Fairhaven Blog

Things of interest around Fairhaven.

Celebrating Our Melting Pot

Marla Noel - Thursday, September 18, 2014

“Death is a part of all our lives. Whether we like it or not, it is bound to happen. Instead of avoiding thinking about it, it is better to understand its meaning. If from the beginning your attitude is 'Yes, death is part of our lives,' then it may be easier to face.” – Dalai Lama

As president of Fairhaven, I have the opportunity to witness funeral rituals from all around the world. Recently, one of our families held a Buddhist funeral here that touched me. I’d like to share my experience with you, to show how important it is for every family to celebrate a loved one in their own way.

It was a warm summer day and family members dressed in beautiful white cloth – symbolizing grief and seriousness – gathered around the body of their loved one. Guests dressed in black joined in to pay their respect. The family invited a monk who chanted to encourage the good energy to be released from the deceased, to allow the soul to detach itself from this life. The room filled with positive energy and a moving feeling of love. The family expressed their gratitude to guests in attendance with a red envelope containing a gift.

Although I’m not Buddhist, this experience stayed with me, as do many others. Families come to Fairhaven with heritages from a variety of cultures and religions with Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu the most frequent. All of us at Fairhaven have learned about the beliefs of each culture and religion as this helps us serve each family with sensitivity during a very stressful time.

 

No matter what culture or religion a person associates with, I can see from first-hand observations here how important it is to memorialize a loved one and honor the life they’ve lived. Expressing grief is a difficult process, but doing so in your own way can help you and your loved ones find comfort in the rituals and traditions of your culture. I do appreciate the cultural melting pot we see here at Fairhaven and I’m honored I get to observe so many interesting and loving tributes.

Grief, Faith and Culture V

Charity Gallardo - 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

Charity Gallardo - 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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