Many of you have undoubtedly had profound experiences with death so perhaps you will not only relate to my experiences with death but find my reflections helpful.
I come from a very large Volga German Catholic family. The Volga Germans were an ethnic German group who lived and thrived along the Volga River far southeast of Moscow before immigrating to the Great Plains of America. To be a Catholic Volga German American has quite often meant being part of a very large family. Case and point: my father was one of thirteen children who lived to birth. He and my twelve aunts and uncles would go on to have 71 children. I have three sisters and 67 first cousins on my father’s side of the family.
The blessings of such a large family are many. Love is magnified. The opportunities for heartache and sorrow also increase in a large clan that has remained close knit. Each July without fail we celebrate a family reunion. These gatherings are very large as we have become cognizant that the days of our lives precious and fleeting. This fact was driven home deeply for me recently. Over the years, of our tribe of 71 cousins, only three had passed on, including only one who had lived to adulthood. We are now between the ages of 71 and 34 (I am the youngest of the 71 cousins). Death has simply not been a familiar reality for us. I am not well acquainted with losing cousins.
I Was Not Familiar With Death
In a family of so many cousins, there can be great challenges in forming a close bond with any of them. I suppose this is a good problem to have. This particular cousin who had endured a lengthy battle with Melanoma was one of the few I had bonded with closely, in large part because of encounters with her at Mass in our hometown witnessing her intense devotion to the Eucharist and love of the rosary as well as her charming and witty sense of humor. I was always drawn to her. And as her sons attested, she was always positive, always trusted the Lord and never complained about her illness. Grace had transformed her. Now she has gone home and I miss her deeply.
Catholic vigils and funerals are unmatched in their beauty and ability to heal us. The presiding priest comforts the surviving friends and relatives, speaking words of truth and hope to the soul of the departed:
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian!
May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
with Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
with Joseph, and all the angels and saints. . . .
May you return to [your Creator]
who formed you from the dust of the earth.
May holy Mary, the angels, and all the saints
come to meet you as you go forth from this life. . . (CCC 1020)
At least in Northeastern Colorado where I reside, the traditional Catholic Vigil the night before the funeral includes an open casket, the opportunity to bless the deceased with holy water and the recitation of the rosary with the hands of the deceased prayerfully woven with a rosary, sometimes one that was important to them. Seeing the mortal remains of someone so full of life until almost the very end rocked my world.
Though bittersweet, I had the opportunity to clasp my cousin’s lifeless rosary wrapped hands the evening before we said goodbye to her at her funeral. Her husband and sons somewhat inadvertently had had her buried with the rosary I had given her years before when her battle with this brutal illness had first commenced. My prayers for her and her own prayers concretized in those beads will remain with her body until it rises again. I had desired to have a special rosary made for her hands for the funeral but had hesitated. It was not my place.
The Baby Blue Rosary
It seems God intervened and the baby blue rosary I gave her long before went with the body her spirit left behind. It was a simultaneously crushing and joyful moment discovering this at the funeral home. Touchingly, the rosary maker I enlisted to make a special cancer battle rosary for my cousin years ago, a neighbor of mine, who sees as her mission spreading the Gospel through rosaries, had been the main character of a dream I experienced weeks before my cousin died. In this dream, she had prepared her own home to take care of my cousin in her final days. God was at work. There was much symbolism that would soon be fulfilled that dream.
And in the days since my cousin left us, some struggles and puzzles of my own life have become easier. She is praying for me. I am praying for her too as she journeys home. I am intently asking her to pray for me. As a friend noted one night to me, when a grandmother he was close with passed, some things immediately got better. She was watching out for him. The faithful departed are close to Jesus.
My last living memory of my cousin was her walking down the side aisle after receiving Communion on Mother’s Day in our beautiful church a few weeks before her death. She was weak, not very firm of footing, with the stained glass windows gleaming and an expression of totally focused reverence for her God on her face. She was a warrior for Christ, battle beads of the rosary included. I will forever cherish that memory and strive to have such devotion to the Eucharist.
Her Death Rattled Me
The death of some you know will hit you more intensely than you anticipate. Personally, this death has quieted and rattled me as a writer lately. But for those of you that have lost children, siblings, spouses, and parents, let me say I realize I don’t know that kind of parting. I was obviously not as close to my cousin as her devoted husband, sons, and siblings were. But we shared much in common personality and Faith wise. She was intentional in her concern and love even for me. I’ve been to many funerals of loved ones. This was different. I don’t entirely know why.
I’m struggling still to wrap my mind around what I experienced at her casket. Meanwhile, I’ll also wrap my rosary around my own hands like she did often in this life. And Trust. I know some baby blue beads are on her hands still. God’s grace and love are sufficient. But it doesn’t always feel good. Nor is it supposed to always feel good. Don’t get too comfortable in this world. We aren’t home yet.