In the past few months, most of us have had to confront loss. Some of those losses have been very visible and salient, costing us our jobs, loved ones, and financial security. Others have been less tangible, and yet still impact large parts of our lives: important events have been placed on hold or canceled, relationships have been strained due to distance, and the feeling of having things to look forward to has dissipated. In the aftermath of stay-at-home orders and the pandemic, those of us with these less visible losses might find ourselves minimizing the pain or disappointment we feel. We might compare our smaller losses with those who have undoubtedly encountered more suffering than we have. We may feel that compared to others who have lost jobs, loved ones, homes, or security, we have no right to feel sadness, anger, or disappointment. We might even be preventing ourselves from experiencing grief.
Grief is something natural to our human journey. Like other emotions and emotional processes that we experience as human beings, grief provides us with information to our minds and bodies so that we can survive. In the face of loss, grief serves the purpose of communicating to us that we have encountered a lack of something that was formerly present and available to us. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, job, role on a team or in a workforce, friendship, feeling of security, or a sense of hope, grief helps communicate to us what is most important in our lives. In other words, grief helps inform us regarding what we set our hearts on and what brings us joy and safety. Grief not only touches the realm of the emotions and the psyche; it also is essential to our faith tradition. In Scripture, the words of grief are especially echoed in the psalms:
“My tears have been my bread day and night,
as they ask me every day, “Where is your God?”
Those times I recall
as I pour out my soul,
When I would cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One,
to the house of God,
Amid loud cries of thanksgiving,
with the multitude keeping festival.
Why are you downcast, my soul;
why do you groan within me?
Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,
my savior and my God.” (Psalm 42: 4-6)
We even see Jesus grieve several places in the Gospels, such as at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), and even at the suffering he was to experience to carry out our salvation (Luke 22:44). In Catholic funerals, we name and acknowledge the reality of grief in our prayers during our liturgical rites—an important part of believing in and living with Paschal hope.
Grief is not just an emotional process for death or large losses. While it is important to keep a clear perspective about the magnitude of the losses we experience in comparison to the suffering of others, grieving the less tangible and visible losses we experience is an important step to healing and cultivating our mental and emotional health. Additionally, ensuring that we allow ourselves to experience grief, even in response to comparatively smaller losses, can help us grow in holiness. Experiencing grief can help us to find new meaning in our faith, deepen our relationship with God and others, and continue to grow in knowledge of ourselves before God.
So, how are we to allow ourselves to grieve the smaller losses we have experienced in recent months? What are some ways to grieve the rescheduled or canceled graduations, weddings, and festivals, or the lack of opportunity to do the things we enjoy or to spend time with people whom we love?
Emotional Processing vs. Emotional Bypassing
Instead of dismissing ourselves or invalidating the emotions we are experiencing (also known as emotional bypassing), we can allow ourselves to grieve more fully by feeling our emotions and asking questions about what we feel, otherwise known as emotional processing. For example, instead of dismissing how we feel by thinking, “It could be worse!”, it is more helpful to our healing to ask questions such as “What is my sadness and anger telling me about what I love or what’s important to me?” In acknowledging our pain and asking ourselves questions about how we feel, we can grow in self-knowledge and self-understanding about the way in which God has created us. We can also engage in processing with a trusted friend, mentor, or mental health professional.
Allowing Physical Release
Grief, like other emotions and emotional processes, makes itself known in our bodies. Physical pain, muscle aches, clenched jaws, and a racing heartbeat can all be caused by grief, stress, and anxiety. It is important to process these emotions physically so that they do not remain stuck in our bodies. Breathwork, exercise, crying, and movement allows us to feel grief and allow it to process through our body. Journaling, since it requires movement of the hands, is also a helpful tool for engaging grief through our bodies.
Authenticity in Prayer
We are the beloved children of God; God looks upon us with love, care, and concern with whatever we bring to prayer. Talking to God honestly about our disappointment, sadness, or anger brings us closer in relationship with God. In prayer, God is not judging us for what we do or do not say. For this reason, we can be totally authentic with God in prayer. We might feel like we should have a different emotional response to our losses from what we are experiencing, but God’s love is unconditional and infinite: we don’t have to worry about appearing perfect before God.
Grieving the large and small losses of the last few months is not only important, it is human. How can we enter more deeply into our grief to find healing? What in our lives do we need to grieve?
Colleen Campbell is the Coordinator of Formation Programs at the Catholic Apostolate Center, and a 3rd year PhD Candidate in Catechetics at The Catholic University of America. She holds an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas. Colleen is also an alumna of Notre Dame’s Echo program, where she served in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. She is co-author of The Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church.