It is a human experience that can change us forever.
I have accompanied some significant persons in my life from illness to death, some of them close relatives, most being my own religious Sisters in the Cluny Congregation. Some have died suddenly, with little warning, leaving us wishing we had had more time to say goodbye and to tell them how much we loved and appreciated them. Others died peacefully in old age, having lived well past their “three score and 10 years”, and after having lived inspiring lives of deep faith and good works. “As someone lives, so they die.”
Another with great promise and talent died too young, too soon. Her short phone call to me from overseas stated simply: “The doctors have diagnosed that I am suffering from cancer of the liver, and I have about four months to live.”
This moment is one that is marked indelibly in my mind and heart, with its pain, and loss accompanied by my own inability to respond adequately. What exactly can one say in such a moment? An assurance of love, accompanying support and prayer. And then the question we ask ourselves: Why?
Those of us who have had the great privilege of accompanying our loved ones from illness through to their final rest know the grief, the sense of loss, the conviction that “life would never be the same again” for us, that accompanies this letting go.
We are not the same again because something within us dies as well, and as a result, we are transformed by this experience to become something more than what we were before. Our horizon and way of seeing the world and ourselves within it is tempered and expanded and takes on a whole new meaning.
And even in those times when we have felt very much alone, and fearful, we have also found hope, strength and courage welling up within us from a source we did not know we had, and which we may not have acknowledged and named as the Divine Reality in “whom we live, and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) We are held, and we are loved and we live on.
This dying and letting go also brings its own kind of freedom: the freedom which enables us to see more clearly and to prioritise our lives again as to what is most important: love and time for family and significant others, forgiveness and reconciliation in relationships where needed, a desire to give ourselves more to our community in loving service, and for those who are open to faith, to make God and God’s will for us truly the centre of our lives even more than ever before.
Each person has his or her own responses to the whole mystery of loss, suffering and death and they can vary according to the personalities and circumstances of each. However, something of what I have shared above may resonate with the life experience of some who know what it is like to lose someone they love.
For the Christian, the most powerful act of love and of redemptive suffering, leading to the resurrection, is that of Jesus Christ, Son of God, who was crucified and who died on Calvary.
The effect of that suffering and death and resurrection has reverberated down the ages, throughout the world for over 2000 years. It has given to many, expectant hope and a whole new meaning to the mystery of suffering.
Great love was there even for the persecutors: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) and so was loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Ps 22:1). There was also empathy and compassion for a repentant thief and a fellow sufferer: “This day, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:34). And finally, quoting from the Psalms, Jesus put his complete trust in God, and surrendered himself: “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46, Ps 31:5).
From this self-emptying and humility on the cross, Jesus is raised to glory and in the words of St Paul: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:7-11)
Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith and is often referred to as “The Paschal Mystery” or “The Easter Mystery.” It is through his death, that Jesus restored life to all who would accept it.
Our own lives, like the whole cycle of nature in its various seasons, also follow this pattern of loss, death and eventually new life, long before our own physical death. Nobody, I think, wants to lose what they hold most dear, be it a loved one, an important relationship, a dream, one’s comfort zone, one’s very life.
However, life teaches us that in time, even our loss and grief can bring about a tremendous growth, and transformation in us which would never have occurred through any other way.
A person who has known the sorrow and pain of loss can become more compassionate and kind, able to empathise with others who suffer. Families who are brought together to mourn the loss of a loved one can discover a tremendous joy, unity and affection which they might not have experienced otherwise.
Nevertheless, faced with loss, grief and death, and confronted by our own mortality, some of us might ask: “Where is God in all this?”
Those with faith will answer: “God, in Jesus, has always been in the midst of our life, sharing in our sorrows, and giving us hope and courage where we need it. Beyond our physical death, Jesus’ words to Martha applies equally to all: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (Jn 11:25-26)
My mother is 96 years old and she is lucid, wise, and philosophical. She also has deep faith in God. In our conversations, she often asks: “What is the meaning of life? Why are we born at all? Why do we start out in life so young and so full of energy and excitement, only to end up with an old body with its aches and pains? Why did God create us at all?”
Then she answers her own questions. “Oh well, God knows what is best. After all, we don’t remember where we came from, do we? We came from God and we return to God. Let us therefore leave it all in His hands.”
Trust, hope and surrendering one’s life to God in all circumstances here and hereafter, is her answer to her own questions.
The loss of a loved one can bring grief and pain in equal measure to the love we had for the person. It is a human experience that can change us forever. The choice of what that change might be, remains as always, the responsibility of each person to make.
Sr Elizabeth Browne-Russell sjc
St Joseph of Cluny Convent.