by Magdalena I. García
“Death will come, always out of season.”
— Big Elk, Omaha chief
It was a sizzling Sunday with bright sunshine, temperatures near 90 degrees and high humidity — a typical summer day in the Midwest. The forecast, however, called for a slight chance of rain, so I was not surprised to see clouds rolling in mid-afternoon. However, I was not expecting the roaring thunder, blinding lightning, golf ball-sized hail and tornado-strength winds. In just 10 minutes, the landscape around our tree-lined neighborhood was transformed into a chaotic scene of fallen branches, blocked streets, downed power lines and non-working traffic lights. The next morning, news reports confirmed that straight-line winds or microbursts had caused significant damage in the area. Death indeed came out of season for my neighbor’s trees, ripping out branches, chopping off the top of her 25-foot blue spruce, and leaving us all with piles of garbage and unanticipated grief.
THE JOURNEY OF GRIEF
All of us have experienced loss of one kind or another, and grief is a normal reaction to loss or separation. In my work as hospice chaplain, I spend a lot of time with patients and their families talking about grief. Sometimes the visit centers around anticipatory grief, which is the reaction that occurs before the death. This may include the five stages of grief proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, bargaining, depression, anger and acceptance). Other times the conversation takes place after the death has occurred and surviving loved ones are struggling with a wide array of emotions. Regardless, I always encourage patients and loved ones alike to remember that grief is personal (no two people grieve in the same way), unpredictable (we may be surprised by the variety of reactions) and a gradual process (it takes time to absorb the reality and the implications of the loss). But no matter the timing or the intensity of the grief, how we get started on this journey and the level of support we receive makes a difference.
The grieving process begins the moment we start anticipating the loss. For some people, this may be years before the actual death (especially in the case of a chronic, aggravated illness), months before a move, weeks before leaving a job, days before ending a relationship or hours before a person is weaned off a ventilator. When I visit a new hospice patient and family, I take time to learn about the history of the illness and to listen for ways in which they are accepting of the imminent loss and saying goodbye. One of the assignments I give to hospice families is to work on closure of the relationship by avoiding idle talk. Instead, they are to have intentional conversations guided by “magic words” such as:
I remember when …
I’m so glad that you …
I hope you’ll forgive me for …
I will never forget …
Once the death has occurred, the funeral service is a key rite to facilitate the grief journey. A traditional funeral includes at least three parts: the visitation, the service and the disposition of the body. The visitation, wake or viewing may take place at a funeral home or a religious site. For Christians and Buddhists the visitation can be either open or closed casket, but for Jewish and Muslims there is neither embalming nor viewing of the body. The service, sometimes also called the funeral or memorial, is usually a religious ceremony consisting of Scripture readings and prayers. It is customarily led by a rabbi, priest, minister, imam or monk, and held at the funeral parlor or in a synagogue, church or temple. But secular services — consisting of poetic readings and music — can also be held at various locations, with leadership provided by family and friends. The disposition of the body may be in the form of burial or cremation, depending on religious beliefs or personal preferences. But no matter the variations on the theme, the funeral service serves a very specific and important purpose: to provide closure and begin the transition to life without the deceased.
Beyond these standard funeral practices, some religious customs are particularly helpful with the grieving process and can be adopted by people of all faiths. For example, the Jewish practice of “sitting shiva” allows the mourner more time to receive visitors and to be offered consolation. In “Remembering Well, Rituals for Celebrating Life and Mourning Death,” Sarah York writes:
American culture would do well to incorporate the wisdom of Jewish practice into rites of death. Consider first the contrast between the traditional ‘wake’ and the Jewish practice of ‘sitting shiva.’ A typical formal visitation period in American custom occurs prior to the memorial or funeral and lasts about two hours. It is a consolation blitz that serves more to exhaust many people than to comfort them. Their wounds are fresh, but they are expected to ‘hold up’ through this time. … By postponing shiva until after burial and marking a full week for visitation, Jewish practice provides a more sensible and sensitive context for offering comfort.
In addition to religious practices, cultural traditions can also facilitate the grieving process by inviting companionship and giving the bereaved a sense that they are doing something on behalf of the deceased. For example, in the Chicago area Catholic families from Latin America and the Philippines often hold novenas in the home after the death occurs. Novenas (from the Latin novem, meaning nine) often consist of nine successive days of prayer in belief of obtaining special intercessory graces. In preparation for novenas, families often set up a home altar with a picture of the deceased, flowers, candles and favorite items. The preparations invite storytelling, celebrate the life of the deceased and provide an opportunity for children and youth to be involved.
Beyond the funeral service and extended consolation periods afforded by practices such as sitting shiva and novenas, the bereaved have a need to honor and remember their loved ones. In “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying,” Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
One way of comforting the bereaved is to encourage them to do something for their loved ones who have died: by living even more intensely on their behalf after they have gone, by practicing for them, and so giving their death a deeper meaning. Tibet relatives may even go on a pilgrimage for the dead person, and at special moments and at holy places they will think of their dead loved ones and practice for them. The Tibetans never forget the dead.
TRADITIONAL, CONTEMPORARY AND CUSTOM-MADE RITES
Truly, none of us ever forget our dead, but we may not be as intentional in observing or developing rituals that encourage remembrance and, thus, facilitate grieving. A dear friend of mine unexpectedly lost her husband a year ago. He was a well-known ordained minister with many years of community service, so his funeral was packed and included multiple loving tributes. Still, the family felt the need to honor the generous spirit of their loved one by engaging in acts of service for humanity. They donated his organs, according to his wishes, and planted a serviceberry tree at the city park located in the heart of the community where he grew up and spent most of his adult life in public service. As part of the rite to dedicate the tree, they included the burning of incense, music selections with an indigenous flute, a reading of thank-you letters from the organ recipients, the watering of the tree, the release of a bucket full of crickets (one for each year that the deceased had lived) and a picnic for family and friends. And now, all year long, his widow and other family members visit the tree and delight in knowing that the giving spirit of their beloved continues to bloom and bear fruit.
Families are also free to develop their own rites related to tomb visitation following the burial or disbursement of the ashes following cremation. These can be intimate moments of conversation with the deceased or family gatherings on special days. My father died less than two years ago and we honored his wishes with a traditional wake, service and burial. At first we weren’t sure how my mother was going to cope as a new widow, and it turned out that having the cemetery close to home proved to be a tremendous blessing. She visits my father’s tomb on a regular basis, brings him flowers from the backyard and has an ongoing conversation with him that has helped her to heal.
THE CHURCH COMMUNITY
Needless to say, beyond rites — traditional, contemporary or custom-made — companionship is a key component of the grieving process, and the church is uniquely equipped to provide this kind of ministry. Calling on the bereaved must be part of a congregation’s regular visitation program, being mindful that a ministry of presence (i.e., few words) is often all that is needed. This is indeed the most powerful way that we can offer hope. Visitation volunteers and teams should cultivate the practice of active listening, a communication technique that requires listening to clarify and empathize instead of simply to respond (or much less to contradict). In addition, good listeners pay attention to gestures, hand motions, silences, tears and other forms of non-verbal communication. Finally, church volunteers and visitation teams can, of course, offer practical help with chores — from cooking to transportation and home repairs, the possibilities are endless. Sometimes, nothing says we care like a fresh loaf of bread or an offer to babysit.
Death indeed comes out of season, and takes away beloved people and a million nameless things. I wish we could put my neighbor’s blue spruce back together, but we can’t. However, we can help her clean the debris. And we can listen to the stories of Christmases long past, when her children were small and they put lights on this very tree. We can be part of the community that encourages healing and nurtures hope by perching alongside our neighbor on the branches of loss and grief.
MAGDALENA I. GARCÍA is a PC(USA) teaching elder and a hospice chaplain for Vitas Healthcare in Chicago. She is a graduate of McCormick Theological Seminary and a recipient of the 2008 PC(USA) Women of Faith Award. You can contact her at [email protected].