Carmen Lappe reflects on the experience of grief - and the comfort of our belief in eternal life with Christ - in a letter to her children.
"But Nikki is with Jesus! How beautiful is that?"
I recently offered this nugget of hope to a friend who was grieving the loss of her sister-in-law. It was clear that even though some time has passed, my friend still misses this member of her family dearly. Though difficult to find the right words in such a moment, I remember feeling positively on fire with the Holy Spirit as I proclaimed my unwavering trust in the promise of the Resurrection. Our loved ones are, we hope and pray, rejoicing in the eternal presence of the risen Christ. Alleluia! We can entrust our desires and prayers to their intercession as we continue our earthly pilgrimage. How can we be sad when Jesus has conquered death once and for all?
But now as I write this to you, kids, a mere two months later, I am facing my own loss. It is my own loved one, my beloved father Nick, who has passed on to eternal life in Christ. Despite the myriad of ways I have grown in my faith over the years, and the trust I have in the promises of Jesus, I find I’m choking on that nugget of hope I offered in earnest to my friend a short time ago. And it’s painful.
The place I find myself in is one of spiritual emptiness. My prayers, if I’m able to pray, fall flat. It feels as though I’m keeping God at arm’s length, not allowing his light and love to transform my bitter, weary soul. Dad’s decline and death happened so suddenly and so quickly that it’s hard for me to reckon that we are now living in a world devoid of his presence.
The more marked period of dad’s decline began last fall, manifested by a lack of cognitive function, confusion, and hallucinations. It was becoming glaringly obvious that additional help was needed for him and for mom, who had served as his primary caregiver for the entirety of his disease. He was admitted to the hospital on January 27 for adjustments to his medications. While he was there, he experienced brief instances of clear, lucid thought, but would inevitably digress back into confusion and paranoia. Due to the pandemic, Mom was the only one who was allowed to be with him.
Two weeks later, he was transferred to a different hospital with a neurologist on site. Despite this, dad had become largely unresponsive, except for a video chat with me and a visit with our parish priest who offered him the Anointing of the Sick. Unable to eat or take his medications, he fell further into a state of unresponsiveness, even after the addition of a feeding tube. On the morning of February 16, Dad aspirated, becoming completely unresponsive. The doctors urged Mom, your uncle Ross, and me to get to the hospital - quickly - so we could be with him.
After consulting with the doctor, the decision was made to transition Dad to comfort care -- supplemental oxygen and morphine only. “This will allow him to pass quietly,” he said. We spent our last hours with Dad holding his hands, praying, sharing memories, and thanking him for the beautiful life he created for us.
Nothing could have prepared me for those last moments with my dad. No amount of spiritual reading, prayer, or conversations with my spiritual director helped me through the intensity of those hours. Watching his pulse slow then silently cease is a moment that will be forever seared into my memory. A beautiful life always lived for his family was over. Dad’s death was peaceful; one last silent breath and the soul put to flight.
I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to share this experience with my spiritual director and further reflect upon where I find myself in this time of grief. I emphasized what a gift it was to be able to hold dad’s hands as he died.
The hands that worked tirelessly for others.
The hands that fixed cars at home and machinery at work.
The hands that built cabinets for the kitchen in my childhood home.
The hands that took his daughter’s door off the hinges when she was sassy.
The hands that taught my brother how to throw a football.
The hands that provided loving, tender embraces.
The hands that wiped away tears when the hurt was just too much.
“Well that’s pretty beautiful,” said my director as I was musing upon Dad’s work ethic and the loving care he’d given his family. “What is?” I asked. He responded, “Think of it this way: those hands held yours as you took your first steps. How appropriate that you should hold his as he took his first steps into eternal life?”
His wisdom was the nourishment I had been needing to feed my starving faith; the balm I craved to heal my shattered heart. Reflecting upon this has brought a great deal of peace and hope, and a profound gratitude for the privilege to be with Dad in his final moments.
Yet each day the hurt enters in anew. I try in vain to pray for Dad and ask him to intercede for me, but the words feel like sand on my tongue. I place treasured photos around our home and at my office, but they only remind me of the earthly loss of dad. Even visits to the cemetery haven’t brought the full consolation I seek. Only heaven will do that, I suppose.
I sit down on the cool, damp earth as close to Dad as I can be. It is always wonderful to feel the warm sun on my face and grass beneath my fingers. The sky in the country is a magnificent, clear blue and the spring songs of the birds provide a welcome soundtrack as I sit with dad, trying once again to find the words I need, yet never seem to find. The emptiness in my heart is heavy and the silent words I just can’t speak are deafening.
Finally, frustrated, and lamenting this spiritual emptiness. I cry out: “With all the efforts I’ve made to grow in my faith, shouldn’t I be in a better place than this? I’ve tried so hard, God. Where is the consolation and peace you promised? Where are you?” Then He finds me, as He always does, and brings profound truths with Him. My anger ceases as He assures me: lamenting my struggling faith and futile attempts at prayer is still a prayer. Jesus didn't promise a life free of pain. However, He DID promise He'd be with us in it (see John 16:33).
Memories wash over me as I recall Dad teaching me this fundamental practice that brings us into friendship with Christ. Perhaps one of my earliest memories, I picture Dad kneeling beside my bed, holding my hand, thanking God for making us a family.
Some days, kiddos, the hurt is more than I can bear and I don’t believe I can face a world without his steadfast love and undying support. It is clear to me, even in the short time Dad has been gone, that it does not become easier, it becomes different. Some days, the only comfort I find is knowing he is free now: free from the prison of his mind and body brought on by a cruel, ruthless disease. The image of my father dancing -- literally -- in the presence of the Creator of the universe, no longer confined to his limited, earthly body, makes my heart soar and my spirit rejoice. So, recognizing the glorious freedom that comes with resting in the eternal presence of the risen Christ, truly: how can we be sad?
Rest in perfect peace, Dad. You are home.
Copyright 2021 Carmen Lappe
Images (from top): Canva Pro; copyright 2021 Carmen Lappe, all rights reserved.
About the Author
Carmen is a wife and mother of two working in parish ministry in midwestern Iowa. She has a Master of Arts degree in Sacred Theology and has a special passion for writing about the grace of motherhood. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling with her husband and exploring breweries and baseball stadiums across the country.