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‘Remember Me’ – Should Catholics talk to their dead loved ones?

By Mary Farrow

(Patrick Bruchs/us.fotolia.com)

Denver, Colo., Aug 18, 2019 / 04:57 am (CNA).- In the 2017 Disney-Pixar movie “Coco,” the main character, Miguel, accidentally passes over into the land of the dead on Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) while trying to reconcile his love of music with his family’s ban on it.

There, he learns that the dead can only visit their loved ones on that holiday if they can prove there is a photo of them on their family’s “ofrenda”, an altar with photos of loved ones, colorful decorations, and the favorite foods, drinks and mementos of the deceased.

“We’ve put their photos on the ofrenda so their spirits can cross over. That is very important! If we don’t put them up, they can’t come!” Miguel’s abuelita explains.

While in the land of the dead, Miguel bumps into his own deceased family members, and learns his true family history.

Though Miguel’s experience is fictional, it is not uncommon for grieving loved ones to experience what psychologists call “After Death Communication,” in which the bereaved believe that they see, hear the voices of, or even smell their dead loved ones.

These experiences, sometimes called “bereavement hallucinations,” can be healing and comforting for those who grieve, multiple studies have found.

But Catholics should proceed with caution when “communicating” with the dead, two Catholic psychologists told CNA, and they should ground their communications in prayer.

Dana Nygaard is a Catholic and a licensed professional counselor who speaks to grief groups and counsels clients through loss. Nygaard told CNA that because many Catholics misunderstand what happens to souls after death, she urges caution when talking about what it means to talk to dead loved ones.

“If they’re speaking to a loved one, how are they doing that? Is it through saying, ‘Hey grandma, I think you’re up there in heaven with God. I really hope you pray and look over me.’ Okay, well that sounds fine,” she said.

“Or…are they going to a psychic or a medium? Is this necromancy? How were they doing this?  I think that’s an important question,” Nygaard said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “all forms of divination are to be rejected” which includes the “conjuring up the dead.”

However, the Church encourages Catholics to pray for the dead as one of the spiritual works of mercy.

“From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead,” the Catechism states.

“Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.”

“Prayer, prayer, prayer,” Nygaard said, noting that because Catholics do not know the state of the souls of their loved ones when they die, it is important to pray for them after their death, as prayers can help the souls in purgatory get to heaven faster.

The Liturgy of the Hours, a set of prayers said periodically throughout the day by priests, religious and some lay Catholics, includes a special Office of the Dead, a set of prayers said specifically for those who have died.

Nygaard told CNA that she often encourages Catholics who are grieving a loss to ask for the intercessory prayers of saints already canonized by the Church, which means that they are assured to be with God in heaven.

“Maybe it was that my great-grandmother was really close to St. Anne. I’m going to ask St. Anne, ‘Would you please look after my sweet great grandmother? I pray she’s there with you in heaven.’ I’ve known people also to pray, ‘God, I’m asking you, do I need to keep praying for my father?’” she said.

Nygaard said that those she counsels through grief will sometimes, after a period of prayer, feel a deep sense of peace that their loved one is in heaven.

Dr. Chris Stravitsch is a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, as well as the president and founder of Rejoice Counseling Apostolate, a group of Catholic counselors. Stravitsch told CNA that in addition to prayer, he counsels his clients to prepare for their first year of grief, which can often be the most difficult.

“There are a lot of ‘firsts’ to pass through: the first Christmas without him or her; their first birthday without them present; the first wedding anniversary alone; etc. I counsel people to prepare for these occasions in advance because we know it will be painful and difficult,” he said.

He said he tells his clients to plan in advance how and with whom they will spend these difficult days, and how they will remember their loved ones at those times.

“It’s helpful to surround yourself with other loved ones who understand your loss, while also setting aside a little time to be alone in prayer and reminiscing,” he said.

“These are meaningful days to attend Mass, so that you can cling to Christ and receive His consolation. Visiting the gravesite or a place where you have a special memory can also be meaningful, whether that is done alone or with the support of others,” he said.

“Furthermore, be sure to tell stories and talk about your deceased loved ones,” he added. “We need to continue coming together at various times to remember them in a spirit of love and prayer. This is a balm for the brokenhearted.”

Stravitsch said it is important for Catholics to remember that death and grief are painful things to experience, and that Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

“(Jesus) wants to be with us and share our grief,” he said. This means Catholics should be sensitive towards those who are grieving, and avoid well-intentioned but unhelpful comments such as: “It was God’s will”; “It was their time to go”; “They’re in a better place now”; or “There’s a reason for everything”; Stravitsch said.

“Simply saying, ‘I’m sorry’, giving a warm embrace, sharing a tear, and remaining at their side as long as needed can be far more consoling,” he said.

Checking back in after the funeral has passed, and continuing to talk about the deceased with those who are grieving are other ways Catholics can show compassion, he said.

Both Nygaard and Stravitsch said that they have found that clients are usually deeply comforted by the Church’s teaching on the communion of saints and the promise of everlasting life for all souls who are united with God.

“In the Catholic Church, like we have the mystical body of Christ. And we know that the souls in heaven are surrounding the altar during communion,” she said.

“What I have found is that normally brings a great sense of peace,” to the bereaved, she said. “It’s not just me sitting there when I go up for communion…we’re mystically connected and that we can ask for the intercession of the saints,” which means any soul that is in heaven with God.

In his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul recalls those already in heaven, and says that the faithful are surrounded “by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

“When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’ All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbors, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God. All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together,’” the Catechism states.

These teachings are a “great consolation for the bereaved,” Stravitsch said.

“Not only is there the hope of being reunited with our loved ones after death, but there is the reality of remaining mysteriously connected with them even today. Whether we are interceding for them as we pray for the repose of their soul or we are asking for their prayers, there is a sense that we are within reach of one another,” he added.

“The bonds of true love are not destroyed in death but are made ever stronger. The Church recognizes this in a unique way when we celebrate All Souls Day and we call to mind our deceased loved ones. We are united in Christ.”


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8 Comments

  1. A remorseful Abraham in scripture is informed that a total and impassable chasm falls between him and his still-living five brothers: “between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26).

    But a probable follower of St. Paul then astounds us that we here are also “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). Surrounded? The chasm surrounding hell is one thing, “the veil” concealing heaven is quite another.

    Teresa of Avila, somewhere, wrote that our spatial and temporal imaginations get in the way of spiritual reality. As we might imagine: is death really a final and always impassible separation, or is it surely more of a temporary—and sometimes even a less-than-total parting? So, yes, when we grieve, we are to remain undeceived and hopefully consoled by others.

    But how thin, exactly, is the veil which (with von Balthasar) both conceals and reveals? Of the closeness of “the cloud of witnesses” we on rare occasions might still ask how can “this” be? And the answer, again from scripture: “nothing is impossible for God” Luke 1:37).

  2. Come what may, we are all marching vigorously towards our final destination. Out here some say, it is far easier to talk to the dead than to the one’s busy on the way.

  3. While we should never seek out mediums & such to contact the dead, I think it’s also unhelpful to dismiss all after-death experiences as hallucinations. If we believe in the communion of saints, Christians shouldn’t feel bound to devise a psychological or physiological explanation for every last thing.
    While we should be very cautious about all this, God isn’t restricted to operate in a box the size of our limited understanding. He’s bigger than that.

    • In all my life I never had this type of experience, but after my sister passed, she came to me. I was always the one to say, if people had such experiences, they were grieving and the mind needs solace, etc., but she came to me and now I know. My poor sister had suffered from cancer, and we had just lost our mom not long before. I reached the end of my spiritual and psychological rope a few days after she passed. I just lost it, and felt completely empty of anything. In my terrible upset, I begged aloud for God for help. I didn’t even know what, after all, what could be done? As I said, I was completely rocked in the moment. Within a few days, my sister came to me in a dream, more real and more vivid, than I can explain. She said nothing at all, just looked more directly at me than anyone ever had in a dream. Her face was radiant, she beamed healthy and vitality. She was about 20 to 30 years old and I had forgotten she wore her hair that way. She communicated complete joy straight to me, and I knew. Then poof, a “shutter” went down and she was gone.
      She was in her 60’s when she passed, thin and wasted, as cancer is wont to do. It was a great relief to me that she had made her last confession about 4 months before passing, and had the Last Rites (yes, I know) at her hospital bedside. The last act I saw my beloved sister do was take viaticum.
      All I can say is it was and is a great consolation, God is good and he hears our painful cries. My sister suffered but kept her faith in Christ and now she is with Him, please God.
      I would not ever go contrary to the Catholic teaching on the occult, mediums, etc., not ever. I believe those things are demonic and to be strictly avoided. But my sister came to me in a dream, God allowed it. This I know.
      I have Mass said for my deceased loved ones. I enrolled them the Rorate Purgatorial Society. I ask for mercy on their souls and always have. That will not change for my sister. The teachings of Catholicism on these matters as it was understood before the modern era is comforting to those of us who have lost loved ones and we know we are going to join them.

  4. Death and Grief dynamics have been well studied, experienced, and necessarily addressed in my capacity as priest. There is here as in virtually all a happy medium. On the dark side ‘talking’ can indicate inability to realistically accept a death and can lead to excessive talking, delusion, and resort to mediums. At times in consequence the Satanic and frequently serious mental disorder. As Christians we can healthily pray for the deceased, as we must also offering Mass, say a few affectionate words, perhaps when warranted as frequently the case words of regret for the past [accepting our own weaknesses as did The Apostle] always knowledgeable that above all all is in God’s good hands. Advice. Limited prayerful ‘talk’ and realistic faith.

  5. Prayer and the lighting of a candle before Mass for my deceased loved ones along with visits to my Parish Grotto for prayer and reflection on their souls.Has given me a calmness and serenity I find it hard to find anywhere else.

  6. What I’m going to say (1) is not the official teaching of the Catholic Church or taken from her Catechism and (2) does not apply to souls who go to hell. I shall speak of souls who go to Purgatory.

    St. Faustina had a vision during her postulancy with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in which her Guardian Angel took her to Purgatory. She says, “I saw Our Lady visiting the souls in Purgatory. The souls call her ‘The Star of the Sea.’ (Sister Faustina Kolawska, Diary 20)

    There are numerous cases like that of Venerable Sister Josepha Menendez in which for each of the many souls unknown to her who humbly implored her intercession and sacrifices, she wrote down the name, date, and place of their death, data that could always be substantiated.

    “The souls were praying fervently but without effect for themselves; only we can come to their aid. I asked the souls what their greatest suffering was. They answered me in one voice that their greatest torment was longing for God.” (Sister Faustina Kolawska, Diary 20)

    God permits souls in Purgatory to appear on earth not to satisfy curiosity but because these apparitions are part of God’s plan for our salvation. These apparitions will be for the living useful teaching and for the souls a comfort. Thus the living will pray more and sacrifice themselves more for the souls in Purgatory. They help the living to think more of the moment of their death, thus prepare themselves to arrive at that moment well prepared. (Maria Simma, Interview)

    Seers cannot call souls; the souls are sent to them by God. (Maria Simma, Interview)

    Souls in Purgatory know what is happening here on earth more than we know ourselves. They know who goes to their funeral, who at the funeral prays for them, who does not pray or just chats. (Maria Simma, Interview)

    St. Louis Bertrand, a seventeenth-century priest, offered Masses, prayers, and sacrifices for his deceased father until finally he was granted a vision of his entry into Heaven. This happened only after eight years of prayer on his part.

    An incident from the life of the Italian priest Padre Pio indicates that souls in Purgatory may request our prayers. One day in the 1920s, he was praying in the choir loft when he heard a strange sound coming from the side altars of the chapel. Then there was a crash as a candelabra fell from the main altar. Padre Pio saw a figure he assumed to be a young friar. But the figure told him, “I am doing my Purgatory here. I was a student in this friary, so now I have to make amends for the errors I committed while I was here, for my lack of diligence in doing my duty in this church.” The figure said that he had been in Purgatory for sixty years, and after requesting Padre Pio’s prayers, he vanished.

    Our Lady said that the souls in Purgatory can see their loved ones during those moments when we pray for them by name. (Mirjana of Medjugorje)

    IVAN of Medjugorje speaks very little about his experiences in seeing Heaven, hell, and Purgatory. When asked about Purgatory, he shared the following:

    “The Blessed Mother told me that those who go to Purgatory are those who prayed and believed only occasionally – that they were filled with doubt, that they were not certain that God exists. They did not know how to pray while on earth, or if they did know how, they did not pray…Souls in Purgatory suffer. If no one prays for them, they suffer even more.”

    Fifteen Promises of Our Lady to those who pray the Holy Rosary, Given to St. Dominic and Blessed Alan de La Roche:

    No9: “I shall deliver from purgatory those who have been devoted to the rosary.”

    Let’s pray and pray and pray!

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