Hospice: Reflections on a Dying Life

GRIEF: A MOTHER'S DEATH

God is our father because he created us, because he calls us, gives orders and rules us. He is our mother because he cherishes us, nourishes us, feeds us with milk, and holds us in his arms. The psalmist sings "Though my father and mother forsake me, yet will the Lord receive me." (Psalm 27[26], 10) God does this both to guide and to feed. Mortal parents procreate, children succeed them in the next generation, mortals following mortals. Those who form the next generation are born in order that those who brought them into the world may die. But the God who created me will not die, nor shall I depart from him.

Commentary on Psalm 26/2, 18



Of all the people we come to love in this life, perhaps the first and most important is our love for our mother. As I grew older I came to understand that although both my mother and father were responsible for the wonder that is me, my mother had a very special function. She not only generated me, she bore me, and then put up with me for the rest of her life. She risked her life to give me a chance to see light. For nine months she supported the two of us through a tenuous thread of flesh.

My mother's heart was the first sound I heard and as a child I trembled to think that someday that great heart would stop. I asked: "Where will I go then?" I spent my early years nestling to her breast or perched on her shoulder or balanced on her hip or clinging to her leg, finding always the softness that I needed to endure the hardness of life. I knew that I could always return to that softness after the bruising combats of my young life's playgrounds.

And so it is for most of us growing up. When we get big we try to reject all that romantic nonsense. We cry that we are rough and tough and don't need softness any more. We play violent sports and yell a lot. We speak knowingly of the dog-eat-dog world and strut and pose and generally make jack-asses of ourselves. We roar and shout but through all our noise we search desperately for that love, that "significant other" who might care about us at least half as much as our mothers did, someone who would wipe away our tears when we return bruised and hurt from those adult playgrounds we call our careers.

The simple fact is that no matter how big we are or how old we are we never cease to be like children. We always need the affection and quiet concern given us first by our mothers. And we spend a lifetime seeking it. My mother is dead now these 33 years, and I still grieve her passing. And so too it was for Augustine, writing about his mother Monica's death some 15 years later.

The story of Monica's death and Augustine's grief is recorded in his Confessions. The year was 387 and he was 33 years old. Through the prayers and pestering of his mother and the patience and grace of God, he had finally come to make his commitment to Jesus Christ in the Roman Catholic Faith. He, along with his closest friend Alypius and his son Adeodatus, had been baptized by Ambrose in Milan. Then the small group of African emigres had decided to return to their homeland. They had traveled to the seaport of Rome, Ostia, to await transportation. Here their travels halted. A Civil war had blockaded all the Roman ports and the travelers had to take up residence in a villa of a friendly noble family to wait out the siege.

While there Augustine and his friends and family continued their study and discussion of their new-found faith. One day Augustine and Monica were standing at a window overlooking the inner courtyard garden of the villa. They were discussing the experience of God and how a person might come to that experience. It seems that for a moment both enjoyed such an experience but it was quickly over. Then Monica turned to Augustine and said:

My son, I no longer find any personal pleasure in a longer life here. I really don't know why I remain here. The great hope of my life has been fulfilled. I have seen you become a Catholic Christian. Indeed, God has more than answered my prayers since I now see that you have turned your back on worldly values and have dedicated yourself completely to him. So, what am I doing here?

Confessions, 9.10.26

Augustine writes:

I can't remember what I said in response. Within five days she came down with a fever. As she grew worse she dropped into unconsciousness. We anxiously gathered around her bed but she woke and looked at me and my brother (Navigius). She said: "Where am I?" Seeing our grief she said "Bury your mother here." I was silent, trying to control my tears, but my brother said something expressing the wish that she might be spared to die a happier death in her homeland. She frowned at hearing this and said to me "See how your brother talks!" and then she said to both of us: "Don't worry about where you bury my body. Just remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be." Then she fell silent, exhausted by the illness. On the ninth day of her illness, in her fifty-sixth year, when I was in my thirty-third year, my mother died. Confessions, 9.11.27-28

The death of Monica was sudden. She went from good health to death in nine days. It seems that she approached her death joyfully. There is no indication that she had any fear. Her story demonstrates that once a person has achieved the great goal of their life, continuing to live may no longer seem all that important. Monica had seen her dying husband converted to her faith and had seen her wandering son finally living that faith. Her other children seemed to be maintaining the fidelity to faith that they had been taught in childhood. There was nothing more that she wanted to accomplish. She was prepared to accept the Lord's will if he wanted her to stay in this life to fulfill a new project, but as far as she could see, there was nothing more that she wanted or he needed from her. She was ready to move on and approached her death peacefully.

Monica may have accepted her death with equanimity but Augustine did not. He describes how he reacted in the following emotional terms:

I closed her eyes. A huge wave of sorrow washed over my heart, a rushing torrent that threatened to pour from me as tears. And yet my eyes were dry, held tight by the stern command of my will. The tension tore me apart. I felt terrible. Adeodatus began to cry loudly when his grandmother died but we told him to be quiet. So too, my childish tendency to weep was controlled by the voice of my heart. It just did not seem proper for us to commemorate the death of such a woman with wailing and crying, like those who believed that the dead were no more or that they were in an unhappy state. We knew that she did not die unhappy nor did she die completely. We knew this from the way she lived and the way she believed.

Confessions, 9.12.29

But why then was I in such great agony? The answer is simple. I had a wound in my life left by the departure of the one I loved, that one whose accustomed presence had been so sweet and dear to me. I had lost the great comfort of her presence and my spirit was torn apart. That one living body that had been created by the union of our love had now been cut in half.

Confessions, 9.12.30

When Monica died, Augustine expressed little emotion at first. His stoicism can perhaps be explained by his need to demonstrate his faith. He may have been afraid that a hysterical reaction to the death of his mother could be interpreted as meaning that he did not believe in her immortality or that her life after death was indeed better than her life here on earth.

She was indeed in a better place and rejoicing for her good fortune was more appropriate than weeping for here absence. But there was a conflict between Augustine's joy over her condition and his sorrow for his own. She was with God but he was alone. This second fact threatened his attempt to appear joyful. He was paralyzed with grief because he had lost his mother but his responsibility for others prevented him from giving free expression to his grief. Others were looking to him for good example and instruction. For the sake of others he contained his emotions.

It is not an unusual practice, at least in this culture, to try to contain emotions at moments of grief. Everyone in the family of a deceased tries to hold themselves in, not to let go, so that the sad situation does not become harder for other mourners. It is an expression of charity in a way. Weeping at funerals is to some extent a self-serving act. It does nothing for the deceased. It only makes us feel better. In being concerned that our sorrow does not impose an additional burden on others, we exercise a truly Christian charity. Of course there is a danger that we will freeze up permanently, foregoing the natural grieving process which is necessary for one to get beyond or through the death of a loved one and to get on with life without them.

It seems that Augustine came close to doing that very thing, so deadening his emotions that he froze up. He went through the motions appropriate for a son who believed in his mother's eternal salvation, appropriate for a religious leader to whom people looked to for guidance in times of crisis. Though he was dead on the inside, he felt compelled to hide the emptiness he felt. He gives the following description of his struggle for self-control:

Once the boy (Adeodatus) stopped weeping, Evodius took up a book and began to chant a psalm. We all responded in song:I will sing to you O Lord of mercy and judgment. (Psalm 100, 1) Hearing this, a group of religious mean and women came to us and went about the business of making arrangements for the funeral and burial. I went to another part of the house where I spoke quietly with the friends who had followed me, not wishing to leave me alone at such a time. By such distractions I was able to soften a bit my internal torment that those around me did not even suspect (though you, O God, knew). Indeed, as my friends listened to me they thought I had no emotion at all, and yet all the time I condemned myself for feeling so badly. All the time I was fighting to hold back the flood of tears that threatened to overwhelm the dam built so hastily by my will. The waters would trickle through little cracks in my defenses from time to time but never so strong as to erupt in tears. Outwardly I never changed but inwardly I felt the violent sorrow that crushed my heart. Indeed, my sorrow as twofold. I sorrowed for my mother and was sorry that I was sorry. Like a fool, I was upset because I was human and so affected by the death of a human being, something I should have expected because I was just as human as all the rest.

Confessions, 9.12.31

We took the body to the grave and still I did not weep. I did not even weep when the final prayers were said, though all through the day I was crushed by my sorrow. I begged you, my God, to cure my sorrow, but you did not. You thereby taught me that even conversion to the Lord does not cure us of being human. I even went to the baths for relief, hoping that the Greeks were right when they said that bathing drives anxiety from the mind. But I was just as sad when I had finished. Bitter grief does not evaporate like cooling sweat from the heart. But then I slept and when I woke I found that my sorrow had softened.

Confessions, 9.12.32

By degrees I recovered. After a while I was able to think about my mother again, about her holiness, about her human kindness and goodness, about the good thing that I had lost. And, finally, alone with you my God, I was able to weep, to weep about her and for her, to weep about myself and for myself. With relief I was able to let go the tears I had been holding back, letting them flow as fully as they wished, spreading them out as a soft pillow for my heart. My heart came to peace resting on those velvet tears, tears that were seen by you alone.

Confessions, 9.12.33

Augustine concludes his reflection on his mother's death with a prayer for her soul. She, like the rest of the human race (with the exception of Mary), had been touched by sin and was saved only by the mercy of God. Augustine includes his father in this prayer. It was a last moving testament to his feeling for and appreciation of both his parents:

O Lord, may she be at peace along with her husband, the only man she ever married and the husband that she served patiently in order that finally she might bring him to you. And Lord, inspire those whom I now serve, so that as many as read these words will remember at your altar your servants Monica and Patritius, that couple through whose union you brought me into the world. May they remember with pious affection my parents in this life who are now sister and brother in the Lord. If this is done than my mother's final prayer for prayers will be granted more abundantly through these my Confessions than by my own prayers.

Confessions, 9.13.37

Augustine's grief following the death of his mother shows that it is not unchristian to weep for loved ones who leave us in death. We want to be with them forever but that is not possible, at least not just now. We must wait for our time to come to "check out" of this Inn and sometimes the waiting can be very, very hard. But that is in the nature of things because we are beings who were meant to love deeply, reflecting in a shadowed way the infinite love that God has for each one of us. The promise is that someday we too will leave and, if we have done our best to live decent lives, we will then finally fulfill our dream of being forever at home with our flesh and blood, our mother and all those others we have loved in time with an infinite passion. In the meantime, we have the following promise from God:

Can a mother forget her infant, or be without tenderness for the child of her womb? But even should she forget you, I will never forget you.

Isaiah, 49:15


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