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A Lesson of Beauty in the Wake of Death

August 6, AD2014 4 Comments

Our little city has been reeling.

In a very short time, there were two deaths so compelling that they each independently made international news: here and here.

In addition, a duo of sisters I am friends with lost a sister of theirs who was a single mom leaving a teen son with no parents or grandparents. A precious Priest who made an annual trip here to support his ministry to battered women in India died during his visit. My hospital perinatal burial program just completed our quarterly burial (of 14 babies) and the funeral home obituaries listed another young local parent who died leaving six children.

I went to two visitations and four funerals in seven days; I finally just left my black heels by the door ready to put them back on rather than putting them away.

So many difficult losses in such a short time. In our grief we could be tempted to despair, but in despair we might miss the lessons left behind for us. This is true in each case but very much so with with the loss of Sarah Harkins.

Many articles have been written, but I like this one the best because it includes part of the homily at her funeral. Six days earlier, Father Cummings had officiated at my Memorial Service for the 14 babies. In a world where we don’t expect the deaths of babies or young mothers, he was tasked with ministering to both situations. I wish the whole homily could have been printed; it was inspired.

For Sarah’s sake I’m glad we did not know each other, because I most often meet women her age when they suffer the deaths of their babies. For my sake, I wish that circumstances had gently allowed one of our mutual friends to introduce us. They told me that she knew of me and that feels like an abundant blessing.

What these ladies shared with me in the days after her death was the vivid story of a woman who lived her seemingly ordinary life in such a wonderfully full and holy way that when the sadness of her death shined a light on her, what the world saw was amazingly beautiful.

(Full disclosure: I shared the above paragraph with 3 of her very close friends and asked them if they had anything to add and they said that this is exactly the message they want to world to hear and that Sarah “really lived out the true meaning of the domestic church.” See this lovely blog post to meet some of her friends and see some sweet BFF pictures)

Mother Angelica has said (paraphrasing) that those who write about the Saints are going to be in big trouble (with God) for not telling the whole truth about the real struggles the Saints faced. They were human, with flaws and challenges. When they are presented as perfect we often feel like we can never accomplish what they were able to do and become too discouraged to even try.

In the story that she wrote with her life, Sarah has given us a wonderful example of devotion, love and holiness. I hope that those who knew her well don’t ignore or forget her weaknesses, foibles and difficulties because that was her humanity — the same humanity that we each wrestle with in our attempt to live a holy life.

We do a disservice to her memory if we look at her example, flatter her with our words, ignore her struggles and and continue along unchanged. We honor her example if we use it to dig deep, learn what she showed us with her life and allow her example to teach and change us.

The world will do its best to define Sarah by her death and discourage people by the sadness of it but those who understand the bigger picture can and will be profoundly encouraged by her beautiful witness.  

From Sarah’s blog:

I also was reminded of death at Mass this morning when the priest did a really cool thing. After he processed in, he lit a metal bowl filled with palm leaves on fire. The leaves lit up to a good size flame, then, the palms and the fire disappeared as quickly as they appeared into a pile of ashes. It was an excellent pictorial of what the priest says as he puts the cross of ashes on the foreheads: “Remember man, you are dust and from dust you shall return.” This is not meant to be a threat! I shouldn’t be scared of death, I should be looking forward to going to heaven. While the flames were burning away the palms, I thought of what will be left of me when I am turned to dust. Will I have filled my heart with earthly things and earthly loves so much so that I DO have death to fear? Or will I have spent my time wisely on earth getting to know my God for the great lover that he is? When my body turns to ash, will my soul fly home to heaven where it will be greeted by the Lover it’s always known?

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Tammy Ruiz Ziegler has been a Nurse for 30 years and spent most of her career in Neonatal Intensive Care. For 10 years, she has been a Perinatal Bereavement Coordinator - caring for women and families suffering miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death and SIDS. Part of her work involves assisting parents in preparing for births when the baby has received the diagnosis of a life limiting condition (often called "Perinatal Hospice"). In addition to her Nursing education, she studied (but did not become certified in) Clinical Pastoral Education at a Catholic Hospital in the midwest. She has been on EWTN and speaks regularly to Physicians & Nurses on the topic of perinatal loss care. Her work has been translated into Polish, Spanish, Czech, French, Italian & Japanese. Her career was both fragmented and enhanced by having 14 different jobs because of moves for her husband who was an active duty Officer in the USMC. She has 3 quasi-adult children and one super-cute grandchild. A convert to the Catholic Church, she was widowed after 26 years of marriage but recently married a man she met when they were both children.

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