Applying Lessons of Loss

“In the mystery of God’s providence everything has a purpose and the scope of God’s designs can never be fully known.”

I wrote these words after my father died. It was a devastating loss for me, one that seemed unbearable at the time. At his death, I imagined God saying to him, “I love you who have loved me; you sought me eagerly; now you have found me.”

This article is based on losses in my life, especially my father’s death. After reflecting on them, I offer suggestions for ministry to those suffering loss.

Pierce the Darkness

Losses in life are intimately related to the life process. The desire to live is the energy motivating us, for life’s arrow pierces the darkness, brings order from chaos and gives hope.

Our deepest energies center around life, because God is a God of life. Jesus’ resurrection is the apex of a meaning-centered life that makes little sense without it. On our journey, a thousand deaths occur and new life is born. This dynamism anticipates our final death, the loss it entails and the bright hope of eternal life.

The Christian paradigm of joys and failures, successes and losses, life and death centers around Jesus’ cross and resurrection. He was a man, like us. He cried when Lazarus died and celebrated his return to life with Mary and Martha (see Jn 11:35-44). When Jesus was dying on the cross, he put Mary, his mother, under the care of the apostle John (Jn 19:26-27). Seeing our priesthood in light of Jesus means recognizing how his death encapsulates our losses and his resurrection invites us to a new way of life after losses and failures.

As a small child, little losses such as the death of my pet turtle or losing a baseball were big ones for me. I lost something I cherished, but my life went on. Losses continued in high school. My grandpa’s death jolted me, and I said goodbye to my friends at graduation. Like earlier losses, I lived through them, and they became part of who I was becoming.

This pattern of living with loss continued in the seminary. At first, I felt lost there and missed my family. Later, while not enthused about seminary living, I felt a deep force moving me toward the priesthood. As ordination approached, I promised to give up the joys of married life and give myself fully to the Lord. What I experienced in the seminary helped me better appreciate that losses are part of life, and growing into maturity entails giving up old ways and accepting new ones.

Giving up old ways continued after ordination in 1959. I began my priesthood as a high school teacher and chaplain of a nursing home. Here, I first witnessed deep losses in people’s lives. In time, I gave up high school teaching when I was sent away to get a Ph.D. in philosophy at St. John’s University in New York.

When doing doctoral work, I witnessed the changes flowing from the Second Vatican Council. These included letting go of the old and welcoming new ways of being a priest. This brought deep emotional stress and forced me to refocus my priorities. Eventually, it energized me while celebrating the Eucharist, baptizing new members, presiding at weddings, working in the parish, giving spiritual advice and performing the other priestly ministries.

From this time on, as a seminary and university professor, diocesan director of religious education, parish priest, lecturer and writer, I said goodbye to the old and focused on what God called me to do in the post-Vatican II Church. In so doing, I experienced losses, but also many consolations.

Looking back over the years, I realize that my most painful losses were personal ones, centered on my parents’ deaths. Time with them led me to appreciate the bigger picture of what it means to be fully human and fully a priest. It helped me to recognize that hope is the beacon leading us forward, obliterating despair that has no place in our lives. Walking our journey with Christ and accepting its joys and sorrows point to our ultimate goal of eternal life.

As I reflect on my father’s death, I invite you to consider what aspects of your story resulted in letting go of the old and focusing on the new. What losses were involved in this process? What did you gain?

My Dad’s Sickness and Death

I learned more about coping with losses in the time spent with my dying father than in the rest of my priesthood. My year with him during his sickness changed me. This story with Dad begins in 1979 on the day I left Cincinnati to begin a one-year sabbatical in the Religious Leaders’ Program at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

On a brisk fall afternoon before I left, I sat with Dad and Mom around the kitchen table in our family home. He looked very weak and struggled to talk and walk. Seeing his condition, worry covered my face, and I began to speak. He interrupted me, saying, “Don’t even think about staying home; go to Notre Dame.” I left that afternoon, filled with mixed emotions.

It wasn’t long before Dad became seriously ill and was taken to the hospital. I seemed caught in a vice: stay in South Bend or come home.

I drove back and forth several times during the next two months to visit him. Then, in mid-November, after I returned to Notre Dame around dinnertime on a blustery, snowy day, I was called home again. Dad was near death.

At that point, my life changed. I forgot about the sabbatical and spent the next year with my dying father. I remained at his side day after day in the hospital. It became my universe, as I experienced the depths of human emotions. Up and down mood swings were common.

I never knew if Dad would survive to live another day. Critical one day, he often came back from the verge of death on the next day. His swings between life and death lead the nurses to call him the miracle man. Through it all, I lived on a roller coaster.

Once, Dad had an out-of-body experience; on another occasion, he graphically described a vision of heaven to me. But most of the time, he just gasped for air. My frayed emotions led me to wonder how long could I endure it.

I learned how little some people, including Church ministers and professionals, understand how to minister to those suffering grief and loss. They often told me, “Why don’t you get on with your sabbatical? Go back to Notre Dame.” Every time, I thought, “You don’t get it. My father is dying.”

After 60 days in the hospital, Dad’s health improved somewhat, and he came home for Easter. Frail and weak, he collapsed in the snow in our driveway and barely made it into the house. After a glorious celebration of the Lord’s resurrection, he seemed a little stronger. I returned to Notre Dame and completed my sabbatical in the late spring.

Dad stayed at home through the summer and fall. He smiled most of the time. After Thanksgiving, he returned to the hospital, and he died shortly afterward.

This experience with my father was one of the most powerful events in my life. From it, I learned more about living and dying, about hope and loss, than I ever could have learned from a sabbatical or from books. My dad’s death was one of my many losses; equally difficult was my mother’s death.

My story is the story of all priests. We lose family members, loved ones, priest friends, our youth, health and jobs. We suffer loss when we leave a parish or an important ministry.

During such times, the Holy Spirit invites us to embrace firsthand the paschal mystery. In so doing, we put ourselves into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection as we move from death to new life and from loss to renewed hope.

What we learn while grieving can help us recognize that life is a common pilgrimage that we walk in the footsteps of Jesus. As we grow in wisdom from our losses, we share that wisdom in our ministry to grieving people.

Connect Losses with Christ

As ambassadors of faith, priests are an important spiritual presence and a symbol of faith during difficult times. Our spiritual presence is different in each situation; for no matter how often we respond to losses, we never can treat them like business as usual or routine duties to be performed. Our first role as a spiritual leader is to represent Christ, the consoler. In so doing, it helps to remember Christ’s words in John: “Remain in me, as I remain in you” (15:4).

A priest is wise to pray before dealing with every case of loss. It’s helpful to call upon the Holy Spirit, asking for the sensitivity to recognize that each relationship with grieving people involves a life-changing situation.

Those who grieve are living signs of Christ’s suffering.

Root Life in Faith and Prayer

When I saw Dad’s life slowly ebbing away, my feelings became frayed, but something deeper inside me kicked into gear. It was my faith, honed over the years in my sincere attempt to follow God’s way.

This experience pushed me to the limits, and I realized that I needed to turn over my life to God. Hence, I prayed the prayer of abandonment. In this prayer I returned my deepest feelings and beliefs to the God who made me and loves me more than I love myself.

For grieving people, this prayer often brings a spirit of inner calm and a recognition that while suffering great losses we can do little to change what is happening. With faith, we put ourselves in God’s hands and trust those who have our best interests at heart.

When we give ourselves back to God, we better understand that in the silence and solitude of our reflections we see the depths of his love. I saw this in the humble Franciscan friar who ministered to Dad in his last days. In him, my father saw the “face of God.”

Acknowledge Personal Vulnerability

During the months I spent with Dad, I grew tired of answering, “How are you?” or “How is your Dad doing?” Acknowledging my vulnerability, I deflected such well-meaning questions and said little.

I became increasingly weary of the daily routine at the hospital and saw the need to put my trust in God. The words of 1 Peter spoke to me: “Cast all your worries on him, because he cares for you” (5:7). This made it easier to get away and distract myself. I began to take solitary walks, do manual work and spend more time with family and friends.

It became clear that suffering together with my father defined the degree of our commitment. It measures how deeply we allow another person to invade our heart and change us. This happened between Dad and me.

Admitting it meant developing new coping strategies to deal with the loss that I felt. I couldn’t do it alone; I needed the support of others. Grieving people need such support and the time to allow the healing process to take place. How and when this happens differs with each person.

Accept Losses As a Normal Part of Life

Every loss, great or small, is part of life, and no one is immune from sickness and sorrow. When with Dad, I saw clearly that we live in an imperfect world. We must acknowledge our limits and move beyond them. This takes time, and we cannot rush the process.

Everyone responds differently to loss. We need to be patient with ourselves and embrace — not run away from — the losses that come our way. When incapable of doing much more than wait, we can turn over our helplessness to God and allow ourselves to be carried along like a small boat in a sea of turmoil that threatens to destroy us at any moment.

Turn Losses into Blessings

The decision to give up my sabbatical at Notre Dame was easy when I realized that Dad was dying. My father’s great love for me made it easy to reciprocate this love and stay with him. In so doing, the loss of a relaxing sabbatical year became a blessing. It changed me, freeing me to see clearly my real priorities as I probed the meaning of life and what it meant to be a priest.

Even when out of energy and stripped bare, I sensed that God always is present, moving life onto an even keel in hidden and mysterious ways. This brought great comfort, knowing that Dad soon would be with God in heaven.

Project an Attitude of Prayerful Hope

The more we suffer, the clearer it becomes that we have little control over life’s ultimate realities. Hence, one of the greatest gifts the Holy Spirit gives us is the grace to project a positive attitude of hope to a sick person, parent, spouse or friend. When faced with grave loss, we often bring consolation to the suffering when we help them connect what they experience with the sufferings of Jesus, who is our hope and consolation.

A priest’s presence brings hope and blessing to bereaved persons. Since nothing can prepare them for losses beyond their control, all they may have left is hope in an all-loving God. Buoyed up with prayer, such hope is the foundation for eventual healing. A priest assists grieving people by encouraging them to pray, and then praying with them. Even in stressful conditions, when a person is not ready to call upon God, the priest can help them see that prayer is not only speaking to God but also listening as God speaks, often through what is happening.

Be Sensitive to How People Grieve

Those who supported me during Dad’s dying process, especially through their simple presence and attentive listening, helped me greatly. As we minister to the sick and suffering, it’s good to remember that every person grieves differently. This means never to probe beyond what people want to share. Instead, like Jesus, we are called to radiate love, accept people and help them during troubled times. When this happens, human hearts join in a common bond of love.

People grieve according to their own inner clock. It’s vital for a priest to recognize that compassion brings wisdom during stressful times. Without it, life’s transitions can result in bitterness and permanent scars. Because each situation of hurt is unique, we need to acknowledge the vulnerability of each person involved.

Listen Compassionately

When dealing with loss, priests are wise to put themselves in the place of the one grieving and do more listening and less speaking. Giving rational answers often is not helpful. Doing so often leads others to conclude that the answer-giver doesn’t really understand.

Grieving people look for compassionate understanding rather than rational explanations. Rational explanations cannot adequately address an emotional trauma. They do little good to comfort a grieving person during emotional loss. Just being present as a good listener is all-important.

A nonjudgmental ear can provide a safety net for people dealing with misdirected anger at themselves, others or God, thus making it possible for them to express themselves. Compassionate listening often is best accomplished when the priest sits down at eye level with the sick person instead of standing above and looking down at the individual.

When administering the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, priests do well to pay attention to the uniqueness of each situation. When possible, try to ascertain the religious attitude of the sick person and others present. Invite them to participate in the ritual; have them read biblical passages and encourage them to respond to the prayers. In so doing, a priest helps the sick person feel the power of faith and realize that God is in charge as the Lord of life and death.

Times of grief are special opportunities to evangelize and offer priestly counseling. It sometimes helps if a priest has a business card with pastoral information to give to those who choose to follow up afterward.

Final Word

In a materialistic world suffused with earthly pleasures, Christ’s message might seem out of touch. When tragedy strikes, however, secular promises of satisfaction fade as the arrow of life takes a sharp dip downward or crashes into oblivion.

On such occasions, priestly ministry takes on a special life. Then, Christ’s compassionate message breaks into full bloom and a priest, following in the shoes of his master, effectively addresses life’s tragedies. With renewed zeal, we respond as Christ’s special envoys who stand in the place of our compassionate Lord and bring new life out of darkness and bestow healing on those suffering tragic loss.

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, is a professor emeritus at the University of Dayton. He is the author of many books, as well as an internationally known lecturer and writer.