Thursday, June 4, 2015

Defining Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning…and the Blessings Therein.

Actually, I'm rethinking my epitaph.
It might read instead: "This machine is
temporarily out of order."
Most North Americans, in my experience, use the words Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning interchangeably. But some of us regularly discuss the experience of loss, its effects, and the means of processing its intrusion and integration into our lives. For specialists in Hospice and other fields like death education and grief counseling, there are important distinctions among these terms. I think that you may find these distinctions helpful, too.

Bereavement = having experienced a significant loss. Whether the life of a cherished loved one, a position of employment, a marriage, a child’s affections, or any other loss, being “bereaved” simply means, “I had this; now it’s gone.”

Grief = our reaction to bereavement. When we significantly value anything (whether positively or negatively), losing it upsets our sense of balance, order, and/or identity. The various elements of these reactions have been traditionally labeled within five categories. “Denial” is that buffer that allows us to process the loss in “bite-sized pieces.” “Anger” may be merely irritability for some, yet overwhelming rage for others, independent of what some might see as the “severity” of the loss experienced. “Bargaining” is our attempt to establish some argument or action that will change the reality of having experienced the loss. “Depression” often results when our mental, emotional, and physical energies have been nearly exhausted by the intensity, the hard work, of these reactions. “Acceptance” is that fluctuating state in which, I would hope, we are able to integrate the valued existence, of whatever we’ve lost, alongside the loss, of whatever existence we previously valued.

Mourning = our proactive response to grief. Most of us process our grief organically, independently, and successfully. Even when we find our way intuitively, though, we generally discover particular techniques that are especially helpful to us, and we practice them repeatedly as we “effectively mourn” the “authentic grief” that results from a “significant loss.” Some of us have specialized in discovering and developing as many of these methods as we can, and are available to help you when you feel “stuck” at some point, or find that some of your reactions are troubling and/or persisting. (If you find that you would like a referral for a grief counselor in your area, please send me an email at

In addition to discussing death, dying, bereavement, grief and mourning, of course, as “Death Pastor” I also get the opportunity to discuss scripture, theology, and spiritual care just as regularly. In my tradition, as a theologically-conservative Christian, there is an assumption that the answer to every question is supposed to be “Jesus.” (A popular joke offers a Sunday School teacher asking, “I’m a furry gray creature with a bushy tail who lives in a tree. What am I?” After repeating the question twice and getting no response, he directs it toward his most promising student. She replies, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.”) But as much as we might imagine that Jesus provides direct, even simplistic answers to all of life’s problems, when we actually read what He says, we find that He distinctly complicates our lives.

For example, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4) In my context, I hear that as “Some of us more openly express and process the grief we feel over having experienced a significant loss. When we do so, we invite the compassionate response of those around us to provide whatever comfort they may have to offer.” Again, in my culture, that differentiation makes perfect sense. Many of us choose not to openly express and process the grief we feel. We do not openly mourn. (In fact, too few of us actually mourn privately, either. We follow the usual prescriptions to “get over it and get on with life,” to “be strong for the kids,” or simply to “get a grip.”)

In the testimonies of Jesus’ life and followers, though, there are several words with similar ranges of meaning to our “bereavement, grief, and mourning.” Yet Jesus chooses a word that incorporates all three elements: the experience of loss, the effects of that experience, and the expression of those effects. If I may take liberties to translate one word with three, “Blessed are the bereaved, grieving, and mourning.” Culturally, in what I read of first-century Palestine, there was no need for such careful delineation as I have to practice today. If you lost something, and especially a loved one, then you reacted to that loss and expressed it openly. This “mourning” of which Jesus is speaking is often contrasted with joy, happiness, and blessing. It is seen openly, and recognized, and attracts comforters…or at least fellow-mourners, even professionals who would weep and wail alongside the family and friends—but that’s another discussion for another time.

Are we willing to name our reality?
Where Jesus upsets His culture and mine is in saying “Blessed are those who mourn.” He does not say, “Those who mourn will receive a blessing by being comforted.” We are blessed while we are bereaved, grieving, and mourning. It is not that we will be comforted at some point in the future, but that we shall be comforted in the midst of, and as a part of the reality of our bereavement, grieving, and mourning. That’s not what we may want to hear. It may be very different from what we seek to provide to others, compassionately desiring to comfort them. But the complications Jesus causes are many and varied. This is just one of nine blessings Jesus describes in what are called “The Beatitudes.” (Matthew 5:3-12)

In The Beatitudes, Jesus speaks to His disciples about a realm of existence, the kingdom of God, that seems entirely upside-down to them. The poor, the mourning, the gently, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted…these are the marginalized, oppressed and exploited, those who many see as sub-human. Hardly blessed, at least in our eyes. But Jesus says they are blessed. Not will be, not have been, but are blessed. How? Because they recognize the reality to which so many others have blinded themselves.

The world lives in the midst of an incalculable loss. Every day, every life experiences the longing for that which we were created to be and to enjoy. The environment, the economy, our relationships, and our own minds and bodies—these and so many other evidences remind us that something is not quite right. In fact, it is far from being merely satisfactory. Just as there are alternatives to each of the other categories Jesus addresses in The Beatitudes, those who mourn are blessed because they can name the reality they see. We are bereaved. We grieve. We mourn. And we are comforted in knowing that there is hope for the broken and damaged world, just as much as there is for us as broken and damaged persons. But only if we stop refusing to see things as they are. Before we can get angry, or begin to bargain, or deal with our depression, we must overcome our denial.

We are broken. And blessed. Not just because Jesus said so. But because Jesus is here to say so, to us.

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