[I had occasion recently to send an excerpt from Prepare for the Kingdom—the book I co-wrote with my friend Laura Grossman, who died about six years ago from cancer—to someone who was grieving the loss of a loved one. I thought it might be good to post the short chapter on grieving, in case you or someone you know might be able to benefit from it. Lent is a time, in the Byzantine tradition, when many prayers and services are offered for the deceased, so this might be appropriate now.]
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord… they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Rev 14:13). Having fought the good fight and run the race to the end, Laura’s journey to death is over, but through death her entry into life has just begun. Her allotted time, in a proximate sense, to “prepare for the Kingdom” and to enter therein was four years to the day. After being away for many years, she arrived at the monastery on June 29, 2003, and she was buried on June 29, 2007. This was the time the Lord had given for her repentance unto salvation, and she responded to his gracious gift. Not everyone receives that much time to reflect and repent.
Once she left this world, though, it was time for us to begin our journey of acceptance and grieving. Death is utterly final; there is no turning back, no second chance. This is the hard thing to grasp. She was there and now she is gone; all that’s left is a corpse, her body but not her soul. It comes as a shock even when we know very well what death means in practical terms. I think we are never adequately prepared to experience the death of a loved one. Having done what we can, we must simply rely on the grace of God for strength, peace, and wisdom.
It takes a long time to “process” the reality of death. For months afterward I was still saying to myself: “I don’t get it.” Of course I understood what had happened, but the memories and the pictures of Laura while she was alive seemed strangely, almost horribly disconnected from the image of her lying in the casket at her funeral. How could it be the same person? In fact, it isn’t, really, for all that was in the casket was her lifeless body. Her essential, immortal self is still alive, yet the whole person, body and soul, whom we knew and loved, will no longer be seen in this world, and in that sense the loss is complete. Our memory holds our loved one’s body and soul together, and that is what we know to be real in our own experience. But the stern reality of death separates them and forces us to adapt to a new and unwelcome truth: the person we knew, as we knew her, is gone for good, and nothing in Heaven or on Earth can alter that fact. Yet God will ultimately reunite body and soul, and in the meantime faith connects us to the soul of the departed, as we begin our patient waiting for the final reunion.
People should be allowed fully to grieve the death of their loved ones, for the pain is real and profoundly human. They should not, however, “grieve as those who have no hope” (1Thess 4:13), but rather embrace the promises of God. Yet it is wrong to insist that someone immediately rejoice simply because their loved one has gone to God. Laura once told me that she was never really allowed to grieve the death of her father (when she was a young woman). She was in a charismatic community and all they wanted to do was praise the Lord, so she simply went along with it. But it did her harm in the long run, because the grieving process is necessary, even for people of faith. It should not be excessive or prolonged, but it must be experienced, felt, so that eventually one can continue peacefully with one’s life, trusting in the mercy and love of the Lord. There’s a kind of inner balance between sorrow over the loss and confidence in God’s power to save and grant eternal joy. The approach to death should not be one-sided.
In many churches today it seems that there is little understanding of the human need to grieve. Funeral services are like parties, with jokes and silly stories about the deceased, so as to keep the spirit light and not to have people crying all over the place. Well, I say, let them cry! It is good for them. They can laugh and tell stories at subsequent get-togethers with family and friends, and this also is good for them. But when the soul of the deceased is being ritually commended to the mercy of God, one should be sober and not try to escape the heart-rending encounter with this profound mystery. Laura insisted that she have a funeral in the Byzantine rite, so as to prevent any sort of superficial celebration. She wanted it to be a “teaching moment” on the brevity of life and the length of eternity, on the vanity of earthly riches and pleasures, the need for repentance, and the inescapable fact of death and judgment—which is precisely the content of the texts in the Byzantine funeral service. I had given her a small Ukrainian hand-cross, which she often held to comfort herself, and a little prayer rope for praying the Jesus Prayer. She asked to be buried with both of these, to express her love for the Byzantine tradition.
After your loved ones die, you may regret that you did not love them enough, or did not express it adequately. You may wish you hadn’t said or done certain things, or that you had said the things you wish you could now say. Well, say them anyway; you will be heard. But it is much better to do so when they are still alive, so this is a lesson to learn in dealing now with other family members or friends. If they were to die today, would you be fully reconciled with them? Would they die knowing that you loved them?
If your loved one has suffered much in the process of dying, you may find yourself re-living in your mind the sufferings endured, perhaps wishing you did, or could have done, more to help. This is normal—but not very helpful. It takes a while to somehow grasp that it is all over now, the sufferings of your dear ones are finished and forgotten, for they have entered upon eternal life and God has made all things new. We don’t see that newness; all we see is a coffin bearing the body of our beloved, as it is lowered into the earth. We walk wearily away, with the awareness of many “never agains” swirling through our burdened minds and aching hearts like dead leaves in an autumn wind. The Byzantine funeral service drives this fact home, as it gives voice to the newly-departed: “Never again will I walk with you or speak to you… I am going to the Lord God, my Judge, to stand in judgment and to give an account of all my deeds. In the meantime I ask you to pray for me, that the Savior be merciful to me when He judges me. Thus we separate…”
You will need to be patient with people who do not share your grief, for it is a uniquely personal and intimate thing, based on your unique relationship with the one who has died. It may seem strange to you how everyone seems oblivious to the fact that the world has been laid open to its core and its foundations shaken. They are not aware; indeed they cannot be. It is only your world that is thus shaken. Keep it between you and God and your deceased loved one, and perhaps a confidant or two. People mostly aren’t willfully insensitive; they can only see things from their own perspective, as you see them from yours. (For your part, you will not feel the same intensity of grief that they do when one of their loved ones dies.) But rest assured that God knows your heart and feels everything that you do, and He is with you always.
To be continued…