Don’t Hope for Hope. Make Hope!
Some bereaved people describe their grief as a sense of hopelessness, like the world won’t ever be right or fulfilling again. It can feel as if there’s no future, which is why one need of mourning is to find ourselves again, to regain a sense of who we are. We need hope to get through dark days. How can bereaved people find hope again?
Each year, I choose a word to guide my meditation and prayer practice. My word of the year serves me better than New Year’s resolutions. I intentionally think, read, and write about this word, and I put it into practice all year. I enfold it into my ongoing life and infuse it into my soul. In past years, I’ve worked with such words as listen, surrender, breathe, create, manifest, grace, mercy, and hope. Hope has been an especially challenging word to work with because I (and many other bereaved people) have tried to find hope when I have felt hopeless about both personal losses and the challenges others face in an imperfect world.
What is hope and how can we pray it? It might be felt as wanting something good to happen. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that hope is a “confident expectation of divine blessing.” Donna MacLeod, a nurse and bereavement specialist, created a Catholic grief group support program specifically intended to instill such hope. Thanatologist (a specialist in dying, death, and bereavement) Dr. Alan Wolfelt defines hope as “an expectation of a good that is yet to be. It is an expression of the present alive with a sense of the possible.”
Hope can heal grief’s deep wounds, tending them from the inside out because it offers a glimpse of return to life beyond pain and sadness. I’ve taught people about hope as a sense of resilience, asking them to consider this statement: “I can do anything for XYZ time.” Fill in the blank. Can you make it for a week feeling this grief? No? How about a day? Well, what about an hour? A minute? This practice of living from one minute to the next when we feel great pain is a popular self-help approach.
I’ve also taught hope as an acrostic poem in which the first letters of each word join to spell another word:
I don’t particularly like that explanation of hope, even though it’s true; with enough time, possibilities do arise. With time, we can see those possibilities more clearly, too. While merely holding on seems a passive approach to hope, sometimes all people can do is hold on—for a time, that is. Just as mourning grief needs active expression and work, so does finding hope.
According to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue; hope is an active one, which is why I emphasize making things better for ourselves and others. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does need courage to hope.” Let’s look as what he means here. An analogy for hope is the half-empty glass (pessimism) and the half-full glass (optimism). Those two glasses are equal, though. There’s still a half-glass of something in each. What seems important, then, is to fill the glass! Similarly, hope as merely holding on is a partial approach to grief. Hope requires action, filling the human spirit.
Adding courage, as Sacks does, to hope’s definition changes everything. Courage means heart from Latin. Some say it means with heart. According to researcher Brené Brown, “Courage is a heart word. . . . In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’” Although courage has come to mean bravery or strength in the face of trials, I think of courage as meaning “with heart.” So, hope is active and requires courage, or heart.
Fr. Marc Lanoue, a priest in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, preaches that hope requires not only a partnership between us and God, but also a partnership among ourselves that asks all of us to participate. If so, hope requires action, courage, heart, and partnership between us and God, between us and ourselves, and between us and other people. So, now hope has an entirely different meaning beyond simply holding on for upcoming possibilities. We must put ourselves into it, speak our minds, partner with others, and bring the future into being. It’s about making things better and doing our part.
As we instill hope in ourselves and each other as the bereaved, we can remember that no one needs to mourn alone. We can develop a courageous, heart-filled, active partnership with each other, helping each other in grief by working together to fill our spirits with renewed life.
Hope means taking time to mourn, knowing grief will always be there when thinking about the loss. Hope means choosing to live our current life and continuing to love. Life is about transition and struggle, but it’s also about breathing and enjoying the day. Mourning grief hopefully offers opportunities to self-reflect and reengage life, seeking it out. Although humans can’t control life and death, we can steer into life rather being steered by death. This is hope.
© 2023 Beth L. Hewett
Adapted from: Hewett, Beth L. Grief on the Road to Emmaus: A Monastic Approach to Journeying with the Bereaved, Liturgical Press, 2023.