LOVING OUR DEPARTED ONES - NOT JUST MISSING THEM
I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13)
My father recently departed this life. Like many people, the last few years of his life were spent facing increasing illnesses, yet this created much for Christian loved ones to do for an aging or ill family member:
- A simple, short visit was more than enough company for him, without exhausting his energy;
- Asking questions about some old friend, family member, or event helped fill in blanks in our own family history;
- Sharing meals together - home-made, takeout, or prepared by friends - provided an easy social occasion, which anyone can do.
As far as this life goes, these were all important things. More important than this, however, is to help a person prepare for eternity, for the judgement they will face at death. It is naive to believe that most people do this on their own, or that most older or ill people can do this without assistance. The weakness of illness or old age, combined with forgetfulness or the lack of initiative, makes this the responsibility of people who love us.
What does this include?
- First and foremost, it means inviting a priest to pray for the person, early and regularly in the months of their late age and illness, and especially regular visits by the priest to bring Holy Communion and administer Holy Unction (which is particular good in cases where an elderly or infirm person cannot swallow food). Nothing is more discouraging than to come across a person in the late stages of illness, where they can no longer receive Holy Communion, or make a Confession of their sins. Loved ones do a person no favors trying to "avoid the inevitable", simply by avoiding the normal practices of everyday spiritual life.
- In the last days of life, loved ones may read the Gospel or Psalter (especially for ill person who cannot do so for themselves) each time one visits.
- At the time of death, calling for a priest to read the prayers for the departure of the soul, which offer comfort to the soul of the person we love (which is still awake and aware, don't forget), despite the death of the physical body. Too often, even faithful people forget that the souls of our departed loved ones go before God to be judged in the days after they die. In the process, they are also confronted with all the sins they brought with them from this life, a process which makes their departure to the next life one that can be full of anxieties and fears. The prayers of the priest at the time of death become the first step in helping the soul of the person we love.
- Memorial prayers in the days after death offer further help and comfort - not for the living, but for the soul of the departed. The third, ninth, and fortieth day after our loved one has departed this life are especially important for this (the third day being the day on which the soul leaves the world of the living, and the fortieth day being the day on which the soul is judged). Gathering the family together for the fortieth day memorial service is a worthwhile way to offer these prayers together, with the help of a priest.
- To offer additional support to the soul of the person we love, some faithful will make small donations to various parishes and monasteries, enclosing a letter requesting memorial prayers for the soul of the departed. Addresses can easily be obtained online, and envelopes and letters can easily be printed out (if one wants to do this the old fashioned way). Online donations also make memorial prayers possible at churches and monasteries around the world. One should consider the benefit to the soul of a loved one, having ten or twenty churches or monasteries praying for them, as they stand before the judgement of God.
One does not have to wait to have a priest on hand, or for these anniversary dates. In the case of a close loved one, the Akathist for the Departed can be read every day at home for the first forty days after death. Not only is this a consolation for the person doing the prayers, but more importantly, this is an act of love that benefits the salvation of the soul of the departed person, as they await their personal judgement before God. What greater act of love for a family member or friend can there be than this?
Many people express and experience daily - even hourly - sorrow at the loss of a loved one, sorrow which arises from an energy of the will. For the secular person, these sorrows can take hold of the thoughts for years at a time, and drive them into darkness. Yet this same energy of the will (which arises with each remembrance of a loved one who has died) can also be harnessed for soul-benefitting good. Each time the person comes to mind, each time their photo catches the eye, each time a smell or a garment evokes some memory of them, it is enough to offer a simple prayer for the soul - "Lord, have mercy on the soul of (Name)". This simple act of love is a constant, repeated service to a departed loved one, which takes persistent sentimentality, and turns it directly into something of benefit to the departed one. This leaves the living person not helpless and mourning, but completely connected to the departed one, and useful at the moment the departed one needs it the most, since the Lord tells us, the prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).
It is indeed a hopeless picture to see someone mourning over the loss of a loved one, missing them deeply, with a profound sense that there is no way they can effectively convey their love to them now, after they have passed from this earthly life.
It is sad enough to see secular people and unbelievers take refuge in replaying old music, old stories, and old photographs: when Orthodox Christians become stuck in such a rut, it misses the great hope in the resurrection that is the foundation of our faith in Christ.
Saint Paul reminds us that "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable," (1 Cor. 15:19)
North Americans can be quite foolish and sentimental, often placing our own feelings and memories before the welfare of the souls of our loved ones. This is very selfish. Saint John Chrysostom tells us that real love is not a feeling, but a desire for the salvation of the soul of another person. What greater hope can we have for someone we love?