The Upper Room: A Beautiful New Christian Understanding of Grief

By Mark Judge Published on March 1, 2024

What if this feeling never goes away?

I was experiencing grief. The feeling has been a part of my life since I lost my mother and my brother.

What if I never stop grieving? That’s what I used to think when I’d ride my bike through Georgetown. I have a UPS mailbox in the city that I use to pick up packages. As a journalist I get review copies of books and DVDs, and it’s just easier to have a place to sort it all out.

Loss, and Loss, and Where Does All of It End?

My ride takes me right past Georgetown University Hospital. It was here that my brother Michael died in 2022. He had been fighting cancer, and one night he woke up spitting up blood and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I got a call and went down to say goodbye to him.

He was not conscious but I called for a priest to administer Last Rites. I wept as I laid my palm on his forehead and Michael slipped away. On my ride home, I also pass by the memory care facility where my mother spent her last days before going to be with the Lord in 2021. I lost my mother and brother in one year.

My grief has gotten better. I don’t have to occasionally stop the car to cry. And yet the deep feelings of loss remain. Yet I’ve come to accept that those feelings may never go away — and to thank God for that.

Grief Is a Gateway to God

This acceptance came after reading a brilliant new book called The Moral Life by James Keenan, SJ. The Moral Life offers a beautiful and inspiring Christian interpretation of grief. Keenan, a Jesuit priest, argues that we are not meant to ever fully recover from grief. Grief, Keenan writes, is not a deficit or a mental health issue, but a sign of deep and abiding love. It keeps alive our care for the person we have lost: “Entrance into grief is not solely an encounter with absence but with presence as well.”

Grief also can be an open door for Jesus. When the apostles and Mary were grieving in the Upper Room over the death of Jesus, it was their sorrow and vulnerability that the Lord choose as the right time to return to them. Jesus came to them when they were at their most raw and open.

Grief, Fr. Keenan observes, also “opens the door” for us to minister to others and share the love of Jesus with them. Our vulnerability gives us tremendous spiritual power. Keenan’s point deserves emphasis: in the Upper Room as they mourned, their “grief was not an obstacle to their capacity to see Jesus but rather the passageway itself.”

Three Stages to Intimacy with Christ

Keenan argues that there are three steps to a Christian moral life: grief, vulnerability and recognition. When we grieve we are vulnerable. Then Jesus enters our lives, and we recognize the suffering of others. We can then approach them with mercy and with the Good News. Jesus lives.

This is much better than therapy, although seeing a Christian counselor, which I have done, can also help. Fr. Keenan examines the deep pain of those who had just lost the Lord, who did not yet know He had been been raised. They weren’t quietly asking each other how he was “doing.” This was not “a therapeutic check-in. Jesus’ apostles and His mother were wracked. Maybe they were sharing stories about Jesus. No doubt that they were in fear for their lives. They were traumatized. That’s where and when He came to them.

I Don’t Flee Grief Anymore

So when I take my bike to get my mail, I ride right by the place where I lost my brother and tell him that I love him. Next I ride by the place where my mother passed away, and feel my connection to her and the joy, love, and laughter with which she filled my life.

I once told myself, and others told me, that eventually you need to get over these things. But do you?

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Obviously you need to go on living your life, but thinking the pain will ever fully go away is foolish. To accept it is to keep the love of our lost ones alive — and to be a better Christian who can bring the Good News to others.

In The Moral Life, Keenan offers this wisdom from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Nothing can fill the gap left by someone we love, and we should not attempt to find anything. We must simply endure and hold out. That may sound very harsh at first, but it is also a great comfort. Because as the home that he has left remains unfilled. So the connection with him remains. It is wrong to say: ‘God fills the gap.’ He doesn’t fill it at all. Rather he leaves it unfilled, and in this way, he helps us maintain our true connection to our loved one, even though it is painful.

Amen.

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