I was 17 years old when I first encountered death. My grandmother died one night peacefully in her sleep at the age of 84 with a set of rosary beads next to her bed, which she most likely prayed before slipping away into eternity. A simple woman, she lived on a farm her entire life. She bore three children, including my mother, and had spent her whole life working hard, going to church, and seeking to unite a family that, as time went on, appeared prone to division.
That morning my sister and I had gone to school like we did every morning. My mother walked across the street to my grandmother’s farm to make sure she had made it downstairs for breakfast. Even though my grandmother was declining both physically and mentally, she had lost none of her willpower.
When my mother walked into her house that morning, she immediately knew that something was wrong. My grandmother was not downstairs sitting in her rocking chair eating her breakfast as usual, and there was no sound of her anywhere throughout the house. My mother imagined the worst, that she had fallen down the stairs or in the bathroom and was lying unconscious. But my mom did not find her by the stairs or in the bathroom. She finally looked in her room and there was my grandmother, lying on her back, hands folded, appearing to be in a very deep sleep. In fact, my mother thought that she was still sleeping until she moved closer and realized that she was not breathing. My grandmother had died during the night.
We buried her a few days later at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Bally, Pennsylvania, where she spent her entire life as a parishioner. I can’t remember what the priest said during the homily, and I can’t remember if anybody in my family cried during the Mass. All I can remember is looking at the stained glass windows in the church that depicted moments in the life of Christ. There were windows of his Passion, from his betrayal, his scourging, and his carrying the cross to his crucifixition. The last window showed the empty tomb, filled with rays of light shining from every direction.
Before I knew it I snapped out of my daydreaming because the Mass had finished, and the time had come to take my grandmother to the cemetery. The ceremony was brief, probably only 10 minutes or so and soon after people began to leave because it started to rain. Suddenly, at this moment, kneeling on the frozen December ground before my grandmother’s casket, it hit me. My grandmother was dead. I would never see her again. “Never see her again,” I thought. What did those words mean? Why did they sound so violent to my ears?
As I knelt there on the ground, tears began to fall from my eyes.
“Is this it? This must be a sick joke,” I thought. “Grandma,” I cried out, “Grandma!” There was no response. Everything was mocking me: the hard ground, the casket staring me in the face, and the rain falling from the sky. I wanted to run away from this dismal place. But where could I go? I wanted to see my grandmother again and tell her that I love her. But I couldn’t. She was gone.
I knelt there for a long time until everything became silent. The ground, the casket, even the rain stopped, leaving a calm and quiet presence in the air around me. I was not accustomed to such silence, and the weight of it quickly overwhelmed me. I did not address God or even try to speak to him. Kneeling before my grandmother’s casket, I was speechless before this incredible mystery while questions rattled through my brain: What is the purpose of life? Why is there suffering? What is death? Where do people go when they die?
All of sudden I felt as if I had woken up from a dream. These questions opened my eyes to something beyond myself. I was immediately filled with a sense that life has a purpose. My tears ceased while the sadness in my heart began to dissipate. I looked up at her casket again and knew that somehow and in some way my grandmother was alive. A gentle smile began to cover my face. I stood there for a few more minutes trying to understand this sudden change that had occurred in me. It was pointless; my mind had failed me.
I kissed her casket a final time and walked with my parents to the car. As we drove away from the cemetery I didn’t feel the need to look back at her grave. I knew, in some mysterious way, that she wasn’t there. I pulled out her rosary beads from my pocket and squeezed them in my hand. A new set of tears began to form, but this time they were tears of joy.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR