I still wake up in the dead of night sobbing silently and think, “why?”
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”“A Grief Observed, pg 3, paragraph 1, C.S. Lewis.
4 years ago on President’s Day, my sister Paige had the day off and was eager to babysit my then-6 month old daughter. After she was late without explanation, panic started to set in. I called her phone, and every time it went to voicemail my heart rate rose. Had she been kidnapped? Was she raped? Whatever the case, I knew things were dire.
My sister was the person who was excessively apologetic if she knew she would be even 5 minutes late. Calls and texts with my mom ensued, and after lining up new childcare, I was resolved to drive the 45 minutes it took to get to her apartment to begin investigating where she may have gone. I had no idea what I was going to do, but felt I needed to do something.
Before I left, I called my husband, and I wasn’t expecting his response, “You need to call the Hennepin County Police Department. I was on my way to my job site, and I drove by a really bad accident on Highway 12…” I felt the floor drop out beneath me. I knew it was her.
As I paced in my daughter’s nursery, my mom called the police and was transferred to the officers on the scene. It was mere minutes before the police asked my poor mom if they could send a couple officers to my parent’s home.
The worst was confirmed. Paige was dead. I collapsed and cried out from the depths of my soul.
Shaking, I called my siblings and my biological dad (who lives out of state) to break the news: “Paige was in a car accident this morning, and she’s dead…” The words felt clumsy falling off of my tongue, and there was no way to soften the blow.
When confronted with a high-stress situation, we have three natural responses: fight, flee, or freeze. My instinct was to fight as best as I could, which at the time meant keeping busy and trying to be “strong” for my family. My family met with the officers that first responded to her accident day and listened as they recounted what their investigation found. We left the meeting clutching the blood-stained belongings that were recovered from my sister’s mangled car. We celebrated her funeral Mass on February 19th- the day we should have been celebrating her 28th birthday. She was buried the following day.
I forced myself live as normally as I could, but for more than two years, I would imagine what her last moments of life must have been like nearly every time I sat down behind the wheel of my car. Was she scared? Did she see the oncoming car? Did she really die on impact? What were her last thoughts when she slid into the on-coming lane? Did she suffer even a moment? These questions and imaginations crept in most often when I was driving alone.
It nearly killed me to know she was completely alone in her last moments.
“He wept” and so did I
Depression set in quite some time later, or at least, that’s when I noticed it. Between her accident and the fallout with friends and family, I felt utterly alone. I realized quickly after her accident that talking about my sister made people uncomfortable and that some thought I was seeking vain attention. Some relationships and friendships were lost due to indifference or outright misunderstanding. The phrases, “God never gives you more than you can handle ” or “everything happens for a reason” spilled easily from well-meaning friends and family, and I sensed that it was better to suppress my grief. I often hid in my room or in any bathroom I could find just to cry. Those solitary moments were my only consolation.
The sacraments, prayer, and Sacred Scripture saved me, and I began to see a therapist. I clung to my faith in my loneliness. Mass became a regular, if not daily, part of my life. I prayed incessantly, meditating most often on our Lord’s bitter passion- the rejection and loneliness he experienced as he sweat blood in the garden before his crucifixion resonated intensely with me in my darkest moments. I found the strength to forgive through finding things to be grateful for, especially gratitude that those who hurt me the most in my despair had no idea what it was like to lose a best friend, let alone a sister, so suddenly.
“He wept.” (John 35:11) became my life-verse. Christ’s own grief at the death of Lazarus was so human and raw. I found hope in this simple verse. God himself, being fully man and fully divine in the person of Christ, wept despite knowing full well he would raise Lazarus back to life. For the first time since my sister’s death, I understood it was okay to grieve. Contrary to the mistaken (and often subconscious to many Christians) idea that grief somehow undermines our acceptance or appreciation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, grief is not a denial of the hope we have in the resurrection, rather, it is a part of being human and loving others. Like so many things in our Catholic faith, this paradox of grief and hope can be experienced at the same time.
Preparing for Easter Joy
I remember stumbling upon a quote by author, Jamie Anderson:
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
For anyone who is reading this and has also experienced tremendous loss, I want you to know that it’s okay to grieve. Grief is an emotion that points to an eternal truth- we’re not made for death.
“For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40)
We’re made for everlasting life, and this is what our hearts long for. This is also why Sacred Scripture and the sacraments are essential during times of desolation. The grace we receive in the sacraments is efficacious and draws us deeper into Christ’s mystery revealed in Scripture.
Christ is the Word made flesh, and the sacraments confer His grace in a very real, metaphysical way. When I was emotionally drained, physically tired, and sorrowful, Satan was prone to attack my faith, my marriage, or my joy. Consuming the Word and going to Reconciliation were like a healing salve for my soul. Where wounds once were (and some still are), there are mostly scars.
During this time, I discovered that while we suffer in our human condition, we can also discover inexplicable consolation in trusting that we have a Savior who took on human flesh, experienced grief, pain, suffering, and loneliness for our sake. Christ’s glorified body also testifies to his earthly suffering, and compels us to cry out like St. Thomas, “My Lord and My God!” Through His death and resurrection, Christ ensured that those who believe in him “would not perish, but have eternal life.”
As we prepare for Lent, a season of dryness, desolation, and penance, let us look with hope toward Easter when we’ll exclaim at the Easter Mass “Oh happy fault! That gained for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”