A few weeks ago, partway through the Easter Octave, my stepfather unexpectedly passed away. The news of his passing initially felt like an impossible interruption of joy, contrary to everything that I had been experiencing at Easter.
My stepdad married my mom when I was only five, and so essentially raised my younger brother and me. I am no expert on how to mourn a parent. I have never done it before, nor have I accompanied any friends through their own grief over losing a parent. I imagine that even if I had, it would not make much difference, because for each one of us, the death of a parent is the first time for us, and everyone grieves differently. But here are some early thoughts on living with grief in the Easter season.
For me, grief has been a lot like being on a raft in rushing waters, where there are many ups and downs, twists and turns. One moment I’m weeping, and the next I’m laughing with my brother about a funny story about my stepfather. Then I feel anger at no one in particular or miss my brother, who lives far away. It is time to get back to “normal” life, but nothing feels normal at all. I have found it best just to follow the grief where it goes, holding onto the raft. Rather than resisting any aspect of the grief, it helps to trust that the process will get me to where I need to go. God is the raft to which I am clinging, my steadiness in the midst of the turmoil of emotions.
St. Ignatius advises that we return to consolation in times of desolation. This Easter, particularly the Vigil Mass, had been exceptionally joyful. I remember awakening the next morning feeling a deep sense of wholeness, a sense of relaxing deeply into God in a way where I felt I could be wholly myself again. I felt loved and accepted by God all the way down to my core. Going back to remember those first few days of Easter strengthens me, reminding me that God’s joy is real and that joy can and will return again. Although I don’t feel it right now, I can trust that God’s desire for joy and new life is more fundamental than loss and death. This act of faith is a faith in God who is “God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32).
The support of my family and closest friends has been wonderful. God’s love works through those who reach out and enact God’s compassion. My stepfather’s funeral was also an occasion for the renewal and healing of some other family bonds. Even in the midst of grief we can be forces of healing or reconciliation. This, too, is a gift of the Easter season.
God has also provided in unexpected ways. Like all people, my stepdad had both strengths and weaknesses. But so far, my memories are overwhelmingly about the gifts and graces. I think about the time he took me to see Luciano Pavarotti in concert and my stepdad encouraged me, at age seven, to ask the great operatic tenor for a kiss, and Pavarotti gladly obliged, kissing me on the forehead and cheek. I think about my stepdad making up goofy lyrics to opera songs, singing them in the kitchen as he made breakfast.
Most of all, I have been flooded with a memory from when I was very young. One of the baby finches that had recently hatched from our pair of adopted finches died, and it was my first experience with death. I was trying to hold in my emotions. My stepdad wrapped me up in his big, comforting arms as I sobbed, and encouraged me to let it all out. These past days, in grieving his death, I have felt again that sense of being held in love in his arms. All the rest really doesn’t matter. Love triumphs over death, even on this side of heaven.