As priests, we are privileged to be part of families and share many of life's situations with them, particularly their experiences of death and grief. I remember one in particular when I was called to the hospital where one of our parishioners had just died. I was greeted by a distraught nurse who said, "The family are all in the room and they are all crying. Come and say something that will get them to stop crying and make them feel better."
As I work in the area of death and grief, I get the feeling that at times we can assume grief is an un-Christian or sub-Christian response to the death of a loved one; that we Christians have discovered some secret truth which makes grief obsolete; that the Christian hope in eternal life eliminates grieving over those who die.
What is a proper Christian response to bereavement?
The death of a loved one can bring about an identity crisis in us. We are suddenly thrust from marriage into singlehood, from having a parent to having no parent, from having a friend to being alone.
We can experience many human emotions in grieving. We grieve because of self-pity, or anger, or guilt. All of these are important and permissible. It is a great deception, and even harmful, that one should not experience such emotions. These - even some very negative ones - must be accepted, expressed and worked through before healing can begin.
Psychiatrists sometimes speak of "grief work." And it is work. Grief is a process of working-out and living-through some painful feelings, reaching some tough decisions and performing some difficult actions. When we drug or rationalise our feelings away, or cover our pain with a sugar coating of religious platitudes, we fail to face up to something that must be faced. Namely that someone we love has died and is now gone from us.
This is why funerals are so important as a communal, supportive, patterned way of working through our grief. Social psychiatrists have noted that, generally, the more elaborate the funeral rites and the more care a society gives to its rituals related to death, the more quickly and effectively grief is worked through. At a time when many churches are de-emphasising the funeral and many people look upon the funeral as a kind of morbid experience, psychologists and psychiatrists are increasingly noting the therapeutic value of funerals and other rituals related to the grief process.
Finding the Christian response to death is not as simple as some would have us believe.
The death of Jesus represents our liberation, but it is also cause for lamentation because he is removed from this earthly existence: "The clay will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day" (Mark 2:20). And at the death of the first Christian martyr: "There were some devout people, however, who buried Stephen and made great mourning for him" (Acts 82). After the death of Tabitba, "All the widows stood beside him [Peter] weeping" (Acts 9:39).
As long as the story of God's dealings with us remains unfinished, death cannot be regarded as a complete blessing. It is separation, and separation is painful. Therefore, like the early Christians before us, we grieve.
Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the author of On Death and Dying, does not call the grief process into question. However, she seems to imply that death should he viewed as something natural and acceptable, something to be felt and realised.
We are usually masters at rationalising and avoiding things which threaten us. When death takes someone we love, it is tempting to try to avoid the pain of loss by saying "He is better off", or "She is with Jesus now, there is no need to be sad."
But is this not being dishonest about the pain of separation and the dark mystery of death? It will be a tragedy indeed if we transform our funerals from important occasions, when the community of faith meets to support a grieving family and affirm basic beliefs about life and death, into hypocritical illusions which urge people to suppress their real feelings and avoid the pain of death.
The Christian community and its ritual responses to death must give each bereaved person the grace to grieve in his or her own way.
When Jesus wept
We need to recall that Jesus is recorded as having wept on occasions.
He looked out over His beloved city, Jerusalem, and poured out tears of grief because she had denied her destiny. His grief was an expression of His love and His disappointment at the coming tragedy for the people He loved. Jesus wept at the thought of the unrealised dreams and the unfulfilled hopes which the eventual destruction of Jerusalem would mean (Luke 19:41-44).
Jesus also wept when He visited Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. Those who stood near Him on that day were quick to interpret His behaviour, for they said, "See how He loved him" (John 11:35-36). Grief was rightly seen as an expression of love.
Christians need not suppress their sorrow over the loss of loved ones. They grieve at death as everyone does. But because of their faith in the ultimate goodness and continual love of God, they do not "grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thess 4:13). We have a firm, sure hope, but this does not make grief improper. For in the face of death Christians respond with both grief and hope.
Fr Dennis W. Byrnes is parish priest of Kempsey (NSW) in the Lismore Diocese.