US Catholic Faith in Real Life

How do we deal with death?

By Mary Smalara Collins | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Someone to watch over me

Marie Allen, of Charleston, South Carolina lost her husband when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack only a few months after their wedding. "That next morning, around 5 a.m., I remember sitting on my bed and thinking that surely this was all a dream, and when the light of day came, it would all be back to normal. I was just full of despair, when suddenly I felt my husband's presence very strongly telling me he was okay and that I would be, too. A peace washed over me. No, the grief wasn't gone, but I could bear it."

Although it has been many years since Allen's husband died, she still talks to him every day. "I am given the knowledge that he is alive in heaven, and many times I even receive little signs that would mean nothing to anyone else but to me are a confirmation that he is taking care of me, hearing me, and that we will be together again."



The connection continues

Most people have some sense of their loved ones who have died, says Marguerite Main, a pastoral associate and facilitator of a grief support group at St. Louise Church in Bellevue, Washington.

"So many of the people I talk to wonder how anyone can deal with grief without a belief in God and the afterlife," says Main. "They really benefit from being in a church support group where they can talk about their experiences without anyone thinking they are crazy.

"Most of the people in our groups say they talk with their loved ones often, and will ask their help in times of need. For instance, if they lose something important, they'll ask the person they love to help them find it, and they will. Or if a spouse has died, and the one left is dealing with teenaged children, then they'll really plead: 'Help—you've got to get me through this!'

"Sometimes the grieving person will feel extremely lonely, especially alone at night, and they tell me then that they will often be comforted with a strong sense that their loved one is close by."

In her work with candidates preparing to enter the Catholic Church, Main has found many who question the idea of praying to the saints. ''They want to know why we do it, so we ask them if they have ever lost someone and felt their presence and talked to them. Usually they say, 'Of course,' and we explain that it's basically the same thing on a larger scale.''

Main herself felt the presence of her father when he died. ''His funeral was in Florida, and I couldn't be there,'' she says. ''So at the time of his service, I went into our church here, and I felt him so near me; more, I'm sure, than if I had been at the funeral. I still feel such closeness—we can communicate now without the need for phone or letters.'' Main also experiences a special relationship with her deceased mother.

Not everyone in Main's groups has experienced such a closeness, however, and sometimes they find that distressing. ''While the majority of people I talk with do feel some sense that their loved ones are near, there are a few who don't and that can bother them. We tell them to relax—usually it will come."



Misread messages from beyond

''When my father died, I waited and waited. I was so sure he would give me some sort of sign that he was alive in heaven and caring for me,'' remembers Ann Murdock, a teacher, mother, and wife living in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area.

"Nothing supernatural happened until one day, years after his death, when his broken wristwatch, which I kept in my bedroom, began to ring a quiet alarm that lasted a few minutes. It was strange and muted—the sound actually came from around the watch, not really in it. This happened for several days at the same time each day. We couldn't figure out what it meant, what message he was trying to send us.

"Then one day we finally realized that the alarm clock in the little-used attic office just above my bedroom had been set and was going off each day, and that's what we were hearing." Murdock laughs at the memory now, "Obviously, I was really looking for something that just wasn't meant to happen in my life."

Today she is comforted by the deep sense that her father is caring for her, praying for her and her family, and that she will see him again. ''I ask him to take care of special needs, and I know he asks God to help us. I also have his rosary and feel him very close to me when I hold it and pray.''



In the blink of an eye

The belief that there is an afterlife is often the only comfort available when staring death in the face, especially the death of one's child. The Cole family of Redmond, Washington had to face that three years ago when their daughter, Jessica, died at the age of 8 from a rare form of cancer.

The night before Jessica died, recalls her mother Joyce Cole, "I told my husband Matt that I just had to grab a few hours of sleep, so he sat with Jessica. In the course of the night, she told him, 'Daddy, Jesus just came to me and told me I am going to die tomorrow.'

"'What do you mean? You must have dreamed it,''' my husband told her—you see, we hadn't told Jessica how close she was to dying."

But Jessica insisted, says Cole. "'Daddy, it wasn't a dream. Jesus came to me and told me I'm going to heaven tomorrow.'

''When I woke up, I asked her about it, and she said, 'Jesus said I'm going to die tomorrow and that it would be okay.' She got really mad at me because I had never lied to her; she needed me to tell her the truth now so she could prepare herself emotionally.''

Shortly after midnight, Jessica, who hadn't talked for six or seven hours, suddenly reached up her arms and called for her mother. "She hugged and kissed me," Cole remembers, "and gave my husband and me each three eye blinks, our signal for 'I love you.' Then I saw her eyes grow huge, as if she saw the most beautiful thing, and then she died. We know she saw the angels that came to take her to heaven."

Jessica's family, which now includes 2-year-old Cameron, still feels her with them today. Her younger brother, Craig, always asks for her help in his ball games, and her parents often talk with her in their hearts. Most recently, however, Jessica was part of what her family is certain was a miracle, and which involved a picture Jessica had drawn of a Bengal tiger just eight days before she died, and which became a special memento of Jessica.

Last December, Jessica's father found blood in his urine. He immediately went for an ultrasound, which showed a grade two or three cancer. Surgery was scheduled for the next day, and the family was told that Matt probably had a 30 percent chance of living five more years.

"I was just beside myself," says Cole, whose mother had also died of ovarian cancer just a few months after Jessica's death. "I told Jessica, 'Please, you've got to help us,' and I said to God, 'I can't believe you'd put this much on one family, but if you are, please help us bear it.'''

During the surgery, Matt's father was walking through the hospital when he came upon a secluded waiting room. There on the table was an almost identical picture of Jessica's Bengal tiger drawing. "When he saw that," Cole relates, "he then clearly heard Jessica's voice say, `Daddy's going to be okay.' Meanwhile, the surgeon had come out to talk with me and was telling me they couldn't believe it, that this just doesn't happen, but that there was absolutely no cancer.

"There are a hundred other little things along the way since Jessica's been gone that tell us that God loves us and shows us through our little girl that there is life after death," says Cole. "With the great pain we've suffered, we've also been greatly blessed. God has revealed to us that there is a heaven, and, yes, it's only an eye blink until we are together again with those we love."



The communion of saints

For Rev. Charles Bouchard, president and professor of moral theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, celebrating the Eucharist gives him an especially strong realization of the communion of saints. ''I recall one Mass in particular when I was very aware of the presence of my father who had died. I was remembering attending church with him as a child. And I remembered his funeral Mass, at which I officiated, when suddenly all that came together and I felt in a way I never had before, how the Eucharist is a gathering of the Body of Christ, both living and dead.

''And in many ways, the liturgy keeps reminding us that we don't go to Mass alone," says Bouchard. "For instance, in one of the new eucharistic prayers, we pray for those who have died unloved and unmourned.''

Bourchard also mentions a scene in the movie ''Places in the Heart'' as a good example of the closeness between those on earth and those in heaven. ''At the end of the movie, all the people are singing in church, and, as the camera pans across them, you realize there are people (even the enemies of the main characters) there who had died in the course of the movie.''