All Souls’ Day – the remembrance of the faithful departed by those whose cosmology allows for a temporal space between death and the final culmination of time; a time to tread warily when speaking of those who have gone before us.
There was a widow who did not seem overwhelmed by grief, in fact, she seemed quite light-hearted about the matter. Shock often acts as an anaesthetic to the pain of grief and it seemed likely that the moment would come when the pain of loss hit her. The lightness continued. The matter became clearer sometime later when a neighbour commented that the woman was enjoying herself for the first time in years now she was rid of her miserable husband.
No-one in theological training ever suggested that loss was something that might be welcomed and that the prospect of seeing the person again would definitely take the sheen off an eternity in heaven.
William Trevor’s Love and Summer suggests pastoral care at times of bereavement should be based not on repeating platitudes, but a careful sensitivity regarding the relationships between the deceased and the survivors.
The anticipation of personal contentment, which had long ago influenced Mrs Connulty’s acceptance of the married state and the bearing of two children, had since failed her: she had been disappointed in her husband and in her daughter. As death approached, she had feared she would now be obliged to join her husband and prayed she would not have to. Her daughter she was glad to part from; her son – now in his fiftieth year, her pet since first he lay in her arms as an infant – Mrs Connulty had wept to leave behind.
Perhaps Mrs Connulty’s daughter would be as relieved to see her mother depart as Mrs Connulty was relieved to be rid of her husband, yet in both cases, in a real situation, the same words would have been said expressing great sorrow for the person’s loss.
In days of parish ministry, there came a hesitancy in using such prayers as:
Strengthen them to meet the days to come
with steadfastness and patience,
not sorrowing as those without hope,
but in thankful remembrance of your mercy in the past,
and waiting for a joyful reunion in heaven.
What if the person felt like Mrs Connulty and had no desire whatsoever for a reunion in heaven with their former husband or wife? Are these terms used in funeral liturgies articles of faith? Does faith in the resurrection mean being stuck with someone forever?
If someone has suffered years of misery, what good news is being offered when it tells people that they they will be reunited in heaven?
Of course, no-one is going to speak ill of the departed, but, instead of adding to the years of hurt, perhaps the best response can come from not saying things.