Being present to those who mourn

(Unsplash / Nathan Dumlao)

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of my aunt — my dad's only remaining sibling and the last of a particular generation in my family, save my dad. Today, as I write this article, I am preparing to attend the funeral of a friend's mother. Attending funerals, or "praying someone home," have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Sometimes when I look back at my childhood it seems that I grew up going to funerals. It may seem a bit odd, but I was the youngest of my siblings born to parents in their early 40s. Both of my parents were the youngest in their families, with my dad being the youngest of nine siblings spread across nearly 20 years. I have first cousins who are my parents' ages. And my parents were similar in age to the grandparents of some of my friends. So going to funerals of grandparents, aunts, uncles and the occasional cousin was not uncommon in my young life.

In a strange way, I looked forward to these times as a child: the chance to run around the funeral home with my second and third cousins (when I was very young), the doting attention that I got from my older first cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends. But I also dreaded them. The extreme displays of emotion, with people wailing in grief or falling to their knees before open caskets were sometimes too uncomfortable for me to take.

I never knew this, but it was an unusual way to grow up. Most of my adult life has been spent working with youth and young adults, and I am often struck by how many of them have never attended a funeral before graduating from high school. While some people may argue about whether or not funerals are for children, I am grateful for this aspect of my upbringing. I learned a lot from these experiences.

The first lesson I learned early on is that grieving is not only okay, but necessary. As uncomfortable as it was for me as a child, I saw tears bring healing for hurting souls and release for those held bound by their attempt at a "stiff upper lip." The first time I saw my dad cry was at his mother's funeral Mass. I had just turned 7 years old, and I was moved by his tears. It helped me to understand that even the "strong" grieve. In fact, perhaps it takes strength to grieve well.

Something else I learned is that attending a funeral isn't only about one's relationship with the deceased, but also about one's relationship with the others who are gathered to remember. I can remember watching my mom and older sisters speak in hushed tones with relatives we only saw at funerals. They would sit close to each other and talk head to head — sharing news, joys, worries, hopes and fears. There were tears and sometimes a little laughter. What I saw was healthy intimacy and sharing of burdens. We came together on these occasions not only to remember our loved one, but also to support one another, to reconnect, to tap back into the roots of who we are as family.

Lastly, I learned from a young age that death is a part of life, but not the end. Death was not scary to me. It was natural but also mysterious. It was a time of sadness for those of us gathered, but also a time of freedom for the one who had passed.

Now, as an adult, I have found myself attending multiple funerals each year. Many are for our Marianist sisters or our Marianist brothers and priests. Some are for family or friends gone too soon. Oftentimes, however, they are for people I've never met or to whom I was not close. For me, it doesn't matter whether the person who has passed away was close to me or not. What matters is being present to those who mourn and supporting one another in whatever stage of grief one may be.

This became most apparent to me several years ago. A young woman that I knew passed away from an aggressive cancer. I knew her, but not well. She was a close friend and coworker of several friends of mine. Initially I felt out of place at the funeral. I went alone and knew only a handful of people in a packed church. After the Mass, though, as I stood and chatted with my friends who had lost someone so dear, I found myself holding people as they cried on my shoulder. There wasn't anything I could say, but my gift was to give them a shoulder on which to cry and a comforting presence.

When my best friend's mother died a few years ago, I was unable to attend the funeral. Being several states away and in the middle of an academic year prevented me from being present. I called. I sent flowers. I talked to my friend as she rode in the family car to the cemetery. And while I'm sure she appreciated the gestures, we could both palpably feel my absence. It was a missed opportunity to offer a hug or a knowing glance. There will always be a piece missing in my life because I could not be there.

Twenty years ago this month, my own mother passed away. There are many things I don't remember about that week. However, what I do remember is seeing my friends who came to the Mass. I remember those I hugged at the grave site and those who I only saw from a distance. Their presence and their prayers meant so much to me.

This morning a friend of mine will lay his mother to rest after a long illness. I never met her, but I will be there. I will offer my support and prayers for his family as they grieve. It might seem small, but it is important. "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted." May the presence of those gathered bring comfort to a grieving family.

[Nicole Trahan is a member of the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) who teaches sophomore religion at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, serves as the National Director of Vocations for the Marianist Sisters, and is director of the pre-novitiate program for her province.]