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Bringing Christ's love to the bereaved: a ministry for Catholic parishes
In the Gospel of St Matthew (5:4) we are told: " How blest are the sorrowful; they shall find consolation." One of the most important ministries of any parish community is that of consolation for the bereaved, namely, the presence of parishioners offering emotional and spiritual care and comfort when a family has experienced a death.
Visits to the bereaved are vitally important because they demonstrate that they are not alone in the pain of grief or time of darkness in their life's journey. Such visits constitute the beginning of an important ministry in a parish community that cares, one which is the essence of Christ-like love.
Amazingly there are people who after hearing the news that a friend has experienced loss to death, choose not to visit in person. Such people may send a note or make a quick phone call, but they avoid if possible the personal touch of going to the home of the bereaved.
Yet the death of a loved family member or friend is one of life's most severe blows and one from which the bereaved can only recover with the comfort and consolation extended by others through their caring presence and that of the parish community.
The greatest gift we can offer at this time is our presence. By visiting, we remind those who mourn that they are not left alone without care and support.
I remember that when my mother died very suddenly, what consoled and touched me greatly was the fact people took the time to visit or contact me. At this time I was in Lismore and my mother had died in Sydney. Yet people took the time to contact me even though I was in Sydney, some distance from Lismore. I still remember the kindness of those people even today.
Listening is another way to show we really care. It helps with the healing and recovery of hurt people.
It was said by someone: "When a friend is grieving, listen with your heart. Help begins with your ability to be an active caring listener. Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical. Don't worry about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you. Do not say, 'I know just how you feel' because you don't. Allow your friend to have his or her feelings and listen with your heart."
Words and sentences need to contain sincere tenderness and compassion. Mourners identify the following as especially helpful to hear at a time of loss: I am sorry; Words fail me at a time like this; I am here because I care and want to help; You will be in my prayers and thoughts at this time.
We should avoid the following expressions: You've got to hold up; Don't cry; Everything will be all right; It's God's will; I know just how you feel; He's better off now; At least she is not suffering anymore; You'll get over it; Time will take care of everything; Be brave and strong.
Because the death of a loved one or friend can create intense emotional and spiritual pain, the bereaved need reminders they are not alone in their pain. They need the reassurance that God is with them, quietly guiding and leading them from the pain of grief to the security of caring people.
God, I believe, does send us good and caring people in our times of pain in life. Just think about the past times in your life when there were such people.
In the Gospel of John, it is recorded that Jesus came to comfort Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus; his presence was important to them (Chapter 10). It is likewise important for us to remind those who grieve that they have an invisible means of support; no matter how abandoned they may feel, the bereaved need to be reassured that God sustains them in this time of sorrow.
The Prayer "Footprints" expresses sentiments and comforting thoughts of the Lord walking with us in times of sorrow and difficulty in life's journey, while in John's Gospel it is said: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me" (14: 1). And in the Preface of the Mass for the dead it is said: "Life is changed not ended, when the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting place in Heaven." This is our belief as disciples of Jesus.
As a spiritual people, we need to share our personal faith that contains our conviction that God is our Father and Creator who is present to us through faith in life and in death. Faith is contagious, especially faith in the God of compassion and love who understands the needs of His children and who accepts them in spite of their human frailties.
This does not mean that one preaches or lectures to the bereaved. Rather, it involves approaching the caring of the bereaved from the position of a deep faith as a disciple of Jesus that God is actively present and lovingly bringing light to those in darkness.
It was once said: "You see these Christians, how they love one another." We need to share our personal faith especially in times of bereavement.
Father Dennis W. Byrnes is the parish priest of Kempsey in the Lismore Diocese.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 19 No 2 (March 2006), p. 20
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