The rest of this week is sizing up to be a death march. That is to say, I will be privileged to bury parishioners on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. What do I do with the prospect of needing to put a homily together? Write a blog post, that's what I do!
I am not depressed by death in general, nor with most deaths in particular. Mind you, I am no "Fr. Spock," but I can govern and sublimate the emotions surrounding grief. I know that this...skill? coping mechanism?...comes in handy. Practically (as opposed to theoretically) surprising to some, we priests remain human beings after ordination. "Grace builds on nature," so our human gifts and limitations all can be directed to God's glory and man's service. Now I don't confidently label my high grief threshold either a gift or a limitation; it's a fact. People experience and express sorrow differently, depending on numerous factors.
An example: My father died in 2004, when I was a couple of weeks into my first of two years teaching high school. There was the initial anxiety of the phone call I got sometime after 9pm while grading papers, and the hour-long drive home; but once I got in the door, I saw Bruno (the dog) and immediately chuckled. Dad didn't very much care for Bruno--and here Bruno, by then about age 15 or so, outlives him! I had to get to work regarding the particulars of Dad's funeral rites--the viewing, the hymns, the homily, etc. Granted, I didn't start that night...at least on paper. It all went as it was supposed to go. My mother and her siblings came together very well, in their own sweet way. Dad's side of the family, too--many of them spent more time with Mom than with their own brother/uncle!
Without many details concerning my personal relationships or my interior state, I simply want to offer some consolation to people about the nature and extent of their grieving. So often I think people are concerned that they have a hard time letting go of their loved ones. They find themselves crying at inopportune times, at seemingly strange moments "apropos of nothing." What for those who shed few or no tears? There is no right or wrong when it comes to grief, although we realize that our own lives are meant to continue and flourish in the wake of those who go before us, whether "marked with the sign of faith" or otherwise.
It may help to consider the relationship we had with the person, with the willingness to ask or grant forgiveness where applicable. Movements in forgiveness certainly ought to be as prompt as possible, ideally while both parties are conscious and cognizant; but even the occurrence of the other person's death is not too late for the sake of our own well-being. Plus, the God who turned water into wine can convey our contrition or compassion to its intended recipient.
In many respects that's how it happened with my father. It took as long as it took for me to become more aware of my failures, and when I did, I needed to get to work. A mentor suggested I visit his grave. This I still do from time to time, most recently with my mother. It helps me to see my own name and year of birth already etched on the tombstone: a stark reminder of mortality. The reminders of my occasional callousness and impatience toward my Dad don't oppress me anymore. They have become an occasion to glorify God for Dad's contributions.
And how about this: just now, as I am finishing this post in order to get over to the school for an unfortunately rare teaching engagement, I heard from a parishioner who conveys the fond memories of a former student of mine at Central. While I am tempted to write off those two years, somehow people remember me fondly. They may not remember much of what I taught them--but I've read that students tend to remember how they felt in your presence. Even there, I know I didn't convey kindness consistently; but may God repair all things in His time and manner, me included.