October 23, 2021 Essay: Saying Goodbye

Oct 21, 2021

Death is universal, but how we cope with loss is not. No matter your age, you likely have experienced the loss of a loved one – a parent, friend, or even a pet. It is simply part of the human experience. As Catholics, we move into November with our thoughts turning to endings – the end of the liturgical year, the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. We take the month of November to pray for and remember those we have lost in an annual ritual of “saying goodbye”. It brings us comfort.

Death has been a part of my life since a young age. I was eight years old when my father died suddenly, which was transformative for my family. Within the next four years, both my grandparents also died suddenly. Experiencing loss at an early age marked how I view life and the importance of my Christian faith in viewing death.

We know Jesus tells us “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” in the Beatitudes as recorded in Matthew 5:3-12. This is often read at funerals, and I have always thought of it as God’s promise, through Jesus, that He will bring comfort and peace during this time. Some commentators say that the reference is to those who are penitent to the point of mourning their sins, and comfort comes in God’s mercy toward those who repent. While that is surely true, I believe that Jesus also speaks to us regarding loss.

What is interesting, is that He doesn’t say, “Blessed are they that grieve”, but rather “Blessed are they who mourn”. What is the difference? Grief is the emotion – the inward thoughts and feelings of sorrow that we all hold in our hearts at the loss of a loved one. Grief from a profound loss may lessen over time, but the feelings of sorrow may follow us through life.

Mourning, on the other hand, is the active outward expression of grief and is the strongest word for bereavement. It is something we do with others. Many of us have seen a range of expressions of mourning – from formal traditional funerals to “non-events” with maybe a farewell reading and scattering of ashes. Some friends say they don’t want their family to be bothered with the details and formality of a funeral service and will opt instead for something small and private, with no formal gravesite.

In reflecting on this, I think perhaps I have looked at this Beatitude from a too-narrow lens: it’s not only that the mourner will be comforted, but also that through mourning we are comforted. These outward expressions of grief help pull us out of solitude, reconnect us to our community, and give us the tools to go on living while holding our loved one in our hearts. Yes, funerals are for praying for the deceased, but they are equally for all of us. Marking anniversaries of death, visiting cemeteries, holding onto Mass cards are all ways we mourn and will be comforted.

Just as death is universal, so is mourning. Each culture and faith tradition has different customs and rituals, but the purpose is the same – to mark the passing of the deceased and provide tools for the grieving to mourn in community with others. This, Jesus tells us, will bring comfort.

We should be ready to be of comfort to our friends of other faiths. Please join the Ignatian Interfaith Community on Tuesday, November 9th at 7 pm as we take an interfaith look at customs and rituals around death, together with the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home. Please RSVP to [email protected].

– Simone Vinocour, Ignatian Interfaith Ministry Chair