One of my older brothers is going through a Master’s program in Theology currently. “Spirituality of Death and Healing” is a class he is attending, which has produced fodder for some riveting conversations. Having lost our dear Mom four years ago today, we have lived through more than I thought I would in my 30’s: Her initial Cancer diagnosis, months of treatments, remission, Cancer re-diagnosis, more treatments, Hospice, her death, and then bereavement.
In the beginning of this past December, my brother texted me something “random” (my use of quotes is due to the fact that if you know me, then you know that I don’t believe that anything is random). In the message, he thanked me for the “tremendous sacrifice” that I made four years ago to stay with my Dad in the last weeks of our Mother’s life. I share this in all humility, as it’s hard even for this writer to share something of that intimate nature into a public space, let alone unpack it’s meaning. But since I know that there are many, many others who have done the same – or will do it, I wanted to use this as means to affirm your choice of caring for and ministering to the dying. There is no other experience that I find comparable to this inexplicable time of suffering, preparation, grace, and indescribable love.
We do what we are called to do, and His grace is always sufficient; yet it can take months, actually years, to work through the aftermath. It was that unexpected text which blessed me in a way that I didn’t know I needed. It was a message to help press on amidst the intensity of what has been swirling around us.
This blessing came after four unplanned experiences of ministering to families of the dying or deceased last year, and right before two more. Without fail, these experiences always reveal new areas of my heart that need Christ’s healing – so it’s a process where I am being ministered too as well. God…He knows how to get things done!
Our own journey has revealed what I view as a deep deficiency in support during the grieving process. My brother and I discussed how the Church is often good at preparing a soul for death (i.e. Chaplains, administering Sacraments, etc), but can fall short in supporting the loved ones after the funeral. As my Mom was dying and right after she passed, many poured out their support – it was beautiful. But people had to go home, as is the case, and get back to the lives. And that’s when it gets tough, as you stumble through the “new” way of life that was not of your choosing.
Looking back, I think I resented that at the time. I was newly engaged, but did not have my Mom at such a time that we had waited and prayed for, for years. Beyond that, a girl naturally wants to plan her wedding with her Mom. Things continued to move forward for everyone else, but our family would never be the same.
I had this form of anger, that I wanted others to understand what the world had lost when my Mom died. That I was coming into a time of my life when I needed her so much, but she was gone.
But things got busy and life had to keep moving. I was sometimes surprised to receive support from the most unexpected people and didn’t know what to do when I felt support lacking from “expected” people in my life. It was a time in my life that I am glad is behind me.
Even four years later, I haven’t gotten over the grief – I’ve just reached a different state with it. Yet the lessons I’ve learned will always stay with me. People need people to show their love and support, to be there, long after the funeral. I believe the lack of this occurrence may have something to do with our culture, and also with the awkwardness of what to say or do to family in the grieving process. Prayers are so important, but mourners need more than that, undeniably.
This became more apparent when I had something to compare it against. My brother shared the Jewish customs concerning death and mourning that he has learned about in his class. The Jews are obligated to recite what is called Kaddish, (Aramaic, lit. “holy”); brief prayer recited by a mourner or by the chazan. “It is part of the mourning observances for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse for one month, starting immediately upon burial. For parents, the mourning continues through the rest of the year because of the obligation of ‘honor’ in addition to the mourning.” [Source: chabad.org]
The Kaddish is not a prayer for the dead, but rather is meant to help those who mourn.
Think about that. The community surrounds the grieving family and supports them from the funeral, through the first week, month, and year that follow. This is much more than a ritual — it is providing necessary support by bringing the community together on an ongoing basis for those who grieve.
I strongly believe that there is much that our culture can take away from these Jewish practices. I’m intrigued to learn more about “How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn As a Jew”, which can be found in the recommended book, “Saying Kaddish.” It’s on my reading list, and then from there, how to apply it will be the takeaway.
This concept is so critical: To stay, pray, and care for the grieving. Not just for the day, but the Jews stay with them for days, and have set “checkpoints” beyond that. Shloshim, the first thirty days, the Jews exempt mourners from responsibilities of social, business, and religious life. It’s not take the rest of the week off and then back to the grind.
Reaching out to grieving instead of have them find their own way – and to do that in the days, weeks, and months ahead — I believe it would profoundly impact our culture. How much dysfunction can be traced back to the loss of a loved one from which another never recovered?
Personally, I know that there are grieving groups that I could’ve joined at Church, or I could’ve gone to Counseling; but at the time when my Mom died, I just couldn’t initiate or do “one more thing”. It honestly took all my energy to try and make it day-by-day at work and get through 5 months of destination wedding planning. I felt like diving into the loss of my Mom around other people grieving would just open the wound deeper and make me cry more, and I wanted anything but that.
I think friends tried to avoid the topic . I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of the awkwardness that comes from loss. While this should be an obvious point, I will give a bit of advice: Saying too much is often what will makes things awkward. I know that people are 100% good-intentioned when they try to console, seriously; however, when you’ve just lost someone who meant the world to you, having someone say things like, “Well, s/he’s in a better place” or “at least she’s not suffering anymore” just did not feel comforting.
This coming from someone who whole-heartedly believes in Heaven and is working out my salvation daily in “fear and trembling.” God, I prayed that she was in a better place– but when grief had a fierce grip on my heart, it just felt, well — to me, it felt something someone should say.
Honestly, death and dying are moments when words often fail. I think that PRESENCE is what really matters. Being present to the family/loved ones is what they need. I honestly can’t remember what many people said, but the people that were there, or that made gestures to show their support across the miles – that I certainly will never forget. Maybe the distance is too great, but a phone call, card, text, social media message, or email, any gesture can be a beacon amidst the darkness of grief for someone.
Sitting with someone and letting them share memories, tell stories, or just say whatever they want to in the moment is the gift of being present that means more than anything. Let someone just be, whether it’s sad, pensive, laughing or crying through memories — and believe me, the emotions will be up and down — that’s a gift to the mourner.
Reaching out to that person also means a lot, as many folks may think someone grieving will initiate contact. Sometimes they may, but many can’t remember who told them, “Call me if you need anything.” That’s so vague at any rate to someone overwhelmed by loss. I’d venture to say not to expect someone who is nursing a broken heart to readily call you, wanting to talk about it. Often times grieving brings depression, which means people want to withdraw. So it takes a friend to know when someone has gone deep into the isolation of depression and needs help reconnecting with the land of the living.
There are no hard and fast rules to grieving – it takes on a myriad of approaches. You don’t even know until you are in it how you will deal – and even then, it’s hard to determine what is best for yourself in moving forward. Sadly, many folks are just trying to survive.
I believe it simply comes down to love.
Love is what rescues the lost and brings them back to a safe place to reveal what’s in their heart.
There is undoubtedly a reason that comforting the afflicted is one of 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy. I know that my soul would’ve wrestled with the loss like it was falling into a black abyss without the context of my faith to place it within, and the comfort of those who love me. My experiences certainly haven’t been void of comforters, but they have caused me to issue a call for greater support to the grieving.
Paul Coakley, a young man that I went to University with, passed away this week from Cancer. A 30-something-full-of-life-and-faith man died a few weeks after his diagnosis… Lord have mercy. Even though I didn’t know Paul well, the witness that he and his wife have been profoundly moved me to the point that when I learned of his death I sobbed. Amidst the loss of a young shining light and true adventurer, it has been beautiful to see the community rally around his pregnant wife, young children, and loved ones. I pray that the support will continue to span the months and years to come, as that is when they will really need it.
That is what we are called to – comfort the afflicted. One way to do this is to be present to those who are in mourning, love them, and be attentive as to how God may want to use you to minister to the dying and their loved ones. Reach out to them. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, but even a small, “I’m thinking of you” could be a light to them in their time of need. Don’t be afraid to speak about the person they lost – share the good memories and things you loved about them too!
This post is the first in a short series on grieving and loss, including the next post by my first guest blogger on her experience with grief after suicide.
P.S. For a beautiful gift to those mourning as a reminder that your love remains, visit Songs of Consolation.