During this month of prayer for the dead, we continue our three-part series of homilies on the topics surrounding the end of life. Last week, we discussed end of life care. This week, let us turn our hearts and minds to those who grieve and the best ways to take care of them.
We begin today with a very basic principle: death is real. And so is grieving. Grieving is real.
I remember when my dad died. It's been almost ten years. I can tell you pretty much everything about that day-- where I was, what the weather was like, ... Dad had been sick for a while, so there was always the proximate possibility-- but his death was still sudden and unexpected. Dad and I didn't have the greatest relationship, but deep down I loved him. So his death was hard.
Some of you have lost a spouse or a brother or a close friend or a child. I personally have not experienced these. But death is a very similar experience for us all: it's like we were on a boat and suddenly there is a ship-wreck. While the boat goes down, some parts of the boat remain on top of the water, reminding us there was once a boat, and in the meantime, we are just treading water, trying not to drown as the waves of grief wash against us.
One of the things I often hear asked is "Father, when will I stop grieving?" I'd like to say that those waves of grieving stop, but the reality is that they don't. We come across a keepsake or we visit a place or a smell reminds us-- and suddenly there is the wave. We're never really "done" grieving because, well, grieving is the sign that we loved. And love is stronger than death. So, the waves of grief may diminish in frequency and intensity over time-- time brings healing-- but we will always love. I do not grieve my father like I did that night when I wept over his death-- but I still miss him.
C.S. Lewis, when his wife had died, kept a diary. Later, this would become a thin, little book called "A Grief Observed." It's a book that I recommend for everyone-- even if you're not grieving. Everyone should read it-- "A Grief Observed." In his diary, C.S. Lewis struggled to find the meaning of his wife's passing and the meaning of life after that. And he realized that, as he mourned his wife's death, a part of him really did die.
He wasn't speaking in figures. What he was saying was: our hearts are not just simply emotions. Our hearts are not just simply feelings. Our hearts are who we give our love to. And so when that person dies, that person to whom we gave our heart, so too does that part of our heart that we gave. Lewis found some consolation in this. You see, he felt that death had separated him from his wife. But now he realized that he wasn't all that separated from her as he once thought: as she died, so too did he share in it. They weren't totally separated-- they did go to death together. This reassured him that, should they rise, they would also rise together.
Death is real. Grieving is real. Love is real.
When we grieve, we have to be real about the death. The death happened. We feel the loss. This is important to acknowledge-- it's actually how we start to heal.
One area where I think our culture can do better here is for our mothers who grieve a miscarriage. The reality about the miscarriage is that there really was a baby there and a real death and also real grieving because there really was love. We must never overlook this; a mother's love for her child-- even the smallest child-- is still a mother's forever love. So, we must treat the miscarriage as a real death, for it really is-- and help mothers who grieve, for they really are. The Catholic Church, Our Mother, embraces mothers here-- know that we are with you. One of the ways to heal is to name your child if you haven't done so already. Even if you don't know if it was a boy or a girl, go ahead and name your child. After Mass, write your child's name in our Book of Remembrance and we will pray for your children. There is also a very beautiful blessing that the Church can provide you here-- even if its been many many years ago.
For all of us who have lost a loved one, Lewis points out that a sure path to healing is to do something counter-intuitive: that is, to praise God. What Lewis meant by that was: to think about the person and the gift that they were to us and all the gifts God gave us through them-- and to turn to God and thank Him for that. Lewis found that as he praised God, the joy of his wife would remain with him and he found comfort.
Another help that C.S. Lewis gives us as we grieve is a word of advice: Avoid the un-real.
What he means by this is, we like to create falsehoods about death-- false realities that really don't help us.
For example: we hear people say, "She is going to live on in my memory." The stark reality is that no, no she won't. This sounds cruel, so let me explain. Fifteen years ago, I was in college and I hung out with a group of friends. I hadn't seen one of them in over ten years. Of course, I had a certain memory of them, but then they came through town and visited me. And my image of them-- what I remembered of them-- it was completely shattered. Sure, some things were the same; but they had changed and I didn't remember things as well as I had thought.
Same goes with our beloved dead. The passage of time and the failing of memory acts like a kind of snow covering a statue. We do lose a sense of who they really were.
So, what do we do? Lewis says that we must be real about our memory of them: hold on to not only the good, but the bad. Be real about them-- don't turn them into a precious moments doll. Be real. This also means admitting that there were things we didn't know about them. And that's a good thing: a really bad person may have, in their last breaths, made a last confession to God. There is still hope for some that we may have thought had no hope. Remember that they have met Jesus and we will be surprised by when we meet them again-- if we are real about this, so too will our image of them be closer to reality.
This means we also have to be real about death. It comes for us all. Even for innocent children. We sometimes hear parents say: "A parent should never have to bury their child." And I get the sentiment of it-- but where in the rule book does it say that this is how things are? Our ancestors knew very well that the young would often die. Sure, they didn't have some of the safety-nets that we now have. But as many safety-nets as we may have, death still comes for the child.
Which puts us into touch to another reality: we all needed a savior. We need Jesus. Without Him, yeah, there would be no hope. Death would be the end.
So when death comes, we must always keep our faith. Indeed, I worry about those who lose their faith when there is a death close to them. You see, we don't know how much we believe something until it becomes a matter of life or death. If anything should topple our faith-- even something like death-- we learn something about ourselves: our faith needed a greater foundation on Jesus and His promise of eternal life.
Our faith, therefore, must never be based in the sentimental. Our faith is not a feeling. That's just a house of cards that collapses when the reality of death strikes. We need something that will stand up to the winds that blow. And that foundation is Jesus. Our need for Him is real.
One of the best ways to help someone who is grieving is to be real.
So, for example, when someone is grieving, don't tell them something sentimental like "Oh, they're in a better place now." That's not real. Because, the reality is, we don't know that. I'm not God and you're not God-- and only God knows where a person is when they die. Contrary to popular belief, not all dogs go to heaven. Jesus Himself said so. So we can't say "Oh, they're in a better place."
Lewis adds that, when he was grieving, he hated this line. Not only because it wasn't real, but also because he didn't care. He didn't care where his wife was. I mean, he did, but all he really cared about was that she wasn't here. Don't tell me she's in a better place-- help me to answer why she isn't here.
Don't tell grieving parents that their children are now "angels in heaven." They don't want angels in heaven; they want their children. And when we die, we don't become angels anyway-- no more than when dogs die they become human (they don't).
And on a personal note, after the twentieth time of hearing "I'm sorry for your loss" at the funeral home, I was pretty tired of the pity. I didn't want pity. Do you know what I wanted? Do you know what anyone who is grieving wanted? ... not sentimental words; not imaginary worlds....
What they wanted is this *pointing to Jesus on the Cross* ... What would you say to Jesus as He was dying on the Cross to make Him feel better?-- because that's where the grieving are in their moments of grief.
I'll tell you what Jesus and all the grieving want to hear: "I'm with you." ... "I love you."
Just to hear my friends say, "We're with you"-- that was real. And that was the best consolation. A close second to that were the stories that I heard about my father-- stories that I never knew about my dad and what he meant to people. That's what we can say to those who are grieving. Those things are real.
Another thing that is real is that the grieving need food and they need sleep. And sometimes they needed to be reminded about that: "Have you eaten anything today?" "When was the last time that you slept"?
And please, enough with the lasagna.
I'm serious. Comfort food is nice for a day or two. But after two weeks of comfort food, you really start to gain weight and that puts your further into a bad place mentally and not wanting to get out of bed. Bring healthy food to those who are grieving.
Don't say, "Hey, can I do anything for you?" Because, really, when a person is grieving, sometimes they don't know. And, even when they do, they usually aren't in an emotional place to ask. We have to take the initiative for them.
Eventually, the wake is over and the funeral is over and the family and friends all go home. And do you know what happens then? The grieving person is often forgotten.
So, after three-to-six months, we need to call the person and say, "Hey, we're going out." Don't ask them; don't say, "Hey, want to do something?" Probably not. Because they may be depressed. Say, hey, I'm coming by in half an hour whether you like it or not. And go for a walk or the Botanical Garden or something. But get them out of the house.
And be real: visit a cemetery. Pray together for the dead at the Mass.
Being sentimental about all of this isn't helping our culture. Death is real. And our love for the dead person was real. Our love for the grieving should be real-- not simply about good wishes and happy thoughts.
Jesus came not to make us feel good, but to make us aware of the reality of death-- and more, to save us from it. That's what's real.
So, let us give to Him all of our loved ones who have died. Receive them, Jesus, bring them home. Bring comfort to our hearts. Help us to comfort others with goodness and truth. For we trust in you. We trust that you will wipe away every tear. For you are our Savior and our Love. Be with us Jesus. Remind us that there is hope. Be our foundation and our strength. Fill us with your love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.