How Do We Deal With Death and Loss?
Do you and I feel at peace with those we have loved and who have died? The Church prays for them during the month of November, but what about us who are left behind after a death or a separation or divorce?
The family-friendly theme for November is “loss”. Maybe it is taking too broad a view but all losses in different degrees — death, family breakup or losing a job — are traumatic, can be debilitating, and make it difficult for us to cope with life.
One hears stories too even of pets wandering around looking for their missing person. Psychologically we experience an emptiness and physically our bodies too are affected.
There is intimacy in family relationships, whether they are good and happy or not. Living in close proximity, we have little choice but to coexist. So particularly when a death happens there will be shock, hurt, possibly anger or guilt, and various degrees of sadness.
The Death of a Loved One Affects Our Functioning
The death of a spouse is considered psychologically to be the greatest stress, other losses to lesser degrees. It won’t be the same in every case but it is clear that losses upset us, our daily routine and general functioning.
When my husband Chris died very suddenly I recall having poor concentration, mislaying things, forgetting where we were going, even making tea without a teabag.
My mom had died just a year earlier in a car accident, a very traumatic situation and we as a family grieved and mourned —but, for me, not to the same extent as I mourned my husband.
Parents who have lost children may find that experience more painful and this is also dependent on circumstances. Illness, accidents or suicide are different. Stillbirths and abortions also have an effect.
There is Support: Groups, Counselling, Divorce Care, Meditation
Support programmes and groups for bereavement have started up. In extreme cases where, after some time, a person is not able to come to terms with loss, specialist counselling is recommended.
Divorce care is also available, for the spouses and for children. Mediation during the process can be very helpful to minimise some of the acrimony that so often prevents the most reasonable outcome.
Has the Church supported families effectively in cases of loss?
The November pious list to pray for those who have died and are undergoing their state of purification so that they may rest in peace is not only for them, but for us too.
Does it sound cynical to say, “we are paying and praying” them into heaven? Although at a time of bereavement it might feel like you’re losing your mind, a maturing faith requires a deeper understanding and acceptance of the process of grieving.
Phases of grief: Did Mary Go Through These?
Research has been done into the phases of grief and the tasks of coming to acceptance as a process of psycho-spiritual growth.
Emotionally too the process should gradually lead to acceptance, after the initial shock, denial, anger, guilt, shame, abandonment and loneliness.
I’ve asked myself: Would Jesus and Mary have experienced some of those emotions during those final hours and thereafter?”
I have reflected on my own experience in writing over the years now, for example in a booklet titled Stations of the Cross for Those Who are Widowed.
Why Stations? I have found that reflecting on the Passion, Death and Resurrection, because a 15th Station is included, has been able to bring me closer to Jesus.
He was unfairly treated, was made to carry a cross, fell down under its weight and that of our sins. He was assisted by meeting his mother and by Simon and Veronica, but he was also able to reach out and comfort the grieving women. I found much to learn from this, both reflecting and relating to my own journey.
15th Station of the Cross
For the bereaved to be able to consider the 15th Station especially is a message of hope, of future reunion and unity with God.
Another booklet, Becoming Widowed, unpacked that the death of loved ones is not an event but an ongoing life process.
Traditionally November 1 was All Saints Day and November 2 All Souls. On the first day we commemorated those recognised as good and holy, and also a celebration of the communion of all saints.
Then the sadness on All Souls Day tended to focus on the loss of our own loved ones. We may see them as saintly, or recognise them as sinners like ourselves and deep down may wonder where they are now.
All Saints and All Souls
I believe we are quite ambivalent about this. We shy away from saying somebody has gone to hell, even though we use that expression quite commonly.
We can live with them being in purgatory but what does that really mean? In our heart of hearts we believe that our beloved ones will be with God, or at least well on the way there.
Maybe having the feast of All Saints transferred to the Sunday after All Souls helps us to relate to the communion of saints to which we all hopefully aim to belong.
Reflecting on death and bereavement should also happen at home, in the little church, the family where all members can have an opportunity for sharing and healing.
RIP and be comforted.