By Fr. Bernie Weir
At some point in our lives we must face and live through the deaths of our parents. I have reached that point in my life and would like to share my experiences with you, knowing that each of us experiences this time of life differently. I won’t be sharing the theology of death. I will leave that to others.
My mom died young in 1988, after having survived a heart attack five years earlier. She went to the hospital for bypass surgery and did not survive it. Her death was unexpected and sudden.
I do not remember if I helped pick out the readings for her funeral Mass or made any of the arrangements. When someone we love dies, we aren’t thinking clearly and our minds try to block out the pain. It is strange what we do remember and what we don’t. I don’t even remember what Father said during his homily, but I do know what clothes my mom was buried in: a white flowered dress with a purple vest. She made it herself. It was the same dress she wore to my sister Joni’s wedding.
I had been ordained for several years at the time of her death and celebrated many funerals. At that time, I believed in the resurrection. I believed our God is the God of the living and dead. But during her funeral Mass I went from believing to knowing. That is the gift that I was given that day.
My father’s death, this past June 6, was very different. He died at age 86. His death was not unexpected but, as with all deaths, it took us by surprise. My father and I had talked about end of life decisions and what they would be, and what each of us was comfortable with. As a family, we talked about these decisions and what everyone would be comfortable with. One of the blessings for my family is that we all agreed.
I had visited my father nearly every Monday for more than 20 years. As his heath failed, I became a caregiver. I never thought of myself as a caregiver. I was a son doing what sons do.
I am so thankful that we had talked and that everyone, including my father, was in agreement. When hospice called and asked whether or not to treat my father’s infection, I panicked for just a moment because I knew what my “no” meant. But, I knew what to say. I was sad and didn’t sleep the rest of the night, even though I knew I had done the right thing.
I moved my father to the nursing home four days before his death. I said to the staff that met us at the door, “This is John. He is moving in today.” I spoke these words with a deep sadness, with fear, anger and a sense of failure. I couldn’t protect him from this.
Two days before his death, I lied to my dad. I’m sure as a kid I had lied before, but this lie is the only one I remember. He was alone and scared and didn’t understand what was happening to him. He was holding my hand tightly and said to me with tears in his eyes, “Don’t leave me.” I lied and said, “I won’t,” knowing that I would be leaving in 20 minutes. I cannot find the words to describe my emotional state as I walked away.
Unlike my mom’s funeral, I remember the readings for my father’s funeral Mass but I do not remember a word of Father Mike’s homily. I don’t think I heard a word of it. My family told me after Mass that I had looked “out of it.” They were concerned and wondered if I was OK.
I have a great devotion to martyrs, especially the Mexican martyrs of the Cristero War in the 1920s in Mexico. I had rosaries which had been blessed by touching the relics of some of these martyrs. I took those to my family to pray the rosary for my father. I had red rosaries for my aunts, uncle, nieces and nephews to remember the sacrifice of the martyrs as we prayed for my father. It was important to me to ask their blessing for my father.
One of my favorite prayers in the funeral Mass is the Song of Farewell. “Saints of God, come to his aid! Hasten to meet him angels of the Lord! Receive his soul and present him to God Most High…”
As we drew near to that prayer in the Mass my brain started screaming, “Wake up, pay attention, this prayer is important. Don’t miss it.”
During the Song of Farewell, I received the gift of my father’s funeral. My heart saw a traditional-looking angel followed by six Mexican martyrs leading my father to God. The angel said, “This is John. He is moving in today.” I heard the words as comfort and filled with joy. I knew things were OK.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.”
(Father Bernie Weir is pastor of St. James Parish in Washington.)