From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

2 Replies to “From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving”

  1. I can’t say I’ve ever heard the term, hiraeth, but from the description though I believe I know it well. It is strangely gratifying to know that this condition, that merited its own descriptor word among the Welsh people centuries ago, seems to be part of the ageless human experience and not just a product of today’s social isolation.

  2. What a gift! Yes, it exists. “The Kingdom of God is at Hand”…

    Some think, being holy is what unites Christians. Couldn’t be farther from the truth ….unless it is lead by the Holy Spirit and been proven with time, Fauth, Hope and Charity….God’s greatest Mercy in Jesus!!

    In my very short experience of life, I have found it to be suffering and the way it is dealt with, sharing vulnerabilities and being present in times of life altering moments…birth, death, processing reality that is not normal and being present in the normal events…celebrating and sorrowing together…the joyful, sorrowful and glorious events…birth, sports games, Sacraments, Birthdays, holidays, hospital visits, intense family situations, hard seasons…dimentia, illness, abuse recoveries, depressions, death, and weddings, graduations, trips, goodbyes, hellos…all alter and affect Community. …these are what bring people together…but God ultimately unites Christian communities. God’s Kingdom, Heaven, is what we long for….but here all the imperfections and sin we have to forgive to survive. Nothing is impossible for God. Nothing, with Him. Without Him, we make things on our own worse and worse….

    So, when grieving, the stages, there isn’t just one way….but when we come to Him, and are present to others, He heals our hearts …and that sense of home that we long for, He creates and we share with those we share His Presence with. We are United in the Blood of Jesus Christ. Through the cross and suffering, we can relate to others. Through humility and sharing our pain, others relate to us.

    But, only in Christ. Grieving is a gift… Painful…and in different countries, there are different ways and abilities and acceptances of it. It is cultural and dealt with differently in different parts of our own country. BUT…all who have lost grieve, whether they realize it or not. The person, or country, or political power they have lost affects who they are and how they see life. Those who lose one parent live with what thier “norm” is and judge all of life with thier experience as “normal.” Those who are orphaned at birth or later ..the same.e ….even though they know they are missing something. Just as those who r raised with two parents…think everyone has thier experience

    …they don’t.

    “Created in the image and likeness of God.”. Each one of us
    Has a purpose.
    Each, no matter what they consider normal, has to deal with what is not. In seeking comfort, happiness, relief from pain, the degrees are different, but if you are human, most by 21 years of age experience grief in some form …
    So thank you.

    In my life it was heaviest at 3, but I didn’t know til I was older, and different.

    Yes, God allows people free will, and it affects others more than anyone realizes. But it also can lead us and allow us to experience the love of our Heavenly Father (in a way those who don’t have loss at a young age) can understand.

    So we pray, for all who have suffered loss , to turn to the one who knows the pain the most, and the consequences of trying to fill that hole with everything…for God to heal it and be present to those who sorrow now. May the Comforter be thier consolation and may they find the Eucharist (Jesus) as thier source of strength…for God gives us His life in the Sacraments….confession and Eucharist weekly, even daily when we open our hearts and minds.

    Another idea …I always knew that at Mass, I was closest to my dad. For there is the thinnest veil between Heaven and earth…meet you in the Eucharist…all the Saints before us, all the world now, every country, every people, can meet Jesus at the Epiclisis and there He comes to us, Emmanuel

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