My beloved Uncle Leo died when I was 14 years old. I remember standing frozen at the funeral home, looking at the lifeless body that just a short time ago contained unbounded joy, a delightfully wicked sense of humor, and more love than his human heart could hold, causing it to spill out onto all of us who knew him. At that moment, I became convinced of heaven. I simply could not fathom that this irrepressible spirit died with his body.
I don’t recall whether today’s first reading, commonly proclaimed at funerals, was part of his. It would have correlated well with my feelings, though. It serves to reassure all grieving survivors that their loved one is dead to this world, but alive in Christ. She is at peace, he darts about in utter freedom, and their spirits soar in ways beyond what we can imagine in this world.
This is a comforting message indeed. And yet I continued to struggle with my grief. I felt intensely conflicted – happy that Leo wasn’t suffering and had reached the paradisiacal goal we all seek to attain, while simultaneously missing him, feeling lonely for his physical presence, longing to hear his laughter, and needing the unconditional love he showered on me.
My struggle was exacerbated when I confided in a teacher at my Catholic high school. She told me my faith was weak and I was selfish, that if I truly loved Leo and believed in God I could not be sad. I was devastated, and never showed my pain to another person. I didn’t stop crying, but I cried in private or into my pillow. And I felt profound guilt, convinced that God was disgusted by my immature and inappropriate tears.
I have learned so much about grief in the decades since then. My teacher was wrong. It is normal to wrestle with the conflicting feelings that flooded my heart. A person of faith can be happy for their beloved dead and yet sad for their own immediate loss. Jesus cried when his friend died. The psalmists poured out their anger, confusion, and pain, emboldened not by weak faith but by a faith so deep they knew their relationship with God could withstand and even benefit from such transparent honesty. Along with the first reading, they believed the words of today’s psalm: "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves."
Trust in God’s promises does not mean denial of loss, loneliness, pain, and a broken heart. It means living in the paradox, embracing both the joy and the sorrow of a loved one’s death.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.