Fairhaven Blog

Things of interest around Fairhaven.

Helping Save Young Lives

- Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The loss of a child is one of the most devastating experiences a parent can ever face. Feelings of anger, depression and guilt can be long-lasting – and all are normal emotions during the grieving process. Many parents feel they have a hole in their heart that will never heal, because they’ve lost a piece of themselves and their future is forever changed.

Unfortunately, each year, prom season brings up the painful issue of teens driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and the unfortunate likelihood that this can cause unnecessary – and preventable – death. Deaths that result from drunk driving happen regularly, not just during prom season. But at this time of year, we see more occurrences and we are reminded of the dangers of drunk and distracted driving, and the tragic deaths that can result from lack of focus behind the wheel.

That’s why high-risk prom season is an important time to raise awareness. Recently, Fairhaven took part in a public service program – and formed a partnership with the California Highway Patrol and Cornelia Connelly High School in Anaheim for the “Every 15 Minutes” program. The prevention and education campaign includes high school students reenacting a crashed car scene, a highly visual and shocking staged event with local law enforcement and emergency medical responders “treating” the injured as a crowd of students witnesses the dangers and consequences of driving impaired or distracted. Fairhaven assisted by transporting “fatalities” to our mortuary for identification by parents.

During the assembly that followed the mock crash scene and its aftermath, letters were shared from the “walking dead” students – emotional goodbye letters to their parents. One speaker also shared a special poem about the dangers of drinking and driving. Grief-stricken attendees watched in silence – moved by this life-changing and life-saving experience.   We can only hope the message was heard loud and clear – and that at least some tragic accidents, and deaths, were prevented.

Public service programs like this are powerful and are so important – we need to join together as a community to save lives this year, and every year. Unnecessary deaths can be prevented. At Fairhaven, we help families during their time of need. We hope public service programs, such as this one, can help prevent families from needing our services far too soon.  If you’re a parent of a teen, one way to help keep your child safe is by proactively opening a conversation about the dangers of distracted driving. Please, join us in spreading this important message. 

What's Our Real Legacy?

- Monday, March 04, 2013

Guest blogger Jane Shafron talks about the value of family stories

We spend a lot of time worrying about money, don't we? First, do we have enough for ourselves? Should we work more or work longer; are we saving enough; can we afford that trip; and how much should we spend on ourselves and on gifts?

Later, the questions change. We start to reflect on our mortality and our legacy and we think about preplanning for the inevitable. Have we made our funeral or memorial arrangements; do we have our wills and estate plans in place? And how much will we be leaving to the children and grandchildren? Very often these are dollar and cents questions.

But is money our greatest and most important legacy?

According to a major study by the Allianz Life Insurance Company, money is not our greatest legacy. And it’s not just Allianz who is telling us this, it's us! During the course of last year, Allianz commissioned the 2012 “American Legacies Pulse Study” - an update of their groundbreaking 2005 study. The results may surprise you – they certainly surprised me.

It turns out that money is not our greatest legacy:

Eighty-six percent of “baby boomers” (age 47-66) and 74 percent of “elders” (age 72 and older) said that family stories are the most important aspect of their legacy. Family stories! Money and the passing of personal possessions are still important, but less so: 64 percent of baby boomers and 58 percent of elders checked that box.

This echoes the findings in 2005, with 77 percent of both boomers and elders citing the importance of family values and life lessons as the most important part of their legacy.

Hmm. Stories. They don't cost much. But do the kids really agree? Don't the children have an expectation of being taken care of – at least a little bit? Not according to the Allianz study.

Of more than a thousand people surveyed, only 4% of the (adult) children said they felt they were owed an inheritance. (Actually, it’s their parents who put the pressure on themselves here: 14% of the parents said they felt the owed their children an inheritance.)

Family stories help the children and grandchildren get to know us just a bit when we were young – getting things right and (even better) getting things wrong; family stories that are funny or serious; family stories which contain lessons or wisdom or history. Family stories humanize us and the kids – especially when they have grown up themselves – value them more and more.

Let's all try a bit harder to preserve our stories.

Kids, take the time to question and listen – don't just arrive in time for the turkey then settle in front of the flat screen for the big game. Come early and help with the preparation and learn the traditions. Parents, make time and create opportunities to reflect and pass on some of your history – and try not to lecture or judge (hard I know - for me anyway!).

It turns out our greatest legacy is not our money; it is ourselves – passed on to our children and our grandchildren through our time and our stories.

Guest blogger Jane Shafron is a video biographer who co-founded Your Story Here Family History Video - a video production company that specializes in preserving personal and family history. Based in Orange County CA, her award-winning films have been screened in festivals in the United States and Canada. Jane is on the Board of Directors of the Association of Personal Historians and regularly writes to her blog Video Biography Central. She can be contacted on 949-742-2755 or through her website.

Grief, Faith and Culture VI

- Friday, March 09, 2012

For the first time in our continuing series on Grief, Faith and Culture, we touch on culture. In a world where Don't Ask Don't Tell has been repealed, where same sex marriage is legal in more states every year, and where being HIV+ is no longer a death sentence, the GLBT community has become a force for change. Our guest blogger today is a renowned author and his story is a touching memoir to a friend who died of AIDS. The loss of his friend inspired Rick Reed to write a romance called Caregiver and today's article gives us a peek inside the GLBT culture which spent two decades bowed beneath the weight of a death sentence called AIDS. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

I’m driving north on Florida State Route 75. It’s August and the flat land stretching out on either side of the highway looks baked. The slash pines, palms, and cypress trees stand like stalwart sentinels against the blistering sun: brave.

The car hums along, the whirr of the air conditioning compressor keeping me company. I’m too jazzed to listen to music.

I’m on my way to a date with Jim. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him, since he moved from the Tampa Bay area up north to Raiford, which is a good three hours away. I can’t blame Jim for the move (it wasn’t his choice), but it’s been hard not being able to see him the past month. Oh sure, we’ve written and Jim’s a great one for letters, especially since he can draw hilarious caricatures of the people he’s meeting in his new home.

But there’s a disturbing edge to his letters, too, and I know some of these people have been less than kind to Jim. The name-calling, for one thing, breaks my heart. But thank God Jim has a sense of humor, otherwise I don’t know how he’d get through each day.

I know he’s been hanging on for this date, which we’ve had planned for a while.

Finally, an afternoon with Jim. I didn’t know, four months ago, that I would grow to love him so quickly.

I drive on, the broad expanses of rough grass and hearty trees being replaced every so often by strip malls and towns with names like Ocala. The pavement shimmers before me in the heat. My tires hum. An armadillo hurries alongside the road. A mosquito splats against the windshield, leaving a swath of blood.


I remember the first time I met Jim. It was another blistering summer day (funny how in my memories of the two years I lived in Florida, it’s always summer, even when the memory took place in December or February). Jim and I had been set up and these kinds of dates always put me on edge: they never worked out.

When Jim answered the door, I was sure that this set-up date would work out like all the others: completely inappropriate. Other people never seemed to have the capacity to pick someone out for myself that I would choose on my own.

And this guy who opened the door immediately put me on my guard. I mean, I enjoy a good drag show at the local bar as much as the next guy, but here in Brandon, Florida (a suburb of Tampa, full of kids, trimmed lawns, and swimming pools), a smart little black dress and pearls just seemed out of place, especially on a very handsome blond man with great blue eyes and a nice, tight build.

But there was Jim, all smiles and beckoning me to come inside. I went into the little bungalow he lived in with a roommate (who was at work). The place was typical Florida, one-story, stucco, with a schefflera bush in the front yard, and that peculiar, tougher-than-nails, fire-ant infested grass on the front lawn. Inside, pastel walls and beige furniture completed the picture. The Golden Girls could have used the place for a set.

And there was Jim, smiling at me in his sensible matron’s outfit and just putting the finish creases on a little ironing he was doing just before I rang the bell. The whole scene made me think of a cross between June Cleaver and RuPaul.

I wasn’t sure what to say. But that really didn’t matter, because Jim was more than ready to take over (once he’d made certain I had a fruity cocktail in my hand, even though it wasn’t yet noon), telling me all about his recent move down here from Chicago (I had the same story to tell, but I wasn’t to learn until much later how very different our respective moves to the sunshine state were), his love for Barbra (need I add a last name here?), and how his health was improving under the abundant Florida sun.

I learned fast that day that clothes don’t always make the man and that Jim would turn out to be one of the bravest men I’d ever met.


It’s been a long drive and I’m glad to finally be pulling up in front of Jim’s new home. Raiford, Florida is north central Florida…typical of the state, but not the kind of look one usually associates with Florida (white sand beaches, aquamarine waters, palm trees swaying in the salty breeze): Raiford is kind of grim and parched looking, especially the wide open spaces where Jim’s new home sits. It’s surrounded by dry brown grass…stretching infinitely to a blazing blue sky, where the sun beats down, relentless.

A tall fence surrounds Jim’s new home, with no nod to adornment (Jim, with his graphic design background and his love for the visual arts, I’m sure, did not approve). This fence was made of foreboding chain link and twice the height of a good-sized man, topped with razor-sharp circles of barbed wire. The only thing that looks halfway decent is the curving arch over the entrance drive and the stone monument just beside it. The arch tells visitors, in curving steel, that this is the Florida State Prison. The stone monument spells it out further: Department of Corrections, Florida State Prison.

This is where they send the big boys: the felons.

I can’t imagine Jim inside. He’s been hanging on for our date.

I can’t wait to see him.


When Jim and I went on our first date (after our getting-acquainted morning cocktail hour at his house) we went to Ft. DeSoto beach, a beautiful stretch of white sand just off of St. Petersburg Beach. Because it’s in a state park, the beach is backed up not by high-rises with balconies overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, but with a view that nature intended. Instead of bricks and mortar (and the attendant Florida tourists), Ft. DeSoto beach has only sand dunes, sea grass, and mangroves as a backdrop. It’s another blazing hot day and I’ve brought lunch for Jim and me (with a thermos full of mai tais…Jim’s favorite) and we spend the entire afternoon listening to the waves roll in and watching a matronly pair wade along the shoreline, net bags in hand, collecting starfish and shells.

Jim tells me about the last job he had before he went on this extended period of unemployment and how he worked as a graphic designer. He tells me about what led to his dismissal: picking up a stranger one night and bringing him back to his workplace.

Jim was like that: a little imp, unable to play by the rules.

Life has a way of biting those who go against its conventions by biting them in the rear.


Getting into the Florida State Prison is a lot easier than getting out, but there are some obstacles. In order to arrange for my date with Jim, I had to go through the chaplain, who put me on the very short list of visitors who could come and visit him (not that there was a long list of admirers waiting to be put on that list; only Jim’s family so far had come to check him out in his new digs—and they had made the trip all the way from Downer’s Grove, Illinois). Once inside the prison, I had to go through an anteroom, where I had to sign in and then subject myself to being frisked, right down to removing my boots to ensure I wasn’t securing a file in the heel or something. I understood the precautions, silly as they were. Yet Jim was in no shape to escape, even if I had somehow managed to smuggle in everything he would need to slip through Raiford’s well-guarded walls.

Security wasn’t as tight for my last couple of dates with Jim, which had taken place at the Hillsborough County Jail. There, things weren’t as grim, or as lonely. I would line up with a whole room full of chattering visitors, get checked in, and then be off to converse with Jim through a wall of Plexiglas, under the admiring eyes of some of the other inmates. Jealousy is such a petty thing, and particularly annoying when you’re trying to have an intimate moment with your date.

But that was before Jim’s case was adjudicated and they sent him north, to the state prison. That was before Jim began to get really sick.


Now, a guard leads me down a colorless hallway to the prison infirmary. I know this will be my last date with Jim and it’s hard not to recall all the laughs we shared before he was caught (he had violated his parole in Illinois, where he had been convicted of grand theft auto) at various beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, in Cuban restaurants, just listening to music at my apartment.

It’s also hard not to remember the additional details that brought him here: how, in a fit of depression, he had set fire to his roommate’s house. What did he have to be depressed about, anyway? He was only dying from AIDS (this was in the early 1990s and the drug cocktails that would keep many of his brethren living full lives were still on the horizon), isolated, and on the run from the law. Why be sad when he could number his only friends (me) at the number one? Why be sad when my friendship was not borne out of a common love for the arts and sarcastic observations about life, but instead courtesy of the Tampa Aids Network, where I had volunteered to be an AIDS buddy and was assigned to Jim?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Jim. He had written me, before he was confined to the infirmary, about how the other inmates taunted him and called him Spot, because of the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions that covered him from head to toe (and continued, even now, to eat his fragile body and soul alive). I didn’t know what to expect. The last time I had seen him, he was still vibrant, still Jim: a little blond man with a quick smile and bottomless kindness.

I knew he had deteriorated…and I knew it was going to be bad.


Jim was alone in the room of the infirmary where they had done, I suppose, what they could to ensure his comfort. Other beds awaited other inmates, with maladies less deadly, I hoped, than Jim’s.

And there he was. Asleep. He looked frail and vulnerable, not at all what you’d imagine if you thought of the terms “convicted felon” or “state pen inmate.” His face, once tanned and vibrant, was covered with purple sores. My Jim had turned into a monster in the short time that had elapsed since we last saw one another.

He turned to me and opened his eyes. At least his eyes, blue as those waters we once sat beside, had stayed the same. It took him a minute or two to recognize me, but when he did, he smiled. I moved close to the bed and took his hand. With my other hand, I touched his forehead, where a fever raced around inside, hot as the air outside these prison walls.

I don’t remember what we talked about on our last date. Probably not much; Jim drifted in and out of sleep while I stood beside him, sometimes even in the middle of a sentence: mine or even his own. He did manage to tell me about his parents’ visit the day before, how his mother had collapsed in grief the moment she saw him.

I wanted this last time of ours together to be meaningful. But what, really, is there to say, at life’s end? I leaned in close and kissed him, my cheek brushing up against one of the lesions. It felt crusty.

The only thing left to say, really, at the end of life, or even the end of a perfect date are three words: “I love you.” Jim whispered back, “I love you, too,” and then he fell asleep.

I crept away.

Jim died the next day. The chaplain very kindly told me, when he called, that he thought Jim had hung on long enough to see me. I hung up the phone and slipped outside to my patio and looked across the surface of the pond just steps away. A wind rippled across the deep green water, making the grass at the water’s edge sway. A white ibis pecked at something along the shore.

I thought of a silly drawing Jim had sent me a couple months ago. It was a colored pencil caricature of a fat middle-aged woman I had written about; she was naked and riding a surfboard. Jim had called it “Amelia’s Hawaiian Adventure.”

The picture made me laugh when all I really wanted to do was cry. But my eyes were dry. Maybe it was just Jim’s influence as he looked down, trying to replace grief with hilarity. I laughed until I was almost breathless and had to sit down, cross-legged, on the concrete.

Finally my laughs turned to sobs and I faced away from the pond and toward the sliding glass doors. The glass was bright with sun and I swore I could see Jim reflected there. He mouthed some words and I strained to read them through my tears. “Glad you could drop by.” I swallowed, containing myself and think: me too, Jim.

Someone else might think our last date was kind of sucky, but for me it was perfect. After all, a perfect date is marked by a timeless connection and an intimacy borne of true love. Maybe I didn’t get the chance to bring you flowers or candy, but this date we had…well, it will be the one that will always stand out in my mind as my best, because I like to think that I sent you off, free, with the words “I love you,” lingering in your mind.


Rick R. Reed is the author of dozens of published novels, novellas, and short stories. He is a two-time EPIC eBook Award winner (for ORIENTATION and THE BLUE MOON CAFE). His work has caught the attention of Unzipped magazine, “The Stephen King of gay horror,”; Lambda Literary, “A writer that doesn’t disappoint,”; and Dark Scribe magazine, “an established brand—perhaps the most reliable contemporary author for thrillers that cross over between the gay fiction market and speculative fiction.” He lives in Seattle.

CAREGIVER is available at Amazon and Dreamspinner Press.

Visit: http://www.rickrreed.com

Follow: http://rickrreedreality.blogspot.com/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/RickRReed

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/RickRReedBooks

Grief, Faith and Culture V

- Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Today's guest blogger is a man whose words resonate with tenderness and the tenets of his faith. Caine Das is an ordained Buddhist Monk and, as you will see in this post, he is also a devoted son. His struggles to accept and deal with his mother's illness stretch the limits of his faith while still offering him comfort. In part five of our continuing series on Grief, Faith and Culture, Caine shows us his serenity in the face of coming loss. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

Disclaimer: The religious information contained in these guest blog posts are the beliefs of the guest blogger and in no way reflect Fairhaven’s endorsement of any particular religion.

"Your mother's cancer has returned and is widespread. It is just a matter of time now." A year before, I heard the same doctor state, "Your mother has a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer. I will do the surgery and chemo, but best case, we are looking at a five percent chance of long-term survival."

Both times, the doctor touched my shoulder and said, "I am so sorry." As he turned and walked away, tears rolled down my face. How many times in my life had tears flowed? A phone call, "I am sorry Caine, your teacher, he has passed away." Another doctor, many years ago, "The baby is failing to thrive. There is nothing more I can do." These memories and so many more flood my thoughts as I turn and slowly walk down the corridor towards my mother's room.

The son will be the one who tells his Mother the cancer is back. The child will tell the woman the prognosis. She decides to not go without a fight, even while saying how tiring it all is. Her life has not been an easy one. As the weeks pass, comments about how she wants her funeral to be, location of important papers, how no one lives forever mix in with, "I don't feel like I am dying. Not really."

One question comes up that is not exactly a surprise, "Will you be wearing your robes at the receiving of friends?"

I fondly think back to over thirty years ago when she first saw them. Maroon and yellow with a shaved head. "What in God's name are you wearing? Where is your hair?" I had become a Buddhist Monk and my mother was very shocked at the sight. The years have softened her views.

Being a Buddhist Monk led to many discussions on why, where, how, when, would you like to see a doctor? She did love hearing about the places I had traveled, but my beliefs and the fact I was no longer the family religion did worry her so.

At this time of transition, my mind centered on the words of the Buddha. “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.” These words carried such tender meaning facing the mortality of my Mother.

Grief comes to all beings, and for all, there is a difference in the depth, width and intensity of the road it becomes. I have seen people move on quickly because it was the only way they could continue, but the sting left its mark. Others, not so. Their grief holds them like a prison. Intervention of loved ones is often necessary to help these people carry on the most simple of tasks, their grief so fixated.

The words 'Impermanence' and 'Equanimity' flow around my grief. Everything changes, nothing is permanent. All the people and places I know will and do change. My friends, my family, myself, all will die. I had always known this but it never became real until I studied the path of the Buddha. The fact that all things were impermanent made suffering all the more a reality.

I recall asking my Teacher one night, "Why do you stare at the stars so much? They are hundreds of light-years away. Everything you are seeing has changed."

He smiled and said, "Caine, you have learned impermanence, but you must embrace equanimity to understand why I look at the stars and smile."

I was a novice Monk then, not even sure if I wanted to stay. I yearned for the peace and firmness of mind my Teacher had. He was compassionate and caring whether things were good or bad. He never wavered. He taught that equanimity was compassion in action and during actions. All things change, suffering will happen because of these changes, yet compassion and love stands in the middle of all changes.

Through the years, grief became more and more of a constant, visiting more often. I faced grief with equanimity, a faith and confidence of being able to stand in the middle with peace and compassion, not judging or saying what if. I looked at what could be done to help.

My Mother said, "Well, are you going to wear your robes?"

I smiled at her just as my Teacher had smiled at the stars.

My Mother just smiled back and said, "Wear the nice ones at least."

"I will Mom, I will."

Caine Das has been a Buddhist Monk for over 30 years. He found peace in the words and teachings of the Buddha and has carried this peace to the world. His mission is simple, to serve others. His website is Reflection of a Buddhist Monk.

Grief, Faith and Culture IV

- Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When I set out to find a guest blogger to discuss Catholicism, Googling grief and Catholicism brought up the name David P. Deavel. I clicked the links and read some posts and realized that I'd found a gem, a writer who could combine personal experiences with theological information in a post that touched the emotions of readers. When Dave agreed to write for us, I was very excited and today, reading the post, I'm amazed. It's a perfect fit for this series and even if you are not Catholic, if you have lost a loved one, you will feel as if Dave knows just what you've gone through. ~ Charity Gallardo, Blog Coordinator

Disclaimer: The religious information contained in these guest blog posts are the beliefs of the guest blogger and in no way reflect Fairhaven's endorsement of any particular religion.

Catholic Grief: A Circle Unbroken by David Paul Deavel

When I became a Catholic at the age of 23 the topic of grief was not particularly on my mind.  At 23 you still half-believe in your own personal physical immortality (particularly if you are a male).  My conversion came as a result of falling in love with the “symphony” of truth found in the Catholic Church—the paradoxical way in which Catholicism incorporated all the disparate elements of truth found in the rituals and theologies of other forms of Christianity and indeed other religions.  One of my mottos was the great English Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton’s observation, “Catholicism is the trysting place of all truths.”

But when my mother developed cancer a year later I was forced to learn that nowhere is this paradoxical character more evident than in the Catholic approach to death and grief.

This paradoxical nature, Catholics claim, comes directly from the very foundations of Christianity.  Jesus of Nazareth, building upon the preaching of the Hebrew prophecies, proclaims to his audience that the Kingdom of God is both here and now and . . . is coming soon.  His resurrection from the dead is the definitive sign that for human beings, death is no longer the last word.  Various cultures and religions have claimed that the soul survives death, but the Christian claim is startlingly new.  It’s not just that you will exist as a lonely soul floating around in a dark, dank land of the dead, as so many of the ancient civilizations believed.  It’s that you will be given a new and imperishable body.  Your dead body, says St. Paul, echoing Jesus himself, is like a kernel of wheat “buried” in the ground.  The transformation that takes place from seed to plant is like that from an earthly body to a heavenly resurrected body.  In view of this reality, St. Paul writes to the infant Church gathered at the Greek city of Corinth, quoting the Hebrew Prophets Isaiah and Hosea: “’Death is swallowed up in victory.’  ‘O death, where is they victory? O death where is thy sting?’”(I Corinthians 15: 54-5).

And even before that marvelous day of the final Resurrection, it is still true, says St. Paul, that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8)—and is thus a good thing.  Thus, one side of the argument, and a strong one at that, echoing down through the centuries, is that death is indeed a good thing, something to be celebrated and not grieved.  The Mass is itself a memorial not just of Christ’s death but also his resurrection.  “We are a resurrection people,” said St. Augustine (354-430) in one of his homilies. The significance of death is that one has entered into the presence of God and is now preparing for the resurrection.

From this side of the picture grief could be seen as something somewhat suspicious, a sign that perhaps one loved the present life more than the heavenly one to come, or perhaps that one loved the deceased more than God himself.  Better to take the attitude of the thirteenth-century saint Francis of Assisi and refer fondly to “Sister Death.”  Yet there was always another side.

St. Paul’s words about death swallowed up in victory were themselves in the context of his own preaching about the completion of the Kingdom of God which Jesus said was both here and coming.  “The last enemy to be destroyed,” St. Paul writes, “is death” (I Cor. 15: 26).  Death is to be destroyed, but unfortunately it isn’t dead yet.  And as it isn’t swallowed up in victory yet, it is still particularly difficult to swallow.  If Catholics profess to experience the reality of Jesus’ resurrection here in this life, we also experience the reality of his death in the deaths of our loved ones.  So grief has a place.  Even if those loved ones “have gone to a better place,” we who are left have not.  And our love for them must enter into the same mysterious sphere as faith—something that we do without the comfort of sight.  Grief is not a sign of superficiality or weakness of faith.  Instead, we mourn in faith because we recognize that the loss is real and deep.

This was no simple theoretical matter, either.  Medieval people were especially attached to the necessity of the imitation of Christ the Lord.  Upon finding his friend Lazarus dead, St. John’s Gospel tells us, “He wept” (John 15:35).  He wept despite the fact that he preached the final resurrection of the dead.  He wept despite the fact that he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead that day if only to temporarily extend his earthly life.  If Jesus the Lord of Life could grieve, his followers reasoned, then so could they.

Yet if grief was a legitimate reaction to death, it had to be a particular kind of grief.  Writing of the resurrection in another place, St. Paul writes that this reality should affect our reactions to our beloved dead, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (2 Thessalonians 4:13).  Catholic grief must be shot through with hope of the resurrection of our beloved.

Of course everything I’ve said thus far could probably describe most Christians and their attitudes.   But what I learned when my mother died of cancer at the, by today’s standards, comparatively young age of 63 was that there were several elements of the Catholic approach to grief that were particularly helpful and that made my experience of grieving my mother slightly different from the grief I endured when losing my two grandmothers and a beloved aunt in the few years before Mom died.

First, the distinctive teachings of the Catholic Church, purgatory and the continuing connection of the dead to the living, made a world of difference.  My Protestant friends complain that purgatory denigrates the work of Christ in saving us, making salvation something Christ doesn’t really accomplish, but simply makes possible.  This theological error, they say, results in a psychological block to our grief:  we can’t say that our loved ones’ suffering is over and thus we cannot really grieve properly since they aren’t really in a better place.  But my friends mistake the theological nature of purgatory.  It is simply the continuing work of Christ in sanctifying (making holy) people whom he has saved, not those people making up for Christ’s shoddy work.   My friends also mistake what it means for grieving loved ones.

What Catholic teaching about purgatory gives the mourner is something to say and something to do.  No one ever knows quite what to say to mourners.  “She’s in a better place” can seem hollow, as C. S. Lewis commented in his marvelous A Grief Observed.   “I’m sorry” is always good.  But what a number of my non-Catholic relatives and friends observed to me was that they appreciated how my Catholic friends could say “I’m sorry” but also, “I’ll be praying for her” or “I’ve had a Mass said for her” or “We’ll pray the Rosary for you.”  It is, my relatives said, a wonderful testimony to the Catholic belief that our beloved dead are beyond our sight, but not beyond our reach.  Purgatory means for grief that when we believe in hope that our loved ones have joined Christ we are also capable, in our union with Christ in prayer, of still helping them along as they are made finally and fully their truest and best selves in Christ.

It’s not just a one-way street.  What many friends often say and half-believe, that our loved ones still “look down” and “take care of us” is something that Catholics believe is literally true.  Saints (those who’ve made it all the way into heaven) and those still being cleansed in purgatory do not pray for themselves: they pray for us.  What details they know of our lives is a mystery nobody can know, but the fact that they still look down on us and pray for us is a comfort.  This strong belief and the help it gave to me was another thing friends and relatives commented on.

Finally, the beliefs about the two-way connection between us and our beloved dead meant something for me as I dealt with my own grief.  They helped me realize the truth that mourning and grief are not something that end with the funeral.  And the practices associated with those beliefs both reinforced this truth and provided a means for living out those beliefs.  Early Christians celebrated the funeral Mass as a memorial and a plea to God to fulfill his promises and “complete the good work that he began” generally on the third day after death.  This was symbolic of the identification of the Christian with Christ who was raised on the third day.  But this tradition was complemented in various other Churches by Memorial Masses variously on the 7th, 9th, 30th, and 40th days after death, as well as on the anniversaries of death.

My kids, even the ones who didn’t know her, still have her as part of daily life. We remember her death every July 25th but also daily at mealtimes when we add to our blessing, “God bless Grandma Deavel. . .and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.”  She still loves us, we still love her.  And I don’t have to “get over” my grief any time soon.  I can let it blossom in its complicated way ever further into deeper love and hope.

David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and contributing editor for Gilbert Magazine.

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