Fr. J.J.’s Jottings

As I write this, my day is coming to a close. It was a rough day. One filled with death and hard questions. We had a funeral, I anointed a man in hospice whom I have known since I was a baby, I visited with someone who was told that their loved one was not going to make it, and even in my  Bible study we dealt with death (We covered the crucifixion. It is Easter, right?). How are we supposed to cope with crisis? When faced with situations that test our emotional courage, how do we handle it? How can we come out on the other side of tragedy or loss and manage to resume our previous life?

These are among the toughest questions we ever face in life. I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I can point to some ideas to help. Some of the best advice for coping with tests of faith come from studies of how older adults manage the experience of bereavement. As people get older, we invariably experience loss of some kind. The most common is loss of a spouse. Although there is statistical evidence to suggest that some widowed people literally die from a broken heart (the “mortality effect”), there is just as much evidence to the contrary showing that the majority of widows and widowers regroup and recover within a year or even less. Most people work through the loss and come out on the other side changed, but still able to manage with your everyday life. How?

There is surprisingly little research on spirituality and coping, but what evidence exists suggest that our values and beliefs can guide us through these difficult losses. Dutch researchers found that bereaved individuals cope with loss through grief work but they also engage in restorative coping methods as well. They try new things, focus on other things than grief, and become involved in new roles, identities and relationships. This could involve volunteering here at the parish, sharing your talents, coming to daily Mass, and meeting new folks.

Columbia University psychologists propose that resilience comes in several forms depending on your personality. For some, being adaptive and flexible will help you readjust your life and come to terms with your loss. For others, mental toughness provides the route. Being able to maintain our sense of who we are, our identity as a child of God, may also help us rebound from the loss of someone close. Finally, being able to draw upon our positive memories with the deceased can serve as a source of comfort. In other words, those we’ve loved and lost are now part of who we are.

You may be familiar in your own life with some experiences I’ve had since my Dad died. Are there times when you think about a deceased friend or relative in terms of “what would he say” or “what would he do”? Do you identify parts of yourself that “came from” that relative or friend? Do you still have conversations with that person? These reactions are perfectly normal and part of the healing process. In fact, our Catholic faith reminds us that they are part of the Communion of Saints.

How can you better cope with the challenges in your life? How can you become more resilient? Here are some ways to begin:

1. Don’t let despair overwhelm you and don’t give in to the temptation to give up and stop moving forward. A little bit of denial, at first, may enable you to get through each day until you can start to absorb the loss. Reach out to someone in the Body of Christ for support.

2. Tell yourself you can do it. Studies show that once you perceive that you can cope, you actually can cope better. Positive “self-statements” can shore up your sense of self-efficacy. Measuring your coping success in small steps allow your confidence to build, increasing your coping strengths even further. Remember, Christ is with you.

3. View the loss as a growth of faith. God can use the ugliest circumstance to help connect us with Him more fully. Our trials are as much a part of our identities as are our successes. 

4. Remember the saints. These holy people are survivors who continually turned to Christ. They managed to cope with the many curve balls that life threw their way and their faith stories can inspire us to learn how better to survive our own challenges. 

God bless,
Fr. J.J.