LITURGY MATTERS: Grief Matters

In the past couple of years, we have experienced three miscarriages in our family. Beyond the grief of the present moment, this took me back more than thirty years to when one of my brothers and sisters-in-law experienced two miscarriages before having my now grown and larger than life, almost infamous nephews.

With the more recent experiences of miscarriage, it was a secret, in one case carried only by the couple until after they held a beautiful, healthy baby in their arms. In one of the other experiences, the parents of the couple knew and so could wrap them in love and care.

In each case, part of my grief was for how alone they must have felt as they bravely got up each day, went to work, socialised with friends and family, and rejoiced in the birth of other babies, all as if nothing had happened and they were not changed. I grieve for the love and support they could have had.

As a Church community we recognise and respect the significance of miscarriage grief. In the Book of Blessings there is an ‘Order of Blessing of Parents after a Miscarriage’. This blessing is for everyone, no matter where they sit in, or even beyond, the wide tent we call Catholic. It can be adapted to circumstances and led by any member of the faithful.

My life and ministry have always led me into the company of people who experience death and grief – sometimes in unimaginably tragic and shocking circumstances, and sometimes as part of the natural flow that brings a long life to its end. So I have been pondering the mystery of death and grief for most of my life.

This has led me to reflect constantly on the deeply human truth that grief matters, and the associated deeply frustrating truth that as a society, in so many ways, we pretend that it doesn’t. This pretence is ultimately not good for us as individuals, as communities and as a society. While it is well-intentioned and, often initially, critical to our capacity to endure, it is naïve to think that it is best to shelter ourselves and those we love from death and grief.

Language is one of our most common forms of ‘taking shelter’. Nobody dies anymore. They ‘pass’. Do they really? No, people do die. People are dead. People are dying. The Catholic ritual book we use to honour our experiences of death and grief (the Order of Christian Funerals) contains no such euphemisms. The language is intentionally clear, for example praying about the ‘certainty of dying’ though always in the context of faith that proclaims ‘life has changed not ended’, and with sensitivity to the unique circumstances of every death and every family. The whole book acknowledges that grief matters and that it is a journey with many faces and many stages. The book provides resources to accompany people on that journey.

Some of the other ways we ‘pretend’ grief doesn’t matter are clustered around what we choose to do or not do when someone dies.

Let’s ‘think big’ for a moment. From the very origins of human existence, we humans have ritualised death and grief.  Prayer and liturgy are not a Church ‘invention’.  All faith traditions have rituals and prayers that mark and celebrate death and grief, because to do so is to respond to a deeply human need. To ritualise death and grief well, is essential to us being able to experience ‘good grief’. Grief is healthy. Grief is to be respected. Grief is to be embraced not denied. Grief lived, ultimately heals. A funeral, whatever form it takes, helps us experience good grief.

In the face of this human wisdom there is an increasing tendency in our society not to have any funeral. When the person dies the body is collected by the funeral director and buried or cremated privately. This decision is sometimes made by a person before she/he dies. Sadly it is sometimes made for financial reasons. However, the more common motivation is to ‘save’ the loved ones from facing something that would be too sad and difficult.

Many people ask: Who is the funeral for? The deceased or the grieving? Most fundamentally the funeral is for the living. In our Catholic Church, those who are grieving gather for a funeral: to thank God for the life of the person who has died, to pray for them, to proclaim our faith in Christ and our ‘sure and certain hope’ in eternal life, and to hand the person we love back to God’s care. This is the work of family and friends and the broader community. The funeral is for the living.

Ideally the funeral is prepared by the grieving, not by the person before she/he dies. Although considering what would be meaningful to the deceased or what would be consistent with their wishes is an important starting point for many. In preparing a funeral, we are doing the last things we will ever be able to do for the person who has died. My dad died a long time ago. I still remember how important it was to mum to take great care preparing his funeral; to do these last things for him. And then more recently when mum died it was such a privilege for us to spend our love and grief doing these last things for her. So many stories to tell. So much laughing and crying. People gaining strength they never thought they would have to participate in the way they felt comfortable.

All of this is part of the work of grief. Yes, it is complicated when there is tension in families. However this work is critical to our grief journey being a journey of ‘good grief’ because grief matters. It needs to be respected and celebrated so that it can be lived in a way that expands us.  

Perhaps another way we pretend grief doesn’t matter is to treat it as something more private than communal. Something we do behind closed doors. And so there is the increasingly common practice of having a ‘private’ funeral, after which a notice is put in the paper. I can’t begin to recall the number of people I have sat with whose grief for a friend or neighbour or parishioner has been complicated by the anguish of being denied the opportunity of being part of the funeral. This is a COVID-19 legacy with which many of us are currently struggling.

Our Catholic Order of Christian Funerals emphasises the communal nature of grief:

When a member of Christ’s Body dies, the faithful are called to a ministry of consolation to those who have suffered the loss of one whom they love. (OCF a. 8)

Yes, it is churchy language, but I think the point is clear. Grief matters to the whole community, whether the deceased person is known to them or not. We accompany each other in the sorrows as well as the joys of life.  

The Church says the same about our care of ‘the sick’.  We, ‘share a ministry of mutual charity and “do all that (we) can to help the sick return to health by showing love …”’. (OCF a. 8)  

Grief matters to us as individuals and because of this, grief matters to the parish community. As our ritual books say – echoing the Gospel – it is the responsibility of the whole community to accompany with love and care, the sick, the dying, the dead and the grieving.

For this reason, some form of ‘Bereavement Ministry’ is core to the life and mission of every parish. Myall Coast Parish recently established a Bereavement Team. Members are currently in the middle of their formation and discernment for ministry. Two new members of the Chisholm Region Bereavement Team have joined them for this.

The purpose of such parish teams is twofold:

  • to wake up and support the whole community in taking up its ministry with the sick, dying and bereaved;
  • to accompany and support families and all members of the community as they prepare a funeral for the one they love.           

Grief matters. Our grief – whatever its cause – can become ‘good grief’ when it is acknowledged, shared, supported and celebrated with meaningful prayer and ritual.

What does this reflection lead you to ponder?

Aside: If you are interested in exploring the ‘Order of Christian Funerals’ in a group, please contact Sharon and I will see what can be organised.  

Acknowledgements

Image by Richard Mcall from Pixabay 

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Louise Gannon rsj Image
Louise Gannon rsj

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Co-ordinator of Liturgy.