THOSE WE LOVE BUT SEE NO LONGER
Bereavement comes to us all, eventually, but every experience is unique. Our personalities vary and our relationships are different. This reinforces another truth: there is no proper way to grieve; there is only your way. That cannot be said often enough. No-one should feel guilty or be made to feel guilty for how the grief works its way through them. Some people cry lots, others hardly at all. Some feel little and not always because the loss has made them numb; others are hypersensitive to every word and gesture around them. Some need as much space as they can get; others throw themselves into work again as a way of coping.
No-one should feel bad because they see others grieve another way. It is the glory and the diversity of the human race that we express ourselves differently.
But there are common themes all the same. There is often a strange vulnerability where you feel undefended and exposed; instead of stability there is an emotional earthquake that shakes all you enjoyed in life until it collapses. There is unfiltered anger, where self-control is loosened. There can be guilt over what was done or left undone with the departed. There is physical exhaustion because grief is unbelievably tiring and made worse by sleeplessness. When there is sleep, it is often accompanied by dreams of yearning, where the deceased appears, offering you hope they are alive before the hope evaporates like breath on a cold day. And there are re-negotiated family relationships among those left behind.
This last point is frequently overlooked by outsiders and not anticipated by the family itself. Grievances can spill over; money gets in the way; or people clash over funeral plans. Without the glue the deceased offered, relatives start to rub up against one another. These can cause almost as much distress as the bereavement itself. But there is another side. Deaths can sometimes heal fractures between relatives, forming new alliances that once seemed unlikely.
Though there are many ways of showing grief, our culture gives us little time or space to work it through. Employees are given only a few days leave to process monumental losses; the clear message that being productive is more important than taking compassionate leave. Too many workplaces treat bereavement like a drive through McDonalds, where you don’t turn the engine off. We are embarrassed by death, because we don’t know what to say to others, not realising the first duty is to listen to a bereaved person, not to tell them how they are feeling. And we are disturbed by death because it reminds us of our own destiny – both to experience bereavement in time and to die ourselves one day. It is understandable we are unsettled, because death is the single biggest challenge we are confronted by in life. We just don’t want to think about it until we have to. And even when we have to, we find wriggle room. As Woody Allen once said: it’s not that I’m afraid of dying; it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens.
All these are reasons why this kind of service is so vital for our emotional and spiritual health. It dignifies the grief we feel, giving us a ritual and a space in which to mourn. Grief is a deeply isolating experience. Coming together is the human way of coping with a foe.
This service is also an encouragement to talk about those we loved. It’s said that you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. At times we are made to feel like we shouldn’t speak of the dead at all. Yet they remain a fundamental part of who we are; by speaking generously of them we bestow honour. And we affirm our own lives. Is there anyone here who hopes no-one will speak about them again when they are gone?
In our world, we measure and value observable stuff but the things that really matter can’t be calculated. Nothing is more important than a human soul and the relationships it makes in life. The poem Do not stand at my grave and weep poetically describes how we meet with the deceased in glinting snow and ripened grain. It offers romantic solace to those who yearn so longingly. Yet it misses something profound. If we feel we see the deceased in the autumn rain and the morning hush, how much more expressively do we see them in the family they left behind. It was only when we all discovered Zoom in lockdown that I looked in amazement at my facial expressions in conversation for the first time and realised how like my mum I am. We are all proud of the legacy of the ones we loved, and we bear their imprint. Not just in appearance, but in the kindly ways they shaped our character.
And the third thing this service does is to give us the time to reflect on spiritual hope. Once again, the surrounding world cuts us little slack. Adults often criticise younger generations for creating cancel cultures, but we have long lived with a cancel culture round what happens after death. It is hard to imagine a more important question than this, especially when you consider what men like Jesus and Paul had to say about it, but we suppress conversation round it instead.
The Bible reading we heard from Isaiah 61 says God will give to those who grieve ‘a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning’. He is not trying to coerce us into a happiness we do not feel, but offering us a hope that cannot be crushed. Death is our mortal enemy, but faith shows us it has been defeated. There is a resurrection ahead of us and we are encouraged to see it in very earthy, recognisable ways, not floating on clouds dressed in white with nothing to do. It is said we will bring our glory into this world to come. There is life to come and relationships to be re-made. And we speak of them today when we honour those we love but see no longer – at least, not yet.
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