Rites of passage for the grieving

Grieving is part of the cost of loving and takes time.  It is generally reckoned that the grieving process can take anywhere between two to five years, and in some cases even longer.  Clearly the latter part of the grieving process will not be as acute as the first few months. But thank God, time does heal. Although we never forget our loved one, the pain of parting does ease, as we learn to cope with our loss.

Grieving is a complex process and is different for each one of us. Nonetheless the grief ‘journey’ normally takes the following pattern:

In the first two weeks or so after the death of a loved one we experience a phase of numbness and shock, when everything seems unreal and difficult to take in, with the result that we can deny the reality of what has happened.

This period of denial gives way to a phase of yearning, with an urge to recover what has been lost. At this stage we no longer deny our loss, but seek to find our loved one as we visit familiar places or look through old photographs. It is not unusual for people to hallucinate and think they have seen or heard their loved one.

Then comes the phase of disorganisation, despair and a gradual coming to terms with the reality of our loss.  We perhaps become unnaturally forgetful, or feel we cannot cope.  This phase is often marked by anger, depression of guilt.

Finally we move into a phase of re-organisation and resolution, when we begin to accept the loss of our loved one. Gradually healing comes, tears stop flowing, and we find that we can start to make plans for the future.

How does the church help its members in this journey of grief?  Are there particular moments when we need to be there for the bereaved, once the funeral has taken place?

Most ministers will visit in the week or so after the funeral, but there are other times too when a visit might be appreciated:  for instance, on the anniversary of the death, or on a birthday or wedding anniversary.

Recently I have become aware of a rite of passage associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church associated with the 40th day after the death of a loved one.  On this day the family invites friends to come with them to visit the grave and return home for a memorial meal.  What is more, either at the grave side or at the meal table there are special prayers in which the loved one is commended to God’s care.

The roots of this 40th day memorial has its roots in part with the ascension of Jesus.  Just as the ascension marked the end of the appearance of Jesus to his disciples, so in Eastern Orthodox tradition the 40th day memorial service is an opportunity to say a final goodbye to a loved one.  Although as Western Christians we may not share the popular Orthodox belief that for 40 days the soul of the departed wanders on earth, as we have already noted, there is a period in the grieving process when people do frequently see loved ones who have died still around. The rituals associated with the 40th day service aim to help the bereaved let go and move on.  Interestingly in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church there is a memorial service not just on the 40th day, but on the anniversary of the death, and then a year and forty days later too.

As I was reflecting on these memorial services, the thought came that this must involve a good deal of diary planning on the part of the minister or priest. But then I realised that within the Orthodox culture it is primarily a family occasion, not a church occasion, and that it must be the families who take the initiative invite their ‘pastor’ to come and share in the memorial event.

Although as Western Christians we may not feel comfortable with some of the Orthodox rituals associated with the 40th day, nonetheless I think that the idea of a family coming together for a meal 40 days after the death of a loved has much to commend it.  Indeed, in some ways the 40th day is a better day for the sharing of memories than the funeral itself – for by that time the initial numbness of grief will have passed.  The fact is that grieving takes time.   A sharing of memories around a meal together with a prayer of thanksgiving for the loved could well form a most helpful rite of passage to enable the family to move further on in their grief journey.  If such a memorial meal were then repeated on the first anniversary, and then 1 year and forty days later, so much the better!

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