When my friend Tom lost his wife to cancer, he grieved more than anyone I had known. Along with a few close friends, I tried to reach out to him. Some days he was open to our offers; other times he buried himself in his work.
For many people, the process of dealing with grief due to the loss of a loved one will be among the hardest tasks they ever face. Sadly, some make it even harder by not acknowledging the need to process grief. The pain is so great they avoid dealing with it.
Often people assume the pain will pass quickly and something is wrong with them if it doesn’t. Equally dismaying is that people may think they are unique in their grief and have to deal with it alone.
Churches often are very helpful in offering grief assistance. Many parishes have support groups or other types of programs. What I have found best for parishes is threefold.
First, it can be church representatives who help people first begin the grief process. Under the guise of planning the funeral liturgy, I spend time with family members talking about the recently deceased.
Certainly, we use the session for choosing Scripture readings for the Mass or looking at musical choices. More important, however, I try to have family members tell me about the one who has died.
As a long-term pastor I know many parishioners and have some personal experience of their family relationships. Whether that is true or not, however, people want to tell me about the person they knew and loved. I allow them to talk, often directing them to go a little deeper than simple phrases like “everyone loved him/her.”
This initial process is step one of grief ministry from a parish. The second step may be taken for granted but should not be. That is the funeral liturgy itself.
The Catholic funeral Mass, with its rituals and symbols, is the most powerful form of funeral ceremony I have experienced. Although a stand-alone Scripture service provides the opportunity for shared insights, it does not have the power of the Eucharist to bring people through the death-resurrection experience.
No matter where someone is in dealing with the grief when that person enters the funeral Mass, he or she is likely to come out somewhere else in the grief process because of the Mass. That assumes that the liturgy is carefully planned and that the homilist does his homework to personalize his words as he also offers the hope of the faith.
Like most priests, I have presided at funerals of the aged and the young, those who died slowly and the ones whose deaths came quickly, people admired and successful as well as those who lived and died in the shadows. The unique distinctiveness of each death is comparable to the uniqueness of each person’s life.
At the same time, there is commonality in expressing God’s love and mercy, the church’s concern for survivors and the promise of an eternal life offered everyone. The Catholic liturgy must maintain focus on both the individuality and the universality of the dying and rising experience.
Then there is a third aspect of grief ministry that parishes can and need to offer: ongoing outreach to those affected. As mentioned above, there can be support groups or personal follow-up.
There should also be church-initiated rituals and memorial opportunities. Many parishes name the deceased at All Souls’ Day Masses. Some have special rituals for couples who have lost infants or have experienced miscarriage. Often parishes send out cards at various times to express their prayers at times like anniversaries of death.
Grief work is hard but must be tended to. The local church community, with its power of faith and hope, must be both the first and the ongoing agent in helping people deal with a loss.
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(Father Herb Weber is founding pastor of St. John XXIII Catholic Church, Perrysburg, Ohio. His weekly podcast can be found at 23.church.)