Bereavement

Death is something which is inevitable, each of us will one day have to face his or her own death. We are all mortal and we can not escape our destiny, but we can learn to face life by the way in which we face death.
Bereavement

When a person whom we love very dearly, very deeply dies, we feel that there is no space left for life. I have heard more than once people say, “How offensive it is the sun shines, the spring is in full blossom, joy and life are everywhere, and I have lost the only person that made sense of life.” One person dies and everything may be laid waste. This lasts more or less but it’s an experience which so many have. How can there be joy in the face of death, how can there be life in the face of bereavement, not only my own but the tragic bereavement that touches the life strings of millions and millions of people.

I have chosen as the subject of my talk, indeed, it’s no lecture, something which I believe is important, not an attempt at answering the habitual question: how to live in the face of bereavement, how to survive, but something more decisively creative, and I want to speak of it sincerely and directly. I know what bereavement is, so I am not speaking from the point of view of the professional clergyman who from within the safety of his position can speak of the pain of others, can try to console others by quoting to them words of life but words that have not become life for him and within him. I have lost in the course of years all my close relatives and I have had to look at what bereavement means: the sudden bereavement of a sudden death and the protracted growth into bereavement in the course of my mother’s three years illness before she died of cancer. I have also seen during the war many dying soldiers and spent with them the last days and hours of their life, and then met their wives, their children, their mothers. And it is against this background that I want to say things, which otherwise I would not dare say, because I should be afraid that they would be only hurtful if they were only words, words of false wisdom.

Death is something which is inevitable, each of us will one day have to face his or her own death. We are all mortal and we can not escape our destiny, but we can learn to face life by the way in which we face death. By this I mean that unless we are prepared to face death for our conviction, to face the ultimate challenges of life, we will never be able to live to the full. If we are prepared to risk everything except our lives in a task, in a vocation, in a situation, we can as well say that we are not facing them. The French writer Rabelais said in one of his letters, “I am prepared to stand for my convictions up to hanging exclusively,” which means that he was not prepared to stand for his convictions. It is only if we are prepared to look death into its eyes, to face death with all the greatness there is in us, that we can face life to the full. And when I say this, I mean facing our own death and the death of others. And in a manner, I think, it is easier to look at the possibility of one’s own death than at the possibility or the growing certainty of one’s bereavement through the death of a person who means to us more than our own life, who is the meaning of life, the person for whose sake we are prepared to live and the person indeed for whom we would give our lives readily, happily.

Ancient writers spoke of remembering death, called us not to forget it. When we say such a thing to a modern person, the reaction is always negative, “Do you mean that the thought of death imminent or postponed but certain should be with me all the time, casting its shadow on the light of day, poisoning every joy by telling me, ‘It will pass, it will end in death’, disturbing me in all my relationships by the thought that it will come to an end and an end that will be pain and agony of mind?” No, it is not that which the ancient writers meant; but what they meant is that unless we are aware that life is ephemeral and that we are in possession of this present moment and only of this moment and that this moment must be perfect or as perfect as we can make it, then we will do what we always do – we will live in view of doing the right thing later, we may spend all our life, as it were, writing the draft of what one day we hope to make into a script, living approximately in view one day of living truly, really.

I will give you a couple of examples, and as we are among ourselves people who know what bereavement and the pain and agony of it is, I will give you as example what happened to me when my mother was dying. She was seen by the doctor who told me that there was no hope of recovery and said to me, “But of course you will not tell your mother.” And I said, “I shall.” He said, “Then in that case I take no responsibility anymore,” and he put the receiver down. From a medical point of view I found it a very weak attitude but humanly speaking I did not follow his advice. I went to my mother and told her that death will come. And then something happened, which I believe is immensely important, was important for her life and for mine. What happened is that at no moment of these three years during which she was dying of cancer, at no moment was she walled in, isolated, alone. Whenever the thought of death became hard to bear, she would call me and we would sit together growing into an ever-increasing oneness of communion because her death, her dying was my dying in a sense. When I felt that I could no longer bear her dying, I would go to her and she would console me of the coming of her death. We shared all the agony of it, we shared our faith but also our pain because faith does not do away with pain and agony of mind.

And then another thing happened. I discovered more and more that because death was there, in this room, in our flat, around us, that every moment could be the last moment of a very deep and loving relationship, a relationship that was as deep, as could be between us and that therefore every moment was as much, as perfectly as we could be a climax and not a trough in our relationship. We discovered that there are no such things which are small, unworthy of our attention – the way in which I prepared on a tray a cup of tea, the way in which I arranged her cushions behind her back, the sound of my voice, the smoothness or otherwise of my gestures, the fact that I could find time for us and that this time was occupied by nothing but our togetherness, became so important and so real. We discovered experientially something, which an old priest had said in my hearing once, that there are things so small that God alone can see their greatness. And indeed we discovered that the sound of your voice, the movement of your body, the way you prepared this tray could be a perfect or imperfect expression of all the love relationship there had ever been between us. It was not a matter of great things, of prayers, of doing things difficult, it was a matter of making every single thing into an act of love and making the simplest things into eternal beauty, a symbol of eternal beauty.

This is perhaps the point at which I began to think of this talk – how to learn to live because of bereavement, not to survive, not simply to struggle, to fight but to live in a way in which life had not taught me and which death began to teach me in a tragic and wonderful way. And this applied not only to me, it applied also to my mother. She learnt the sacredness and eternal beauty of a word, of a smile, of a gesture or simply of the act of faith in the other person that allows you to say, “I am too tired to speak, I want to sleep,” an act of faith, which meant, “I know that you will not be hurt, I know that sleep or tiredness can not separate us, we are at one because we are both fearlessly and agonizingly facing death, all its greatness, all its horror, all its wonder also, because we both believed in life eternal, we both believed that the last word is not death but life. And at times it is so important that this process should take place, it is so cruel not to remain intensely aware that a person whom we love with all our being is gradually dying, leaving this world, entering into eternity but living this world, us, parting with us. It is so cruel when members of a family close to one another, loving one another are not told what is going on, so that one day they are confronted with the irreparable, with the fact that death has come and they never knew it was coming or perhaps they knew but they refused to accept the thought of it, they closed their eyes in fear as though fear and closing one’s eyes could prevent the thing from happening.

It is important that in the face of death we should go step by step with the dying person, hand in hand, heart in heart, with an openness as complete as possible. And when I say “as complete as possible,” I mean that it is not every person to whom one can say, “You shall die soon.” But what then? What can we do? I have come to the conclusion in the many years in which I was associated with dying people since 1934 when for the first time I went as a medical student into a ward until now, I have come to the certainty that one can not prepare a person to die, one can prepare a person to live, by which I mean that we can never teach anyone what we have not learnt ourselves, and it is only by dying that we can learn what death and dying is. But if we have the faith of the Gospel, if we can like St. Paul in one of his Epistles say, “For me to die does not consist in shedding temporary life but putting on eternity, then we can do something real and creative. We can help a person grow into eternal life so that parting with this temporary life may be possible. I will retell you another story taken from my experience and if some of you who have already heard me, know it, I don’t even apologise because I believe there are things, which must remain in our memory and grow deep into our whole being.

A friend of mine, older by some 20 years was taken to hospital, and it was found that he had an incurable cancer. He was not told about it, his sister was told and I was. I saw him in his ward. “What a nuisance,” he said to me, “to be confined to bed while there is so much I still have got to do in life.” I said to him, “How often did you tell me, ‘I wish, I could stop time and be instead of doing.’ You have never done it. It’s done for you now.” And so he paused (?) and said, “Yes, I wanted to stop the flow of time and be, but now that it has stopped, I don’t know how to be without the doing.” I suggested then that he should learn step by step, I told him that illness and death are conditioned not only by physical, pathological agents but also by our inner spiritual and mental condition, that everything which in us is evil or destructive, all that one can call negative is the power of destruction within us. And I said, “Your body will be looked after by the doctors and nurses but your inner self — only by you. You probably have bitterness, resentment, fears, memories which you dislike, wrong relationships, what not. Start with those of today and try to put them right.” And we went gradually though all his present relationships, through all the feelings he had towards himself and others; and when that was cleared, — back, back, back into his past.

He had had a very cruel past, at the age of 19 he had been put into a concentration camp in Russia, had been amputated of a leg because he had a gangrene, thrown out after several years of camp without any support, eventually landed abroad. There was a lot for which he might have been anything but grateful or at peace, but he struggled for peace and he attained it. And I remember that a few days before he died when he was so thin, almost transparent, with big eyes shining he said to me, “I am almost dead physically and yet I have never felt so intensely alive as I feel now.” He had discovered an intensity of life within himself that did not depend upon his physical condition. He had discovered that he was a person beyond his physical presence, he had learnt that eternity was already there and it is here within each of us but very often so deeply buried, overlooked, ignored, pushed back as far as possible because we are afraid of thinking of things eternal because we always imagine, and we are wrong in it, that things eternal begin when we are dead, and as we do not want to be dead, we allow things eternal not to be remembered.

But then there are also the sudden bereavements. How can one live with them? They are varied, they are very different from one another; and again, as I don’t want to be theoretical, I’ll give you a few examples. My father died overnight. I had been very ill in Holy Week and felt that death was there and I prepared myself to dying with a deep sense of joy, of expectation and of hope, and then I recovered to my great indignation and disappointment because all this growing into eternity had been in vain. Easter came and we spent an afternoon, members of our family including my father. At a certain moment he felt unwell, he lay down and I sat with him. He was a very shy man, and you may not believe it, but so am I. We hardly ever spoke to one another deeply, and at that moment we did, we spoke to each other with our souls, beyond the words we used. And then I had to go out, I said good bye to everyone, not to my father. I felt clearly that after the communion we have had with one another we could not say good bye, we were not parting and there would be no parting, there could be no parting. He died the same night, and there has been no parting. I remember how I walked into his room — four whitewashed bare walls, a bed, a table, a stool and a shelf with a few books, nothing more, and I stood there, he lying on his bed. And the silence, the peace that reigned in this room was such that I remember I said perhaps aloud but quite audibly to myself, “And people say that death exists… What a lie!”

I was then a medical student in the third year, I had no delusions about the existence of death, but what was clear to me is that the peace and the silence and the depth there was in this room was as vast and deep as eternity and that if I could only remain in that eternity there was no separation. My father said to me when I was a teenager, “Whether you live or die should matter nothing either to you or anyone else. What matters is what you are prepared to live for and to die for.” And it was so clear on that day that he was right and that one could live at that depth, in that width so meaningfully.

And then again it happens that someone dies either suddenly or not but we are aware of not having done all we could, and it’s a searing pain. It happens also that we can be, we may be instrumental in someone’s death, — how then can one live? And again here is an example, which I may have told a few of you. An old Russian asked me once, he was then in his eighties, for my advice. The story was this: when he was a young man fighting in the south of Russia on the side of the White Army against the communists, he was deeply in love with a young nurse who loved him deeply. They intended to marry once the ordeal was over. They were shooting at the enemy, and this girl moved in the wrong way at a wrong moment, and he shot her dead. He had killed the girl he loved, he had cut from its roots a young life that to him was the most precious life on earth but also he was aware that she wanted to live, she loved, everything was ahead of them. He never could find peace with himself. He told me that he had asked advice from wise people who had told him to pray, he had tried to atone for the murder of this girl by doing all he could for others, he went to confession hoping that absolution would free him and he never felt free. And I blundered then an answer that seemed to me adequate, I said to him, “Why are you asking God whom you have not murdered, a priest whom you have not harmed to give you forgiveness and not Mary whom you have killed?” And he said to me, “But how?” I replied: “If you truly believe that you say that God is the God of the living, that all are alive in him, that Mary is alive. Tonight when you will have prayed your evening prayers, sit down and ask the Lord to allow Mary to hear what you have got to say, and then tell her all about your love, about your agony, the horror of this unwitting murder, ask her whether she can forgive you for having cut short her life at the moment when it could have blossomed out in beauty and glory, and if she did, ask her, I said, to pray for you that God grant you peace.” He did it and he told me afterwards that peace had descended upon him, a peace that he had not known for more than 60 years.

And I think it’s important for us to live if we are believers, if we truly believe in what we proclaim in prayers, in hymns, in creeds, in words, if we truly believe in eternity, to live up to this faith and have the courage to enter into eternity through faith and also to have the courage as much as we can to live within this eternity so that we are not separated from those whom we love. Of course we are separated from them physically, we cannot here a voice, touch a hand. Yes, but is that all there is to our earthly relationship? Do we relate to one another only by touch and word? Don’t we commune with one another in friendship and in love at moments when silence comes between us and grows deep and deep and deep, and when suddenly at a point when no words can resound anymore, we find ourselves at one, communing with one another.

These are ways in which, I believe, facing bereavement and facing death may teach us to live, but also there is one last thing I wish to say: it is this. If instead of concentrating exclusively on our pain, we learn from this pain what pain means to others, we may learn compassion, we may learn understanding, we may learn reverence when others suffer. And this is perhaps one of the most important things, which we have got to learn, — to detach ourselves from our own pain, to suffer it as completely and deeply as we should, but at the same time never to allow our own pain, our own agony to make us insensitive to the pain and agony of others, on the contrary — to learn, to learn through compassion to share the pain but also to stand by every person who suffers.

I remember a woman who had lost a beloved grandchild and who said to me, “I don’t believe in God anymore, I asked God to save this child and He has not heard my prayer.” And I said to her, “But when millions of children died throughout the world, it did not affect your faith in God?” And I remember the indignation with which she said to me, “These were not my grandson!”

It’s a terrible phrase and a terrible attitude, but isn’t it something which all of us must be aware of as a lurking possibility in us – become insensitive to other people’s suffering because mine is so acute and forget that in the face of the same tragedies in the lives of others we were so calm and so ready to help with empty words, with proclaiming a faith which proves nonexistent when we are hit in our own turn. We must learn in the process that leads us to bereavement, we must learn the greatness and unutterable beauty and significance of things small, the value, the absolute value of the present moment, the only moment which is at our disposal. We must learn to share a person’s dying and not shield ourselves from the pain but share it generously, lovingly and with all our faith, sharing our faith and our hope and our love so that the person who is dying should be made stronger. And when sudden death or tragic death occurs in our lives, we must learn to face it also creatively. It is only death that can give to life, to the present moment and to all the duration of life its ultimate challenge and make us as great as life because we will be as great as death.

When a person whom we love very dearly, very deeply dies, we feel that there is no space left for life. I have heard more than once people say, “How offensive it is the sun shines, the spring is in full blossom, joy and life are everywhere, and I have lost the only person that made sense of life.” One person dies and everything may be laid waste. This lasts more or less but it’s an experience which so many have. How can there be joy in the face of death, how can there be life in the face of bereavement, not only my own but the tragic bereavement that touches the life strings of millions and millions of people.

I have chosen as the subject of my talk, indeed, it’s no lecture, something which I believe is important, not an attempt at answering the habitual question: how to live in the face of bereavement, how to survive, but something more decisively creative, and I want to speak of it sincerely and directly. I know what bereavement is, so I am not speaking from the point of view of the professional clergyman who from within the safety of his position can speak of the pain of others, can try to console others by quoting to them words of life but words that have not become life for him and within him. I have lost in the course of years all my close relatives and I have had to look at what bereavement means: the sudden bereavement of a sudden death and the protracted growth into bereavement in the course of my mother’s three years illness before she died of cancer. I have also seen during the war many dying soldiers and spent with them the last days and hours of their life, and then met their wives, their children, their mothers. And it is against this background that I want to say things, which otherwise I would not dare say, because I should be afraid that they would be only hurtful if they were only words, words of false wisdom.

Death is something which is inevitable, each of us will one day have to face his or her own death. We are all mortal and we can not escape our destiny, but we can learn to face life by the way in which we face death. By this I mean that unless we are prepared to face death for our conviction, to face the ultimate challenges of life, we will never be able to live to the full. If we are prepared to risk everything except our lives in a task, in a vocation, in a situation, we can as well say that we are not facing them. The French writer Rabelais said in one of his letters, “I am prepared to stand for my convictions up to hanging exclusively,” which means that he was not prepared to stand for his convictions. It is only if we are prepared to look death into its eyes, to face death with all the greatness there is in us, that we can face life to the full. And when I say this, I mean facing our own death and the death of others. And in a manner, I think, it is easier to look at the possibility of one’s own death than at the possibility or the growing certainty of one’s bereavement through the death of a person who means to us more than our own life, who is the meaning of life, the person for whose sake we are prepared to live and the person indeed for whom we would give our lives readily, happily.

Ancient writers spoke of remembering death, called us not to forget it. When we say such a thing to a modern person, the reaction is always negative, “Do you mean that the thought of death imminent or postponed but certain should be with me all the time, casting its shadow on the light of day, poisoning every joy by telling me, ‘It will pass, it will end in death’, disturbing me in all my relationships by the thought that it will come to an end and an end that will be pain and agony of mind?” No, it is not that which the ancient writers meant; but what they meant is that unless we are aware that life is ephemeral and that we are in possession of this present moment and only of this moment and that this moment must be perfect or as perfect as we can make it, then we will do what we always do – we will live in view of doing the right thing later, we may spend all our life, as it were, writing the draft of what one day we hope to make into a script, living approximately in view one day of living truly, really.

I will give you a couple of examples, and as we are among ourselves people who know what bereavement and the pain and agony of it is, I will give you as example what happened to me when my mother was dying. She was seen by the doctor who told me that there was no hope of recovery and said to me, “But of course you will not tell your mother.” And I said, “I shall.” He said, “Then in that case I take no responsibility anymore,” and he put the receiver down. From a medical point of view I found it a very weak attitude but humanly speaking I did not follow his advice. I went to my mother and told her that death will come. And then something happened, which I believe is immensely important, was important for her life and for mine. What happened is that at no moment of these three years during which she was dying of cancer, at no moment was she walled in, isolated, alone. Whenever the thought of death became hard to bear, she would call me and we would sit together growing into an ever-increasing oneness of communion because her death, her dying was my dying in a sense. When I felt that I could no longer bear her dying, I would go to her and she would console me of the coming of her death. We shared all the agony of it, we shared our faith but also our pain because faith does not do away with pain and agony of mind.

And then another thing happened. I discovered more and more that because death was there, in this room, in our flat, around us, that every moment could be the last moment of a very deep and loving relationship, a relationship that was as deep, as could be between us and that therefore every moment was as much, as perfectly as we could be a climax and not a trough in our relationship. We discovered that there are no such things which are small, unworthy of our attention – the way in which I prepared on a tray a cup of tea, the way in which I arranged her cushions behind her back, the sound of my voice, the smoothness or otherwise of my gestures, the fact that I could find time for us and that this time was occupied by nothing but our togetherness, became so important and so real. We discovered experientially something, which an old priest had said in my hearing once, that there are things so small that God alone can see their greatness. And indeed we discovered that the sound of your voice, the movement of your body, the way you prepared this tray could be a perfect or imperfect expression of all the love relationship there had ever been between us. It was not a matter of great things, of prayers, of doing things difficult, it was a matter of making every single thing into an act of love and making the simplest things into eternal beauty, a symbol of eternal beauty.

This is perhaps the point at which I began to think of this talk – how to learn to live because of bereavement, not to survive, not simply to struggle, to fight but to live in a way in which life had not taught me and which death began to teach me in a tragic and wonderful way. And this applied not only to me, it applied also to my mother. She learnt the sacredness and eternal beauty of a word, of a smile, of a gesture or simply of the act of faith in the other person that allows you to say, “I am too tired to speak, I want to sleep,” an act of faith, which meant, “I know that you will not be hurt, I know that sleep or tiredness can not separate us, we are at one because we are both fearlessly and agonizingly facing death, all its greatness, all its horror, all its wonder also, because we both believed in life eternal, we both believed that the last word is not death but life. And at times it is so important that this process should take place, it is so cruel not to remain intensely aware that a person whom we love with all our being is gradually dying, leaving this world, entering into eternity but living this world, us, parting with us. It is so cruel when members of a family close to one another, loving one another are not told what is going on, so that one day they are confronted with the irreparable, with the fact that death has come and they never knew it was coming or perhaps they knew but they refused to accept the thought of it, they closed their eyes in fear as though fear and closing one’s eyes could prevent the thing from happening.

It is important that in the face of death we should go step by step with the dying person, hand in hand, heart in heart, with an openness as complete as possible. And when I say “as complete as possible,” I mean that it is not every person to whom one can say, “You shall die soon.” But what then? What can we do? I have come to the conclusion in the many years in which I was associated with dying people since 1934 when for the first time I went as a medical student into a ward until now, I have come to the certainty that one can not prepare a person to die, one can prepare a person to live, by which I mean that we can never teach anyone what we have not learnt ourselves, and it is only by dying that we can learn what death and dying is. But if we have the faith of the Gospel, if we can like St. Paul in one of his Epistles say, “For me to die does not consist in shedding temporary life but putting on eternity, then we can do something real and creative. We can help a person grow into eternal life so that parting with this temporary life may be possible. I will retell you another story taken from my experience and if some of you who have already heard me, know it, I don’t even apologise because I believe there are things, which must remain in our memory and grow deep into our whole being.

A friend of mine, older by some 20 years was taken to hospital, and it was found that he had an incurable cancer. He was not told about it, his sister was told and I was. I saw him in his ward. “What a nuisance,” he said to me, “to be confined to bed while there is so much I still have got to do in life.” I said to him, “How often did you tell me, ‘I wish, I could stop time and be instead of doing.’ You have never done it. It’s done for you now.” And so he paused (?) and said, “Yes, I wanted to stop the flow of time and be, but now that it has stopped, I don’t know how to be without the doing.” I suggested then that he should learn step by step, I told him that illness and death are conditioned not only by physical, pathological agents but also by our inner spiritual and mental condition, that everything which in us is evil or destructive, all that one can call negative is the power of destruction within us. And I said, “Your body will be looked after by the doctors and nurses but your inner self — only by you. You probably have bitterness, resentment, fears, memories which you dislike, wrong relationships, what not. Start with those of today and try to put them right.” And we went gradually though all his present relationships, through all the feelings he had towards himself and others; and when that was cleared, — back, back, back into his past.

He had had a very cruel past, at the age of 19 he had been put into a concentration camp in Russia, had been amputated of a leg because he had a gangrene, thrown out after several years of camp without any support, eventually landed abroad. There was a lot for which he might have been anything but grateful or at peace, but he struggled for peace and he attained it. And I remember that a few days before he died when he was so thin, almost transparent, with big eyes shining he said to me, “I am almost dead physically and yet I have never felt so intensely alive as I feel now.” He had discovered an intensity of life within himself that did not depend upon his physical condition. He had discovered that he was a person beyond his physical presence, he had learnt that eternity was already there and it is here within each of us but very often so deeply buried, overlooked, ignored, pushed back as far as possible because we are afraid of thinking of things eternal because we always imagine, and we are wrong in it, that things eternal begin when we are dead, and as we do not want to be dead, we allow things eternal not to be remembered.

But then there are also the sudden bereavements. How can one live with them? They are varied, they are very different from one another; and again, as I don’t want to be theoretical, I’ll give you a few examples. My father died overnight. I had been very ill in Holy Week and felt that death was there and I prepared myself to dying with a deep sense of joy, of expectation and of hope, and then I recovered to my great indignation and disappointment because all this growing into eternity had been in vain. Easter came and we spent an afternoon, members of our family including my father. At a certain moment he felt unwell, he lay down and I sat with him. He was a very shy man, and you may not believe it, but so am I. We hardly ever spoke to one another deeply, and at that moment we did, we spoke to each other with our souls, beyond the words we used. And then I had to go out, I said good bye to everyone, not to my father. I felt clearly that after the communion we have had with one another we could not say good bye, we were not parting and there would be no parting, there could be no parting. He died the same night, and there has been no parting. I remember how I walked into his room — four whitewashed bare walls, a bed, a table, a stool and a shelf with a few books, nothing more, and I stood there, he lying on his bed. And the silence, the peace that reigned in this room was such that I remember I said perhaps aloud but quite audibly to myself, “And people say that death exists… What a lie!”

I was then a medical student in the third year, I had no delusions about the existence of death, but what was clear to me is that the peace and the silence and the depth there was in this room was as vast and deep as eternity and that if I could only remain in that eternity there was no separation. My father said to me when I was a teenager, “Whether you live or die should matter nothing either to you or anyone else. What matters is what you are prepared to live for and to die for.” And it was so clear on that day that he was right and that one could live at that depth, in that width so meaningfully.

And then again it happens that someone dies either suddenly or not but we are aware of not having done all we could, and it’s a searing pain. It happens also that we can be, we may be instrumental in someone’s death, — how then can one live? And again here is an example, which I may have told a few of you. An old Russian asked me once, he was then in his eighties, for my advice. The story was this: when he was a young man fighting in the south of Russia on the side of the White Army against the communists, he was deeply in love with a young nurse who loved him deeply. They intended to marry once the ordeal was over. They were shooting at the enemy, and this girl moved in the wrong way at a wrong moment, and he shot her dead. He had killed the girl he loved, he had cut from its roots a young life that to him was the most precious life on earth but also he was aware that she wanted to live, she loved, everything was ahead of them. He never could find peace with himself. He told me that he had asked advice from wise people who had told him to pray, he had tried to atone for the murder of this girl by doing all he could for others, he went to confession hoping that absolution would free him and he never felt free. And I blundered then an answer that seemed to me adequate, I said to him, “Why are you asking God whom you have not murdered, a priest whom you have not harmed to give you forgiveness and not Mary whom you have killed?” And he said to me, “But how?” I replied: “If you truly believe that you say that God is the God of the living, that all are alive in him, that Mary is alive. Tonight when you will have prayed your evening prayers, sit down and ask the Lord to allow Mary to hear what you have got to say, and then tell her all about your love, about your agony, the horror of this unwitting murder, ask her whether she can forgive you for having cut short her life at the moment when it could have blossomed out in beauty and glory, and if she did, ask her, I said, to pray for you that God grant you peace.” He did it and he told me afterwards that peace had descended upon him, a peace that he had not known for more than 60 years.

And I think it’s important for us to live if we are believers, if we truly believe in what we proclaim in prayers, in hymns, in creeds, in words, if we truly believe in eternity, to live up to this faith and have the courage to enter into eternity through faith and also to have the courage as much as we can to live within this eternity so that we are not separated from those whom we love. Of course we are separated from them physically, we cannot here a voice, touch a hand. Yes, but is that all there is to our earthly relationship? Do we relate to one another only by touch and word? Don’t we commune with one another in friendship and in love at moments when silence comes between us and grows deep and deep and deep, and when suddenly at a point when no words can resound anymore, we find ourselves at one, communing with one another.

These are ways in which, I believe, facing bereavement and facing death may teach us to live, but also there is one last thing I wish to say: it is this. If instead of concentrating exclusively on our pain, we learn from this pain what pain means to others, we may learn compassion, we may learn understanding, we may learn reverence when others suffer. And this is perhaps one of the most important things, which we have got to learn, — to detach ourselves from our own pain, to suffer it as completely and deeply as we should, but at the same time never to allow our own pain, our own agony to make us insensitive to the pain and agony of others, on the contrary — to learn, to learn through compassion to share the pain but also to stand by every person who suffers.

I remember a woman who had lost a beloved grandchild and who said to me, “I don’t believe in God anymore, I asked God to save this child and He has not heard my prayer.” And I said to her, “But when millions of children died throughout the world, it did not affect your faith in God?” And I remember the indignation with which she said to me, “These were not my grandson!”

It’s a terrible phrase and a terrible attitude, but isn’t it something which all of us must be aware of as a lurking possibility in us – become insensitive to other people’s suffering because mine is so acute and forget that in the face of the same tragedies in the lives of others we were so calm and so ready to help with empty words, with proclaiming a faith which proves nonexistent when we are hit in our own turn. We must learn in the process that leads us to bereavement, we must learn the greatness and unutterable beauty and significance of things small, the value, the absolute value of the present moment, the only moment which is at our disposal. We must learn to share a person’s dying and not shield ourselves from the pain but share it generously, lovingly and with all our faith, sharing our faith and our hope and our love so that the person who is dying should be made stronger. And when sudden death or tragic death occurs in our lives, we must learn to face it also creatively. It is only death that can give to life, to the present moment and to all the duration of life its ultimate challenge and make us as great as life because we will be as great as death.

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