Easter joy and celebration doesn't mean we forget our pain and loss.
Grief comes to us at the strangest times.
On a day like Easter, the world is brimming over with new life. The days are getting longer and the air warmer, at least in the northern hemisphere. In our yard, the magnolia tree is in full bloom and the hyacinth are perfuming the front walk. Children are frantically running around in their yellow dresses and tan suits, searching out eggs tucked in the crooks of the trees and hiding under bushes. At Mass, the Alleluia is being sung again and the homily is about the Resurrection.
Even in the midst of all this joy, there might arise a thought, a grief, because this Easter is not like past Easters, and the next one will be also be different. Life changes, and with that change comes loss. Perhaps there’s an empty seat at your dining table today that was not empty last year.
Even in the midst of new life, there is heartache.
I wonder what sorrow remained in the heart of Mary, even as she rejoiced in the Easter miracle? Her son was alive, yes, but she had still witnessed his gruesome death a mere three days prior. I cannot imagine that she processed the shock and was immediately ready to forget about it. She, of course, was able to see Him again, but the loved ones you and I have lost are still hidden from our sight. We have faith we’ll see them one day in Heaven, but that day isn’t today. And so celebration is intertwined with mourning.
In the direct aftermath of a funeral, there’s always a tremendous outpouring of support. Cards and flowers arrive, there are consoling phone calls, and offers to talk. It’s well understood that, if someone has lost a loved one, they need a little time off work and they won’t be their usual, happy selves. After about a week or two, though, there’s an expectation that it’s time to start getting on with life. A time limit has been reached and any attempts to speak about it or even quietly continue emotionally processing it are considered awkward or a sign that something is wrong. Supportive messages disappear as everyone returns to business as usual.
It isn’t right for it to be this way. Grief is unique, and there cannot be a set expectation for how a person should mourn. We’re all different, and as a loss lingers, it affects us all in different ways. What does it mean to carry that hurt for the rest of a life, to really feel the absence of a person who’s gone to the grave? Is it unhealthy to hold onto those memories, to allow yourself to feel the pain of it? Is it morbid to acknowledge it? It seems to me that it isn’t morbid at all and we all need to continue, at least in some way, to mourn our dead.
The intensity of the pain might subside over time, but won’t go away entirely and it should not be expected to disappear. This is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay, because grief is connected to love. To continue to feel the wound of loss is a sign that the bond of love is still intact, that death has not overcome it. It simply doesn’t do to ignore grief, and there shouldn’t be an obligation to cover it over or pretend it doesn’t exist. Beyond that, there really aren’t any rules for how to properly grieve. You handle it in your own way and at your own pace.
I will say, though, that in my experience as a priest spending time with grieving families, there are three important points to emphasize…
You don’t have to move on
There is no timeline by which you need to stop grieving. The pain may lessen; it might not. It may take some time, or a lot of time. It’s true that life cannot entirely stop when someone dies, and we do need to continue seeking happiness and joy, but it’s possible to do so within the context of continuing to grieve. You may never entirely move on.
You don’t have to live in denial
So often, we don’t know how to face our sadness and end up in denial or uttering cliches. This is a quick-fix that doesn’t actually fix anything. When grieving, it’s important to express yourself honestly and not numb the pain.
You don’t have to say “At least…”
There isn’t any value in saying, “At least he’s in a better place now,” or, “At least he lived a full life.” It might feel better to grasp for the bright side, but it’s really nothing more than a protective instinct to dull the pain, to turn away from the brunt of it. This is understandable, but in order to grieve in a healthy way, we must acknowledge the loss and not skip to a false rationalization.
Today, on Easter of all days, death and life are embraced within the totality of human experience. We can’t have one without the other. If we wish to celebrate life, we will also acknowledge the reality of death. Mourning will always be with us, but remember, it’s a sign of love. Perhaps this is why it comes to us in the strangest of moments, because love is always a surprise arriving from some hidden reservoir of existence, a connection to the divine. There’s no predicting it. In the same way, there is no way of predicting when grief will make its presence known. All we can do is embrace it.