Liguori Publications, Liguori, Mo., 2012; $15.99
“Living through grief takes courage,” Gretchen Schwenker writes in “Every Tear Will Be Wiped Away.” The writer and editor compiled prayers and reflections for people who lose someone they love and struggle to “cope with the pain,” hoping in time to remake their lives.
In reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking how difficult it can be to know how to pray when a spouse, a child or another loved one dies. What is the role of prayer when, in Schwenker’s words, we are trying “to make sense of our lives without someone we dearly valued and when our grief seems overwhelming”?
I recalled a man who, during a recent retreat, told of not knowing how to pray or what to pray for during one particularly difficult time in his life. Another retreatant suggested that when people feel that way, they should tell God about it. They might begin a conversation with God simply by saying, “I do not know how to pray right now or what my prayer ought to be.”
Schwenker recognizes the multiple needs and complex feelings of grieving people. How should they feel – how might they pray — when they “are waking up in the morning with new loss” and need “to make adjustments”?
What can prayer be for people who feel unprepared for their loss and “ill-equipped to move forward”? In thinking about this, I enjoyed these words of an old Gaelic prayer:
“As the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of thy face from me. Yet, if I may hold thy hand in the darkness, it is enough. Since I know that, though I may stumble in my going, thou dost not fall.”
In this context, I welcomed another prayer in this book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II Lutheran pastor executed under the Nazis. He said to God: “I am lonely, but you do not leave me. … I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me.”
It seems essential to remember that people are not all alike; their needs and hopes will not be identical.
– Consolation may be what many grieving people ask of God. They may feel confused or angry over their loss and lonely too. A prayer Schwenker wrote asks the Lord to “give us grace who feel alone without” a loved one who has died.
– The will to continue putting one foot ahead of the other in daily life may be a dominant hope for some people suffering a loss. Perhaps they will ask God to renew their hope. They may feel weak.
– Rest is an inescapable need among others. Schwenker writes in one prayer, “Gentle savior, … save me from being overwhelmed by this burden of loss that crushes my spirit, leaving me without rest.”
– Healing is necessary for many who feel broken by a loss. “Heal me, Lord Jesus, even as I mourn deeply,” Schwenker says in yet another prayer.
– The experience of peace might be what is asked of God by mourning people who suffer, who feel agitated or alone. It is not that grieving people hope to forget their loss, but to “see it in a new way – through the eyes of faith. This deeper perspective can provide peace,” Schwenker observes.
– Pleading for God’s mercy and compassion seems only natural among people suffering the loss of someone who loved them. “The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent,” proclaims a reading from Lamentations 3 included in this book.
– A desire both for renewed strength and the capacity to accept one’s changed situation may motivate the prayer of grieving people. Schwenker observes, “We are fragile, yet more resilient than we thought.”
Schwenker explains to readers of her book that “certain prayers may speak to [their] feelings better than others” and that “particular lines or words may especially give [them] focus.” She writes:
“The prayers and reflections in this book are intended to help sustain you through grief and the pain and sadness that mark it. … However you pray with these prayers is as individual as your own story.”
In coping with grief, “prayer can be a constant touchstone,” Schwenker says. “When we pray, we open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit and God’s transforming presence in our lives.” Moreover, “we learn to hear God in the silence beyond the words of prayer. It is in responding to what we hear that we are changed.”