Padre Paul’s Ponderings: The Importance of Grief

I remember in seminary, one of my professors was commenting on the modern funeral
liturgy, and made the comment that he wonders if we give people enough time to
grieve. His point was there is this emphasis on rejoicing and the resurrection (a good
thing) but we also sometimes might lose sight of the fact that loss is real. And while we
have the hope that our loved one is at peace and in heaven, we also have the reality of
still being here on earth and not having them with us physically, which is painful.

Admittedly, I think he’s on to something. For instance, we give people time off for a
funeral, but dealing with loss is tough, and sometimes we can both in the Church and in
larger society put so much emphasis on heaven, we forget about the here and now. And
that’s why it’s important to have the proper perspective on dealing with loss.

As I’ve shared, I recently lost my beloved dog Kirby, who journeyed with me for 7
wonderful years. Every day I grew accustomed to seeing him (though in our later years
it required opening the refrigerator door not just the house door for him to come running
up the stairs). Losing him pretty quickly (he got ill and died within a month as cancer in
dogs is so rapid) was a shock. The day I lost him was the first time I’ve cried in quite
some time. And then coming home that day, there was the added pain of seeing his
food dish; of going into the fridge where I had special meals I made trying to get him to
eat before I knew he had cancer of ground chuck and potatoes and rice; of putting away
his toys. And even a month later now, I still sometimes see a dog hair here or there, or
come home looking downstairs hoping to see a pair of eyes peer around the corner but
knowing that’s not going to happen. There will always be pain there, and on different
levels there’s also pain with the other types of loss. For instance in October, I’d love to
be watching baseball games over at my grandparent’s house with my grandpa Henry,
but I lost him nearly 17 years ago. And I’d love to stop by my grandma Pat’s house and
spend time with her as she insisted on making me a meal, but I lost her nearly 16 years
ago. With Kirby and my grandparents and so many other people in my life, there is on
the one hand an understanding that they are at peace, and they are also loved by God,
but on the other hand there’s also the grief that doesn’t have an expiration date. So I
think something good to think about is how do we as Catholics and humans deal with
this?

I imagine people wiser than me have covered this in many self-help sections at
bookstores, but these are just my musings as a member of the human race and as a
priest at what I do to move forward.

As a starting point, I think it’s important to remember that it’s okay to cry. When Kirby
passed, and I was given the news that this wasn’t just some gastrointestinal thing but
something far more serious and that it was time to help him pass in peace, I cried at the
vets office. It was the first time I had cried in quite sometime; I couldn’t tell you the last
time that happened. And two days later, when I offered Mass and told the kids in my
homily how little things we do for others help so much, I cried again because I was
talking to them about the cards they made for me with Kirby’s photo on them that was the last photo ever taken of him. I do not like getting emotional (other than laughing) in
front of people. But if you saw that wonderful film “Inside Out” (great for adults and kids
alike) from Pixar a few years ago, who’s message is that all of our emotions matter,
even sadness, we have to be OK with grieving. And remember it does not have some
end point. I’ll probably cry again thinking of a loved one as something will trigger a
memory, and we have to accept that if Jesus can cry (as He does when informed of
Lazarus dying) we can too.

Second, I think it’s important to have a support network. Sometimes we can hold our
emotions in. Kirby for me was that in a lot of ways. Yes he couldn’t talk, but if you are a
dog owner you know what I mean. I’d tell him my problems or what was on my mind.
But we also need people who can talk back. It’s so important to have people you can
talk to about your emotions and can help you navigate through pain, both through loss
and through the other things life throws at us.

Third, remember we have a connection always to our loved ones. I say at most every
funeral Mass remember this person is not someone who once was, but is someone who
still is. I truly believe that while I can’t go over and watch the World Series with grandpa,
he is praying for me and he continues to inspire me to become a better person. So think
often about your loved ones you’ve lost; pray for them; visit the cemetery, and even talk
to them in your heart and know they will always be with you.

Fourth, don’t keep things hidden. With Kirby, there never was a bad day. Dogs just love
unconditionally. And even when he bolted out of the door and I had to chase him up the
block, or he decided to squat in the living room and do something we need not get into
detail about in this space, there was nothing he could do that would be remotely painful
to me. That’s dogs. Humans though are complicated. We can hurt one another. We can
say mean things. We can hold grudges. And odds are with even people we loved the
most, sometimes there may have been something they didn’t do right. Or maybe it was
more serious and they weren’t as loving as they should have been. It’s important to talk
about these things too to people, perhaps even a counselor. If there were some things
with a loved one that went unresolved, don’t bury these things but remember they are
important to talk about and work through.

Lastly, think about the good you were for your loved ones too. Of course we too can
think “I should have done this” or that with our loved ones. They knew you loved them.
But it’s important to also remember that so many good things were brought about
through your loving actions. And you’ll be reminded of this when you meet again in
heaven.

Life is a blessing, but it can also be very difficult. The journey does not end with death;
Jesus changed the meaning of that entirely. We move forward with hope and with the
promise of being forever in God’s love, which also helps us through the pain. But while
we have that hope, we also must acknowledge the reality of pain and loss too by not
burying it, but truly dealing with it in a healthy way knowing it’s truly okay to laugh and to be happy, but also quite okay to cry and grieve no matter how long it’s been since we
said a temporary good bye to physically seeing those who mean so much to us.

Blessings,

Fr. Paul