The Art and Science of Grief: Impressions on the Mind

In our pursuit of holiness, we often encounter God’s command to love. In the sacramental readings in marriage, Paul counsels us that “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Pope Francis explores this deeper in Amoris Laetia where he writes “This ‘endurance’ involves not only the ability to tolerate certain aggravations, but something greater: a constant readiness to confront any challenge. It is a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour” (88).

Through both Scripture and the Church we are given examples of how to profess our love the way Christ professed his love for us. Likewise Jesus commands in the Beatitudes to profess our love through action, including bringing comfort to those who mourn. The widow and orphan are not characters of parable but represent the humanity of grief.

With developments in the field of psychotherapy, Professor Florence Loh impressed on us the deep interconnectedness of these two fundamental human experiences: “Love well and you will grieve well.”

In seeking to comfort those who mourn - the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a lost job, loss of one’s country or culture, and other losses - we must understand grieving is a natural part of human experience. Loh explained that the classic five stage model of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), while important, did not adequately explain the grieving process and explored three different perspectives: an oscillating model, a task model, and a model of five different outcomes.

The first perspective is an oscillating model where the grieving person experiences times of sadness followed by times of restoration. Loh stressed that this model explained that although it may sound to you that a grieving person is sharing the same story repeatedly, they are processing the grief differently each time and thus, they are telling the story anew. With this knowledge, she advises to have patience in listening to those who grieve. She also suggested one may support someone grieving by helping them to re-engage the activities that they previously enjoyed, thus, supporting them in the restorative phase.

The second perspective follows from the first and is based on tasks rather than a sequence of events as in the classical model. The four tasks of the model include accepting the fact of the loss, processing the loss (similar to the oscillating model), adjusting to the world with the permanent change in it, and finally making enduring connections to the person who is no longer there. Loh emphasized the final task because it is crucial to forming meaning out of our experience and form a connection spiritually with the person whom has passed which allows us to feel that we have not truly lost them.

The third perspective is one where the experience of grief takes on five different trajectories on increasing severity from mild sadness to clinical depression. Common grief will last for a reasonable amount of time and be expressed in a reasonable fashion. More severe cases of grief will last longer and have deeper expression. When supporting a grieving person, Loh notes you should be observant of the severity and duration of the response. One such way would be to follow up a few weeks and a few months later. Chronic grieving which lasts more than six months may require medical attention.

But it is overall in our acts of love that we are able to better connect with those around us: family, friends, and our wider community. It is through concrete actions that we fulfil the commandment to love one another as we love ourselves – this allows us to truly feel alive. It is through living this commandment that we are able to accept the inevitability of pain and loss and be able to experience it well.