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Every Day Catholic - November 2010

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Comforting a Grieving Friend
By: Mary Jo Dangel

If you struggle with how to help someone who’s coping with the death of a loved one, you aren’t alone. Thankfully, there’s good information available to help those who are grieving as well as their supporters. I’m grateful to the many people who continue to reach out to me as I grieve the deaths of my loved ones.
Express your sympathy, but don’t tell me how to feel.

I used to worry about what to say at funerals. I’ve learned that a silent embrace is more soothing than well-intentioned clichés. If you feel compelled to say something, “I’m sorry for your loss and I’m praying for you” expresses sympathy without telling a grieving person how to feel. It’s also never too late to send sympathy cards. I’ve been touched by notes that came months after a loved one died.
Be patient. Grieving a significant loss takes time.

“People who are wounded emotionally often find themselves surrounded by people who want to see them heal more quickly—and are themselves impatient with how long it takes,” writes Carol Luebering in Coping With Loss: Praying Your Way to Acceptance. Pray for patience for yourself as well as for healing for a grieving friend.
Understand that my grief is unique.

Supporters need to realize that “people cope with the loss of a loved one in many ways” and in progressive stages. Learning about the phases of bereavement—1) shock and numbness, 2) yearning and searching, 3) disorganization and despair, and 4) reorganization—will assist you in recognizing if someone needs professional help. “For people who experience difficulty in coping with their loss, grief counseling or grief therapy may be necessary” (
Help me find resources and support.

People who are grieving may not be aware of helpful resources. You can assist them by researching what’s available. In addition to the Internet, ask at your parish, diocese, funeral homes, libraries and hospice organizations.

Some grieving people may be more likely to attend a support group, especially the first time, if accompanied by a friend. I was fortunate to accompany a friend who was also grieving. Sharing in a confidential setting with others who have had similar experiences was very beneficial.

Look into CareNotes ( and other booklets on grieving. The National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved ( lists brochures on its Web site, including “Fifty Ways to Help a Grieving Friend.” Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts in the field of grieving. His article, “The Mourner’s Bill of Rights,” is must reading for both people who’ve experienced loss and their supporters (
Be sensitive around special dates.

Holidays and anniversaries can be especially difficult. One Christmas, we were given Doug Manning’s booklet Thoughts for the Holidays: Finding Permission to Grieve, which explains that, especially during the first year after a death, some people need to continue holiday traditions while others might find them too painful.
I’m always touched by those who send cards, phone or e-mail to let me know they’re praying for my family and thinking of my departed loved ones on special days. We celebrate the birthdays of our departed family members by eating at their favorite restaurants or preparing favorite meals.

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Let me share my feelings and cry with you.

Although I was helped eventually by many books given to me by friends, I couldn’t focus on reading anything lengthy when I was in the early stages of grieving. One of the most beneficial was How to Help a Grieving Friend: A Candid Guide for Those Who Care, written by Stephanie Grace Whitson about her experience as a widow.

“Don’t tell me you know how I feel,” emphasizes Whitson. “You don’t.” Talking about feelings “is part of my healing.” She also stresses the need for tears and companionship: “Tears are healing. They must be shed. Crying alone hurts worse.”
Offer practical help.

I agree with Whitson that specific offers of assistance are better than saying, “Call me anytime.” When I was planning funerals, I appreciated the people who brought cakes and casseroles, cleaned my house, typed funeral programs and got them printed. If you have a special talent, such as graphic design, liturgy planning or singing, you might want to offer your services.
Keep the support coming.

Long after a funeral, people who are grieving need support. Offer to mow a widow’s lawn or invite a widower to dinner. I repeatedly invited a widowed friend to socials, even though she usually declined. Years later, she told me how grateful she was for those invitations because it showed that someone cared, and she appreciated the opportunity to talk about her deceased husband.
Allow me to reminisce.

I’ve heard many grieving people say that no one ever talks about their departed loved one. Another problem is people who look away or change the subject when a grieving person talks about someone who has died. That’s the worst thing anyone can do. I’m grateful for the healing tears of laughter and joy I’ve shared with friends who made eye contact and listened to me while I reminisced.
Pray for me.

Whenever I notice that a Mass is being celebrated for someone I knew, I try to attend and talk to the family afterwards. It may be a mother whose toddler died 30 years ago or a widower whose wife died last year. Grieving people appreciate knowing that others care and are praying for them.

Remember, you can never pray too much for someone who is going through the never-ending grieving process: “Pray for me because the second year is turning out to be harder than the first,” writes Stephanie Grace Whitson. “Pray for me every time you think of me.”

Permission to Publish received for this article, “Comforting a Grieving Friend,” by Mary Jo Dangel, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 7-15-2010.

Mary Jo Dangel began writing this shortly after the death of her mother. She continues to grieve the deaths of her sons, Tim (2001) and Ritch (2006), due to the effects of cystic fibrosis. She retired in 2009 as assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger.

Making Connections

■ When have you had the opportunity to comfort a grieving friend? How did your own experience of loss help guide your words and actions?

■ Why are so many people awkward and uncomfortable in the face of death and loss?

■ What can you do to become more of a comfort to grieving friends?

Movie Moments

By: Frank Frost

The exquisite Japanese film Departures demonstrates that there are many ways to grieve, but grieve we must. This winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film is about love and death, and the place these two meet: in farewells, and in grieving.

Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a young cello player who loses his job and his career when his orchestra goes out of business in Tokyo. He and his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), return to his small hometown in the mountains, where he stumbles into a job preparing corpses for their coffins in the presence of their grieving loved ones. Humor initially helps make this story approachable, but what makes it a winner is the reverence, dignity and grace with which the rituals are performed, and the celebration of life they allow. We see the gratitude in the eyes of those observing as Daigo proceeds “with a calmness, a precision and, above all, a gentle affection.”

While the overall context of the movie is death, this is also a love story and deals with other kinds of loss—loss of friendship, of a career, of a town landmark. Still, the heart of the movie is found in the respect Daigo and his mentor-employer show for the departed ones and the way this affects the families gathered at this moment of loss.

In one case their presence actually unleashes family anger and conflict, but in others the ritual washing, dressing and cosmetic preparation permits tears, and even laughter, to give expression to pent-up grief. No words of condolence are attempted or needed. Each family’s reaction is unique. In the end, we accept grief as a highly personal process, as the director says, “for confronting death as a way to realize the joy and the value of living.”

Next time you watch Departures, ASK YOURSELF:

■ In the course of the movie, what different kinds of conflicts are resolved through grieving?

■ In what different ways do some survivors express thanks to Daigo and his employer?

■ What comfort does the crematorium operator take in his work? Does this same belief console me when I am confronted by death?

Putting Shoes on the Gospel

Wanda “Tink” Lee
By: Joan McKamey

It’s probably safe to say that few children dream of being funeral directors when they grow up. Wanda Lee initially wanted to be a teacher and later a flight attendant. After working as a travel agent for a few years, she desired something more personally fulfilling. She says, “The tragic death of my grandmother when I was 16 guided me toward funeral service, although it took me many years to realize the impact her death had on my career choice.”

Tink, as she’s known to family and friends, says, “I truly love all aspects of my job, as unusual as that might sound. My belief that family members have a better grief experience when they view the body of the person who has died makes the embalming and restorative process important to me, and it’s a role that I take very seriously.”

Many people react strongly when they learn what Tink does. She tells Every Day Catholic, “The reaction is usually one of shock—or maybe disgust! I think these reactions are based upon a lack of awareness of what a funeral director does. Yes, we embalm and care for those who’ve died, but that’s actually one of the parts of our job that we spend the least amount of time doing. I spend most of my time working with the living—the grieving family members—helping them arrange a meaningful and appropriate service and educating them about the many choices they have. When I’m not with the family, I’m doing paperwork or arranging services with florists, clergy persons, and cemetery, vault and casket company employees.

“My favorite Bible passage is Psalm 46:10: ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ I catch myself whispering this passage a lot. My job is such a hectic and emotional one that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. To be at my best for the family’s sake, however, I need to be calm and in control. This passage reminds me to take a deep breath, consider the needs of others above my own and put things into perspective. It reminds me to trust God, even when I don’t understand why a family has to endure such a tragedy. It allows me to accept that here with me are people whose lives have been forever altered by the death of someone important to them, and their needs take precedence over mine. And it guides me to treat others with the honesty, compassion and respect that they deserve and that God expects me to give.”

Tink, wife of Rob and mother of five-year-old Isaiah, also brings her professional training, experience and personal compassion to those families she encounters in her role as a deputy coroner in Franklin County, Indiana. Of both roles—funeral director and deputy coroner—she says, “When a family allows you to accompany them in their darkest hour, it’s the highest honor. If I can lessen some of their burden and even offer some measure of comfort or peace, then it’s a true blessing.”

Passing On the Faith

When Someone Is Grieving
By: Jeanne Hunt


Ellen’s younger brother, Rob, died suddenly. The funeral seemed like a nightmare to her. Rob’s golfing buddy told a crude joke about a golfer who died suddenly. Three dishes of lasagna arrived at her home throughout the weekend. As much as she appreciated the kind gesture, she’d run out of space in her refrigerator. Her siblings argued about when the eulogy would be given.

Rob’s widow, Marianne, was in a tranquilizer-induced haze. At the funeral home, Rob’s friends spoke to Ellen about their own stories or offered platitudes that seemed meaningless. Ellen is sure that there must be a better way to honor and put closure on her beloved brother’s life.

A Response

If there isn’t etiquette for attending a funeral, there should be. Here’s a short list Ellen came up with after she buried her brother: 1) Make it a priority to attend the services. Having family and friends stand with us at this moment is a priceless and precious gift. 2) If you’re not sure what to say, then say very little. There are no words that can ease our pain. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is all that is needed. 3) Give a restaurant gift card in lieu of a casserole. It won’t require space in the fridge or freezer, nor will there be a dish for us to remember to return. The gift card will be there when we don’t have the energy or creativity to prepare a meal. 4) Listen rather than talk. Your grief story or your advice cannot console. Your listening heart, however, can be that of Christ. 5) Bring your children to the services. They shouldn’t be shielded from death; it’s a natural part of life. They also can provide some needed levity and even distraction. 6) Plan to visit me a few weeks after the funeral. Spend some time with me. If you are far way, call or send a sympathy letter with your memories of my loved one.

Three months have passed since Rob’s death. Ellen and Rob’s widow, Marianne, are finally able to laugh a little over all the funeral faux pas they experienced. After Ellen shared her funeral etiquette list, Marianne added one more: Come by or call often and talk to me about Rob. Remembrance is a form of meeting that heals the soul.


A Wake Service
By: Jeanne Hunt

(for praying alone or with others who share your loss)

Preparation: Place a candle (unlit), a photo and a few personal mementos of the deceased on a prayer table. Before the wake, ask everyone to write a brief memory of the deceased.


“Christ, Be Our Light” (or similar hymn)


God, we come for comfort in our grief. The absence of [name] creates within our lives an emptiness that hurts. The darkness of grief clouds our vision and hides your light. Come to us. Hold us, heal us and strengthen our weak spirits with sure faith in the Resurrection.


Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


Light the candle and share a brief history of the life of the deceased. Remember in silence for a few minutes.

You are invited to share your memory of [name].

When sharing has ended, the leader prays:

May the choirs of angels come to greet you.
May they speed you to paradise.
May the Lord enfold you in his mercy.
May you find eternal life.

Feast of the Guardian Angels: Perhaps no aspect of Catholic piety is as comforting to parents as the belief that an angel protects their little ones from dangers real and imagined. Yet guardian angels are not only for children. Their role is to represent individuals before God, to watch over them always, to aid their prayer and to present their souls to God at death. 
<p>The concept of an angel assigned to guide and nurture each human being is a development of Catholic doctrine and piety based on Scripture but not directly drawn from it. Jesus' words in Matthew 18:10 best support the belief: "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father." </p><p>Devotion to the angels began to develop with the birth of the monastic tradition. St. Benedict gave it impetus and Bernard of Clairvaux, the great 12th-century reformer, was such an eloquent spokesman for the guardian angels that angelic devotion assumed its current form in his day. </p><p>A feast in honor of the guardian angels was first observed in the 16th century. In 1615, Pope Paul V added it to the Roman calendar.</p> American Catholic Blog Nothing then, must keep us back, nothing separate us from Him, and nothing come between us and Him.

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