Coming Back to Church after a Death
“Father, I know I should be in church, but it is just too hard since ________ died.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentence. I’ve heard it from younger folks and older folks. I’ve heard it after the death of parents, spouses, children, and friends. For some, the church is the rock of stability, comfort, and hope. The death of a loved one might have resulted in the strengthening of their faith, which is lived out in the parish. But for others, coming to church is a painful reminder; it is the last connection with the physical remains of a person deeply loved.
Grief is both universal and particular. It is universal in that it spares no one from its presence and it is particular in that the experience of that presence is unique to every single person. I do not presume to know what an individual feels during their time of grief, for I cannot know. I can infer from what I’ve observed over a period of time along with my own experiences with grief. There seems to be at least three responses: 1) a perceived superficiality of the joy promised in the Gospel sometimes coupled with conscious or subconscious anger at God, 2) inadequate understanding of the hope of the resurrection and the Church’s teaching on death (especially the body), and 3) difficulties with our own mortality. To restate this plainly, 1) how can I hear about joy and happiness when I’m seriously sad, and by the way, I’m not happy with God at all about this, 2) I have so many misconceptions about what happens after death and what will happen with the body, that all of it is confusing, too real, and scary, and 3) I had to face death at the funeral, I don’t want to come back and face it again.
For the first response, the Church’s constant proclamation of joy and abundant life through Christ is not a denial of your grief. Christian joy does not make our grief trivial, but our grief also does not make Christian joy trite. Remember the exchange between Jesus and Martha after the death of her brother, Lazarus (Luke 11:17-27). Jesus gives Martha the good news of hope: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha responds, perhaps with a bit of irritation, “I know that he will rise on the last day.” It’s impossible to hear her tone, but I’ve often wondered if she was just repeating what her mind knew to be true, but her heart was grieving too much to say with trust. She wanted her brother alive, she said as much to Jesus. Jesus loves her with the truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Our irritation at the joy in the midst of our grief is also a sign that we are struggling with whether or not we believe it to be true. The place to struggle with that doubt is not alone, but in the very midst of Church. For we can’t wrestle with the message from a distance. Keeping away is not wrestling with faith, it’s avoiding the fight.
Secondly, the Church has much to say about dying, death, and what happens to both body and soul thereafter. The teaching is far too voluminous to summarize here, but let me address one of the most common misconceptions - the body. The body is not a shell from which our soul is finally and mercifully released. Our body and soul are beautifully and wondrously unified in the mystery of the human person. Without our soul, we cannot be. Likewise, without the body, we are not. At death, the soul is separated from the body where it receives the Particular Judgement (entrance to either the foretaste of eternal bliss or foretaste of eternal separation) and awaits the resurrection of the body and General Judgement of the Glorified Lord. We take great care to bury the body with reference and love because it is an integral part of the person.
Thirdly, facing our own mortality is a significant waypoint toward maturity. We will die. Every single one of us. The fear of own mortality is the motivation to sin (Hebrews 2.15). The power of Christ is that he frees us from this fear. This may not take away a natural fear of dying, but it does take away the fear of death. There is more to all this than the grave. Again, staying away from Church will not exempt us from the reality of mortality. Remaining in the Church will keep us growing in Christ, who died and returned so that we can live and die with the confidence that there is nothing to fear.
There is a wonderful story that I tell often of St Augustine and the death of his mother. While she was at the point of her death, Augustine and his brother promised to return her body back to her homeland for burial. She was irritated as only a mother could be and told her boys to not let the location of her body concern them anymore. “One thing I ask of you,” she said, “is that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you are.”
My mother died six years ago. I think about her nearly every single day. Sometimes those thoughts and memories are well-developed. Other times they are quick memories or images. Most of the time, however, I think of her at the altar. Every time we pray for the dead, she crosses my mind. And every time she crosses my mind, I pray for her.
At the end of the Preface at the Eucharist we are told that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven we sing the heavenly hymn. The Church has taught that at mass - at communion - we are joined with heaven in a way that is more intimate than touch. It’s more real than an embrace. We are both united in the Lord and therefore we are one. If you miss your mom, husband, child, or anyone else - come to mass.
Grief may make it hard to do anything after a death. Favorite restaurants, familiar places, the smell of old clothes, and even the memories associated with church may make it hard. Grief is natural. But lurking in the shadows of grief is sometimes something more subversive and sinister, designed to keep us focused on death so we won’t set our hearts on life.
Life is changed and not ended in death, the Eucharistic prayer teaches us. Their life is not over. Neither should yours.