The loss of a loved one—whether a parent, a spouse, a child or a good friend—can be one of the most devastating and painful experiences in life. It is an unavoidable reality that all of us will experience at some point in our life’s journey. As the old saying goes, time heals. Yet my observation through the years is that time itself is not the solution. I have seen individuals who still grieve for a loved one many years after their passing. So what else do we need to combine with time? Certainly, for us Christians, the greatest tool we have as we face these difficult circumstances in life is our faith in the risen Lord and in His promise that there is life beyond the grave. In accepting this reality we receive hope in the midst of darkness, hope and encouragement to go on and seek the light who is Christ Himself.
A few years ago, after witnessing my parishioners struggling with the loss of their loved ones, I began a seminar in my parish called GriefShare, a grief recovery support group. It is a Protestant model, so you need to introduce it as such. You also need to make some minor adjustments in introducing certain discussions, particularly the last chapter, which deals with the issue of faith. The program consists of thirteen sessions. Each time we gather the group views a short video about twenty minutes to half an hour long, and then we continue with a discussion for an hour on each particular topic. A workbook that accompanies these sessions allows participants to reflect and to take notes. The videos are professionally done, and they are led by a number of different grief counselors. They speak from personal experiences on a variety of topics such as living with grief, the journey of grief, the effects of grief, the death of a spouse, your family and grief, the uniqueness of grief and other subjects, culminating in a discussion of heaven and the afterlife.
As the weeks progress and the group begins to feel more comfortable with one another, they slowly open up and share their unique stories. In this safe environment of sharing memories, emotions and feelings, healing begins to take place. I remind them that the deeper the love and commitment with the individual lost, the more profound and pronounced the pain will be. They learn that they mourn not simply the loss of their spouse, but also the lost opportunities to share future life experiences and celebrations with them. They face difficult realizations: my husband/wife will not be here to enjoy with me the wedding of our child, to share the joy of holding in our arms our grandchild, to enjoy our years of retirement together.
The effects of grief on an individual who is mourning can be very profound. One may experience physical symptoms such as memory loss, hallucinations and even anger with the deceased and with God. It is not uncommon to laugh one moment and to cry the next, to bring to mind great memories and to be grateful for the time you shared with your loved one yet to cry and wish you had more time to share with them. We can’t stop what the heart is feeling. Yet we can logically make choices to help us go on, for grieving is a natural part of life.
As the program progresses the group learns that the first celebrations without our loved ones will be the most painful. Their absence at the first Thanksgiving, Christmas, Pascha, summer vacation and any other occasion will be noticeable. But we also learn that the second and third anniversary will be more manageable. Life goes on despite the loss of our loved one. We learn new ways to cope, and we must be willing to allow our family and friends to help us go on. One of the most important aspects of a group such as this is to help us see that we are not alone. Knowing that other people are experiencing these same feelings is comforting. Even though each story is unique, we are still traveling on this painful path with others who share in our struggles, fears and anxiety.
In the final session I try to bring in the richness of our Orthodox Faith and the hope we find in Scripture. We speak about memorial services, the making of kolyva (the tray of boiled wheat) and their symbolism. We also talk about remembering our loved ones annually at the prescribed Saturday of Souls liturgies. These are tangible actions that remind us that our loved ones are never forgotten by us and, most importantly, that they are always remembered by our loving and merciful God. We explain the beautiful hymn we sing, “May their memory be eternal.” To be remembered by the Lord is to be loved and embraced by Him. We recall the thief who was crucified alongside of our Lord and cried out, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Our Lord, hearing his genuine prayer, responded, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).
We begin to see that there is hope in the midst of darkness. We are reminded of the words of St. Paul the Apostle, who said, as Christians, we do not grieve “as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our hope is in our risen Lord, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
Resources for Healing and Comfort
- Reach out to your priest for support from him and your parish family. Ask him about local grief support groups in your community or parish.
- Grief can be challenging to navigate. Consider finding a professional counselor to help you navigate this loss in your life.
- Dealing with Grief by V. Rev. Fr. Gordon Walker – This pamphlet discusses the grief process for Christians and offers positive steps toward healing.
- The Courage to Grieve: The Classic Guide to Creative Living, Recovery, and Growth Through Grief by Judy Tatelbaum – This self-help book provides the specific help we need to face our grief fully and recover and grow from the experience.
- For Those Who Hurt: An Orthodox Perspective on Suffering by Michael Keiser – A practical and easy-to-read book that helps those who grieve by providing resources based on our Orthodox Christian tradition.
- Seeing Beyond Depression by Jean Vanier – This thoughtful resource is filled with short reflections on the depression that often accompanies grief and bereavement.
Grief in the Orthodox Church
- Memorial Service – This special service of the Orthodox Church commemorates the souls of the departed faithful. Services are often held on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death and on the sixth-month and first-year anniversaries.
- Kolyva – Boiled and sweetened wheat symbolizing the departed is used at a memorial service for the dead to signify that a grain of wheat fallen to the ground will rise again as new life (John 12:24).
- Saturday of Souls – The Church prescribes four of these liturgies throughout the year: the two Saturdays before Lent, the first Saturday of Lent and the Saturday before Pentecost.
GriefShare: Grief Recovery Support Group
GriefShare is a biblical, Christ-centered grief support group ministry whose resources help you equip a lay-led team for effective and ongoing grief ministry at your church. For more information visit griefshare.org/startagroup.
Rev. Fr. Costas Keares is a 1990 graduate of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. He has been serving the parish of St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in North Royalton, Ohio, for the last nine years. He and Presvytera Nicole, who currently serves as the vice president of the National Sisterhood of Presvyteres, are the parents of two children, Peter and Christina.
This article originally appeared in PRAXIS Volume 17: Issue 1, “Listening to Suffering.” To learn more about PRAXIS, including how to subscribe, visit praxis.goarch.org.