Remembering those who grieve

by Dr Stephen Spence

People die. And the world keeps turning; it doesn’t even miss a beat.

Most of the time we don’t notice the world’s indifference to death, because we are the indifferent ones. In our neighbourhood or just outside our network of friends someone is devastated by the death of a loved one and we don’t notice, we don’t miss a beat. Life goes on.

But, then, it happens to us. We are the ones devastated by death. It is as if a wall has collapsed upon us; we can’t breathe, we can’t move, we can’t see the light. And yet the world doesn’t miss a beat. It is night. We go to bed. We don’t sleep, but the clock ticks on. And, whether we have slept or sobbed our way through the dark hours, the sun comes up, and people begin the day as if nothing of significance had happened. But it has.

In the immediate aftermath those near to us give sympathy and casseroles, “you have to eat; life goes on.” There is the funeral. For a moment it does seem that the world has noticed. But the funeral ends. People move on. Days turn into weeks, which turn into months. The hole in our life remains, but nobody wants to hear about it again.

This can lead mourners to isolation and to loneliness. To those around them they seem to be coping – they get out of bed, they go to work, they contribute. But inside their head, inside their heart, they are changed in ways they struggle to acknowledge and to have acknowledged.

This is why anniversaries are important. Recently, as a nation, we acknowledged the continuing pain and continuing loss of those affected by the Bali bombing. It was all over the newspapers. Fresh tears for old but still present pains. An opportunity for those of us who have lost track of our friend’s or our neighbour’s ever-present loss to reconnect with their reality. Anniversaries can ease the sense of isolation of those who carry grief and help ease their loneliness.

Of course, newspapers are only interested in anniversaries that they deem significant. They don’t care that it is two years since the miscarriage or the first Christmas without grandpa. But the church should care. The church should ensure that those who carry grief do not have to do so isolated and alone. And as an expression of this – to ensure that those of us who do not grieve do not forget those who do – I want to recommend that each local church set aside one day each year to end emotional isolation and “grieve with those who grieve.”

In the church year, on November 1st, there is a day set aside as All Saints Day. Different churches interpret this day in different ways. Common to them all is the awareness of “the communion of saints” and acknowledgment of the “dear departed.” But there is no rule that says we can’t use it to comfort those who grieve for their dear departed. Those who grieve don’t need anniversaries to remember their grief. But they do need anniversaries to legitimate expressing their grief. And those of us who aren’t grieving do need prompts to remind us that it is necessary to speak of the dead with those who still feel their loss. Together in loss and grief; not just once at the funeral, but annually on All Saints Day.