Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Coping with Grief 01

In the mid 1980s, as a rural parish priest, I tried desperately to find a short, readable and helpful leaflet or booklet for people coping with grief who are - as we sometimes say - on the edge of church life. I visited the church bookshops in Melbourne and Adelaide to no avail. Of course, there were substantial volumes written for clergy and counselling professionals; but nothing for “the average Joe” who is never going to read a book like that.

I was very fortunate that parishioners had relatives in the town of Swan Hill, across the border in Bendigo Diocese, at a time when the parish priest there was the colourful and gifted communicator, Fr Max Bowers. On one of their visits to Swan Hill they brought back a collection of pew sheets and other material compiled by Father Max. Included was his little leaflet on grief. It was just what I was looking for!

In fact, Fr Max gave me permission to use his leaflet as the basis of an article on grief for my parish magazine. Subsequently I made copies of the article for use with bereaved families, and revised it a number of times. Then, during my fifteen years in Brisbane, I wrote and re-wrote the article, both for the parish magazine and also as a leaflet for use in ministry, adding new material each time. Well, for all of the additions and changes in wording, I think that Father Max would still recognize the passages inspired by his original leaflet. But there’s a lot more besides. Indeed, I recently did another serious rewrite. A few weeks ago in the aftermath of a funeral one person to whom I’d given a copy of the leaflet asked me why it isn’t on my blog, as she would like to give friends the URL for them to read it as well.

So, I have decided to publish it here over the next few days. Before long I’ll provide a link to the pdf of the leaflet itself. I hope you find it helpful.

“In the midst of life we are in death.” Those stark words from the old Church of England Prayer Book express only too well how we feel when someone we love dies. 

We are likely to be frightened and emotional - even volatile - especially if the death was unexpected and we are in a state of shock. For the sake of others we try to put on a brave face, while we ourselves feel trapped in a tunnel of darkness, blame, depression, and regret. Sometimes it seems as if we will stay trapped for the rest of our days.

Sooner or later most of us do come out the other end of that dreadful tunnel. We start to see the light again and, though still fragile and hurting on the inside, we tentatively take our first steps into the future. We even discover that working through our grief has made us stronger. 

It’s not so much that we “get over” it, for, as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, when we love someone deeply, “the presence of [their] absence is everywhere.” In any case, because grief is born of love, it has a certain holiness, and ought not be indecently hurried. Paradoxically, the grief that makes us feel helpless and crippled can also nourish and affirm our sense of connectedness with the one who has died and all others whom we love. 

Stephanie Ericsson has said, “[Grief] is the ashes from which the phoenix rises . . . It returns life to the living dead.” 

But getting to that point can be hard work. We all have to do it at some stage of our lives. The good news is that we don’t have to do it alone. Instinctively – sometimes after years of overlooking the spiritual side of life – many feel moved to open up to God, and although the pain is still there, and difficult questions about suffering and the apparent injustice of life remain unanswered, we begin to experience the wonder of his healing love and peace. Also, if we are wise, we accept the care and support of our family and friends.


A Christian funeral helps us to begin coping with the death of a loved one. The service itself can be very simple with only a handful of family members present; or it can be a huge celebration with lots of music, hymns, ceremonial - bells and smells! - and a packed church. Instead, it might take place in a crematorium chapel, or even entirely at the grave. 

The service is made up of prayers, Bible readings, a short sermon, and our commendation of the one who has died into God’s loving care. When the funeral takes the form of a Mass, we are also able to receive Holy Communion. 

Christian people tend to experience a mingling of sadness and joy at funerals. Our trust in God’s promises give us hope, but our grief is still real. Some mistakenly think that because we believe in Jesus and his resurrection we shouldn’t be sad at all. But even Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:34-36). 

There are four things we do when we gather for a funeral:

1. We proclaim the Good News that the dying and rising of Jesus is his victory over sin and death, which, in his love, he shares with us. As one of the Church’s prayers puts it:

“In him [Jesus] who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. 
The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. 
Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. 
When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death 
We gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”

2. We honour the person who has died, giving thanks to God for all the signs of his love in their life.

3. We pray for our deceased loved one as they continue to grow in grace, experiencing God’s healing and cleansing in readiness for the full glory of heaven.

4. We give the bereaved the opportunity to share their grief, and we help them by surrounding them with love and prayer. 

A Christian funeral service seeks to do all this at once. It honours rich and poor alike, for in death we are equal. It helps us to anchor deeply into God’s love and to reach the point where we accept the reality of this particular death.


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