Recently, a friend just lost her mom. Another acquaintance went to deliver her full-term little girl, but the baby came out without a heartbeat and couldn’t be brought back.
We’re not made for this kind of sorrow. Literally, we’re not made for it.
God didn’t create us for the pain of death, which is why it seems so unnatural, even when it comes to the elderly. Even when we’ve gotten used to it after months of pandemic. Losing a loved one never quite feels real, even after we’ve watched the coffin lowered into the ground and packed the belongings off to Goodwill.
That interior resistance to death is a sign that we’re made for life that doesn’t end. But in the meantime, death is part of the life we have.
As Christians, though, we have to be careful that we’re not becoming “of the world” when it comes to death, mindful of John’s exhortation that, while we have no choice but to be in the world, we mustn’t ever be of it.
The saints are sure guides in this.
One day, I was reading through a description of a whole family clan of saints, written by Meg Hunter-Kilmer. I find this group inspiring because there is no goal more worthy than not only reaching sanctity myself, but also taking my kids along with me. That’s what Emilia, Macrina, Basil, Gregory, Peter, etc., did, until there were about a dozen among them (counting family and close friends) recognized by the Church for their heroic holiness.
But in reading their story, one line really struck me: The article described how St. Emilia was understandably upset when her son, another saint, died at the young age of 27. Her daughter, Macrina — also a saint– chided Emilia for her desperate sorrow, saying, “It is not right for a Christian to mourn as one who has no hope.”
Macrina is quoting St. Paul, though I didn’t recognize that at the time. Her advice seemed jarring, too harsh given the situation.
Meeting death face-to-face
Four months after I first read that article, my mom died.
She had Parkinson’s and was already in her 80s. Still, her death was unexpected, especially as it came about from a condition totally unrelated to her Parkinson’s. She had lived with us for eight beautiful years, and none of my kids had ever celebrated a birthday without her. One autumn, we found she needed a simple surgery, but the night before, 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” — is precisely why St. Macrina told St. Emilia that a Christian shouldn’t mourn the way that others do. Because we know what others do not: that 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!
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.
We send cards or leave messages that say things like:
Gone but never forgotten.
Always alive in our memories. Always alive in our hearts.
Gone from our sight but never from our hearts.
Ever present in the sunset and bird song (or butterflies, etc).
And as we go on with life and big events, we fall into language like this: 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. Those sentiments assuring that “she would have been” should actually affirm “she IS.”
Because what do we believe? Have a look at some of these phrases from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“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” (CCC, No. 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” (No. 956).
“Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (No. 958).
“The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom … constantly care for those whom they have left on earth” (No. 2683).
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.
Pope Francis said it another way just a few months ago, at the general audience of April 7: “There is a mysterious solidarity in Christ between those who have already passed to the other life and we pilgrims in this one: Our deceased loved ones continue to take care of us from heaven. They pray for us, and we pray for them and we pray with them” (emphasis mine).
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.
But so much of the grief of death is linked to more than physical presence and absence. Often, it’s linked to our regrets. If only I would have said that. If only I would have asked that. 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 Instagram 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 (cf. Heb 6:19-20).
Mourning with hope
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 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.
Of course we have to mourn. Our human hearts and the grief they experience are part of who we are created to be. God took a human heart, and with that human heart, he himself mourned. He wept at Lazarus’ tomb!
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. Hunter-Kilmer writes 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.
Kathleen N. Hattrup is an editor at Aleteia.org.