By Christina Capecchi
The Catholic Spirit
It’s a short talk, but it can induce
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,
“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?
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.”
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
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
Reprinted with permission The
Catholic Spirit Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis
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."
Changed, not Ended” - consoling scriptural quotations in times of
bereavement. Want a copy of this free Catholic booklet? firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Wellington Mara, New York Giants, 89, RIP
Living in Carreta Roman Catholic Cemetery