As November draws to a close, the readings at Mass draw our minds to the end of time—the end of all time, and for each of us, the end of our own time. Eschatological themes sound from both Old and New Testament as Advent approaches: death, judgement, the end of time. “Behold, I am coming soon” (Rev. 22: 12).
In the month when the Church reflects on death, honors the saints and prays for those who suffer in Purgatory, we look forward with both trepidation and hope to that day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning, or cries of distress, no more sorrow; those old things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Earlier this month, I visited my mother-in-law’s grave with flowers. It was a week after disappointing mid-term elections, and I thought to myself that there would have been some salty commentary on her part.
Her commentary might have extended to local elections, as she always took a great interest in the citizens of this small town where she spent the last decades of her life.
Whenever I come here, I picture her telling me about the people buried around her. The thought makes me smile: in death, as in life, I imagine that she already knows all about her neighbors, and that some kind of melodrama is probably brewing, although who knows what form that would take in a cemetery.
My relationship with the woman buried here, who was part of my life for almost thirty years, was a mixture of love, admiration, and exasperation.
There was great affection for the woman who unreservedly welcomed me into her life, and who continued to love her children and grandchildren with a love so fierce that on her gravestone, it was natural to inscribe “her joy was her family.”
There was admiration for the grandmother who read Tolkien, bequeathed to me some of my favorite history books, took college classes well into old age, and traveled the world.
And yet, there was a great deal of exasperation. In fact, exasperation was the key note of our relationship while she was alive.
Throughout my years with her, I was keenly aware that, in one way, she was the best sort of mother-in-law: one who never criticized, and never, ever, told me how to raise my own children.
That humble attitude stemmed from a sad reality, however: a lifelong struggle with major clinical depression that left her with a failed marriage, a string of lost jobs, and a number of broken or less than perfect relationships.
A brilliant, conflicted person, she was honest about the howling pit inside her, a depression that she unsuccessfully treated with a string of antidepressants. It had been there as long as she could remember, she said. Over the years, she attempted to distract herself with travel, spending, books, sometimes alcohol.
Her personality was intense: I had lunch with her once a week, and each week—even if her mood was good—I came home exhausted.
It’s easiest to say simply that she struggled. So many things were a struggle for her—physically, mentally, emotionally—sometimes it seemed that nothing was easy.
Frequently that struggle revealed itself in a disconnect, an inability to listen or to get outside of her own head. Thus, a conversation with her was often one sided. A heartfelt comment might be met with a faraway look or an irrelevant response. She might not hear, or if she heard, she might not understand.
She had a pronounced talent for getting into tragicomic scrapes and embarrassing situations.
She spoke her mind, wherever she happened to be, often to our chagrin.
Nonetheless, she was a fixture at her parish, sung in the choir, sought spiritual direction.
She was reticent about her devotional life, but my most cherished inheritance from her is a rosary, the paint worn off its iridescent blue green beads from years of use.
She struggled mightily. Nothing could completely soothe the pain within her.
She was always determined that the next best thing would solve her unhappiness. I thought—I must confess, with judgement—that no move, no change, was going to help, because she herself was unhappy, and she carried that unhappiness with her.
Age brought not relief, not softening, not blurring of past sorrows, but dementia and intermittent hallucinations.
As terminal cancer finally came for her, she confessed to me that she was absolutely terrified.
Knowing her days were short did not cure an irascible temper and a sharp tongue, aggravated by increasing pain and great frustration at her physical limitations.
I was humbled by the holy witness of family members who took care of her when she was helpless, suffered her irascibility with patient good humor, re-arranged their lives so she would die at home, surrounded by her family.
Our weekly lunch date became a weekly bedside vigil. What didn’t change was the exhaustion I felt after the rendezvous.
Even after she sank into unconsciousness in the last days of her life, her mind was far from peaceful. A whispered, half lucid stream of commentary bore witness to a life and death struggle being waged as her mind and soul contended with wrongs done and suffered, hurts, regrets, loose ends, fear.
Nonsensical ramblings were punctuated by heartrending snippets: “Kids,” I heard her whisper pleadingly, “I need you more than ever.”
As I sat by her bedside on one of those last days, I begged her to give her struggle to Jesus, who was there with her. I could only hope that she could hear and understand. For a while, at least, the incessant muttering ceased.
And yet, despite the internal struggle, in many ways her death was beautiful: cared for at home, surrounded by love, by reminders of grace.
Although she could not pray for herself, she went out on a tide of prayer: the Sacraments, the prayers of a devout family—the Rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, intentions raised by prayerful children and grandchildren.
COVID delayed her funeral. Meanwhile, the Mass cards poured in. Dozens of Masses. The gift of our prayerful community, gifts of gratitude for the family she had raised to be part of that community.
A month later, we held her wake, in the little church where she had so often painfully climbed the stairs to the choir loft.
I walked down the aisle towards her casket with apprehension. I’m not sure what I was expecting, exactly. But I felt the burden of her less than happy last years, weighing on my spirit.
Those gathered here knew my mother-in-law for the difficult person she was. Many of them had been on the receiving end of that sharp tongue. As family members and friends stood up to share their memories after the Rosary, I was curious. What would they say?
It was here that a miracle occurred.
I waited for the telling pause, the rueful smile or a humorous allusion. Instead, I heard love, gratitude, respect, appreciative laughter, a flood of happy recollections. It was as if no one remembered, so many things, the accumulated weight of years. Or, more accurately, it was as if the person we were remembering was not that person.
Afterwards, a friend told me that the wake was the most beautiful and joyful she had ever attended.
Through the funeral Mass the next day, and her prayerful burial in this cemetery, I continued to be buoyed by an astonishing sense that the person whose body lay in that casket was a new person, someone made whole.
At the graveside, our family sang the beautiful old hymn “Abide With Me”:
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
In some miraculous way, I saw those shadows flee: the shadows of depression, past hurts and pain that for so long had dogged a beautiful yet struggling soul.
It was an experience so real that it needed to be shared, yet so profound that I struggle to put it into words.
What exactly did I experience?
I believe I was given the grace to see my mother-in-law’s soul as God sees it, to see past the human frailty that blocks our human perception. I was able to see her soul as God sees it—free of physical and mental illness.
As I have reflected on it further, I’ve come to believe I was given a glimpse of the power of a Catholic death and the joy that lies beyond.
That beyond, of course, is usually purgatory—a painful but welcome process that Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, calls a “blessed pain.”
For Catholics, a funeral, despite the popular misconception, is not a celebration of life. When we give our loved ones a prayerful send-off, we look to the hope of heaven but acknowledge soberly that they will most likely continue to be cleansed in purgatory. Nonetheless, joy has a very real place amid the Church’s funeral rites.
As we commit their bodies to the earth, they are already being cleansed, purified and made ready to appreciate the beatific vision.
When they enter those gates, they leave the physical and mental infirmities of life behind. And they begin a process of expiation and purification in which God’s love, says Benedict, “sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”
Purgatory isn’t merely about atoning for one’s sins. Just as importantly, it is about being made ready. As C.S. Lewis said, “our souls demand Purgatory.” It would be heart breaking, he says, if souls who were not ready for the beatific vision were admitted to it.
The souls in purgatory—although suffering—are beautiful with the glory of sanctifying grace. In fact, St. Catherine of Siena, shown a suffering soul in purgatory, said she could find no words capable of expressing its beauty.”
What I experienced was not a trick of the mind, a blurring of unpleasant memories or a psychological effect. I believe I was witness to a literal, not a figurative transformation.
That transformation, says, Benedict, “eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ.” He describes our relationship with the poor souls as a “reciprocal giving and receiving” in which “love can reach into the afterlife.”
Our prayers for the poor souls are frequently rewarded by their intercessory prayers for us. In my case, the gift took the form of a closeness that was imperfect in life. I talk to my mother-in-law now, with an intimacy I didn’t have while she was alive. It’s as if the connection has cleared. And without the hindrance of physical and mental infirmity, I see her in a new light, recognizing love, selflessness, holiness, that I was unable to see before.
Not long ago, I wrote about my own parents, and how their peaceful acceptance of death prepared me for their passing. My mother-in-law showed me another side of death that was ultimately just as inspiring.
Her funeral was an introduction, not a farewell: an introduction to the woman whose fingers wore the paint off those Rosary beads.
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