Sunday, June 28, 2009

“The Three P Approach” to Situations of Tragic Death

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 28, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2009]

What do you say to a mother or father who recently lost a child in a terrible car accident?

What do you say to someone who lost their best friend two weeks ago in the Iraq War?

What do you say to a young person whose father or mother or spouse recently died of cancer or a heart attack while in the prime of their life?

What do you say to a parent whose child committed suicide?

My brothers and sisters, these questions I just asked all involve situations of tragic death.

Every death of someone we love is sad, but some situations of death (like the ones in the 4 questions I just mentioned) have the added dimension of being tragedies.

We usually say, “I’m sorry” in such circumstances, and that’s okay. We should say that we’re sorry and offer our sincere condolences to all those who are grieving deeply over the loss of a loved one.

But then what?

What can we do to ease the pain and confusion these men and women are experiencing as they struggle to make sense of something that on the surface appears to be senseless?

Well, the bad news is that we can never take all the pain away, no matter how hard we try. Even if we do and say all the “right things,” the person who’s dealing with the tragedy will still have to face a cross of suffering.

We might wish that we could wave a magic wand and make everything better, but we can’t.

Which is not to say that we’re helpless and can’t do anything! We can’t make everything perfect for them—that’s true; but it is possible for us to be instruments that God uses to help them bear their cross more effectively and experience some inner healing in their lives.

That much is within our power.

Based on my 23 years of helping people face tragedies in their lives as an ordained priest, I would advise “the Three P Approach” in these situations. The “Three Ps” stand for presence, perspective and prayer.

When you’re trying to help a friend cope with a tragic death, take this “Three P Approach” and I believe you’ll help them as much as you can.

The first “P” there stands for presence—your presence. That is so important for those who are grieving. And this is precisely where many people fail. They sometimes stay away from those who have recently experienced a tragic death, because they feel awkward and don’t know what to say.

Well, join the club, because I don’t always know what to say, either.

But I go to these families, because I know that my being there is important to them and gives them support—even more than my words do!

In fact, if you surveyed all the people I’ve ministered to in the midst of tragedy and said to them, “What did Fr. Ray say to you when he came to your house—or to the hospital—or to the nursing home—after your loved one died?” I’m confident that 95% of them couldn’t tell you anything I said!

But they’ll remember that I was there! They’ll remember that I was there to be with them in one of the most difficult moments of their lives.

And they’ll remember that you were there.

You really don’t have to say anything—at least initially. In fact, sometimes it’s better when you don’t say anything.

My father died of cancer when I was 14. For me, it was a terrible tragedy—he was only 46-years-old.

That night my good friend Frank Chianese came over. He spent the night at our house.

Now I couldn’t tell you one single thing that Frank said to me when he was there that night of September 10, 1971.

Not one single thing.

But I definitely DO remember that he was there. Obviously, at that point his presence was much more important to me than his words were.

Notice that Jesus Christ was always with people in the midst of their suffering. Today’s gospel story is just one example of Jesus being present to people in pain.

That’s an example we should all strive to follow.

Of course, eventually words do become important—usually long after the funeral is over. Here we have to be careful not to become preachy or to oversimplify matters, because if we do we will probably come across as harsh and insensitive.

But speak we should—gently and respectfully doing our best to help the hurting person find the right perspective (this is the second P of the Three P Approach).

Today’s first reading can be a big help in this regard. In fact, I often refer to this passage of Scripture at the funeral Masses of those who have died in tragic circumstances.

Let’s face it, when their loved ones die tragically, many people tend to blame God, as if God were “the Dealer of Death”! But that’s the wrong perspective to have, because it’s just not true. God is (as we say in the Nicene Creed every Sunday) “the Lord and giver of life”; he’s not the Dealer of Death!

Physical death came into the world when sin came into the world. It was not a part of God’s original plan for the human race. As it says here, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. . . . God formed man to be imperishable. . . . But by the envy of the devil death entered the world.”

God allows us to experience physical death—yes—but he’s also provided the remedy for physical death through his Son, Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

Through words like these, spoken always in gentleness and love, we need to do our best to help victims of tragedy find the right perspective on God and on their situation.

We need to help them understand that God is their friend, not their enemy—and that it’s in him (and only in him) that they have hope of seeing their deceased loved one again.

Which brings us to the last P of the Three P Approach: Prayer. Presence and perspective are both important and necessary—but prayer is the source of the power that makes those first two “Ps” effective.

The Mass, of course, is the most powerful prayer of all. This means that it’s appropriate to have Masses said, not only for those who have died, but also for those who are still alive and grieving. Or, at the very least, we should remember them when we’re here at Mass—and especially when we go back to our pews to pray after Communion.

Outside of the Mass, any prayer will do. We could even take one of the psalms in the Old Testament and turn it into a prayer for a friend who is suffering in this way. Look at the last stanza of today’s responsorial psalm. It reads, “Hear, O Lord, and have pity on me; O Lord, be my helper. You changed my mourning into dancing.”

You could pray that line for a friend who’s just experienced a tragic death in his family by asking the Lord to fulfill those words in your friend’s life: “O Lord, have pity on my friend; be his helper; change his mourning into dancing; give him peace and joy again in his life.”

Presence, perspective, prayer: the Three P Approach to situations of tragic death.

Now that we all know this approach, I would say that God expects us to put it into practice to the best of our ability.

He will be counting on us—and so will many of our suffering friends.