“Life is a sacred journey and a gift of God,” writes Orthodox priest and theologian Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) in 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.”
Not surprisingly, our “sacred” journey is often rife with change and challenges. Along with these disruptions, we may also experience a sense of loss—in all dimensions of life: physical, relational, emotional, financial, and spiritual.
For most of us, the deepest loss occurs when a loved one passes away. Death—anticipated or sudden—is capable of devastating those left behind, and those bereaving may experience sorrow, anxiety, tears, anger, regret, disbelief—and especially grief.
Grief is an expression of our enduring love for one another. “Love has no measure. It is infinite,” says Mother Gavrilia in An Ascetic of Love. Additionally, grief is a normal response to suffering the loss of a loved one. Christ, you may recall, wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (John 11: 32–35).
In his Morning Offering blog, Fr. Tryphon, Abbot of All-Merciful Saviour Monastery warns: “As humans, we all, at one time or another, will suffer the loss of a loved one, and experience the process of grieving.”
Coping with grief and loss
As Orthodox Christians, we are comforted in knowing that death has been defeated. Even so, our heartache and sorrow are real. 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) are united in prayer.
Liturgical prayer is woven into the lives of Orthodox Christians to comfort them 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 twelve 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 Christians greet each other “O Theos na ton/tin anapafsi” (May God grant him/her eternal rest) and “Zoi se sas/mas” (Life unto you/us).
The liturgical cycle of prayers, services, and rituals unique to the Orthodox Faith aim to transform our grief and lead us into deeper communion with Christ. For example, kolyva (boiled wheat) is offered at the memorial service on behalf of or loved ones. In times of grief, sharing kolyva with our church community helps to support and strengthen us. When my mother passed away, I found it therapeutic to make kolyva for her forty-day memorial. Shopping for the ingredients and preparing the kolyva was a reprieve from the pain of mourning her death.
The wheat is significant as it represents the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour. “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). Ingredients such as sugar, fruits, and nuts symbolize the sweetness and gifts of the life to come.
Decorated with a cross and the initials of the departed, the kolyva is brought to the Divine Liturgy and placed on a table in front of the icon of Christ.
St. Paul exhorts 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 on joyful occasions and to comfort each other in sorrow.
Similarly, the Orthodox Church offers a pathway through mourning. Just as our grief ebbs and flows, there are times when we need solitude and times when we need fellowship. The bereaved who participate in the cycle of the liturgical services may find a sacred space to grieve, to heal—and to “Enter into the joy” of the Lord (Matthew 25:21).
As we acknowledge the Church’s role in healing those who grieve the loss of loved ones, let us call to mind the wise and timeless words of St. John of Damascus:
“What pleasure is there in our life that is not mixed with sorrow? What glory on earth that lasts? All are more fleeting than shadows, and more deceitful than a dream! But you, O Christ, in the light of your face, in the beauty of your holiness, give peace to our brother you have chosen, for you are the lover of mankind.”
A Prayer for the Departed
O God of spirits and of all flesh, You have trampled upon death and have abolished the power of the devil, giving life to Your world. Give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, in a place of repose, in a place of refreshment, where there is no pain, sorrow, and suffering. As a good and loving God, forgive every sin he/she has committed in thought, word, or deed, for there is no one who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and Your word is truth. For You are the Resurrection, the Life, and the Repose of Your departed servant, Christ our God, and to You we give glory, with Your eternal Father and Your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Preparing Kolyva (Memorial Wheat)
Whether a loved has recently departed this life or has been gone for some time, making kolyva can be a meaningful experience for the whole family. Check with your church office or parish priest to learn if there is a specific way your church prefers the kolyva to be prepared. Use the preparation time to pray for your loved one and share memories of their life. This video, which highlights the process, is an excellent resource.
Dealing with Grief, by Fr. Gordon Walker
This pamphlet discusses the grief process for Christians and offers positive steps toward healing.
The Courage to Grieve: The Classic Guide to Creative Living, Recovery, and Growth Through Grief, by Judy Tatelbaum
This self-help book provides the specific help we need to enable us to face our grief fully and to recover and grow from the experience.
For Those Who Hurt: An Orthodox Perspective on Suffering, by Michael Keiser
A practical and easy-to-read book that helps those who grieve with resources based on the Orthodox Christian tradition.
Seeing Beyond Depression, by Jean Vanier
This thoughtful resource is filled with short reflections on depression that often accompanies grief and bereavement.
When My Baba Died, by Marjorie Kunch
This picture book illustrates the steps a family takes when an Orthodox Christian loved one passes on.
My Yellow Balloon, by Tiffany Papageorge
This poignant tale of love, loss, and letting go will serve as a comforting guide to children who are navigating the complicated emotions of grief.
Should You Protect Children from Grief?
In this Come Receive the Light episode, Fr. Chris Metropulos speaks with Maria Scaros-Mercado, a licensed creative arts psychotherapist as well as a board-certified clinical chaplain and pastoral counselor. She reveals the importance of allowing children to grieve—and to grieve with you. Listen here.
Be the Bee: Memory Eternal
When loved ones pass away, we pray that their memory will be eternal. We’re not simply asking God to think about them, we’re asking Him to save them and bring us all into His Kingdom. Watch here.