Thoughts and Prayers in the House of the Dead

The first time I saw my father cry was in 1963. I was nine years old. We had gotten word the day before that my mother’s oldest sister had been murdered while working in her husband’s law office. A stranger came in off the street and killed her in a deeply brutal manner. It became news across the state for nearly a year. I remember stepping into my parent’s bedroom. My father was lying on the bed, face down, and sobbing into his pillow like a child. I stepped back in awe.

The funeral was beyond somber. On the day of the visitation, I was left with my Dad’s sister-in-law. Sometimes having a kid tag along is just too much. My aunt who was looking after me that day, however, actually paid attention to me. She told me the story of how she found her own father dead, the victim of a suicide. We talked about feelings that I had no words for. I felt forever bonded to her and grateful.

Years later, when I was an Episcopal priest, we received word that a cousin had been shot to death in a chance event in his local 7-11. When the family gathered in my uncle’s home, we sat in stunned silence. The grief was beyond thick. Occasionally, some one would get up from their chair and go to the bathroom to throw up. There were no words.

I have seen many deaths, most of them natural. The grief from an accident is strong. The grief from a suicide is horrific. The grief from murder, though, seems to go beyond everything else.

Years later, again while serving as an Episcopal priest, a parishioner who was a social worker, came to me with a proposal. She said that she knew a number of people who had endured deaths in their families. A number of them were the victims of drunk drivers. Others were murdered in various circumstances. All the families, she said, had stopped going to church in the aftermath of these deaths. She wondered if I would be willing to host a meeting for these families at the Church, just to listen to their stories.

We did it. We used the small chapel of the parish. I opened the meeting by sharing my own story and my family’s experience. Around the room the stories went. There was anger and bitterness. There were plenty of tears. It was one of the longest afternoons of my life. At the conclusion, I asked if I could celebrate the Eucharist. There were questions, and a general agreement.

I celebrated the Eucharist.

Over the next year, I heard from various families who had attended that day. One family asked me to preside at a wedding. Others let me know that they had returned to Church. The truth was that they had already returned to Church the day of that meeting. There, God heard their pain and the sound of their unresolved grief. No one (certainly not me) offered any well-meant words of comfort, and certainly no attempts were made to explain what cannot be explained.

There were thoughts. There were prayers.

The woman who set the meeting up was deeply involved in a program to support legislation for dealing with drunk drivers.

Someone needed to just listen and to pray. She knew her work was important, but that there was something else for which there are no guidelines, no legislation, no words.

For me, as a child, that moment came with an Aunt who shared her story and listened to mine. I think that it was in my 10th year (another aunt died of Lupus a few months after my first aunt died) that I made a fundamental decision about God. My thought was that either there was a God, or there was no meaning at all. Ten year-olds are not supposed to have such thoughts yet – but they’re not supposed to be exposed to murder, either. My faith wavered off-and-on over my teen years, but never my sense that there was Someone there. He listened and He cared. I did not need words or explanations.

Over the years, I have been at the bedsides of hundreds of deaths (particularly in the years I served as a hospice chaplain). Each one was precious. Each one was a meeting of earth and heaven, a revelation of the One-Storey Universe. I have stored them all in my soul and remember them in my prayers before God.

God sits among us in our grief. The good God who loves mankind wept at the death of His friend.

41 comments:

  1. There is a great deal in my life lately that seems to be focused on death, and God’s love for us (even) in it. Silence too has been a theme. I wonder at it all and there is a little fear that it is preparation for something coming (not necessarily to me). But God is good. That too, is very evident.

  2. Sometimes all you can do is sit in front of your icons and weep. God is always there.

  3. Thank you. With the death of my wife and my mother in the space of 5 months this past year, I need to hear again and again the message of His Presence with us.

  4. Thank you for writing these words and sharing them on your blog, Fr. Stephen.

  5. My late wife reposed 18 years ago. The moment is indelibly imprinted in my heart–not the year, just the moment of her death. We were blessed as she died with several friends from Church and our priest praying for her and my son and me.
    God and His angels were in ineffably in attendance as well.

    I cannot imagine the pain that comes with the murder of a loved one but somehow in the midst of it, God is there–that I know and there is “a place of brightness, a place of verdure, a place of repose where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away…. ”

    My tears for her will always be a mix of sorrow, longing and joy.

  6. Mr. Freeman, may our good Lord and His angels succor you in your loss as They did me.

  7. Father and all, please pray for my little brother: He was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. His biopsy is tomorrow and we don’t know the severity or spread. He’s so young, and he’s not a man of faith – so there’s a lack of a shared language trying to talk about suffering and meaning with him. This is has been such an emotional week for our family, and I don’t know what to do. My grandmother was also placed on hospice last week, and it feels like death is encroaching on our family on all sides. I feel helpless and sad – please pray for us.

  8. Nes, you are in my prayers and, I’m certain, those of everyone here. Please keep us updated on your situation! God hold you and your family close.

  9. Father,
    Your blessing and prayers!

    You said:
    “…. I made a fundamental decision about God. My thought was that either there was a God, or there was no meaning at all. ”

    When my brother died from cancer just before turning 20 years old (I was 22, it was now over 30 year ago), I had almost exactly the same thought: “If there is no God and no Eternal Life, then this life is the most cruel and horrible joke played on us humans”. Recently, my aging Mother (as she remembers the hardships of her life) shared with me the memory of that moment, in which my brother said to her “Mommy, I am dying…”.

    As a mother now, I cannot even begin to imagine what that must have been like…

    Later, when I became hysterical during my phone conversation with my parents that day, my Dad (he now also passed on) said calmly: “Calm down Agata. He is already with God (as in ‘God has him now’)”. His certainty was so strong, it was almost helpful, almost calming…

    I have no idea how people deal with death without Faith.

    In my own life, I had only one immediate experience of death. I hope it will not sound disrespectful to bring it up here today, but for me, it was devastating. I still have nearly full blown anxiety attacks when I remember the night my dog died in my arms. I don’t really know what it was, he acted funny that night and then I found him on the floor in front of my son’s bedroom downstairs (he used to lay there when I was leaving the house, leaving him alone at home), unable to move, breathing heavily. He was too heavy for me to even lift him up (to rush to the emergency) so I just sat there on the floor and held him, crying, cuddling him, helpless, devastated, until I could no longer hear his heart beat and the look in his eyes became empty. Death really is the most horrible, cruel, cold enemy.

    If we did not have the assurance that Christ destroyed it…. this life would be senseless….

    Christ is Risen. These words bring back at least some meaning to all the losses we experience…. Glory and Thanks to Him.
    Agata

  10. Agata,
    The death of a pet can be almost as devastating as the loss of a person we love – and for the same reasons. We cannot love and not risk the grief it can bring.

    In hindsight, I think I was fortunate to come to an early faith in God in the context of tragic suffering. I was too young to ask philosophical questions. God, it seemed to me, hovered like an answer in the midst of everything, the “sense” that we all long for, even if we cannot find the words. At this stage in my life, I think of Christ as “the words” (He is, afterall, the “Word”). Christ is “God’s words” about all things. It is not spoken in the manner that we imagine that we want to hear. Nonetheless, my heart, through the years, and alongside the many deaths I have seen, continues an eloquence that is love itself.

    St. Paul says that at the end, we shall know all things. So, I’ll wait for that. In the meantime, I have Christ and the words that He gives me.

  11. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I am being flippant about the grief which you shared in this piece. I can only say that I feel there is something worse than the grief that brings tears – the stony silence of one who simply cannot cry and has no feelings for the deceased. How I became this way I do not know, but it is a horrible thing to be so cold and indifferent to human suffering. It is certainly not like Christ, who wept at Lazarus’ tomb. I was unable to cry over the deaths of my mother, father, and first wife.

    How do I face Christ in judgment when I have been so cold? Theosis calls us to be like Him. I am far from that. All I can do is tell Christ of my failure here, ask for the gift of tears, and wait. I am sorry for the loss of everyone who expressed their grief here at this blog.

    May God have mercy on me and comfort you.

  12. Mr. Hara, having been in a similar place myself there is no easy or quick fix. In my case, an effort of will was involved. I willed myself to feel just a bit, then a bit more. With practice and grace, one’s heart is gradually pried open, at least that has been my experience. In my experience, learning to repent of my own sins –just a bit, opened my heart to tears. Tears that 18 years ago I really could not shed for my own wife. When they come now even having remarried to an exceptional woman they are, as I said, a mix of sorrow and joy with a longing for the fullness of God’s mercy.

    May God grant you His mercy, grace and compassion in your journey into His heart.

  13. Edward,
    For what it’s worth, I do not cry easily myself. I do not think I cried much (if any) at the death of my parents. I grieved – I could feel a “heaviness” within me. I think that, through the years, I have seen so much death, often when I was in a position that I felt the need to hold back my tears – that they became rare. My father wept at the drop of a hat – so much so – that his priest said to me after his death, “Your father had the gift of tears.”

    I do not fear my lack of tears when I stand before Christ. He knows our weakness and the silent tracks of our hearts. I suspect that if you knew how to weep, you would. It is a soul-wound. Christ does not despise our wounds. He heals them. May He weep within you and give you the consolation from the Father.

  14. Father, thank you.

    I wish I could say that my brother’s death (and that thought about “there has to be more”) had brought me to deep faith in God, as it happened with you. It did not even teach me to believe more, pray more. I think all it did was to make just one prayer I prayed sincere and from the heart: the prayer for the repose of my brother.

    I remained in the Church (against many temptations/difficulties against it, including later a hostile [ex] husband – you know my story 🙂 ) and sometimes I think that it was this weak ‘faithfulness’ that the Lord used as a reason not to give up on me? I never felt His presence (as many people seem to feel), but thankfully I don’t need that – like you, “I can wait”…

    In your lecture in San Francisco (when I first met you) you said something about how young people have not suffered enough to need God. The older I get, the more I see the wisdom of these words. And I also use the advice Fr. Zacharias gave you, to ask God to “comfort me”. The comfort is never immediate, but it always comes.

    From now on, I pay more attention to the words He gives me… Thank you for that.

  15. My father-in-law is being placed on hospice this week. He just turned 94, but it is still not easy. He and my mother-in-law have been married 70 years.

    I have lost two first cousins and a second cousin to suicide. My mom died in 2019 and my dad in 2020. I absolutely abhor death, and I cannot weep externally easily either. I have had to be strong for others. The profound internal sorrow (which to me is the same as weeping) is a constant companion these days. I couldn’t summon a genuine lightness of heart if my life depended on it, but I have to keep a brave face for the sake of disabled family members. I have permanent frown lines around my mouth that were not there two years ago. I have felt like throwing up more times over the last two years than in my whole life. I have forgotten how to rejoice and I hang on to hope by the thinnest of threads. I am waiting for the day when every tear will be wiped away. Until then, I hang on and implore the Lord not to let go of me, even when I lose my grip on Him. It is always darkest before the dawn. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I plead for the wounded in a world drowning in evil.

    Hal, may your loved ones’ memories be eternal! Your blog is a blessing. I have valued your perspective.

    Agata, I had a pet mouse for only a couple weeks when I was about 12. She didn’t like to be handled and bit me hard. I still cried my heart out when she sickened and died as I helplessly watched her convulse in her last moments. Our family dog is ten and still very lively. I dread the day we have to say goodbye.

    Nobody should be at peace with death apart from a sure hope in the Resurrection. Death is an abomination.

    I have felt that unspeakable nearness of God at the deathbed of a loved one. It does not remove the sorrow, but it bears us up in the midst of it….

  16. Karen, your words strike my heart and I pray for God’s Grace and Mercy to comfort you. He is always near in such times, especially when our hearts are most overwhelmed. It may feel as if you are alone, but you are not.

  17. Karen,
    May God give you strength. One of the reasons I have encouraged others to focus on those things most directly at hand (particularly during trying times) is to guard the heart and preserve joy, when possible. I remind myself daily that, when I walk out the door, virtually everything is doing fine and is well. There are those who do evil, and those who are suffering, but – there remains a world of wonder that proclaims the goodness of God. I do not want to make peace with my death – except inasmuch as I have given it over to Christ and His Pascha. Christ sweated “blood” at the thought of His approaching death – but still went to the Cross “for the joy that was before Him.”

    My mother announced that she was going to die – on the day of her death. But she spoke of it as God “taking her home.” She was very much at peace with that. I have a goal of “dying well,” in the sense of a Christian life, without shame or fear. It is the last thing any of us can teach.

    My beloved Archbishop Dmitri (of blessed memory), opened his home and his bedroom to his cathedral family and the diocese. People came to pay their respects over his last couple of weeks. In and out of consciousness, he welcomed them and spoke with them, and practiced the same sort of hospitality that marked his life over the years. A remarkable gift. He made his death to be about Christ and not about himself. God give us all such grace!

  18. Fr. Zacharias from Essex in one of his talks gave a prayer “for the moment of our death”. I think he was relating a teaching of Elder Sophrony to pray ahead for the moment of our own death, as it will be “a time when everything disintegrates around us” (that is how I remember this story). When I once reminded Fr. Z about it, he said: “This is my prayer, I composed it!” 🙂

    I may have shared it here before, but it’s worth repeating. And praying it.

    So here is the prayer from Fr. Zacharias:

    “Lord, at the time of my death, when I will be helpless and unable to pray, I beseech You: remember me.
    Now, while I am able, I want to entreat your help at that time.
    Be merciful o Lord God and at that dreadful hour, when my strenght shall fail me and I will be no longer able to cry out to Thee, when neither angel nor man can extend a helping hand to me, do Thou come to my aid and grant me the unspeakable joy of my salvation.”

  19. Father,
    I have heard that Christ sweating “blood” was not so much merely “at the thought of His own approaching death”, but, as ‘Cosmic Adam’, i.e.: recapitulating the death and hell of all deaths and all hells of all beings within His own is what constituted that agony. This is also the only explanation for St Sophrony calling the intercessional prayer of St Silouan for all: ‘Gethsemanian”.

    Agata,
    that is a perfect prayer!
    Manages to put into words (for that trying moment) the key notion: ‘Thou will be done’.

    Remembrance of death (the Godly version) is practically a synonym for remembrance of God; it liberates the soul from the slumber of this life which is but a ‘waking death’. As St Paul says, when we are present in the body we are absent from the Lord. Being “present in the body” as though the source if life is THAT, (and not God to whom we go to “more distinctly” [3rd troparion of the 9th Paschal Ode] “through” death itself), is actually a living death. It is our dying that has been given us as the first ‘proto-evangelion’ because it is God’s “trick” despite our sins that leads to true life. Such remembrance of death is the inauguration of the supreme Awakening that awaits all human beings as their final destiny.
    Of course, as Fr Zacharias’ prayer shows, he is very aware that we ought to become practiced in humility (rather than philosophical coneptualisation) for our surrender to God’s will (for that time of our greatest weakness;, may God grant us all such mercy.

  20. Murder is extremely difficult and so is losing one’s child to death. Even worse to face the death through murder of one’s child.

    Edward, I have been in your shoes. I did not cry when my daughter died. Nor did I cry for many years after. But my life was-is forever altered by her death. As an Orthodox Christian I now pray for her. And I believe my child also prays for me.

    In a deep well of my soul I grieved over decades. I believe it was in the depths of that well that the Lord met me and brought me to Him.

  21. As we age, more and more around us sicken and die. A reminder of our own fragile life that might end at any moment. Karen, my prayers are with you. Thank you Agata for the prayer.
    I lost a sister last year. One of my wife’s sisters died two months ago. In the last 7 months two good friends have died. Our 64 year old neighbor will be laid to rest tomorrow.
    Fr. John Behr has written that had we lived a 100 years ago, we probably would have known of a relative, friend, neighbor or acquaintance dying close to every month.
    Then death, though always the enemy, was a part of life…not hidden from view as it is now, in ICUs, hospitals, convalescent homes, etc. My mother spoke of a beloved aunt dying. Relatives lovingly washed and dressed her, she was mourned over at home as her body lay on the bed, and the following day buried. I think that was quite normal before all this was handed over to professional morticians.

  22. Thank you, Father. I think often these days of the prayer of Orthodox believers imprisoned for years, even decades, under the Communists, who gave thanks to God that even when they could no longer see the sun, sky, trees, butterflies and flowers, etc., others still could. Rejoicing is beyond me, but noticing the gifts around me and giving thanks in the midst of sorrows is not entirely so. I find some consolation working out in my garden in the fine spring weather. I notice the cardinal singing above my head and am grateful for little signs of Grace. St. Nicholai’s Prayer for Enemies is another aid.

    To be honest, that most things are well may be true enough, but this is not such a comfort because of the millions (and the few near) whose suffering I cannot ignore. In my heart, this feels like saying “well, the 99 are safe, don’t worry about the one”, which I’m sure is not what you had in mind. I can only hold on to the hope that in God’s time and because of the Cross, one Day *all* will be well.

    Dean, may your sister’s memory be eternal!

    Agata, indeed that is a wonderful prayer.

  23. Dean, I have a friend in my parish who’s wife reposed quite suddenly a year ago at age 42. They had agreed together to be buried in the ground without embalming or casket. She died at home which made it easier in that respect. He is left with 6 children. It is possible to reclaim the process as His Grace Bp. Dmitri did. But not always. I could not have done it when my wife reposed. We were not ready for it. I wish we had been. With the “professionals” it is often about money.

    God forgive us.

  24. Father and Friends,

    I almost emailed Fr. Stephen directly, but maybe you will have different, helpful suggestions, advice, points of view?

    I take care of my 80-year old mother in my home – she lives with me permanently. She does not have any major health issues, other than the age related weakness, aches and discomfort and balance issues. So far we had avoided major consequences of that last problem, but I fear it’s just a matter of time. She is completely non-receptive to physical therapy, doing some minimal exercises to improve her strenght or balance. And I simply don’t have enough time and energy to force her – each attempt results in a fight between us.

    Every night at bed time, at the end of another pretty nice day (in my opinion), she – with tears in her eyes – says “I don’t want this kind of life. Everything hurts and I am miserable. I wish to die tonight”.

    All I can say to that is “Well, that’s not ‘for me’, I do my best to take care of you. Ask God and the Mother of God about that. I cannot do anything about this.”. But that does not seem helpful (she is not a very deeply religious person, when I tell her to pray, she replies “I am not used to being as religious as you are (!!!)”. )

    I am out of ideas on how to talk to her, to comfort her. And what’s worse, my own sanity and clarity of thought on this issue is starting to suffer. Thank you for anything you can offer.

  25. Agata,
    Sometimes, people say what they do and it needs a bit of interpretation. It’s good to acknowledge sympathetically that her life is hard. Encourage her by telling her that you love her, and how much her life means to you. Assure her that you are daily praying for God to help her in all of this.

    On the other hand, I once had an elderly lady who lived in her daughter’s home. She was completely bedridden. Her daughter complained that her mother was always asking her to kill her. I spoke with the mother and told her that I’d make a deal. If she would promise to stop asking her daughter to kill her, I would pray for God to take her quickly. She agreed and quit asking that question. I prayed for God’s mercy and for a good ending, etc. She died 2 weeks later. I took it as answered prayer. She was quite “ready” to go.

    These are difficult things. We don’t always “get them right.” In our prayers its good to just be honest with God.

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    I honestly don’t know how you do it. Surely the Lord has anointed your lips to sing Hi praise, so to speak. All you did was to share your experiences of death and how they affected you – and it is as if you’ve pulled back the coffin lid on death for a moment in a way that does not cause anyone to run away screaming, allowing us to slowly and carefully share our pain and vulnerability on the subject.

    VERY rare but also VERY healing. Thank you so much for allowing God to use you in this way.

  27. Thank you Father, thank you so much. That is very helpful.

    I do most of these things, tell her how much I love her and how glad I am I can take care of her. I brought her from Poland, by chance, by God’s Providence, a few months before Covid hit the world – I cannot even imagine what would have happened to her, alone in her apartment in Poland….

    She is not bedridden, but if I don’t push her to move, she may be soon. That’s where most of our conflict comes from. I know she could get better, but that requires her participation. And there is zero participation on her part, just laziness and self-pity. I should not say this, but that is the truth.

    But I know that when she is gone some day, I will feel guilt and regret that I didn’t do more. It’s a lose-lose scenario. It’s only bearable with prayer and hope that God will forgive me all the mistakes I am making. Please pray for us.

  28. Thanks, Father, for the clarification, and I do concur. The Rock beneath us in spite of all is that God still sits enthroned as we celebrate this Feast Day.

  29. Drew,
    I join/second your praise of Father Stephen. If he had the same impact on the life of just one other person as he did on mine, God will grant him a very special prize and place in His Kingdom. Axios!

    But I want to let you know that you also had a significant contribution in that regard, for me at least. “The truth is simply too long, too boring and too real” is one of your phrases I think of often. 😉
    And when my dog Wain was dying in my arms, I remembered your story about the bull. There was no better goodbye I could think of to say to Wain… ♥

    P.S. one of the most beautiful articles on death I read was written by Met Anthony Bloom:
    http://www.mitras.ru/eng/eng_06.htm

  30. Thank you Agata,

    I too had a good, faithful dog die. I still can’t think of him without tears, even though it was 9 years ago. And yet it is this cold, searing pain from death that helps me stay sober about where my true home lies. Like General Maximus in the Gladiator movie, I long to walk through the final wheat fields, push open the gates and find myself home. Nothing here really does it for me anymore.

    As the General’s friend said to him, “You will see them again…but not yet.”

  31. I am here, God
    Your servant
    Failed and fallible
    Forgetting the kiss of the wind I sway
    Toward you, my God, unbroken and flexible in your grace.

  32. Agata,

    I’m glad those words spoke to you. One never knows what the Lord is going to work/speak through. I’m looking forward to reading the essay on death that you referenced.

  33. Agata,

    The article you referenced above by Met. Anthony Sourozh was very good. Thank you.

  34. Yes Drew,
    I especially like the story about Hitler. How much tragedy could have been prevented (including now) if he never read a little book? It makes me pray to God that He guards me from making mistakes which might hurt others.
    That (random seemingly insignificant events) is probably true with so much of human history. I really look forward to learning about it all in Eternity :-).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.