We often don’t know what to say or do in the face of death. We place tremendous emphasis on living well, yet rarely give much thought to dying well.
When it comes to those conversations, here are some considerations for those preparing for an impending loss, such as someone facing terminal illness or their twilight years. In addition, you or someone you know may find some direction on setting out on the journey of grief. In approaching these sensitive and emotional topics, we remember the beautiful reassurance of Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirit is crushed” (v. 19).
In obituaries in recent years, it is more common to see the stark words: “Per the wishes of the deceased, no services are planned.” It’s a real loss, though, considering that every human culture — even from prehistoric times — has had some sort of practice of commemorating the dead. This minimalist sentiment sometimes comes from a well-intentioned sense of humility. “I don’t want everyone making a big fuss about me,” you’ll hear people say.
In that situation, encourage the person to look at a crucifix. “Listen, Mom — Jesus has already made an awfully big fuss about you. He took his love for you all the way to the cross. Having a time of prayer and remembrance at your passing is not much by comparison, don’t you think? And besides, a funeral isn’t just for you. It’s for all of us, too, to gather together our tears and memories and stories and offer it all up to God, knowing that we are not alone in the days to come.”
You’ll also hear families hesitate because, “Well, Dad wasn’t much of a churchgoer…” A Mass of Christian Burial (i.e., a funeral Mass) is the preferred option for a baptized Catholic, even if he or she was not active. Furthermore, a good parish should make all family and friends of the deceased feel welcome, regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs. That doesn’t mean “anything goes” for the funeral Mass, but any parish that turns someone away because they weren’t “connected enough” ought to be reported for pastoral malpractice.
Nonetheless, there are other options; it’s possible to have a Catholic funeral without Mass, perhaps held in the parish church or at a funeral home or chapel. A “celebration of life” is good, but it sometimes sugarcoats the reality of death and downplays our very human need for healthy mourning.
We know the funeral is just the beginning of the grieving process for loved ones left behind, but it is an essential step to getting started on the right path. They say that grieving much is a sign of having loved much. The words are true, even if they aren’t particularly consoling to the person experiencing such a painful trial. In some small way, though, gratitude for the life of a loved one can be part of the path toward healing. Minimizing the grief is not helpful, but the pain can be softened by giving thanks for all the blessings that have been.
Not every parish community offers formal ministry for those mourning a loss. Some may have a wise and compassionate listener in the person of a pastor, a staff member or an experienced volunteer. Bear in mind that the parish community strives to serve not only at the death of a loved one, but in other losses and crises, such as a change in mental or physical health, a job loss or breakup of a marriage.
If adequate local support is not available directly in the parish, it is absolutely worthwhile to look into a neighboring parish or resource. Frequently, a hospice agency, hospital chaplain or funeral home may have some recommendations.
One very reputable faith-based offering is GriefShare, which employs excellent videos in a small group format with others who are on the same journey. It’s ecumenical, so it suits a variety of Christian backgrounds. It also covers a tremendous range of the practical, spiritual and emotional aspects of the loss of a loved one. You can find sessions near you at griefshare.org.
Finally, remember that there is no shame or stigma in reaching out for the support you need, be it through a parish, therapist or counselor. Jesus is truly present to heal and restore you, bringing hope and joy to our places of pain and heartache.
Pable is a practicing husband and father of four, working in pastoral ministry at St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Neenah.