Recently, the New York Times published a beautiful opinion piece that discussed “Getting Grief Right.” The author wrote about the need to tell our stories as a way to piece together our narratives of bereavement and to remember those we love. Stories keep the dead in our lives, help make sense of their deaths, and communicate our losses to others. Narratives order lives in a timeline that we can recount and to which we can give meaning.

Unlike lives and narratives, grief has its own timeline and its own way of creeping into our lives when we least expect it. Grief in contemporary society is unmoored; it is no longer tethered to tradition, ritual, religious experience, or expectation. In many traditional societies, when someone died, there was a shared set of assumptions on how one would grieve—what they would wear, how they would and would not act, and for how long this would continue. One would wear black mourning clothes or a black armband, refrain from participating in social events for six months to a year, and attend or hold memorial services for the dead. In today’s pluralistic, multi-cultural, and multi-faith world, there is no longer one set of expectations regarding mourning. If you are post-religious, or even post-denominational, it can be difficult to know how to grieve or how to continue living in the midst of grief.

Unfortunately, even professionals contribute to the problem. Some ministers or counselors mistakenly point to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance[1] as a model for grief-work even though these stages were written for the dying patient, not the grieving one. Perhaps Kubler-Ross’s model of grief has persisted because of the appeal of working through stages in the grieving process. Grievers hope to count their progress through the stages and steps until they are one day grief-free.

In the last twenty-five years, grief studies have shifted away from stage-based models of bereavement to task-based models, which are more flexible and not constrained by time or goals. Task-based models are more fluid and describe the cyclical nature of grief, with its constantly shifting states. William Worden[2] and Charles Corr’s[3] model lists four tasks that the mourner undertakes, namely, to accept the reality of loss, to experience the pain of grief, to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing, and to relocate the deceased emotionally and move on with life.[4]

 

The encounter with death and the tears that accompany it allow Jesus to share in the human condition of suffering and loss.

 

Moving even further from the stages of Kübler-Ross is Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut’s Dual Process model of grief.[5] In this model, grief is presented as two opposite polarities of Loss Orientation and Restoration Orientation: stress is placed on the oscillation between the grief process and its intrusion of grief on daily activities, and on doing new things and distracting oneself from grief.[6] The Dual Process model emphasizes that in bereavement one learns to navigate a world without the dead, while acknowledging that the reality of the loss may re-present itself at any time. The oscillation between Loss and Restoration allows for grief to remain present without implying that grief is something one must eventually outgrow. This model seems to allow for the most flexibility and for grief’s constant presence in a life without the deceased, while also mirroring the cyclical nature of bereavement.[7]

Examining bereavement from a religious standpoint, however, I have come to believe that grief is not something to be worked through and emancipated from—as some models suggest—but rather something we must learn to live with. Like all theological tasks, grief is spiritual in nature, and can allow us to live more deeply precisely because we have encountered loss in its entire meaning and to the furthest extent. We cannot live life fully without the possibility of loss; grief and loss reveal how short life is and where our heart resides. By losing the ones we love, we are confronted with the reality that time is limited, and how we respond to these losses reveals what is most important to us. Though religious traditions respond to grief in incredibly diverse ways, many of these responses remind us of the complexity, necessity, and value of the experience and that bereavement is far more than something to leave behind.

In the Bible, Jesus weeps when he encounters the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35). He shares the experience of loss with Mary and Martha and weeps with them: the encounter with death and the tears that accompany it allow Jesus to share in the human condition of suffering and loss. When Jesus weeps, we remember that no one is exempt from death, nor the bereavement that follows it, but that in weeping we can share our hurt and pain with others. This Christian story aids those in grief by continuing the story with Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, both a comfort to the mourner and a precursor to the coming Christian resurrection.

Unlike the Christian story, which offers delayed comfort and a promise of reunion with one’s loved ones, the Buddhist story universalizes the narrative of suffering, loss, and grief, thereby teaching us reassurance through shared experience. In Buddhism, the story of the mustard seed tells of a young woman, Kisa Gotami, whose only son died. She carries the body of her dead son to the Buddha and pleads with him to bring her son back to life. The Buddha’s response to death is vastly different from that of Jesus. The Buddha instructs Kisa to travel from house to house and, when she finds a house that has experienced no death, to ask for a mustard seed and bring it to the Buddha. Only then will he restore Kisa’s child to life. Kisa, of course, wanders from house to house and, finding no place exempt from death or loss, soon realizes the lesson she is being taught: death, as the universal human condition, brings with it loss and grief, but also a new perspective. None of us are alone in this experience.

These are two very different religious narratives that each respond to the role of death and grief in our lives, but that both share a common respect for the spiritual task of grief. The Christian passage points to the experience of death as a part of humanity, but also as the pre-condition necessary in order to experience resurrection and salvation. Ultimately, it is because we die that we can be born again in God’s presence. The Buddhist passage reflects on the universality of death and mourning, and reveals that grief reminds us of our own finiteness and our need to accept our realities as they are experienced and not as we would wish them to be. To reject the spiritual task of grief as something to be emancipated from is to miss the entire point of grief and loss in our lives. Death—and grief—are important parts of the human experience and the bereavement process is one of our primary spiritual tasks. Each of us will die. Death is part of life. We must come to terms with what death and loss mean for us to live richer lives. In many traditions, the point at which we must re-interpret our lives, and where our deepest, most valued assumptions are shattered, is where life is itself deepest and where we must grow, change, and confront the theological and philosophical challenges inherent in human existence.

 

Just as the liturgical calendar functions to bring us closer to the sacred through a recognition and repetition of spiritual tasks throughout the year, grief moves us closer to the sacred as well.

 

How then are we to grieve in the midst of a death-saturated media that reduces expressions of mourning to 140 characters, or to funeral selfies posted on Facebook? How do we mourn in a society that expects us to return quickly to work, without allowing the time to process the value of loss in our daily lives? We are simultaneously pulled in two directions—society can be, in many ways, death obsessed but bereavement denying.[8] We think we know death because it fills our days in film, news, songs, and social media. And yet, we don’t know how to grieve.

The best quote I have come across in my work on loss and grief comes from author Anne Lamott, who writes, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

To me, this is what grief looks like. Grief is learning how to live in spite of our shattered lives, learning how to find joy and see beauty even though we barely want to get out of bed in the morning. It is not about “getting over” the person who died or “moving through” stages to a new normal, but rather learning to live with the holes in our hearts, the empty spaces in our bed and at the dinner table, and adjusting to the fact that we will still pick up the phone to call our loved ones twenty years later before we remember they aren’t there to answer.

Grief is cyclical. Just as the liturgical calendar functions to bring us closer to the sacred through a recognition and repetition of spiritual tasks throughout the year, grief moves us closer to the sacred as well. The returning cycle of grief, marked through anniversaries of a death or the birthdays of the dead, allow us to enter into the heart of the sacred, to embrace the fragility of life, and to return to the core of life. Stories from Buddhist and Christian traditions, for example, remind us of this theological dimension of grief, which itself surpasses understandings of mourning as something to escape. Death frames life, and grief frames our experience of the sacred. Our ability to embrace love in the face of loss allows us to embody the sacred in our everyday lives.


Candi K. Cann is an Assistant Professor of Religion in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University. She writes on mourning and memorialization from a comparative religions perspective and her most recent book, Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-first Century, with the University Press of Kentucky, has received much acclaim. The author of various other articles and book chapters, her forthcoming book Dying to Eat examines the intersection of death and food and the ways in which food serves to connect both the dying and the dead with the realm of the living.

 

[1] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). Kubler-Ross’s original book was written in 1974 and became an instant success, sparking revolutionary work in the field of thanatology. Unfortunately, the model she came up with for those approaching their deaths was misapplied to those grieving the dead. Now that the field of death and dying has expanded, newer and more apt models, which see grief as process or task based rather than stage based, have been deployed.

[2] J. William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2008).

[3] Charles Corr, “A Task-based Approach to Coping with Dying,” OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 24.2 (1991): 81-94.

[4] Charles Corr and Donna Corr, Death & Dying, Life & Living (Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2012), 226-227.

[5] Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut, “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: Rationale and Description,” Death Studies (1999).

[6] Charles Corr and Donna Corr, Death & Dying, 229.

[7] Interestingly enough, researchers have found that Loss Orientation experiences tend to be universally similar, while Restoration Orientation experiences are generally individualized according to that particular person’s specific needs. One person’s move to a Restoration Orientation, for example, might include learning to cook for one’s family, while another’s might be learning to manage the family finances. For more on this and subsequent studies on the effectiveness of this model for grief, see Deborah Carr, “New Perspectives on the Dual Process Model (DPM): What Have We Learned? What Questions Remain?” OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying 61.4 (2010): 371-380. http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~carrds/carr_omega2010.pdf

[8] Philippe Ariès writes, in his seminal text, that through the last two thousand years, we have moved to a denial of the realities of death (e.g., the corpse through embalming or cremation) and have shifted the death experience into the hospital and out of the home. As a result we are neither comfortable with death nor grief. I would argue that this is compounded even further today with the spectacle of death in movies, songs, social media, and video games, each of which makes us think we are familiar with death but actually turns death into a fantasy experience. Philippe Ariès, The Hour of Our Death (New York: Vintage, 2013).

 

Image from Flickr via emry

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  1. Sharon Harriman

    I am doing my Doctoral thesis.I am examining theological perspectives on death and grief.

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