Q: Recently, an acquaintance of mine died of cancer. He was a member of a social club to which I belong. I attended the wake in the afternoon, then went home and did nothing rather than attending a meeting at the social club. I'd known a week prior that this man was very ill and felt sad for him and sad about death in general.
I'm in my 50s. I have five grandchildren and another son who's not yet married, so I expect I'll want to be here for his children. I look forward to spending time with all the grandkids as they grow and I'm young enough that we can do enjoyable things together.
I'm having a few problems with this man's death. First, shouldn't the world "stop," or at least hesitate just for a moment when someone dies? Of course, I'm exaggerating here, but this man had a lot of influence on many people. Shouldn't we all care more? (I told my fiance to shut down the town when I die, then agreed to limit that to only my street.)
Secondly, the man's widow seemed to have a new hairstyle and enjoyed the attention she was receiving. I feel bad saying that, but it's true. She cared for her husband during five years of illness. I've never thought anything negative about her except that she enjoys attention. I admit to knowing nothing of the couple's private life and how much she must have done for him. She knew his death was coming.
Maybe I'm being childish and naive, but I haven't been affected by death much in my life. I am Catholic. — D.
A: Thank you for your reflections on life, love and death. They both reveal and conceal your kind and deep soul and your profound musings about the way we ought to react to the death of those we barely know, and the death of those we deeply love.
I hope the world stops, or your street stops, when you die (though not until you are 120). In truth, though, nothing will stop. I embrace the same wish, especially now, as my friend Father Tom Hartman grows sicker from Parkinson's disease. While I want him to be healed and returned to those of us who love him, I know that will not happen.
Still, I find it hard to pray for the death of my friend, even though I want him to be released from his fog of frequent dementia and occasional pain. On that day when God kisses Tommy on the lips and takes his breath away, I will, like you, want the world to stop and join me in mourning the death of a man possessed of such extraordinary love and gifts.
I will want the waves to cease and the birds to stop singing to mourn the passing of my friend, but the world is not like that. The world is alive, but the world does not mourn the passing of its life. That is why God made us and placed us in the world, but not of the world.
Accepting death is the hardest spiritual task God has set before us and is the most common reason people turn to God and religion.
On one level, we're just here for an instant. In the words of Psalm 90:5-6, we "are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth." Yet I join you in your outrage and grief about death, disagreeing with the Psalmist and screaming that we are not grass!
But our cries to heaven don't change the realities of human finitude here on earth. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. However, there is in us an eternal soul that is not extinguished by death. That soul lives on with God in heaven and, to your point, it lives on in the remembrances of those who admired and loved us in life — even if that admiration was only at a distance.
Your observations about the conduct of your acquaintance's widow touch on another aspect of death and grieving. We all grieve in different ways, and we must be patient and nonjudgmental in our observations of the way other people mourn. Your comments about the widow, her new hairstyle and her need for attention could have been a little more spiritually generous, as I'm sure you understand.
There is no right or wrong way to show one's grief to the world. Fountains of tears are not necessary to certify a broken heart. May God receive the soul of your friend — of all friends. Amen
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