By Sister Kathleen Osbelt, OSF
“Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” These are the words from the Roman Missal which I recently heard once again at the funeral of a dear friend. “Our hope of resurrection dawned” is another way of saying that Christ’s promise of eternal life in union with God becomes a reality for the loved one for whom we mourn. While these words are a consolation, they do not take away the pain of separation.
In my 27 years of working with those who are dying and with my personal losses of friends and family, I have given much thought to death and the separation it causes. I have heard so many questions: Where did my loved one go? How do I know they are still alive in some form? Do you think they are ok? Will we really be together again someday?
These are probably the same questions that the early immigrants asked upon leaving home, knowing they would never again return to their native land. I think too of those who were sent to the leprasariums on Kalaupapa on Molokai, never to see their loved ones again. Almost daily I receive reports of those being deported, ripped from their family members because their presence is “not legal.” Indeed, the separation from loved ones is heartbreaking, but even more so if we do not believe that “In Him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality” (Eucharistic prayer, Mass of Resurrection).
We at Francis House have witnessed many testimonies indicating that our loved ones live on. Even if we did not believe the words of Jesus about resurrection, these signs stand on their own. In the early days Francis House was a small, old, two-family home. A resident, a woman who was in her last hours, asked me to close the shade because the “light is too bright.” There was no window or lamp in front of her. There have been scores of residents who have spoken to “others” in the room who we could not see. We have heard: “Can’t you see the angel in the corner?” and “I am talking to my cousin” (who had died previously), and “I see my husband but there is like a thin veil between him and me.” There are too many times to count of the residents who have lifted their arms out to “someone” who came for them. One resident was unconscious for days but at the moment of her death she sat up, raised her arms out in front of her (though no one was standing there) and died with a big smile on her face. These are just a few of the examples of why we at Francis House know there is life after the death. In fact, we call the moment of death another “birthday.”
My word, my intention, for the year is “waiting.” I chose that because I have a difficult time waiting for anything, patience is not my forte. But in another sense, I/we wait on God, wait for God’s inspiration, wait for God to show us the way, and wait to see God in others. Truthfully, God waits on us as well. God waits for us to know how loved we are. God waits on us in the sense of caring for us. God waits on us to see the beauty in and around us. God waits for us to wake up to the fact that Heaven is now, in the love we give, in the love we receive. God waits on us to make room for the “Kingdom within.” God waits for us to see that it’s all here and now; all the gifts that God has promised. Even after death, life continues for each of us but in a very transformed way.
For us, the staff and volunteers at Francis House, what is most important on this side of the journey, is to provide a loving environment where our residents can get a taste of God’s unconditional love. Our residents’ physical needs are met with great attention given to making sure that each one is comfortable, clean, as pain free as possible, and is surrounded by a pleasing environment.Their feelings are validated, while we make sure they know they are not alone. Often times we facilitate peace through conversation and daily visits with members of our pastoral team. In actuality, we all feel that every day we receive much more than we are given.
So yes, our separations with loved ones leave us brokenhearted and grieving. But as Paul tell us through his letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (1Cor 13:12).
Sister Kathleen Osbelt, OSF, is a founder and the current Director of Mission Outreach for Francis House, a home in Syracuse caring for people with terminal illnesses.