Friday, March 24, 2017

When a loved one dies, our loss plunges us into deep grief

Over the years I have observed a number of deaths - from illness, accidents, suicides - over long drawn out periods or suddenly and unexpectedly, of people who died young or old or in between. Their deaths are particularly difficult to endure when the deceased were good people who were greatly loved by many, and I have found that there are several levels in the grief of those who felt close to them. The following factors are by far not an exhaustive list, given the great variations in the lives of human beings, but these probably account for a great portion of our grieving.

1. You miss the deceased simply for who he or she is as a person, who he was and came to be, and what she meant to you simply as a one that you have known and loved.

2. You may miss the deceased as your son or daughter, whom you would naturally expect to outlive you as a parent or live as long as you as a sibling or friend or coworker.

3. You grieve the loss of the ways in which their life would have unfolded - as your hopes for their future were inflamed when they were doing well - and so you grieve the loss of their future as a person.

4. It is natural for parents, for example, to grieve the loss of a child who, later on in life, would have been there to walk with them during their senior years and comfort and support them in old age. That future is now lost, and you grieve over it.

5. You naturally grieve your child as parents, as Mom and Dad, and the loss of that relationship with each of you and with what siblings there may be and with all of you as a family. Your family is no longer quite the same.

6. You invested in your child who responded to you over the years. It is not surprising that you should grieve over the abrupt interruption of this relationship.

7. In the particular circumstances of the deceased person's final or life long struggle - with illness, or persecution, or addiction, or ill fortune, or any of a host of other troubled circumstances - you may have invested so much of yourselves, your time and energy, your finances, your emotional investment and psychologically intense attentiveness and concentration. As a result, in recent years you have been living at an abnormally intensive degree, which simply on a human level, could not do otherwise than go through a period of dropping off, which in comparison to the previously intensive emotional level would now appear to be depressive.

8. When it is a premature death you may be grieving inasmuch as this death may seem a failure or bad end to their long or intense struggle.

        Without completely realizing it, and to varying degrees, it is not unusual for people who care to get "sucked into" a disposition of spirit or of mind and heart that is not really healthy, by virtue of the ways in which their life struggle "reshaped their personality". For example, in the case of addiction it is now clearly understood in both medical and psychological fields as well as by social workers and addiction recovery workers to cause a "social disease" of addiction which "makes sick or diseased" the relationships of everyone relating to the addict as well as all the circles to which they belong, such as their family, place of work, friends, and so on.
         Some of the manifestations of this "social disease" may be lying, denying the truth, pretending all is well, covering up for the addict, excusing the addict from taking responsibility for themselves, accepting to "perform roles" assigned by the addict to various members of each particular circle, and any number of other attitudes and behaviors that are "not normal" but troubled.
        God's design, intention, and will is for each human being to develop from infancy to adulthood, from total dependence to autonomy, from selfishness to altruism.
        The responsibility of parents diminishes as the responsibility of the offspring increases until the young adult "takes over" the entire responsibility for his or her own life. By analogy this is also true of the responsibility of individuals in other kinds of relationships. While an addict or any other person may develop degrees of caring for others and selfless service; people can yet remain underdeveloped in their ability and willingness to care for and take full responsibility for themselves.
        As loved ones descend into dangerous attitudes and patterns that are self destructive, those who love them can fall into feeling "overly responsible" for the addict or person who is struggling; as though in their caring they have become the second wheel on a cart that had only one good wheel. You can come to so completely identify with the troubled person that their failure or bad end now feels like your own failure, and their death now feels as though it were somehow your fault.
        In effect, in taking on an exaggerated degree of responsibility for the one who struggled and died you may have taken on yourselves a degree of responsibility for them that belongs exclusively to God, our Father and Creator. Your grief torments you with wondering "What if?" scenarios, as though you were God and had the power to save the person but failed to use that power.
        All such thoughts are false, misleading, and dangerous, and in the end, they are part of the "enemy's strategy" to paralyze us, trick us into passing premature judgement on ourselves, and deceive us by distracting us from God's care and mercy; so that we stop trusting in God's judgement, God's loving mercy, God's divine providence.

9. To the extent that you have over recent years "reorganized" your lives around caring for the sufferer as you would for an infant, a handicapped child, or invalid parent, then to that extent you may have "stopped fully living" your own lives. As it happens for a person who gives up most of their autonomy to care for an invalid parent, spouse, sibling, or child over a long period of time; when it is finally over the person can often experience a "rude awakening" to suddenly find themselves older and with feelings that they have lost a part of their lives. They may or may not feel resentment to the recently deceased, but it is natural to have a sense of loss as we realize the passage of time in our lives, and especially the passing of our "best years".

10. It is to be expected that there is some degree of satisfaction in expending efforts to care for someone in trouble, especially when it is someone we love. When such a situation extends itself over a longer period of time, we develop "habits of thought, of feeling, and of action" which can "take over" our lives or a significant portion of our lives. When the period of caring comes to an end - even more so when the end comes unexpectedly - it is natural to experience this change as a shock. You may have gradually over some years reorganized your life around the sufferer and now, suddenly, the reason or need for this reorganization is gone. You cannot suddenly just go back to the way you were, but will need time to make this new transition, just as it took you time to adapt in the first place to put yourself at the more intensive service of the person in need.

11. While you were so busy and intensively focused on caring for your loved one, you would have felt the need to relativize or ignore some of your own needs and desires. To the extent that you have neglected your own needs, now you may find it difficult to face your own needs and admit them to yourself, and be troubled by false feelings of guilt, interpreting your inclination to care for yourself as "selfish". Such confusion is caused in part by a false or erroneous way of understanding the balance between care for others and care for ourselves. The more they manifested helplessness, the greater would have been your temptation to feel responsible for them and to neglect others and yourself.

12. To the extent you have succumbed to these or other such temptations, you would probably feel some true and genuine guilt for having neglected self care and your other relationships, including allowing the Lord to be God.

13. No one but God is perfect, with a close exception for our Blessed Mother Mary and, to lesser degrees, the saints. Sadly it is all too often the case that people - to varying degrees - have been "beating up on themselves" over these years over the effectiveness or quality of their caring for the one in need. This is like the so-called friends of Job who "beat up on him" trying to convince him that his suffering had to be a punishment from God, that he must somehow have done something wrong to deserve his personal disasters and suffering. Well, "get over it"! It is true that we are not perfect, nor should we expect to be - no more than we should expect to be all-powerful as God is - so that we all need to let God be God and to accept our circumstances and those of others in our lives, with trust in divine providence. We need to trust that God loves us more than we love ourselves, and to daily entrust our lives and the lives of those we love to God. While we may have been trying to do that, to the extent that you have been "beating yourselves up", then you need to repent of that and drop it.

14. Like it or not, even for people of great faith in and intimacy with God, as human beings we still care about who we are, the well being of our family, and our place in the extended family and in all the circles of our lives. It matters to us to "do well" at every level of our lives. When we lose a person for whom we have been expending our efforts to help them overcome illness or other troubles and in the end it all seems to end in failure, like it or not, there is bound to be some form of "stigma" or feeling of failure.

We can feel as though our efforts have not been "good enough" as a parent, as a person who cares, as a responsible adult, and so on.... We need to see the truth and let go of what is false in our feelings, and let the person go. We need to rediscover the value of our own lives and to resume living our lives fully as God intends for us to do, not only for our own good, but also for the good of others, for his glory, and for the good of his Church.

There may very well be other factors, other levels, in your deep and genuine grief, but the Holy Spirit will help you "peel the onion" of your grief one layer at a time and apply the healing touch of divine mercy to it, to you, moment by moment....

Dear Reader, if you are experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one, I invite you - alone or with your spouse or with your family - to sit, pray a little, and then read through this reflection, one line or sentence at a time. If you are doing this with someone else, stop to share your thoughts and feelings as you go, and only as you are satisfied with where it brings you can you then move on to the next sentence....

You may need to work at this a little each day for some weeks before you get through it all the first time. Then over time, God will lead you over some of these same issues again and again as his healing love penetrates more and more deeply into your mind, heart, psyche, and soul....

In the end, all will be well, as St Teresa of Avila used to say....