Shocked, cheeks wet with tears, thoroughly pierced with grief, I drove in the late night to my parent’s home. I tried to imagine that my younger brother’s words spoken on the phone, “Mom is gone”, did not necessarily mean that she had died.
Two hours prior, mom and I spoke by phone to plan the next day. We had a good plan. I’d pick her up and we’d go to the hospital to visit my father who was awaiting admission for a serious infection (in 84 years of life, he’d never been in a hospital). For the past few years, he was my mother’s caregiver.
My attention went to the rosary hanging from my rear-view mirror. I grabbed it and began to pray. The Holy Spirit descended upon me with understanding: my mother had died that night.
As I turned onto the familiar street where mom and dad lived for 64 years, my eyes met the glare of flashing red lights from Fire and Police Department vehicles parked in front of the home. I wedged my vehicle onto their driveway, ran past paramedics and police standing silently on the front porch, holding clipboards and filling out paperwork. Their eyes met mine; their glance sorrowful; no words were exchanged. I entered the home where I was raised from my birth to marriage; the home my mother cherished as the family home.
My father (pulled from the hospital), three younger brothers, a sister in law and young niece where in the room. My mother was on the floor, covered in a blanket. I fell to the floor and uncovered her face so that I could kiss her goodbye. She was still warm. I was comforted by her familiar maternal warmth. I stroked her 83-year-old face, now frozen in an expression of peace. From the depths of my soul, I wailed with tortuous cries of grief as my cheek rested on hers. Looking at me, my brother said, “We should pray the rosary for mom now. She’d like that.” We surrounded her lifeless body and prayed as we awaited the mortuary to remove her body.
Death visited suddenly; a heart attack. I was told that paramedics heroically tried to revive her for a long time. Another brother shared that when he found her, there was no sign of life, but he tried CPR. Mom was rarely left alone; my dad, siblings and a religious sister accompanied her and enabled her to live in the home that she filled with love.
It was the Feast of the Visitation of Mary (May 31, 2017) a liturgical feast that has great depth of meaning to me. Many good things have come to me on this Marian feast, such as receiving the letter from the Vatican that began the apostolate, “Foundation of Prayer for Priests”. This day, I had just finished an EWTN “Women of Grace” webinar on, “Spiritual Mothers: God’s Special Weapon Against Evil.” I never imagined that my foremost spiritual mother would die on this Marian feast. Rarely has a woman mastered the art of motherhood as she did for her five children, ten grandchildren, and four great grandkids.
Immediately following the webinar, mom phoned to share about my dad’s hospitalization, and we made our plans as mentioned above. She seemed happy but worried about my father. Her final words, “I’m fine. Take care of dad.”
Intellectually, I anticipated my mother’s death due to heart and lung disease. Emotionally however, nothing could prepare me for the loss. Mother suffered physically over many years but she loved life and cheerfully fought for it. God’s plan to call mom into eternal life when she was alone at home, was quite different than ours. The family understood it was mother’s gain and our loss. We were left longing for one more conversation that we all enjoyed with a mother full of wisdom.
I like to consider myself a person of deep faith. God has carried me through many tribulations. I know the Lord to be faithful, and grace, superabundant. However, I admit that as I kissed my lifeless mother good-bye, a strong and sudden temptation arose.
What if this is it; what if there is no eternal life? What if Catholic teaching is wrong about this? Faith and disbelief seemed to be working in me at the same time! It was horrifying to consider that we live a few years and then perish forever. Many non-believers and/or different faiths hold this to be true. What if my faith is a fantasy to console myself in the face of this gut-wrenching parting that is death?
Belief and disbelief persisted to dance inside my mind (the battlefield) in the days following my mother’s death. To die suddenly seemed to be a blessing; but, also cruel. That her prayer to die at home was granted was consoling; but that she died alone was not. Having recourse to the St. Ignatius discernment process helped me a great deal in this trial of faith. Lesson learned: while the death of a loved one sometimes presents a test of faith, grace triumphs. Scripture is certain, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55-57).
My mother’s funeral mass was celebrated twelve days following her death. The liturgy of Christian burial is rich in heavenly symbolism; elegant in beauty; and full of grace for the deceased and their family.
“At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of Baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting Word of God and the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 4).
In experiencing the death of my mother, our extended family and friends were indeed consoled by the Church during the three parts of Christian burial: vigil service, funeral liturgy and rite of committal. The consolation I experienced at the funeral mass was profoundly deep.
At the end of mom’s burial day, my father tenderly said to me, “Promise that you will have the same beautiful Mass offered when my death comes, please. I especially loved the Mass and the priests.” The Mass was celebrated by six priests dearly beloved of our family. As the grandchildren carried mom’s casket out of the Church, the six priests spontaneously sang “Salve Regina” to my mother. My heart soared. Many people were awe-struck.
The beauty of the liturgy with depth of meaning in each word and gesture, lifted our hearts toward Heaven. When I ceased to look only at the death and separation, I could raise my eyes to Heaven to remember God’s promises. Previous temptations to unbelief are overcome by the grace of faith that is real, not imagined.
Allow me to share the urgent prompting that I received following mother’s death—to pray and have Masses offered for her soul and for the souls in Purgatory. Not of my doing, but of the Holy Spirit, my prayer life is newly focused on praying for the Holy Souls. Please note the awesome privilege that is ours in obtaining indulgences for them. The Catechism states (1479), “Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted.”
How can we help the deceased through indulgences? Just as it is because of the Communion of Saints within the Body of Christ that the Church can grant an indulgence to someone, it is likewise because of the Communion of Saints that one person can obtain an indulgence for someone who has died to reduce his or her temporal punishment in Purgatory. We the living are not separated from the faithful departed by death and can still do things for their benefit. As Pope John Paul II has pointed out, “the truth about the communion of saints which unites believers to Christ and to one another, reveals how much each of us can help others, living or dead, to become ever more intimately united with the Father in heaven.” (http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/popular-devotional-practices-basic-questions-and-answers.cfm)
A few years ago, my mother shared that she had a dream that took away her fear of death. In the dream, she experienced that when Jesus came for her, it would be as natural as stepping out of her house, over the threshold, into His house. Rest in peace, beloved mother. Fiat!