I was one of five million people around the UK who watched a BBC documentary last week about the former England footballer, Rio Ferdinand, called “Being Mum and Dad”.
In it, Ferdinand shares his experience of grief and the struggle to come to terms with the death in 2015 of his wife, Rebecca Ellison. The film captures his suffering, and his search to know how best to deal with it and to support his children, with a raw honesty. It resulted in an outpouring of support and gratitude for his willingness to talk about this difficult subject in the public eye.
The documentary was a timely reminder, as we head towards the climax of Lent, that no matter our means, how excellent our healthcare system – if we are fortunate enough to have one -- or what advances science has made, we all experience death and we are all confronted with bereavement. In my home country of Scotland, people don’t easily talk about this; the British tradition of the “stiff upper lip” is alive and well. Yet the huge public response to the documentary illustrates a thirst to see this topic tackled more openly.
Common English euphemisms for death affirm our reluctance to look it in the eye. Many prefer to say someone “passed away” rather than simply that they “died”. Funeral practices suggest discomfort with dwelling for any longer than is absolutely necessary on the fact of death. Increasingly, bereaved families request a short, private service of committal of the deceased, followed by a public service of thanksgiving for the their life. But this robs mourners of an important reality check - a helping hand to pause and recognize the harsh reality that something has changed. A person has died – and so, in the end, will we.
The subject of death, and how we come to terms with it is one for which the Anglican tradition provides a deep, rich seam of resources. From the lament language of the Psalms, to funeral liturgies that give voice to the depths of grief and human finitude as well as to Christian hope, we have pastoral resources to help those who mourn. Moreover, in the Gospel witness to God’s power to raise Christ from the dead, and by the Sacrament of Baptism, in which we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ, we are equipped to live into a story – a truth – in which we are inhabitants of the Kingdom of God here and now.
I came away from watching “Being Mum and Dad” wondering whether as a Church we might speak more clearly of these things – of how Christian faith communities can help people to come to terms with death and to live life in all its fullness today. And I was reminded, too, of St Paul’s expression of the hope we carry within us, that gives us abundant life now: “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11).
Revd Diana Hall is a curate at Saint Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Church at St Andrew’s in Scotland. @Pausingplace.