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Words for a Catholic Wake

Experts offer advice on easing the
awkward exchanges at visitations

Words for a Catholic Wake

By Christina Capecchi
The Catholic Spirit

It’s a short talk, but it can induce prolonged anxiety.

The casket conversation — greeting the bereaved at a wake — is the source of great discomfort.

“The biggest fear people have is, ‘What am I going to say when I get there? What am I going to do? Should I shake their hand or can I hug them?” said John Cherek, director of Catholic Cemeteries in Mendota Heights and president-elect of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved.

“There are people who truly agonize over what to say,” said Donna McCarthy, who teaches communications at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

And culturally, we’re not well trained for the often-awkward encounter.

“Most of us aren’t accustomed to having tragedy around us,” McCarthy said. “On TV, we are shown very clearly the many different ways to cause people pain, but we’re never shown examples of how to talk to someone who has lost somebody.”

Give up on ‘the perfect words’

People tend to overestimate the impact of their single comment, thinking a profound statement could erase all grief — or that a misspoken remark could send a mourner off the deep end. “No wonder people have this heightened fear,” McCarthy said. “They set the bar too high of expectations.”

Ultimately, it can prompt a person to avoid the exchange altogether.

“It is not in our comfort zone to deal with someone who’s bereaved so we often duck around it,” McCarthy said. “If we see someone who’s grieving, we pretend we don’t see them. It’s just not comfortable; we want to deny the feeling.”

People justify that denial, she added.

“We create all these scenarios to get ourselves out of doing the right thing: acknowledging the loss and attending to the bereaved. The response is, ‘This just isn’t my thing.’ Or, ‘There’s going to be so many people at the funeral, I wouldn’t be missed.’”

But that’s not true, McCarthy insisted. A missed opportunity to support a grieving person “is one of those rare things that can’t be undone,” she said.

“The bottom line is you cannot not communicate. By not calling or not writing or avoiding the survivor, you send a strong message, regardless of your actual intentions.”

Offer simple sentiments

Local Catholics find themselves at funerals fairly often. In 2003, more than 4,800 deaths were recorded in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, according to the National Catholic Directory. That number has remained relatively steady, Cherek said, which means locals face potentially awkward exchanges with mourners regularly. So what is an appropriate comment in such a situation?

Understanding the two-pronged purpose of the Catholic funeral ritual, as noted in “The Order of Christian Funerals,” offers a helpful starting point.

“The ‘Order of Christian Funerals’ calls us to honor the person who has died and also to give comfort to the bereaved,” Cherek said. “We’re going there to honor the memory and to recognize that this person has lived and now that this person has died.”

Father Jerry Schik, pastor of St. Odilia in Shoreview, said he spares mourners the burden of initiating conversation. “They have enough thoughts rolling through their mind and they might not even remember my name.

Father Schik says, “My sympathies. I’m keeping you and your loved one in my prayers.”

McCarthy’s message is simple, too: “‘I’m so sorry. Words fail me.’”

Sharing a story about the deceased person — serious or humorous — is a good way to honor the person’s memory, Father Schik said.

“Recall some precious moments. ‘I remember the time when this person who died and I were working at 3M and we played this prank…’”

It’s even OK to ask about the cause of the death or the end of the person’s life, said Cherek, who unexpectedly lost his 19-year-old daughter 12 years ago.

“Anytime you as a consoler can encourage someone who’s lost a family member to tell stories, that’s healthy.”

Take cues from the mourner

Still, it’s wise to take cues from the mourners as to how much they want to divulge. “Let them direct the conversation,” Father Schik said. “If they want to talk about the cause of the death, they’re in control. I’m not probing.”

Everyone grieves differently, the priest said. One person might introduce a sibling from Texas. Another may choose to tell about the death in vivid detail.

“And some will be so internal and so absorbed in their inconsolable grief that they won’t want to talk at all,” McCarthy added.

Avoid counseling the bereaved with advice like, “You should sell the house. You should take a trip. You should go to a support group,” Father Schik said.

And don’t judge the depth of a person’s grief or the depth of their relationship with the deceased, the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved instructs.

Instead say, “I hope other’s are not trying to hurry you through your grief,” or, “I’ve heard that each person grieves in their own way and in their own time.”

Make ‘I’ statements

In general, Father Schik suggests that wake attendees begin sentences with the word I: “‘I’m praying for you. I’m praying for the person who died. I remember the time when…’ so you’re not putting the person on the spot. You’re sharing something with the person from your life that they might enjoy.”

Cherek urges wake guests to allow for tears. “Crying is an important part of the grieving process. Let those tears flow. You don’t have to fix them.”

Also, resist the urge to change the subject, McCarthy said. “A lot of people do that because they think it’s their role to not remind them of the loss, yet that’s exactly what they want to do.”

“You’re not there to cheer them up,” Cherek said. “You’re there to acknowledge that you shared great memories.”

Let your presence comfort

When words fail you, McCarthy stressed, that’s just fine. “People often stay away [from mourners] because they think their gift is their words, but their presence, their willingness to be quiet and listen is an even greater gift.”

Physical touch is part of offering one’s presence. “It’s good to give people hugs, to put arms around them,” Cherek said.

Funerals often turn into a reunion of sorts. And that’s OK, Cherek said — it doesn’t mean you have to cement a somber expression on your face.

“If someone were videotaping a funeral, you would hear just about every kind of sound and exclamation that one would have in a normal day — people laughing, people crying — it’s a microcosm of life.”

Father Schik agreed. “We know this person has gone to God so there’s no reason to hold back any spontaneous feeling of happiness that we might have. We’re resurrection people.”

Reprinted with permission The Catholic Spirit Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis

Prayer for All the Faithful Departed

God, Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, grant to the souls of your servants and handmaids the forgiveness of all their sins.  Through our devout prayers may they obtain the pardon which they have always desired.  We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Lord, hear our prayers; in your mercy, bring us to your place of peace and light the soul(s) of your servants(s) [Name(s)], whom you have summoned from this world.  Call him/her to be numbered in the fellowship of your saints.  We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Bereavement/Prayer in Time of Sorrow

Archdiocese of Chicago reminds us that eulogies have no place in a Catholic funeral Mass.  Archdiocesan booklet, In Sure and Certain Hope: Preparing a Catholic Funeral, states: "Eulogies are best given at the vigil service or at some appropriate time during the wake."

Life Has Changed Not Ended

“Life has Changed, not Ended” - consoling scriptural quotations in times of bereavement.  Want a copy of this free Catholic booklet?  info@catholicacma.org.sg or in Singapore telephone 6474 9184.

In Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York, cremations are 20% of all burials.  In Hawaii and Washington State it is 80%.  The Church requires cremated remains to be buried or entombed.

Catholic Bereavement

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