What can we say in the face of deep loss, inconsolable grief or unrequited obsession?
As a graduate student in Louvain, I once posed that question to the renowned psychologist Antoine Vergote: “When you lose a loved one, either through death or because that person dies to you in some other way, what can you do? What can you say to help someone in that situation?”
His answer was cautious, words to this effect:
“When someone is grieving a deep loss, there is a period of time when psychology finds itself rather helpless. The pain of death or the pain of losing a deep relationship can trigger a paralysis that is not easy to reach into and dissolve. Psychology admits its limits here. Sometimes I think that the poets and novelists are of more use in this than is psychology. But even there they can offer some insight, but I am not sure anyone can do much to take away the pain. There are some things in life before which we simply stand helpless.”
That was, I believe, a wise and realistic answer. The death of a loved one, or even just the pain of an unrequited obsession, can bring us to our knees, literally, and, as the author of Lamentations says: leave us with no other option than to “put our mouths to the dust, and wait!”
Words for a widow
Sometimes, for a period of time, the pain of loss is so deep and obsessive that no clinic, no therapy, and no religious word of comfort can do much for us.
I remember, 25 years ago, sitting with a friend who had that day been rejected by his girlfriend. He had proposed marriage to her and had received a clear and definitive refusal. He was shattered, utterly.
For some days afterwards he had trouble simply going through the motions of ordinary living, struggling to eat, to sleep, to work. A number of us took turns sitting with him, listening to his grief, trying to distract him by taking him to movies without really having much effect in terms of drawing him out of his depression and obsession.
Eventually, of course, he slowly began to emerge from the grip of that over-concentration and, still further down the road, was able to regain his freedom and resiliency. But there was a time during which we, his friends, could not do anything else for him other than to be with him.
What can anyone say to someone who is in the throes of a deep loss or in the grips of an unrequited emotional obsession? We have our stock expressions, which are not without merit:
- Life must go on.
- Every morning will bring a new day and eventually time will heal things.
- Remember too you are not alone; you have family and friends to lean on.
- God will help you through this.
All of that is true, and important, but not particularly consoling or helpful during an overpowering period of grief.
I remember writing a series of letters to a woman who had lost her husband to suicide and was totally shattered by that, believing that she would never experience happiness again. Time and time again I repeated the same lines to her:
“This will get better – but not right now! Time will heal this, but its rhythm cannot be rushed. You will get better, but it will take time!”
Is there anything practical beyond this that we can offer someone who is in deep grief or in the grip of a bitter emotional obsession?
In 1936, when his sister, Marguerite-Marie, died, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote these words in a letter:
I feel that a great void has opened in my life – or rather in the world around me – a great void of which I shall become increasingly aware. … The only way of making life bearable again is to love and adore that which, beneath everything else, animates and directs it.
Antoine Vergote suggests that sometimes time, only time, can bring about healing and that in the interim the only real option is to bear the unbearable, to try to get one foot in front of the next, stoically, with patience, holding our pain with as much dignity as we can muster, while waiting for time to eventually work its alchemy, knowing that nothing can short-circuit that process.
But Teilhard suggests there is something that can help make the unbearable bearable – namely, a more conscious, deliberate effort to love and to adore.
How do we do that?
Not easily. But we do it when, despite our crippling obsessions, restlessness, frustration, bitterness, and anxiety, we let our generous and noble side be the deepest voice inside of both our sympathies and our actions.
When we are driven to our knees by loss and frustration, the best, and only useful, thing we can do is to genuflect in helplessness before a God who can help us and express our affection to anyone who can support us.