Death, grief, and bereavement are difficult for people of all faiths. The traditional grief and bereavement practices have less utility for Roman Catholics than for people of other faith traditions. Perhaps American Indians are most similar in their grief and bereavement practices. For Catholics, the focus is upon restoring the community and the communion of saints. Catholicism is not an ego-centered religion. The focus is less upon the individual than upon the community or group. Attendance at Mass or at a specific parish is not based upon the personality or performance of the priest, but rather is based upon the community of believers. Priests come and go. While some are decidedly more popular, charismatic, and personable, the community of believers remains despite the quality of the priest. While the focus upon community is not as strong as it was in earlier generations, the emphasis upon community remains. Catholics also believe in the communion of saints which emphasizes that the dead do not leave us permanently, but rather are waiting for us in heaven. The grief of Catholics is strongly influenced by these major beliefs. Catholics mourn death, but not without hope!
Catholic Approach to Death
Many faithful and observant Catholics approach the end of their lives with a concern about what will happen when they die, especially if their children are not observant or practicing Catholics (Rogers, 2008: 170). Will they be given a “proper” Catholic Mass and Catholic burial? Has the twenty-first century abdicated from the rich traditions of teaching, caring, and ritually providing for the dying and dead? As an ancient and traditional religion, the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of helping people manage dying While some are decidedly more popular, charismatic, and personable, the community of believers remains despite the quality of the priest. Grief Digest Magazine, Volume 12, Issue #1 22 and death. The Church has historically taken very seriously the task of aiding people through the process of facing death and providing reassurance and support of the dying and their families. While they lacked the theories, models, and concepts that are available today, they knew that they were doing very important things and tried to do them very well. The life and death of Jesus has been used as a model for Catholics. Catholics generally are taught to die as they lived as Jesus did. The focus in dying is not upon “saving the soul” of the dying, but to allow them to strengthen their relationship with God. The priest offers sacraments, prayer, and support, but does not judge or condemn the dying or their way of life. The traditional approach was not focused upon achieving life after death, but upon the importance of the way life is lived before dying, of living responsibly, of the community of believers, of the Communion of Saints, of the sacraments, and of the love and forgiveness of God. The belief is that God offers grace and forgiveness that will allow even those who have lived egregious and evil lives to still be able to achieve Heaven.
Like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, most will tremble and show fear when facing death. Some bury their thoughts of dying and death, hoping that it will not happen by doing so. Many will try to pretend that death will not happen by closing their eyes to what is happening to their body, their age, or their loss of faculties. They will focus upon the many diversions in life and act as people with blindfolds hoping or believing that death will not occur. When facing death, time is lost when focusing upon distractions. No matter how tight the blindfold, death cannot be conquered or avoided. Time is the one thing that all can choose how to use. The question, “Do I have time for this,” might better be, “Is this worth my time?” Time spent watching television, playing video games, chatting on your cell phone, playing games on Facebook, or whatever means time that you did not have for your family, friends, learning, love, spirituality, or other things that might be important.
Life is larger than language. The language of the death awareness movement has developed in the last 40 to 50 years. We now discuss collective grief, disenfranchised grief, stages of grief, stages of dying, and so forth. We have sanitized the dying and death process. Few of us have experienced being with another person as they die. Few of us have prepared the body of a loved one for burial or other disposition. Professionals now run the show.
We are individual, unique people, but we are also products of society. Collective solutions contain and express a wisdom of which the individual is not capable. This is not to say that the collective solutions are inherently superior, but only that they are richer and take into account more aspects of the human experience than the individual mind is capable of seeing. Thus, it is often the case that the individual is railing and rebelling against custom and convention as a manifestation of a lack of appreciation for the depth of the conventional and customary solutions.
What we are suggesting is that before we reject out of hand funeral dinners, sending flowers, offering expressions of sympathy, and so forth; that we ask ourselves what needs they meet which are not apparent to the casual observer. For example, a person told me that they did not want to have their casket open at the wake for people to gawk at the body. The major benefit of the open casket is not to allow people to see how bad you appear, but rather, the purpose of the open casket is to confirm for the survivors that you are truly dead. Sending flowers is hard on one’s budget, but to have no one send flowers is quite disruptive to survivors who we then often believe that no one cared or loved either them or the deceased. Part of our reaction to the death of a significant other is the sense of abandonment and a fear of the consequences of abandonment. Many social rituals and processes may help alleviate these fears.
Dying will eventually happen for all of us. There are many ways to face dying and death. Some work better for us than others. Each of us must make our own journey. We will be called upon to make choices: palliative care, hospital treatment, and hospice. As families and patients, we need assistance that others can offer. Remember that your Parish has services that it can offer the dying and their families. Most Parishes have “Caring Ministries” of one sort or another to aid the dying and their families. Families and friends also need assistance. The journey is taken by both the dying and his or her survivors.
Refusing to think of death may make today easier to face, but it leads to a catastrophe when it happens to a loved one or when one is forced to finally face impending death. If nothing else, the lesson of death is a warning on how one should live. As Catholics that means being a part of the community of believers, attending and participating in Mass, and receiving the sacraments.
When thinking about what is an earthly life versus what is an eternal life is answered by the Church. Dying is to be born into a new life. Christians die in order to live. As with plants and animals, humans give and receive. Love and learning are the major preoccupations of humankind. Humans devote themselves to absorbing all of the knowledge that they can. Small children are so excited to learn about the world around them. They show genuine excitement in learning. As they get older, they may still enjoy learning, but they are socialized to not show others how much fun they are having. As children love to share what they have learned to others, they also share what is in their minds and hearts. They share their dreams, thoughts, desires, loves, and dislikes. Over time, humans share less, perhaps to avoid hurt from others, but their minds and hearts do not stop dreaming. Humans devote themselves to serving others, and at the same time, receive love and learning from others. Humans spend their lives seeking love and knowledge. For many, this search leads to happiness. God is viewed as all knowing and all loving. The search of humans for love and learning will not reach that level, but the amount of love and knowledge that can be gained is limitless. God reaches down to humans as they reach out to each other, but God offers grace, the strength of the Eucharist, and His love for the journey.
Perhaps all people have special skills or gifts which may or may not be tapped or developed. If the greatest talent for playing chess never learns the game, the world is deprived of the gifts of that person. As our gifts or talents may be hidden even from us, so, too, is grace hidden from us. It is freely given from God, but may go unnoticed. As humans with imperfect lives, not sufficient love, and never learning quite enough, in death humans are offered a view of knowledge and love that is not possible in the earthly life. Such a vision of the eternal life cannot be experienced by those in the earthly life. For the Christian death is a passing to a higher, eternal life that offers a chance to participate in the divine life which grace allows us to do in the earthly life at a lesser degree. Those who have died should perhaps be envied rather than mourned. Catholics believe that when a person dies, a saint has been born! Those who have died will no longer suffer. They will no longer face death. With death, loneliness, pain, fear, guilt, suffering will no longer be a part of their lives. Rather, the dead will experience joy, grace, love, and discovery at levels not experienced in the earthly life.
While some may argue that it is a fault or even blasphemy to grieve in excess or refuses to take faith into account because of great sorrow, God does not forbid grief. If we were really convinced that our separation was only temporary and that the souls of the dead find peace with God, we probably would not have such difficult grief. Reason does not control faith or our fears and emotions. We may cry when our mother leaves the room as a child. We may weep when our spouse takes a business trip. Why should we not weep when someone dies? Our grief may cause us to not want to eat, to not go to work, or to care for our children. As Catholics, we have a duty to follow our beliefs, to comfort those who mourn, to feed the poor, and so forth. We can only manage our intense grief by reviving our faith and hope, by maintaining the bonds beyond the grave, and by continuing to prepare our own soul for our heavenly journey! The love of God keeps us from being separated. Everyone we love is not in the room with us at this time. We can still love them! Death can shatter our lives, joys, and well-being, but it cannot break the bonds of eternal love! Some look to the heavens for their loved ones. Some may pick out a particular star, but though we weep, grieve, and love, as long as we believe, we can cope! Our losses are great, but God’s love is greater!
Catholics believe that human love is imperfect and can never be as pure and strong as heavenly love. Those in heaven love us! We should love them properly for their own sakes and not for our sake. They are saints in heaven. Why should we be sad for them? Is our need for them and attachment to them for their sake or for ours? Would they want us to wallow in our grief or to have joy in our lives? If we worry about their happiness, they are happier than they ever could have been here. If it is their presence that we miss, their conversation, their affection, then we are self-seeking and selfish. As Catholics believe in guardian angels, so, too, can you believe that your loved ones are here with you. You can dedicate whatever you are doing to them. You can share whatever you are doing with them. As you shared sunsets, ocean views, or children’s actions with them when they were alive, you can share with them in death. If they are watching over you, they will see what you see. For some Catholics, the idea of their loved ones being in Purgatory makes them watching over us less likely. If they are in Purgatory, how can they watch over us? Of course, we can pray for those in Purgatory. We can still help them as they helped us. As we ask for the intervention of the Virgin Mary, the saints, the angels, and even God, we know that both the living and the dead can know God’s mercy. Rather than fearing the sternness of God’s judgment, Catholics focus upon the mercy of God. As Catholics, we participate in the divinity of God through Holy Communion, the sacraments, the Church, the Communion of Saints, and the grace given to us by God. Rather than fear, Catholics focus upon hope of redemption.
Of course, there are always doubts. No Catholic is able to model the perfect Catholic as a faithful, sinless person. All humans commit sins. All humans are imperfect. But even the most evil among us are eligible for God’s mercy and the opportunity to go to Heaven even such people as Adolph Hitler, Ossama Bin-Laden, or Henry Lee Lucas. While we may not think such people should go to Heaven, God’s mercy is infinite. That should make us have more hope. If such evil people have hope, how much more should we? As Catholics, we should live every day as if it were our last, but with the hope that we live fully for however many days we do have. If there are hopes, dreams, acts, or things that you want to do in life, do them while you can. This could be your last day. Live every day as fully as you can!
About the Author
Gerry R. Cox, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at University of WisconsinLa Crosse. He served as the Director of the Center for Death Education & Bioethics. He has over ninety publications including sixteen books. He has served as editor of Illness, Crisis, and Loss and for The Midwest Sociologist. He is a member of the International Work Group on Dying, Death, and Bereavement, the Midwest Sociological Society, the American Sociological Association, and the Association of Death Education and Counseling. He serves on the board of Directors of the National Prison Hospice Association.