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Embracing resurrection: Lessons on grief from the Easter Gospels

We usually see Easter as a time of joy. Christ is risen! Let us rejoice! However, the Gospels show us that Our Lord’s followers woke up on Easter morning with overwhelming grief. Something horrible, beyond their worst imaginations, had happened. There was no joy in their hearts. Fear, yes. Anger, yes. Confusion, yes. But no joy.

The Easter Gospels — those from Holy Saturday through Divine Mercy Sunday — give us powerful lessons on grief. Each of these stories begins with people who are grieving. This Easter, when our world continues to be locked in over a year of great pandemic grief, let us look at how the resurrected Jesus showed us to face and conquer grief.

TOUCHING THE PAIN

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.'”
John 20:27 — Second Sunday of Easter
 

Doubting Thomas

Public domain/Caravaggio

Thomas did not want to believe Christ had risen. We may not want to believe a loved one is gone. But we must allow ourselves to feel that pain. We need to put our hand into it. This hurts. It hurts a lot. But it is the path to healing. We need to clean out the closets. We need to touch the items they touched and hold in our hands the things that remind us of them. Unfortunately, during this time of COVID, many of the funeral and wake traditions that force us to put our hand into the reality of our grief may not be happening. That leaves us with our grief bottled up inside of us. This is not healthy or healing.

We must cry. Scripture tells us that even Jesus wept at the tomb of his dear friend, Lazarus. We are assured that our tears are good and holy with just three words: “And Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). Because Jesus wept, none of us need to be ashamed or embarrassed by our own tears. They are healing. Research has shown that emotional tears actually release stress hormones and can be very calming.

So, let us look at the pictures and tell the stories that will make us cry. This is a process as sacred as Thomas putting his hand into Our Lord’s wounded side. We, too, need to touch our grief, no matter how raw it may feel, for this is how we will heal. This is how we come to believe all will be well. By crying, we prepare ourselves to smile and to laugh again.

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RECOGNIZING THE TRUTH

“They have taken the Lord from the tomb.”
John 20:2 — Easter Sunday
 

women at the tomb

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No one had taken Jesus away. Yet, it is not surprising that Mary of Magdalene was wrong in her assumption about what had happened to him. Grief can often cause us to see things in a confused or wrong way. We may be convinced that our loved one should not have died. We may blame ourselves or someone else for the death. However, Psalm 139 tells us, “in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be” (v. 116). In other words, since the beginning of time, God has known the number of our days.

God knew there would be wars and earthquakes and this terrible pandemic. He knew who would die at these times. And he already had a place prepared for them. Nothing we or anyone else could have done would have changed what God knew for all time.

Realizing that God knew, however, does not make it any easier for us to accept. This is especially true right now when many of us were not able to advocate for or sit with a loved one during their final days. However, being angry about something we cannot change does not help our grief process. It just causes more pain in our own lives. If we must be angry, it is best to take that anger to God. He is the one who will care more than anyone else. The biblical books of Lamentations and Job show us it is okay to cry out our despair and anger to God. He is the only one who can turn that anger into peace and acceptance.

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ACCEPTING HELP

“‘Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large.”
Mark 16:3-4 — Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil
 

women at the tomb

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Death leaves us feeling helpless in many ways. But God sends his angels to roll back the stones and help us pick up the shattered pieces of our lives. The problem is that many angels who want to help, have no idea what we need. They bring more food than we can eat. Or they offer to clean out drawers and closets that we are not yet ready to touch. So, in the midst of all our tears and sadness, we have to figure out what we do need.

The most practical thing to do is to make a list. Who will do my taxes? Who will go for a walk with me? Who will help me clean out the basement? Who will teach me about car maintenance? Who will go to breakfast with me on Sunday mornings?

Other people have no idea of these needs, which are unique to each individual. Thus, an important step in recovering from grief is to identify what we need now or will need in the future. With a list of our needs in hand, we can kneel before the Lord and pray for exactly what is necessary to help us move forward and heal. God seems to like to answer specific prayers. It lets us know he heard us.

On a practical side, this list will give us ready answers when people ask, “Is there anything I can do?” Those requests from kind and caring people are always sincere. However, because we have not yet figured out what we need, we often tell them the lie that all is fine. If we have identified our needs, we can answer honestly. Asking for help often takes humility. Yet, the risk is worth it. Pope St. John XXIII assured us, “when we are humble, God comes to our aid.” God rolls back the stone.

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WALKING WITH JESUS

“And he said to them, ‘Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke'”
Luke 24:25 — Wednesday in the Octave of Easter
 

Road to Emmaus

Public domain/Altobello Melone

The grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus did not know it was Jesus walking with them. We, too, may not see Jesus walking with us in our grief. But he is there. It was his last promise to us before he ascended into heaven: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

One woman who found Jesus to be a special comfort to her in a time of grief was Elizabeth Ann Seton. Faith so completely overcame her grief that she is now the patron saint of those who grieve. Elizabeth was not even Catholic when her husband died. Friends introduced her to the Catholic faith, and she felt Jesus reaching out to her through the Eucharist. That call of the Eucharist was so strong that Elizabeth converted to Catholicism.

Our Lord calls us, too, in our time of grief. Sometimes we may not want to go to church because it brings back painful memories of the funeral. In this case, visiting another parish might be a good way to meet with our Lord. We could also take advantage of live streamed Masses, eucharistic adoration or weekday Masses.

Do not overlook the power of faith in a time of grief. Pope Francis explains it this way: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything, rather his response is that of an accompanying presence … which touches every story of suffering and opens a ray of light” (Lumen fidei, No. 57).

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heaven

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VISUALIZING HEAVEN

“He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”
Mark 16:7 — Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil
 

The angel at the tomb promised the women they would see Jesus again. This is the same promise all of us hear at every funeral liturgy. The place where we will meet again is heaven, and it will be amazing. We can ease some of our sorrow by imagining our loved one already there.

Mother Teresa, who faced death daily on the streets of Calcutta, often said, “Death is nothing but going home to God.” Thinking of our loved ones at home in heaven is a way to connect our hearts with them. Imagining the joy that now surrounds them, can lessen our pain. It is good to realize they are not in pain. They are being held in God’s loving arms. And while God cradles them, he is also reaching out a hand to comfort us. God is the heavenly connection between us and the one who died.

St. Augustine, while grieving a dear friend, wrote “A Prayer from the Dead,” imagining that his friend would say to him: “If you knew the gift of God and what heaven is. If you could hear the song of the angels from here and see me in the midst of them. … If, for a moment, you could contemplate as I do the beauty before which all other beauties pale. … Wipe away your tears and weep no more if you love me.”

Christian writer C.S. Lewis also found comfort in his grief by imagining his deceased wife in heaven. In his book, “A Grief Observed,” he wrote, “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!” There is nothing on earth that can compare to being in heaven. Let us be glad our loved one is in such a beautiful place.

RISING ABOVE MY GRIEF

A Prayer for Those Who Grieve
Come Holy Spirit, please help me to rise above my grief.
Give me the courage to cry healing tears, just as Jesus cried.
Give me wisdom to accept the truth of my loved one’s passing.
Give me humility to ask for the help I need to move forward.
Give me faith to draw closer to you.
Give me love to rejoice in the glory of my dear one in heaven.
Give me hope to banish my fears.
Give me generosity to let go of the things my loved one no longer needs.
Give me strength to embrace the mission you have set before me now.
Give me the peace that comes when I move beyond my grief.
Thank you for all of Your gifts and graces. I know they will be enough.
Amen.

HAVING HOPE

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.'”
Matthew 28:10 — Monday in the Octave of Easter
 

Resurrection

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Grief often leaves us with some fear. We worry about how we will face holidays, friends or even just getting out of bed the next morning. Conquering that fear takes hope. In his Holy Saturday homily last year, Pope Francis assured us we all have that kind of hope: “Tonight, we acquire a fundamental right that can never be taken away from us: the right to hope. It is a new and living hope that comes from God. It is not mere optimism; it is not a pat on the back or an empty word of encouragement, uttered with an empty smile. No! It is a gift from heaven, which we could not have earned on our own.”

This kind of spiritual hope is God pulling us up when we do not want to get out of bed. It is Jesus drying our tears when we know we have cried for too long. It is the Holy Spirit pushing us out the door even when we do not think we are ready to face the world. We find this kind of hope in prayer. We can hold onto this kind of hope by just regularly repeating Our Lord’s promise: “Do not be afraid.” These encouraging words from the resurrected Christ can give us the hope to walk through the pain and come out stronger on the other side.

In his book, “On Hope,” Pope Francis says when we have this kind of hope we can “stand firm, trusting in the Lord, knowing that, beyond the sadness, oppression, and inevitability of death, the last word will be his, and it will be a word of mercy, of life and of peace.”

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LETTING GO

“Jesus said to her, ‘Stop holding on to me.'”
John 20:17 — Tuesday in the Octave of Easter
 

Christ's Appearance to Mary Magdalene

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It may seem like the Easter Gospels give us conflicting messages on grief. Jesus tells Thomas to touch the pain of what was done to him. However, he tells Mary Magdalene to stop holding onto him. That is because grief is a process. At first, we must accept the pain of it. However, gradually, we also must be ready to let go. We have to embrace a new normal. We have to embrace resurrection.

A big part of the healing process involves letting go of much of the “stuff” that once belonged to our deceased loved one. This is a difficult process that requires time and prayer. We cannot keep everything a person once had. We need to select the few things that have the most meaning. Then we must decide how to give all the other possessions to someone who either needs or will treasure them. Hoarding all of a loved one’s things is never healthy, wise or right.

St. Basil the Great once said, “the clothes you store away belong to the naked, the shoes that molder in your closets belong to those who have none.” It is not just a nice idea but also our Christian responsibility to let go of the material things our loved ones no longer need. Giving away material things does not mean that we loved any less.

If we feel bogged down in this process by some wish that our loved one made before they died, it is helpful to remember that request was made by an earthly person, bound by earthly thoughts. Now that person is in heaven. They are not worried at all about the things of this earth. They no longer care what we do with their material possessions. So, let us share what should be shared.

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BEING ON MISSION

“He said to them, ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature'”
Mark 16:15 — Saturday in the Octave of Easter
 

Ascension

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Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples a mission. Then he sent the Holy Spirit to help them with that mission. Death of a loved one leaves each of us with a mission, too. The Holy Spirit is waiting to help us carry it out.

Sometimes our mission can be quite major — such as fighting against the cause of our loved one’s death. In other cases, our mission might be less dramatic, such as caring for someone else who is grieving. This is the mission many adult children assume after a first parent dies. Maybe our mission will be to finish some work our loved one had undertaken. This is often called “picking up the mantle,” based on the Old Testament story of the prophets Elijah and Elisha (cf. 2 Kings 2:1-14). Our mission might be as simple as rescuing a stray puppy.

Whatever our mission, it is a vital way to fill the hole left by our loved one. It also does God’s work here on earth. If we are breathing, we have a mission. God will show us what it is, if we just ask him.

In his apostolic exhortation, Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis talks of this mission. “After the loss of a loved one, we still have a mission to carry out and… it does us no good to prolong the suffering, as if it were a form of tribute. Our loved ones have no need of our suffering, nor does it flatter them that we should ruin our lives” (No. 255). The best tribute we can offer for a loved one is to do something good in their memory.

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RESTING IN PEACE

“While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.'”
Luke 24:36 — Thursday in the Octave of Easter
 

painting of the Resurrected Jesus Christ with His apostles in the Cenacle

Adobe Stock

It is common to pray that the deceased will rest in peace. However, too often, we do not allow ourselves to rest in the peace that Jesus offers. Grief should never be a permanent state of life. Grief is a process. It is a journey that each of us must make in our own way. Two parents will not grieve the same way for their lost child. Siblings will not grieve in the same way for their lost parent. We must embrace our own journey, while respecting the journey others around us are making. The critical thing is that we see grief as a process which should eventually end in peace. No one wants to spend the rest of their life in grief.

One way to find the peace we are seeking is by spending a little more time with Sacred Scripture. It is there in the words of the Bible that we will hear God comforting our pain. It can be as simple as just reading one Psalm a day, or one chapter each day from the Gospels. The Wisdom books of the Old Testament can also be very healing.

The prophet Nehemiah taught us, “Do not be saddened this day for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength” (Neh 8:10). It takes strength to be at peace. Crying and grieving can seem like the easier choice. God’s word can give us the strength we need to move beyond grief. It can open our hearts to the peace Jesus promised.

Susan M. Erschen writes from Missouri.

RESOURCES ON GRIEF

‘Grieving the Loss of a Loved One: Daily Meditations’

Lorene Duquin, an experienced grief counselor was no stranger to understanding and explaining grief, and had helped many people work through it. But when she lost her mother she found herself living in an entirely new space. “Grieving the Loss of a Loved One” (OSV, $14.95) contains 52 powerful, one-page meditations that will help you work through the various aspects of grieving as they did for Lorene herself. The meditations are wide-ranging: they are deeply personal, but yet they address the emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, and social aspects of grief. Order at osvcatholicbookstore.com.

‘For Those Who Grieve’

Grief, like a fingerprint, is unique to every person. The circumstances that cause grief are particular — losing a loved one; losing a job or home; losing trust or a dream — and can develop suddenly or over a long, painful period of time. When we grieve, we all long for light in the dark places. We need a light to warm our hearts when they are chilled by grief. “For Those Who Grieve” (OSV, $4.95) includes 22 brief devotions and prayers, drawing on the saints, Scripture, and modern reflections to encourage readers to turn to God each day and find the light of hope, healing, and wholeness. Order at osvcatholicbookstore.com.

‘Finding a Loving God in the Midst of Grief’

For the many people who face seasons of grief, this book is written to help them not only find comfort, but to also grow closer to God, who often seems far off or even absent, in their journey through grief. “Finding a Loving God in the Midst of Grief” (Word Among Us Press, $13.95) draws from both personal testimonies and religious texts to give inspiration to the reader. The book also contains practical advice on how to overcome the emotional or practical aspects of grief, and a prayer on each topic. Order at bookstore.wau.org.

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