My mother died on March 18, the vigil of the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of a happy death. Her death was not unexpected. She had suffered from Parkinsons for many years; and then, last summer, she was in a terrible car accident. The last six months of her life were spent in a hospital and a nursing home; and while modern medicine has certainly conquered issues of pain management, her life was not what it had been. After the accident, she never ate any real food again; she never spoke, although she could nod her head yes and no; and she was reliant upon nurses to change her. I was not surprised when she died, but I was still devastated. As I had been told by many, you are never really ready for the end.
What did surprise me were the things I was told after my mother died. People with the best of intentions, never sure of what to say, try their best to say something they think will be comforting or healing or therapeutic. Their efforts, however, unfailingly amounted to an invitation to avert my gaze from what had just happened and from the brute fact that my heart was suffering.
Remember the happy memories. Well, I could remember the happy times we shared when she was still breathing, thank you very much. And I do not want to remember only the happy memories. I want to remember it all. I want to think that in the first few days after the accident, when she seemed closer to death than life, she knew I was at her bedside and that my presence gave her strength. I want to remember the times she cried over the occasional cruelties life threw her way. I want to remember sharing her sadness the day her brother died five years earlier. Those moments of difficulty, and the love shared in them, are to be cherished as much as any happy moments.
At least her suffering is over. My mother had her share of sufferings in this life and I am sure that her so-called quality of life was not the best during her last six months. But she smiled when I visited her every morning and evening. She clutched my hand when I sat on the floor by her bed and prayed the Hail Mary or watched a rerun of Law & Order with her. She was not able to say the words of the prayer, and I am sure she was not following the plot on the television show, but I like to think that she knew that these things we had done together all our lives were still important to us both.
The most frequent advice I received was to celebrate her life, dont mourn her death. This smacks of simple denial. In the face of death, especially when the wound is fresh, the key fact about her life is its absence. The phrase A Celebration of the Life of has come to adorn funeral programs. Perhaps my faith was insufficient to the moment, or I was too selfish to simply let go of my grief. My heart felt closer to these words of Augustines (Conf., Bk. IV) when the dear friend of his youth died:
My heart grew somber with grief, and wherever I looked I saw only death. My own country became a torment and my own home a grotesque abode of misery. I hated all the places we had known together, because he was not in them and they could no longer whisper to me Here he comes! as they would have done had he been alive but absent for a while. Tears alone were sweet to me, for in my hearts desire they had taken the place of my friend.
This sense of desolation cannot find comfort in a celebratory mood, not so soon anyway.
All of these sayings were meant to be comforting, even though they only stoked my sense of grief, adding a sense of incomprehension to the already bewildering emotions swirling through my heart at rapid speed. They were well intended, of course, and I received them as such, thanking the persons saying them for their kind remembrance of my mother. Inside, my heart was aching.
The sympathy cards we received all carried similar niceties, invitations to think of something other than what had just happened, euphemisms. You will search in vain for a Hallmark sympathy card that even mentions the words death or died. Yet that is what happened. This person upon whom I relied for my own sense of well-being and happiness and, indeed, for my own existence, this wonderful person died. The relationship that shaped so much of my own beliefs, my own opinions, my own life, was brought to a final, utterly final, conclusion. She had crossed the abyss and I have not. Amid all the different and depressive feelings that beclouded my heart, the most insistent of them was this: I felt horribly alone.
A few years ago, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete wrote a brilliant essay on the industry of grief counseling. He noted that grief counselors are attuned to the psychological and physical effects of grief. They seek to help a person confront grief and move beyond it. But, as the Monsignor wrote, [t]he roots of grief arise from a wound deeper than the psychological or the cultural. It is at that level in ourselves where we decide what we can or cannot expect of life, what is just or unjust, what is the purpose and value of our existence. To the degree that grief counseling ever ignores those questions, it does not deal with grief; it leads us to suppress it. The church cannot answer the enigma of death, but it can and does lead us to the realization in faith that death is not a wall but a door. It is a door that only the eyes of faith can discern and open.
What mattered most to me in the days after my mothers death was the presence of others who loved her, or loved me, or loved us both. A dear priest friend said to me: There are no words I can offer. I am just here to be with you, to be in solidarity with you in your suffering. That was truly comforting. It was not the message on the sympathy cards that helped, it was the fact of the sympathy cards. I cannot remember a single thing that was said to me by the 207 people who signed the guest book at my mothers wake, but I was grateful that so many came to show their respect to her. They did not need to say anything: their presence said all I needed.
On the afternoon my mother died, I called the bishop, whom I had asked previously to celebrate her funeral Mass, to see what date would work for him. He said, I can check my calendar now, but Michael, this is the worst day of your life. We can do the planning tomorrow if you would prefer. That, too, was comforting. Amid the myriad things to be arranged (it is more appropriate than I knew that we call these things the arrangements), it is too easy to stay in caregiver mode, too easy to be busy. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was the most horrible day of my life, but I needed someone to tell me that.
In the planning of the funeral, the bizarre suggestion was made that we videotape the Mass. It came from a relative whose son makes videos. This same son had approached me at a family reunion in the days immediately after the accident with the cheerfully delivered news that he had rushed to the accident scene and taken pictures, which he had brought for me to see. It had not occurred to him that such pictures would be the last thing I would want to see. Like the tourists crowded in front of da Vincis Mona Lisa or Michelangelos Pietà, never really looking at the art itself because they are so busy trying to photograph it, I found the suggestion of videotaping the funeral Mass vulgar.
What is it about a camera, and the vicariousness it implies, that we moderns need to put one between ourselves and reality? Why do we need niceties and euphemisms to separate us from the actuality of our grief? In those horrible days, only the church and her ministers did not ask me to avert my gaze from my grief, or from my mothers suffering, but to see in that suffering the redemptive power of love. The very familiarity of the funeral Mass, which is little different from any other Mass, pointed my heart in the direction it needed to go. There, in the sacrifice of the Mass, grief finds its place, its meaning, its human worth.
All of these thoughts came back to me in the days following the massacre at Virginia Tech. The invocations of community rang empty. The chant Lets Go Hokies was chilling. Within 24 hours, the implications of the tragedy for gun legislation were being debated on the airwaves. The grief counselors, we were assured, were being deployed. The round-the-clock voyeurism of the media, the fascination with the grisly details, the cruel expectation of interviewers that those who had just survived this horrific trauma should be expected to give voice to their feelings, all displayed how what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death has infected the culture of death without quotation marks. The media frenzy was exploitative, inhumane.
I recalled President Bushs visit to ground zero in New York City four days after 9/11, when the crowd erupted in chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! as if it were a hockey game, when in fact the president was at that moment standing upon the rubble of a human crematorium. Sadness, we were told in the wake of 9/11 and after the killings in Virginia, is a normal feeling. But sadness in the face of loss is not only normal, but appropriate. It is appropriate to sit with sadness, not to rush onward to feelings of community pride or national pride or happy memories of those we have lost.
These days I like to sit with my sadness at Mass. Only there can I truly be united with my mother. For the fact is that I want my mother back. I want my mother to live forever. And it is only at Mass that this wish of mine finds itself unfrustrated. Because my mother was a loyal daughter of the church, who intended to raise her children in the faith, I came to Christ in the catechumenate of the womb. Under her tutelage, I learned my prayers. By her example, and by her teaching, I came to believe that my desire to live forever with those I love is not a fantasy born of my psychological desires but the only guarantee of my remaining humane. Our yearnings anticipate landfall, said Augustine.
At Mass, I feel my mother both close to me and at rest in that home prepared for her before the foundation of the world. It is at Mass that the abyss that separates us is obliterated by the death of death and Hells destruction, who is Jesus Christ, crucified yet risen. At Mass, and only there, can I discern in my grief the grace of a happy death.