By Elissa Bjeletich, Raising Saints
Within a week of the day my son died, my priest’s next door neighbor, an old Baptist preacher, also died. His widow was a good Texas Baptist lady, and she was never seen without her makeup and her hair perfectly in place — she was always pulled together. Father would see her in the yard and ask her how she was, and she would insist that she was fine. After all, she would confidently declare, her husband was in a better place; the Bible calls us to rejoice at a death and to cry at a birth. Her stoicism drove my priest crazy. He knew she was suffering, but she would never admit it.
Sometimes it seems like today’s American reacts to grief and pain by trying to get rid of it. We need to fight off sadness; we are experts at distracting ourselves. Our family members no longer die in the parlor, attended by family members. We die in hospitals and nursing homes, and are quickly ferried away to funeral homes, where our blood is drained by professionals and replaced with formaldehyde, and our faces are coated in makeup to make us more lively. No more is the beloved body bathed by a grieving family — quick, get them out of here, and we’ll see them at the visitation.
Every time I see a Celebration of Life announcement when someone dies, I shake my head. My own father’s death was marked by a Celebration of Life — could we not sit with his death for a moment? Must we swallow that grief and move to the fun part so quickly?
In 2005, our son died of SIDS. He died right in our home, in our bedroom, and I was grateful to be able to live in the place where he breathed his last.
On advice from friends and loved ones, I attended a support group for infant loss, and I encountered a lot of non-Orthodox Americans trying to make sense of the same pain I was absorbing. We all reeled with the unfairness of it. Over that year, I saw people trying to create rituals and to imbue them with meaning. They had balloon releases and candlelit vigils, they tried to write meaningful prayer services that would satisfy this gnawing grief that knew no home and no limit.
It was then that I fully grew to love the Parastos or Panikhida — the Memorial services we Orthodox sometimes take for granted. I watched pastors scramble to think of something meaningful, and recognized that we Orthodox have had it all along. No, I couldn’t buy my son a bicycle or bake him a birthday cake, but I could make koliva to mark the anniversaries of his death and I could join with my beloved parish to pray for his eternal memory and his peaceful rest. I didn’t have to try to imagine that a balloon in the air somehow meant that his soul was free, because we had beautiful prayers whose history reached back thousands of years and who spoke to my pain and my fears and most importantly, to my profound love for my lost son. These rituals, cast aside by modern Protestant Christians, were my lifeline and my rock, as I watched the descendants of those protesting Christians scramble to build up a new tradition. Their efforts rang hollow next to the fullness of our time-tested and solid prayers, which testified to the enduring connection between us and the dead, who are never dead but truly alive in Christ.
Yes, it was his death that made me love Orthodoxy.
Funny enough, my mother-in-law raised her boys in the Church without ever converting — until one day, as we stood at her mother-in-law’s beautiful funeral, I commented that because she was not Orthodox, we could not pray these beautiful, familiar prayers over her body. I conjectured that we’d probably hire a Congregationalist who would say, “I didn’t know her, but I hear that she was a loving mother and grandmother, and that she loved Jesus very much.” My mother-in-law converted the following Holy Saturday. The Orthodox funeral services called her home; they are powerful.
Last week, I stood in prayer at my friend’s funeral and I was keenly aware that the church was full of non-Orthodox friends, grieving with us the loss of this very good man. I wondered how they felt about the priests’ frequent declarations of our Lord’s love for us, of His promise that we would enter into eternal life in His Father’s Kingdom. I wondered if, like my mother-in-law, these prayers could call one of them to the Church — or if it was all too strange to them, raised as they were in this culture that flees death and shields itself from consideration of the afterlife. I wondered if they were looking for a Celebration of David’s Life, and were disappointed that they did not find it?
We are not born knowing how to grieve properly, are we? It’s a skill; it’s not instinctive, but learned.
When I first met the man I’d marry, I was only seventeen but I’d buried several people who were important to me, beloved by me. I had asked the big questions and had prayed desperately in the middle of the night — I had tried it and tested it, and now I trusted that my loved ones rested in my Lord’s embrace. Marko hadn’t experienced death yet. He hadn’t put any of the cliches he knew about death and heaven to the test. When he was perhaps 20 years old and his very beloved godfather passed away, he had to approach all of those questions for the very first time — and suddenly, I was grateful to have loved people who died when I was a child. Better, I thought, to have worked this out over the years, than to reach young adulthood without ever confronting these big questions.
I always think about these things when Holy Week approaches.
I attended Holy Friday services for the very first time in 2006. In May of the previous year, my son had died, and over the course of that terrible and beautiful year, I had found myself in constant need of the Church. I had come to love — and even to need — weekday services, in addition to the Sunday liturgies I’d attended for years. Every part of church life was feeding me, and I was grateful. When my friend urged me to come all day for Holy Friday, I didn’t think twice. I came.
The services of Holy Friday caught me totally off guard. No one told me that I would be attending Jesus’ funeral, but that’s what the Holy Friday services are. We witness His crucifixion, we wrap Him in linens, we lament and we visit His tomb with spices and myrrh. I arrived, a woman who had recently buried her own son, to hear hymns in which the Theotokos stands at the foot of the cross, lamenting and contemplating the impossible death of her son. I couldn’t believe that no one had warned me. I don’t think anyone had used the word ‘trigger’ in this context back then, but I can assure you that I was triggered — I was revisiting the death of my son as we watched our Lord die before our eyes and I was watching us grieve Luka as we grieved our Lord.
For me, Holy Friday will forever be understood through this lens.
After forty days of Lenten repentance, of facing our own weaknesses and limitations, we finally come into Holy Week. We enter into the truth that one of us, one who loved our Lord and who witnessed His miracles and who heard His words, would trade God for mere silver coins. We are forced to recognize that we too have sold our Lord; we too have fallen asleep in the garden; we too have denied Him thrice. We sell Him out every day. In our weakness and in our foolishness, in our selfishness and in our meanness, we betray Him all the time.
And then, we hang Him on a cross.
We face it squarely: humanity, when presented with perfect goodness, with pure Truth and Love, responds by hanging Love on a cross. We stand and face that cross for hours. We listen to the gospel accounts of our Lord’s arrest and trial, His crucifixion and death, and then we remove His body from the cross and wrap it in linens, and place it in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.
We live in a culture that worships youth and avoids death, but our Orthodox Holy Week is like an antidote. We come to the Church and we practice mourning. We enter into a timeless grief as we travel through Holy Week, and then we emerge into the light of the resurrection. Every time we celebrate Holy Week and Pascha, we are recalibrating our relationship with death. We abandon the fears and delusions of our secular age, and we enter into the eternal truth that death is a part of life in this fallen world — we face death squarely, without hiding from it, and as we look closer we soon see that death is not the victor. We accept death, and we can face death, because we know that Jesus Christ has conquered death, and through death we shall enter into life eternal.