The Catholic University of America


Experts Reflect on Grief

  Neil Vigil
  Hundreds turned out for a vigil in D.C.'s Sherman Circle following the death of CUA student Neil Godleski, who killed there in August 2010. Neil's story is featured in the Spring 2015 issue of CUA Magazine.

The Spring 2015 issue of The Catholic University of America Magazine has two article with a similar theme, the sudden and tragic loss of two young people. (See “Celebrating Jamie” page 14 and "You Were Well Loved" on page 24.) So we called on two University experts to address the complicated process of grief.

Monroe Rayburn, Ph.D., is director of the Counseling Center.

When someone dies young and suddenly from tragic circumstances — like Neil and Jamie did — is there another layer to grief?

Whenever anyone dies unexpectedly, especially in tragic circumstances, people experience not only grief but also a complicated array of other emotions — potentially including shock, guilt over not having been able to protect the person who died, and a shattered sense of safety or of the predictability of the world.

It is often said no parent should have to bury their child. Why is the loss of a child such a hard one to bear?

When a child dies, it seems especially unfair or unpredictable, as if the natural order of things in the world is turned upside down. Not only is the loss painful in the here and now, but there is also the loss of the future that parents expect to have with their child. The loss of expected milestones in the future — graduations, marriages, grandchildren — the loss of all these future things is hard to bear.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one who died suddenly?

My advice would be to know that it is OK to grieve, and that there is no single designated way that people are supposed to grieve “correctly.” It can be an up-and-down experience that feels unpredictable. It can be helpful to lean on supports that you would normally lean on to get through any difficult time; for example, it may be helpful to talk with family, friends, or trusted coworkers or clergy. If it feels like normal coping resources aren’t helping enough, talking with a professional therapist is also worth considering.

Why does keeping a person’s memory alive through acts like sharing memories, scholarships, and tournaments in their name help with the healing process for family and friends?

Having a tangible memorial or activity in someone’s honor helps people feel connected to the person whose loss they are grieving. This also provides a clear way for grieving people to gather together to provide each other with support in the aftermath of their shared loss.


Father Jude DeAngelo, O.F.M. Conv., is University chaplain and director of Campus Ministry.

You are so often called on to provide comfort in times of loss. Even for a priest that must be hard.

It is a privilege to be part of that process, to be there at a time when a family is torn apart and have the opportunity to provide comfort. I always pray to the Lord to give me the wisdom to have the right words for each family. We see suffering through the lens of the cross. It is comforting to know that Christ weeps with us.

Students come to you for guidance when they are in a position to provide comfort to a family member or friend during times of grief. What is your advice?

They are almost always worried about what to say. I tell them they just need to be present. That simple act of being there, a hug, a hand placed on an arm, just saying “I’m sorry” is so comforting. And by all means, I tell them not to say, “He’s in a better place,” or “God must have wanted him in Heaven.” That’s not what people who are in the midst of grief want to hear. And Scripture tells us that God wishes death on no one.

How do you comfort a parent who has lost a child, whether young or an adult?

Parents give life. They shelter and protect and love their children so that they will grow up and have a better life. So there is a very painful break in the cycle of life. Even the most faith-filled person might feel anger. So I try to help them see that anger does not honor or give meaning to the life of their son or daughter. And I tell them there is no right way to grieve.