Grief and memory

It is a small part of today’s gospel: “grief has filled your hearts.” It is something we have all experienced and will again experience. Perhaps the grief will be from a new event or cause, but it is also possible that one will again experience the grief from a past loss that surges back into life and memory. In my experience as priest and pastor I often come across the idea that many people believe if you have fully mourned a loss, then you will then achieve closure. The idea say that the process is (a) one mourns a loss and (b) in time one reaches closure. The very word “closure” seems to offer the idea of a door that closes behind you as you set upon the journey of the rest of your life, leaving the past in the past. If one hopes or believes that closure means one “has gotten over it” such that emotions about the loss are no longer triggered, then I think one is holding onto a myth.

Clinical data makes it clear that any significant loss, later and repeatedly, brings up longing and sadness. Is it because these people have not achieved closure by traveling the prescribed stages of mourning or because they have not “worked through the loss?” I would offer that it is because you never get over loss. As time passes, the intensity of feelings about the loss will lessen; you might also find ways to address the recurrence of the feelings, or you can, in part, balance the grief-related feelings in the creation of new memories. But holding up the idea that one will fully “get over it,” is a problem of its own making. I would suggest it is not possible to full “get over it” because you cannot erase emotional memory. Instead, you have to figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are later triggered so that those memories are honored but they are not burdensome.

The recent and coming daily gospels are from the “Final Discourse” in John’s gospel (John 14-17). There are many things that can be said of these wonderful chapters, but today I would offer this: the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Paraclete, to be with us always. We are a people that sometimes, in our grief and memory, we need to be reminded that we do not grieve alone. We also need to be reminded that the Holy Spirit is the font of wisdom. We are a people who should pray to the Holy Spirit, not to stop the grief or remove the memory, but to know how to carry the memory onward in life in a way that is not burdensome. To know how to honor the memory.

Our emotional memories are connected with loss from across the continuum of our lives. Often they come on anniversaries such as the birthday or death day of the lost loved one, or any significant holiday in which you might want to be with the person who is gone. Emotional memory comes when visiting a place you had been with the person you lost. We have all experienced the moments when memory surges back into the present – and the emotions, joyful and not, that surge along with them. Even the painful ones are treasures.

The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  Secret Anniversaries Of The Heart:

May the Advocate lead us to wisdom on these holiest of holidays.

2 thoughts on “Grief and memory

  1. As a young nurse, I was big on the Kubler Ross stages of grief. In the end Dr. Kubler Ross has her own trials. I learned from over 40 years of nursing what you articulated in this homily so well. Closure is a cold word. I, too prefer Longfellow’s anniversaries of the heart. They are really blessings.

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