Growth Through Grieving: The Feast of All Souls, Mourning and the Spiritual Life

How should one grieve as a Catholic?

The Blessed Virgin Mary holds the body of Jesus Christ in this cemetery depiction of the Pietà.
The Blessed Virgin Mary holds the body of Jesus Christ in this cemetery depiction of the Pietà. (photo: littlekop / Shutterstock)

The feast of All Souls (Nov. 2) is an invitation to reflect on mortality — our own, that of our loved ones who are preparing for death, and of those who have gone before us. The feast day is also an opportunity to meditate on grief — the experience of which is unique to every soul yet escaped by no one.

All Souls 2021 is especially poignant, given the heartbreak many families have felt during the last two years of COVID-19. And it is fitting that St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, was called upon by Pope Francis to shepherd the world through the aftermath wrought by the pandemic. As the Year of St. Joseph nears its close (Dec. 8), the climbing death toll from the pandemic (whether directly from the virus, or through indirect, residual consequences of various restrictions) continues to force us to confront loss more regularly than many of us have been accustomed to. 

In short, within this year dedicated to St. Joseph, immersed within a global pandemic, we are confronted with the question: For the Christian, what does authentic, healthy, efficacious grief look like?

It is well accepted within the mental-health community that grief is essential for psychological healing following the death of a loved one, but the process also holds profound relevance within the Christian spiritual life.

“For the Christian, to grieve is the fulfillment of the beatitude, ‘Blessed are those who mourn,’” said Father Paul Scalia, episcopal vicar for clergy for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. “We must have the proper love for creation, which also means the proper sorrow about the wounds to creation.”

Indeed, the first lessons in grief come from Christ, who publicly wept in the face of death in the fallen world, well aware of the miracles of resurrection that he would soon bring about.

“Our Lord was moved at the funeral he came upon in the town of Nain,” where he would raise the son of the widow from the dead, Father Scalia told the Register. “He wept at the death of Lazarus. He wept over Jerusalem. To mourn, then, is to be in union with Christ in his grief.” 

Even from a psychological perspective, spiritual convictions play an essential role in the grieving process, according to Benjamin Keyes, professor at Divine Mercy University’s M.S. in counseling program. “What you believe about loss, what you believe about the afterlife, what you believe about God, and how you see God in your life, often regulates how we react to grief and how we see the losses in our lives,” Keyes, the director of Divine Mercy University’s Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies, told the Register. “Life experiences, especially other losses, help us to process.”

“Typical spiritual effects can have a wide range,” Keyes continued. 

“People become angry at religious institutions: the Church, the clergy. Sometimes they lose faith in God.”

“Sometimes, even when we pray, people die. Even when we pray, we’re not given what we’ve asked for,” Keyes said.

David Mills, senior editor at The Stream who has an upcoming book published by Sophia Press, entitled When Catholics Die, shared his perspectives based upon his own experience with grief. 

“Grief can be really brutal,” Mills told the Register. “The temptation is to blow off religion because what good does it do when you lose someone you love?”

“It’s a rational feeling, because death is death,” Mills said. 

“As with every other loss, any other suffering, you can respond to it by turning away from God or by turning toward him.”

“It draws [people who are grieving] closer to God,” Keyes explained of a healthy way to grieve. “They have a closer connection. Sometimes we get this desire to change, become a better person, create meaning in our lives, or change the world, or part of it, in some way.”

“In my experience, you just grieve, because you’re going to no matter what, and try to say your prayers and go to Mass, and go to adoration if you can,” Mills shared with the Register. “Just hang out with God.”

“Grief is something we need to experience properly and not short-circuit with false pieties,” said Father Scalia. 

He cited the example of someone who had told a young widow with six children, “This is part of God’s plan,” which in turn “made her wonder what kind of God has a plan that involves the early death of a husband and father.” Father Scalia added, “‘Weep with those who weep,’ is the scriptural exhortation. 

“That should be our first step. Just be with people in their sorrow. Don’t try to explain or solve it.” 

“Death (the greatest evil) is a mystery to be reverenced, not a problem to be solved,” Father Scalia stressed. 

“Only when we’ve been with the person in sorrow can we then lead them to truths: trust in God’s providence … pray for the dead … give thanks to God for the person’s life.”

Most have experienced the loss of loved ones. For many, this loss was looming on the horizon, whether due to illness or advanced age. “Our Catholic faith leads us beautifully” in preparing for grieving the loss of a loved one, Father Scalia said. 

“Pray for a happy death. Have confidence in the reality of heaven, of Christ’s presence to the dying.”

“I think the only thing that really prepares us for the grief of losing a loved one is growing in holiness,” said Mills. “I think of it this way: Growing in holiness means seeing more of the story and feeling its truth more. I mean the story God is telling, not the story we would tell from what we see. The feeling part’s just as important as the seeing. The more of the story you see, the more you see God’s love at work — in this case, his love for the person you love.”

“You know in your head that he loves you, and he’ll make things right in time,” Mills continued, “even if you don’t feel it. Just give it time. Maybe a long time later, you’ll be able to look back and see how that brought you closer to God. 

“You’ll know him even more than you did before as the God who loves you and stays with you as you heal, even if he doesn’t take the pain away.”