What Do We Say to the Bereaved?

When U.S. photojournalist Jim Foley, following nearly two years of close captivity by the terrorist thugs of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was finally and gruesomely decapitated—a video of his execution having been posted online—the bereaved family received the usual outpouring of sympathy and support from a civilized world outraged by this latest show of Islamic savagery. Not surprisingly, among those offering their condolences, was the President of the United States, whose utterly feckless foreign policy no doubt played a part in poor Mr. Foley’s murder. Still, there is no reason to suspect the sincerity of the phone call, however distracted he may have been in making it en route to the golf course where he seems to have spent rather a lot of time this summer.  And then, of course, the Pope called, offering his own heartfelt prayers and condolences to the grief-stricken family.

And, really, what can one say to assuage the grief and the horror of family and friends when suddenly faced with so grisly a spectacle? How does one address the truly aggrieved? There is surely no anodyne available for abating pain of this magnitude. If there were wouldn’t someone have cornered the market by now?

One wonders what Jesus would have said. Here one instinctively reaches for examples from the New Testament to see what in fact he did say when faced with the suffering of others, particularly those for whom he felt a special connection. Lazarus, for example. The account in John’s Gospel is very clear—that on first hearing the news of his friend’s death, Jesus weeps; then, on seeing the body that even then had begun to smell, he tells Lazarus to get up. And, of course, the dead man gets up, his body and soul no longer separated by the unnaturalness of death.

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Well that must have been something of an ice-breaker. Since then, however, the dead tend to stay dead, Jesus having decided to defer the general resurrection until the Last Day. But does he still weep for those who die?

In his profound study of the literary imagination, Christ and Apollo, Fr. William Lynch answers the atheist objection of Albert Camus, who disdained belief in a God whom he thought powerless to prevent the sufferings of little children. God himself must feel guilt, charged Camus, because of so much innocence murdered in his name.  To which Lynch replies, yes, of course, the children would have suffered and their cries would surely have fallen within this broken and wicked world. But they did so, “as much as children can, within the cries of Christ. A man can only cause pain to somebody outside of himself. Christ’s cries are wider than we think and grow more actual through the body of our own.”

Cries wider than we think! Is that even possible? What manner of misery must first exist in God before it can contain so universal a weight as other men’s misery? How limitless must the love of God be if it can include the lost cries of little children! “He was not like us,” writes Charles Williams, “and yet he became us … in the last reaches of that living death to which we are exposed he substituted himself for us. He submitted in our stead to the full results of the Law which is he.” Let him then weep and die for us, for at least that life which courses divinely through him is not sundered from our own, though it appear to be sundered from his.

It is here that I am reminded of that most shattering of narratives to have emerged from the experience of the Jewish Holocaust—Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night. It is a harrowing account of his family’s ordeal of degradation and death in a Nazi concentration camp. Though scarcely a child himself at the time, Wiesel watches in mute horror while his mother and sister are led away to die, their corpses consumed in gas ovens. He is then forced to witness, day by day, the grinding destruction of his own father.  Will there be prayers at his grave? No, there will be neither prayers offered up to God, nor candles lit in his memory. “His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears.”

The book is filled with horrors, all duly recorded, but none as heartbreaking as the death of the “sad-eyed angel,” whose story lies at the heart of Night. A child as innocent and as young as Wiesel himself, he has been singled out by the guards and, for reasons horrifyingly capricious, sentenced to die by hanging. The entire camp has been conscripted to witness this unspeakable iniquity. And as the child struggles horribly at the end of the rope (he is too emaciated to die quickly), Wiesel hears a man call out, “Where is God? Where is God now?” Later, as the prisoners file silently beneath the corpse, Wiesel again hears the cry, “Where is God?” Only now he hears himself answer in a voice too soft for others to hear: “Here he is, here is God.”

By the standards of Elie Wiesel, who no less than Monsieur Camus has lost faith in a good and all-powerful God, a God who can make a difference in the lives of little children, the outcome of the story is chillingly clear: neither God nor the child can survive the cruelties of men. They are both hanging at the end of that rope.

Wiesel has chosen the road of nihilism and, given the horrific circumstances of his life and sufferings, who can blame him? “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever,” he tells us.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.

And so he seals shut the graves of both God and man; two corpses tied together with the same noose.  Neither light nor hope, in other words, may be permitted to escape the all-encompassing horror of the Holocaust. To suppose otherwise is to falsify his whole argument that God and man perished together in that event.

But there is another road, one that is both higher and deeper, and which goes by the way of the Cross of Jesus Christ. To travel that road is to see a profounder mystery at work, that of the Crucified God taking on the sorrow and travail of the world, of stretching forth himself to enfold within the arms of an infinite love and power all human misery and pain. Indeed, to set about redeeming it all from below.

“He wanted to sink so low,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in his lyric-strewn Heart of the World, “that in the future all falling would be a falling into him, and every streamlet of bitterness and despair would henceforth run down into his lowermost abyss.”

Only God could pull off a miracle like that. It is God who, in the sacrifice of his Son, assures us that death is not the end. That the outcome of the human story is not “a tale told by an idiot.” Not a tragedy scripted by a malevolent God. But a divine and human comedy in which all the crooked lines may at last be made straight.

“In my end is my beginning,” T.S. Eliot tells us in Four Quartets.  Human history is but the foreground of Mystery, the down-payment, as it were, on Heaven. All life is a turning, therefore, in the direction of something more, something greater. The flower bud has begun, but the final bloom awaits consummation on the other side.

How beautifully this is confirmed by the late Pope’s play, The Jeweler’s Shop, in which the young Polish priest who visits the home of the grieving widow, her husband having just died resisting the Nazi takeover of their country, tells her that her husband “is more alive now” than ever he might have been in the flesh. She accepts this because she believes, because she has hope.

It is this, this unconquerable hope, that we must speak to the bereaved. Nothing else matters.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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