At some point in our lives, we experience the death of someone we love. If we live a long life, we will experience even more of the pain of losing those close to us. I remember my maternal grandfather sharing with me when he was around ninety that he had outlived most of his siblings and friends. Unfortunately, for too many death is a daily event through violence in all its forms. Grief during time of loss is a natural human response. It is certainly not an emotion to be suppressed.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shared: “But because I told you this, grief has filled your hearts” (Jn 16:6). Jesus was preparing his disciples for his suffering and death, but also letting them know that they would not be left alone. He would send the Holy Spirit to be with them. The Apostles were not able to understand what Jesus was talking about. Who can blame them? They had no point of reference for someone dying and rising again, let alone that he would ascend and send the Third Person of the Trinity to be with them.
The Apostles would not only feel the grief of the loss of Jesus they would also experience the fear of the same persecution that took him and experience the fear of anticipating their own death. They betrayed Jesus, abandoned him, yet, except for Judas, because he had taken his own life, Jesus came to them again after his Resurrection and forgave them. Jesus would in a short time ascend, and the disciples, with Mary, would experience the love and grace of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they faced what was before them head-on, even to experience their own violent deaths, except for John. The fear of death had no more power over them, their grief and their fear were turned into joy from their encounter with the Risen Jesus and the Love of the Holy Spirit they experienced first hand.
For us, as with the Apostles, grief is real, because death is a loss, it is a change in our present reality. Yet, we celebrate this Easter Season for fifty days for a reason. Death has lost its sting because Jesus has died, entered into the fullness of everything that death threw at him, and he conquered it. Jesus died for each one of us so that we can also rise with him, and be with him and our loved ones again for all eternity.
We can believe in our minds that death does not have the final answer, yet we will still feel the grief, the pain of loss. We need to be honest with our emotions, and not stifle them, thinking by showing grief that we are in some way less a person of faith. In allowing ourselves to enter into our pain, we will experience the Risen Christ who is waiting to embrace us. I still experience the pain of JoAnn’s death seventeen months later, while at the same time, I have also felt God’s comfort.
To experience our grief and allow it to rise up when it comes is healthy and necessary but we do need to be careful that it does not define and overwhelm us. I had a two day period when I first returned home from California where the weight of my grief hit pretty hard, and I was beginning to sink into a dark place. Fortunately, I received a phone call from Theresa Frettered from Cardinal Newman HS inviting me to a diocesan event. I didn’t want to go but said yes. Terry was a messenger of the Holy Spirit. She invited me to leave the despair and come up for some air. I still have moments of sadness since then but also times of laughter again.
The time of grief is different for each person. “There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Jesus has welcomed JoAnn and our loved ones home. Our time will come too. This is not morbid. Pondering our own death helps us to live the time we have better. In doing so, we can experience the foretaste of heaven, God’s tender care even on this side of heaven. When our hearts and minds are open, there will be snippets in which there is a glimmer, a feeling of peace and joy of our encounter, where even for a brief moment we know that death really does not have the final answer. The loving embrace of Jesus does.