A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
THE death of a parent is one of the most devastating experiences. Even if anticipated and expected, when death finally strikes, there is always a sense of shock and numbness. The onset of grief can be overwhelming. My mother died just over two years ago. She was in her 96th year and her health had been failing for some time. But when the moment came “to shuffle off this mortal coil” the loss was deeply felt.
The grieving process leaves you abandoned on an emotional roller coaster. That is why the rituals which we have developed around loss and bereavement are so important. They provide a framework to enable us to carry this grief and express it in a safe and secure way by providing boundaries and structure. Without these well established rituals, grief could be almost unbearable.
Community support was a significant element of the rituals. It was so comforting to have friends and neighbours calling to the house, bringing cakes and sandwiches and sharing stories about Mum, offering a handshake or hug and sitting in silent prayer in the presence of the body. It was such a respectful presence in solidarity and support.
Covid-19 has robbed us of our freedom, of our enjoyment of life; but for it to deprive of us of these comforting rituals of mourning and above all the normal funeral obsequies, is cruel in the extreme. One could almost call it vindictive.
‘Families have been stoical, heroic almost, in accepting the guidelines for funerals, realising that this huge sacrifice is to protect the health and safety of others’
We have to forego the wakes, the visits to the house of the deceased. Only 10 people can attend a funeral Mass. This means the community, as well as the family, is deprived of ways of saying goodbye, of bringing closure. The ritual shaking of the hand after the burial, as people pass by in line to offer condolence to mourners, is now prohibited. Bereft of human touch, the family must carry this burden of grief in isolation. There can be no gathering afterwards where, over the course of a shared meal, stories are recounted, memories of the deceased are shared: words of appreciation for the joy they brought and the way they touched people’s lives.
With the dramatic escalation in the number of Covid related deaths, I have heard harrowing stories of families unable to visit their dying parent or loved one either in hospital or nursing home because of health and safety restrictions. For a family member having to watch a loved one through a window as they face into the loneliest experience of all, (encroaching death), must be emotionally unbearable. This treasured time to say goodbyes, hold hands and support a loved one at the end of life: not possible because of Covid-19. The depth of pain, guilt and anguish suffered by those in grief has been overwhelming. It is encapsulated in the sentiment of one distraught woman: “How can I ever forgive myself for not being with my mother, after all she has done for me. I’ll never get over this.” Another elderly woman spoke of being completely wracked with guilt for not being with her husband of 60 years at his death. She wondered, “Will he really know how much I loved him now.”
And then, not being allowed to view the body of the deceased and or have them dressed in apparel of choice is also extremely distressing for mourners.
I have officiated at many funerals. However, when it came to celebrating my Mum’s funeral, I appreciated more than ever the power of the funeral rite to bring consolation and hope in the midst of the darkness of death and loss. And now, as I said earlier, only 10 can attend the funeral service. Not only the family, but the community also is deprived of a structured way of saying goodbye and expressing solidarity with the bereaved.
The funeral service is designed to offer hope and comfort, set in the context of the Christian vision, which refuses to view death as “an abrupt dumb stop” to quote the late poet and philosopher John O’Donoghue. “It seems unlikely that life would chose so carefully to bring us through so much and then simply offload the whole harvest of journey over a cliff. So much could not have been so carefully built to be simply destroyed in a second. Something more profound and ultimate is happening behind the veil (of death).” The Christian funeral rite is designed to help us lift the veil and glimpse the possibility of resurrection in Christ. It helps us celebrate what has been carefully built in the life of the deceased and publicly acknowledge that goodness. It celebrates the hope that “the bonds of friendship and affection do not unravel with death.” But with only 10 family members present, it is difficult for the rite to communicate this profound message of consolation and hope.
Families have been stoical, heroic almost, in accepting the guidelines for funerals, realising that this huge sacrifice is to protect the health and safety of others. But deprived of our rituals for grieving, we may fail to process our grief. This will not only undermine personal mental health but also the health of our collective consciousness. We will need to develop new rituals to bring healing to the collective psyche. This may be one of our greatest challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic.