Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 4, 2002
Your presence alone can comfort a broken heart
Going to a funeral gives strength to the grieving
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
There's probably no more difficult ministerial challenge than the funeral of a child. Parents are faced with a nearly insurmountable pain because the normal assumption is that their children will survive them.
When the shockingly unexpected occurs, parents' lives are upended. This wasn't supposed to happen. Clergy often wonder: "What can I possibly say to these good folks? How can I offer comfort or solace?"
In the quest to find the proper words, some ministers do very well. I've seen colleagues give insight into the meaning of eternal life or articulate a personal vision of the deceased child that's warm, loving and wise.
Other times, I've seen what trying too hard can do. I recall one terribly sad funeral for a teenager. He had been driving down the highway on his way to school. Another driver, in the opposite lane of traffic, lost control of her car which literally flew over the divider, squarely hitting the young man's car. He died immediately.
The funeral Mass for this well-liked young man was overflowing. I could see in the face of the priest celebrating the Mass a tension, a nervousness that was palpable. He wanted to do this right, to say the perfect words of comfort, to give some meaning to this seemingly meaningless horror.
For most of his sermon, he was fine. He talked about the young man's life, lending the talk a personal flavour that caused people to smile or cry. But he also knew the random quality of the student's death was confusing and painful.
So the priest decided to focus on the question of "why?" a little too colourfully, asking "Haven't you sometimes noticed a pet killed on the road and wondered why? Why does God allow bad things to happen to those innocent creatures?"
Now, here we were at the funeral of a vibrant young man. We didn't need the image of dead pets to give us perspective about the loss of a much-loved person. You could immediately see a look on the faces of those attending which told you the priest blew it. He overreached.
It was, for me, a classic case of trying too hard to find the perfect words, a struggle that rarely ends in success. That's because there are no words that make sense of it all. It can't make sense; it hurts too much. You can be a person of deep faith, but when the heart is broken, no spiritual bromides will glue it together.
On the Christopher Closeup program I interviewed New York City's then-Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. He's the good soul who lost over 300 of his best firefighters Sept. 11.
Every day for months, he'd attended funerals and memorial services. Sometimes, three or four a day. Most of those who died in the prime of their lives left behind parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers and neighbours, who would suffer pain that is almost more than a heart can bear.
I asked the commissioner how he was able to offer help or emotional comfort. He told me nothing you can say can eliminate the hurt.
Instead, you just have to be there with the people who are in pain. Love them, embrace them, cry with them and let them know you truly care. The salve you offer isn't in words, it's in presence, touch and compassion.
No one likes attending services for the dead. It's a responsibility made more difficult by our fear of what we can say to give comfort. But you can make an enormous difference for the bereaved just in being there. We have no greater gift than our caring and empathetic presence. Just go. That's enough.
(For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, When Someone You Love Dies, write: The Christophers, 12 East 48 St., New York, NY, 10017; or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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