My uncle, my Dad’s brother, passed away recently. Although he had health problems in recent years, his death at the age of 55 was still unexpected.
There is something completely inevitable about death – it will come – and yet it still feels so abrupt, so sudden, so jarring when it happens. When I got the call on a Monday morning a surge of emotion coursed through me. All day I felt highs and lows. I had an overwhelming need for the world to stop. Just for a moment, I needed it to stop. But the world doesn’t stop.
Questions ran through my mind. Thoughts about life and death hit me hard, like I had been punched in the gut. Except for my Mom’s brother who passed away when I was a freshman in high school, this was the only other person close to me who had passed away. I was feeling it for the first time as a wife, as a mother – as an adult. Death was suddenly personal – so very, very real.
At first glance I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t have many opportunities to spend time with my uncle. He had never married and for my childhood he lived some distance away so I rarely saw him. But my siblings and I would always write him letters and share our childish dreams and musings.
That all changed when, nearly seven years ago, my uncle came to live at my parent’s house. His health had declined and my parents decided to open their home to him. At the time, I was living at home only weeks away from getting married. It was a special time. We shared a lot of laughs. He became friends with my fiance. He was there at my wedding – a quiet presence because he never wanted to be the center of attention. He visited us at our first home. And a few months later he was there when we announced to my parents they were going to be grandparents again.
As I grieved I began to realize that, although always an unassuming presence, my uncle had quietly weaved himself into the fabric of my life. On a deeper level, I was realizing that sometimes you don’t know just how much you love someone until they are gone.
On Wednesday I packed our bags and my three children and I drove the more than six hours to the Missouri Ozarks to be among family. As the road began to dip and rise I sensed a powerful few days ahead of me. Normally my trips to the Ozarks were for vacations and family reunions – always joyful times. This time, for the first time, it was going to be different. As a family we could celebrate together, but could we grieve?
I never fully grasped the importance of the Catholic Faith in the grief cycle. It was a vague notion. Praying for the dead and burying the dead are works of mercy, but what does that mean in reality? It means tearful goodbyes with your aunt at your side. It means a Grandpa who acknowledges that he cries easily too. It’s a hug at the right moment. It’s sharing happy stories. It’s a family gathered at visitation to pray the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary. It’s the hopeful celebration of Holy Mass. It’s a bugle playing TAPS and a flag presented to a grieving mother. It’s the rich celebration of life. It’s being hopeful in the midst of tremendous pain. It’s a family gathered together in faith sending a son, a brother, an uncle to his final resting place.
Yet in the midst of the grieving and the unexpected deepening of my own faith, I still felt the need for the world to stop – if only for a moment. And then it happened, when I least expected it and from a seemingly ordinary gesture, the world stopped. It was on Friday morning as we filed down the road to the Church and then to the cemetery. Cars began to stop. People got out. A gentleman raised a salute. They were stopping for someone they had never met; someone they never knew.
It was a simple gesture; something I had personally done many times before merely out of habit, even tradition. It was suddenly a deeply moving and powerful gesture, not only for the deceased but for the family and friends still living and grieving. It was as if the whole world stood still to acknowledge a life – his life. And that’s when I knew I could begin to let go.
May he rest in peace. May all the faithful departed rest in peace.