Grief: The Journey Takes Time

By John Mallon
©1996, 2005, 2020 by John Mallon

This article originally appeared in the April 21, 1996 issue of The Sooner Catholic, The newspaper for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, of which I was then editor, for the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing."

"At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me." — C. S. Lewis, opening paragraphs of A Grief Observed

I read an article recently which reported that some people are growing tired of the pain of those who lost loved ones in the OKC bombing and think those suffering bereavement ought to "get on with life." Such an attitude shows the still widespread ignorance in society about the nature of emotional pain, grief, depression and other related conditions. The terrors of post-traumatic stress disorder haunting actual survivors are only beginning to come to light. Bereavement and grief are natural processes which must run their course. This is a natural healing process and as a natural process the time it will take to run its course varies from person to person. One year is by no means "long enough" for everybody.

Grieving people need understanding, need to be listened to — not talked at — they need patience. While it is true that some people can become obsessed with grief in an unhealthy way, the determination of the length of grief's course is best left to the bereaved and those providing appropriate and competent, preferably professional, care for them. For some people that may be a lifetime. And if it is, it is not their fault. Grieving people have enough to cope with just getting out of bed each day without the added burden of guilt because they sense someone else is "inconvenienced" or impatient with their suffering. It is not easy to live or work with a depressed or grieving person, but it is a lot easier than being a depressed or grieving person. If they could stop the horror in their abdomen or the ringing in their brains, believe me they would.

Telling the bereaved to "snap out of it" is like telling someone with a broken leg to go ice skating. If they could, they would. Yes, they will skate again, in time, but attempting to do so prematurely only risks reinjury and prolongs the healing process. Dr. John Andrus, chief of psychiatry at St. Anthony's Hospital told Newsweek magazine at the time of the bombing — and me in a later conversation — that some people may require years and years of therapy to cope with what happened.

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, and later became a convert to Catholicism, said in his classic book Man's Search for Meaning, that we could survive any "how" as long as we knew the "why". That is, if we could somehow find meaning in our suffering we could draw strength from it to continue on and survive. The "whys" of the OKC bombing, or the horrors of the Nazis, come under the great mystery of evil. But as his book shows, after the initial shocks, Frankl, coped, and ultimately survived the death camp by observing day to day life there as the clinician that he was, gathering research in his mind on how people cope with and endure such extreme evils, planning a book based on the experience that would help people. He certainly knew people would need help when it was all over. He had every intention of surviving and helping the other survivors when the time came. Living through it with purpose got him through. Man's Search for Meaning is the book.

For the Christian the ultimate meaning of our suffering is found in the Cross of Christ — where the greatest evil that ever happened—the murder of God — Deicide — resulted in the greatest good that ever happened: Redemption. Philosopher Peter Kreeft calls this "God's jujitsu." God used the force of the devil's own evil to defeat him. We can endure evil and suffering. We can, with great suffering, adjust to evil's results (although perhaps we should never adjust to evil itself).

In a recent editorial (SC 3/24/96) I criticized that form of (false) compassion as defined by the "culture of death" which seeks to sweep all suffering under the rug, or at least "out of the way" and seeks to "put people out of their misery" which really means "put them out of my misery." An attitude which permits evil, while saying "I shouldn't have to look at that."

Real compassion means, literally, "to suffer with." Suffering people are inconvenient. They remind us of our own brokenness which, however unpleasant, in Christ, is our greatest resource for offering hope and consolation to the world.

The bereaved of the OKC bombing do not need to hear that they "should be over it by now," but reminded they have every reason and right to feel as bad as they need to for as long as they need to in God's own good healing time. We are assured, in Christ, that someday our suffering will come to an end and we will be reunited with our beloved who died in His Grace. But in the meantime if we are not to deny Christ we cannot deny Him in the suffering of others.

It is my hope that one day we will stop seeing emotional suffering, bereavement, depression, etc. in terms of being "weak" or "strong" and use more realistic terms of what is healthy or unhealthy and thus we will stop waving a clock at these afflictions. To cry and grieve over terrible loss is healthy. To seek professional help with the extreme stress it brings on is healthy. To see a doctor about the illness (it is not a weakness) of depression is healthy.

For someone in the state of bereavement or depression it couldn't end soon enough to suit them, but sometimes it just doesn't and all too often they wince each morning should they discover it hasn't lifted, yet, but that they still must face their daily routines despite it. All too often such people experience themselves as a burden and dread hearing that judgment confirmed by another.

Such people in their dread begin sentences with apologies and say "I know I shouldn't feel this way ..." when yes, they should feel that way and have every reason and right to be affirmed in what they are feeling. They do not need to apologize to the world for hurting, the world needs to apologize to them for insensitivity to their pain.

Grief is a journey with a beginning, a middle and an end. It is not for the faint-hearted. It takes tremendous courage and is extremely draining. It takes great strength and when it is over, leaves us with tremendous strength and even joy. But until then, it is a full time job.

If grief were a sacrament (and you could make a good argument that in Christ it is sacramental) sorrow would be the form while tears and the absence of the beloved would be the matter. Crying is essential. I am of the opinion that it takes a real man to cry. (Most women don't need such permission). The grief process takes guts because it is gut-wrenching.

Grief is a very solitary experience. Others may sympathize, but are ultimately helpless to be much more than on-lookers, hopefully offering much love, support, care and respectful patience. Other bereaved people can empathize, but ultimately our grief is uniquely our own and, interiorly at least, it is a road we must walk alone — with one exception — we may invite Our Lord whose guts were wrenched in Gethsemani to accompany and guide us. Our Lord who is the Man of Sorrows knows the way for He is also the destination.

Grief is also a frightening experience — our identities may feel misplaced as we grope between who we were before our loss, and who we will be once we get out of the no-man's land.

God may seem maddeningly absent in grief, but He is not. We may well be furious with Him. He can handle it. The bereaved of the bombing have lost so much and have come so far, each nobly struggling in his or her own way. Some choose to plunge into activism, others prefer to avoid all that. Everyone copes differently. But let us not deny them now what they need most: prayers, patience, love, understanding, support, presence when required and respect when they need to be alone, while letting them know we are available. And then, still more patience.

Survivors, bereaved friends and families, you are not a burden, you are precious, you are needed, your pain is sacred, and where you stand is holy ground. May God continue to bless and heal you, and may He grant us all the gift to be for you what you need.

Recommended Reading:

The following books are highly recommended for those working through the experience of grief. They are deeply personal first-person accounts from very wise people who have made the journey of suffering themselves.

A Grief Observed; by C.S. Lewis; Bantam Books. Lewis, one of the great Christian writers of the twentieth century, wrote this in a notebook as a sort of diary while grieving the death of his wife, Joy. Their story was recently the subject of the Major motion picture, The Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Man's Search for Meaning; by Viktor E. Frankl; Washington Square Press; Everyone in the world should read this book. Right now. Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, describes his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, and offers insights of breathtaking beauty and extraordinary wisdom into the meaning of human suffering.

Making Sense Out of Suffering; by Peter Kreeft; Servant Books; A philosophical yet deeply human and compassionate book on the phenomenon of human suffering, examining how the world's great religions approach this profound mystery, finally reaching the conclusion that God's answer to the mystery of evil and suffering is a person: Jesus Christ, who is, Himself the very "tears of God." Also by Kreeft, and highly recommended are his books, Love is Stronger than Death, Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing, and Three Philosophies of Life, all published by Ignatius Press. Most of the books listed here can be purchased or ordered at the St. Thomas More Bookstore in Oklahoma City.

Hind's Feet on High Places; by Hannah Hurnard; Living Books; an allegory of the spiritual life and the role suffering plays in leading us to the "high places" of spiritual insight and joy.


Mallon is Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine

(Author's Note: this article originally appeared in the April 21, 1996 issue of The Sooner Catholic, The newspaper for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, of which I was then editor, for the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. It appears in the unpublished collection by John Mallon, "For the Real World.")