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On Grief and Grieving

By Fr. Richard J Vitale

Few things happen within a community that are more impactful than losing a prominent member. I think this is especially true for the LGBTQ+ community where many of us take each other on as “Chosen Family,” and so I wanted to share a few thoughts on grief and grieving. After having led many different groups in funeral worship, I’ve had a few insights that I think could be beneficial when going through these difficult times. They’re just my opinions, and I know they are not fully comprehensive, so please think of them more as a conversation starter than a complete work.

First and foremost, grieve however you feel called to grieve. Our minds and bodies respond to each loss in as many unique ways as our relationships form. If you want to scream at the ocean, or withdraw for a while, if you want to dance and clack a fan, or punch a pillow, if you want write a long journal entry or FB Post, or just sit numb for a bit, do it. Get it out. It is okay. You are okay. Just make sure that your grieving stays in the zone of what is healthy, and that you are respectful of the chief mourners. Never ever hesitate to talk to someone, a trusted friend, a family member, a therapist, or a religious leader to help you cope, especially if you are struggling.

Similarly, do not judge the way others mourn, they have every right to feel the loss in their own way. Never ever go down the “they seem too happy, why are they smiling and cheerful at the memorial?” Or the “they’re being over the top, they weren’t that close” roads. These are dangerous and unhelpful pathways. It is impossible for us to know what one person meant to another, or perhaps the passing reminds someone of another loss and the two become tied together in their mind. I know that personally, I usually don’t feel the emotional pangs of loss until about a month after, often the first time I instinctively go to reach out to them as though they were still physically here among us, and remember that they are not.

More importantly, never pass judgment on the deceased. Our society somehow established a hierarchy of acceptable deaths, judging people both on length of life as well as the means of passing. I believe we can easily do without both. In the grand arc of human existence, whether you live to be 100 or 30, we still occupy about the same infinitesimal amount of time, and whether you pass by heart attack or overdose or cancer or suicide, they are all just the succumbing to a fatal disease. I prefer to focus on the quality of the years lived, not the quantity or the death itself. No matter the instance, our job is singular, to respond with love. If however, you see something in their passing that inspires you to improve your own self, quietly do so. If you find that it’s time to seek the help of a therapist, to enter into rehabilitation, to get in better shape, get a cancer screening, or take care of a heart problem you know has been lurking, you should certainly do so. But again, quietly.

Pray for the departed, even if you do not believe in a higher power, take a few minutes of quiet reflection and meditation. Countless studies have shown that taking time for prayer and meditation lowers our heart rate and normalizes blood pressure, reduces anxiety and depression, regulates our breathing, and restores mental harmony. It is a wonderful way to call their essence into our own and to reset our minds. Pray for their families and loved ones as well, giving a place front of mind to them will inevitably lead you to be of help.

Remember to take care of the chief mourners, especially when the loss is unexpected. They could be struggling and in need of help, but may be too proud or timid to ask for it. My favorite things to do are those that help with their responsibilities, cook or cater a meal for them, help clean their home or send over a cleaning service, wash their cars or take their cars to be washed. Little things that ease their burdens. But remember, when interacting with the chief mourners, if you know things about the deceased that they do not, this is not the time to reveal them like Jessica Fletcher at the end of an episode of “Murder She Wrote” (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m cutting a corner off your gay card). Respect the wishes of the departed as best you can.

Losing a loved one always reminds me that life is fleeting, so I often take opportunities such as these to innumerate the things that I do not want left undone when I leave this earth and make progress towards them. Make the career change, save for the house, repair or start the relationship, have the child, go back to school and earn the degree, talk to your parents, go on the trip. Whatever it might be for you, do it!

Perhaps most importantly, our one responsibility is to let the spirit of the ones we lost live on in us. Bear their legacy, do not let their life have been in vain. Take the best from them and add it to the best in you. Be kind to one another, band together and be strong.

And Lastly, if the grief seems too much to bear, try to change your thinking from feelings of loss to feelings of gratitude. Rather than focus on what will not be, appreciate what you had, their impact on and gifts to you. Be thankful to them, and for them. It is hard to feel sadness, while giving thanks.

I hope this has been helpful in some way, and I thank you for taking the time to read it. Please know that you are loved and cared for and prayed for always.

At your service,

Fr. Rich

Fr. Rich Vitale is the Associate Pastor of Community Outreach of Holy Angels National Catholic Church, and the Director of Operations of Impulse Group South Florida. He lives in Wilton Manors with his husband Sean, and his cat, Miss Kitty.