I recently overheard a woman say she had finally aired the “dark stuff” of her grief over losing her best friend to death after childbirth. It made wonder: Why do we associate grief with darkness? Is it because grief is a deep-seated sorrow? Is it because we are often rendered vulnerable, which makes us uncomfortable?
In John 11:35 we read that “Jesus wept” after learning of his close friend Lazarus’ death. Surely this was grief. But something happened that we, as Catholics, cannot forget: The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a certain sign that suffering and death lead to resurrection for the faithful.
Grief feels dark because we don’t always see the beauty or meaning of our suffering when we are in the midst of it. We often don’t like to admit to having strong negative emotions such as anger, shame, guilt, or fear when we are lamenting loss. Even when we don’t feel joy or hope, we must — by way of obscure faith — trust that God will do something beautiful with our sorrow when we hand it to Him.
All of life is bittersweet, I have come to understand.
Almost 10 years ago, my grandfather died. I was grateful to be at his bedside during his last days on earth. Watching him struggle not only physically but also spiritually was incredibly painful, likely for my mom — an only child — more so than for me. But something happened when my grandpa finally expired. I gave him a kiss on his cheek and said through tears, “I’ll see you again someday, Grandpa.”
At his funeral, I was perplexed to find that my heart was full of joy and song. It seemed as if his funeral Mass were a celebration of life — eternal life — rather than a ritual meant to suggest sorrow.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t miss my grandfather. It’s just that I knew, by way of obscure faith, that he was at least in purgatory and would one day see the beatific vision in heaven.
Grandpa’s life wasn’t all roses. He certainly had many faults, like we all do. But his death was a profound example of God’s incredible mercy for those of us who turn to Him, day after day — through our sobs and desperation and fear — knowing that this “handing over” of our wounds to Him actually heals.
“By His stripes you are healed:” See Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24.
Like most mysteries in our Catholic faith, this concept of wounds healing and joy mingling with sorrow is foreign to us — contradictory even. But faith does not rely upon what it sees, only what it knows to be true, and upon the incredible gift that God is God and we are not. His thoughts are above ours and His ways are beyond ours (Is 55:8-9).
Grief is not dark when it is transformed by love; that is, by God, who is love. It is in the act of our will, our decision to hand over each and every aspect of our cross so that the suffering becomes changed into the yoke that it is easy and the burden that is light (Mt 11:30). It’s not necessarily that the cross will be eliminated: but that the very act of transferring our pain to God’s divine providence becomes a form of courage, of true charity.
A few years ago I was meditating on the verse from Song of Songs that says, “I am dark but lovely” (1:5). Perhaps grief does feel like the night, as it must have to Jesus when He was tormented in the Garden of Gethsemane — alone, asking that His Father would let the cup pass from Him. Though the Father didn’t grant Him this prayer, He did send an angel that would strengthen and console Him, says author Gary Zimak in “From Fear to Faith.”
This is an example of the seeming contradiction of blessings amid immense burdens. We may not always receive what we ask for, but God always grants us what we do need to strengthen our faith and help keep us on the path toward heaven.
Perhaps grief feels dark because it is so vast. We will not be granted all the answers to our questions in this life, because we are asked to trust and walk by faith. No matter how black your grief may seem now, there are snippets and snapshots of beauty and blessings every day. You just have to believe that in the midst of what you don’t understand and may never know, this side of heaven is precisely the gift that will strengthen and console you.
Jeannie Ewing is a Catholic spirituality writer who focuses on the topics of grief, redemptive suffering and waiting. Visit her website at jeannieewing.com.
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