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St Cecelia's Orthodox Catholic Church

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Counselling the Dying: Life After Death

AFTER THE FUNERAL

Counselling the Bereaved

After the funeral service is completed, the priest should turn immediately to the chief mourners, offering them comfort and sympathy. This is not the time or place for detailed spiritual or theological arguments, but it may well be a time for a brief word about our beliefs, and perhaps arranging to call on the chief mourner/s a few days later to "see how you’re going" or "to see if there’s anything I can do for you". Generally such offers are well received, and will usually provide a much better opportunity for spiritual discussion than trying to spend too long with them at the funeral, when many of their friends and relatives will also be wishing to talk to them. This arrangement should be made at the time of initial contact with the chief mourners, immediately after the ceremony. It is obviously essential to say a few words at this time, but it is usually neither necessary nor desirable to spend too long with them then, or to go back to them again at the funeral itself. Instead, having paid his respects and possibly arranged a later contact, the priest should make himself available to any other members of the congregation who may wish to speak to him or ask him about the ceremony.

A Few Simple Suggestions

Our Funeral Service is designed to emphasise the positive aspects of death – the great opportunities of life beyond the grave, the fact that it brings to an end to the sufferings and trials of mortal existence, as well as the joy of re-union with those who have gone before. This is in sharp contrast with the funeral services of many other denominations which emphasise the inevitability of death, separation from loved ones, sorrow and repentance. Such services are still commonly held in these churches although sometimes an attempt is made to turn them into a less sorrowful occasion. However, because of their theology this can only be achieved by ignoring the future and concentrating on celebrating the life of the departed, a format that is often found in many non-Christian funerals, but which offers no real hope to the bereaved or spiritual help of any sort.

Thus it is that our ceremony is fairly unique. As it stands it contains many references to our teachings and it may well be that during the sermon the priest will have included a few more. Such a sermon should never be long, and it is often useful to make it as personal as possible, at least in places. This may be done by mentioning the name of the spouse, if applicable. Thus;

"Mary, you and Tom have walked through the journey of life together. It is as if you have travelled side by side for …… years along a winding country road, through the shadow and the sunlight of life. But now you have come to a fork in the road and Tom has taken a short cut, whilst you are left to continue along the original road. Yet you know that eventually your path will meet up with his again and when it does, there will be Tom waiting to greet you. . . . . ."

If there is no surviving spouse, a slightly different approach may be needed. Perhaps the first partner died some years before and now the survivor has gone to join him/her. In this case it is as well to emphasise the joy of their reunion. Again the principal mourners are addressed, in this situation possible a child or children; Thus;

"I’m sure you all miss your Mum, but remember that you have had her with you for many years, whilst Tom has been alone waiting for her all that time. Now she has gone to join him again. Try to forget your own sadness, by thinking of Tom’s joy at getting her back. And think how happy your Mum will be to be to find him waiting to welcome her to that beautiful land.. . . .

If there is no close family, these sort of sentiments may need to be modified somewhat, or alternatively the sermon may concentrate on what the afterlife has in store for the departed. Something like this may be appropriate;

"I realise that all of us will miss him, and wish he was still here with us, but really we are being a little bit selfish. If we realised how much better off he is now, we would never wish him back on earth. Here we suffer from many aches and pains; from heat and cold, from hunger and thirst. There he has none of these problems - he is free from them all, freer than he could ever be on earth. It’s not as if we won’t ever see him again, for one thing is certain; there will come a day when we will go to join him, and when that day comes, there will be Tom waiting to greet us. . . ."

Alternatively we may talk about the body as an envelope and the spirit as the letter. Perhaps we might put it like this:

"Don’t ever think that the one we loved is lying here in this coffin – this is just the empty shell from which his spirit has long since departed. Here on earth, when we receive a letter from a friend we welcome it, we take it out and read it and if it is important to us, we keep it carefully, but we throw away the empty envelope. The body is just such an envelope, for the part that really matters, the letter within, that which made our loved one who he/she really was; has long since been taken out. The one whom we loved has passed to a bright and happier land, where he has already been welcomed by those who knew and loved him on earth. He is not here, and although we may miss him, we can be sure that one day, when our time comes we will meet up with him once again

We may speak of rooms – just as Christ did – in St John 14; 2, when he said "In My Fathers House there are many rooms. . . . I go to prepare a place for you." We may go on to discuss this subject;

"When you were both in the house together and she went into another room, you couldn’t see her because the door had closed behind her, but you knew she was there and that if you wanted to see her, you only had to follow her into that room. This is not so very different – you know she is there in that other room, and that one day you will go through that same door to find her waiting for you there.. . . ."

It is as if our loved one has emigrated to another country, here on earth. When that happens, everyone who knew the traveller in the past – friends, relatives and acquaintances - will be sure to gather round to welcome and show him/her about the new land. So it is in the realm beyond the grave. But some may say "we can write to those in other countries or even ring them on the phone to assure ourselves that they are well. We cannot contact the dead". This is a subject that may need to be addressed with caution, especially if the congregation includes many who are not members of our church. Perhaps the following suggestion may be helpful;

"It’s all very well to talk about meeting up with Tom when our time comes, but for many of us that will be a long time away and we miss him. It’s all very well to liken it to someone who emigrates to America, but we can ring America. We can’t ring those who have died. Not with a physical telephone, we can’t, but you know, there used to be a song called "Telephone to Glory" which told how we could "talk to Jesus on that royal telephone". We can talk to Jesus any day through prayer, and if we pray to Him for our loved ones, they will know about it. This is one way that we can contract those who have gone before us, even now.. . ."

These and many similar sentiments can be expressed in a number of different ways and should be, depending on the religious background of the deceased and chief mourners. But unless it is one who has long been a member of our Church, and a congregation that understands our teachings it is usually best to avoid too many details, which will tend to confuse them. At other times it is may be best to provide a range of information, but not too much detail unless it is specifically sought and the same goes for counselling of the bereaved. Sympathy, compassion and a willingness to listen is much more important than is any advanced theological knowledge, at least in the early stages of such a discussion.

On the other hand, those who are less affected by the loss, especially if they have never attended our church before, may well be moved by the service and/or sermon to seek clarification of some point from the priest, or even to dispute theologically with him. We should always avoid the latter immediately after the service because it is "inappropriate for this solemn occasion" or "disrespectful to the departed". However, an alternative time for discussions should always be arranged or at least offered, for we must always "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you. . ." On the other hand a genuine seeker is clearly to be encouraged and it may be needful for a Priest to spend a little time with such a person even at the funeral. Again, however, if possible an appointment should be arranged for another time. Funerals are occasions when quite a few people are likely to want to speak to the priest and he should avoid spending too long with any one in particular, so that he may make contact with as many as possible.

Simple Basic Counselling.

When the priest fulfils his promise to "call and see how the bereaved is doing" he may or may not find himself in a situation where he can explain our teachings in detail. Sometimes all that is needed is a sympathetic heart and a willingness to listen to the bereaved. If we can get them to "open up" to us in this way it is rarely needful to give too much knowledge and certainly not at that time. Sympathy backed by only a small sample of our teachings may well be the best way to establish a long-term relationship, from which we can then go on to win workers for Christ. At other times a specific question may need to be answered, and as he listens to the bereaved, the priest should always be alert for the signs of such a need. Yet again, especially if the level of grief is not so extreme, simply providing the bereaved with our basic knowledge of life after death may give them a big boost.

Different kinds of Loss

Strange as it may seem, not all "bereaved" have suffered the same loss. Even in the case of the principal mourner, the degree and type of regret that is felt for the loss of the loved one can vary enormously. The loss of a spouse, the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, the loss of a friend, all produce different types of sadness. These in turn may be significantly modified, for better or for worse by many factors, - the form of the previous relationship, the age of the deceased, the manner of death and whether or not it was sudden – all affect the resulting feelings. Death, though regretted, may be seen as a merciful release from suffering, or it may be bitterly resented for a number of, often quite selfish reasons. Counselling the bereaved is a broad subject that will be addressed in more detail at another time, but without attempting to provide a detailed analysis, the following basic kinds of mourning can be identified.

EXCESSIVE AND UNRESTRAINED DEMONSTRATIONS OF GRIEF, such as attempting to throw one’s self into the open grave, may well indicate a guilty conscience. Alternatively the demonstration, whilst seemingly unrestrained, may not be unusual for the individual, or may perhaps reflect a cultural background. Care is needed in counselling such a person, but counselling is obviously very necessary.

STIFF UPPER LIP attitudes, may well result in a complete emotional breakdown at a later time. Counselling should be directed towards producing this at a time when the counsellor can be present and able to assist. Certainly the bereaved should not be allowed to spend long alone until after such a breakdown has taken place, lest self-harm results.

DON’T CARE attitudes usually reflect the fact that the chief mourner has not been close to the departed, and may even be more interested in the Estate of the deceased than in his/her circumstances after death. Such people rarely benefit from counselling.

HIGH LEVELS OF GRIEF THAT IS OBVIOUSLY BEING RESTRAINED WITH DIFFICULTY probably indicates a genuine and healthy regard for the deceased. Although sympathy and a listening ear are obviously recommended, this sort of person can usually benefit from more detailed theological information.

RESTRAINED HOSTILITY TOWARDS THE PRIEST usually indicates that those concerned blame God for the death. If they can be encouraged to talk it may be possible to help them – but on no account should too much theology be offered until they have revealed the precise nature of their difficulty. Doing so may well convert a vague but impotent resentment against God to a dangerous and personal enmity against the priest and the Church which he is seen to represent.

In most cases, simple common sense, empathy with the bereaved and a feeling of compassion for those who are in sorrow, together with a willingness to listen more than to speak, is the best way to counsel those who have lost a loved one.

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St Cecelia's Church * 443 King Street * Caboolture * Australia * 4510