The sting of death

One of my younger sisters, Nellie Marie Lide, 48, died suddenly and unexpectedly on Nov. 14, of a heart attack. On a recent blog, she described herself as a “middle-aged woman with a husband, 3 kids, a job, a dog, an old house and a headache.” Nellie was the family comic, falling squarely in the middle of a family of 13 children. She had three older sisters, three older brothers (of whom I’m one), three younger sisters and three younger brothers.

Nellie was synonymous with fun: for her husband, for her children, and for the rest of the 45 Duncan cousins and their parents and grandparents, she knew how to radiate joy. She loved movies, and would always bring carloads of cousins to the opening (even, or especially, if it was at midnight) of the latest Star Wars or Harry Potter feature. Snacks and treats were her specialty.

When in the 1980s she worked for “60 Minutes,” she was the one who came up with the idea for a segment on Mother Angelica and EWTN, a delightful piece that won an award and some well-deserved national recognition for Mother Angelica’s work. Nellie, in filming the piece, fell in love with those dedicated sisters down in Alabama.

She knew how to handle adversity. Depression runs in the family, and Nellie experienced a bout a number of years ago when her family moved to California away from her roots in Rockville, Md. Craziness exists, in life, in the world, in others, sometimes in ourselves, and it was Nellie who taught me that “Whatever!” can be a good aspiration. She always saw the humor in everything.

When my father died in 2001, it was Nellie who gave the eulogy. Some excerpts: “This past week, when we brought Dad home from the hospital, my mother would lead a rosary every night with whoever was around. My daughter Mary told me it was the most spiritual thing she had ever done, even bigger than confirmation she said. I was glad my kids could see faith in action, and the power of prayer....I want to close by saying that family is a complicated, exhilarating, precious beast, and I’m glad I got to ride that beast with my dad.”

Well, this person who was the glue in our extended family, who was everyone’s favorite (though in families you’re not supposed to have favorites), suddenly died. St. Paul, famously, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, asks “Oh death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:55). He thus proclaims our faith in the Resurrection of Christ and of the dead, which more than compensates for the sting of death. But there is a sting to death.

Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:35). St. Augustine weeps in his “Confessions” at the death of his mother Monica. I have seen wonderful parents, overcome with grief, trying to cope with the sudden death of their infant child.

The question jumps out: Why does God allow people to die? Why this one rather than that one? It’s a mystery, of course, but one that Jesus himself and his mother went through, and all of us must go through sooner or later. Of course, the death of the saints means more joy in heaven, theirs especially. But that may seem small consolation to us here below.

Death reminds us (rather sharply perhaps) that we have here no lasting city, and that what really counts in life is getting to heaven, our definitive home, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will be no more death nor mourning. Having a loved one in heaven keeps our priorities straight.

November is dedicated to the faithful departed, and prayer for the souls in purgatory. “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead” (2 Macc 12:46). They need to get to heaven, and we do, too. In this season of Thanksgiving, we need to remember our dead and pray for them with gratitude.

One of my best friends wrote me that “When my father died, it was the first time I was ever inclined to hit the fast forward button in life, so much did I want to see him again. Can’t do that, of course, but I am encouraged that we are all making progress towards our family reunions. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, what God has in store” for those who love him. Nellie, I’m looking forward to that family reunion. The one’s here below just won’t be the same without you.

Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.