Grief is the price we pay for love, and this week the many family and friends who love and are loved by Fr. Graeme Blackburn have been gripped by grief at his tragic road accident death on Monday.
We were united in speechless shock at the news. Memories began to be shared. Tears flowed and stories were told. We have asked why and laughed and cried as we recalled the moments when Graeme’s life touched our lives. Then we asked why again, and again, why? It makes no sense for a young man in the prime of his life: healthy, full of passion for Jesus Christ and for all God’s people, to be taken from us just as he was beginning his priestly ministry.
Graeme’s death has united us as a grieving family and we, together as family, are comforting and supporting one another.
A friend has texted me several times this week with the reminder “trust God.”
We do trust God, and we need to be reminded of our need to trust even hourly. If we are trusting God then we are doing enough.
Graeme reminded his family, friends and parishioners of this often and wrote in his parish newsletter just a few weeks ago: “Trust in God and he will lead you and protect you.”
Have mercy O God
On Tuesday morning after a sleepless night and through a mist of tears I began to pray Morning Prayer of the Office for the Dead. I was not ready for the vivid image of the first antiphon: “The bones that were crushed shall leap for joy before the Lord.”
It was several minutes before I could continue with the psalm which has been prayed for almost three millennia by believers in our situation, overwhelmed with loss and uncertain of how to proceed. These days we pray this Miserere psalm on behalf of Graeme: “Have mercy on me O God in your kindness…”
As I prayed early on Tuesday, just when my mind had moved beyond the confronting antiphon, I was faced with the harsh circumstances of Graeme’s death once again, this time in the heart of the psalm: “Make me hear rejoicing and gladness, that the bones you have crushed may revive.”
Faith does not allow us to avoid the horrendous realities of earthly life since it is only once we face reality that we can receive the love and hope we so desperately seek in every situation.
The journey of grief
At the heart of a Catholic understanding of death is the awareness that the process of grief is a journey of days and weeks and months, each step a stage of acceptance of present reality and an opportunity for hope to emerge in the midst of our suffering.
The first days, from the time of learning of the death of the one we love to the burial are especially important since the journey from death to the grave is a painful and challenging one for us who remain.
Most other days we use our routines and busy-ness to avoid suffering and to escape from anything that feels deathly. But when the one we love dies it is impossible to avoid the fact that we are fragile creatures. Even the youngest and the healthiest of us will die, and we have no guarantees that our earthly life will be long.
The one who prays cannot avoid the totality of this reality and in these days a significant part of the pain we feel is that our gaze is being torn from all that we are inappropriately or disproportionately attached to. The pain we feel at this tearing is acute and our tears bleed from our depths.
In this experience we notice that we have forgotten that the death we experience at the end of our earthly life is more of a birth than a death.
Imagine twins moments before their birth. Suddenly their world is in turmoil and an event breaks in on their previously comfortable lives that is both unprecedented and (from their point of view) unwelcome. In the next few minutes the first twin is torn from her home in a traumatic event that can only seem like separation and death to the second twin who is now left alone and grieving. Then the second twin experiences the same event and is also wrenched from the home that has provided comfort, warmth, nourishment and companionship for nine months.
Then the twins are reunited in the arms of delighted parents in a new world. The tears are now parental tears of loving joy. Now the twins understand that their time in the security of the womb was only a preparation for this new existence surrounded by family and friends who are calling this experience not death but birth.
Even in the depth of our grief we know that what we are experiencing at Graeme’s death, while full of separation and pain, is in fact his birth into the life for which he and all of us are created.
Lifting the gaze
For someone who was so comfortable with the ordinary and often messy complexities of down-to-earth human life, Graeme was just as at home in the skies where he spent numerous hours flying and training others to fly.
When I was with Graeme’s family yesterday two young pilots arrived and we sat together around Graeme’s coffin sharing stories. One of them told of how he was gifted a trial-flight a dozen years ago. He turned up for the flight and quickly decided in the midst of the detailed pre-flight checks that this would be a oncer for him. But on his flight with Graeme his mind expanded and a new possibility emerged. Graeme, who far too often lacked confidence in himself, gave confidence in abundance to this young man who now flies commercially.
The difference that faith makes
Someone without faith might casually comment that Graeme has now taken to the skies, off to an eternal flying school. No-one who knew Graeme could say this. Graeme did not give his life to God to simply fly earthly skies. While he enjoyed flying he made the decision to let go of all that this career and lifestyle promised to embark on a new adventure as a disciple and priest of Jesus Christ.
We get a glimpse of what was driving Graeme to take this step from his weekly reflections in the Our Lady of Victories parish newsletter. On the First Sunday of Advent just seven weeks ago Graeme reflected: “Remember that God is always faithful to his promise. Regardless of what adversity we face, there is always a way through. Put another way, there is always hope.”
A few weeks earlier he had written: “When we are truly seeking God he will enable us to do good in a way we never thought possible. Ask for faith that enables us to cross the ‘rough waters’ in our own lives: the faith that tells us that Christ is far more powerful than any force of evil. Trust in God and he will lead you and protect you.”
The threshold of heaven
We have all found it difficult to focus on our routines and the superficial realities of our lives this week. This is a natural and healthy response in the face of death because we are in these days dwelling together at the threshold of heaven. This is rare for us because we are usually preoccupied with mundane and less essential matters. It is as if we have accompanied Graeme to the door of heaven and are standing there, surrounding him, while together glimpsing the beauty of the face of God.
However now comes the time when we must let him go and give him into God’s kind keeping. If it were possible we might choose to cross with him now to the home that we know to be eternal joy and peace in the fullness of God’s love. But the timing of this birth is not ours. This is Graeme’s day and Graeme’s time and this is God’s personal invitation to Graeme. Our time will come.
Rites of hope
Later today our grieving necessarily moves to a new stage as we gather at the threshold of heaven for the wake service and tomorrow for Graeme’s funeral Mass and burial.
We all know that this will not be easy. It will not be easy for Erin, Graham’s mother, to bury a son. This will not be easy for Graeme’s brothers and sisters and their families. Graeme’s new family of the diocese of Christchurch and his new brothers the priests of the diocese are also struggling to come to terms with the loss. For all of us our tears are flowing from the heart, rich with love and deep with loss.
Just six months ago we were united at the ordination to the priesthood of Graeme and Huynh and Alister. In his homily the bishop told these young men “Your destiny is linked to Jesus Christ in a bond that lasts into eternity.”
We could never have imagined when we heard those words that within months Graeme would be called into this eternity.
As we will pray in the Collect of tomorrow’s funeral Mass:
Grant we pray. O Lord
That the soul of Graeme your servant and Priest,
whom you honoured with sacred office,
while he lived in this world
may exault for ever in the glorious home of heaven,
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, for ever and ever.