On October 8th of this year, I lost my father (Walter Eugene Cameron) to lung cancer. It was the second great grief of my life, the first being the death of my brother, Matthew, to lung cancer four years ago. Granted, I have felt grief at other deaths both before Matthew’s passing, and since then, and grief from other things — the death of a friendship, for example. But these two deaths have caused me to taste grief in a much deeper way than any others.
Grief is a hard thing to go through. We have (almost) all gone through it, to some extent or another. I say “almost all” have gone through it because there may be a few people — mainly young children — who have not yet experienced it, but they will. We all do, in time. Over the last couple of months, some thoughts, and intuitions, have been growing within my heart, and I would like to share them with you.
Grief is natural, because death is unnatural. We are not supposed to die. We are not supposed to lose our loved ones to this most unnatural thing that is death. What do I mean, “we are not supposed to die”? Human persons have something that is immaterial within us; something that cannot be simply identified with our bodies. We have immaterial, and therefore, immortal, souls. We can reason; we grasp the natures of things; we freely choose between goods (and false goods), and we instinctively recoil from the thought of death being the end of our existence. We know, deep down, that there is something more than this physical life, this life of toil and suffering, and of love, and losing those we love. When we lose a loved one, we feel a deep sorrow over the loss of their companionship, a sorrow much deeper and longer lasting than anything we see among the animals (some species display signs of grief, but not to the same extent as human persons): this is another sign that death is not natural for us.
The process of grieving is important: we need to feel the loss of our loved ones, to experience denial and anger, and work through those feelings to come to a state of (relative) peace, of the “new normal” without the presence of the ones who have passed from this life. It is easy to say “he’s in a better place,” but just saying that — even knowing it to be true — is not enough to heal the loss that we feel. We need to take time to grieve, and we need permission and support from others to help us go through this process.
If someone is grieving, there are some things that we shouldn’t say or do — because they simply aren’t helpful — and others that really are helpful. Here’s some of my thoughts on both:
Things people say that are not helpful:
“God needed him,” or “Heaven needed another angel.” Statements like these are both untrue and can be actually harmful. God doesn’t “need” any of us. He wants us to be in a relationship of love with Him, both in this life and in the next, but He does not need us for Him to be happy. And humans do not become angels when we die — we become “like the angels” in that there is “neither marriage nor giving in marriage,” as Our Lord says in the Gospel, but we do not become angels. When parents have lost a child, and are in deep grief over the loss of that child, probably the last thing they want or need to hear is that God took their child because “God needed him more than you do.” As the Book of Wisdom says, “God did not make death, nor does He rejoice over the destruction of the living.” If we need to be angry with someone for causing death, we would be better off being angry at Satan, for seducing our first parents with a lie, and causing death to enter the world.
“You need to get over it,” or “aren’t you over it yet?” Grieving is a process, and every person’s grief is unique, because the relationship was unique. Other people have lost their parents, true, but only I, as a unique individual, have lost the unique relationship with my own father, who was a unique individual. I should not expect my sisters to grieve the loss of our Dad in the exact same way that I do, because their relationship with him was their own special one. Statements that dismiss grief also show a lack of understanding of how complicated grief can be: someone who never had a chance to say good-bye will grieve differently than someone who was able to be present and hold their loved one; someone who had an unresolved issue with the loved one will have a different grief than someone who did not; someone who feels responsible (like a person who was involved in an abortion decision, or a person who made a mistake in driving that caused an accident and a death) will grieve more deeply than someone who doesn’t have feelings of guilt (whether valid or not) for the death of another person.
“If you need anything, call me.” Many people have said this to me in the last couple of months, but I can never think of anything that I need, so I don’t call. I don’t think that an offer like this is harmful — but it is too vague. I have some suggestions for better things to say below.
Good things to say or do for someone who is grieving:
First of all, sometimes the best thing to say is NOTHING – be present, but don’t fill the silence with words. And pray to the Holy Spirit that He will guide any words that you do say, so that they will comfort and support, and express the love that is in your heart.
“I’m sorry,” “I’ll pray for him, and for you during this time.” Sometimes a simple word of support in prayer is powerful, especially if we are actually going to pray for them.
“Do you need anything done around the house, yard, etc.?” I think that specific offers of help are particularly valuable. Other examples would be (to a widow): “Can I help winterize your lawn mower and other equipment?” “Would you like me to trim the bushes or clean your gutters?” “Do you have any repairs that you need done around the house?” Or ask a widower: “How are you doing with cooking? Would you like me to teach you a couple simple recipes? (And maybe bring a copy of “Best Simple Recipes” from America’s Test Kitchen). Do you need any buttons tightened up on your coat?
“Would you like to get together for coffee/tea/lunch?” Take the person out for a meal, or invite her to your home, and don’t probe, or push her to talk about anything specific – just be there as a friend to enjoy a conversation about whatever subject she wants to talk about.
If you run with a circle of friends, make sure to keep inviting the grieving widow(er) for your gatherings. My parents have a circle of good friends (four married couples), and the other three couples have been wonderful in making sure that Mom is always included in their plans.
One of my good friends (“Pastor Jim”) was telling me that he really believes in the value of “Casserole Ministry” – bring over a casserole to a family or a widow(er) – something that is simple to thaw, heat and serve. Another friend of mine, Amber, added that we should take it in a container that we don’t need to have returned – a grieving person shouldn’t have to worry about which pan belongs to which person who brought something over!
Finally, the most important thing that we can do to help someone, is show them love by giving them time and “permission” to grieve! Don’t expect someone’s grief process to be just like yours, or anyone else’s. Love them through the time and grief, into the new normal!
Bruce Sullivan says
Really good reflections. Thanks, padre.
May God bless you and keep you during your own, personal time of grieving.
Jill Finney says
So sorry to hear about your Dad. I met him and your Mom. I feel for her as I lost my husband. Fr Ben that was 11 years ago I met you and you came to bless the house.
Glad to read your article about grief. I’m sure it will help many.
Barbara Nie says
Fr Ben, thank you for sending this out. It helps tremendously knowing that my grief is mine alone simply because my relationship was unique. That’s not to say others aren’t going through their own grief but that’s theirs and it’s ok not to be at the same stage of grief as others. Grief has been the most difficult emotion to go through but it has made me appreciate my loved ones more. I always let those I love know it because none of us are promised tomorrow. We have today and I thank God for my blessings even though I don’t always understand why things have happened.
Susan Lee Magargee says
It’s true. Everyone’s grief is indescribable to another person. Grief is so personal, it’s ineffable. The only one who really knows and hears the depth of grief is our Lord.
Patricia Fahey Brower says
Fr Ben, Thank you for your reflection. May you find consolation and peace in the Heart of our Lord. The loss and grief we suffer is so real and so painful at times. Truly we die with Christ. Truly we rise with Him. God Bless you.