Friday, July 9, 2010

Praying with a Grieving Family

I was recently asked due to some circumstances to lead the Rite of Christian Burial/Commital for baby Abraham. It was my first time ever to lead a service of this kind, and it was an especially delicate situation since these young parents who were given great joy in conceiving him were quickly moved into great pain upon his death. Most of the priests here in the house were away at this time, and so Fr. Scott asked the parents if they wouldn't mind having a Scholastic lead them in prayer. He explained that it would not be a Mass, but--if they were okay with it--I would lead them in prayer during this time and perform all the actions that a priest would do excluding the Eucharist. They agreed, and so I was given the unique opportunity at this stage of my formation to walk with these two young parents in their moment of grief.

It's been a few months since I have last worn my clerics, but this time felt very special to me. I brought with me an alb, holy water, and incense, and I have never before felt as priestly as I did today. I was given a taste of what the future holds in store for me should I hopefully make it to ordination. It felt very natural and right to me--a huge gift for me. Today truly was a special day in my journey as a Jesuit.

I had been wrestling the past few days about what I would say during my reflection. What words could I provide that would give them comfort and peace during this time? As I prayed, I began to realize that I would not be the one giving words of comfort. Ultimately, I believed that God would be the One who would carry them during this time, and I would simply be an instrument that provided them the opportunity to have faith in His work during this difficult time.

We prayed the rosary at the beginning, and during this time the casket was open. I saw this precious little child before my eyes and was moved with profound sadness. Not long ago, this child had been in his mother's womb. Now he was eternally sleeping in this little casket.

During my reflection following the reading of the Gospel, I first shared with the parents that I could only imagine what they were going through at this time. It is only natural to feel intense pain and grief at this time--a pain I do not pretend to understand. The pain and grief is very real, and we are fooling ourselves if we think that we are not hurting at this time. They loved him dearly--how could they not feel pain? I gave them permission to cry and to feel that hurt that they currently feel.

In my prayer, four images came to me that I shared with the family. The first image I offered was the image of Mary, in which it is written in Scripture that her heart would be pierced with many swords. This is a striking image of the type of pain a mother feels when losing her beloved. I shared with them that Our Mother knows as well as anyone the pain of losing a child, and I invited them to ask Mary to teach them how to carry their suffering at this time.

In the first reading taken from the prophet Isaiah, we heard how God would wipe away all of our tears. This was another image I offered to these young parents--that God will comfort them in their sorrow and will wipe away their tears of grief--both external and internal. God wants to help us carry our load if we allow Him to.

We heard from psalm 23, and I offered to them the image of Christ as our shepherd who leads us through the valley of death into the springs of new life. I invited them to have faith in Christ who would shepherd them in their difficult time if they placed their trust in Him. I also invited them to have faith that He was leading Abraham into new and resurrected life, for this is our faith, and this is very much what we believe as Catholics.

Finally, we listened to the Gospel of John, in which Christ tells his disciples not to be troubled, but to have faith in God and faith in Him. For He will prepare a place for them and will always be with them. In this final image, I again invited the parents to trust that God has prepared a place for Abraham, a place in which he has entered into new life. Again, this is our faith, and more, now than ever, I invited them to trust in the work of Christ who has prepared a place for all of us.

Throughout my Jesuit life thus far, I have always relied on pre-typed words to aide me when offering reflections during Mass. Yet, Fr. Scott said that the less I relied on typed notes, the more I would be able to relate to the family. I trusted that insight and prayed that God would speak through me--an insight strengthened by today's daily Gospel reading, where Christ shares that in our hour of need, the Spirit of God will speak through us if we open ourselves to it. Today was the first time ever that I have given a reflection without typed notes, and it was a consoling experience of allowing the Holy Spirit to work through me.

At the cemetery, I had a moving experience in which I invited whoever wished to take the holy water I had brought and to bless Abraham's grave. Some of the little children came up and blessed the ground, and I found myself immensely moved by this gesture.

By the end, I had the sense that although the family was still hurting, they were immensely grateful for this opportunity to bring their grief and sorrow before our God and to enter into greater faith.

I find myself at this moment so very grateful for this opportunity, and I very much find myself as a result strengthened in my own vocation. At this time, I pray for all families who have lost loved ones, especially those who have lost children. May God wipe away their tears, and may they have faith that God has prepared a place for their departed children at His side.


Robin said...

It sounds like you did a fine job, Ryan, balancing the need to acknowledge and honor their pain with the desire to offer them hope.

You might think abut typing up what you recall of what you said and sending it to them. I know that I heard very little of our pastor's funeral sermon for our son, but when I was able to bring myself to read it about a year and a half later, it was very consoling.

Ryan Rallanka, SJ said...

That is very helpful to hear. It wouldn't have occurred to me but makes perfect sense. I'm sure they will appreciate it