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Opinion: Finding meaning through grief

Amidst a global pandemic, Efran Menny reflects on a past experience with death, grief, and new paths of healing and accompaniment.

(Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images)

In September 2019, I discovered that a very close cousin died at home, leaving behind a teenaged daughter. I arrived on the scene and my mother, as well as my deceased cousin’s mother, daughter, and other family members waited outside until her body was hauled away.

While we waited, I tried to distract my cousin with positivity about her mom. I felt a throbbing ache in my throat because I knew life was going to be difficult for her without parents. And so I made a wager with God: since I was the closest family member to my cousin, I would take the responsibility of raising her to make life easier.

This rash bargain was utterly misguided because, in just a few months, my wife and I would welcome our first child—a completely new chapter in our marriage. Though it came from a place of compassion, I ultimately decided not to pursue the deal. Though I encountered immense sorrow and anguish from family, I maintained my composure. For two weeks, I proceeded normally, clinging for dear life to heartfelt memories.

On the day of the funeral, I entered my uncle’s church with a dark cloud of unease and despair. Somewhere between leaving the house that morning and inching towards the church door, the masquerade of deception had steadily been swept from under my feet. Now I was forced to experience the inevitable.

I walked towards my seat with my wife and received an obituary that showed one of her unforgettable Salt-N-Pepa hairstyles from her heyday in the 90s. Seeing that photo greatly destroyed my defenses, which started my first flow of tears. My wife was in astonishment because she never saw me cry, but she compassionately comforted me during my distress.

Though the church was full, I managed to find several close family members in tears and the recurring thought of my little cousin being an orphan was the final blow. I had seen my mother howl in pain at previous funerals, but there I sat in fitful torture.

“This can’t be true. My favorite cousin is really gone?”

I felt paralyzed.

As the funeral continued with a dynamic eulogy by my uncle and remarks from loving family and friends, I came to terms with the new understanding I had to live with: she wasn’t coming back.

I experienced some closure with her death that day, and in the weeks following her death, I continued to think of her and offered prayers for the repose of her soul. They were mostly good days that kept me hopeful, and a few bad days that made the trauma of her death appear real, but I accepted the new normal. Eventually, I could talk to my family members confidently without worrying about insincere comfort. And so the healing process began.

The Experts

Reflecting on this period of bereavement, I began to make sense of the words of the foremost grief expert, David Kessler, on a possible addition to the five stages of grief model. Originally coined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, this model conveys the dynamics an individual experiences regarding loss and dying. For over five decades, mental health professionals across the spectrum have adapted the framework to understand how human behavior is impacted by loss.

Kessler, with the guidance and approval of the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation, established a sixth phase: meaning. In his research, he observed that people consistently discovered the significance of their departed loved one or companion. For Kessler, people do not just die. Rather, the individual’s legacy becomes a source of empowerment. Kessler describes his personal journey in finding meaning through the death of his son:

“The idea of meaning did not take away my pain, but it gave me a cushion that I had not noticed before.”

Though the immense feelings of depression were real, Kessler was able to see the death of his son from a new perspective.  Similarly, after the death of my cousin, I desperately scrambled to make sense of the events, especially through the rash commitment I made to her daughter.

Just as my cousin was a guiding force for me as I faced adversity while growing up, I wanted to have a similar influence on her as she navigated through life. Though I made the pact out of impulse, intuitively I knew I had to be faithful to my promise. What I discovered in the process was that I tried to discover meaning by resolving to show love to my cousin, and by being a source of stability in her uprooted world.

Thankfully, about five weeks after the funeral, I was able to put my commitment into action by inviting my cousin to our baby shower. I was ecstatic and content to see my promise coming to fruition that day.

Implications for the Faith

In the process of the six stages of grief, I made a commitment to avoid comments that detracted from my emotions. Being part of a religious family, it was common to hear after my cousin’s funeral, “She knew and believed in God and he called her home.”

For me, these expressions were disingenuous because they undermined how it felt to grieve. While it may be true that my cousin was a believer, I found no solace in the weeks after the funeral from family members that approached the death strictly from a faith point of view. According to Deacon Henry de Mena in his seminar on spirituality during bereavement, empty religious platitudes offer no direct support and are not helpful as support during bereavement.

This is an area in which most Christians can do better. For us Catholics, this should be evident in how we act towards our neighbors in their moments of suffering. For example, comforting those that are afflicted is a spiritual work of mercy of our faith that was prescribed by Jesus (Matthew 5:4).

When we talk about compassion, going to the Latin etymology gives us a clue of its deeper meaning. Compati (from com + pati), literally means “to suffer with”. With this definition, a practical suggestion emerges: humbly be attentive to those mourning, which means compassionately listening to the concerns and emotions they are expressing.

In addition, the Center for Disease Control provides helpful resources and suggestions for those experiencing symptoms associated with grief, including crisis intervention resources (SAMHSA’s National Helpline) and simply having social support to help one stay connected. With these tools in our wallets, Christians can effectively replenish what others need during periods of emotional crisis.

Dr. Kübler-Ross once affirmed that “those who learned to know death, rather than to fear and fight it, become our teachers about life.” I think that through the process of grief and loss, we come out more resilient than before. Sometimes we are afraid to experience emotional discomfort, but allowing ourselves to embrace periods of unease and pain propels us to move forward.

My experience with the notorious six stages was not linear, but the process to recovery doesn’t need to be. Finding meaning out of our periods of grief can be a process. I’m hopeful that Christians and all people of goodwill can come to successfully display the mercy and love of Christ to those that are suffering.

We all need it.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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