Put Out into the Deep

The Mystery of Death and Grieving

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

Michelangelo’s Pieta. “How could one not meditate on that great work of art, which in many ways is a theological statement?” Bishop DiMarzio asks. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As we enter the month of November, traditionally, we observe a time of prayer for the faithfully departed. This year because of the coronavirus, we have experienced many losses, and, unfortunately, often the loss of the lives of people very close to us.

Another regrettable issue is that during this time, we could not properly express the grief we have, engage in mourning, or follow the normal rituals of bereavement.

Yes, this has been a difficult time, but especially for those in the New York Metropolitan area who also were affected by the attack on September 11, 2001. This is very much analogous to that time because of the inability to grieve in a normal manner, most especially when there is no body to bury to be convinced that the person really has died. 

St. Paul tells us, “We want you to be quite certain about those who have fallen asleep, to make sure that you do not grieve for them, as others do who have no hope.” (Thess. 4:13) Grieving is usually the first emotion that we feel when we experience the death of someone whom we love. We cry, which is a total body experience. We are shaken to the core, especially if we were not expecting that death.

This is the human emotion that is important for us to express so that we can move into the period of mourning. Mourning allows us to be with others, show our grief, and recount the stories of our loved one. We remember the good days and perhaps talk about the suffering the person may have endured and how courageous they were through that suffering. Mourning is so important to the grieving process, as is bereavement. 

Bereavement gives us the ritual chance to come to conclusions regarding the person who died, either through the visitation of the body at a funeral home, the Funeral Mass, the burial, and even the repass following the burial. Because of the coronavirus, these rituals, which are so important to the grieving process, were not available, and sometimes still are not possible, for those losing loved ones to the virus. 

What does our faith tell us? What can we do? First, the great American-Swiss psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, well known for her book entitled “On Death and Dying,” used her experiences in the studies in assisting the dying, allowing her to introduce the five stages of grief in her book entitled “Grief and Grieving” with David Kessler. The authors applied the same five stages of death and dying to the stages of grieving. If the stages were to be charted, one would see a “U,” beginning with denial, moving to anger, the low point being bargaining, depression coming out of bargaining, and finally, acceptance as the “U” shape of grieving takes it course. 

Each stage is important to understand. Not everyone necessarily passes through all of the five stages. Some are omitted, some are combined. In general, however, most people, upon learning of the death of a loved one, in a certain sense, deny that death, especially if they had not been present when the person died. And then anger takes over, anger sometimes towards God and towards others. Perhaps it might be the medical profession for not saving the person’s life or other instances of displacing our anger towards others. Certain bargaining can happen when people are still in denial. They may promise, especially to God, that they will do something in order to avoid the death of their loved one. 

For parents, sometimes, if they experience the death of a child, they have the sincere wish that they themselves had died instead of their child. Depression can then become part of the grieving process, which can indeed last for a long period of time. It is depression that does not allow the person to grieve properly since they are angry.

Usually, it is anger at themselves for some reason, which causes the depression. And finally comes acceptance, acceptance of the death of the loved one, an acceptance that allows the person to move on but never to forget. There is no forgetting of our loved ones. There is no putting their death aside. Saying that time will heal all things is usually not a very helpful statement; however, often, people do not know exactly what to say to someone who has lost a loved one. 

Unfortunately, during this time of COVID-19, we are not only grieving the death of loved ones, but also the death of their dreams, their businesses, a way of life and sometimes even the loss of their fortunes. This becomes analogous to the grieving process; however, we cannot fall into the same trap of those who see only material things in life as important, which can bring us to the same type of grieving as someone who has lost a person who is very dear to them. 

During the pandemic, I, myself, experienced a situation with a childhood friend who I had visited over a year ago and who was ill and dying for quite some time. Because of travel restrictions imposed by the virus, I was not able to travel to be with the family and celebrate the Funeral Mass. All I could do was to write a eulogy for my friend so that the family may be consoled by the good memories I had of our childhood together. Sometimes we make the best friends before the age of ten, and we never forget them, nor do we forget the experiences that we shared together. 

There are many things that we can do to help people through the process of grief, mourning, and bereavement. Simply being present is so important. Calling them, trying to just “be there” for them can make a big difference. 

Our Catholic faith teaches us much about the mystery of death, dying, and grieving. Two phrases come to mind which we recite each time we say the Creed; “We believe in the communion of saints, and the resurrection of the dead.”

These two tenets of our faith have a lot to say to us. The communion of saints is something I have come to appreciate more since I gave the retreat to the major seminarians at St. Joseph’s Seminary/Dunwoodie on the mystery of death. During this time, I came to appreciate, perhaps as I never did before, the reality of the communion of saints. Somehow, I did not appreciate that it is part of our faith that the union between those who have died and those in Heaven and those on earth is the true and living communion.  

I thought that the vision of God would be so overwhelming that we would not be concerned about our loved ones. But how can we appreciate the love that is God without our human expression of love?

Our ability to pray for one another and offer sacrifices for one another is truly a mutual act, not only what we can do for those who have gone before us, but what they too can do for us. Recently, a woman asked me this question: those who have died, do they really know our experiences since they passed from this life? I replied that our loved ones certainly are in communion with us. We can ask them to pray for us. Hopefully, if they are in Heaven, they can intercede for us still here on earth. There are many ways in which the communion of saints gives us comfort and allows us to mourn without the despair that so many people experience.

What can we say about the resurrection of the dead? How true it is that someday the human body that we inhabited here on earth will be resurrected somehow on the last day. This truly is a mystery whose complexity we do not know. But what a consoling thought! No matter what condition our body is in, no matter how we died, no matter how we suffered, it is possible for the resurrection of the dead to experience the same glory that Christ experienced in His Resurrection. Our faith tells us much; sometimes, we do not stop and think about what it is that we truly believe. This month of November gives us that opportunity to deepen our faith in our communion with those who have gone before us.

Each November, we put out into the deep mystery of death and dying. The image that comes to me is the great work of Michelangelo in his Pieta. How could one not meditate on that great work of art, which in many ways is a theological statement? To see the massive portrayal of the Blessed Mother, holding the dead Jesus in her arms as if he was an infant. As we look at the face of Mary, we see no tear, not even resignation. Rather, we see hope. Michelangelo, who was able to carve veins into this marble statue, could certainly put a tear or two on Mary’s face. But no, hers is the face of hope. And so, we too are people of hope. We understand that death is the door to new life. And for this realization, we pray during this month of November.

Follow Bishop DiMarzio on Twitter @BpDiMarzio