10/26/2013 12:57:00 PM Focusing on the present moment
Catholic News Service
An American flag sits on a gravestone topped by an angel figure Oct. 19 at Allouez Catholic Cemetery in Allouez, Wis. All Souls' Day, a day to remember all of the faithful departed, is Nov. 2.
Death can be the end of a long journey of pain and suffering, or it can be a shockingly short sprint to the end. No matter how long or short the journey, the central theme is certainly grief and loss.
How do we as Catholics, as a people of faith, deal with the process if, indeed, we have time to see it as a process. Those who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses have, in some ways, been given a gift to prepare to meet their God. Others, whose deaths are sudden and, because of that, unable to prepare for their final day, rely on how they lived their lives as their ticket to heaven.
This fall, I seem to be spending more time with death: the death of someone I knew casually or the death of a pastor in our diocese. The pastor was well-known to be conscious of his health: swimming, speed walking, watching what he ate. About two months ago, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Instead of enduring months of treatment, he died on a Monday morning.
It's a great way to change your address from temporal to celestial, if you're the one making the move. However, for those still charting these temporal waters, it's more than a shock. It's devastating.
For those we know casually or intimately, part of saying goodbye is telling the stories, choosing snippets of people's lives that intersected with our own, sometimes offering a reflection of the personal humor or determination or courage of the person who has died.
It says to those of us left to ponder that this person's life was filled with meaning on many levels. This was a person who didn't just touch my life but made a difference in the lives of so many others, even people I didn't know at all.
We often hear that we must celebrate the life of the one who died, no matter how old or, tragically, how young the person was. For parents of children who die, this must be agonizing. I can't imagine burying a child who might have cared for me in my old age. Hopefully, I will never know this pain. Others do.
A wake and a funeral liturgy can be a way of celebrating with the pictures, the mementos, the memories shared and the readings and music shared during a liturgy. I find myself listening more carefully to readings at a funeral liturgy, to better "see" the person being celebrated.
It turns out, in every instance I can recall, that each person was far more than I ever imagined, lived a wonderful, sometimes heroic life, and that I came to know that person more intimately only after he or she died.
That, to me, is a tragic loss on my part. It makes me ever more determined not to waste whatever time I have in failing to take an extra moment with someone, to listen without letting my mind wander or wonder when I can get away to do something else.
Being present is especially important to children who may be telling me something most profound, to teenagers who may be trying to give me a glimpse of their real selves, to an elder who needs someone to pay attention to wisdom being shared.
In short, I need to focus on this present moment with the person in front of me because the opportunity may not come again.
I often think of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known world wide as the author of "On Death and Dying." In her book, "The Wheel of Life," she describes death: "I always say that death can be one of the greatest experiences ever. If you live each day of your life right, then you have nothing to fear."
If I believe her, I have a lot of catching up to do to get my life "right."
The writer is editor of The Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill.