Grief: Love beyond this world as we celebrate All Souls Day

By Britt Echtenkamp, MA, LPC
Guest Columnist

On Dec. 17, 2013, my uncle, Joseph Holan, was hit by a car while he was biking to work. He died instantly. He was young. He had four children and a loving wife. He was the only other Aggie in our family, besides me. He was the eternal jokester, doing anything for a laugh. 
The last time I saw him was on Thanksgiving of that year, but I was too busy being stressed about serving food to spend time talking with him. 
And then he was gone. 
I spent several weeks wandering through my daily routine, not really noticing what was happening around me. Everything either seemed muted or too loud. I didn’t know what to feel or how long I should feel it. I felt everything at once, and then nothing at all. It was a confusing time, and I assumed that just as my relationship with my Uncle Joe ended, so would the grief. 
Someone once told me that grief is like taking a long walk along the seashore. At first, we feel each wave hit our feet and ankles. We watch as each wave hits us, consumed with the shocking chill and ensuing shivers they induce. But if we walk long enough, soon all of these sensations begin to blend into the background. Our mind wanders, we think of other things. Pretty soon we barely notice the waves. In fact, we soon forget they are there and their absence becomes our new normal. 
Then a huge wave crashes –– seemingly out of nowhere –– and sprays not only our feet, but legs and arms, too. It is cold and biting and suddenly all of our attention is focused on the water. We reel from this jolt to our senses. We may yearn to walk away from the shore to avoid another episode, then realize the waves are a part of us now. They will dull with time, but there will be other waves, though maybe fewer and further between. 
A significant loss stays with us, changes us, and leaves us perpetually walking along the shore. The waves of our grief become further and further apart, but they don’t end. Our relationship with them changes. 
The secular world tells us that death is end of our relationship to our loved ones. We may hear that our grief will end and/or “You’ll get over this.” Then when we shout after being hit by a wave months or years after the loss, someone may assert “You should be over this by now.”
But how can we be “over” something that didn’t end?
Our faith tells us that death doesn’t end our relationship with those who have died, it only changes it. “So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the constant faith of the Church, this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (955).
Just because our loved ones are not physically with us, does not mean our relationship has decreased in any way. Our relationship “is in no way interrupted” by death, and is in fact “reinforced” by our spiritual relationship. 
Perhaps this reality does not lessen our grief, but serves to change our perception of it. The physical loss is still very real, as we mourn what used to be and mourn the loss of future physical interactions. This is an expected part of the grieving process, as we are both a body and a soul. 
But as a people of faith, let us add something to that process by allowing ourselves to continue our relationship with those souls who have gone before us. The world may say they are gone from our lives forever, but we know the truth: our relationship is not over, it is just different. What hope that brings to a grieving heart!
As we celebrate All Souls Day, we may find ourselves grieving the loss of our beloved’s physical presence. Let that not be the end of it –– may we also honor their spiritual existence by praying for them, asking them to pray for us, or lighting a candle for them. Additionally, maybe we’ll set a place in honor of them at the table during Thanksgiving or take turns sharing our favorite memories of their time on Earth. 
However we decide to celebrate our continued relationship with the “brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ,” may we do so with the confidence that death is not the end; it is only the beginning.

Britt Echtenkamp, MA, LPC, is a member of St. Albert the Great Parish in Austin. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor with the Intuitus Group in Cedar Park, specializing in counseling for miscarriage/infancy loss, pornography addiction, OCD and play therapy for children.