Saturday, April 14, 2007

Dealing With Grief

On Tuesday of this week was the funeral Mass and burial of my girlfriend Lisa Kacalieff. May she rest in peace and have eternal joy.

Death is handled poorly in our culture of little faith, and our society's official focus on self and feelings can be destructive.

When Lisa died, I was filled with guilt and remorse: if only I had checked up on her earlier, if only we didn't have those disagreements, if only I was more charitable, if only I was more aware of her health problems, if only I was less lazy in helping her, if only I did this or that or the other thing.....if, if, if, me, me, me. Notice that I was in truth worrying about myself, and this worry was merely in the false guise of helping her. My ego was getting in the way and obsessing about things that I could do nothing about! Of course, I need to develop virtue, but that is a task for now; for then is gone.

Guilt feelings are a psychological problem, which should be distinguished from guilt itself, which is an ontological problem. God removes guilt via the sacraments, but removing guilt feelings is far more difficult, especially in our modern era that both denies the existence of guilt, while also validating our feelings, no matter how destructive.

Fortunately, I went to the Fathers for advice. The fathers being my dad, and priests of the Church. They all told me about the consuming self-destructiveness of this regret and feelings of guilt. A priest of my parish reminded me that my regret could not help her: all I can do now is pray for her and have Masses said for the repose of her soul.

The loss of the traditional understanding of the Communion of Saints and of prayers for the dead has been deadly to souls, and certainly needs to be reversed. Likewise, modern funerary practices (particularly the scattering of ashes) lessens our practice of the Communion of Saints, especially as demonstrated in the mysterious but ancient sacramental veneration of relics, which we even find in the Old Testament. Likewise, the modern funeral Mass often tends to be either almost like a canonization ceremony or merely a celebration for the gathered community, and is not viewed as being a real help for the dead.

Tonight is Saturday night; the second after losing Lisa, and whereas the last was a very busy and prayerful Holy Saturday, tonight I am at home, alone, and am feeling a loneliness that I never experienced in the recent past. As Frank Sinatra sang:
Saturday night is the loneliest night in the week
'Cause that's the night that my sweetie and I
Used to dance cheek to cheek.
Although instead our Saturday nights often instead included Vigil Mass. But because of this loneliness, tonight I am attempting to find consolation in philosophy and the Faith.

I've downloaded all of the Peter Kreeft audio lectures on philosophy and Catholicism, and often enjoy listening to them while driving. One lecture is on C.S. Lewis' book A Grief Observed. This book consists of straight-forward reflections on the death of Lewis' wife Joy, but from a philosophical and Christian understanding. Since I now find this so important, I will here summarize Dr. Kreeft's summary of Prof. Lewis. The lecture describes a number of problems associated with grief, and Lewis' answers to those problems.

An early problem after loss is loneliness; but Lewis sees that death is not a truncation of a love, but instead is an integral part of that love. You love the beloved, and not love itself, and not your memories of the love.

Death is irrevocable and final, and no matter where you search in the cosmos, you will never find the beloved. While we have hope in things spiritual, Lewis notes that the natural material happiness we once experienced is indeed lost and gone forever. But,
If she is not now, then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. If there is no immortality then there aren't any persons and there never were. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not been unmasked. We are all equally bankrupt, some of us not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense. Vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms? I can't believe that one set of physical events could be simply a mistake about other sets of physical events.
Grief is universal. When a loved one dies, it seems as if everything has died, and this loss colors everything. It is a mystery that when a loved one dies, it feels as if something of yourself has died also. Lewis thinks that we literally give a part of ourselves, our heart, to others, and when the beloved dies, then a part of you is also dead: so, remarkably, you can then even share in the death of the beloved. Could this shared death then even strengthen your love? The solution to this problem of grief is by praising the beloved, for praise always gives joy, and we share in the presence of the beloved in this praise.

Egotism in grief is a problem, as I discussed above. Another related problem is that our memories of the beloved become clouded by our own imperfect memories, imagination, and biases, so our mental image of the beloved is no longer corrected by the presence of the beloved. Our memory then becomes more of an imaginary construct. Real people have a way of pulling us back into reality, and this is lost in death. Oftentimes people will say that the lost beloved will live forever in our memories, but Lewis states that this is precisely wrong because of this problem of egotism. Our idea of God is not God, and our idea of our beloved is not our beloved, but everybody constantly makes this mistake. The solution to this problem of egotism is that we are to love the beloved herself, and not our ideas of the beloved.

Lewis asks "Where is God?" Christians often will be comfortable in going to God in good times, but when things get desperate, and the Christian demands solace, he finds instead "A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside, and after that, silence." Lewis' answer to this problem is thus:
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a very special kind of 'no answer'. When I lay these questions before God, I do not get the locked door. I get something more like a silent and not uncompassionate gaze, as though He shook his head, not in refusal, but waving the question. Like "Peace child, you don't understand."
This is the wisdom of Job. This is not a practical problem at all, for we know the commandments and we ought to go about doing them. Our problems of thinking and ego need to be solved instead by action, by living a Christian life.

In grief, people often question whether God is actually good. God obviously exists, but His goodness is not obvious, especially when dealing with the evil of death and suffering. This is the Problem of Evil, which leads many people away from the Faith. There have been many prominent atheists who actually did believe in God, but not in His goodness, such as Joseph Stalin on his deathbed, shaking his fist up to God in rebellion, or John Paul Sartre, constantly fleeing the relentless pursuit of the Holy Spirit. We can logically infer that God is just, but not that God is merciful. However, Lewis finds that it is unreasonable to believe in a sadistic God, and so our suffering must somehow be necessary, like the pains associated with good dentistry.

Lewis found that his faith was weak, for any type of belief is put under trial during grief. We are not to have faith in faith, but we are to have faith in God. Faith, if it is concerned about feelings and not facts, is bound to fail.

Finally, faith in action is what is needed to finally deal with grief, for the rest is just feelings.


  1. Mark,

    I am surprised there are no comments yet on this. You have written a thoughtful and honest reflection on death in the midst of your pain. I am sure this will be a help for others, and I hope it has been a help to you.

    As St. Josemaria says, "To advance in interior life and apostolate, you do not need devotion that you can feel, but a definite and generous disposition of the will to respond to what God asks of you." At times of grief, faith may become more an act of will than of feeling, but that's much of what faith really is, anyway.

    God bless you and Lisa.

  2. Mark,

    You and Lisa are in my prayers.

    Please keep me in yours.

  3. God provided a world full of resources and potential where, if all humans were willing, everyone could be fed, everyone could have clean water, everyone could be housed and schooled, everyone could receive basic health care. And yet so many suffer in want of the basics, and that is not God's will. This is proven not only in witnessing the richness of the good earth, but also in the scriptures about charity and love of neighbor.

    Likewise, God does not create the cancer, nor the genetic predisposition, or the environmental contaminants that might contribute. God does however touch the shoulders of the scientists who seek a cure, the loving family who tends to the patient, the volunteers who work to maximize the likelihood that people can be healthy and thrive. While I understand grief (oh boy, do I understand grief... my second address might as well be the cemetery)... I have to point out to people that it's only the graces of life that allows people to overcome sin and even reach the point of having to face a death of natural causes. Far from sadistic, God cries along with the world when young people pull out guns, governors drive without seatbelts, people massacre based on tribe or clan or belief or insanity or whatever, when people are addicted, when people cheat others out of their money, when children die in a fire in substandard housing. What if instead of all that sin, those same people who are bored, or violent, or whatever, were actually working on a cure for cancer? If the money that went to dope went to a cure for cancer and a pollution and toxic free world? That's God's grief... that the potential is there for so much, and He more than anyone else, understands what it is like to lose a loved one.

    May God continue to provide you with solace and comfort, as God shares your personal grief.