Six and a half years ago, I reflected on the death of my father. It is barely conceivable to me that I am now living in the aftermath of the death of my mother. Although I have had my own home since my twenties, and although my parents divorced while I was in college, there is something about your parents’ home being “home.” It doesn’t have to be the home you grew up in. And, as in my case, even if your parents are divorced, there’s just something that feels like home whenever you’re with them. My dad’s death was difficult, as all such deaths are, yet in his departing a feeling of home left with him. And while Mom lived, there was a “home” that seemed, somehow, just as much, perhaps even more, a home as my own. Now she is gone.
In the last several days, I laid aside the prayers for the departed, as Mother’s fortieth day passed. I am grateful, so very grateful, for the gift the Church gives us in praying in a focused way after the death of our loved ones for forty days. As we pray that God would make the memory of the departed eternal, it gives us a way to patiently experience and cherish the memories of the ones we love.
Our American society is cruel. Even the most generous of employers only provide a short number of days for “bereavement.” Some more accurately label it “funeral leave.” Because that is all that can be done in those short days: prepare for, attend, and return from the funeral. There is no time for grief. For shock, surely. For tears, of course. But for grief, no. By the time the funeral is over, grief has barely begun.
My mother’s death was so very different than my dad’s. The cruelty of the isolation inflicted on my mother in her most desperate days, due to COVID restrictions, was intolerable. A short video call helped. How could it not? But for my mother to experience the isolation and disorientation in ICU as she battled her illness, where she could not see the faces of her caregivers, and was separated from her loved ones, was among the most inhuman and savage tortures one could visit on the sick. I don’t want to derail this post into a rant on what we have gone through over the last two years. But as more information comes forward, I have questions, and the answers that are coming only accentuate the sense of the torture inflicted on my mother.
Although Mom’s illness extended over a couple of weeks, when the end came it was swift. Unlike my father’s death, there was no time to travel to be by her bedside. I am glad that in her last couple of days, the restrictions were lifted and family was able to visit, and her seeming improvement I think can be tied to that contact. And so when she died, the rest of my family was able to be with her, to hold her hand, and to pray with her. My sisters called me, held the phone to my mother’s ear, and I was able to speak my heart to her in those last moments. Then she was gone. And I was left with a phone in my hand, to cry in the dark of my apartment, two hundred miles away.
As an experience, grief is a weird and awful thing. I thought, having experienced the grief of my father’s death, I would know what to expect after my mother’s death. But it is not the same. And this surprised me. Indeed, it elicited some self-blame and guilt, that I wasn’t grieving properly. But no grief is ever the same. How could it be? Grief is the expression of love. And my parents are two different people, and therefore my love for each of them must be different. So also must be the grief.
When a loved one dies, one of course cherishes the good. But no relationship is perfect. And so, in grieving one also confronts the imperfections, the former tensions. My relationship with my father wasn’t perfect. Nor was my relationship with my mother. How could any relationship be perfect. I am a sinful human being. So were my parents. In grieving, we come to acceptance of the loss of the good. We also come to acceptance of the bad. Because grief is love, that acceptance is also forgiveness. The tears of grief can help clear the eyes to see one’s own faults and regrets. One can also see a whole life, and in seeing the whole one comes also to a greater understanding. In life, we can be locked in conflict, seeing only the particular offense, the what. But after death, one can see more broadly, seeing a wholeness that offers a why, or many why’s. Understanding and compassion may well intensify one’s own regret. But if used well, this can be a gift to the living.
In speaking so broadly, I don’t mean to imply that my mother and I were at odds. And I certainly don’t mean to imply anything negative about her. Less often than I now would wish, I frequently called my mother as I was heading home from Liturgy. She would sometimes text me and ask about my daughters. She loved them so much. Life changes had meant she had not seen them in a while, and she missed them dearly. She would ask about my job. And, like all mothers, would worry about whether I was in good health, how my job was going, and, since I got my rescue dog from the SPCA, we would swap dog stories. When I speak about acceptance, I only mean that no one is all good or all bad, and in grief we can come to accept both, if in life we often chafed at the bad.
I mentioned that my parents were divorced. Each of them remarried, and I have come to love and to enjoy each of their new spouses who survive them. Each of them have blessed and enriched my life in different ways. I am glad they are in my life.
But one thing I am surprised by is the thought of my parents reconciling and forgiving one another in the after life. I am not stating this in any dogmatic way, rather, I am surprised to find that after all these years, decades after their divorce, this is what is in my heart. In this grown man is the child wanting his parents to be at peace and harmony. Having long ago come to accept the divorce and their respective remarriages, I would not have thought this would have been so strong a longing. I had not realized such a wound had not healed in me.
I do think one thing I learned grieving my father’s death may well be true about my mother. It doesn’t matter how much time will pass, there will be moments when the grief comes in deep and sharp and painful waves. I do not think there can be an end to grief while we live, though it recedes and comes less often.
I miss my parents. Their absence changes a great deal in my life, quite fundamentally. It changes my prayers. I pray for them differently. It will change the holidays, and family visits. I have not yet begun to understand all the change. But I do know this. I have only one father and one mother. There is no one to fill that absence.