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.

5 thoughts on “Grief and memory

  1. Thanks for your timely post. Dreamed last night about our son that we lost over 10 years ago. Didn’t want to wake up. And yes, “even the painful ones are treasures.” Will never stop remembering.
    Your musings so often hit home. Grateful for them.

  2. I have taken to writing events that I see still with wide eyes.. My stepmother passed in December alone and this mother’s day was the worst one to live through, even if compared to when my mother passed. My stepmother was 94 with diabetes and alone at an assisted living center do to short term memory loss when she passed away. My daughter told me that mom would say I was her inspiration because I have Parkinson’s.. I am surprised at that because I am actually extremely bitter at how things have turned out. Is writing helpful or does it keep you from moving on.

  3. Thank you for today’s musing. It touched my heart in so many ways. Since the loss of my husband in January I am beginning to experience my “firsts” – first Valentines Day, first Easter, soon his birthday. The passing of my best friend does not get easier to bear, but your words give me hope and consolation.

  4. Fr George – thank you for this musing. Having lost my adult daughter 3 months ago, they are very comforting. I know I will never have “Closure” but am comforted knowing God is helping me through my grief.

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