It’s likely my dad died on Easter Sunday.
His death certificate says Wednesday, April 12, 2023. But by the time they found his body on the evening of Thursday, April 13, decomposition was already advancing. The woman who brought him groceries had tried to reach him on Wednesday, and again on Thursday, and she finally went over and could see him in his bed through the ground floor window of his Florida apartment. She called the police, who found him dead; they then paid a visit to my sister in the middle of the night to break the news. She called me as I was waking up at my home in Texas on Friday morning.
On Palm Sunday, I could tell Dad seemed off. For some reason, at the end of our weekly FaceTime, call I told him, “I want you to be well,” and he said softly, “Pray.” But as too often happens, an almost cinematic moment of tenderness quickly turned back into valedictory small talk. I casually told him I would probably not be able to call him on Easter Sunday because our family had plans. Although he almost never picked up the phone if I tried him on any other day or time, I asked him to expect a call from me on Easter Monday afternoon instead. When my sister later found his iPhone on his bed stand, she noticed that his missed calls began with mine.
What if I had reached him on Sunday as normal? What if I could have gotten him help?
I’ve quickly discovered that most people walking around in this world live with grief over these kinds of what-ifs. Even though I’ve been around a lot of death and spent a lot of time with grieving families, it’s my first rodeo as someone experiencing it so intensely myself. I am grateful that others can speak to my strange feelings.
As a thinker, I rationalize the most painful parts by reminding myself Dad had long lived alone and had always been a loner. I tell myself that he surely wanted to die the way he did, since we tried to find all kinds of ways to avoid it. He resolutely refused any medical care besides blood pressure medication, and we really had no idea what was going on inside his body. I further rationalize by considering how, in light of the extreme and frankly unnatural medical interventions I’ve seen others suffer through, I’m inclined to think Dad’s death was a mercy. He had his threescore years and fifteen, and one day he went to bed and never woke up. What more could one ask for?
For the last year of Dad’s life he basically could not walk, his breathing was labored when he moved, he slept most of the day; and yet, when I spoke to him every Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., he was basically his old self – sitting on his porch chain smoking, with his first Vodka-tonic of the day in his hand, ready to opine about everything from the pitch clock in Major League Baseball to how much he enjoyed niche news sources like Deutsche Welle to how Miracle Whip was an abomination. He asked about his grandchildren, who could sometimes be persuaded to show their faces and reluctantly display their latest talents – my son might play part of a Chopin piece he was working on or my daughter might show him a new dance combination she had learned.
But usually, it was just the two of us talking religion. Over the years, Dad’s Christian piety had grown and changed a lot. As a kid, I remember him showing up by himself in a suit, meeting my sisters and mom and me as we came out of Sunday school at our Methodist church before we all went into the liturgy together. He would occasionally mention how much he liked Wesley’s hymns and how much he hated our pastor’s “Readers Digest” sermons, but I never experienced him as a prayerful man. About fifteen years after my parents’ divorce, however, Dad decided to try a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and his faith quickly became important to him.
When my wife and children and I became Catholic, he was at first perplexed, and then pivoted to ecumenism. He asked a lot of questions and was genuinely open to learning. We had a few heated disagreements, but our conversations more often seemed like little chapter meetings of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
During the pandemic and more recently in his rapid decline over the last year, he stayed home on Sundays and watched two Christian shows on television back-to-back: “In Touch with Dr. Charles Stanley,” a Protestant, and “My Daily Living with Fr. Chapin,” a Catholic. Dad relished the opportunity to praise both men, and to marvel at the similarities and differences in their messages (I admit, I’ve never watched either show). When my sisters and I were cleaning out his apartment, I took possession of his Bible – a nicotine-stained ESV Study Bible that I was amazed to see had extensive annotations in his tiny cursive script on almost every page. What was left of his restless heart was looking for its rest in God.
And this brings us back to Easter Sunday.
In one way, it upsets me to think that Dad gave up on life. He had been dealt a few bad hands in life, but he had also sabotaged himself in countless ways. He didn’t want what I wanted for him – to be well. But in another way, he was using his depressed, invalid state to make methodical preparations for eternity – to watch the tv preachers and underline Bible verses and talk to his professionally religious son once in a while – to be well in a more important way. As Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi, his masterful encyclical on Christian hope, “the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal.” What must my father have been going through during his final Holy Week on earth? One last painful leg of the journey until the great plunge into the vastness of being.
Flipping through Dad’s Bible, I notice he underlined Romans 8:38-39, and wrote out a paraphrase in the margin: “Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Do I have a reasonable hope that my dad will be in Heaven? Yes, I do. Whether he departed this life too soon or in the wrong way is now irrelevant. It doesn’t matter at all that I couldn’t talk to him on his last day on earth.
A few months ago, as I began to intuit Dad’s death was coming, I happened to watch Melancholia, written and directed by Lars von Trier. It’s a masterpiece about the end of the world, and it means more to me than ever now that I am contemplating the state of Dad’s soul as the world came to an end for him. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, and a whole host of other first-rate actors, Melancholia highlights the culture of despair that has only grown more extreme since the film’s release in 2011. Mental health crises among young people have skyrocketed, and the inverse relationship between religiosity and suicide is ever more apparent. Environmentalist doomsday prophets proliferate. And what about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, solar storms, catastrophic earthquakes, evil AI, and of course, nuclear annihilation?
The premise of Trier’s film is yet another apocalyptic scenario that epitomizes all the rest: an errant planet called Melancholia is on a collision-course with earth. In the second half of the film, the three main characters each deal with the approach of death in different ways. John (Sutherland) is rich and confident, publicly displaying expertise that denies the catastrophe will actually happen. John explains, “Melancholia is going to pass right in front of us, and it’s going to be the most beautiful sight ever.” Nonetheless, he buys a horde of supplies in the event that things get bad (just not all-the-way bad). His wife Claire (Gainsbourg) is sweet and scared, trying to take control of the prospect of her demise by buying a bottle of pills – just in case – and lying to her son about the danger they are in.
But it is Claire’s sister, Justine (Dunst), whose perspective is most important, and most reminds me of my dad’s fate. In the first half of the film, Justine destroys her marriage and career, falling into deep depression, where she is barely able to eat, bathe, speak, or walk. As the end of the world approaches, however, she alone is clear-eyed, calm, and capable, if entirely negative. She declares, “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it…. Nobody will miss it….” Nonetheless, Justine’s behavior in the final act belies a gratitude for having lived. She does not articulate anything like Christian hope, but in various ways, she embodies it. She comes alive again. When Claire suggests that the sisters have a glass of wine in what appears to be the waning moments of earth’s existence, Justine rejects the notion as bourgeois denial of reality. “Why don’t we meet on the f*****g toilet,” she exclaims. Having been helpless, the approach of death suddenly makes her something of a Nietzschean superwoman.
Despite Trier’s use of Wagner’s music throughout the film, the conclusion is not a nihilistic homage to the demise of God or the gods. Trier is an artist of considerable controversy, but he is also an adult convert to the Catholic Church. And in Melancholia, he is working from the perspective of his faith, albeit critically. He explained around the time of the film’s release:
At the moment I’m studying the conflict between the Western Church and the Eastern Church, between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In the latter there is pleasure, while the Western Church is more oriented towards suffering, pain, the Crucifixion. We need divine light, a change through the light. For me, that light is cinema or it could be cinema. I watch a lot of films and often I almost want to cry because what I see is that divine light. When Jesus went up the mountain he saw the light, and perhaps there isn’t much hope in this light, but there is life. Some of my favourite films give me this light. I love the concepts of suffering, pain, guilt, but there is another side to life, the luminous side that films can portray. We are destroying Earth, but that’s not in the least bit worrying because, in any case, some day we will all die.
Now, Trier’s contrast of Western and Eastern Christianity is a caricature. And his conclusion is far too blithe about our responsibility as stewards of God’s creation. Yet his comments speak to a concern I have had for a long time that most of us on earth – even faithful Catholics – have a screwed-up sense of eschatology, and therefore do not really embody the virtue of Christian hope. We are always tempted to fall into one of two opposing traps: Deny death or wallow in it. Instead, we should focus on the light – even a pinprick of it – that destroys the darkness in the end, thereby illuminating our rocky path now. Again, Pope Benedict says in Spe Salvi, “Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live in the present as well.”
My dad could have gotten a full physical work up and wound up diagnosed with all kinds of things. He could have gone to a nursing home and burned up his meager savings. He could have entered hospice care and approached death with the presumption of dignity (although for the record, I don’t believe death and dignity really intersect all that often). I suppose if he had been Canadian, he would have been prescribed euthanasia. But knowing Dad as well anyone could – i.e., not very well – I imagine all of these options seemed like the kind of bourgeois denial of the inevitable that Claire suggests to Justine in Melancholia. My dad displayed ordinary and even extraordinary selfishness at times; but in the end, I think he demonstrated truly Christian selflessness as the world ended for him, likely on Easter Sunday – not denying, not wallowing, not sentimentalizing, not despairing. But agonizing, and hoping.
And then falling asleep in the risen Christ forever.
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Andrew and his family are no doubt a blessing to the Church. The Church is One as the Church is in Christ. In the Church there are no divisions.
A provocative piece. Thank you, Mr. Petiprin, for sharing your hope and your grief.
As an old guy of roughly your father’s age, when I look back on my life, I struggle with finding the appropriate balance between regret and gratitude, anticipation and disgust.
(Note which condition is listed first.)
Also, I would love to know what your Dad noted in the margin beside 1 Cor. 2:9, where St. Paul mentions what God has planned for those who love Him.
I am terribly sorry for your loss, Dr Petiprin, but all readers can benefit greatly by your meditation offered here. Rarely are such things neat and tidy, as you say, since dignity and death don’t often intersect. You seemed to have bolstered your filial relationship with much integrity and respect as possible, which is all you could do under the circumstances. The rest is in the hands of our merciful God. May he rest in peace.
Easter Sunday…back in 2001:
At the young age of 52, my dear wife, Kristi, was at the end of twelve years, off-and-on, with cancer. Now home hospice. But we were still up and around, and beyond the predicted “seven days to seven weeks.” A fancy brunch after Mass and a visit to a grove of cherry blossoms. Such a beautiful day she said, “especially since I’m not even supposed to be here!”
Kristi: “Spending my heaven doing good on earth, like St. Therese. I’d like that. Maybe I’ll ask the Lord if I can do that too…at least for my family.” And, so it is…even now, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1).
As with Petiprin, too, our share of ruminated what-might-have-been. Kristi’s graced (and anguishing) story is available in Beaulieu, “KRISTI: So Thin is the Veil” (Crossroad Publishing, 2006).
When someone we love dies, there’s always what could I have done better? That doesn’t seem to be as much a matter of conscience as it is love for the person.
Life is a mystery;and there are no photocopies.Perpetual rest to all the departed.We will be there
Thank you Mr. Petiprin.
God bless you and your father and your whole family.
Thank you for this beautiful meditation Andrew! I didn’t realise until the very end that you were the author and although I only chatted with you briefly during your recent visit to London, it was wonderful to have that moment of recognition. And again although it was only a brief encounter, it’s wonderful to put a face to this piece and be able to say with all honesty that I have no doubt your father must have been so very proud of all that you’re doing with your life and for the sake of the Kingdom.
And it’s a piece with which I felt a strong connection and not just for the reason mentioned. You see, my father also died on an Easter Sunday 5 years ago. And with an extra neatness of synchronicity, I found myself reading the article on the anniversary of his funeral. So as you can imagine, it certainly resonated with me deeply. Of course no family situation is ever identical and unfortunately I didn’t have the best of relationships with Dad. He was an angry man with I guess I lot to be angry about in his life. And he struggled hard both in life and in his dying.
But hearing about the manner of Andrew’s father’s passing, I can’t help thinking back to an evening about 3 years before that when Dad started suffering extreme chest pains. He wanted to just sit in his chair alone and see it through but for understandable reasons the family insisted that he get it seen to and with that, 3 years of dreadful discomfort, arduous medical procedures and ever degrading quality of life ensued. I know that hindsight is a marvellous luxury but I do wonder in light of the unhappiness and suffering that he – not to mention my mother! – went through, whether it really would have been better if he’d just drifted off that night in his comfy armchair.
Of course as Christians we hold to a belief in God’s providence and divine will so that – along with my hero Bl Solanus Casey – we must declare, Blessed be God in all His designs. What was meant to be the way of dying for my father was different to that of Andrew’s father and we must trust that all is how it was meant to be. Although this doesn’t stop me from constantly asking God that if it’s a choice between death in a hectic soulless NHS ward and alone in my own space then please let me have the latter! I always say that at the end of my life I want friends who are good enough to call the police to break down the door after a few days of my absence. But not so good that they call the police too soon and catch me before I get a chance to safely slip away into the divine embrace!
But again, I am aware that none of this is in our hands and we don’t necessarily get to choose our cross. But I pray that for Andrew’s father, that final road to his Cavalry was a smooth and blessed one.
As for my father, as I say, it was a difficult dying but then as we entered the Triduum, his body began the final shutdown and he hovered in that inbetween space for a while. And I hold onto the memory of being with him sitting silently and particularly the moment when I was listening to a Good Friday service on the radio and as I repeated the final Amen, he suddenly surprised me – after having been silent for a few days – with a clear Amen. And that was the last word I ever heard him say.
I wasn’t with him when he died but it was a beautiful Easter Sunday morn. The sun was shining. His beloved birds were joyfully singing nearby. And with my nod to tradition, I had requested that the window be opened as soon as he died. And sure enough he lay there eyes open looking towards the window through which I pray his soul had departed peacefully at last.
Which of course is what we pray for when we think of all souls – both in the past and at this very moment in the world – who set off to meet Our Lord. So thank you again Andrew for this personal and yet so very resonant account which reminds us of the most important journey that awaits us all. God bless you and Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
A gentleman I knew, a long time ago, died about a week ago. The cancer appeared via a broken leg (as I recall, I think that was it) and the diagnosis came a few days after the fracture. All of his many children, grandchildren, great grands and siblings were able to visit… either in person or over the miracle of Face Time. The visits trickled to a close and then, with just one daughter and his wife at his side, he went Home. Eighty-five years, well lived with a beautiful ending. Nothing better.
I RESPECTFULLY DISAGREE:
1. Lar Von Trier’s movie “Melancholia” is, I think, a full-on expression of something like Albert Camus’ atheistic existentialism.
2. The point of the movie seems very similar to Camus’ short book “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which I take as meaning that our existences and struggles have no ultimate or lasting significance, since each of us are eventually annihilated by death, and the whole human race will be eventually be annihilated by extinction, and no one will remember any of us or will remember that human beings once even existed on one little planet (a planet that will eventually be annihilated by an expanding sun), but, despite all that, human life is worth living with intentionality, effort, striving, gratitude, joy, enjoyment, pleasure, and temporary significance.
3. At the end of the “Melancholia” movie, the two women give the young boy hope of survival the cataclysm by creating and sitting under a canopy of tree branches. The women know this action is hopeless, but they find some solace in pretending there is hope, and in giving comfort to the boy.
4. All this is similar to the atheistic Christianity that is preached by Professor Jordan Peterson of Canada, who urges people to “act as if” God is real, despite knowing from modern science that God is not real.
5. All this is also similar to the philosophy of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, who died in 1936 and received a Catholic funeral despite writing during his lifetime that we modern humans are permanently in a tragic mode of existence due to our in-built longing for God and eternal life and our intellectual capacity which tells us that there no God or eternal life.
6. “Zorba the Greek” is another book that comes to mind as being in this tradition of urging people to love life despite its tragic temporality.
7. All this is, I think, radically incompatible with the traditional Catholic religion.
8. But, in this Church age of “anything goes,” who knows what is or is not Catholic anymore.
LARS VON TRIER ON CATHOLICISM, ATHEISM, & HITLER:
Wikipedia reports the following remarks by Lars Von Trier (writer and director of the film “Melancholia”) about barely being Catholic, being more of an atheist, being a Nazi, and sympathizing with Hiter:
1. In a 2005 interview with Die Zeit, von Trier said, “I don’t know if I’m all that Catholic really. I’m probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.” In 2009, he said, “I’m a very bad Catholic. In fact I’m becoming more and more of an atheist.”
2. In May 2011, known to be provocative in interviews, von Trier’s remarks during the press conference before the premiere of Melancholia in Cannes caused significant controversy in the media, leading the festival to declare him persona non grata. He was therefore banned from Cannes for one year, although Melancholia still competed in that year’s competition. Minutes before the end of the press conference, von Trier was asked about his German roots and the Nazi aesthetic, in response to his description of the film’s genre as “German romance”. He joked that since he was “no longer Jewish,” having been told the truth about his biological father, he now “understands” and “sympathizes” with Hitler, that he is not against the Jews except for Israel which is “a pain in the ass” and that he is a Nazi. Von Trier was branded an antisemite for his remarks.
1. When I saw Lars Von Trier’s 2011 movie “Melancholia” I was horrified, stunned, and shocked.
2. I think it is the most anti-God, most anti-hope movie ever made.
3. I don’t think any Catholic or any human being should ever imbide this vile anti-life dramatic screed.
4. Lars Von Trier is a talented artist, but he has chosen to use his talent for evil ends–to destroy minds, destroy culture, destroy society.
5. He is no doubt a man who is sinking and drowning in his own daily deep melancholy and despair, and he wants to sink and drown the rest of us, too.
6. Lars is a Danish man of German heritage. He could have made a movie like Terrence Malick’s 2019 movie A Hidden Life, which depicts the life of Austria’s Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic husband, father, farmer, and conscientious objector during World War II who was put to death at the age of 36 for refusing to fight Hitler’s wars on the basis that Hitler’s wars violated Catholic Just War Doctrine, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. The life, death, and beautification of Franz Jägerstätter shows that there is hope in the world, and that there are fixed and eternal standards of right and wrong that transcend animal existence.
I would highly recommend reading a book by Antonia Salzano Acutis. My Son Carlo: Carlo Acutis. Through the Eyes of his Mother. It’s a poignant and uplifting book. It is a blessing and a privilege in itself to have read it.