Susan Bailey reflects on death, grief, and the merciful work of accompanying others in times of suffering.
Many years ago, I was invited by a family in our parish to sing to their dying brother. Not knowing what to expect, I brought my guitar, sat down, and began to sing familiar songs from church. It did not take long to recognize that this was a holy setting. In the middle of the family’s profound pain and grief, the presence of God was powerful.
One of the members of that family is our pastoral associate. She invited me several more times to sing to dying parishioners, and it became a ministry I treasured. In one case, I visited a woman with cancer on regular occasions, and she asked if she could lead the singing with me at Mass; I was happy to oblige because I knew how much music meant to her. She did not realize how her generosity and courage inspired the congregation. As she neared death, I sang at her bedside and thanked her for the gift she had given me.
The pandemic has prevented me from cantoring at Sunday Mass, but I have sung at funerals. Here again, I feel that spiritual connection, witnessing the bridge between life here on earth and the eternal life promised to us by God. Getting a glimpse of that bridge gives me strength and hope despite my fears about growing older. At the beginning of the bridge stands the crucifix, reminding me that there is always resurrection.
Even if we are struck down with the most horrific suffering, even if our grief is too heavy to bear, Jesus is with us and will carry us if we but ask. He promises, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am.” (John 14:2). When I sing the final farewell (“May the angels lead you into Paradise …”), I picture the deceased individual crossing that bridge, enveloped in the light and love of God.
I have been recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, making my mortality and general decline quite real. Thanks to the reading of Saint Faustina's diary, I am finally beginning to understand what she meant about suffering — that clinging to the cross, and merging our pain with His, draws us closer to our Savior. Here is where we find relief and consolation. There is no more significant symbol of love than the cross, bringing meaning to death and grief. By offering our burden for others, we do what Christ did on the cross for us.
The grief process is a profound mystery. It can go in so many directions, from anger to denial to becoming a crushing burden that breaks the spirit. Our faith may be strong, but we can find it wavering or even collapsing under the weight of grief. It is important to remember that even if we feel there is a mammoth concrete wall separating us from God, our Lord has already penetrated that wall and is standing with us in the middle of our circumstance.
It may take time for the wounded heart to discern that presence, but if we can, in our minds, cling to that knowledge that He is there, the heart will follow. There is tremendous power in grief to transform us, deepen our capacity for love and empathy, and create something new if we allow God to take us through the process.
God does not mean for us to suffer alone. Along with his Spirit within, He provides us with family, friends, and caring individuals who will help us navigate the unknown. The care and consolation from our loved ones is the greatest gift He can give to us, even if we feel we do not have the strength to be with others. Accepting this offering of help can lead us outside of ourselves, just a step or two away from the grief.
Sacred mysteries don’t provide clear, straight paths. Answers unfold slowly, and the sense of loss is always with us. If we embrace what we dread — death and grief, God will reveal Himself to us and the resurrected life that he promises, both in heaven and on earth.
Copyright 2020 Susan Bailey
Images copyright 2020 Susan Bailey. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Susan Bailey is the author of River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times (Ave Maria Press), and Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message (ACTA Publications), part of their Literary Portals to Prayer series. Along with her blogs Be as One and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, Susan writes for the Diocese of Worcester newspaper, The Catholic Free Press.