One day, I was reading through an article from the very talented Meg Hunter-Kilmer about a whole family-clan of saints. The writing is Meg’s characteristically beautiful and profound prose, making the saints seem like friends next door.
But one line really struck me: Meg describes how St. Emilia was understandably upset when her son, another saint, died at the young age of 27. Her daughter Macrina — yet another saint from this family — chided Emilia for her desperate sorrow, saying, “it is not right for a Christian to mourn as one who has no hope.”
As a mom, those words jarred me. I scrolled past them, chalking them up to the spirituality of the olden days, something that the Church has evolved past, and advice that no pastor — even a saintly one — would give today.
Unexpected and Shocking
Then, four months after I read that article, my mom died.
She had Parkinson’s and was already in her 80s. Still, her death was unexpected and shocking. She had lived with us for eight beautiful years. None of my kids had ever celebrated a birthday without her. And her death came about by a condition totally unrelated to her Parkinson’s. She got a block in her small intestine one day, something which should have and could have passed on its own. And rather than showing up to her appointment for the laparoscopic surgery scheduled for the next morning to clear the blockage, her heart stopped, and stopped again, and stopped again … until we finally had to let her go.
In the midst of my grief, and all the accompanying emotions that come with it — the guilt, the self-doubt, the regret — one line of condolences from a priest friend became my anchor.
This is where our faith can lift us. We know that death does not have the last word. Death doesn’t even separate us at the deepest level. You can still pray for Mom and she can pray for you. You can still be a loving daughter, and she a loving mom.
That last bit — “You can still be a loving daughter and she a loving mom” — that is precisely why St. Macrina told St. Emilia that a Christian shouldn’t mourn the way that others do. Because death is not a separation, or not truly one. She’s still my mom! She’s still mothering me! And I’m still her daughter!
A Christian Understanding of Death
The world tries to console us at the death of our loved ones, and even we try to console each other, with platitudes that are SO MUCH LESS than the Christian understanding of death and heaven, salvation and hope.
Gone but never forgotten.
Always present in our memories
Gone from our sight but never from our hearts.
And as we go on with life and big events:
She would have been so proud, happy, delighted, etc
Sure, they are nice words of condolence. But they don’t come anywhere close to what we Christians believe. And consequently they are barely a pale reflection of how we should live when a loved one has died. That “she would have been” can be “she IS.”
Because what do we believe? Have a look at some of these phrases from the Catechism:
So it is that the union of the wayfarers with the brethren who sleep in the peace of Christ is in no way interrupted, but on the contrary … this union is reinforced by an exchange of spiritual goods. (955)
By their fraternal concern is our weakness greatly helped. St. Dominic said: Do not weep, for I shall be more useful to you after my death and I shall help you then more effectively than during my life. (956)
Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective. (958)
All of this is what my priest-friend summarized with that more homey sounding phrase about still being a loving daughter, and her being still a loving mom.
In death, we miss the hugs, the sounds of their voices, the smells, the warmth, the giggles. Yes, those things are gone for a while.
Beyond Physical Presence
But so much of the grief of death is linked to more than physical presence and absence. It’s linked to our regrets. Oh, if only I would have said that. Oh if only I would have asked that. Oh if only I wouldn’t have done that.
Those regrets are predicated on the idea that the relationship has ceased. That it is no longer possible to say or hear or interact.
But if our union with those who sleep in Christ is in no way interrupted, then what stops us from saying, “Oh Dad, I’m sorry that I didn’t pick up the phone that day. But whisper in my heart what you wanted to say.”
“Mom, I’m sorry that I scrolled through Facebook so many evenings, instead of sitting down to talk with you. Can we talk now? Go ahead and help me to learn what you always tried to teach me.”
And on and on and on … as we grow and mature and suffer … as years pass … right up until we’re reunited beyond the veil.
As Christians, we have to take life in such a way that those around us can tell we’re in but not of the world. “See how they love one another” was the first descriptor the world used for us.
We also have to take death in such a way that those around us can tell we’re in and not of the world.
Mourning with Hope
Of course we have to mourn. Our human hearts and the grief they experience are part of who we are created to be.
And God, let us remember, is the one who hates death more than anyone else. That’s why he obliterates it with the Resurrection — both his, and ours at the end of time. He didn’t create death; sin brought it about.
But St. Macrina was right. Meg Hunter-Kilmer says that at her prompting, St. Emilia “fixed her eyes on Christ once more and carried on.”
We shouldn’t mourn as people without hope. We should mourn as Christians. As people who realize we’re still daughters, and sons, and moms and dads, and sisters and brothers to those who have gone before us.
We should mourn as people who allow our faith to lift us. Who know that death does not have the last word. Who realize that death doesn’t even separate us at the deepest level.