My father is very ill as I write this reflection. He was in the hospital for a month, was out for three days, and back in again for over a week. This may well be a cycle that finally wears his body down until he goes home to God. I am grieving that soon my dad will no longer be physically present on this earth. I will not see the twinkle in his eye, nor partake of his marvelous "Grandpa malts" (the merits of which he proclaimed by saying "They may not be in first place, but they’re way ahead of whatever is in second!") When I visit Mom, the house will be achingly lonely, and she will struggle to let go of her husband of 63 years.
Many people will say, "You’re lucky he lived such a long life. You should be happy he is no longer suffering. He’s in a better place. Just think of all the memories and stories you can treasure. Now you have an angel in heaven to watch over you. " And on it will go, as well-meaning folks offer platitudes they believe are comforting. They aren’t. Yes, I am glad he lived 84 years, but I wanted him to live 94 years – it’s always too soon when it’s someone you love. Yes, I’m glad he’s no longer suffering and I am grateful he is with God, but I am sad that he is not with me or my siblings or my Mom. Gratitude and even faith do not erase the grief, nor should they (although they do allow us to keep it in perspective, to maintain hope while we heal).
We could learn lessons from the Gospel today. Notice that when the angels saw Mary Magdalene, they did not say "Stop crying. You should be glad that Jesus is going to the Father." Instead, they asked her to tell them of her grief: "Why are you weeping?" Jesus did the same. He didn’t admonish her for her emotion or talk her out of what she was feeling. In fact, he didn’t even reveal his own identity until he first asked her to tell him about her tears and took the time to listen. When I am grieving, I would rather have one person who asks good questions and deeply listens to what I need to say, than have 100 people tell me how positive and grateful and upbeat I "should" feel. Non-judgmental listening is the greatest gift we can give.
As Mary told the angels and Jesus of her grief, her eyes were so filled with tears she did not recognize Jesus. That, too, happens with me. Sometimes all I can see is my sadness and loss. I cannot see Jesus standing right in front of me. In the gospel, Jesus was able to literally speak to Mary and lift the veil. Jesus is no longer physically here to speak to me in a human voice, except through you. Can you listen to me, hear my cries, and be the embodiment of Christ so I don’t lose sight of God? Can you hold me in prayer when I am too bereaved and tired to pray myself?
Finally, Jesus tells Mary not to hold onto him. When my dad dies, I have to learn to let go of a person I once thought I could not live without, and learn to live without him. Like all the people I love, my dad is a transient and precious gift that I only have for a little while. It is time to let go, to free him to go to God. Yet like Jesus, the letting go is not complete. Mary and the other disciples built the early Church by keeping the memory, stories, and lessons of Jesus alive, even as they grieved his physical absence. Because of the paschal mystery, I know and believe that all of us – the living and the dead – are deeply connected in ways we do not understand. Though the physical bond is broken, our spirits are entwined forever.
I will not forget, nor "put this behind me and get on with life." Rather, I will remember and carry Dad in my heart for as long as I live. I am a different person because he loved me, however imperfect that love may have been. I keep the lessons, the spirit, the stories, and the love, and rather than leaving them behind, I take them with me into a future enriched by Dad’s memory.
May God grant Dad peace as he prepares to leave this world behind and, hand in hand with Jesus, journey into paradise.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.