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How the Loss of a Loved One Is an Unexpected Gain
by David Paul Deavel
My mother died in July and I only went back to daily Mass the following February. I went on Sundays because I had to. For many months, I left the practice of reading several chapters of Scripture a day, given up only in the chaos of my mother’s funeral, undone. I gave up praying as I drove over to a nearby suburban elementary school on Saturday mornings to play basketball. I did not go very often, and when I did, the radio didn’t blare (I am too old for that); no, it simply played loudly enough to distract me—as I tried to avoid entering my own thoughts too deeply.
Even my son’s favorite new activity, identifying people in the photo album, was almost too painful for me. Seeing her holding him, so short a time ago, made me think she was there at home, waiting for me to bring him to her. Gus could even recognize “Gaa-maa Dee-full” (Grandma Deavel) when he saw her. I rest in the knowledge that he will know her face all his life, if only from pictures. But then I remember again that he will not rest his head in her lap again. He will not get books or games or cards with her name inscribed in them. He will never be restless in the car as we approach her house.
Some say that what makes grief so difficult is that it makes us aware of our own mortality. She whom I cannot imagine anything but alive died; ergo, I might die. For some people that may be true. Perhaps that is what makes some adolescents who grieve react the way they do. But grief over the death of a loved one is so severe, I suspect, not because of a future death that suddenly seems real to us, but because the death of a loved one is a small death for us here and now.
C. S. Lewis, writing of the sudden death of his good friend Charles Williams, described how strange the world was without him, how the very streets looked different. “That sense of strangeness continued with a force which sorrow itself has never quite swallowed up,” he wrote.
This experience of loss (the greatest I have yet known) was wholly unlike what I should have expected. We now verified for ourselves what so many bereaved people have reported; the ubiquitous presence of a dead man, as if he had ceased to meet us in particular places in order to meet us everywhere. It is not in the least like a haunting. It is not in the least like the bitter-sweet experiences of memory. It is vital and bracing; it is even, however the word may be misunderstood and derided, exciting.
Lewis understood his friend’s death and seeming presence in the light of our Lord’s word that unless he left them, he could not send his disciples the Comforter.
My mother’s presence is to me no less exciting. But it is perhaps expressed better by some words of the young John Henry Newman some months after the death of his beloved sister Mary.
I wish it were possible for words to put down those indefinite vague and withal subtle feelings which quite pierce the soul and make it sick. Dear Mary seems embodied in every tree and hid behind every hill. What a veil and curtain this world of sense is! Beautiful but still a veil. . . .
For months after my mother’s death, telephoning my father took on this harrowing form of excitement. He had neither changed nor fixed the answering machine so that it picked up after two rings and played through to the end the message my mother had left. Was I wrong? Could she call me again?
I was not wrong. There would be no returned calls. No matter what Lewis thought, to have her presence and her absence at one and the same time makes me feel haunted. The others do not see her, but I do. To those who did not know her, she is a “she.” To me she is a “thou.” Newman wrote of his sister Mary that:
To talk of her thus in the third person, and in all the common business and conversation of life to allude to her as now out of the way and insensible to what we are doing (as is indeed the case) is to me the most distressing circumstance perhaps attending our loss. It draws tears into my eyes to think that all at once we can only converse about her as some inanimate object, wood, or stone.
To the Newman riding alone through the countryside, his sister was present, hidden behind the beautiful veil of reality. To the public Newman, his sister was simply absent behind the conventions of grammar and the tyranny of what we call the present. My cousin Christine, reflecting on the loss of her own mother in a poem called “Song’s Fragments,” put it thus: “Now that she is dead I have no privacy from her/ and I am all private with the world/ that’s left.”
Absent & Not Present
Death alienates no one more than the ones who are left to grieve. Some people are comforted by thinking of the one they’ve lost in the third person. To them the presence and the absence are simply too painful to take together. I think this category is largely filled with widowers.
My father got rid of my mother’s clothing almost immediately after the funeral and took down the family pictures we had taken just seven months before. A friend tells of her grandfather who announced two months after his wife’s death that he had pawned her wedding ring. My uncle found himself sleeping at other friends’ houses most nights of the week for several months after his wife’s death. Many people have kept the rooms of their lost loved ones, particularly children, shut off from the rest of the house. Many who have lost children find it easier to simply not count the dead one when they are asked, “How many kids do you have?”
To treat our dead as dead and gone, absent and not present, is certainly a possibility. Those who believe that death is simply an end to human existence take this approach. As an inveterate reader of obituaries, I’ve noticed how many secular people do not even have a memorial service for their loved ones. If what those people believe is true, and our loved ones are simply rotting flesh now, their approach has some merit. Why waste our time on those who simply “are not”? Let us instead eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will be as they.
It is not a possibility for Christians. Christian belief affirms that our loved ones are not gone forever, but that they will rise again and in their flesh see the Lord and, we hope, rejoice. In other words, the story is not ended for those who died in Christian hope and for those whose faith God alone knows. Absence is not final, but only a prelude, sometimes a long prelude, but nevertheless still only a prelude to the real and full presence of our loved ones.
Yet it is perhaps too strong to say that doubts instantly arise out of death—remember that Lewis felt himself “transformed” by Williams’s death. But if there are times at which we can cry “I do believe, Lord help my unbelief,” they are amidst the death of those closest to us. Lewis himself had a much different reaction to the death of his wife, Joy Gresham, than to Williams’s.
He noticed how much grief is like fear and, although he denied it, I think that it is like fear because it involves a fear—the fear that our hope is in vain and that we will not see our loved ones again. He seemed to feel no “consolations” from the faith of others or of religious truths.
I was supremely irritated at the time by my cousin Jennifer’s warning that I would “always want to pick up the phone and call mom,” but it soon seemed to me a sort of proverb. If that were true, I realized, it was a sign that my love for my mother would not be quenched.
Thus, although I was not tormented, as others have been, by those who tried to comfort me by explaining away all my grief, something still bothered me about many of the words I heard. So many of them asserted to me, in so many words, that my mother’s troubles were all over and that she was now free of pain, free of any distress, and resting in the arms of the Lord. It was, as a number of them said, “all over now.”
That sense of finality somewhat troubled me, for the emotional truth of phrases like “she is with God” often is simply that she is not with us. Lewis wrote of the “kind people” who affirmed to him that his wife “is with God” that in one sense this was absolutely true: “She is, like God, incomprehensible and unimaginable.” But what these “with God” and “all over” comments boiled down to for me, and I think for Lewis, was that the dead are beyond the reaches of human contact and even of prayer.
Yet the urge to care for the dead is universal, and ecumenical. My cousin Christine, who does not consider herself a Christian, wrote of her childhood bike rides past the graves of her mother’s mother and father, and her mother’s brother and stillborn sister. These rides were a sort of care for the dead, not available now that she lives in a different state from her own mother’s grave:
But she is up in Michigan.
Is there no biking by her?
Father, I call up in my emergency,
ride your bike,
ride your bike past Mother!
I would annoy her if I pointed out that my uncle is not the only upper-case “Father” whom she is calling to care for her mother. But I think this economy of love is inscribed in all human nature, even that of post-Christians. The wonderful exchange of goods within the Mystical Body of Christ is not broken by death.
So Far to Go
This is a reason Catholics believe in Purgatory. Although my mother did not believe in Purgatory, she was always aware of how far she had to go to become conformed to the image of Christ. Like most Evangelicals of her age, I suppose she had a “life verse,” some line of Scripture that served as her motto. What it was I cannot recall. But the verse I remember her using most often with me was St. Paul’s warning to Timothy about those who “holding to a form of godliness deny the power thereof.”
I never took her use of this line to be directed simply at her foolish young sons. It was something she worried about for herself. When I was in a particularly foul-mouthed stage of youth, she would tell me with a straight face her shame at telling off-color jokes in her own youth. She worried about a boy from her high school who claimed after a date to have taken liberties with her. She felt that she had not denied this strongly enough and perhaps had caused a scandal. (I doubt it.) And in her later years she worried about her own very mild sarcasm and her failure to visit ailing relatives enough.
She still reflected with dread about the warning of Paul to the Romans that “each of us shall give account of himself to God” and that this judgment was “after death,” knowing that it would be an occasion of pain and humiliation. While Catholics such as I believe that this cleansing, with its glories and comforts, is carried out in Purgatory, and Protestants connect it with the Judgment Seat of Christ, none of us knows “how long” a soul takes to be forged into the gleaming steel of the saints.
But I think I saw something of it even in this life. Having seen my mother deal with her own dying, I think that her “inner man” was growing at an astonishing rate as her outer man failed. When she was so sick that we could no longer care for her in the home, we would visit her in the nursing home. Several times people would ask me if my mother was the one who always had the beautiful smile.
I also live in a different state from the tomb out of which my mother shall flourish. But in the communion of saints, time and place have different measures. I can ride past my mother anywhere and I often do. If she no longer needs my care, if the presence of the painful after-effects of sin is now at an end for her, then I ask God that she be able to care for me.
As St. Paul said, there is a still more excellent way. The presence of my mother that I felt and feel to this day was not simply the distant echo of the past or even the longing for a future that is purely yet-to-be. It is the presence of someone who is, in Christ, somehow also with us.
That presence is more real and more enduring than the passing wheels of the bicycle and the prayers whispered through the vale of tears. Christ’s first announcement was that the kingdom of heaven was in the midst of his hearers. St. Paul wrote that when he was “away from the body” he was “at home with the Lord.” The good thief was told by our Lord that “today” he would be with him in Paradise. And the author of Hebrews alerts us to the fact that we are “surrounded” by a great cloud of witnesses.
In hope I believe that my mother was everything she seemed to be and more. In hope I believe that I would better understand our separation as my absence from her, rather than the other way around. Her journey has taken her past this world of times, oceans, waiting, and telephones to the Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. She is with him in the eternity in which all times are bound up. She has attained to more reality than I can currently bear. She has finally been granted, in St. Jerome’s words, to “nakedly follow the naked Christ.”
We who mourn are, in C. S. Lewis’s terms, still in the “shadowlands” or the “Lenten-lands.” It is our presence that is truly the haunting one. I am the one for whom time seems a broken videotape, and my love, though occasionally like a “red, red rose,” seems too often just that: a flower of the field that perishes and is no more when the wind passes over it.
How are we to reckon with the death of those we love? The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes that “only victory over death is the answer, and it presupposes transcendence of both denial and acceptance—‘death consumed by victory’.” In other words, I must experience that transcendence of death in my own life. When we do, says St. Paul, we realize that “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s.”
St. Francis de Sales recounted the story of Blessed Elzear, a nobleman who had endured a long separation from his wife Delphina. When she wrote to inquire of his health, he replied that he was well, but “if you desire to see me, you must seek me in the wound in the side of our beloved Jesus, for it is there that I dwell and there that you shall find me. If you seek me elsewhere, you will seek in vain.” Only in the wounded side of Christ crucified do I find the victory over death.
When I realize this, I know that my mother is closer to me now than she was before. To die is gain, because in doing so one journeys “higher up, further in” to the center of all reality. So it is that my mother’s presence, better yet, my presence to her, was and is strongest when I am at the Eucharist. Karl Stern, a mid-twentieth-century Jewish convert who had fled Germany during the war, remembered his first Holy Communion:
Our lives—that of my wife, of my friends Albert and Victorin—had converged, and had converged with those unknown ones around us. And it was as if others were there: my parents, and Kaspar Russ, and the Kohen family, the Jews from the Canal Synagogue, and Jacques Maritain and Dorothy Day, and the pious old maids of our childhood homes. And there was no doubt about it—towards him we had been running, or from him we had been running away, but all the time he had been in the center of things.
It was in the Eucharist that Stern found the transcendence of all things and the binding up of times and places, Jew and Gentile, death and life. All things were his.
And this is what I have found so far. I said that I have returned to daily Mass (some days), to prayer, to the contemplation, between my usual distractions, of the mysteries of the Faith. And it is only in doing this that I have begun sometimes to grieve my absence from my mother and to pray more intensely for her again. It is in seeking union with Christ that I am assured of my continued union with her. It is in seeking union with him that I can see what is the real state of things, the real problem of grief: that it is not she who was absent but I.
This absence was and is partly the result of my own sinful turning away from the tree of life because I knew it was a cross. And partly it is a result of the fact that my own time, my own work that God has given me to do on this earth, is simply not done yet. I have not yet passed the vale in which my soul is being made.
Even those closest to Christ in this life feel the distance that separates us from fulfillment. The saints feel both presence and absence in ways that I can only hope to feel. In the middle of the deep ocean waters where telephones are no use they know that many waters cannot quench love, nor can they drown it.
For me true grief is the goal. C. S. Lewis wrote to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves that he suspected that at the root of his sins was something that God wanted him to feel more and not less. I suspect the same is true of grief.
To avoid grief is a fatal flaw, for in grief I experience something of the Cross myself. Something of the Christ whose laughter is not recorded but whose tears for a dead friend were given the dignity of their own line by Scripture’s versifiers: “Jesus wept.” Something of the Christ whose Spirit still groans in tones too deep for words for a world longing to be made new. As the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote:
Gold’s luster fades and steel corrodes,
Marble crumbles, All for death prepared.
Most durable on earth is grief
And eternal—the majestic word.
Earthly grief is not eternal but, if love persists, to the end of time my durable grief shall continually be transformed by the Spirit’s groanings into the love that has conquered and will conquer death once and for all.
A Final Grace
In the last month of her life, her mind ravaged by her cancer and painkillers, my mother often had a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. One afternoon she insisted that “we need to get that baby born.”
Thinking she was referring to my son Gus or my niece Lydia, we tried to comfort her by telling her that both of her grandchildren had come through all right and were there at that moment. She insisted that they were not the babies she was talking about. It was the new baby. At some point she tired of our seeming secrecy on the matter and we had nothing further to say.
In the weeks after the funeral my wife discovered that she had indeed conceived in the last month of my mother’s life. Had my mother, slipping slowly from this world to the next, developed the kind of sight not normally available to those whose bodies still groan under the weight of Adam’s sin? Had God in his mercy allowed her to see the advent of another soul to whom she would be “Grandma” forever?
These are the kinds of questions that I brooded on in the six months after her death—that I still brood on. Perhaps they will be answered in the next life. I believe they were answered in part when my second son was born on the day in which Christians learn what grief is. Patrick was born on Good Friday the next year. We took him home on Easter.
Dedicated to the memory of Karen May Sowers Deavel, 1939–2003.
David Paul Deavel , a doctoral student at Fordham University, is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture and a contributing editor of Gilbert Magazine, a magazine dedicated to the work of G. K. Chesterton.