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Good Grief

Good Grief

by Stephen Martz

Let Love clasp Grief, lest both be drown’d. —Tennyson

The death of his great friend Arthur Henry Hallam shook Alfred, Lord Tennyson—then age 24—to the core. His grief was great—and productive, for it spurred him over the next 17 years to pen one of the great poems of the 19th century, “In Memoriam, A.H.H.”

Grief is born of loss, and our human lives are full of losses. The first is birth, when we find ourselves thrust from the womb. This reminds us that loss is the soil from which both grief and growth spring, and of course these are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, “good” grieving often fertilizes our growth.

But what is healthy or helpful grief? We know it when we see it—or it seizes us. About 30 years ago I spent a summer as a chaplain in a large teaching hospital where I met “Carmela.”

Her husband, “Dominic,” had just undergone a liver transplant and things were not going well. When she was not able to be in his room Carmela could be found in the intensive care unit’s waiting room, raising her 4-foot 10-inch frame, and her fist to the heavens.

She carried on an impassioned, unrestrained conversation with God, expressing her anger, hurt, and confusion, all the while imploring the Almighty to listen. Like a modern-day Job, she pleaded the case of her husband by reminding God of his goodness, of their love, of the faith they had practiced as a couple and a family. After about two weeks her husband died.

A prayer unheard? It did not seem that way to me, for each day Carmela appeared to grow a little stronger, the conversation a little calmer. She loved Dominic passionately, and his suffering and death cut her deeply.

Yet she also loved her God, and as she connected in her conversation the suffering of the cross with the suffering Dominic was undergoing, she seemed to begin to bridge the two worlds of our human experience—the finite and the eternal. My daily presence also was important, for suffering seems to be borne more readily, metabolized more fully, in the presence of an attentive companion.

I was in my mid-30s at the time, and so was hardly able to connect from my own life experience with the pain of losing a cherished spouse of 40 years. But a few years earlier I had known my own great grief when my beloved friend, Sue, unexpectedly died in her 20s. Grief seized me with an alarming intensity and design of its own.

The Rev. Stephen Martz is a Jungian analyst and Episcopal priest. He can be contacted through his web site at www.jungiananalysischicago.org.

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