When I set out to find a guest blogger to discuss Catholicism,
Googling grief and Catholicism brought up the name David P. Deavel. I
clicked the links and read some posts and realized that I'd found a gem,
a writer who could combine personal experiences with theological
information in a post that touched the emotions of readers. When Dave
agreed to write for us, I was very excited and today, reading the post,
I'm amazed. It's a perfect fit for this series and even if you are not
Catholic, if you have lost a loved one, you will feel as if Dave knows
just what you've gone through. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator
The religious information contained in these guest blog posts are the
beliefs of the guest blogger and in no way reflect Fairhaven's
endorsement of any particular religion.
Catholic Grief: A Circle Unbroken by David Paul Deavel
I became a Catholic at the age of 23 the topic of grief was not
particularly on my mind. At 23 you still half-believe in your own
personal physical immortality (particularly if you are a male). My
conversion came as a result of falling in love with the “symphony” of
truth found in the Catholic Church—the paradoxical way in which
Catholicism incorporated all the disparate elements of truth found in
the rituals and theologies of other forms of Christianity and indeed
other religions. One of my mottos was the great English Catholic writer
G. K. Chesterton’s observation, “Catholicism is the trysting place of
But when my mother developed cancer a year later I
was forced to learn that nowhere is this paradoxical character more
evident than in the Catholic approach to death and grief.
paradoxical nature, Catholics claim, comes directly from the very
foundations of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth, building upon the
preaching of the Hebrew prophecies, proclaims to his audience that the
Kingdom of God is both here and now and . . . is coming soon. His
resurrection from the dead is the definitive sign that for human beings,
death is no longer the last word. Various cultures and religions have
claimed that the soul survives death, but the Christian claim is
startlingly new. It’s not just that you will exist as a lonely soul
floating around in a dark, dank land of the dead, as so many of the
ancient civilizations believed. It’s that you will be given a new and
imperishable body. Your dead body, says St. Paul, echoing Jesus
himself, is like a kernel of wheat “buried” in the ground. The
transformation that takes place from seed to plant is like that from an
earthly body to a heavenly resurrected body. In view of this reality,
St. Paul writes to the infant Church gathered at the Greek city of
Corinth, quoting the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “’Death is
swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is they victory? O death
where is thy sting?’”(I Corinthians 15: 54-5).
even before that marvelous day of the final Resurrection, it is still
true, says St. Paul, that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home
with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8)—and is thus a good thing. Thus, one side of
the argument, and a strong one at that, echoing down through the
centuries, is that death is indeed a good thing, something to
be celebrated and not grieved. The Mass is itself a memorial not just
of Christ’s death but also his resurrection. “We are a resurrection
people,” said St. Augustine (354-430) in one of his homilies. The
significance of death is that one has entered into the presence of God
and is now preparing for the resurrection.
From this side of the
picture grief could be seen as something somewhat suspicious, a sign
that perhaps one loved the present life more than the heavenly one to
come, or perhaps that one loved the deceased more than God himself.
Better to take the attitude of the thirteenth-century saint Francis of
Assisi and refer fondly to “Sister Death.” Yet there was always another
St. Paul’s words about death swallowed up in victory were
themselves in the context of his own preaching about the completion of
the Kingdom of God which Jesus said was both here and coming. “The last
enemy to be destroyed,” St. Paul writes, “is death” (I Cor. 15: 26).
Death is to be destroyed, but unfortunately it isn’t dead yet. And as
it isn’t swallowed up in victory yet, it is still particularly difficult
to swallow. If Catholics profess to experience the reality of Jesus’
resurrection here in this life, we also experience the reality of his
death in the deaths of our loved ones. So grief has a place. Even if
those loved ones “have gone to a better place,” we who are left have
not. And our love for them must enter into the same mysterious sphere
as faith—something that we do without the comfort of sight. Grief is
not a sign of superficiality or weakness of faith. Instead, we mourn in
faith because we recognize that the loss is real and deep.
was no simple theoretical matter, either. Medieval people were
especially attached to the necessity of the imitation of Christ the
Lord. Upon finding his friend Lazarus dead, St. John’s Gospel tells us,
“He wept” (John 15:35). He wept despite the fact that he preached the
final resurrection of the dead. He wept despite the fact that he knew
he would raise Lazarus from the dead that day if only to temporarily
extend his earthly life. If Jesus the Lord of Life could grieve, his
followers reasoned, then so could they.
Yet if grief was a
legitimate reaction to death, it had to be a particular kind of grief.
Writing of the resurrection in another place, St. Paul writes that this
reality should affect our reactions to our beloved dead, “that you may
not grieve as others do who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13).
Catholic grief must be shot through with hope of the resurrection of our
Of course everything I’ve said thus far could probably
describe most Christians and their attitudes. But what I learned when
my mother died of cancer at the, by today’s standards, comparatively
young age of 63 was that there were several elements of the Catholic
approach to grief that were particularly helpful and that made my
experience of grieving my mother slightly different from the grief I
endured when losing my two grandmothers and a beloved aunt in the few
years before Mom died.
the distinctive teachings of the Catholic Church, purgatory and the
continuing connection of the dead to the living, made a world of
difference. My Protestant friends complain that purgatory denigrates
the work of Christ in saving us, making salvation something Christ
doesn’t really accomplish, but simply makes possible. This theological
error, they say, results in a psychological block to our grief: we
can’t say that our loved ones’ suffering is over and thus we cannot
really grieve properly since they aren’t really in a better place. But
my friends mistake the theological nature of purgatory. It is simply
the continuing work of Christ in sanctifying (making holy) people whom
he has saved, not those people making up for Christ’s shoddy work. My
friends also mistake what it means for grieving loved ones.
Catholic teaching about purgatory gives the mourner is something to say
and something to do. No one ever knows quite what to say to mourners.
“She’s in a better place” can seem hollow, as C. S. Lewis commented in
his marvelous A Grief Observed. “I’m sorry” is always good.
But what a number of my non-Catholic relatives and friends observed to
me was that they appreciated how my Catholic friends could say “I’m
sorry” but also, “I’ll be praying for her” or “I’ve had a Mass said for
her” or “We’ll pray the Rosary for you.” It is, my relatives said, a
wonderful testimony to the Catholic belief that our beloved dead are
beyond our sight, but not beyond our reach. Purgatory means for grief
that when we believe in hope that our loved ones have joined Christ we
are also capable, in our union with Christ in prayer, of still helping
them along as they are made finally and fully their truest and best
selves in Christ.
It’s not just a one-way street. What many
friends often say and half-believe, that our loved ones still “look
down” and “take care of us” is something that Catholics believe is
literally true. Saints (those who’ve made it all the way into heaven)
and those still being cleansed in purgatory do not pray for themselves:
they pray for us. What details they know of our lives is a mystery
nobody can know, but the fact that they still look down on us and pray
for us is a comfort. This strong belief and the help it gave to me was
another thing friends and relatives commented on.
beliefs about the two-way connection between us and our beloved dead
meant something for me as I dealt with my own grief. They helped me
realize the truth that mourning and grief are not something that end
with the funeral. And the practices associated with those beliefs both
reinforced this truth and provided a means for living out those
beliefs. Early Christians celebrated the funeral Mass as a memorial and
a plea to God to fulfill his promises and “complete the good work that
he began” generally on the third day after death. This was symbolic of
the identification of the Christian with Christ who was raised on the
third day. But this tradition was complemented in various other
Churches by Memorial Masses variously on the 7th, 9th, 30th, and 40th days after death, as well as on the anniversaries of death.
My kids, even the ones who didn’t know her, still have her as part of daily life. We remember her death every July 25th
but also daily at mealtimes when we add to our blessing, “God bless
Grandma Deavel. . .and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in
peace.” She still loves us, we still love her. And I don’t have to
“get over” my grief any time soon. I can let it blossom in its
complicated way ever further into deeper love and hope.
David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine.