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WHAT A PRIEST KNOWS ABOUT GRIEF

There’s a well-known saying in showbiz that you are only as good as your last performance.

It applies well beyond show business. It’s the same for me as a celebrant of the most important moments in people’s lives – the birth of their children, their marriages and the celebration of that terminal event, death.

I’ve done hundreds of funerals and no one is like any other. We don’t need to go into detail on that, because The Hoopla editors have asked me to say what it’s like being inside the celebration of a life that’s ended and that’s what I’ll try to do.

The simple answer to that question is, it’s terrible.

No matter that death is predictable or may have even been desired by the deceased and those who care for them. And every death is different.

On the demise, out come all the mixed feelings – the pathologies and regrets as well as the gratitude and often, relief, which people need permission to admit.

But, as a celebrant, the most important thing to remember is what an old priest once told me ages ago: the funeral is for the living, not the dead. They are with God, I believe. Whatever they’ve done is understood and forgiven. It’s those carrying the pain of the loss that I focus on.

In that regard, I’ve got things to do. I follow the practice I was taught long ago: 3, 3 and 3.

After meeting the family during the dying or soon after the deceased has passed, I engage with the family three days after the death and together we prepare the funeral. Then I visit three weeks after the funeral and again three months later.

I’ve added another 3. I stay in touch for the three years after the funeral because in my experience that’s how long the grieving goes on. It takes that long to absorb what’s gone on in the death of a close family member, partner, friend.

The key thing for a celebrant is to focus on in any memorial is the living who are grieving.

That means that however close the celebrant may be to the deceased or his or her family or friends, one thing the celebrant should never do at the funeral is lose their composure.

I’ve done it four times – at the funerals of my parents, a loved uncle and my first girlfriend who suicided. Fortunately, there were others present to pick up the pieces and keep the momentum of the ceremony moving.

It’s not about me, but them. And what a celebrant has to do is give space to the grieving to encompass all they feel. The hope, despair and desire in that moment. Celebrants create the space for the best in people to be named and cherished.

Then comes the rest. From my personal experience, there’s no change out of two years from the death event of a significant other – however anticipated and prepared for – to reaching some sort of equanimity. Anger and frustration about things you can’t change, sorrow and depression that inevitably follow when you don’t get the result you want, are the ordinary currency of these two years.

What sustains me during my grief?

A conviction that there was so much to the one I loved that I can’t believe that’s all there is. If that’s so, all that I knew and loved was a futile protest against life’s absurdity.

I don’t accept that as a satisfactory account of human experience. But that’s an act of faith and hope and I believe the good that we knew is a foretaste and promise of more to come.

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*Father Michael Kelly entered the Jesuits in 1971. After studies in philosophy, theology and social sciences, he worked as a journalist in Australia and Asia for various publications, religious and secular. He was ordained in 1984 and co-founded Albert Street Productions, a TV production company, in 1986. In 1989, he founded Jesuit Publications, publishers of Eureka Street, Australian Catholics and Madonna magazines. He is now the executive director of UCAnews.com – Asia’s Catholic news source.

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15 Comments

  • Reply August 25, 2011

    Shazza

    Really? You removed the original article on the topic of grief by Wendy? And replaced it with this? And this is supposed to be a site for thinking women? You removed the comments on the prior post? And now, I wonder why this one has no comments……? Pfftt! (except for this one of course).

  • Reply August 25, 2011

    Wendy Harmer

    Dear Shazza, Fr. Michael has officiated at hundreds of funerals and I have not. Not even one.I defer to his greater experience on the matter and I’d like to think the Hoopla is, literally, a broad church. I know Fr. Michael has brought great comfort to so many people. He has sat with them in their darkest hours and I admire his tenacity find his insights fascinating. Right now a friend who lost her son says she is his rock. Good enough for me. WXX

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    gardnerm

    Way to go Wendy.

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    donna

    Shazza, the other article is still there. There’s a link to it at the bottom of this story.

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    Shazza

    Wendy as I pointed out after your article, grief is not only about death. It is a far broader experience. Your article was more encompassing in it’s scope, and I think therefore more thoughtful.

    Personally I don’t think officiating at funerals makes anyone an expert on grief but that’s just me. I have no doubt he has bought comfort to many, but thats not the topic is it? Or have I missed something?

    gardnerm “Way to go?” Are we at a footy match? Is this a competition?

    donna, thanks for that info.

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    Shazza

    @gardnerm, just re read my comment to you and wanted to apologise. It came out much snarkier than intended. I should know better that to comment on the run.

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    Boy's view

    Interesting. So in this case the article is all about grief in death related matters. So I will not talk about grief relating to other matters such as failed marriage (sometimes a crippling experience – just ask any employer). In my limited experience of death related grief, I have 2 things to say. Firstly, that I wouldn’t want anyone from the Catholic Church within a bull’s roar of the occasion. An organisation whose stack and trade is lies and obfuscation is not one I ever want to deal with. Obviously not every Catholic is shambolic nor a paedophile, but many are; as has been shown through investigations throughout the world. Secondly, in my experience, some funerals are joyful occasions where the departed has had welcome and timely release from pain, suffering and sometimes depression. Those lives were celebrated for their rich bounty. My mother for instance was a woman of infinite love who truly never said a spiteful work against anyone – not even the priests who raped her sons, nor the Church she loved who squandered absolutely MILLIONS on trying to deprive victims, witnesses and families of their right to justice and retribution for the sins of their brothers, priests and bishops. She joined with other like-minded and loving women (why is it mainly the women?) in ecumenical movements outside mainstream churches or sects to provide love, care and support to other families and individuals. We family members were laughing and recalling her wit as we carried her in her coffin to her grave where she was buried with her beloved husband (who conveniently was also dead) and her cherished son. So it is sad that in the hundreds of funerals that your Jesuit presided over, that he found every one of them to be “terrible”. In the 3 funerals that touched me personally, none were terrible. One was far too premature, and one was a welcome release, however all three were celebrations accompanied with much humour and laughter.

  • Reply August 26, 2011

    Shazza

    Boy’s view, you raise another example of grief. One that, as a social worker who specialised in trauma, I saw often. The grief and sense of loss that can last a life time as a result of childhood abuse. That as a vulnerable young person you could not rely on those entrusted with your care to protect you, and that others happily exploited that fact. A grief that often resurfaces once the former victim has children of their own.

    I too have had my fair share of losses at deaths hand. In one year I lost three very close people. That took some getting over. But never have I seen grief that lasts the entire life span like that carried by a traumatised child.

  • Reply September 15, 2011

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  • Reply December 2, 2011

    GoldGirl

    Grief & how long is too long? It’s always too long while you’re in it.

    Having ‘made it through’ a few deaths over the past 20 years & having just passed the 3 year+ mark with my gorgeous mum, I can only agree with your expert .
    He does know his stuff… And I don’t believe in ANY god at all
    Losing your mother is one of the big ones & 3 years+ feels a whole lot better today than this time last year.
    They say ‘time is the only healer for the loss of a mother’ (…or ‘another.’ ) And it is absolutely true.
    You never think you can put a time to these things but you can when it actually happens.

    You’ll always miss them & you’ll think about them every day but the edges have been worn down just a little bit more…
    Relief in increments is such a relief… xxx

  • Reply June 9, 2012

    Jenny

    This subject hits me at a time when I should be feeling grief at the death of a sister. But, because she was deeply mentally disturbed, and because her life was a misery, I don’t feel anything. Sure, that could be shock, early stages. I just feel it completely unfair that she should so rarely have experienced happiness, so often lived in turmoil, at war with everyone who tried to help her. And so many did, Health p;rofessionals, family members, friends. Trying to help and not succeeding caused many people sorrow. But now it’s all over and there’s nothing, not even an empty space.. We are to have a very quiet farewell service, just her siblings, conducted by a priest who seems to understand that ‘to celebrate her life’ would be totally inappropriate. And yet we cannot celebrate her death. Maybe I have already grieved for her… every day of her unhappy life.

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