For Family Life Update

By Rev. Gregory Warnusz

Chaplain, Saint Mary's Health Center

We've all felt helpless in the presence of a broken-hearted widow, our words sounding empty and ineffective to us even before we speak. But helpful things to do and say are, contrary to common sense, easy enough to find. We need to remember two things about the grieving: 1) Their emotions are out of control, so they have feelings of which they are ashamed and frightened. 2) Their fundamental need is that others understand and accept them as they are. The unruly emotions are hard for others to deal with, so the understanding and acceptance are hard for the mourners to come by.

The death of a loved one (or divorce, or having one's child leave family and church to join a cult--in short, any alienation) often unleashes a chaos of unexpected and inexplicable emotions in the bereaved. There may be anger at the deceased, anger at God, jealousy of friends who are still happily married, loss of faith, even a desire to join the deceased in death. Mourners know there's no rational, factual basis for these feelings, but rationalization, whether from their own minds or from the clergy, doesn't make the feelings go away. There's no cool philosophical discourse here, but pain so pervasive that the mourner feels overrun, drained of all energy, indecisive, unable to enjoy the comfort of friends' love, hopeless, even crazy. The early mourner is unaccustomed to this, and suspects that revealing it would only cause others consternation. So he or she tries to keep it inside, putting on the brave front that elicits so much praise. The mourner acts contrary to what he or she feels, which may be useful for short-term survival. But the price is shame, with doubts about one's sanity and faith. Agere contra1 doesn't change the feelings. And since the feelings are so unsavory, ungrateful, unfaithful, they bring on guilt. Here is where the well-meaning, especially the clergy, with our common-sense expressions of faith, can do the most harm. For what seem to us words of faith, reassurance and comfort, designed to usher (or prod) the mourner into a more hopeful future, sound to the mourner like a scolding for his or her present feelings. It's as if we're saying, "You're not acceptable with your tears and unruly feelings. Snap out of it! Shape up! Where's your faith?" Of course we mean nothing so cruel, but the hearer is already guilt-plagued. The mourner is likely to twist our hopeful utterances and conclude, "See, Father thinks I should be over this, too. What's the matter with me?"


What we can do that is helpful is so obvious that it's easily overlooked. That is, communicate that we understand and accept the mourners as they are, now, not as they will be or want to be, but as they are: messy, tearful, unreasonable, angry, faithless. They need to know that it's OK with us if they are that way. We still love them and accept them. They are desperate for someone to communicate that.

How do we do it? We simply stay with the mourners, biting our tongues if necessary. This means we let them express their real feelings, while avoiding any response that sounds like we're correcting or judging them. Our few remarks only reflect back their feelings, so they know we understand. When a mourner expresses pain, we say not, "You'll feel better soon enough," but rather, "It hurts worse than anything you've ever felt before, doesn't it?" If a grieving person rages against God's unfairness, we stifle the impulse to say, "God's ways are mysterious and we must not question His wisdom," or "God needs him in heaven more than we do on earth." We say instead, "You must feel like Jesus on the cross crying out 'My God, why have You abandoned me!'" A good rule: If our response begins, or could logically begin, "Yes, but...," then don't say it.

Were mourners to publish their first feelings, no bishop could grant an imprimatur2. What these folks say, or feel like saying, is offensive to pious ears. But it's temporary. Acceptance of the loss and peace come in due time. Understanding and acceptance from others are what the grief-stricken need, from the beginning, as they are, if they're to make normal progress. The feeling of being judged, of being hustled too fast out of grief's early stages, only adds guilt to their pain and loss. It slows, not speeds, their progress.

So mourners ask priests to be patient with them, to exercise great forebearance while they mope. We have to forego our priest-answer-man status and renounce faith-as-fix. Compassionately ("suffering with") we enter their pain and dwell with them there, however briefly and tentatively. Our powerlessness to fix them merges with their inability to feel better. We accept being stuck there together. Neither mourner nor minister enjoys this, or should, but it is genuine human communion, more honest than many of our poses. This alone is what heals. Honestly to feel our impotence is frightening and humbling, but humanizing for the priest, and so salvific.


Theological reflection suggests that this is a way we imitate Christ. Is not communion in suffering, if we can imagine it writ large enough, really what Jesus offers humankind? Consider the disproportionate ink the evangelists spill on the passion, compared to the healings, teachings, and even resurrection-appearances wrought by our Lord. By sheer count of pages, aren't they telling us that what they were inspired to remember most is Jesus' powerlessness, his utter abandonment (obedience) to the human condition, his willingness to join us in the business of being tempted, misunderstood, bereft, falsely accused, spat upon and victimized even unto death? He who, for all his power, could have saved us in so many easier ways, chose instead to excuse himself from nothing human. Rather he became like us in all things except committing sin, accepting even the consequences of sin. He is willing to dine and to die with sinners. And what power does the image of Christ crucified exercise in our imaginations! Is there another icon in so many pockets and purses, hung on more bedroom walls, gracing as many sanctuaries? The very popularity of the crucifix attests to our need for the compassionate companionship of God-become-human. Thus lifted up, he indeed draws all to himself. (The resurrection is less proof of his divine differences from us than vindication of his obedience to the Father's will, that is, accepting the human condition. This is the saving obedience that none of us could accomplish since the serpent tempted us to try to be like gods.) Jesus offers not to fix us but to accompany us even when we're at our worst. It's as if he's saying, "Human nature is good enough for me; it's good enough for you." This doesn't always, or even often, take away our pain, but gives it meaning. Truly our God is with us, irrevocably. No sin, no unruly feelings, no craziness, no darkness of spirit, no self-hate can drive him away. Not just over us or ahead of us but with us, he saves us. In our service to others, especially the grieving, we can and need do no more than imitate him.

1. Agere contra is Latin for "to act against." The first addressees of this paper were priests trained in the U.S. in the twentieth century. Part of their moral training in seminary was to agere contra their imperfect tendencies. The idea is that one just bucks up and does what's right, no matter how he feels. There's something of an analogy in the Broadway musical Damn Yankees, where players describe various temptations they enjoyed but did not yield to because "But then I thought about the game." Click here to return to text.

2. Imprimatur is Latin for "Let it be printed." Strictly speaking, as a noun the expression refers to a notification printed on the back of a book's title page, certifying that a bishop has granted his permission for the book to be published, usually on the advice of a theologian who has found the book free of doctrinal error. Catholic church law once required, and may still require, every author of a book about matters of faith or morals to secure an imprimatur for the book. Click here to return to text.