Coping with grief
(according to the Church Fathers)
by N. P. Vassiliades
Death, an exceptionally emotional event, always evokes pain and grief in people. The Christian faith, which embraces humanity with special love, has always respected this kind of human pain... St. Paul teaches that we should be sympathetic, "weeping with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). St. Basil notes that we ought to visit those who mourn and should help them with consoling words, but should neither be overcome by grief, nor should imitate the lamentations and the wails of those who do not mourn in a manner pleasing to God.
However, if the death of any person evokes considerable pain and sorrow, the death of a person related to us evokes even greater pain. The sorrow at the departure of our beloved ones - spouse, child, parent - is usually expressed by sobbing, funeral lamentations, many tears and rending of the soul.
The Christian faith, furthermore, does not expect people to be dispassionate or indifferent at the death of one's relatives; Christ Himself wept at the death of His beloved friend Lazarus. On approaching the tomb to resurrect him, Jesus was "deeply moved" and exerted great inner effort to control His emotions (cf. Jn 11:35, 38).
...Because man is a rational being, he can and must overcome this sorrow and not allow it to overwhelm him, which is exactly what Jesus did in the case of Lazarus. St. John Chrysostom advises us to imitate the Lord, "As Christ cried for Lazarus, let us also cry". He cried and presented us with "a measure and a degree" that we should not transgress. For, why was it necessary for Him to weep, since He was later to resurrect Lazarus? He did this for us to learn "how much to cry". In this manner we are shown the sympathetic aspect of human nature and the avoidable practices of unbelievers.
People who are far from God have every reason to lament and to bewail. Christians, however, have no justification for such practices. For, besides the hope of eternal life, which offers us much consolation, we are also called to think, "Do we weep and mourn because he who died was evil?" Yet, precisely because of this we should thank God, notes St. John Chrysostom, because death has interrupted his progress in evil. Do we weep because he who died was good and kind? But for this, too, we should rejoice because he was called by God early "lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul" (Wis. 4:11). Now he is in a safe place and he is in no danger of losing his good character. The holy Father also asks: Do you mourn because he was young? But for this, too, praise God who called him early and received him for a better life...
If we were destined to remain here on earth for ever, we would have every reason to weep and mourn for those who die. Since, however, we are all destined to go elsewhere, let us not lament for them who depart before us.
This is the manner in which the holy Fathers, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, console the mourning of a husband or a wife; for the deprivation of a spouse is profoundly felt by the one who remains. The death of one of the two spouses creates a deep psychic wound in the other.
Many who weep over their beloved spouse often say how used they were to him or to her. How will they now be able to live without his or her presence that filled the home? How will they live without his or her company sharing day-to-day problems and making them bearable? Indeed, the separation of two persons, who were close and used to each other, is very difficult to bear. But for someone to mourn over this separation is entirely irrational, according to St. Basil. His advice is: Do not expect moral laws to agree with your desires. Those who have been united during the course of the present life and later are separated by death, resemble travellers journeying on a single road. Having become used to travelling together, they have been joined closely on account of their companionship. But when they reach the point where they must part, and each one is obliged to follow his own way, they are not restrained by the companionship they enjoyed together. They part and each goes his own way. So is the case now; you travel along with your beloved relative - the spouse, the mother, the child - but the time has come to part. You have become accustomed to each other. But God, who created us and gave us a soul, has also determined for each one a personal way of life and a relationship. For others, moreover, God has set different terms of departure from this present life. For someone else, God through His love and great wisdom has determined that he remain here bodily for a longer period of time. For another, God has decided, in His unknowable wisdom and justice, that he be liberated sooner from the bonds of the body. Consequently, just as each one has a particular beginning, so does one have a particular ending to one's earthly life...
Others who mourn say, "he was my supporter". But if you seek support, notes St. John Chrysostom, and it is for this reason you mourn your husband, take refuge in God who is the supporter and Saviour and benefactor of all people... We may have lost the support of our beloved, but we have the powerful companionship of the omnipotent and all-compassionate God.
Others say, "I mourn and lament, because I had placed my hopes on the person who departed". But is this not an indication of a lack of faith? For you believe that you are secure because of your husband or child and not because of God. This little faith displeases God and for this reason He often takes your protectors so that you are not so dependant on them; so that you will not place your hopes on them. Because we are inclined toward earthly things and we forget God, our loving Lord, even when we do not want it, will draw us to desire Him. Do not love your husband more than you love God and you will never feel widowhood. Or better yet, even when you are widowed, you will not feel it. For you have the immortal God who loves you much more than your husband or your child as your protector.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, in order to console the parents, who mourn for the death of their child, reminds them cf the word of the Lord to his Disciples: "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 19:14).
The holy Father says:
- Well, your child may have departed from you, but he has gone to Christ the Lord. For you his eyes have been shut, but they are opened to the eternal light: he is gone from your table, but is now added to the table of the angels. The plant was uprooted from here, but planted there in Paradise. From the earthly kingdom he was transferred to the heavenly kingdom. You see what was exchanged for what. Are you sad because you no longer see the beauty of the face of your child? But this happens, because you do not see the real beauty of the soul with which he rejoices in the heavenly feast. How beautiful indeed is the eye that sees God! How sweet indeed is the mouth that is adorned with divine melodies! Are you sad perhaps because he did not live to reach old age? But what good do you see in old age? Is it good to have the eyes irritated and cause itching, to have the face filled with wrinkles, to lose the teeth one after the other and to have the tongue lisp, to have the hands shake, to be bent over, to have the legs limp, to have need of guides... ? Is this why we are indignant because the child died at a young age and did not have the bitter and painful experience of all these? After all, continues the Father made wise by God, let me tell you of the good things of life. Listen to them; sorrows and pleasures, angers and fears, hopes and desires. These and other similar events and circumstances are the lot with which we are entangled in this present life. What is the evil then that has happened to your child who died early in life and was spared from many and so powerful tyrants.
from The Mystery of Death, p. 301-320
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