In the Catholic Church, November is dedicated to remembering all those holy souls that have already passed on to be with God in heaven. We begin the month by celebrating All Saints Day (November 1st) and All Souls Day (November 2nd), but we are invited to remember our deceased loved ones throughout the entire month. This particular commemoration took on an entirely different meaning when I lost a close friend during the first semester of my Master’s program nearly a decade ago. I will always remember the moment that I learned that my friend has passed away- he was named as a special intention during Mass, and I stood in shock as my classmates prayed for the repose of the soul of an apparent stranger that I knew personally. Jon was the first friend who had passed away at a painfully young age, and sadly, he wasn’t the last.
Since that fall seven years ago, I have lost several more friends. I said goodbye to a beautiful young woman and a fellow Mary Helper, Jillian, a year after losing Jon. Two years ago, Andrew and I said goodbye to the priest who married us and baptized our first child. Just this past week, we said goodbye to another beautiful young woman, Emily. Each of these people came into my life and changed it. I might not have had a lot of time with each of them, but they will be remembered forever.
November is a month for remembering all our loved ones, and I have lost several family members and friends in the past three decades. I remember all of them in a special way during Masses throughout the month of November, but these four souls stand apart from the rest. They all passed away “before their time,” well before they had reached old age, or in most cases, even mid-life. Jon had recently graduated college when he died in an accident. Jillian was looking at colleges just months before passing away from cancer. Fr. Joseph, though he was considered a “late vocation” to the priesthood, was still quite young, and Emily was a newlywed, when they passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. There was something unfair about each of their deaths, if only because they should have had years of life ahead of them. But as the saying goes, life isn’t always fair.
With each death, it felt like a hole had been blasted into my world. The impact on my life had been significant, and the impact of their deaths had been agonizing. In the hours and days following their deaths, I repeatedly found myself struck by the fact that life was continuing without them, that the world kept on spinning despite their absences. While the pause button had been pressed on my life as I grieved, the rest of the world sped forward with or without me. The world could not mourn what it did not know. The world did not know what it was missing. The world did not realize that an asteroid had struck it, leaving a gaping hole on its surface. But I felt that hole.
I’m sure that anyone who has lost a loved one has felt this way at one time or another. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that our world has shattered with this death, while the world around us continues as if nothing has happened. Our world has been turned upside down, but everyone around us seems perfectly content to walk on the ceiling. The world seems just a little bit less what it was before, but no one else seems to notice. Our loved ones held a firm place in our hearts, and now that place has become vacant, despite the fact that the impact they had on our lives remains.
I am still mourning this most recent death. Emily was one of the sweetest people I have ever known, and I will miss seeing her smiling face. Her passing left that telltale hole in my heart and my world, but I know that in a very real way, she, like my other friends, is not really gone. As a Christian, I am comforted with the knowledge that death is not the end. When we die in this world, we are born into the next. There is a reason that the Easter candle is lit both at our baptisms and our funerals. In both instances, we are entering the Kingdom of Heaven, first as we become members of the Church and again as we pass on to spend eternity with God Himself.
It was appropriate that Emily should have passed away just days before the month of the holy souls, which begins with All Saints Day. As I sat in Mass, I was struck by the knowledge that here, more than anywhere else, I did not feel that hole left by the deaths of my loved ones. I did not feel that overwhelming absence, and I knew exactly why. Emily was there, as were Fr. Joseph, Jillian, and Jon. As Jesus Christ came to dwell in ordinary bread and wine, we were joined with the entire Communion of Saints, including those who had already won the crown of glory. As He came down in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we were lifted up to join the rest of the Communion of Saints. For the first time since losing Emily, I really felt that she had not been truly lost. I had not lost any of my loved ones. We were still united in one Body, the Body of Christ, and until the day that we meet again in heaven, that is more than enough.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!