Comfort from grief

Bringing a spiritual perspective to daily life

The celebration of the 150th birthday of Vincent Van Gogh reminded me of a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The first painting I saw was one of his paintings of shoes. I was amazed at its impact. I was not just seeing a painting of shoes. The best way I can explain it is that I was seeing the idea of shoes, and this idea was much more real to me than any depicted on canvas.

I have thought about this over the years as I've striven to understand the difference between ideas and physical objects. Aiding me in this thinking are the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded this newspaper for thinkers worldwide. She also wrote a textbook that challenges many people's assumptions about many things. She described man, including male and female, in this way: "Man is idea, the image, of Love; he is not physique" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," pg. 475). Earlier in the book she included a dictionary definition: "Idea: An image in Mind; the immediate object of understanding" (pg. 115). Each one of us is the idea of God.

Remembering how it was the idea in Van Gogh's painting that has been so real to me over the years, this way of seeing others as ideas is not as abstract as it might seem. Knowing another to be "the immediate object" of my understanding, and then carrying this reasoning further to see that one as the object of God's understanding, has given me a spiritual, eternal view of myself and others.

When I was left alone

The value of this understanding was proved when my husband passed on. We had hardly ever been separated. We were partners in every aspect of our lives. When my wonderfully supportive family members left and I was alone, I could hardly stand the grief. One day I fled the apartment to a nearby park. As I walked, I was comforted by the realization that my husband was the idea of God. The consciousness of his presence was more real than any physical presence. I knew that the qualities he expressed were still with me and tangible - his unconditional love, wit, lack of guile, and total dependability.

For years I had never understood what people meant when they said of the departed that his or her qualities were still present. Now I understood because I had experienced his presence as God's idea and not as physique.

Whatever takes our loved ones from us - war, accident, or disease - we can still find comfort. Our very pain sometimes makes us flee from merely material or physical assumptions to a spiritual reality that finds all true being in God, eternally joyous and satisfied.

I didn't remain forever after in that spiritual altitude, but I learned about grief and how to ward it off. I found that the unhealthy, discomforting grieving and debilitating feelings came mostly in the wake of pity and remorse, self- imposed or evoked by others.

Others who pitied my plight would unintentionally induce in me self-pity, which someone has described as walking through molasses, and which most of us find unbearable. Sometimes, even without being prompted, I would be tempted to feel sorrowful about my situation and my future.

But those times would vanish as I was consciously and deliberately grateful for my husband, yes, for the always-present idea of him, and for the fact that he had come into my life and enriched it. This, of course, was powerful in assuaging fears for the future without him. I wasn't without him because he was "idea," even "the immediate object of understanding." He existed forever in God, and the closer I drew to God, the closer I felt to my husband.

There were two results from this kind of thinking. First, memories of his shortcomings rarely came to thought. Human failings are no part of the real idea, man, and therefore they had no foundation or continuance in memory. Second, I began expressing more of the qualities that he exemplified, especially unconditional love.

Turning remorse around

As for remorse, I am learning to turn it to a healing advantage. I always knew that all I ever had to do was ask him for forgiveness and it was given. I often felt that I was forgiven before I asked. So, instead of lingering remorsefully over the wish that I'd been a better wife/partner, I try to be a better person right now, and a greater benefit to society in general.

"Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" is a profound statement (Matt. 5:4). We can experience it on several levels. We can be grateful for its promise that those who mourn will be comforted even if we don't have the opportunity to come to their aid. The deeper promise is that as we join with those who mourn, including those who have lost loved ones in fighting for their country, we can comfort the bereaved. Even if unacquainted with surviving family members, we can hold in prayer the recognition that the one who has passed from sight is, in essence, a spiritual idea, forever the immediate object of God's understanding and love. And finding our own comfort in knowing God better contributes to a mental atmosphere that not only comforts but also heals.

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