“Nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments. Grief is the price we pay for love. “These were the words of condolence of the late Queen Elizabeth II to the families who had lost the ones they loved in the 9/11 attacks. It is a powerful statement, hinting at the powerlessness we feel within our grief. It is ironic indeed then, that 1 day short of 20 years later, the UK faced a period of grief of its own; for the very person who uttered these words. The UK is a nation in mourning and grieving the loss of its beloved and longest-reigning Monarch. Over time, as we come to terms with exactly who and what we have lost, it may be helpful for us to come to understand grief more deeply by, reflecting on both the spiritual and temporal understanding to aid in our understanding of grief and loss. Psychology, religion, and spirituality continue to offer hope to millions and have done so for many centuries. In this article, I shall fuse ideas of grief within these contexts, in the hope that it can bring about compassion for ourselves and others, whilst shining a light through the darkness within this period of national sadness and loss.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross offered seminal and ground-breaking research into the nature of grief in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. To complete the book, she undertook a series of interviews with dying patients, culminating in her proposal that grief may present itself in five stages, namely, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Her work has since been so successful, that it has been used to demonstrate patterns of change and loss within corporate settings. Her model has become prescriptive, offering certainty within a culture that does not deal well with the uncertainty of death; a predictable process and a lens through which we may experience grief. For many, this certainty is comforting. However, for others, grief is often experienced as much messier and more complex. However, it is now generally accepted, that grief doesn’t follow the linear trajectory outlined in the five stages model. According to Ada McVean from McGill University, there are limitless forms of grief and there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. Subsequently, discussions around grief and loss are inherently intertwined with ideas of uncertainty, lack of control and faith. In understanding grief, it would seem science has only come so far.
The late Queen Elizabeth II often described that her faith was a source of comfort to her. During this period of national sadness then, it may be helpful to turn to the Christian scriptures to help us work through our collective grief. In discussing this, we can draw comparisons with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; crucified for preaching the good news and the word of God. I can never quite erase from my mind, the scene in the film The Passion of the Christ when Mary, the mother of Jesus cried, alone but with quiet dignity, grace, and strength whilst her son was both tortured and led to his death on Golgotha. Her grief surely must have been great; knowing that the child she had raised, who was both her son and the salvation of mankind, was to be brutally murdered. Jesus’ crucifixion then, may reflect our collective suffering as deeply flawed human beings who, at times, lack faith, recoil at uncertainty, and seek to control our environments. Perhaps we are all called to separate ourselves from the throng and grieve for our losses and feel our pain with the quiet dignity and grace demonstrated by Mary, the mother of Christ. Upon the death of her husband Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II showed this same quality of dignity and grace, personified in the famous picture of her, sitting alone during a global pandemic, in the pews of St George’s Chapel, Windsor.
We should not, however, forget that the story of the crucifixion is also one of hope, for three days after his death Jesus rises again in glory. In so doing, we are reminded of the healing power of God’s love. It was through the death of his son, that God offered salvation to the world. Was Kubler-Ross trying to offer psychology something similar, by demystifying grief? Was she on to something when she included DENIAL in her five stages of grief? Perhaps. An early account of death and denial can be found within the New Testament Gospels. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew 26:34 Jesus says to Simon Peter, “truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Simon Peter then went on to deny Jesus (much to his despair). Later in Matthew 28:17, we are told that some of the disciples doubted the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, in John 20:25 Thomas refuses to believe that Jesus has risen until he “places his fingers into the mark of the nails.” Thus, perhaps denial made it easier for them to accept that they had lost the teacher and healer that they loved. The idea that he could rise in glory and ascend into heaven was out with their bandwidth. Jesus understood their grief and rebukes them but does not banish them. In so doing, he understood the denial inherent in human grief. Indeed, he loved them despite it. John 12:1 reads “having loved His own…He loved them to the end.” Even within our denial and despair, Jesus calls us to love.
So, echoing down through the ages, from the death and resurrection of Christ to the five stages model proposed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s, right up 9/11 attacks in the early 2000s and upon the recent death of our most beloved Queen Elizabeth II, the enduring message is thus:
“Grief is the price we pay for love”
Guest Blog from Julian Thomson