When a Loved One Dies—Thoughts on Bereavement

Posted August 3, 2011

John H. Hampsch, C.M.F.

Think for a moment of one of your loved ones who has passed away some time ago, and recall the grief you experienced at the funeral. Give yourself a “numerical” score for your grief at that time, on a scale of 1 to 100. Now think about the death of a victim of terrorism that you read about in yesterday’s newspaper, and give yourself a “grief score” for that tragic event. How do your two scores compare? Why is there such a divergence in the grief experienced in the first as compared to the grief (if any) from reading the news event? The answer, of course is the degree of love and the type of love for the deceased—in one case, deep and intense, and in the other, distant and almost casual. The greater the love, the greater the loss experienced when the beloved is taken away. Whether it is the loss of a pet or the loss of a diamond ring, the pain of the loss or of deprivation is always proportionate to the affection toward the person or attachment to the object. Jesus wept at the death of his good friend Lazarus (“Behold how he loved him!”), even though he was dead for only four days before his miraculous resurrection.

Now take another test—a test in terms of time-lapse rather than closeness of relationship. How intense is your “grief score” today—perhaps years after the loss of a dear one—compared to your grief at the funeral? There may be surging “waves” of heartache periodically, but overall, you have probably learned that “time heals all wounds” (for some bereaved persons this healing is faster than for others). This is God’s gentle bereavement “anesthetic.” “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

The bereaved soul who “walks with the Lord” in the courage and trust infused by the renowned 23rd psalm, walks with him through the valley of the shadow of death; there’s no evil in a shadow—no venom in serpent’s shadow and no cutting edge in the shadow of a sword. The Good Shepherd who “has borne our grief and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4), leads both the dead—and also the mourning survivors—through the valley of the shadow of death. A valley is a fruitful plain; death is spiritually fruitful for the sheep dying in the arms of the Good Shepherd, as well as for the afflicted and lonely sheep bereft of their presence. The living who linger behind are called to trust in his promise,  proclaimed in his holy word: “The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended” (Is. 60:19-20).

Moreover, death is a “walk” through this valley—a gentle, pleasant walk. Noble Christians take delight in their pleasurable walk into the next world, stepping forward willingly as they take leave of this world, linking arms with the Master in the beautiful healing walk called death. And they walk “through” this valley, never getting lost in it; they trust their great Shepherd to get them safely to the mountain of glories beyond the valley. Trust for any loved one, living or dead, is simply the act of committing them totally to the Lord, knowing that “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shone” (Is. 9:2). While fostering a tranquil but prayerful concern for their posthumous spiritual needs, our mourning for our beloved dead should be without any worrisome anxiety.

Do our beloved dead leave us, or do we leave them? They must somehow feel that we leave them if we don’t paradoxically “rejoice with them as we weep for them.” If we truly love someone, we are happy to know that they’re happy, even though we are sad in being deprived of their immediate loving presence. But that’s where trust in God reaches its peak. For those whose trust falters under the grief of bereavement, Paul has a comforting word: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope [trust](1 Thess. 4:13).

While condolences from our friends can be very helpful, ultimately we must look only to God to sustain us and dissolve our anguish. “This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50).

Both before and during your time of bereavement it would be most beneficial to meditate on the following norms for bereavement presented in God’s holy word in the book of Sirach, 38:16-23:

My child, let your tears fall for the dead, and as one in great pain begin the lament. Lay out the body with due ceremony, and do not neglect the burial.

Let your weeping be bitter and your wailing fervent; make your mourning worthy of the departed, for one day, or two, to avoid criticism; then be comforted for your grief.

For grief may result in harm, and a sorrowful heart saps one’s strength.

In calamity sorrow continues, and the life of the poor weighs down the heart.

Do not give your heart to grief; drive it away, and remember your own end.

Do not forget, there is no coming back; you do the dead no good, and you injure yourself.

Remember his fate, for yours is like it; yesterday it was his, and today it is yours.

When the dead is at rest, let his remembrance rest too, and be comforted when his spirit has departed.