3 approaches to dealing with grief

3 approaches to dealing with grief January 20, 2011
Dark Day of the Soul
Dark Day of the Soul (Flickr, gogoloopie).

What do you do when you lose someone, when tragedy and misfortune befall your family? Pat answers will not serve a suffering heart, but there are helpful patterns for response after one’s private world collapses.

When Nectarius, the future bishop of Constantinople, and his wife lost their son, their friend St. Basil wrote to consol them. He penned individual letters to father and mother both, tuned to their particular pain. These tender notes remain touching and edifying almost sixteen and a half centuries later and provide us three related approaches to dealing with grief.

1. Acknowledge the part of the evil one

The devil desires ruin whenever he encounters something good, true, and beautiful. And when he acts, we should say so. After discussing the felicities of Nectarius’ home and those surrounding the life of his precious son, Basil writes to the father, “suddenly, through the malice of the devil, all that happiness of home and that gladness of heart has been swept away….”

The devil comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy. Basil names it when he sees it and validates the raw emotion of the robbery that has taken place. “Oh, plague of an evil demon,” he writes in the letter to mother (whose name sadly seems unknown today), “how great a calamity it has had the power to wreak!”

Sometimes we can focus so much on the sovereignty of God that we can imagine him pulling the strings in these horrible situations. We do better to remember that we have an enemy. When evil befalls, acknowledge the source of evil, pin the guilt, point the finger, and let the devil take all the blame he deserves.

2. Acknowledge the part of God

Providence is a mystery, and what our enemies mean for evil God means for good. Through the mystery of providence God is somehow involved in our pain and suffering, not as the puppet master but as the loving father who works all things for good. Basil writes the father:

I exhort you, as a noble contestant, to stand firm against the blow, however great, and not to fall under the weight of your grief, nor yet to lose your courage, having assurance that even if the reasons for God’s ordinances elude us, yet surely that which is ordained by Him who is wise and who loves us must be accepted even if it be painful….

Though we have endless questions, the goodness of God is never questioned. We should, said Basil, “revere His loving-kindness and not repine…. [E]arth has not covered our beloved one, but heaven received him.” While grieving we hold to the hope that God is merciful and caring in all things, however troubling and painful they be. Basil reminds mother, “Great is the suffering, I do admit; but great also are the rewards stored up by the Lord for those who patiently endure.”

No mere spectator, God is not removed from our pain. We should never forget that he participates in it as well. This is the mystery of Christ as the suffering servant. He identifies with our pain and sorrow. He assumes them at the incarnation, carries them to the cross at the crucifixion, and redeems them through the power of the resurrection.

3. Comfort others

Finally, in the letter to mother, and only in hers, Basil adds this note: “[A]bove all I have this to urge—that you spare your partner in life; be a consolation one to the other; do not make the misfortune harder for him to bear by spending yourself upon your grief.”

It is interesting that he writes this to the wife and mother. Perhaps he worried that she would succumb to grief and despair. By encouraging her to focus on her husband, Basil sees to her need (by having her focus outside her own pain) and also Nectarius’ need (which he might not express for himself). Dealing with their grief requires that the couple pour their life and love into each other.

And that they pray. “I am by no means of the opinion that words suffice to give comfort,” says Basil, “there is need of prayer also to meet this affliction.” This might seem as if it should fall under the second point above, but Basil is encouraging mutual prayer, that the couple should together throw themselves and their pain upon God, the loving savior who bore all of our afflictions. We are most like Christ when we co-suffer with others, bearing our burdens together.

There is no way to avoid grief this side of Eden. The world is fallen, and we have an enemy who seeks our destruction. We can only go through it with the help of our loving God and co-suffering savior, who knows our pain better than we do ourselves and offers us consolation for our sorrows.

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  • Thank you for bringing such a balanced perspective to light. I think it’s all too easy to blame our suffering on God or be unable to see his goodness in the midst of it. Only when we understand the role of evil and God’s part, can we make any sense of loss.

  • It seems to me that if you lose sight of evil and put it all in God’s lap, then you inadvertently make it wrong to grieve — the griever is suddenly in the position of not having enough faith to see what God’s doing in their life. I don’t think that’s acceptable — and certainly the church has never taught anything like that.

  • Thanks! I will bookmark this post. When others grieve, we don’t mean to be insensitive to one another, but it’s inevitable that someone will say, “It was God’s will” or “This was for God’s glory” or “Did you try ABC experimental treatment” or “He/she didn’t have enough faith” and other comments that can hurt.

    St. Basil offers us a way to actually help people. By acknowledging the destruction and damage of death. By refocusing on God and His unfailing providence. And then by offering something to do while in the grieving/healing process. When my Mom died, our pastor followed these three steps in his words of comfort, and it did help a great deal.

    • Maria, thank you for sharing your personal story. It’s moving to hear how it played out in your life, especially in such a difficult moment.