By Jim O'Leary
An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.
Sept. 9, 2002
On death and dying . . . how we react and survive the loss of loved ones
Like all of you I have lost loved ones: my parents, Ed and Mary O'Leary; my brothers, Myles and Paul; and aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, but I have never had the kind of grief that comes with losing a spouse or a child.
I have no idea of such terrible pain as that. The oldest living American who just died at the age of 114 said the hardest part of her life was losing her four children, and I think that would be true of all of us.
I find it hard to imagine losing a child or my spouse. I don't know how I would react.
Yet, I do know that nothing is the same after the death of those we love.
The grief upon the losing a loved one is terrible. Something breaks within us, and where love once was, an empty space now achingly reminds us of our loss. Those whom we love are irreplaceable, because each love is unique.
I have an advantage, though, in facing my own death and that of others, by having grown up in a small town.
People in rural areas are far more aware of death than those in the urban world. Living in a small town is one of the healthiest things we can do. Being realistic about death is also another of the healthiest things we can do.
The tolling bell of St. Mary's could carry for a three-mile radius (at least people in Montrose claimed to hear it sometimes).
That bell, usually tolled by Tom O'Connell during my childhood, announced the deaths to our community. The old people used to say when they heard the bell (after they had blessed themselves), "Ah, well, they usually die in threes, don't they?"
Sometimes the slow, mournful tolling took forever, as the age of the newly deceased person got a solemn, reverberating peal of the bell for each year of his or her life.
In small towns, people turn out for funerals. In larger cities, the only mourners who come to funerals are those from the work place. There are no communities in big American cities.
I went to a graveside funeral in Minneapolis one time where I was the only mourner. We were burying an old man who lived alone in a dingy walk-up apartment. He was getting a "county burial."
I guess I shouldn't say I was the only mourner, because the funeral director was also there. While the graveside prayers were being said by the priest, I saw the funeral director, who was standing by, wiping away his tears, totally saddened that a man should die all alone and friendless.
Even before I saw that, I had always had a great respect for funeral directors, who are experts, after all, on death and grief, and more often than not, a great comfort to the families who come to them, not knowing what to do or how to act.
I think my admiration for funeral directors started when I was an altar boy. The funeral directors always tipped us, and the money was used for our altar boy trips to Excelsior Amusement Park.
I also admired them for the fact that I saw them forgive us, on at least two occasions - one time one of us threw up in the back seat of a new Cadillac limousine, and another time when a careless altar boy burned the carpet of the plush funeral car with the bottom of a red-hot censer on the way to the cemetery. And then, at the cemetery, that same altar boy, standing next to the funeral director, still holding the smoking censer, threw up on the poor man's black shiny shoes and pants cuffs.
But it wasn't only my Waverly experience that made me fascinated with the subject of death. Sister Mary Micheas had put us on to Shakespeare, and it didn't take long to discover that death and dying were his major themes, and not just in "Hamlet."
Further, all the great world literature has been about death. Even Harry Potter gets into the act.
Professor Dumbledore says in the first Harry Potter book: "To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."
The fearsome villain in the Harry Potter series is named "Voldemort," corrupt French for "Flight From Death." Voldemort's main fault is his unnatural attempts to live forever and he would stoop to any and all crime to do so.
But we all have to die, and in my opinion, dying and our preparation for it are the most important facts of our life.
The following are the thoughts of the priest in the novel "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene, who is sitting in his jail cell in Mexico facing his execution during the persecution of the church during the 1920s:
"What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless.
"I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead.
"Soon, he wouldn't even be a memory . . . Tears poured down his face . . . He felt only immense disappointment he had to go to God empty-handed, and with nothing done at all.
"It seemed to him at that moment that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would have needed a little self restraint and a little courage.
"He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end, there was only one thing that counted, to be a saint."
In pondering death, I also have had to turn to religion. I hope to talk about that next week, along with some book recommendations.
To be continued . . .
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