An older widow I guessed to be in her mid-60s, whom I’ll call Mary, quietly confronted me at a large party hosted by a mutual friend. We had not yet been introduced to each other, but when someone at the party mentioned that I was a priest (not dressed in clerical attire), it was like I “pinged” on her personal GPS and she made a bee-line to me as soon as she saw I was not conversing with another guest. She said how upset she was with the church. I presume that because she considered me somehow an “official” representative of the church (even though we were not actually members of the same parish) she wanted to get things off her chest. (Over the years of my priesthood, I have discovered that this is a fairly common occurrence for individual priests, doctors, and lawyers who are seen as somehow representing the whole church, the whole medical profession, and the whole legal profession. So we all, or at least most of us, try to listen as sympathetically as we can.) Mary poured out her frustration with the church. She was a life-long Catholic quite active in her local parish as well as in the wider community. She had lost her husband of 35 years to a sudden aneurism bursting. With no warning or symptoms, he had just fallen over dead. She had obviously been devastated. But since her husband’s wake and funeral, she had heard nothing from her pastor or parishioners she had associated with for several years. It felt like she was invisible at Mass and other parish gatherings. Where was the church when she really needed it?
Many people in the devastating aftermath of their losing a spouse discover that the church faith community, of which they may have been long-time active members, seems to be unable to respond positively to them in their time of grieving such a terrible loss. Why might that be?
First of all, individual lay church members can be just like one’s own family members, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. They may not know just what to do in the face of such a painful personal life-crisis. So, unfortunately, rather than say or do the wrong thing, they do nothing, waiting instead for the one in the midst of grieving to somehow articulate her or his own need for specific help or support. Which is not likely to happen because of the overwhelming nature of the grief.
As for the church’s pastors or ministers, they may have been trained to respond in a positive way to persons in personal crisis, but being trained to respond, and actually having the skill to respond appropriately and effectively are quite different things. Some pastors and ministers, while meaning well and doing the best that they can, may be of little help to persons in the midst of profound grief.
Another possibility is that the deceased spouse may be judged by church members to have caused, or significantly contributed to, her or his own death by personal recklessness (like driving carelessly), over-eating, drinking to excess, taking drugs, or other risky behavior. Sadly, this can have a chilling effect on people’s normal compassion and willingness to reach out, when the reality is that it is the surviving spouse who is in grief and who could use some compassion. (Unless church members also judge that the surviving spouse did not somehow do enough to halt the risky behavior of the deceased spouse. The impossibility of accurately judging the heart of a personal or a couple-relationship from the outside is why Jesus warned us against trying to do such judging!)
When I suggested the possibility of Mary’s finding another faith-based grief group in the metro area to connect with, she admitted that the possibility had never occurred to her. She said that she had been so involved in her own parish for so many years that, when she received no support there, she had sort of closed down on looking for it elsewhere in the church. At the end of our conversation, she thanked me and said she would try to follow up on investigating one of the faith-based grief support groups (including ones on-line) I recommended to her.