Dear Good People of Saint Bernadette,
As a priest, we are pretty familiar with the experience of being with families in the process of a loved one dying. Often times it is up to us to help people make sense of it. Let faith be our consolation and eternal life our hope. It has been my impression that more often than not people don't actually confront the concept of death head on and name it. As we learn in philosophy, when you may not be able to define what something is, it is often easier to say what it is not.
We know death is not an end. We know, too, that the relationships continue. We can actively recall moments so real that they call a person into our presence. We can use their words and actions to keep their memory alive. Even that expression "memory alive" is one that could use considerable reflection.
It is really the stuff that is no more. Sure, there is the antique china cabinet with three generations of Christmas and Easter dishes and crystal. It might find a good home. There are the mementos which fondly recall a favorite devotion or hobby of the Deceased. There is the closet of clothes you don't know what to do with. The furniture that goes to storage for a while. These are the things that can distract us from what has really happened.
I used to resist using the word "passed" instead of "died," because it seemed to me to be a euphemism for something very serious. As I grow older, however, I consider it much more appropriate. Death isn't an end at all, it is a passage. A passover, thanks to the new Passover/Paschal Lamb at the last supper, as the Israelites crouched, eating a quick dinner, ready to run for it. For freedom, for new life, for passage through the waters of the sea, into the promised land. As I sat with my mom throughout the night before she died, as her breathing became more and more labored, as she seemed to be growing weaker (if that was even possible), I would say to her: "Mom, if you see Jesus, don't worry about us, we're fine. Just run to him!" My brother Bob said something similar as he held her and we watched her take her last breath of earth air.
I found myself having these conversations with myself over the last couple of weeks as my brothers and I came to terms with the reality that our Mom's situation wasn't going to improve or even be sustainable any longer. What were we trying to prevent from happening? She had slogged her way through dialysis for four years and it wasn't working any more. It was time, well past the time when her mind could keep up with her body.
As we stood in the line near the casket, over and over, we heard, "I'm sorry for your loss." After a while I was able to say that I didn't see it as a loss at all. We were made for that
, not this. There has to be a way to get there
. Certainly, we will miss her for a while. We will miss her deep goodness, hers and Dad's, and we will miss the good things that they did for us and for their community. Their example of a faith that did not waver even in a Kansas tornado of difficulty, the way they genuinely cared for people who had need.
I remember my parents' 25th anniversary of marriage, they ultimately had 27 anniversaries more. But they seemed so old already to me at that point in their lives. I realize now that they would have been six years younger than I am.
At this point in my mom's life she was the last of her generation. A great generation, children of those who experienced first-hand what it meant to leave a homeland and come to a new place. But she was always surrounded by family and people who formed her as we were formed by them. So many people who came to the Vigil at the church, and the little church in Wea, Kansas was full for the funeral.
Now this weekend I imagine (now, because I am writing still early in the week), the dynamic will be the same, surrounded by family (and I don't mean biological, in this case), those who have formed me by their 25 years of loving service who continue to teach me to be a loving servant. I believe we are here, like those Israelites who ate that first passover in haste, people with staff in hand, at the block, ready to run like the wind together as a people to God. We value and recognize our goodness in each other: a priest is only as good as his people, his people as good as he is. Of course, it is Christ himself we see there. I thank God for these years and hope for more with you.
God bless you.