Despite eighteen years of parish ministry, helping families grieve the death of a loved one is still really, really hard—especially when it’s the tragic death of a child.
by Jen Schlameuss-Perry
In my eighteen years of ministry as a pastoral associate in a parish, there is one thing that, no matter how many times I have to do it, ever gets any easier: assisting families with the death of a loved one, especially when it’s a child.
A few weeks ago, our parish staff was consumed with ministering to the family of a young man who had been murdered. Not that we were constantly busy with it, but there were things to do, and nothing else we had been working on required the same attention or energy. And we couldn’t focus on the other stuff, anyway. As I said, this consumed us.
The day after Joseph’s funeral, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was absolutely crushed with fatigue and my whole body hurt. I even considered calling work. But, I thought, his parents have to get up. They have to face the day. You can get up. So, I did. All of my co-workers were in the same spot I was. Mourning a young man murdered while protecting his housemates from thieves, observing the pain of his family and friends, witnessing the outpouring of love and support for his family, sharing the pain of parents living out our worst nightmare, being present in case we were needed for anything—it wore us all down. Of course, what we were feeling was nothing compared to what his family has to endure. And that reality was more painful than the rest.
Grief can be debilitating. Just being able to put one foot in front of the other; just walking can be a struggle. Willing yourself through the doors of the church, you move toward the increasing reality that after the Mass, after the cemetery, after the repast—this is real. A quiet follows when everyone goes home and it’s just you; and life has to go on, but that person isn’t there. Who will sit in her chair? What will we do with her clothes? How will we observe her birthday? How will we ensure that she isn’t forgotten? How will we keep breathing when every breath is accompanied by the sense that our hearts will break?
I’m not very good at grieving. I’ve studied it; I know the stages. But, I’ve never really felt proficient in processing my own grief. I first lost someone I really cared about when I was an adult and already working in parish ministry. Because of my work, I was well-versed and well-practiced in funeral-related things and became the go-to for most family funeral planning, even presiding at many of my family wake and graveside services. So, I should be great at it.
But whenever there was a funeral in my family, the individual was (for the most part) between 90-104 years old and usually quite ill. I would certainly miss them, but their deaths were not quite tragic. The circumstances made it relatively easy to say good-bye. Plus, I had a job to do. So, my grief needed to be put aside until everything was over so I could perform my duties. Eventually, I stopped getting around to falling apart when it was all over.
I happen to be a very sympathetic crier, and when I see anyone lose a loved one, I feel right along with them. It’s in those times that I begin to relive my losses. They flood back, fresh, almost as if I was right there again. Annoyingly, grief doesn’t happen neatly, all at once, and it has a habit of coming up at the most inconvenient times.
After a loss, Mass is the hardest place in the world for me to be; particularly when the last time I was there was to say goodbye. The place that should be where I know God better becomes the place where I can’t bear to be with God—to hear God’s comforting words in the Scriptures, to periodically hear the songs that were at the funeral, to see the people looking at me with pity and asking me if I’m okay. It’s not that any of it seems empty or false—on the contrary—it’s where it feels most real. And I can’t take the love. I can’t take the concern. I can’t take the attention. All of it burns, and it can be unbearable.
And that’s grief. It’s knowing love and missing the beloved. It’s knowing God’s compassion and care and being angry that it doesn’t prevent death. It’s feeling alone surrounded by people. It’s being embarrassed that you can’t control your emotions in public (or private for that matter)—craving help, but not wanting to need it. And, it’s scary not knowing when it will return, and not knowing if you’ll have the strength to face it.
What can you say to parents who have lost a child? We’re praying for you. Keep telling and listening to stories about your child. Throw your pain at God—God can take it, and being a parent who has lost children, he knows what you’re going through and can take it. Talk to Mary about it; she’s been where you are. Stay in contact with your family and community and accept their help when you need it. Remember what we believe, and be open to the comfort and signs that God will send along the way.
When asked how she was doing dealing with a recent loss, a parishioner said, “Sometimes a day starts out good and ends up bad. Sometimes a day starts out bad and ends up good.” We never know what a day will hold for us. There’s no easy remedy to the feelings that come with grief; we just have to accept what they are and know that they aren’t the end. Because we have hope in the resurrection, we know that death isn’t the end. That hope flows into the assurance that, while grief will have to be our lifelong companion—sometimes heavy, sometimes a tiny ping—it doesn’t have the final word.