It is well known that when someone important dies, significant events, which we normally look forward to with joyful anticipation, become tinged with sadness, and the lead up to them becomes filled with dread. My father died at the beginning of December last year and so Christmas was a horrible and painful blur, made even worse by the fact that our family had to be apart because of Covid restrictions. We then had to face my father’s birthday in February, which we managed to get through with a lot of tears and even more champagne, though separated again. I had been dreading Easter – the empty seat on the pew and at the lunch table – since then.
During this period between my father’s death and Easter, I oscillated between feeling numbness and pain, with not much in between. Instead of praying, I instead fixated madly on the precise details of how and when my father and I would be reunited (because he promised me we would be just before he died). I replayed my father’s final hours in my head repeatedly in the hope that I might come upon some sign of where he was going and whether or not he was happy to be going there. Rather than going to Mass, I consumed books about grief and near-death experiences, which were oddly comforting, but ultimately unsatisfying. But how exactly will it work? I would ask myself. How will I know where to find him and what will he look like? Unsurprisingly, I kept concluding it was all just too far-fetched to ever be possible.
This might sound mad but it all felt rational at the time, and still does when I allow my mind to stray in that direction. I felt desperate and was looking in all sorts of places, except for the church, for reassurance and proof that somewhere else, someday my father and I would embrace and laugh together again, discuss our favourite books and indulge in political outrage over our favourite comestibles. When my beloved godmother and many other important people in my life suggested it would never be quite like this again, I just rephrased the question multiple times before giving up on the conversation.
Every Sunday morning, as my husband urged me to go to Mass, I somehow, despite my best efforts, could not put one foot in front of the other. One morning, on my way out, I descended into a heap of tears on the kitchen floor and never made it into the car. I confided to an older friend that I was feeling worse and that my faith was not comforting me. She encouraged me to go to Mass, especially over Easter, which, she said, always made her feel better, not worse, about loss.
So on Palm Sunday, I dragged myself to Mass for the first time in months. It is not an exaggeration to say that I felt the cloud start to lift almost instantly. By going through the motions of the Mass and hearing Jesus’ words for the first time since before Christmas, I suddenly realised that I had spent the past months consumed by self-pity, and that the questions which had been bothering me were really completely irrelevant. To intellectualise death is indulgent and ultimately pointless – something which had seemed perfectly obvious to me before. Death is ugly, painful and sad, but Jesus’ own death and his resurrection give us hope. This is the proof I was looking for; I had just been choosing to look away.
At Mass on Easter Day, our priest spoke during the homily of a robin which had found its way into the church one evening and, despite hours of coaxing in the direction of an open door, could not quite find its way out. Father Bernard equated the robin’s behaviour to that of us humans, who are offered freedom by Jesus Christ should we choose to accept it. Most of the time, however, we, like the robin, choose to hurl ourselves headlong at closed windows and brick walls, which is exactly what I had been doing for the last four months.
While I am a long way still from “acceptance”, which is deemed to be the final stage of grief, Easter has brought a glimmer of light with it, and much hope. It has genuinely made me feel better, as my wise old friend said it would, and I feel elated that my faith has emerged stronger as a result.
Olenka Hamilton is a Catholic Herald columnist.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
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