The Saints on Healing Through Grief

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Revelation 7:17

If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one and you know that no one can take that person’s place, there are few words that can truly console you. Nevertheless, through God’s grace, the support of those who love you, and the passage of time, you will get through this period of sorrow. In the meantime, it may be of some consolation to know that many of the saints grieved like you. These saints, who knew God’s love in a wondrous way and who believed in eternal life with all their hearts, nevertheless had to struggle with their own human feelings of grief.

The Grief of Two Saintly Elisabeth’s

Consider our Lady. Mary suffered widowhood; we don’t know exactly when St. Joseph died, but, because of the perfect love they shared and because she knew the gates of Heaven weren’t yet open, it must have been a heart-wrenching experience for her. Some time after this, her Son left home to begin His public ministry.

Although no grief could compare with Mary’s, many other saints drank deeply from the cup of sorrow. For instance, the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, was very happily mar­ried for eleven years, but then her husband’s business failed, and he contracted tuberculosis and soon died; moreover, because Eliz­abeth converted to Catholicism (she had been raised an Episcopa­lian), her family and many of her friends rejected her. The saint was able to persevere by relying on the Lord’s strength and by trusting in Scripture’s promise: “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength.”

Another saint who experienced intense grief as a young widow of twenty was St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a princess whose husband died while taking part in a Crusade; it’s said that on being in­formed of her husband’s death, the saint cried, “The world is dead to me, and all that was pleasant in it,” and then ran through the castle shrieking hysterically. Like her American counterpart, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Hungarian princess found no support from her relatives; her husband’s family resented her spending money on the poor, and — according to legend — her brother-in-law forced her and her children to leave the castle in the dead of winter. She, too, found the strength to bear her cross in the love of Christ, although it was very difficult at first.

Other Saints Who Felt Grief

Sometimes the death of a loved one — painful as it is — marks the beginning of a new stage of life in which our vocation is signif­icantly changed. For example, in the sixth century, St. Hormisdas was happily married, but after the death of his wife, he became a priest and was elected Pope in 514. (His son St. Silverius later be­came Pope himself.)

Grief can also be an impetus to a change of heart or a moral conversion. St. Bavo had been a wealthy but immoral landowner in the seventh century, but after his wife’s death, he repented of his sins and spent his life doing penance. (He once encountered a man whom he had sold into slavery years before; in reparation, Bavo had the man lead him in chains to the town prison.)

Coping with grief often requires us to look for new ways to be of service to God and neighbor. In the sixth century, St. Monegundis experienced overwhelming grief when her two daughters died. Because the grief was prolonged, the saint — in a moment of in­sight — feared she was becoming self-centered and in danger of neglecting her duties to God. Prayer suggested a remedy: with her husband’s permission, she devoted herself entirely to the Lord by shutting herself up in a simple cell and there living a life of pen­ance and solitude.

Bl. Teresa Grillo Michel used a different approach in the twen­tieth century. She married at age twenty-two, but fourteen years later, her husband died of sunstroke. Teresa went through a long period of profound grief; spiritual reading and the love and support of her family helped her recover. She began reaching out to others in need and eventually established a new religious order in Italy: the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Divine Providence.

“Our parting will not be for long; we shall see each other again in Heaven”

quote from St. Aloysius Gonzaga in front of a sun-illuminated cross. "The Saints on Healing Through Grief | Catholic Exchange"
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems.

Solace Through Service

The saints discovered a certain solace through service — that is, in responding to the needs of others, they found it easier to bear their own sorrows. It’s unwise (and often impossible) to begin something like this too soon after the death of a loved one, partic­ularly a spouse; grief must be acknowledged, and this takes time (for many people, a year or more). It’s also unwise for people to make major decisions while mourning. After they have worked through their grief, however, it’s often helpful for them to become involved in some form of service. This pleases God and allows Him to bless and sustain them in additional ways.

A healthy response to grief requires a willingness to trust in God and to move forward, one day at a time. Because God is the author of life, He not only is able to reunite us with our deceased loved ones in the joy of His kingdom, but also to help us find pur­pose and value in life — even in the midst of intense grief.

Death can cause great pain and sorrow, not necessarily for the one dying, but for the loved ones left behind. Nevertheless, our Christian Faith teaches us that our grief and separation from the ones we love need only be temporary. This was the theme of a letter written by St. Aloysius Gonzaga to his mother shortly before he died from the plague at the age of twenty-three:

“Our parting will not be for long; we shall see each other again in Heaven; we shall be united with our Savior; there we shall praise Him with heart and soul, sing of His mercies forever, and enjoy eternal happiness. When He takes away what He once lent us, His pur­pose is to store our treasure elsewhere more safely and bestow on us those very blessings that we ourselves would most choose to have.”

This is indeed part of the Good News: death and sorrow do in­deed exist, but for those who have faith in Jesus, they shall be re­placed by everlasting life and joy.

For Further Reflection

“Let your understanding strengthen your patience. In serenity look forward to the joy that follows sadness.” — St. Peter Damian

[To a woman whose son had died]: “When you commend your child to the Divine Majesty, simply say to Him, ‘Lord, I com­mend to You the offspring of my womb, yes, but even more truly the child sprung from the depths of Your mercy; born of my blood, true, but reborn from Yours.’ And leave it at that.” — St. Francis de Sales

Something You Might Try

Don’t try to bear all your grief alone

Accept offers of help from loved ones and, when you’re ready, invitations from friends and acquaintances. Don’t be afraid to seek help when sorrow and loneliness become too much to bear. God wants and expects us to be present to one another at such times. Almost every community has some sort of support group for the grieving; your parish (or lo­cal funeral home) can provide you with such information, along with helpful pamphlets and other materials on grieving. To grieve is necessary; to bear such a burden alone when help is available usually isn’t healthy or wise.

The Virgin Mary became a widow when St. Joseph died, so she has a special concern for those who lose their spouses. Many widows and widowers have found consolation and strength by ask­ing for her intercession and seeking her motherly care. In addition to having Masses celebrated at your parish for your spouse, ask which devotions to our Lady your parish offers, and do your best to participate in them.

Learn to thank God, even in your grief

On her deathbed, St. Bartholomea Capitanio, although only in her twenties, consoled her mother by saying, “You know that everyone has to die. If I were to live forty more years, I would still have to die. This is the moment when God in His mercy wills to receive me into Paradise. Do not be saddened by my death, but instead thank God!” It’s pos­sible to thank God as you grieve, and your prayers for your de­ceased loved ones can be a source of consolation.

If it helps, talk to your deceased loved ones (something many people do in cemeter­ies), or write them a letter, or imagine them perfectly glorious and happy in God’s presence. Finally, remember this: your separation is temporary, but, through Christ, the love that you shared will last forever.

Prayer for times of Grieving

Lord Jesus Christ, You suffered the loss
of Your beloved foster-father, St. Joseph;
You wept at the death of Your friend Lazarus; and
from Your Cross You beheld the grief of Your Mother, Mary.
Look upon me in my grief, and touch my wounded heart.
Welcome all my deceased loved ones into Your kingdom,
and help me to surrender them to Your merciful love.
Grant me peace in the midst of distress, courage in the
midst of loss, and hope in the midst of sorrow. Fill me with
the strength I need just to make it through another day.
Help me to remember that You will never abandon me,
that You will never forget me, and that You will see me
through this time of suffering and trial.

I offer You my tears, and I give You my
wounded heart; receive them gently. Amen.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Esper’s book, Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Free Walking Tour Salzburg on Unsplash

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Fr. Joseph Esper studied at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and at St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. He was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 1982. He has lectured at Marian conferences, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic, Pastoral Review, and other publications. From his experience as a parish priest, Fr. Esper offers today’s readers practical, encouraging, and inspiring wisdom.

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