Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Where, O death, is your victory?

I mentioned the other day that I would post more about the funeral we attended when I could gather the thoughts and tame the emotions.

I'll preface those thoughts with this one: when I first joined the ranks of Christianity, I naively thought that all my problems with death were over. I sometimes looked at other people as an alien species when they spoke with sadness of someone dying. "But that person has gone to heaven," I thought. "Shouldn't we be cheering that he's made it to the place we all want to be? Do we really believe this stuff or not?"

Of course, I was young and stupid (not as young as I sound there, though entirely as stupid -- I'm embarrassed to admit that I was 29) and I hadn't experienced much death at all. I still had my parents, all four of my grandparents, and death was still something that happened mostly to other people. I grew up, for the most part, without funerals. Then in college, my boyfriend's brother died in a terrible car accident. The whole thing seemed selfishly surreal to me: I'd been on the brink of breaking up with him, but when his brother died, of course I couldn't bring myself to do it. Dave's was the first "real" funeral that I remember, and ironically, it was in the same town to which I would later move, and in the same parish where I was eventually received into the Catholic Church.

My first truly close encounter with death was in the same sacred space in which I later embraced True Life Himself.

What I remember most about my boyfriend's brother's funeral is crying my eyes out at the waste of such a young life (two young lives -- it was a double funeral, though I'd never met the other boy who died at the hands of that drunk driver) and feeling dazed through the luncheon afterward. I didn't understand how we were supposed to eat, laugh and talk as if it were a party and everything was okay. I didn't know "how to act." And I really didn't understand all that food.

Since then, I've said good-bye to all four of my beloved grandparents. Atticus and I have seen old college friends lose their six-year-old daughter to a heartbreaking blood disease. Another old friend from college was in a car accident in which his ten-year-old daughter was critically injured and her best friend died. Last month, an old friend from church lost his adult son very suddenly due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Of course there have been other encounters as various acquaintances and relatives have passed away. We've lost several babies through miscarriage. Three months ago, we lost my husband's mother. She is the first of my children's grandparents to pass away.

Last week, when my friend (Jack) lost his father to cancer, yet another part of my history died. I still smile when I remember how Jack, Sr. used to call me "that little girl" (as in, when a girl showed up at the house to hang out with Jack his junior year of high school, his dad would page him with, "Jaaaaack! That little girl is here to see you.")

So. Death is no longer a mysterious stranger to that little girl. I've seen and felt plenty of it, thank you very much. And my children have been introduced to it at a much younger age than I was. And the things I've learned are these:

+ While death may not be a mystery to a Christian, we are weak creatures who deal with it haltingly. No matter how glorious is the new dwelling place of our friends and family, we miss them. And it hurts. And we cry. Jesus wept, too, so we're in pretty good company.

+ No matter how young children are, they are deeply affected by loss. At confession the other day, Anne's penance (assigned by our brand-new-assistant priest who had no way of knowing she could still be raw) was "to pray for all those who are recently departed." She came out of the confessional, knelt in a pew and started sobbing about her grandmother. And she and Betsy were so upset by the idea of "another funeral" that I left them with a friend when we attended Jack, Sr.'s last week.

Children feel things. They feel them deeply. And their feelings about grandmothers and funerals will get all tied up in their feelings about losing two hamsters in one year, and having lots of brothers and sisters in heaven and it will be hard to sort out exactly what's making them cry, but one thing is certain: they just need to be held. Just like we do sometimes.

+ And all that food (as everyone else already knew) = love

Death will not, does not, have the final word. In spite of our sobs and our loneliness, our trials, fears and pains, death's sting will not, in the end, win.

Because Christ has conquered death, we can say:

I will rejoice with joy in the Lord,
and my spirit shall be joyful in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me round with the mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom decked with a crown,
like a bride adorned with her jewels

~~ Isaiah 61:10


FatcatPaulanne said...

Very beautifully written!

Liz said...


I feel for Anne and Lizzie. My first real encounter with death was when my grandfather died just before I turned 11. It was followed within a couple of years with the death of an uncle in a car accident and a good friend's father of a sudden heart attack. Since my parents were older my grandparents were all dead by the time I was 21 (one grandfather died before I was born). My father died when I was 25 (so my kids started life with only 3 living grandparents too). As you know, at 57, I have officially been a total orphan for nearly two years now (since I didn't feel like a real orphan when I still had a sibling).

I wish I could tell your children that it gets easier every time. Some deaths, because they come after lingering illnesses, don't have quite the same gut wrenching shock value. There it seems like the grief begins long before the actual death happens.

I will say that being Catholic and being ABLE to pray for the dearly departed does help. I will also say that you are right that sometimes it's the cumulative effect of too many deaths in a short period of time that makes things hard.

The death of a grandparent sometimes seems like it should be less difficult for kids (simply because in the natural course of things grandparents do die before their grandchildren), but in fact, if kids are close to their grandparents, it can be a particularly difficult thing. It isn't just losing the person, it feels like you are losing a whole segment of your life. We've seen that vividly with our kids and niece and nephew (even as twenty somethings losing David's mom was difficult - and she died by inches over the course two years). The girls in particular are mourning as much their lost opportunities to know her as adults as anything else.

However, we are not as those who have no hope. We continue to praise God in the midst of tears. And hopefully there is someone to give us a hug we can feel when we're crying as well.

Sometimes penance really FEELS like penance rather than just a rote recitation of a prayer.

Pastor Alan said...

Interesting stuff.

Tim said...

Karen, I was so happy to see you at the funeral for my dad. I'm sure he appreciates you coming, I surely did.

I haven't experienced many funerals, just one for my friend's dad, so it was quite a shock to be in the middle of one. My parents shielded us kids from our grandparents' funerals, telling us they'd go across the country to represent the family. I realized in later years we were stupid not to attend.

I hope your kids aren't in too much tumult as the result of so many funerals during the past months.

The food, yes, the food was very prevalent. And very needed.

Thanks again to you and your family for coming.

Donna Marie said...

What a thought provoking post! I can relate! We just lost dh's beloved grandfather last week. I am sorry to hear about your friend's father...we will pray for the repose of his soul and his dear family!

Rebecca said...

Karen, This is a beautiful post.
Thank you for writing it.

Karen E. said...

Thanks to all of you for your kind comments.

Tim, I was so happy to see you, too, though of course wish it had been under different circumstances.

You weren't stupid re. the other funerals ... you just didn't know. I feel exactly the same way about how I handled the death of my grandfather (the first of my grandparents to go.) I would change everything about it if I could, but I really didn't know better at the time.

The kids are doing well, though yesterday we visited my mil's grave, and that was hard for them. But we're doing fine.

Love to all of you!