December 1998

Healing At The Brink of Death

Since Easter I have lost both my parents, I have experienced, in that short time, enough of life to need months to absorb it all. The pathos of helping two old people unpack the baggage of their lives, sift through it and re-pack for that final journey, was harrowing - what I learnt most poignantly, was that the final suitcase should contain the luggage of reconciliation. To be reconciled with God, with ourselves and with each other. Not a great deal else is then necessary - the forgiving and forgiven travel light.

Of all the edges we find ourselves on, death is the most perplexing and unfathomable. There is nothing visible or tangible, yet it is so real. It is framed by the boundaries of our limited understanding - the bereaved are taken to extremes of emotions not easily defined. Grief must be the most commonly shared experience - everyone dies. Yet our own experience is as unique as was the person now gone - we feel isolated and alone: millions of us! How can we convey our brokeness, pain and fear? Language is common to us all, but emotions are our own. Fear plays a large part in our cocoon - it frames our boundaries into blinkered pictures, small, limited.

With age or illness, fear recedes enough to allow the inevitable to be more openly looked at.

This time last year, my mother was still her usual self, loving; and the pivot of the family unit; which she had kept together through difficult times. My father was still a remote person who knew little about me. Life for them was broken. Pain and anger lurked in the dark recesses of their beings. Peace and forgiveness were light years away! Then suddenly, she suffered a massive stroke, and he, simultaneously, a heart attack and stroke which precipitated his dementia. In one moment of their existence, life was irreversibly changed. We all had to learn to let go of the past in order to accommodate the present. To be forced, by circumstance into being forgiving, and then into reconciling two people to each other, was a difficult yet humbling experience which demanded God to be permanently on call! Seeing her somewhat comatosed body, and his mind in the mists of yesteryear, brought it home vividly that if we cannot forgive the past, and build bridges over it, we have totally missed the point of life. The last moments of my mother's lucidity are indelibly printed in my being. He was brought to her bedside from his ward. The moment their souls met was poignant beyond human language - the paralysed, drying body, once the young and happy war-bride, meeting her once handsome uniformed bridegroom; now a frail, tearful, crumpled old man in a wheelchair. We find God in still moments. In that touch of reconciliation of the trembling hand and painful, swollen fingers, twenty-five years of animosity melted away - God's presence filled the room like gentle incense - it mingled with that moment when fear was banished and they could see beyond that final edge.

I learnt the value of one's own awareness of death - it is only then that so much of life's baggage can be discarded and forgiven. - In the weeks between their deaths, my father had very lucid moments when after fifty years, he learnt who I was, that I did interesting things with my life, that I had value as ME. He opened up, a hitherto very hidden self, to me. We prayed together, which was very special. God turns up in such hidden corners! I am so grateful to Him for the chance to help my parents unpack and re-pack for their final journeys.

Above all, I learnt the supreme gift of healing which comes with reconciliation before the last stage over that final edge.

Elaine Kennedy.

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THOMAS is an integral part of Catholic Welfare Societies, Registered Charity number 503102