The following is a reflection given by Sister Janet M. Peterworth, OSU, at St. William Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on November 2, for All Souls Day.
“We die the first time when the last breath leaves our bodies. We die a second time when the last person speaks our name.”
—The Lost Book of Friends by Lisa Wingate
There is something haunting about that thought, isn’t there. And so here we are—we Catholics—once again meeting, singing, praying for the dead, and actually calling them by name. We don’t want them to die a second time. Is the second time like dying a final time?
In our congregation we remember every day at morning or evening prayer those members of our community and our associates who have died on that particular day. We say the name, we give the date. And you know, we are still saying the name of those women who came over on that ship from Germany in 1858, as well as all those who have followed. That is amazing to me. Can it be that none of them has died a second time? None of them has died forever?
I bet your family says the name of those who have died. I bet you point to a picture and say to a child, “That is Grandma Betty and that is Great-Grandpa Bert.” If you say the name of the person in that picture, they do not die a second time. And perhaps the child will pass that name on so none of their ancestors die a second time because someone is still saying their names.
And so, “We die a second time when the last person says our name.” That is so powerful to think about, isn’t it? And we are ready to say the names of those who have transitioned into a different life, a new life. We Christians do not believe that we ever really die a final time. John 40 says in the translation in The Message, “This is what God wants: That anyone who sees the Son and trusts who Jesus is and what He does and then aligns with Jesus will enter “real” life…eternal life.” And Paul says, “In death we shall all be ‘changed.’”
There remain so many unknowns about death. So many questions. And yet when you have sat with someone dying and the dying happens in front of you…you just know. Something happens…and you just know that life has gone. There is a calm, a peacefulness that comes over the person…the space. The body relaxes…life has gone. And if there is going to be grieving, this is when it begins for real. Yes, we can experience anticipatory grief, but then…there is real grief. That is when (as our first reading says) “we who love them are drawn to the other side.” (“Grief” by Mark Nepo) But …”there’s the rub,” as Hamlet reminds us, because we cannot at that time go with them. Indeed, grief leaves us “straddling for a time between life and death.”
Some of us here are old enough to remember Simon and Garfunkle’s song, “I am a Rock” that says, “If I never loved, I never would have cried.” Just another way of saying as we have just heard, “the more we love, the more the loss will hurt.” (Nepo)
Jesus knew about this kind of grief. When He heard of the death of his beloved cousin, John, He went off alone to pray and perhaps to weep. And when he stood before Lazarus’ tomb, He wept openly so that the bystanders said, “See how He loved him!” Jesus knew grief and Jesus can be with us in our grief. Jesus can be with us, indeed is with us, as we say their name.
There is much more that can be said about grief and death and love. Volumes have been written. But I think we each need to go to our safe space and ponder these things as we can.
I want to leave you with a quote from Maya Angelo which I found comforting and meaningful in my own grief. I hope you can too.
“And when great souls die,
After a period, peace blooms,
Slowly and always
Irregularly, spaces fill
with a kind of
Soothing electric vibration.
Our senses restored, never
To be the same, whisper to us,
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
Better. For they existed.”
—When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou
Let us say their names!
Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day.For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.”—Jn 6:37-40
One of the great truths in this life
is that if we know love,
we will know loss.
The more we love,
the more the loss will hurt.
Yet, if we don’t love,
what’s the point in being here?
When we can courageously love
with all our heart,
the reward is that through that love
we will know depths
in our heart and being otherwise inaccessible.
What a gift.
Still, things will never be the same.
And who or what we have loved
so deeply and lost
will continue to be our teacher
through our grief
as our heart is rearranged yet again.
I think that when someone or something we love dies,
we who love them
are drawn to the other side.
In fact, grief is how we straddle
for a time between life and death,
a time that can’t be measured in hours or days,
a time in which the deeper truths come in
like a wind through the breaks in our heart.