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Father Paul Keenan

Defining Life: Healing the Pain of Loss
by Father Paul Keenan

Two years ago there began a cycle in my life that seemed to lead to one loss after another. It all began with the death of my friend, Phil Salberg, alias "Phil from Howard Beach," a long-time listener to my radio shows who became a very dear friend. I had visited Phil in the hospital, but learned of his death when his son called one of my shows while I was on the air. The day after Phil’s funeral, New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor died. Losing him was like losing my father all over again. For many years, he had been both my bishop and my inspiration. Later in the summer, my cat Flicka passed away at the age of twenty-five. In the thirteen years she had been with me, I had watched her go from severe depression to a lively and cranky domination of her surroundings. The last night of her life, she ate her usual hearty dinner, went away quietly, and – during the night – left us. The next day, my dear friend Ned Giordano, in the prime of his life, suddenly fell over dead while talking to his mother- and father- in-law. A few weeks later, another old friend, Larry Murphy, affectionately known as "Uncle Dink," passed away. The year 2000 was a year of funerals.

So was 2001, if you measure it by the more than 3000 people – many so very young – who perished in the tragic terrorism of September 11. Among them was my good friend Chris Hanley, whose company I had shared at a baptism just two days before. Chris to me became a personal symbol of the horrible losses we all shared on and after that tragic day. I wondered if I – if we – would ever stop grieving.

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

2002 has left us to deal with those losses, and with others as well. Many companies have downsized, leaving employees holding pink slips and worries about bills. The scandals surrounding Enron, WorldCom and other corporations have affected the jobs and incomes of countless workers. There has resulted a loss of investor confidence. The threats of a similar loss of confidence motivated church leaders to revamp policies regarding clergy sexual abuse of minors. Our losses in recent months have included losses of people, of jobs, of income and of social confidence. That’s a lot of loss to endure.

Having endured numerous personal losses and having experienced heavy societal losses as well, one question rises head and shoulders for me above all others. How can the pain of loss be healed? Or can it?

In dealing with any life problem, such as healing the pain of loss, it’s important to start deductively – from above – rather than inductively – from below. That’s not as complicated as it sounds. For once you think about it, our usual approach to problems is to fix them. That’s the inductive way: we work at eye level to try to come up with a solution. When we lose someone, say, we’ll look for ways to fix our grief. Some people hide in bed. Others drink excessively. Still others lose themselves in projects. A sudden loss of income can trigger escape mechanisms in some and in others a frenzied rushing around to find any job, any source of income available. The problem is that fix-it solutions seldom work. The reason they seldom work is that they leave out the most important thing about us – namely, who we are and what we’re doing here.

The only cure for the pain of loss is to go back to the higher (or deeper, if you prefer) principles of Life and to work deductively from them to resolve the issues of our grief. My book Heartstorming explains this in detail. But let’s take a bird’s eye look at what this higher, more enduring healing is all about.

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan

In dealing with the pain of loss, I always like to start with the question – What is Life? Whether I’m dealing with the loss of a loved one or with another kind of loss, the first thing I want to do is to recall what I think about Life. When I’m dragged down by feelings of grief, I’m tempted to think that Life is in the world around me; and as I sense the loss of a part of that world, I suffer. On the other hand, if I remember that Life is not defined by the world around me, but is truly spiritual and infinite, then I further remember that it is the spiritual that constitutes the dearest essence of Life. Ideals like Beauty, Love, Truth, Purpose, and Peace. I work from that principle, deductively, and apply it to my grief. When Chris Hanley died so senselessly in the World Trade Center, my heart broke for the loss of my friend, on top of all the other losses I had had. Why is it that every loss seems to bring up all the ones that went before it? When I sat down to try to heal my feelings, I discovered that the essence of our friendship – our common love of Knowledge and Truth and the Beauty of music and the Love of God, for example – had not died with him at Ground Zero. If anything, it had been strengthened, and I knew that those shared ideals and our common dedication to them would long surpass the thirty-five short years of Chris’s earthy life. Do I still miss him? Absolutely. But his mortal absence from this world is no longer a stopping point for me, but rather enables me to move ahead with direction and purpose.

Something similar applies when we lose a job or lose our financial status. On one level, we feel fear and anger and other emotions as we look at what we have lost. But when we go back to the Life question and start from there, we can see how our former situation put us in touch with values such as Purpose, Patience, Concern for Others – that are what Life is really all about. These are not things we need ever lose. As a result, we can attune ourselves to a sense of Life’s abundance, rather than its scarcity. Life’s values are unlimited, and need never go away.

The first question, then, to bring to our grief is – what do I believe about Life? Coming to see the spiritual ideals embodied in our loved ones or in our former circumstances helps us to heal. It keeps us in touch with their essence, and helps us to remember that the essence of these relationships will never pass away.

A second healing question we can bring to ourselves in times of grief is – what do we believe ourselves to be? Lost in the throes of grief – especially if our losses have been many – we can come to see ourselves as helpless victims of fate. "I guess I’m just unlucky," we say. Or "I’m just a loser, I guess." Death and loss are inevitable and ineluctable masters, we believe, and there isn’t a thing we can do about it. All good things must come to an end, after all.

That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to be locked into grief and loss. On the other hand, if we allow our thoughts to proceed from above, we can see in the aforementioned ideals the possibility of a legacy, which will allow us to move forward while keeping the best of our relationship alive. In Stages of the Soul, I spoke of Antoinette Bosco, whose one son and daughter-in-law were brutally murdered, only to have another son later commit suicide. When I asked her how she managed to go on, she told me, "I decided that my children needed a legacy, and that my life would be their legacy." She is a prolific writer of inspirational articles and books, and a passionate opponent of the death penalty. Antoinette went on by drawing on the best qualities of the lives of her loved ones, and by empowering herself and her work with those values. By doing so, she continued to enrich and bless the world.

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan

If we are to heal from the pain of loss and grief, we must move beyond quick-fix solutions and draw upon an understanding of what Life truly is and who we really are as bearers of the best values of Life into the world. Can we heal? Yes. Is it an easy process? No. Is the healing complete? Usually not. But don’t despair – the edge of sadness that we retain is a gift that keeps us tenderhearted while it endows us with an appreciation of how precious our loved ones and our cherished moments are.

Where is God in all of this, and what if we find ourselves angry with God in the face of our losses? I believe that when we turn from our morass to look at the essential qualities of life, we are beholding the face of God. God is the Goodness and Beauty and Truth and Love that are the essence of Life.

Yet what about the anger with God that we sometimes feel in the face of our losses? People ask, "Is it okay to be angry with God?"

It’s a difficult question, because no one likes being angry with anyone, really, including with God. No matter how justified we think our anger at someone might be, we’re never happy at bearing the burden of being angry. In that sense, there is always something "not-okay" about it.

Granted that, there are really two parts to the question of being angry with God. One, are we ever right, ultimately, in being angry with God? Two, does God mind if we are angry with him?

To the first question, my own answer is that I don’t believe that God causes natural disasters, acts of war, acts of terrorism, illness and other evils. Rather, I believe he works at preventing them. In popular conversation, you hear the notion that God "permits" evil. Personally, I’m never sure what that could mean. God always respects human freedom, yes. Yet he always gives every help possible to entice us to choose good. But when people talk about God’s "permitting" evil, they often make it sound as if God really did want the evil after all. On the evening of September 11, when I was walking home from my office, a young man stopped me on the street. "What does God think about this?" he wanted to know. "He’s shaking his head," was my reply. I wasn’t kidding.

Does God mind when we get angry with him? The Hebrew Bible stories of Jonah and Job and the New Testament stories of the Prodigal Son and the anger of Martha and Mary with Jesus after Lazarus’s death, indicate that when we get angry, God listens. He does not react in kind or blame us for our anger. He listens, takes it in, and responds wisely and without rancor. By listening to our anger, God is able to heal it; for listening is what anger really needs and wants. When God replies, it is to uplift us rather than to retaliate. It seems that God is larger than our anger. He is Love, and he knows how to embrace us when we are angry and how to teach us without demeaning us.

The experience of grief challenges us to open our horizons from the material and temporal to the spiritual and eternal. When we allow ourselves to recall who God is and who we are, we can find a measure of healing and a way of cherishing Life.

© Copyright 2002 Father Paul Keenan.  All Rights Reserved.

Father Paul Keenan
Father Paul Keenan: Popular speaker, author and radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write about the issues that matter to people. Widely experienced as a national and local television and radio news commentator, he is the author of Good News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming. As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for various radio and television programs. In addition, he serves as a parish priest in New York City.

Father Paul Keenan, came to his now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after having been a college teacher and administrator and a parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City, where he graduated from Rockhurst University and completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in Philosophy at Fordham University.

Father Paul is also known for his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com) and contributes regular articles to various other sites. He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper, "Catholic New York." His other talents and interests include reading, cooking and being humble servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.





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