Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Suffering”

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Dolores. In Spanish, it means “suffering.” Catholics use the phrase “Our Lady of Dolours” when talking about the sorrowful mother. Dolores, then, would be a fitting name for a woman who suffered much and loved Mary much.

Dolores was my mother. She was an incredibly loving woman. I credit the great relationship I have with my own daughter to the way she raised me.

While we kids thought the world of her, my mother told us that she never had much confidence in herself as she was growing up. Even with her parents, whom she adored, she often felt as though she was the least loved child in the family. Her older sister seemed to be everybody’s favorite. Sometimes I wonder if her insecurity was an early sign of the depression that would haunt her later in life.

Her first marriage lasted for two weeks. One night she and her husband, John, were taking a walk. She turned one way as they reached a corner, not knowing he planned to turn the other direction. John put his hands around her neck and choked her for that. He did not stop until she screamed.

This is how she learned she had married a mentally ill man. Mom ended up sleeping locked in her bathroom that night and moved out the next day.

This was back in a time when divorced women, especially divorced Catholics, were shunned. People she considered friends would see her coming and cross the street to avoid her, even friends who knew John was mentally ill. Her former husband sometimes stood outside her window at night, calling her name. It was a scary time for her.

Years later I met the woman who had introduced her to John. That was the day I learned how mom was treated by friends and fellow Catholics. All these years later it was still a difficult story for her to tell.

She married my dad in 1953. Their marriage lasted for 53 years, until her death in 2006.

My dad was Baptist when they married. She later learned that his mother had sent him several anti-Catholic pamphlets while he was stationed in Germany with the Army. It made her feel like an outsider. As a testimonial to her faith and her love of Catholicism, my dad would later become Catholic. Like so many converts, he would contribute much to the Church.

Mom loved the Church so much that the day I called her to tell her my husband was becoming Catholic, her response was “My heart just leapt!” She was already struggling with mental and physical illnesses were so severe she often could not leave home, but she managed to attend the Easter Vigil Mass the night Gerry was received into the Church. Our daughter celebrated her First Holy Communion that same vigil. Though her class was scheduled to receive this sacrament two weeks later, our priest thought it was fitting that Marissa and her dad celebrate this momentous occasion together.

Even when I was young, it was clear that my mother had some anxiety problems. It began with phobias. She gradually became more and more afraid of the kinds of things that affected her daily life. For example, mom feared to ride in a car over hilly terrain. This would not be a problem in some places, but we live in an area full of bluffs and valleys.

When she was in her fifties, she found a lump in her breast. She was convinced it was cancer. While most people have a healthy fear of death, her fear was much bigger. Death was on her mind constantly. Her lump was benign, but when she found another one a few months later she was convinced the first one had been cancerous and the cancer was now spreading. Fortunately, she was wrong, but this was the beginning of a more full-blown anxiety for her.

The torments of increasing anxiety led her to depression. Despite her fear of death, she was suicidal at times. I did not worry that she would kill herself. She was too afraid that suicide would lead her to hell. Her mental suffering was so painful that she consented to a variety of treatments in an attempt to just make it go away, or at least to improve.

Mom went to counselors and psychiatrists and tried various medications. She even underwent electroshock therapy treatments. Twice. She was left with her mental health problems still intact, while some of her most precious memories were destroyed.

As my mother got older she began to develop more physical problems. Pneumonia severe enough to be hospitalized was a frequent problem. Mom developed osteoporosis, enduring severe pain when bones in her back broke. She was diagnosed with a host of illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease and the autoimmune disorder that would eventually take her life.

Mom would receive a diagnosis and we would pray, hoping for her health to improve. Each new diagnosis affected her mental health as well, but at some point, she would come to terms with her “new normal.” We would praise God for that. I often told her the good news is that she must have finally hit bottom. It was never long, though, before the next round of symptoms, a new diagnosis, and a new low.

At some point during all of this, I developed my own chronic illness as the result of medical error. Now I knew in an even more personal way what it was like to suffer, though my suffering did not come close to mirroring hers. I prayed for us both and noticed more than ever the suffering that is going on all around us all the time.

Several Christians let me know we could be healed if we just prayed in the correct way. Some would point to parables suggesting persistence in prayer, while others would find verses to support their beliefs that we should pray just once with trust. I learned from others that my problem was lack of faith. I told them that if this were true, they needed to have enough faith to heal me.

People who think Scripture gives us all the answers to a happy life would point to the passage where we are told that if we ask anything in Jesus’ name, it will be granted. I read that passage, knowing that this is just not true. It raised a question: if Scripture cannot be relied on, does God exist?

Ultimately all of this led me to the beauty of Catholic teaching on suffering. In a story I can tell another time, it led me to understand our Catholic faith better and convinced me of its truths.

I began to understand the suffering God allowed me. Certainly, there were fruits. I questioned, though, suffering that seemed more pointless. What about suffering that never seemed to be relieved, suffering in a woman who already loved God so dearly? What about mom?

In time, mom developed what I suspect was a kind of dementia. She would mostly be fine, but sometimes I would call her and she would be that “other woman.” Rather than the kind, loving woman I knew, she would be the woman who could make me cry. Even her voice was different. I knew which woman I was talking to the minute she said “hello.”

In her frequent hospitalizations, she would become convinced hospital staff was trying to kill her. During her final hospital stay, one night a nurse called me. I had been there earlier in the day and mom and I had shared a loving afternoon together. The nurse called to tell me she had developed anxiety after I left and was asking for me. Was I willing to come back? I was always the person who could calm her.

That night was to be different, though. That was the evening when I could no longer console her. It was the night she asked me to leave because she saw Satan. In me. Now she had nobody to ease her anxiety.

Her suffering wasn’t over yet. She developed internal bleeding. The doctor wanted to do a colonoscopy. She was frail, so the anesthesiologist had to be careful with the amount of sedation he gave her. After the ordeal, she told me she was awake during much of it. She added that it was the worst experience of her life. All I could think was here is my mom, at the end of her life, still hitting new lows.

At some point you just say, “Enough, Lord. Please grant her some peace.”

A few days later it was obvious she was dying. She was a woman who loved passionately, and we loved her just as passionately. We were surrounding her in her last days. In that way, she had a good death. Her granddaughters sang to her the evening before her passing, something that was always so special to her. Later, after we had left and it was just mom and my dad, he spoke of his love for her. He even recalled the day he knew he was in love with mom, right down to the dress she was wearing. Eventually, she started breathing less often until finally, she wasn’t breathing at all.

There are some who interpret Scripture in such a way that they would see her as a failure. If her faith had been solid, she would never have had to endure all of that suffering.

The Catholic Church shows me how her suffering was not without meaning. It was not worthless. It helped all of us who were with her to grow. She loved God and her family so much that if given the choice, she would happily do it all over again if it brought us more fully to God. The Catholic Church also speaks of Purgatory. I wonder how much of Mom’s suffering was purifying, helping her to see the face of God much more quickly.

She wrote a lot in her last years. Sometimes she wrote lists of medications or schedules. Other writings are words of love towards her family. The most difficult words to read are her words that try to describe her suffering. Her words speak to enormous pain. She would question why God allowed this, and plead for his healing.

Rather than being like me and questioning God’s existence, she trusted Him. Ultimately she would end with words of love to God, concluding, “Your will be done.” Given my own lack of faith during my trials, I am awed that she never turned from God. She had the attitude of the saints.

As I age, I am aware that illness and suffering become more likely. I am concerned that I will not suffer in a holy manner. Because I suspect that the Litany of the Saints could now include Saint Dolores, I can only say, “Saint Dolores, pray for me.”

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4 thoughts on “Via Dolorosa, or “The Way of Suffering””

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