Thirty-five years ago, on October 29, 1984, my father died. That was back in the days when we still had autumn in Sacramento, and even bluster and rain in late October. Before the fires. Dad, who was a third generation San Franciscan, born in 1911, was a gentle Irishman to the core, and he managed to let himself go into the arms of God with perfect Irish timing: a rosary on All Saints Day and a funeral on All Souls Day. I was not a Jesuit then, so my dear friend Michael Buckley, SJ, presided at the funeral and burial. I shall never forget those days, nor the aftermath. It took a good long while to adjust to the new reality that Dad was no longer with us.
What I am describing here is not a unique experience. We all have to deal with the immensity of the loss of a parent or a sibling, or of a good friend or beloved colleague. Coping with loss, undergoing grief—this is a huge part of life, nothing to be evaded or shunned. Gradually—or sometimes suddenly—we come to see that dying is a part of life, and letting go of our beloved is something that we are all called upon to accept. I learned this first-hand, for following upon Dad’s death were the deaths of a chorus of family friends (over whose funerals I presided—there must have been close to ten), my grandmother, my sister and brother, and only recently, my mother. And so many personal friends. All the losses are a part of the reality of life. And, one discovers that such a chronicle of life and death is not uncommon—most everyone my age can tell a similar story.
There are also losses short of death, as when parents decide to place their physically or intellectually challenged children in skilled care—a heart-wrenching but often necessary decision. Or when dear friends are suddenly struck by life-altering diseases that draw death closer. Or when they suffer so much pain that they want to give up.
Or when a marriage breaks down, or a parent is deprived of her children in the course of a divorce proceeding. Or when people lose everything, in fire, flood, hurricane, or tornado. Or when poor people are evicted mercilessly by avaricious landlords. Or when black people are shot and killed in their own homes by trigger-prone police. Or when young people in prison discover the tragic brokenness of life.
And I speak here only of “first world” experiences of loss. Only with effort one can begin to imagine what it must be like to suffer the complete sense of dislocation of a Syrian refugee, or of a Rohingya outcast, whose lives are limned by death on all sides.
How do we begin to take the measure of such a world of suffering, of loss? We cannot. Yet, without denying any of the suffering and pain that accompany all this loss or glossing over it, we can, in faith, nevertheless see all of this within the ambit of a larger reality—the fact that God does not cease to offer God’s love to all God’s beloved creatures, each uniquely and fully. And, as Paul said (Romans 8), despite all life’s suffering, nothing—not even death itself—can stand between us and love of God. On what basis does he say this? That that love was made real, enfleshed, in Jesus, who as a “man of sorrows” knew suffering, loss, and death intimately, but also learned how to live in loving hope. Because he was able to accept God’s offer of love in the depths of his being, he emerged victorious even through death itself. Somehow that faith expressed by Paul, when it is inscribed deeply in our own flesh, leads to a sense of ultimate hope, and a desire to love others as one would wish to be loved oneself. To act on their behalf. It is possible for us, trailing clouds of loss, but also of glory, not to be bowed by loss, but rather to find in it a place where God is in fact reaching into our lives, offering God’s very self to those who suffer.
Yet, within our limited lives, we want to help; we want to reach out. For those of us privileged enough to reflect on the loving activity of God, we are given as well the invitation, even the requirement, to pray. So often when I feel that there is nothing I can do for someone, much as I would like to be there at their bedside and to help, for example, I know that I can pray. And that prayer, that imploring openness to the God who is loving each of us still, is an infinite gift in itself—something of which, with God’s grace, we are capable, something we can do—a way of living the few days we’re given with some semblance of hope.