Facing loss and nourishing resilience, that is, learning from crises, is a great personal challenge
Leonardo Boff’s weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at LeonardoBoff.com.
By Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)
We are all subject to the iron law of entropy: everything is decaying slowly, the body weakens, the years leave their marks, disease takes away our vital capital uncontrollably. That is the law of life, which includes death.
But there are cracks that break the natural flow. They’re the losses caused by traumatic events like the betrayal of a friend, job loss, loss of a loved one through divorce or sudden death. Tragedy is also a part of life.
Facing loss and nourishing resilience, that is, learning from crises, is a great personal challenge. The experience of mourning is especially painful, as it shows the full weight of the Negative. Mourning has one intrinsic requirement: it demands to be suffered through, and overcome positively.
There are many specialized studies on grief. According to the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, experiencing and overcoming it involves several stages.
The first is denial: Faced with the paralyzing fact, the person naturally exclaims, “it can’t be,” “it’s a lie.” Disconsolate wailing erupts that no words can contain.
The second stage is anger that is expressed: “Why precisely to me? What happened isn’t fair.” It’s the moment the person perceives the uncontrollable limits of life and doesn’t want to acknowledge them. It’s common for him to blame himself for the loss, for not having done or for having stopped doing what should have been done.
The third stage is characterized by depression and existential void. We shut ourselves up in our own capsule and pity ourselves. We are reluctant to get back on our feet. Here, every warm hug and word of consolation, though it sounds conventional, gains unexpected meaning. It’s the longing of the soul to hear that there is meaning and that the guidestars were only obscured but haven’t disappeared.
The fourth is the self-empowerment through a sort of negotiation with the pain of loss: “I can’t succumb or sink completely, I have to bear this rending to raise my family or get a degree.” In the middle of the dark night, a point of light announces itself.
The fifth is resigned and calm acceptance of the inescapable fact. We have finally incorporated that scarring wound into our existential journey. Nobody leaves mourning the same as when they go into it. The person forcibly matures and finds that loss is not necessarily total, but always brings an existential gain.
Mourning is a painful journey, so it has to be cared for. Allow me an autobiographical example that better clarifies the need to take care of mourning. In 1981, I lost a sister with whom I had a special affinity. She was the last of the sisters of the 11 siblings. When she was a teacher, at 10 o’clock one morning, in front of the students, she gave a huge cry and fell dead. Mysteriously, at age 33, the aorta had torn.
Our whole family, who came from various parts of the country, was disoriented by the fatal shock. We wept copious tears. We spent two days looking at pictures and remembering, sorrowfully, the events in the life of the beloved little sister. The others could take care of mourning and loss. I had to leave shortly afterwards to go to Chile, where I had to give lectures to all the friars of the Southern Cone. I left brokenhearted. Each talk was an exercise in getting beyond myself. From Chile, I went to Italy where I gave talks on the renewal of religious life for an entire order.
The loss of my dear sister tormented me as something unbearably absurd. I started to faint two or three times a day with no evident physical reason. They had to take me to the doctor. I told him the drama that was going on. He understood it all intuitively and said, “you still haven’t buried your sister and you haven’t kept the necessary mourning period. Until you take care of your grief and bury her, you aren’t going to get better. Part of you died with her and needs to be resurrected.” I canceled all the remaining programs. In silence and prayer, I took care of mourning. When I got back, in a restaurant, as we remembered our dear sister, my theologian brother Clodovis and I wrote on a paper napkin what we then put in the memento book to her blessed memory:
“For thirty-three years, like those of Jesus / Years of hard work and suffering / but also much fruit / Claudia bore the pain of others / In her own heart, as rescue / She was clear as the mountain stream / Kind and gentle as the flower of the field / She wove, stitch by stitch, and in silence / A beautiful brocade / She left two strong and beautiful little ones / And a husband proud of her / Happy are you, Claudia, for the Lord on His return / Found you standing, working / Lamp lit / And you fell into His lap / For the infinite embrace of Peace.”
Among her papers we found this sentence: “There is always a sense of God in all human events — it’s important to discover it.” Until today we go on looking for that sense that we can only glimpse through faith.
Reprinted from Leonardo Boff’s weekly column (Sept. 30/11).