A Vicarious Grief Observed

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On the recent Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, my priest-uncle-spiritual-director, Father Jim, suddenly lost his brother Allan. Father Jim was abroad teaching a short course in Canon Law when Uncle Allan had a massive myocardiac infarction.

I have never met Uncle Allan, since he lived far from Metro Manila. But Father Jim said he had a lot of friends and touched a lot of people’s lives. I believe this to be true assuming that Uncle Allan were every bit like his brother. He and Father Jim were born successively. They grew up sharing rooms in their parents’ house and, later on, in their grandparents’ place when they went to college. Uncle Allan eventually became a medical doctor, got married, and had five children, all of whom are now either doctors or medical students. When Father Jim became a celibate member of Opus Dei and eventually a priest, Uncle Allan filled in his elder brother’s role of taking care of their parents.

I could thus imagine how close Father Jim and Allan were, and how painful it was for Father Jim to lose his brother. Actually, it was painful for me to see Father Jim – who has always consoled and cheered me up in my own low moments and who usually has more than enough zest for life to go around – feeling his brother’s absence.

On the one hand, I was impressed by Father Jim’s example of Christian hope. He derived consolation from the news that his brother died right after receiving the Last Sacraments, and from that wonderful truth called the “communion of saints”, by which we can pray for and to our deceased loved ones even after they are gone. He posted on Facebook, “St. Josemaria, who we both call Our Father since we both belong to Opus Dei, taught us his children that we never say goodbye, but “Till we meet again”. Till we meet again, my dear brother!”

On the other hand, Father Jim also admitted that while he had intellectually come to terms with his brother’s death, he felt the void that it created.

Indeed, given that each person is unique and irreplaceable, death can only create a void for those left behind. That void is felt not only by the deceased’s immediate friends and relatives, but also by those who, like me, witness a loved one cope with someone else’s death.

How does one console someone else who has just suffered an irreplaceable loss? What do I tell him who has always been the one consoling me, who has always been the one encouraging me to keep the faith?

At these moments, one fumbles for the right words, because it feels as if “condolence” does not adequately express the desire to alleviate a fellow human being’s inner pain. Then, one senses that no eloquent expression of sympathy can stop another person’s pain from recurring, much less bring the dead back to life.

Then, the question comes: why did God let me see and feel someone else’s suffering but leave me helpless to remedy it?

Perhaps, by making me witness another person’s grief at losing a loved one, God was teaching me how much we need one another, how important each and every other human being is. It is God’s way of teaching me to be more attentive to others – something that my introverted and independent self needs to be reminded of every now and then.

Perhaps, God was reminding me that priests, too, are vulnerable human beings, that while we look up to them for our own edification, they too need others to support them in their weaknesses. Indeed, Father Jim recounted how much he was helped by two brother priests who flew all the way to keep him company, by friends who fixed his flight arrangements to his hometown for the wake and the funeral.

Perhaps, by leaving me unable to do more for Father Jim than say a few consoling words, God was reminding me that many times, all that suffering people need from us is “with-ness”, that we accompany them in their sorrow.

In any event, one lesson I learned was to humbly admit and accept my helplessness, do what I can, and trust God to heal the broken-hearted in the best way He can, in His own time.

We know that the desire to alleviate other people’s sufferings pleases God a lot. Isn’t comforting the sorrowful one of the spiritual works of mercy? But sometimes, we feel that our efforts to console the sorrowful are futile.

God allows this to happen to purify our desires. He ensures that our desire to console the sorrowful be more than an exercise in self-affirmation whereby we delight in our ability to make others smile at us. He reminds us that He alone can heal all wounds. He reminds us not to underestimate His empathy for the broken-hearted, He having been heartbroken Himself.

I often wonder if prayers for the suffering actually help them. By placing me in a situation where all I can offer are prayers, God was telling me, “Trust me to heal him. Trust that I will heal the pain of my faithful servant.”

So I prayed, and when I prayed, I felt I, too, was being healed.

Cristina Montes

Cristina Montes

Cristina Montes, from the Philippines, is a lawyer, writer, amateur astronomer, a gardening enthusiast, a voracious reader, a karate brown belter, an avid traveler, and a lover of birds, fish, rabbits, and horses. She is a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan who reads the entire trilogy once a year. She is the eldest daughter in a large, happy Catholic family.

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