The Thing We Fear the Most

The following reflection is written by Ken Gustin, Director of Communications and Mission Advancement for the Holy Union Sisters.

The Thing We Fear the Most

Let me begin by apologizing for the sweeping generalization of the title of this reflection, as clearly, I cannot state with certainty that we all fear the same thing the most.  But I suspect it would be on most people’s list.  And that thing is death.  Please forgive the bluntness of this reflection.

In the last six months I have had two close family members die.  This does not make me unique, as most of us have experienced the loss of loved ones.  The experience of grief varies from culture to culture, family to family, even person to person.  And there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  However, my reaction to the two most recent deaths in my family were notably different than previous deaths in my family.  I was not crushed.  I was not disabled by grief.  In fact, I rather experienced a feeling of gratitude to the deceased, and even joy for having had the chance to know them.  And so naturally I’ve been wondering why my reactions to these deaths were so different .

I believe that one reason is that since I first came to work for the Sisters, five years ago, I have attended a number of their funerals, and they are unlike any funerals I have ever been to.  They are, to use a cliché, a celebration of life.  Truly.  At some point at either the wake or before the Funeral Mass begins, all are invited to share a memory of the person.  And it is surprising how many people do.  Family members, friends, former students, other Sisters, stand for a couple minutes and share a funny story, a fond memory, or a profound insight the deceased had been central to.  I often wonder if the deceased heard the comments, would they even remember the incident(s) which stayed so vividly in these people’s hearts and minds.  It’s wonderful to consider that we are all impacting those around us every day in ways we may not even be aware of, and that what you say and do really matters.

This exercise leaves everyone with a gratitude and a joy based on the lasting footprints left behind by the deceased, and perhaps a hopeful reminder that we too have the opportunity everyday to offer a kind word or an encouraging idea to someone who’s struggling.  And what a gift that is.  After Mass, the graveside service almost always ends with the Irish Blessing, sung beautifully by Sr. Kathee Corrigan, which, though there are few dry eyes by the time the song is over, they are not tears of sadness, but rather of joy and comfort, knowing we are all held lovingly in the palms of God’s hands.

The other reason I think my perspective of death has dramatically changed is based on a serious illness I survived back in 2016 and 2017.  Though I am a practicing cradle Catholic, my faith was taught to me like just another subject in school.  They were words on a page, and ideas I was encouraged to embrace and live by, but if I were to be totally honest, they remained quite far away.  Of course, I prayed and attended Mass weekly and did all the things we Catholics do.  And I did them for over fifty years.  But in 2016, faced with an illness that was very likely to end in my own death, I became acutely aware that my prayers were being answered.  Things were “given” to me during that time which I knew were coming from God.  I cannot explain this anymore articulately than that, except to say that they took away all my fear and anxiety during the most turbulent storm of my life.  They were “pure truth” and their source was undeniable.  If I were to boil down what was given to me to its very essence, it would be, “You do not understand how much I love you.”

And that simple message took on an enormous new meaning.  Indeed, we are all held in the palm of God’s hand, just as Sister Kathee sings at the graveside.  And this world which seems so very real, is simply a temporary stop over on our way to our true destination.  This is certainly not a new idea, but I now know just how true and how real it is.  And if you are like me, and have nodded in assent all your life at these and other teachings, never having experienced their absolute reality, rest assured.  Remember, every angel in the Bible assures those to whom they appear, “Don’t be afraid.”

The journey continues.



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