Grace in Grieving

by Bishop Joensen | November 20, 2023

Bishop William Joensen

The poet and teacher Robert Cording lost his 31 year-old son Daniel when he died of an accidental overdose of opioid painkillers prescribed for chronic back pain. Daniel was a rugged outdoorsman and skilled craftsman who could single-handedly renovate an old house and make it an inviting home.

In his book In the Unwalled City, Cording describes the enduring grief he and his wife still feel in two distinct ways: (1) “Grief is that art (can it ever be called that?) of starting over.  Every morning the same morning.  Every evening the same. The light tipping above the horizon, dipping below.  A day.  Another day of second thoughts.  Another night of if only, what if, what else could we have done?” (p. 9).

And (2) “Perhaps grief is an attempt to hit a note that would shatter this world like glass and allow me to walk through the barrier that keeps my son apart from me for all my remaining days” (p. 46).

Robert Cording is a man of faith, but he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.  He has no conceit that faith will assuage the groaning ache and void his son’s death has left in his heart.  He captures something deeply human that is a precursor to faith, to what Jesus offers us.  The art of starting over, morning after morning, echoes the author of Lamentations chapter 3, who sighs with the loss of peace, the forgetfulness and forsaking of the future, his felt poverty as the soul sinks like the sun at sunset.  

Yet the Spirit of God does not leave the one who laments alone in the depths; the Spirit reminds him — remind us — of God’s nearness, and draws us to a place of hope in our respective griefs: “The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.”

God’s favors, his grace cannot be exhausted.  His mercy is limitless, even passing over the apparent limit that is death.  Each morning does not consign us to the perpetual hangover of loves lost, of relationships left with so much unfinished business, where the longing for reconciliation and peace is forever denied.  Rather, each morning is a mini-resurrection, pointing us to the day that never ends, a promise that only God can fulfill—and has done so in the death and resurrection of his Son.

For his part, St. Paul declares, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. . . . We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son; how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5).  Jesus saves us for life—the life we know now, marked by the shadow of death and the grief it incites.  And the life unfettered, a liberated life where we can be with one another without all the baggage, the broken intentions and strained relations.  We will have no fear of that even greater soul death that is rejection—rejection by other persons, rejection by God.

God has made provision in his Son for that unfinished project in the house renovation of our human souls caused by the interruption of death.  In the union of wills between the Father and the Son, their perfect love for one another supplies what is lacking in our imperfect love.  Jesus is so clear in John 6: “This is the will of the One who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”  

No matter our sins, no matter our reluctance to love and let ourselves be loved because of some past shortcomings or outright failures of love, Jesus always treats us as a gift from the Father.  Trappist monk and author Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (now known as Father Simeon) reminds us of the staunch hope supplied by faith: “The only thing a sinner is in God’s eyes is a potential saint, never a damnable criminal.”

We may be poor souls, just like our loved ones who’ve gone before us, but Jesus’ rich mercy is relentless, inexhaustible.  The prospect of purgatory, of melting away resistance, resentments, our hesitation to be embraced by God, should be a source of undying hope for us: hope that we will be life, that we will be with our loved ones.  

And with the Church’s instinct of faith, if we know ourselves to be gift in God’s eyes, then we can make a gift, a pleasing sacrifice on behalf of those who have left us with a void.  Our prayers at Mass and beyond, our aches, our challenges and crosses can be given to Jesus, who remembers us and those we remember before the Father, who can’t wait to say: “You are not rejected; come to me now and for all eternity.”

And so our grief enfolds Cording’s sort of grief in the faith of Lamentations:  We wait for the Lord’s fidelity to his Father’s will to draw his sons and daughters into the house of heaven.  “It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of God.”  Our silence is not jagged, as if words were being ripped from us by the stunning event of death. It is the silence borne of trust, peace, Spirit, faith.  We are gift in God’s eyes.  Jesus saves us for life.  

Bishop Joensen

The Most Reverend William Joensen is the current bishop for the Diocese of Des Moines, having been ordained and installed in 2019.