Mercy in my Grief
By Fr. David Lord, MIC (Oct 6, 2006)
I was 21 years old and a sophomore in college when my mother died suddenly and without warning. Death ruptured the normalcy of my family — which included my father and two brothers and two sisters — and tossed us roughly and unexpectedly into the arms of a motherless grief.
My father tried his best, but he, too, was overcome with grief. In the gaping space between my mother's death and my father's grief, there was a void to fill, a profound loneliness; yet life had to continue. My brothers and sisters needed love, food, shelter, and clothing. Since I was the oldest of the kids, suddenly I had greater responsibility. All the while, I asked myself, "Where was God in all of this?" and "How could he leave us motherless?"
For years, questions like these rumbled around my heart. They remained painfully unanswered even, as with God's help, I strove to assist others in their grief in my role as a priest. Something was missing in my heart between the words I sincerely offered to others and my own experience of those words. The memory of my mother's death constrained the meaning of hope.
Could it be that even though I became a priest, I did not believe in the power of Christ's Resurrection? Of course I did! But like Thomas, who needed to touch Christ's wounds, I, too, had moments when I doubted Christ's power. In the chaos caused by my mother's death, I needed confirmation that I wasn't alone — that He was with me, that He was real.
I continued to ponder the meaning of all this when one day in July of 2001 I phoned my sister Debra. It was on the 13th birthday of her youngest daughter, Melissa. Melissa answered the phone. We chatted a bit. I wished her a happy birthday. Then she said, "Uncle, do you want to talk with Mom?" I responded "Absolutely."
Melissa turned from the phone. I heard her call out to her mother: "Mom, Mom, Uncle David is on the phone!" Fully expecting to hear my sister's voice in a moment, I waited patiently to greet her. After a long pause, Melissa returned to the phone and said: "Uncle, Mom is asleep."
"Oh," I said.
"Yeah," Melissa continued, "she has been taking a lot of medicine lately, and it makes her sleepy and sometimes, like now, it is hard for her to wake up."
Rather seriously I asked Melissa, "What do you mean? Is your mother alright?" The child responded confidently: "Yes, Uncle. She is only asleep." Assuaged by this confident assurance, I asked Melissa to tell her mother that "I loved her and to call me when she wakes up." I wished Melissa a happy birthday again and hung up the phone.
Later that same day, at 10 p.m., one of my Marian brothers called me to the phone. I thought it was my sister returning my phone call, but to my surprise, I was greeted by the trembling voice of my youngest brother, Mark, who, as gently as he could, told me that our sister had died at around 8 p.m.
All I could hear was Melissa's voice calling: "Mom, Mom, Uncle David is on the phone," and saying "she's only asleep, Uncle."
My sister's death was sudden and shocking, like my mother's. But for me, it left an indelible mark, a wound deeper than even the death of my mother. My sister and I shared so much. We were friends. We had hoped to grow old together (and comb grey hair together!). Plus, her death was more mysterious than my mom's.
My sister had suffered from bi-polar disorder and deep depression for years. At the time of her death, she was heavily medicated and could often be found drowsy or sleeping. All the potent and enthusiastic love that so characterized her wonderful life, slumbered within her, lost somewhere between the drugs and her depression. No one could help her. I could not help her. My prayers to the Lord for her seemed to fall on deaf ears. I could only love her with my presence. When she died, I never felt so alone. Just like when my mother died, life moved on, only this time my heart felt as if it had stopped.
My sister's death was ruled "accidental" by the medical examiner who, in private, compassionately explained: "She probably confused her pills and accidentally took too much." The pain, the loneliness, the anger was unbearable. "Why her? Why now?" I opined. Death, that unknown, unwelcome guest, had struck yet again.
"O Lord, I am in straits; be my surety," I would pray, quoting Scripture. A long, dark night of grief descended upon my family and me.
Recently, after years of grieving and praying the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy before the Blessed Sacrament, and with help and patience of many caring people, my heart is beating joyfully again. Light has pierced the long dark night.
I owe the dawn of this hopeful new morning to rays of God's tender mercy. The rediscovery of mercy in my grief has brought me deep and authentic healing. The words of Pope John Paul II have helped diffuse — and give meaning to — the long night of grief and pain caused by this double blow. He said:
"Although I have lived through much darkness â€¦ I have seen enough evidence to be unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal â€¦ Do not let that hope die. Stake your lives on it."
Imagine the Pope writing about darkness and the eternal hope that sprung from within it. Amazing!
Today, my niece Melissa has found new hope and is a lively high school senior with college and the future on her mind. Yet, she deeply misses her mother and always will.
And I have learned that God's mercy illuminates the darkness and gives meaning to life's trauma and burdens. Yes, death is real, and pain is real. But so are hope and mercy. As the great Pope John Paul II would have it, I've staked my life on it!
Father David Lord, MIC, serves as Rector of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.