Sunday, July 01, 2012

What to Say—and What Not to Say—In the Aftermath of a Tragic Death

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 1, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Mark 5: 21-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2012]

What do you say to the family of a 45-year-old man who died in a tragic car accident a few days earlier and left behind a young son?

I faced that difficult situation just a couple of weeks ago, after Jon Alberghini from our parish died in a head-on collision on Old Hopkinton Road.

Hopefully you’ll never have to address an issue like this publicly in a memorial service or at a funeral Mass, as I had to the other day during Jon’s funeral Liturgy.  But in all likelihood you will have to deal with it in private—for example, in one-on-one conversations with relatives and friends of people who died suddenly and unexpectedly—people like Jon, or like the daughter of Jairus in today’s gospel story.

So, what exactly do you say?  What should you say?

Well, sometimes it can be good and appropriate for us to say nothing—or very little.  Sometimes our presence with a grieving person says all that needs to be said.  Actions do, very often, speak louder than words.  Much louder.  When I was a young priest (many moons ago!), I remember an old pastor saying to me, “When tragedies strike, people will not always remember what you said to them, but they will remember that you were there.”

And I can verify that by my own experience.  On the night my father died back in 1971, my friend, Frank, came over to spend the night at my house.  I have no recollection of anything he said to me that evening.

But I do remember that he was there!  He was a friend who was there when I needed him the most.

Now when we do open our mouths to speak to a grieving person, one thing we should always avoid saying is, “I understand exactly what you’re going through”—because we don’t!

Dealing with the death of a relative or friend is a very “individual” thing; no two people handle it in exactly the same way.

Your experience of dealing with death may be similar to mine, but it will never be the same in every way. 

At times I may be moved to say to a grieving person—for example, to a young man who’s lost his father at a young age (as I did)—“I think I can understand a little of what you’re experiencing right now.”

But that’s as far as I’ll go with it.  To say anything more would be presumptuous—and wrong!

Although it can be helpful to try to imagine what the other person is experiencing: to put yourself in their place, so to speak—not so that you can offer them some pompous or sanctimonious words of advice, but rather so that you’ll have a deeper compassion for them in their suffering.

My mother taught me that one, many years ago.

But compassion alone is not sufficient.  If we really want to help others in their pain of loss, we need to have the right ideas in our heads about death!  That’s crucial!  In other words, we need to know the truth that the Church teaches concerning our eternal destiny.  We need to know this truth about death and what comes afterward, so that we can help grieving souls embrace it, because it’s only by embracing this truth that they’ll find hope—real hope—in the midst of their pain. 

Which is where today’s first reading comes into the picture.  When someone dies suddenly and tragically—like Jon Alberghini—I will often suggest to the family that they choose this particular text from the Book of Wisdom to be the first reading of the funeral Mass.  I’ll do that because there can be a tendency to blame God in these situations, as if God were the author of death.  And obviously, if people blame God for the death of a loved one, they’ll turn away from him in their grief—which is exactly the opposite of what they should do and what they need to do if they want hope.

Listen to this passage again:

God did not make death,

nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.

For he fashioned all things that they might have being;

and the creatures of the world are wholesome,

and there is not a destructive drug among them,

nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,

for justice is undying.

For God formed man to be imperishable;

the image of his own nature he made him.

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.

I love this passage because it makes clear, first of all, that God is not the dealer of death; rather, as we say in the Nicene Creed every Sunday, he’s “the Lord and giver of life”!  God gives life, not death.  Death came into the world “by the envy of the devil,” as the text says.  So he’s the one we should blame, not the Lord!

And “envy” is the perfect way to describe his attitude.  Envy, remember, is worse than jealousy.  The jealous person experiences resentment at the success or achievement of another individual.  But the envious person goes one step further by trying to hurt or destroy the other person in their success or achievement.

Once Satan fell and lost his place in heaven, his attitude became, “Yes, I know I’m going to hell for all eternity, but I’m not going alone!  I’m going to take as many angels and human beings with me as I can.  I’m going to destroy as many of them as possible.”

That’s envy—at its absolute worst!  And it was out of this diabolical envy that Satan tempted our first parents, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.

And we all know the rest of that story.  The temptation led to sin—the original sin—and this sin is what opened the door to sickness and death.

But God did not abandon us!  Because he loves us, and because—as this passage says—he formed us “to be imperishable,” he sent his Son into the world to restore what Satan had taken away. 

And, in the process, God gave us something even greater, namely, eternal life!  As it says in the Catechism, “The victory that Christ won over sin has given us greater blessings than those which sin had taken from us: ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Romans 5: 20).”  (CCC 420)

So yes, we still physically die; but if we’re united to Jesus by faith, and die in the state of grace, we receive something much greater afterward.  As St. Paul put it, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

That’s the Good News of Christianity!

If we can help those who have experienced a tragic death to understand and embrace these core ideas of our faith, they will have hope.  Their pain will not go away—nor should it, since their pain is a sign of their love for the deceased person (remember, even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died); but they will have strength and hope in the midst of their pain and sadness.  They won’t blame the Lord for the tragic death of their relative or friend; rather, they will look to God in the confident hope that he has given their relative or friend the greatest possible gift: a perfect life that will never end.

Hopefully this homily has given you at least a few insights on what to say (and what not to say) when someone dies tragically.  Which brings me to my final word of advice: Remember to pray!  Prayer needs to be the foundation of whatever we do as Catholics.  So always remember to pray before you speak to any suffering person.  Ask the Lord to guide you in your speech (or in your silence), so that you will be his instrument of comfort, of hope and of peace.