Real grief, false comfort and authentic Christian hope
“But I don’t want him in a better place! I want him here with me now, where I need him!”
If there were a class called “Introduction to What Not to Say to the Bereaved,” I think the well-intentioned “He’s in a better place” would surely be on the syllabus. Worse, what some people say in an attempt to “console” those who have lost a child is so egregious that I cannot bring myself to mention them here. But I do think Dante should have added a chapter to his great poem on purgatory for those who mean well but do harm in their bumbling attempts to reassure those who are grieving.
It’s not surprising that when we grieve we might become angry with those who would offer us clumsy consolation. We might also not be surprised that when we grieve we find ourselves angry with those who have died.
At my father’s wake, I sat next to my mother, just widowed after 53 years of marriage. She repeated over and over, “I can’t believe this is happening.” By the grace of God I had the good sense to say nothing. One of my widowed aunts came up to her and said, “Sue, are you mad at him?” She looked up and answered, “Yes I am!” My aunt advised her, “Then why don’t you tell him?” Mom moved with a speed and dexterity that she hadn’t been capable of in years, and went to the casket to express vividly her disapproval to my father regarding the timing and fact of his death. I was not surprised by her anger. When two hearts are woven together over the years (as were the hearts of my parents), a separation, but especially death—even a natural death, as was my father’s—is a kind of violence, a ripping apart of what had grown together and become one. We would be insensate if we were not shocked, indignant, and yes, even angry with the dead regarding the pain brought about by their death.
No one is surprised when those who are bereaved become angry with God. “Lord, how could you? How could you take away my … (fill in the blank: father; husband; wife; child, etc.)?” It is a perennial problem for philosophers and theologians: “How could a good God allow the untimely/unjust death of …?” A whole branch of philosophy/theology called “theodicy” is dedicated to that question. (Some philosophers and theologians argue quite ably that God’s goodness and justice don’t need to be “rescued” by theodicy, but that’s another topic for another time.)
Facing death, we grieve at being separated from our loved ones; we also then shed tears for ourselves. We grieve for ourselves when with reddened eyes and disappointed hearts, we look out at time stretching before us, and consider what we had planned to do and be with each other—all those good things that seem to have been snatched away from us so cruelly. We may have a proper pity for ourselves, then, as we see the impoverishment that comes from being separated from a loved one.
But because we are Christians, we may have a lively hope of a happy reunion with those who have gone before us in faith. As Saint Paul tells us, hope “does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). (And, no, I am certainly not a member of the “Don’t worry—everybody goes to heaven!” club.)
There may well be tears of sorrow and anger, as we Christians grieve for ourselves and the pain we endure as our loved ones are missing to us. Especially during this month of November, when we honor our beloved dead, let’s promise to console each other, and promise each other that we will help each other home to our Father’s house, where already a banquet is prepared for us and where we may be reunited with those who have gone before us in faith.
And as we console one another, as we keep faith with our beloved dead by praying daily for their eternal rest, perhaps these words of Saint Ignatius Loyola will help. Shortly before his death, Saint Ignatius wrote:
If we had our fatherland
and our true peace in our
sojourn here in this world,
it would be a great loss to us
when persons or things that
gave us so much happiness
are taken away.
But as we are pilgrims on
with our lasting city in the
kingdom of heaven,
we should not consider it a great
loss when those whom we
love depart a
little before us,
for we shall follow them before
long to the place where
Christ our Lord and
Redeemer has prepared for us a
most happy dwelling in his bliss.
When I write next, I will consider whether we should be zealous for spiritual combat. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
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