Have you ever found yourself being called upon to break the news of a loved one to family members? The mood, reactions, and effects vary depending on who is involved. The expectations differ if it concerns spouses, parents, and children. Specifically, have you been asked to inform a parent of the death of a child? This is precisely one task I do not cherish fulfilling but I have been mandated several times to perform. It comes with a feeling of initial reluctance and withdrawal but eventually the sense of trust and confidence reposed in you obliges you to spring into action. Like I earlier mentioned, if the prevailing circumstances allowed, it is a responsibility I would gladly turn down for obvious reasons. Only recently, I got a call from a man who informed me of the death of his younger sister. She was married with grown up children. The family was a bit confused on how to break the sad news to their mother at home who happened to be a parishioner of mine. And he said to me, ‘father, we would like you to help us inform our mother that she just lost her first daughter.’ I had no choice than to accept to assist. Did I really say I had no choice? Should I have refused? Well, I accepted to be a minister of ‘sad tidings’. After a moment of brief reflection and prayers, I decided to call the woman and she told me she was already in the market (being a market day). I informed her that I needed to see her to discuss something with her.
By the time she came home from the market and saw me, I noticed she was already a bit apprehensive. I could see anxiety and panic written all over her face. She was quick to remark; father, hope all is well? What does this early morning visit portend? I had arrived with two other women and once we were all seated, I tried everything to go to the business of the day. I managed to tell her that the daughter was seriously ill and that she was rushed to a hospital in Lagos the previous night. At this point she was already becoming restless and eagerly anxious to know what then happened to her. At the end of the day, I didn’t categorically state that she passed on but she got the message and the wailing and lamentation ensued. As I sat beside her, trying to console and sympathize with her, a series of thoughts raced through my mind. I tried to fathom what she was going through at this point. How does a parent feel over the death of a child? As Africans, there is this underlying belief that children are the ones to bury their parents and not vice versa. Parents generally wish and pray that their own children should prosper and become successful enough to bury and bid them farewell. As the poor woman grieved and reeled out a couple of dirges, she evoked a feeling of helplessness and despair that death unleashes on its victims. In such situations, one cannot really tell what makes sense and appeals the most to a bereaved person. But one thing I know for sure is that it is mostly hard to restrain the bereaved from a downpour of tears. I heard some people trying to tell her it is okay, and that she should stop crying. But I don’t know if that is proper and soothing enough.
Could one help but cry in such a situation? It is even advisable to allow a free flow of tears to reduce the impact of emotional trauma such a physical separation could have on the bond that ties a beloved mother to her lovely daughter. However, from this most recent experience, I would like to share some insights concerning how to effectively attend to the needs of bereaved parents and accompany them. In the first place, it is good to inquire about their health status. This is very important. This information will help you to adopt the best strategy and language to be used in communicating the news. If the parent is hypertensive, it is better to be careful so as not to register another fatal death. You cannot afford to deal with two deaths concurrently. Knowledge of the person’s health status will determine whether to break the sad news directly or indirectly. But utmost care must be taken. Second, it is good to mind your language. This is where communication skills matter. One’s choice of language really counts. While the issue at stake is a serious one, one does not need to be too serious or too casual in selecting the best language to use. Your ability to monitor and study the ensuing scenario may be helpful too. Like in the case I cited above, I had to avoid the direct method of stating the fact since the woman was already apprehensive and tensile. Third, it is advisable to study the reaction and body signs of the person. Your ability to watch out for how the person is reacting or taking the news of the death is very important. Some may slide into shock or experience a total emotional breakdown. Depending on the scenario at hand, the attention of a medical personnel, or a priest may be necessary. I remember the experience of a woman who lost her husband some years ago. She could not withstand the reality of the death. When I paid a condolence visit, I met she was completely down, she went into shock. Seeing her condition, I administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick on her. It was two days later, she called to thank me saying she was not even aware I was around.
She only knew later that I anointed her. Fourth, do not go alone. Always go in the company of other significant people: a fam ily member, a close friend, or a neighbour or colleague. Such people have multiple roles to play. Being familiar faces and important persons to the bereaved, their presence alone can be consoling psychologically, socially, and physically. Should there be any form of unexpected drama and theatrics, they will be very handy to help cuddle, calm, and comfort the bereaved. They could also be helpful in talking to the person in a language and tone that is familiar and de-escalating. Fifth, be prepared for the unexpected. It is always good to note that anything could go wrong. That was why before I embarked on the assignment, I took some time to pray. In a way, it is a ‘dangerous mission’. That is why it is advisable to commit the mission into God’s hands, while one hopes that God would console and grant the bereaved the fortitude to bear the loss. One must be equipped to manage any emerging situation diligently, courageously, and maturely. Some people could become erratic, violent, and uncontrollable. In this case, I remember the woman telling someone in her dialect that she was only trying to be calm and wait for me to take my leave and then she would take her life. She claimed it was better to take her own life than to live with the pain of not seeing her daughter again. The moment I was told that, I had to stay a bit longer than I had planned just to make sure she was a bit calmer before leaving. Six, sometimes, depending on the special situations and circumstances, it could be helpful to assist with the mortuary arrangements (if there is need to deposit the body in the mortuary) or if not, to assist with the burial arrangements.
Where applicable, a funeral mass can be celebrated for the repose of the soul of the deceased. Even when this is not applicable, it is still good to accompany the family in whatever ways legally, spiritually, psychologically, and financially practicable and possible. A favour rendered in critical times is hardly forgotten. Assistance like this gives families and individuals a sense of belonging in the community, church, and society. From the foregoing, one thing stands clear: solidarity with those who mourn is a necessity. One way of expressing this solidarity is by offering comfort and providing a shoulder for them to rest on. Even Jesus would say: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). The primary providers of comfort to those who mourn are family members, friends, religious community, and neighbours. However, irrespective of how discomforting the task of notifying people of the death of their loved ones may be, it is a mission that has its risks and challenges. The world as we know it already has enough troubles and worries that people ordinarily would prefer to be fed with glad tidings of peace, prosperity, life, and goodness. But we cannot shy away from the flipside of life itself. Even Job was not spared of the sad news of the demise of his lovely children. At a point he had to vent his frustration and grief thus: “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, a manchild is conceived. Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it… Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?… Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures? (Job 3:3- 4;11-12;20-21). But when he was persuaded by his beloved wife to curse God and die, because of his predicaments and sufferings, he was quick to say: “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:9-10).
Fr. Valentine Anaweokhai can be reached via email@example.com