Life is a sacred journey and a gift of God. Fr. Alexander Schmeman writes in his book For the Life of the World “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, and to make man’s life communion with God.” As such, our lives change constantly. Along with these changes we may experience a sense of loss. We suffer loss in all dimensions of life: physical, relational, emotional, financial and spiritual. The most profound loss occurs with the death of a loved one. Death, anticipated or sudden, is capable of devastating those left behind. It may thrust the bereaved into a mix of physical and emotional responses: sorrow, anxiety, tears, anger, regret, and disbelief, among others. Grief is an expression of our enduring love for one another, a love that continues even in their absence: “Love has no measure. It is infinite” (Mother Gavrilia, An Ascetic of Love).
Grief is a normal response to suffering the loss of a loved one. Christ exemplified grief when he wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11: 32–35). In his blog The Morning Offering (www.ancientfaith.org), Abbot Tryphon reveals that “as humans, we all, at one time or another, will suffer the loss of a loved one, and experience the process of grieving.” As Orthodox Christians we receive consolation in knowing death has been defeated. In Christ everything in this world - health and disease, joy and suffering - has become an ascension to and an entrance into this new life, its expectation and anticipation (Schmemann). Even so, our heartache and sorrow are real.
Bereavement is the process of accepting the reality of the loss, working through painful emotions, and adjusting to an environment without our beloved.
In the Orthodox Faith there is no separation between the living and the dead—meaning that the church militant (those living on this earth) and the church triumphant (those who have passed from this life) pray together as one. Liturgical prayer is woven into the life of an Orthodox Christian to comfort the bereaved while commemorating the departed. The Trisagion (Thrice Holy) Service is recited at the time of death and may be repeated on the third and ninth days, at six and 12 months, and at any time one feels the need. It may be recited at home, at the graveside, or in church.
Memorial prayers are offered on the fortieth day after death, and can be offered the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth months. After that the bereaved may request memorial prayers around the anniversary date of a loved one’s passing. During the first forty days, Orthodox greet the bereaved with O Theos na ton/tin anapafsi—May God bring him/her peace; Zoi se sas/mas—Life to you/us, the living.
At the memorial services, kollyva (boiled wheat) is offered to honor the memory of our loved ones who left their earthly life. In times of grief, the sharing of kollyva with everyone present helps to support us, girding us in the strength of the community of faith. When my mother passed, I found the physical act of making kollyva for her forty-day memorial therapeutic. Shopping for and preparing the ingredients provided a break from the isolation of mourning my mother.
The wheat itself is significant, representing the Resurrection and resonating with the words of Christ: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Other ingredients such as sugar, fruits, and nuts symbolize the sweetness and gifts of the life to come.
The mixture, placed on a platter and decorated with a cross and the initials of the departed, is brought to the Divine Liturgy and placed on a table in front of the icon of Christ.
The liturgical rhythm of prayers, services, and customs of the Orthodox Faith serve to transform our grief and lead us into deeper communion with Christ. As we embrace Christ as the center of our lives, the Holy Spirit as Comforter—Paraclete— guides us from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy! St. Paul inspires the Church “to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Orthodox faithful are encouraged to celebrate with each other through joyous occasions and comfort each other through sorrow.
As the Body of Christ, the Orthodox Church offers a pathway through mourning. Just as our grief ebbs and flows, there are times we need solitude and times we need fellowship. “To everything there is a season, and a time for activity under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The bereaved who participate in the rhythm of the liturgical services may find a sacred space to grieve, to heal, and to recover joy in their lives, to “enter into the joy” of the Lord (Matthew 25:21).
Patricia Manuse, M-Div. MSW, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with a private practice as a counselor. She received two graduate degrees: a Master of Social Work from CSU, Sacramento, and a Master of Divinity from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. She actively volunteers at St. Basil Church in Stockton, Calif., where she offers a weekly Women’s Health and Wellness Fellowship and an Angel Baby Ministry.