On Jan. 20, 2023, I lost someone very important and dear to me. He had been ill, but I was not expecting him to die so soon. In the days after his death, I found myself having difficulty explaining to people what had happened – and why I was so devastated – because I did not know how to define who this person was to me. He was not my spouse or father or brother or family member. He was a kind of mentor and also a kind of friend, but more than that. All my attempts to describe him still fall short.
I was told that I do not need to justify my grief. Someone important to me died, and it does not matter whether other people understand who he was to me. But the fact that I cannot convey who he was to me so that others comprehend complicates my grief and hinders me from asking for the space and time I need to grapple with this phase of my earthly life without him.
As the director of the Office for Family Life, I support bereavement and grief ministries throughout the Diocese. I know the challenges of grief and am conscientious especially of disenfranchised grief. It can feel uncomfortable to be with the bereaved. What do we say? What can we do? We don’t want to say the wrong thing or make it worse. We cannot bring back what was lost. Our powerlessness is thrown before us. So many of us silently suffer when we lose someone.
Sometimes grief is complicated by circumstances of the loss that draw stigma. Death by suicide. Abortion. Accidental drug poisoning. Death while incarcerated. Some losses come with extra layers of shock, such as the death of a child or by homicide. Some losses are not always perceived by others. Miscarriage. Infertility. Death of someone you can’t remember or who died before you were born.
Yet acknowledging that the loss of a loved one impacts us is an important part of living our faith. In grieving we recognize love and the infinite value of the human person. We affirm the sanctity of that life. The loss pains us because that person is so valuable, so meaningful, so purposeful and reflective of our infinite, loving God – nothing and no one can replace the person. With faith we know death is not an absolute absence nor an eternal disconnect, yet we feel the loss and lament the separation, sometimes so deeply that words cannot express it.
On Jan. 28, the Diocese of Orange hosted its first Emmaus Ministry for Grieving Parents one-day retreat at St. Anne in Seal Beach. Twenty parents gathered for prayer and spiritual reflection and to remember and honor 23 children, ranging in ages from prenatal to 50 years. It was a full day – yes, of crying and sorrow, but also of joy and hope. We invoked the Holy Spirit and were in the presence of Christ through the Church in one another. It was a compassionate space where parents openly grieved without hiding, explanation, or expectation at least for that dedicated day.
Being present to the bereaved is a real way to be witnesses of the gospel. Accompanying the mourning is how the Body of Christ, the Church, illuminates the truth and gives warmth of love. We shine light amidst darkness through our presence alongside, our listening, our tears, our embraces, giving of intentional time and space, our lifting of prayers for those who cannot muster the energy to lift anything in that moment. There are no words. We have no power. But we reflect that which is given to us: the love demonstrated and fulfilled in the Passion of Christ and the Paschal Mystery. That love is the image in whom we are created, in whom our loved one was created. And that love brings us consolation and hope and healing, until we too join our loved ones in that eternal embrace that longs for each and every one of us.
Linda Ji is the director of the Office for Family Life at the Diocese of Orange. For more information about bereavement and grief ministries in the Diocese of Orange, please visit www.rcbo.org/bereavement-grief.