Grief – the price of love

Grieving is part of the cost of loving and the normal response to the loss of a significant person in our lives. In my blog this week I want to reflect The Price of Love: the selected works of Colin Murray Parkes (Routledge, Hove 2015), a scholarly collection of 26 papers on grief and bereavement published over the years by the author, a distinguished psychiatrist who used to be on the staff of St Christopher’s Hospice in South London.

He defines grief “the intense and painful pining and preoccupation with somebody or something, now lost, to whom or to which one was attached” (74). In particular, he says, “grief is the reaction to an object of love” (7), love being defined as “commitment… the psychological tie that binds one person to another over a lasting period of time” (52). All of us who have loved and lost know something of this pain of parting.

As I read The Price of Love, I was struck by four things:

First of all, I was struck by the emphasis Colin Murray Parkes puts on the cost of loving:

The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others with the losses in theirs. (1).

As Christians we may not grieve as do those who have no hope (see 1 Thess 4.14), but we certainly do grieve. Not to grieve is unnatural. Not surprisingly we read John tells us that when Jesus began to weep for his friend Lazarus, the Jews said “See how he loved him” (John 11.35, 36). Sometimes when I have visited the bereaved, they have apologised to me for crying. They say, “I am so sorry for crying”. My goodness, I would be sorry if they didn’t cry. If we have truly cared for a loved one, then death will cause us great distress.

Secondly, I was struck by the emphasis on the pain of grief.

“For most people love is the most profound source of pleasure in our lives, while the loss of those who we love is the most profound source of pain” (51)

“There is no magical anaesthetic for the pain of grief… We cannot give to the bereaved the one thing they most want; we cannot call back Lazarus or Bert or Harry from the dead” (5)

Doctors may give pills to deaden the pain and to enable the bereaved to sleep, but their use is limited. Grief resolution necessitates working through the pain. Friends can help enormously, and yet all too often they can disappoint.

“They know that they can’t give us the one thing we most want, the dead person back again. They feel helpless and useless, so they back off. In consequence bereaved people often feel that they are being treated like lepers, as if bereavement were infectious. They now understand the meaning of the phrase ‘Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone’.” (198)

To my mind the best help a friend can give is to sit and share the pain. Their presence and not their words is what counts.

Thirdly, I was struck by the emphasis on how grief can have a positive outcome:

“Just as broken bones can end up stronger than unbroken ones, so the experience of grieving can strengthen and bring maturity to those who have previously been protected from misfortune” (1)

“Grief is not like the measles; and you don’t recover from it and go back to being the person you were before you suffered the bereavement. We are all permanently changed by grief. But the changes which take place need not be changes for the worse. Out of the fire of grief can come wisdom. Never again will bereaved people be able to pretend that all is well with the world. Never again will they be able to ignore the griefs of others or to deny the reality of death. They have learned the harsh facts of death the hard way. But in doing so they may become more sensitive and more compassionate to the griefs of others, and develop a deeper understanding of the meanings of life and death” (198)

How true that is. As I look back on my own life, I realise that as a young pastor I may have had energy and drive, but I had little to offer to the bereaved. Thank God, with the passing of the years allied with my own experience I became a much better pastor.

Fourthly, I was struck by the positive emphasis assigned to anniversaries:

“At first we think these only serve to aggravate our pain, break down our brittle structures of escape. But with experience, we learn to treasure them for what they are, reminding of the good things that make up our lives, evidence that ‘he (or she) lives on in my memory’. At last it becomes possible to look back with pleasure and look onward now with hope.” (5)

On reflection, all too often I have spoken of anniversaries as occasions to be endured and hopefully ultimately forgotten. In this respect I could have done better!

The Price of Love contains much food for thought. Let me close with one final quotation:

Grief is the price we pay for love and we must all be prepared to pay it (3).

2 comments

  1. In this article I was struck by your focus on death as the cause of the loss of a loved one. But it is often worse when the loved one is still alive, but has just decided to withdraw their love.
    Then the one grieving is tormented every day knowing that their loss, their grief, is simply caused by another person’s change of mind, rather than the cold reality of death.
    No-one has no authority over death, and it cannot be changed, but when the loss is caused by a person who has decided not to love any longer, then one is tormented further by always wondering what they can do to change the mind of the loved one.
    I think this latter cause of grief is more intense, more consuming and more damaging than the former.

  2. I came across this page while searching for resources on grief/bereavement so it might seem odd to comment a year later…but I so disagree with the above comment ! I lost my mother a year & 5 months ago. The intensity of the pain and daily torment of her absence is undiminished and unbearable. My life has no value (to me) and no purpose. I am not qualified to comment on why someone has rejected you, and whether or not you bear any responsibility. I imagine people whose loved ones develop dementia and are no longer recognized by them also have no control over their loss. No, we may not have much control over death (although often we feel we could have done things differently to change the outcome); but there is no greater pain on earth than losing a mother, who placed you first and herself second for half a century. And because they are also the sole witness to one’s entire life from childhood onward, they take your past, and at least half of who you are with them. I was never spiritual, and now all I care about is some proof that our souls do indeed go somewhere so we don’t just cease. I need to have hope that I will be with her again when I die.

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