It is fitting that my daughter came to me on a dark November night. It is the month the Church remembers the dead and prays ardently for the poor souls in Purgatory. The days are cold while the trees shake off the last remnants of autumnal glory to enter into the silent deep of winter. November here is always gray, almost maddeningly so. It seems strange to go from the mountains set aflame with the burning colors of October to end up gray and stark in November. In this time of year the Church and the natural cycle of the seasons invite us to enter into the quiet, dark, and hidden places. This time of year naturally lends itself to the contemplation of mortality and death.
My daughter came and sat on my lap two nights ago and began to sob. Like every other November evening, it was pitch black at dinner time and I was sitting on the couch when she came to me. She nestled close to my heart as I wrapped my arms around her trying to understand what was wrong. She finally sat up looked at me and through sobs she blurted out: “I don’t want to die.” I think every parent feels a dagger to the heart when their child comes to them about death, even those of us who are Catholic. It is true that we are a Resurrection people, but like anyone else, we must confront the reality of death.
Death is something that our culture ignores on the surface, but is obsessed with underneath. It is apparent through our country’s “sacred calf” of abortion and the ever-increasing calls for the elderly, handicapped, depressed, and any other “useless” persons to end their own life with “dignity”. We attempt to ignore it in our daily lives by focusing on material comforts and a false sense of control over our bodies. We hide the elderly away and we bury people in lonely cemeteries, which are seldom visited; except by the occasional grieving family member or the “strange” Catholic praying Rosaries for the dead in November.
My daughter has had to confront the hard realities of death at 6 years of age. Death—even violent death—is a reality for many cultures, but we are largely insulated here in the West; although, a cursory reading of the latest headlines makes us wonder how long that will be the case. It is in watching her father suffer from a rare and dangerous illness that she has been led to confront death face-to-face. We spent this past summer planning for the worst. Thanks be to God my husband did not die and is doing much better now. Regardless, she now sees the realities of death. She has entered into the existential struggle that we all face when confronted with the fact that we will die one day.
I told her our hope is in Jesus and the Resurrection at the end of time. We talked of the joy and bliss of being in Heaven with the Blessed Trinity, but I know that she has to work her way through this hard truth. We were not made for death. It goes against our human nature to die. It is a result of the Fall. We rebel against death and shrink in the face of its horror. That is why we ignore it so much. Death is a fear we must confront. For some of us this confrontation comes at a very young age when reason is still fresh, new, and developing. She has seen her father suffer and she has seen the tears streaming down my face and heard the sobs coming from my wounded heart at the prospect of losing my husband. She’s lost four siblings to miscarriage. She’s experienced the pain of death in those losses and in the fear of losing her father. She knows death comes with suffering, pain and separation, and she quite naturally wants no to part of it.
Motherhood—and fatherhood—has a way of peeling back layer upon layer within ourselves. We too are forced to confront the hard realities of life with our children. No parent wants to contemplate the untimely death of their child and no child wants to contemplate the death of their parents or their own death, but we must nonetheless. As her mother, I know that she needs to know my great love for her, for God, and to see the vulnerability of what it means to be human. That night, I held her close and told her I understood why she doesn’t want to die, because I do understand.
I want to enter into communion with the Blessed Trinity forever in Heaven, but I too must take the voyage that can only come after the death of this body; a body I have known my entire life. It will be given back to me in the Resurrection at the end of time in its new glorified state, but death is the ultimate self-emptying. It is to leave this life and commend ourselves to God’s mercy and justice.
It can be easy in a culture like ours to avoid such discussions or falsely tell our children not to worry about death. This isn’t the Catholic understanding of death. This life is a long—or short—preparation for death and our entry into eternity, whether it be cleansing in Purgatory, the immediate saintliness of Heaven, or the damnation of Hell. We are sojourners here on earth and our ultimate journey begins at our death.
In order to help our children confront the pain of death, we must be willing to enter into their existential grief and pain at the prospect of their own death or the death of a loved one. This means confronting our own fears about death and asking God to give us the courage and peace only He can provide. My daughter has been living this struggle since the first morning my husband coughed up blood in the bathroom sink months ago. She now wonders when the next hospital visit will occur, and even though my husband’s disease is well controlled at present, she still fears the worst when I have to run her next door to our friends’ house so I can race him to the Emergency Room when his symptoms worsen. She also wonders why all four of her siblings had to die; an answer I cannot give her and a question that I struggle with myself.
The day before my daughter came to me with her struggles about death, I read a quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in an article at Dappled Things that explains why suffering is necessary in this life:
Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love—this exodus, this going out of oneself—is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.
To love is to suffer. It is to relinquish ourselves for the good of another. It is in entering into suffering that we can come to accept it as God’s means of our sanctification. It leads us to say along with Job: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21)!” Through my daughter’s grappling with death, I too may enter into her sufferings, but also my own. We can walk together in confronting the reality of death, but remain steadfast in hope.
During this month of November, let us enter more meditatively into the reality of death and prepare ourselves to wait in joyful hope at Advent. We must pray fervently for the poor souls in Purgatory and those who are dying. It is our Christian duty to pray for the dead. We must remember that one day soon we too will rely on the prayers of the Church Militant when our sojourn ends here and begins in eternity.