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A Christian response to bereavement: Jesus' ministry to the sick and dying
Disciples of Jesus are called on to make a daring proclamation: "We believe in Jesus, the Gospel of life! And this Gospel of life is not just a fanciful idea about a better future. The Gospel of life is something tangible and personal, for it proclaims the very person of Jesus Christ whose spirit dwells within us" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae).
After the death of a terminally ill person, family members or loved ones left behind experience many feelings. When we lose someone in death, especially if we have had little time to prepare ourselves, we often experience anger and despair. Remember the story of Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus. Martha said to Jesus, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now whatever you ask of God, he will grant you" (John 11:21-23).
Jesus' human emotion
These words indicate from Martha not only a request but also human anger and some despair. Even Jesus expressed human emotion with his weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus and the people remarked how much he loved him because of these tears (John: 11:32-45). It is not a sign of weakness to express our feelings; what is important is how we express them.
It is normally after the funeral when relatives and loved ones appreciate the presence of caring and loving friends. It is an opportunity to exchange memories of the deceased, especially the times towards the end of the deceased person's life.
Sometimes family and friends feel they should have done more to help in this situation and these are the ones who need to express such concerns to others - the carer who cared for a loved one, the doctor, or the social worker. The most appreciated help for the bereaved of the terminally ill is to be ministered to with empathy.
This all reminds us that the certainty of death has plagued the human race from the beginning of time. Despite its inevitability, human beings are in most cases reluctant to accept the fact of their mortality; indeed it is said by some commentators that we are a death-denying society.
In my ministry as a priest I encounter the realities of death and its effects on loved ones and family members who are left behind with the sense of loss. One aspect of death, which is not addressed very often, is how an individual can deal with the fact of a family member or loved one's terminal illness.
In such a situation I believe family members undergo different stages of adjustment similar to that of the dying person.
Firstly, there is denial of the fact there could be such an illness in the family. This can involve shopping around from doctor to doctor seeking help or another diagnosis - or even seeking miracle cures from faith healers, etc. Next, there can be anger. For, as the patient goes through this stage, the immediate family and others can experience a similar emotional reaction. They could be angry with the doctor who gave them the news of the sad reality, with hospital personnel - even with the patient, or God. They may also experience much guilt about missed opportunities.
The fact is that we must understand that relatives and the loved ones of a dying person also experience emotions before their death. The task is to acknowledge these emotions do exist and positively work through them.
When such emotions as anger, resentment and guilt are worked through, family members will then go through a phase of preparatory grief, just as the dying person does. The more this grief can be expressed before death, the less unbearable it becomes after death.
To care and minister to the sick and terminally ill and their families and loved ones surely exemplifies the love of God. Jesus in his earthly life showed us our bodily lives are sacred as "God's creation" and his care and love for the sick, the poor and the outcasts were outstanding qualities of his ministry. And when the disciple of Jesus looked upon Him crucified on the cross, he saw the true essence of life most clearly revealed: the giving of self in the service of others.
Greatness is not about material gain. For the true disciple of Jesus it is about giving our lives in service for our brothers and sisters. The fact that selfless love can reach extraordinary heights in the most painful and senseless moments of human experience is the great paradox of the Christian message.
Unless we discover that living is about giving selflessly, we will have only half lived.
While I have emphasised the importance of communicating our feelings to sympathetic people I would also strongly encourage the directing of our prayers to an empathetic and healing Jesus while continuing to give and receive love with the deceased through prayer. We can also pray for the healing of our grief.
Grief can be primarily healed through friendship, and through the heart of Jesus, we can love and be loved by those whom we miss most. For those with faith: "In death life is changed not ended" (Preface of the Mass of the Dead I).
Healing the greatest hurt with the greatest friend brings the greatest love.
Fr Dennis Byrnes is parish priest of Kempsey in the Lismore Diocese.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 16 No 8 (September 2003), p. 20
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