The privilege of walking with people who mourn
Sometimes when people hear that I am involved in about 40 funerals a year, the reaction is “how depressing”. Not really. I am in the fortunate position of having known many of the people and their families for quite a long time. To journey with them as part of my pastoral ministry is a deep privilege in that I learn continually from the goodness of people opening their hearts to the many facets of God’s love for them.
Every death, just as every life, is unique. The death of a child, maybe stillborn, is heart-wrenching for the parents and other family members. Sudden and tragic deaths especially involving suicide inflict a terrible toll on those left behind, particularly when young people are involved.
At the other end of the spectrum is the death of a faith-filled person surrounded by family and (not too many!) friends. Maybe it is at home, in a hospital or in a hospice like Clare Holland House. We pray each time in the “Hail Mary” for the grace of a happy death. But even in such cases, there is sadness in the finality of death.
In these and in so many other situations, the value of accompaniment is so important. Walking with those we love, often without many words on our part, can be very healing, allowing bereaved people to open up if they wish. I am always humbled when a dying person or their family ask me to walk with them on their final journey. I don’t have any magic words. But by listening to their fears, doubts, regrets and hopes, I seek to assure them of God’s merciful love for us all. To be able to pray with them and offer Holy Communion and the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick allows them to experience the healing love of Jesus in a special way. It is so much better when family members can participate.
I am very conscious that people are at various stages of their faith, both in relation to the God of love and the Church. I am convinced that it is essential that we accept people “where they are at” and assure them of God’s unconditional love for each of us. That needs to be said not just in words to a dying person but to those grieving and indeed to the people taking part in a funeral service.At times, family tensions can arise or re-surface at the time of death. It takes much wisdom, skill, and patience to help in such scenarios.
It is wonderful that some parishes have a bereavement group where the members with suitable training and supervision can minister to fellow parishioners and others at a very raw time in their lives. People frequently speak to me about the kindness afforded to them many years before in the aftermath of a death. Sometimes they share that they didn’t hear from others they thought would contact them. I try to explain that it is probably not a case of people not caring, but rather not being confident of having the right words. Sometimes a gentle hug, hand on the shoulder or a quiet smile can best communicate our love in times of sorrow. Then there are all the lovely stories of people providing food, helping with cleaning and child-minding and many other acts of much-needed kindness.
I try to remind people and myself of the importance of keeping in touch in the aftermath of a death. There can be a let-down for the family when people disappear after the funeral. There also needs to be sensitivity, knowing that it can be awkward for bereaved people reappearing in public not long after the death of a loved one.
Mary Help of Christians Parish Memorial Board
The Mary Help of Christians Parish liturgy team has prepared a memorial board for the month of November, the month where we honour all holy souls, those members of our family and parish who have died in the last twelve months. The team keeps the covers from all the funeral booklets that have been used at funerals in the parish, or at funerals of loved ones connected to parish families. They then mount them on a memorial board on the sanctuary for all to contemplate as a prayer focus. The parish also has a Memorial Book which is brought forward during every mass in November. Pride of place is a handmade poppy wreath at the bottom of the board to remember our war dead. Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.