I do not doubt that God’s heart broke when humanity sinned the first time, and breaks again at every subsequent sin. But God did not become consumed by grief at our fall. God is love, and love must give of itself to the beloved unceasingly.
I want to tell you more about the process of grief, of going through the stages of denial and anger and bargaining and depression and of finally reaching acceptance, but I don’t know your process. I don’t know your loss. And that’s okay. We can hold a space for each other as we go through the process of grieving. We can let each other remember and smile and laugh and cry and long for the missing one and repeat as necessary. As a recent homily reminded me, however, our God does not tolerate idols in our lives. Our grief cannot consume our love, or else it makes a golden calf of our beloved. May our love of God, united with the love our dearly departed, orient us to the loving heart of the Father.