In the lead-up to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to the U.S., we are launching #FrancisontheFamily, a Diocesan-wide campaign that focuses on the catechesis of #PopeFrancis pertaining to family life. We have chosen to highlight some of Francis’ most repeated challenges to us – encounter, accompany, witness, and welcome – as a way of sharing the joy of family life.
By: Mary Lenaburg, Guest Contributor
At 1:51 a.m. on December 27, 2014 my daughter Courtney died. After a lifetime of cerebral palsy, daily seizures and a myriad of other health issues, she had finished her race and God decided it was her time to come home. She was at peace and finally in the arms of her Beloved.
In that moment, my world completely changed. Not one thing was the same. In an instant my husband, son and I were drowning in our grief for this beautiful soul who had been such a huge part of our world. Courtney was the heart of our home, the sun in our universe. Everything moved around her and what her needs were for any given day. For 22 years, that’s how our family worked.
Until it didn’t.
Walking through grief is like being hit by waves in the ocean. At first they are 20 feet high and when they crash over you, you are sputtering, flailing about, and feel like you are drowning. When you have lost a loved one, that’s exactly how it feels—you are drowning, gasping for air, not knowing if you will survive the moment when your entire world changes forever.
Sometimes we feel helpless when someone we know experiences a great loss or is going through a very difficult time. The desire to help is great, but how? How does one accompany someone as they walk through the stages of grief? How do we as a church support those who have lost loved ones or those who are facing a grave illness where the outcome is uncertain? How can you help them carry this burden?
When a family loses a loved one, no matter the circumstances, those first few days and weeks are overwhelming. Making funeral arrangements is not for the faint of heart. There is so much to do and it is overwhelming trying to make it all come together.
Although I felt the sustaining power of all the prayers being said for us as we walked through the arrangements for our daughter’s funeral, I literally could not pray. I was so overwhelmed with all the details that required my attention and trying to make sure my husband and son were cared for, that prayer got lost in the madness.
So the first act of kindness for those suffering grief is quite simple. Pray. Pray for the family. Pray the individual who is ill or suffering or for the soul of the deceased. Pray that the Lord is merciful and kind to them. Pray for the family left behind, that God will bring them peace of mind and heart. Know that those prayers are felt by those whose hearts are grieving the most.
When our daughter died, there were so many who wanted to help right away. They wanted to bring food, help take care of funeral details, etc. People were very generous in passing on their kind words of sorrow and helpful suggestions as we prepared for Courtney’s funeral. There were more people than there were jobs. This is often the case.
However, when everything slows down six weeks later, the family is now alone in their grief as everyone gets back to their regularly scheduled lives. This is when it’s most important to reach out to the family. Send a note of encouragement, share a story about their deceased loved one or if you know of an upcoming birthday or anniversary — especially in the first two years — don’t hesitate to send a card or flowers. Send a gift card so they can go to dinner that day and feel OK about celebrating the life of their loved one.
As a mother, all I want to do some days is talk about my daughter. Heavy emotions can be a difficult part of grief to handle sometimes, especially when they come out of left field, so be prepared when people cry and talk freely about their loved one.
Maybe they hear a song sung at their loved one’s funeral or maybe there is a sound or a smell that reminds them of their loss and they can no longer hold back the emotion. This could happen for years as those waves of grief don’t just go away—the smallest thing can trigger an emotional moment.
There may also be anger at God for their loss and grief. They may want to walk away from church and anything that reminds them of their life before their loss. As we accompany those who have suffered great loss we must be willing to listen and encourage them to keep their faith and hope in the risen Lord and not give into their despairing hearts.
During his June 17 Angelus, Pope Francis spoke about grief and losing a loved one. He said:
“Death is an experience which touches all families, without exception. It is part of life; yet, where familial love is concerned, death never seems natural. For parents, surviving their own children is particularly heartbreaking; it contradicts the fundamental nature of the very relationships that give meaning to the family.”
It is not a natural thing to outlive your children. The more sudden the death, the more harsh the grief, the more traumatic it is to deal with.
Hope and faith are restored when surrounded with love, understanding, patience and grace. Pope Francis goes on to encourage us to stay faithful, knowing that we will one day be reunited with our loved one:
“In this faith, we can console one another, knowing that the Lord has conquered death once and for all. Our loved ones are not lost in the darkness of nothing: hope assures us that they are in the good and strong hands of God…If we allow ourselves to be sustained by this faith, the experience of grief can generate even stronger family bonds, a new openness to the pain of other families, a new brotherhood with families that are born and reborn in hope. To be born and reborn in hope, this gives us faith.”
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