For some people, the Spiritual Works of Mercy are easier than the Corporal Works of Mercy, because they can be done privately and without an obvious imposition on our lives. When it comes to those of us in grief, however, these somewhat more subtle acts of charity can actually be a bit troublesome.
Whenever we deal with difficult and dark emotions, we access a part of ourselves that is uncomfortable with our own version of anger or fear or sadness. Many times authentic Christian accompaniment for the grieving is a true lack, not because we are not called to be the emotional and spiritual support for them, but because we don’t know how to handle our own grief.
Here are some ideas on how to plumb the depths of grief — yours and someone else’s — and at the same time grow in spiritual maturity.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
To instruct the ignorant
No one finds it helpful to be told how to grieve or according to what “timeline.” People can be very insensitive when it comes to careless clichés, often spoken from the discomfiting emotions they do not want to face within themselves. It’s easier to dismiss suffering than to acknowledge, or even better, to enter into it. Instead of telling the grieving to “get over it,” “move one,” “everything happens for a reason,” or “s/he is in a better place,” try listening and affirming them wherever they are — even if it happens to be rage. It’s a true act of mercy to tell someone, “You have a right to be angry” or “What happened to you is unfair” than to cover up the very real agony they are feeling with your own version of helpful comments.
To counsel the doubtful
It’s not uncommon for the grieving to doubt pretty much everything when they have suffered devastating loss. There’s doubt in oneself, in family or friends, in the stability of life, in God and in the Church. Resist the urge to correct their comments about anger towards God or at the Church, and instead validate their feelings. Feelings are not wrong, even when they are painful, and need to be addressed in order for the grieving to find true, lasting healing. Counseling the doubtful might look like encouragement, offering few words but ones that are spoken gently and sincerely: “I can see why you are hurting so much and it’s okay to be mad at God” or “There’s nothing wrong with questioning your life right now.”
To admonish the sinners
Again, it’s not helpful to chastise someone who is grieving. They are already extremely emotionally fragile, wounded even, from their loss. It’s likely that nothing makes sense to them. Sometimes people turn to different means of numbing their pain, such as alcohol or shopping or binge-watching movies. Do not tell them they are sinning. This language is going to push them further from the Church and God.
Instead, offer a gentle suggestion, like, “Have you talked to your friend, Father So-and-so? I know how much that helped me when I lost my husband last year” or “Even when I don’t want to go to Confession, because I’m so angry at my life, I make myself go and always end up feeling a lot lighter afterwards.” There are ways to word the truth without stabbing someone’s already bleeding heart.
To bear wrongs patiently
Those who grieve do not always treat people kindly. Grief manifests some fairly ugly parts of ourselves we’d rather not admit to. Consider the fact that your loved one is probably sleep deprived, battling a mélange of emotions on a daily basis, and can’t always think clearly. Intense emotions erupt onto one’s nearest target, but it is not personal. Just remember that the one grieving is not actually angry with you but with his or her loss and the fact that they feel like they’ve lost control over their lives. Accept with grace the tirades and respond with kindness.
To forgive offenses
Sometimes you will find yourself reaching out to the grieving, but you get no response. You may send a handwritten card with a little care package, maybe some gifts for the kids or a home-cooked meal – still radio silence. It hurts to be unappreciated and unacknowledged for one’s genuine attempts at caring for someone who seems not to notice or care. But understand that the grieving are lost in their own shattered worlds for a time and don’t intend to overlook your generosity. Forgive these slights and keep reaching out.
To comfort the afflicted
This may be one of the most valuable acts of charity you can do for someone who has suffered loss. After Sarah was born, I can honestly say I don’t necessarily remember every person who sent us gift cards, brought flowers and meals, or cleaned our home, but I do remember the two friends who came over to console me. It was the most healing gift of all to just have them stop by, stay without being in a rush, and allow me to cry. If you can do nothing else, comfort those who are suffering, and you will give them a true treasure. There is little else I can think of that hurts more than loneliness when you are grieving.
To pray for the living and the dead
Of course, as Christians, this is a standard given. We are a people of prayer. We believe in its power, because we know God hears us and loves us. He longs to answer us. Pray for those who have died and for their families, and do so often. Both are in need of grace for different reasons – the dead if they are in Purgatory and the living so they have the strength to carry on.