The road to Emmaus: coming to terms with the hard reality of loss

The road to Emmaus: coming to terms with the hard reality of loss

Fr Dennis Byrnes PP

The story of gain and loss, of joy and sorrow, of life and death, of union and separation is in each one of us. Which one of us has not said farewell to someone, felt a great heartache and deep sadness, wanted to stop the process, or wondered when the ache inside would ever leave?

It is the story of the death and resurrection of Our Lord and reminds us of the story of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-24).

Back in 1975, I had never thought about anyone in my family dying. I was young and such thoughts do not really concern the young - besides everyone seemed full of life.

Then came the phone call and my brother-in-law's voice: "I am sorry to be the one to have to tell you: your mother has just been found dead." My younger sister had just found our 45-year-old mother dead at home. A strange feeling of sadness came over me. The news was so unexpected, so sudden.

The painful truth of how hard it is to accept loss and to say goodbye started to take hold. Such was the beginning of a long and difficult process of coming to terms with the harsh reality of loss.

Instead of running from such occurrences we need time to reflect upon them, see them through, acknowledge them, and make them a part of our prayer life. Although life can be difficult, with its share of sorrows, it can also be very generous to us, and deeply enriching. It holds many promises of personal progress, many times of joy. And over time, we can become wiser, deeper and more compassionate persons.

But it is not always easy to believe this when one is hurting greatly because of loss.

Sometimes it takes years to understand and accept this truth. That is how it has been in my case.

The death of my mother touched numerous areas of life involving other losses. I found myself fighting, avoiding, struggling with and being angry or confused about the many forms of loss I had encountered, e.g., being transferred from one place to another, deaths of parishioners and family friends, losses of significant friendships of many years, betrayal by one I really trusted, struggles with Church changes and the death of a dear grandmother.

It was through prayer over a very long time that I eventually came to cope with loss. God seemed to be saying to me: "You must learn to face losses. You must come to terms with life's unfairness. You cannot allow your 'poor me' to stunt your growth any longer. You need your energy to give life, not to fight loss!"

The reality was eventually accepted that life can be unfair at times; that it has its share of difficulties, irrespective of how good one may be or how much one aspires to happiness. It was understood through God's grace that recovery was possible.

Loss will never be easy, but I can better identify the need to 'let go' and respond to the call to move on as a means of self-betterment. Losses can still be overwhelming at times, but the questions are changing.

Instead of asking "Why me?" the question is "How?" How can I advance through the pain of loss that comes into my life? Or "Who?" Who will be with me in this process - for one cannot endure intense losses without the supports of love and kinship.

The word "goodbye", originally "God be with you" or "Go with God", was a recognition that God was a significant part of the going. When one dreaded or feared the journey there was strength in remembering that the One who gave and cherished life would walk with us on the journey and would be there to care for and protect.

Goodbye was a blessing of love, proclaiming that if God went with us, we would never be alone. A loving presence would accompany us giving us strength.

To the person on the journey it meant: "We cannot keep you from this journey ... We who are saying goodbye hurt deeply ... You have made your home in our hearts ... Yet we know that your leaving is essential to your advancement. So go, go with God. May you always rest in the assurance that God will lead you, be with you, not fail you or desert you. So have no fear."

Do we ever get used to a loss or saying goodbye? Or should we? I think not. Saying goodbye helps us to experience the depths of our human condition. It leads us to a much deeper understanding of what it means to live life in its mystery and its entirety. We should not be afraid of the partings that life asks of us.

We may be harshly hurt by life's losses and farewells, but it is possible to recover our equilibrium. If we are prepared to move inside the heart of experiences, live patiently through the processes, and acknowledge the difficult and painful emotions, we can sense the wonder of spiritual growth and appreciate the depths of faith in our relationship with God and others.

As the disciples remarked to each other: "Did we not feel our hearts on fire as he talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?"

Fr Dennis Byrnes is parish priest in Kempsey, NSW, in the Lismore Diocese.

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