Prayer for the Dead and Family Process

From Wikimedia Commons
From Wikimedia Commons

Ccontinuing on some of the thoughts I mentioned in my Tuesday post on the occasion of six months since my mother’s passing, I wanted to explore some of these issues further in a more general way, meditating on a few related questions.

I’ve actually gotten a couple of private notes from folks concerned that, from what they read, I was “repressing” my emotions regarding my mother’s passing. I actually alluded to this question in my post, i.e., that some (no doubt from their own experience) have this sense that, when a parent or someone you love dies, you are “supposed to” break down emotionally (“it’s okay to cry,” etc.). Some people do that, of course, and I don’t see anything wrong with it, so long as it doesn’t become destructive. But not everyone mourns that way. And they don’t have to.

Part of what’s going on is probably explainable just in terms of different personalities, and of course with me, as I mentioned, I have a lot of experience with death in a professional capacity. Most people “don’t know what to do”—one hears that phrase a lot in the middle of the experience—but like most clergy, I am literally trained to “know what to do.” I’m nothing special in this regard. This is normal. Just like I need to know how to serve at the altar, I need to know how to process mourning.

That said, I think more is probably explainable—and here I am not only talking about myself—in terms of a key concept in Family Systems Theory (something I have been working to learn about over the past year or so): differentiation of self. I won’t go into the details (though I suggest you read the link, if you’re interested), but the important thing here is to know that some families and individuals do not have a high level of emotional dependency on one another. This doesn’t mean that they’re independent or indifferent. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. Rather, it means that their sense of self is not inextricably bound up in another person.

In my own family (including extended family), it’s been interesting to watch the different kinds of mourning for my mother. Some people are devastated. Some people are going through the loss with a lot of stability. And there’s a lot in between. Usually, the most devastated ones are the ones whose emotional selves were much more intertwined with my mother’s. There are a lot of reasons that could be the case, and I won’t go into them, mainly to respect their privacy. But some of those reasons are completely understandable and don’t mean that something is “wrong” with anyone. So it’s normal that, if your sense of who you are has a lot of “hooks” built into another person, when that person is lost (or, alternatively, if he rejects you, behaves badly, etc.), then that is much more upsetting to your own emotional stability.

(As an aside, I’ve seen this concept of high and low differentiation of self work out even in the world of blogging, which you might think would be highly differentiated by nature. It’s not, though. A few bloggers I sometimes read have followings that respond in a highly emotional way—they are always telling the bloggers how wonderful they are as persons. And if someone criticizes the bloggers’ writing, the response to that criticism from the following is to tell the critic that they don’t understand the bloggers as persons. Criticism of ideas is perceived as an attack on the person. The systems have emerged with low self-differentiation (perhaps those writers attract that sort of person), so responses are in terms of defining the other person rather than self-definition. An example of a blogging environment with higher self-differentiation is one focused on issues where commenters rarely say anything about each other as persons, whether positively or negatively. Okay, back to the subject at hand.)

The good news is that the loss of equilibrium can be an occasion for healing. And one of the beautiful things about rites of passage—not just death, but also marriages, births, baptisms, moving out, etc.—is that sometimes family emotional processes that have been locked into place can unlock, and the system can adapt to become more healing. People who have been out of touch can reconnect, for instance. Or sometimes people see each other in a new light. I’ve seen that happening in some ways in my family. I’ve watched it happen as a clergyman, too, since I often get inserted into those rites of passage for families.

If I had to generally analyze my family, I’d say that my father’s side tends to be more self-differentiated while my mother’s is somewhat less so. Neither is “right” or “wrong,” exactly, though more differentiated selves do tend to be more stable in the long run. The danger in the more differentiated families is that people can lose touch more easily over distance, while the danger in the less differentiated ones is that shocks to the system are harder to absorb. We’re all messed up human beings, though, and we all need healing in various ways. And most of us are able to differentiate better from some people than from others. You might feel very differently if your father dies than if your mother does, for instance.

I recently had a conversation with a catechumen who is himself a therapist, and he puts stock in the Family Systems approach, which sees people not as isolated “patients” but rather as part of emotional communities. (The language of emotional “repression” comes from the more dominant form of therapy, which is post-Freudian and based on the idea of individualized pathology rather than community function.) He commented to me that one of the reasons he’s becoming Orthodox is that he finds that so much of what he’s experienced in helping other people through recovery is evidenced in the Orthodox tradition.

Great Lent, for instance, if done in the traditional way, contributes to differentiation of self in that it requires a person to go within and find God present there in a deeper way. Doing so stabilizes him and makes him less susceptible to other’s emotional influence, especially negative influence. Probably the ultimate example of how this works out is in the martyrs, who were usually extremely calm in the face of persecution and death.

So on this particular issue of self-differentiation and mourning the dead, the Orthodox tradition says that we can go ahead and pray for the departed. So how does that work out?

If as a Christian you don’t believe in prayer for the departed, especially if you emphasize that the departed cannot see us, etc., then for most purposes a dead person really is dead to you. They’re just gone. You have memories, but you have to wait until reunion in the afterlife to have any access to them.

But if you believe that the bond of prayer does not cease upon exit from the earthly life, then that means that there is still space to work out the relationship in prayer alongside that person. No, it’s not the same as praying with them while they were bodily present, but it’s still there. Rituals of prayer associated with rites of passage (most of which are about separation in one way or another) are generally designed to help with this, though we don’t usually think of them that way.

So there is not just a cutting-off of relationship, which doesn’t actually help in self-differentiation but rather can even lock down the fusion of selves. (A guy who gets dumped by a girl might, for instance, become deeply obsessed with her even while she ignores him completely.) Rather, in prayer for the departed, the relationship’s activity and life are retained, but now they are almost entirely within the context of prayer, which brings the action of grace and healing into play and can settle out the relationship in a peaceful way.

C. S. Lewis once mentioned prayer for the departed in precisely these terms:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

(From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer)

I have sometimes been asked by people who had lost someone through death or distance or a relationship cut-off of some kind what they should do. “I don’t know what to do” is a common refrain. If they are more churchly-minded, they may follow it up with “All I can do is pray, I guess.” I usually say to them, “What you can do is pray. It may be the only thing you can do, but it’s not all you can do, like it’s the leftovers when you have no other option. It is the best and most critical thing you can do.”

And it is. So we do.

One comment:

  1. I have read your last posts about the death of your mom and this one today. I, too, lost my mom five years ago after a long illness. I realized that I had mourned her passing during and through her illness and attending to her every day. We were very close and I wonder sometimes why I was or am not, more emotional, but I have learned the mourning is different for each person and how we mourn is different for each person who has left us. And no one can tell another how to mourn, what is right or wrong, nor how long one mourns (though our society loves to do so).

    Three months after my mom’s death, our only son died very tragically. That death shattered my faith and prayer life. I am still trying to live through my grief and find some peace. And find God, and find my son.

    I was raised Lutheran, became Roman Catholic. Neither faith tradition has brought me any peace with the loss of our son. I started searching and discovered the Orthodox church. I am now in inquiry classes – not sure where it will lead – but I am finding my heart is healing in small ways – one of which is the focus of your above essay – praying for our departed. When our son died there was no offer of having any continuing connection with him. I was only offered that maybe someday we would be reunited – that’s it.

    To know that my relationship with our son can still be alive and active – and even better because he is held in prayer and mercy – touches my heart so deeply – thank you. I need to hear this. I need to believe this.

    Bless you for writing this, Father Damik, you have helped me more than I can express.

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