Bereavement Rituals And The Effects Of Grief

Posted at 23:21pm on 29th April 2009

Dear Mel,

Last week it was exactly a year since my Penny passed away. We’d only been married ten years – no children – and she meant the world to me. I never thought I’d get through this last twelve months but I have and I wanted to mark the occasion, but at the same time I was dreading it. I talked to my Minister, and he did a thanksgiving service for her. It was mainly family and close friends, but I was very touched that some people from church came, even though it was mid-week.

I nearly lost it when we went to the cemetery afterwards to lay flowers. I didn’t want to go, but Penny’s family wanted to so I felt I had to. I hadn’t been back there since she went and seeing the grave and the headstone – well, it was all I could do not to break down.

I know everyone wants to express sympathy in their way. But when they tell you that your loved one has gone to a better place – and I do believe that – but it doesn’t make it any easier for me. I know that sounds selfish. I know Penny is at peace now and out of pain (she had cancer). But there’s a great gaping hole in my life. And I feel angry when people try to tell you to move on. I know they mean it kindly. But they just don’t understand. Am I being paranoid?

Yours truly,

Peter S

Mel's Comment:

Dear Peter,

I’m so sorry to hear of your loss and pain. From the sound of your letter, you and Penny must have had a wonderful friendship and marriage. And, even though it was ‘only’ for ten years (as you say) that is a long time in terms of the closeness you will have shared, by comparison with the emptiness that you now feel.

It was good to hear of the thanksgiving service; and that people came from your church family, as well as those from your own and Penny’s families. Marking an anniversary a year after bereavement isn’t right for everyone; but for those who decide to do something similar, I think it gives you another, different, and perhaps more positive memory to hold onto. The effects of grief are different for us all. Rites and rituals – death and grieving go hand in hand. They are milestones for most of us, in helping us to mark the important and significant stages of life and, in this case, in helping the healing process. However difficult you found it, I’m sure that, in the months and years to come, you will be glad that you did.

I want to address this matter of how people try to express condolence for the bereaved. So first let me thank you for having the courage to share your anger. And your faith. I don’t think there’s anything selfish about your feelings. They are entirely understandable. And I think you’ll find that there are many, many people who feel as you do.

I lost my daughter some years ago and I particularly remember that first year. Every moment of every day was an ‘anniversary’ – a memory of something that had happened twelve months earlier. But I can’t say that I experienced the sort of response you describe.

THE WRONG WAY TO EXPRESS SYMPATHY

However, I did when I ‘lost’ my husband. No – I know that divorce is not the same as death, but in some ways it’s worse because it includes rejection. I wrote a long letter to my best friend telling her how I mourned the loss of the man I'd loved: the father of my children. Nothing, I thought, could replace that emptiness. I stamped my foot at God for allowing me to go through the pain. I stamped my foot at fellow Christians who avoided me because they didn't know what to say, or, if they did, they spoke only in platitudes. Like you, although I knew that much of what they were saying was true and I believed in the healing power of God, I felt angry. And misunderstood by the very people I felt should understand!

My friend, a Vicar’s wife, persuaded me to publish my letter as an article in a Christian magazine. It was my very first piece of published work. As a result of my honesty, I received an overwhelming response from readers of the magazine, telling me that they had no idea any one else felt as they did. They had felt guilty for years, they said, because they had never dared to speak of the pain and rejection they believed they had received from the very people who should have been helping them. (This was years ago when divorce was anathema to Christians, and no one quite knew how to deal with someone whose partner had left them).

Among the many letters of sympathy and relief, however, there was one that roundly condemned me. Jesus should be enough for me, it said. I should be ashamed of myself to want more!

That hurt! Clearly this woman had never been in my situation.

THE RIGHT WAY TO EXPRESS GRIEF

I thought and prayed about it long and hard. Then I wrote back to her. Jesus, I pointed out, knew how to express grief for the loss of his best friend Lazarus. He wept for him. This, despite the fact that he knew, without a shadow of doubt, that Lazarus was in a ‘better place’ and that he'd see him again in heaven. Hey, he even knew he was about to raise his friend from the dead. But still he mourned!

Jesus mourned, too, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when his disciples’ indifference must have made him feel rejected. He knew that the cup he had to drink would take him to a 'better place' - but that didn't stop him asking the Father to remove it from him if he would. And neither did it stop him feeling disappointed and chastising his friends when, because of their lack of understanding and compassion, they literally fell asleep on him.

I don't think Christians are bad people. We're fallen people the same as anyone else. We make the same mistakes; fail to express sympathy gracefully or even adequately; or to understand others in the way we’d like to be understood. But perhaps those of us who've felt let down need to be more honest: to speak out (or to write as you and I have done); to 'educate' those who haven't yet experienced loss as we have. At very least we'll engage with those who feel as we do, and let them know they're not alone. And perhaps we just might be able to communicate to those who are trying to comfort us that there's a better way of doing it.

And that ‘better way’, as far as I’m concerned, was summed up in one of Catherine Marshall’s books when her husband, a Scot who became Chaplain to the United States Senate, died very suddenly at the age of 46. It was not bereavement rituals that brought healing. Nor the wise words of Scripture that comforted her. But the warm embrace of a friend’s arms around her; the silent solace of sympathy; and the shed tears of a shared grief. Perhaps that’s the ‘understanding’ that we should bring to our friends so that they, in turn, will know how to express condolence to others.

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