Friday, March 11, 2011


Pathologists follow death like night follows day.  And when we encounter it, we dissect it, in part to give voice to the departed but also in part out of a pathological (no pun intended) need to know, to organize and sort and make sense of the world around us.  This is, by the way, a deep, inborn trait, and not an acquired skill.  I am a pathologist because I am this way; I am not this way because I am a pathologist.
So naturally, in the aftermath of grief over Richard's death, I find myself in the familiar posture of the pathologist, metaphorically leaning over a stainless steel table, picking apart the last few days.  One thing I know from many years of standing at morgue tables, and dealing, if at one remove, with the aftermath of death sudden or violent:  It moves people.  The wake of such experiences is broad and deep and deeply unsettling; it can knock a person loose from his moorings or  swamp his life in a heartbeat.
It is at such times we are weakest, at such times that the adversary, always ready to exploit an advantage, goes on the attack, with anger and fear, and doubt and grief.  Especially with doubt.  For those of us who have spent so much time in the fields of the dead, that doubt is never very far away.  Handling, exploring, dissecting a body so recently warm and animated, now so cold and lifeless has a way of enforcing the notion that what we see--and only what we see--is what we get.  Knowing the hows and whys of when a body ceases to function, and the utter hopelessness of fixing the completely broken undermines faith in the hereafter, in resurrection, perhaps even in redemption.  One's vision can become very narrow in the morgue if one deals only in the immediate and broken and not in the grand design.
And so, on reflection, it surprises me not that all those questions, experiences, doubts that lurk in the back of my overtrained mind came instantly to the fore when I heard the news.  He was just talking with his brother when he slumped over and he was gone.
Gone, indeed, that gentle Southern euphemism for the D-word that is never uttered in polite society; people are never dead, they have passed, they are departed, they have gone.  And that is what it feels like, gone.  Gone, never to return.  Whatever mystical nature it takes to completely and utterly believe and understand that this life is not all there is, I do not have it; my barque sails on the waters of doubt on a daily basis.  It doesn't take much wake to tip me off that balance, and this wake was large indeed.
I also know from many years in the morgue that in the face of sudden or violent death, people react to God.  They may turn toward HIm, or they may rail against Him, but it is the rare individual indeed who ignores Him altogether.  Even the most recalcitrant atheist will snap out in pain Where is your loving God now?   The most committed agnostic may find himself calling out for mercy from whatever power is out there in the Universe, if it exists at all....
And so in the rocking waters of my world in the aftermath of Tuesday, there intersected in my mind two prayers this morning, as I jogged, an intersection that put the pieces of the last few days together for me.  I am learning that, rather than making my morning rosary  and divine mercy chaplet a perfunctory exercise, praying them as I run actually forces me into internal silence. (Hypoxia will do that)  When it takes all that I have to be able to put one foot in front of the other, and pray, there's room and time for God to talk to me.  Ant talk He did, words unexpected and welcome that calmed the waves in my harbor.
The intersection was simply this: my morning offering:  
Nothing will happen to me today that was not foreseen by You and directed to my greater good from all eternity..
 and the ending prayer for the Divine Mercy Chaplet: 
Look kindly on us and increase in us Your mercy so that in difficult times we may not despair or become despondent but  with great confidence submit ourselves to Your Holy Will which is Love and Mercy itself.
Slowly, against the rhythm of my run, a thought formed in my mind as I  examined  the details of the events of the last two days.  First, the reality that what happened--all of it, even my doubts and my mixed motives if such they were--God knew from all eternity, and directed it to my good if I but embrace that good. Second, that that good might just be the very thing that worried at the edges of my mind.  After all, in the first aftermath of the news, my reaction, my first response was not just despair, but doubt, in  both the general and the particular senses.  Doubt--is there really anything more?  Doubt--why am I going to mass, why am I going to adoration, what does all that really mean, any why, oh why, does it feel like I am doing this just for me?  It was through the doubt that mercy became first focused, and then released.
The choice, not just of that moment, but of all of life, and so pervasive in Lent as to be the very essence of the season: Will you turn toward God, or away?
Toward.  That in difficult times.....  Toward. Perhaps not with great confidence, perhaps with no confidence at all, with just the merest leanings of faith, but toward none the less.  That turning, even amid the fear and the doubt was all I could manage, and it was all God needed.
I'm not enough of a theologian to argue the fine point of God's will, permissive and prescriptive.  Long years in the morgue taught me not to tread the ground of the why--Why did that drunk driver run over my little girl?  Why did that aneurysm decide to break just as he was walking down the aisle?  Why did such a good man die so young?  Why did an old man have to suffer?  I learned to limit myself to picking apart the how and putting it back together in a response that somehow made sense and a practical difference.
Really, it was very sudden and there was no pain.  No, there was nothing you could have done.  And knowing from seeing it, and standing beside it, that the pain lands all in the survivors.  Pain that must be endured, and can lead either to restoration or ruin.
In all those cases, and in this one, present and oh-so-bitter, all that I could offer were the facts that helped put it all in perspective.  Facts that point beyond themselves to a sense of order, dimly seen and partly understood, that might allow, someday, living with the reality in some sense of normalcy and peace.  That's the light that dissection can shed, the gift that a pathologist's mind holds locked in its recesses.  A little light for the path.
That, and the hope that in that light, we will turn toward, and not away.  And in the end, despite the pain and the doubt, that's what I did, instinctively, from my very bones.  Not really knowing why and not knowing what to expect, that's what I did.    The reality of that both humbles and delights me, at the same time it surprises me; more faith in me, perhaps, than I generally apprehend.  No great answers, no complicated demands, just a simple turn of the head and heart.  Perhaps that's all that the will of God required of me on that day: just to remember to turn toward Him and not away.  One small but beautiful act  of faith.
The rest can wait for later, for that's all the mercy that I need in the moment.


  1. A lot of places emphasize heavily that the funeral mass is a "celebration of life." Quite frankly, Barb, I hated that description. Celebration and funeral just never seemed to go together in my mind, and no one present ever seemed like they were celebrating. But I've changed my thinking on this over the years.

    I still find it hard to "celebrate their life" as a gift from God, now that they're gone. It's kind of like He took His gift back, so why celebrate now? But I've come to accept that many of the people in my life are to be celebrated, but celebrated that they were part of my life, not just that they lived at all. They lived, at least in some special part, for me. They were part of God's plan for me, His making my life better for their having been part of it. There are so many people I have been blessed to have part of my life; I can honestly say I cannot think of a single person who I knew who did not make my life better, even the few who brought me pains. Even that made me a better person.

    I don't understand all the reasons for the things God does, and death is right up there at the top of things not understood, but if I attend a funeral, now I am always celebrating, celebrating that God was so good to me, that I had this person in my life.

    In case things get fuzzy, as they sometimes do in times of grief, He's good to you also, Barb. But I think you know that.


  2. My condolences, Barbara. My heart is heavy for you and all of Richard's family and friends. I and my family will pray for him.

    For the loved ones he leaves behind, we are praying for healing and strengthening of faith.

    If there is anything we can do, please don't hesitate to call us.