Despite having lost a father, mother, brother and close friend to death by the time I was 40, I have a fair bit of experience avoiding grief. Because it is so painful, there’s almost nothing I’d rather avoid more than grieving. In December 1985, my 31-year old brother, Tim, was killed in a peace-time military air crash near Gander, Newfoundland. Along with 247 other members of the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, he was returning from the Middle East. The soldiers boarded Arrow Air Flight 1285 in Cairo, Egypt. The DC-8 would refuel in Cologne, Germany and Gander, Newfoundland, before returning to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. All went smooth through the second refueling stop. Then moments after takeoff, the plane came back down, killing 248 soldiers and eight crew members. Given the scope of the crash, it took two months for Tim’s partial dental plate to be identified. In February 1986, a casket carrying those tiny remains arrived in Des Moines, Iowa.
The night before the funeral, family and friends gathered at our small-town funeral home. Tim’s Korean wife, O (that’s her name) and their four-year old son, Joshua, were present, as well as O’s mother, Yung Kim, herself a widow who had flown in from Incheon, South Korea. In our family’s Disciples of Christ Church tradition, it was customary to have a viewing, but for obvious reasons the gathering was absent that ritual. Rather, we sat and stood around the room. Some talked. Others were quiet. Then without notice, Yung Kim walked to the closed, American flag-draped casket, laid her body over it, and began to sob. She and my brother had grown close over five years. As we watched and listened to her, the room fell silent. Tears streamed down faces in the room. Without being able to speak a word of English, one woman expressed the collective grief of so many. She was like a midwife, birthing grief from barren hearts.
Until then, I didn’t know that the impetus not to grieve was wired into my German-Irish ancestry and reinforced through a rural Midwest upbringing. All I knew was what I had experienced. Someone dies. Friends, family and neighbors come together. Food is brought. Flowers are sent. Burial happens. And life goes on. The only thing is, from the earliest days after loss, life doesn’t go on as it was. It goes on very differently.
One challenge of grieving in 21st century America is that we have dropped customs for the grieving. Black used to be the color of mourning. Civil War widows wore mourning clothes for a year and a day. Black. Every day. All day. After 366 days, color could be added, but only gradually. In the absence of universal customs, the Church has much to offer:
Context: The Church encompasses the temporal and the eternal. After a loved one’s death when we tend to focus on the emptiness of loss, the knowledge that the Body of Christ includes the living and the departed can offer a more solid foundation for grieving.
Safety: I sometimes hear people say, “I almost started crying when I heard that hymn, but I was able to hold it back.” If faith communities are the safe contexts that we strive for, then why hold back tears? And yet, feeling safe is important. Church leaders do well to remember that at any given time, some members are grieving. Perhaps we could do more to make them feel safe.
Permission and Latitude: The words from the burial office on p. 507 of the Book of Common Prayer underscore the human nature of grief: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all meaning in the resurrection . . . This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.” Similarly, while Episcopal liturgical rites are prescribed, they also offer latitude to customize celebrations of life and funerals that speak to the value of each life.
Ritual: When caskets or urns are present, we cover them with a pall, signifying that each life is hallowed in God’s sight. A paschal candle, first lighted on Easter Eve, is visible, reminding all of the power of Christ’s resurrection. Whereas black and purple were once liturgical colors for burial, white symbolizes Christ’s victory over death.
Word and Sacrament, Prayer and Song: Scripture is filled with living examples of those whose lives have been transformed through grief. Ruth and Naomi come to mind. The Psalms, filled with emotion, are prayers of our spiritual ancestors. The Word can be a lexicon for grieving. Prayer book burial rites and other authorized liturgies offer meaningful resources. And, while holy communion isn’t always included at the time of burial, the weekly Eucharist can draw us into sacred mystery and fill us with Life that death cannot overcome. Prayer calls us to be honest before God. Hard as that can be when we feel anger and sorrow, a growing relationship with God teaches us that God invites our honesty, even when being honest is painful for us. Hymns bind our lives together. Poetry and song are often the best that we can do in the face of our unanswerable questions.
Professional Help: Therapists and spiritual directors offer help navigating the unpredictable terrain of grief. Our diocese is blessed to have many who are gifted in this way. Talk with your priest or contact the diocesan staff if you need help finding professional help.
Community: As a priest of 23 years, some profound moments of blessing have come in witnessing the Church being the Church to those who grieve. Grief can isolate us, but the Church continually invites us to live together. We can support those who grieve by asking others how they are doing, and really meaning it. We can respect and make room for different cultural grief rituals. We can remember those who have gone before on the feasts of All Saints and Souls, and on occasions like Mother’s and Father’s Days, birthdays and anniversaries. We can equip pastoral care teams with resources to better meet grieving people where they are. We can support clergy who minister to the grieving, by caring for them and sharing their burden.
While I am still inclined to avoid grief, the church has helped me to understand that grief doesn’t fit in a box. It’s not a linear process. It is both a part of life, and different for each person. I haven’t seen Yung Kim for 29 years. She is 84 now. I dream of visiting her in Incheon, along with Jerry, O and Joshua. Maybe then I will be able to thank her for a moment when she taught me about the pain and beauty of grief in a lesson that will last a lifetime. +
The Rev. Laura Sheridan Campbell, DMin is the vicar of Holy Cross, Carlsbad. Contact her via email.